This document has been all over the news media; in fact, the New York Times did a breathless “analysis” of the document yesterday. Seriously, it was breathless. Here’s the first paragraph:
When a smartphone user opens Angry Birds, the popular game application, and starts slinging birds at chortling green pigs, spies may be lurking in the background to snatch data revealing the player’s location, age, sex and other personal information, according to secret British intelligence documents.
Isn’t that scary? Doesn’t that make you wanna shake in your boots? It would me. I suck at that game; I wouldn’t want anyone even looking over my shoulder watching me play. I also have friends who work at the NSA; do you know how embarrassed I’d be if I knew they saw me playing Angry Birds so badly?
Wait! BRITISH intelligence? Then why is the most prominent document displayed an NSA document? Oh, wait. The second paragraph explains it.
In their globe-spanning surveillance for terrorism suspects and other targets, the National Security Agency and its British counterpart have been trying to exploit a basic byproduct of modern telecommunications: With each new generation of mobile phone technology, ever greater amounts of personal data pour onto networks where spies can pick it up.
There is a document from British intelligence, way at the bottom. But whether we’re talking about British or American intel officers, the concept is also absurd. In fact, it’s so absurd, the Times should be ashamed of themselves. The most notable thing about this “analysis” is the ignorance of technology demonstrated by these three “journalists.”
The capability to go into any computer you have, including your desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone, and watch what you do with it, is not new and it’s certainly not unique to the NSA. There are software programs that millions of people and small businesses pay for and use every month, and have been, for about a decade. If you’ve ever worked in an office with an Information Technology department, or just a computer guy, then you know this. When you’re having a problem with your computer, you can call the cable or DSL company, and they can go into your computer and change settings for you. It’s not magic; you’re on a network. Everyone at the cable or DSL company also technically has access to your computer anytime they want it. They generally don’t gain access to your computer for several reasons; they don’t know you exist, they don’t care what you do with your computer and they like their job, and there is no way for them to gain access to someone’s computer without a record of it. That’s the problem with demanding absolute privacy on the Internet; everything you do leaves a record in a number of places. Internet activity not anonymous. As I always say, expecting absolute privacy on the Internet is much like running down the highway naked and demanding no one see you. Haven’t you ever wondered why the ads on websites you visit seem to know who you re and where you are? It’s not a secret, really.
The second thing you’ll notice in this document is the constant use of the word “TARGET.” That word is important, because it means something specific. The entire NSA surveillance protocol is overseen by the FISC; a secret court, with a mission to make sure agencies like the NSA stay within the law. And there is a specific law that sets out the parameters of this surveillance protocol, in Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That section of the Act includes a definition of who can and cannot be a “Target” of the NSA:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon the issuance of an order in accordance with subsection (i)(3) or a determination under subsection (c)(2), the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence may authorize jointly, for a period of up to 1 year from the effective date of the authorization, the targeting of persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information.
(1) may not intentionally target any person known at the time of acquisition to be located in the United States; (2) may not intentionally target a person reasonably believed to be located outside the United States if the purpose of such acquisition is to target a particular, known person reasonably believed to be in the United States; (3) may not intentionally target a United States person reasonably believed to be located outside the United States; (4) may not intentionally acquire any communication as to which the sender and all intended recipients are known at the time of the acquisition to be located in the United States; and (5) shall be conducted in a manner consistent with the fourth amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
In other words, if you are a US citizen, or even resident, you are not a “target,” and you cannot be a “target” of the National Security Agency. That means everything in this document literally CAN NOT apply to anyone who lives here.
Compare that to the private agreement signed last year between most broadband ISPs and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Your ISP has more power over you than the NSA, because the ISP can monitor your Internet activity, and cut off your Internet access if they decide you’ve been illegally downloading music and movies. They can just do it. They don’t even have to sue you or get a court order.
I suppose an NSA analyst could act on his or her own and do something like the Times “analysis” of this single 12-page presentation, which they sloppily describe as “dozens of previously undisclosed classified document” suggests to a “non-target.” But then, anyone with enough computer knowledge and skill, with access to your network could do the same. That’s why you secure your router at home, and why your cellphone company secures it everywhere else. The difference is, while private parties with access to your network could conceivably use information to ruin you, the NSA could never use whatever it found against you. Section 702 is so strong, the NSA can only collect metadata, which is anonymous, unless you use your name as your email address. To get any more than that, the agency would have to go to the FISC and get a warrant or subpoena, and would have to show probable cause as to why they should have the information. And if it turns out the intended target is a US citizen, then they would have to hand off the entire case to the FBI. And if they broke the law in Section 702, that would render anything they collected under false pretense essentially unusable, and would probably make it impossible to prosecute, or even detain.
Put simply, you have more to worry about from your ISP than the NSA.
There is another aspect of this document, and nearly every other document Snowden has produced thus far. Where’s the damn context? We know who it came from, because of sloppy redaction (I’ll get to that in a minute), but we don’t know where it came from, or how it was used. The most basic job of a journalist is to provide context. Where is the context in this document, which three New York Times “journalists” are so breathlessly proclaiming to be proof, somehow, that the NSA is spying on your game of Angry Birds. Not only does it NOT show that, no journalist in this entire non-story has bothered to even try to supply context. Is the person who produced this a supervisor, who instructs a team of analysts? Is this person a trainer, who simply teaches analysts about technology? Is this a document that was actually used to train analysts, or was it used to demonstrate someone’s skill with Photoshop? Was the presentation held, or was it canceled? How many attended? Was it mandatory training, or was the entire presentation put together by the author and never seen by anyone? See the problem? Without context, we are left with journalists with absolutely no intelligence experience translating it for us and, frankly, getting it wrong. The word “target” is a very important word.
Now, let’s talk about the absolute irresponsibility of Edward Snowden for a minute.
Snowden stole these documents from the NSA, and his intention is to prove that the NSA is engaging in a domestic spying program that gathers everything it can from millions of us. It is not — or a least shouldn’t be — a project that results in physical danger to the fine people who work at the NSA because they want to keep America safe.
As you’ll notice, this document contains a number of redactions,, mostly of names of the NSA people who produced those documents, as well as specific methods that even Snowden (I’m assuming Snowden is redacting; if not, that’s even more irresponsible) has decided are too sensitive to release publicly. I’ve fixed them, but the redactions in the original document consisted of a layered black box over the redacted portion. All anyone would have to do would be to remove that layer or cut and paste the text, and everything that had been redacted would be known to everyone. In one instance, the name of a specific terrorist group targeted by the NSA could easily be revealed. And isn’t that a great boon to our intelligence efforts?
This is purely irresponsible, and demonstrates just how sloppy and irresponsible everyone’s hero, Edward Snowden, is. Not only do the documents he’s releasing not show anything nefarious, but there is no context provided and he seems to demonstrate no care for the men and women of the NSA.
It’s funny; when Glenn Greenwald was on Real Time with Bill Maher a week and a half ago, he assured us all that he and Snowden really did care about security, and they really did care about the safety of the men and women who risk their lives to protect us, and that they were very careful to target (there’s that word again) the program and not the people. But, as usual, this carelessness demonstrates that as yet another Greenwald lie.
Once again, the only “story” regarding the NSA is that there is no story, and that he perpetrators of this hoax are not interested in the truth. That’s a shame, really.Click here for reuse options!
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