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ANewDomain.Net Essay: NSA versus Tech Economy, Cost-Benefit Analysis

Silicon Valley worries that NSA spying is hurting American tech companies’ ability to compete internationally. Who wants to store their data here when they know it’s going to be spied upon? But the post-9/11 police state indirectly employs millions of Americans. What’s more valuable to the U.S. economy — the security surveillance sector, or IT? The answer may or may not surprise you…but it will bum you out:

But then I began thinking about the vast scale of the post-9/11 police state. Tens of thousands of employees. Hundreds of thousands of private contractors. Many of them, like former CIA contractor Snowden, paid six-figure salaries. That huge data farm in Utah. That’s a lot of economic activity. For the moment, let’s set aside the moral and political ramifications of law-breaking citizens (the NSA’s charter prohibits both intentional and accidental data collection in the United States) who spy on law-abiding citizens. As a simple matter of short-term cost-benefit analysis, what’s better for the American economy: privacy or police state?

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: “1984” Is Here. Yawn.

Orwell’s Nightmares Come True — But Who Cares?

Another horror no one will care about: the government is spying on your snail mail.

The New York Times timed the release of the story so that it would come and go without notice: on the Fourth of July, when no one reads the paper or watches the news. But buried beneath a puffy lede is yet another privacy-killing whopper. After 9/11, the Times reports, the U.S. Postal Service created something called the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) program, “in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.”

Just a wild guess? How about: forever?

“Together,” the paper continued, “the two programs show that postal mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.” Any government agency — the FBI, local police, etc. — can request mail cover data. As with the rubber-stamp “FISA court,” the USPS almost always says yes to these outrageous mass violations of privacy.

From George Orwell’s “1984”: “As for sending a letter through the mails, it was out of the question. By a routine that was not even secret, all letters were opened in transit.”

“It’s a treasure trove of information,” the Times quotes former FBI agent James Wedick. “Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with — all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena.” Your finances. Your politics. Your friends.

No doubt about it, the dystopian vision laid out by George Orwell in “1984” is here.

Thanks to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, we’ve learned about the previously top-secret PRISM program, in which the U.S. government “collects the e-mail, voice, text and video chats” of every American to be stored in a $2 billion data farm in Utah, as well as sweeping telephone surveillance by Verizon and other telecommunications companies on behalf of the NSA. According to NBC News and other sources, “every single phone call made in the U.S. has been monitored by the U.S. government.” And not, merely, as President Obama and his media shills keep saying, “just” (!) the metadata. Under ECHELON, they listen in to “all telephone, fax and data traffic,” record it, and store it.

From “1984”: “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.”

Yes they can.

The dominant eavesdropping technology in “1984” was a device called the “telescreen.” Installed in every home and workplace as an outlet for government propaganda, Orwell’s telescreen “received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.”

Which sounds a lot like the creepy new two-way TV — you watch it and it watches you — for which Verizon filed a patent application in 2011.  This TV would target “ads to viewers based on information collected from infrared cameras and microphones that would be able to detect conversations, people, objects and even animals that are near a TV. If the detection system determines that a couple is arguing, a service provider would be able to send an ad for marriage counseling to a TV or mobile device in the room,” reported the blog Fierce Cable. “If the couple utters words that indicate they are cuddling, they would receive ads for ‘a romantic getaway vacation, a commercial for a contraceptive, a commercial for flowers,’ or commercials for romantic movies, Verizon states in the patent application.”

Verizon’s patent was denied. But now Google TV is going for it. The technology exists; it’s only a matter of time before it finds its way into our homes. Anti-privacy tech types point out it’s only to make ads more effective — the same way web ads react to your searching and browsing. But that’s just for now. It isn’t a stretch to imagine the NSA, FBI or other crazy spook outfit tapping into America’s telescreens in order to watch us in our living rooms and bedrooms.

Gotta stop the terrorists! Whatever it takes.

Ah, the terrorists. The enemies of the state. Bush had his Osama; Obama has Snowden. Bugaboos keep us distracted, fearful, compliant. “The heretic, the enemy of society, will always be there, so that he can be defeated and humiliated over again,” the government official goon O’Brien lectures Winston Smith in “1984.” “The espionage, the betrayals, the arrests, the tortures, the executions, the disappearances will never cease.”

They can’t.

Governments rule over the governed either by obtaining their tacit consent, or by crushing potential opponents by making them afraid to speak up. Option two is where we are now.

One horror follows another. At Guantánamo concentration camp, where les misérables of America’s War of Terror languish for year after year, uncharged with any crime, U.S. government goons announced that they will continue to force-feed more than 100 hunger strikers during Ramadan, a month-long holiday when devout Muslims are required to fast. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is trapped in the Ecuadorean embassy in London because he fears extradition to and execution by the U.S.; Ecuador has discovered that some Western intelligence agency planted a bug to watch him. Meanwhile, Edward Snowden has been de facto stripped of his U.S. citizenship, his passport canceled, rendering him effectively stateless. Meanwhile, the megacriminals he exposed — Obama and his cronies — are living large.

Assange and Snowden are no longer important. They’ve done all the damage they can do. But the U.S. will never leave them, or any other enemy of the state, alone. It’s about terrifying potential political opponents into submission.

“Do not imagine that you will save yourself, Winston, however completely you surrender to us. No one who has once gone astray is ever spared,” O’Brien tells Winston. “We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”

Enjoy your barbecue.
(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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A Little Extra

After the 9/11 attacks, Americans reasoned that if they had to give up a little extra time at the airport in exchange for security, that was a bargain they were willing to make. As the NSA revelations demonstrate, however, that devil’s bargain led to a slippery slope.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: 10 Things You Don’t Know About How the NSA Spies on You

The Least Most Untruthful Analysis of Obama’s Orwellian Dystopia

Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian says “a lot more significant revelations” about America’s colossal Orwellian surveillance state are coming down the pike — courtesy of the thousands of pages of classified documents he obtained from Edward Snowden, the heroic former CIA contractor. That should be fun.

In the meantime, we’ve got a pair of doozies to digest: Verizon’s decision to turn over its the “metadata” — everything about every phone call (except the sound) to the NSA, and the PRISM program, under which the biggest Internet companies (Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, etc., pretty much all the top outfits except Twitter) let the NSA read our emails, see our photos, even watch our Skype chats.

Establishment politicians and their media mouthpieces are spinning faster than a server at the NSA’s new five zettabyte data farm in Utah, doing everything they can to obfuscate in the hope that we’ll forget this whole thing and climb back into our pods in The Matrix.

So let’s get some clarity on what’s really going on with 10 things you probably don’t know about the NSA scandals.

1. PRISM, not Verizon, is the bigger story.

Government-aligned mainstream media outlets like The New York Times and NPR focus more on Verizon because — though what the phone company did was egregious — it’s less indefensible. “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama says. (When that’s what passes for reassurance, you’ve got a PR problem.) PRISM, they keep saying, is targeted at “foreigners” so Americans shouldn’t be angry about it. But…
2. PRISM really is directed at Americans.

“Unlike the call data collection program, this program focuses on mining the content of online communication, not just the metadata about them, and is potentially a much greater privacy intrusion,” notes Popular Mechanics.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress that the NSA does not collect “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” “Not wittingly.” As The New York Times said in an uncharacteristically bold post, this is a lie. Here’s what’s behind the Rumsfeldian logic of what Clapper describes as his “least most untruthful” testimony: “What I was thinking of,” explains Clapper, “is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers of those books in the metaphorical library. To me the collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up and reading it.”

In other words, the NSA collects the search histories, emails, file transfer records and actual live chats of every American. They store them in a data farm. Whenever the NSA wants to look at them, they can. But according to Clapper, this isn’t “collecting.” It’s only “collecting” when they choose to read what they have.

I have bought several books. They’re on my shelf. I haven’t read them yet. Have I “collected” them? Of course.

I don’t want the NSA to read my sexts or look at my dirty pictures. The fact that they may not have gotten around to it yet — but have them sitting on their shelves — doesn’t make me feel better.

3. President Obama should be impeached over this.

Richard Nixon was. Or would have been, if he hadn’t resigned. Obama, his top officials and his political surrogates have repeatedly and knowingly lied to us when they said the NSA didn’t “routinely sweep up information about millions of Americans.” He should go now. So should others who knew about this.

4. PRISM and other NSA spy programs are not approved by courts or by Congress.

White House defenders say the surveillance — which is, remember, a comprehensive vacuuming up of the entire Internet, and of every phone call ever made — has been approved by the legislative and judicial branches, so there’s nothing to worry about. But that isn’t true. The “FISA court” is so secret that, until last week, no one had ever seen a document issued by it. It’s not a real court. It’s a useless rubber stamp panel that literally approves every surveillance request the government asks for. In 2012, that’s 1856 requests and 1856 approvals.

Very few members of Congress were aware of the Verizon or PRISM programs before reading about them in the media. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a few select Friends of Barack, that’s it. That’s not Congressional oversight. Real oversight occurs in full session, in public, on C-SPAN.

5. There is no evidence that NSA spying keeps America safe. And so what if it did?

According to government officials, PRISM saved the New York City subways from being bombed in 2009. Actually, the alleged would-be terrorist was caught by old-fashioned detective work, not data-mining. There is zero evidence that the NSA has saved a single American from being blown up.

But so what if it did? In recent years, between 15 and 17 Americans a year died worldwide from terrorist attacks. You’re as likely to be crushed to death by your television set. It’s sad for the dozen and a half victims, of course. But terrorism is a low, low national priority. Or it should be. Terrorism isn’t enough of a danger to justify taking away the privacy rights of 320 million people.

6. This is not a post-9/11 thing.


We’re being told that PRISM and the latest Patriot Act-approved surveillance state excesses date back to post-9/11 “make us safe at any cost” paranoia. In fact, the NSA has been way up in your business long before that.

Back in December 1998 the French newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur revealed the existence of a covert partnership between the NSA and 26 U.S. allies. “The power of the network, codenamed ECHELON, is astounding,” the BBC reported in 1999. “Every international telephone call, fax, e-mail, or radio transmission can be listened to by powerful computers capable of voice recognition. They home in on a long list of key words, or patterns of messages. They are looking for evidence of international crime, like terrorism…the system is so widespread all sorts of private communications, often of a sensitive commercial nature, are hoovered up and analyzed.” ECHELON dates back to the 1980s. PRISM picks up where ECHELON left off, adding the Internet to its bag of tricks.

7. Edward Snowden expects to be extradited.

U.S. state media wonders aloud, “puzzled” at whistleblower Snowden’s decision to go to Hong Kong, which routinely extradites criminal suspects to the United States. But Snowden’s explanation is crystal clear. All you have to do is listen. “People who think I made a mistake in picking HK as a location misunderstand my intentions,” he told a local newspaper. “I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality.” Snowden could go to Ecuador, or perhaps Venezuela or Iceland. He’s staying put because he wants to face trial in the U.S. And I doubt he’ll cop a plea when he does. He wants a political hearing so he can put the system on trial. In the meantime, he’ll use the time it’ll take Obama’s legal goons to process the extradition to talk to journalists. To explain himself. To make his case to the public. And, of course, to help shepherd those new revelations Greenwald mentioned.

8. Caught being evil — or collaborating with evil — Google and other tech companies are scared shitless.

And they should be. Consumers and businesses know now that when Big Brother comes calling, Big Tech doesn’t do what they should do — protect their customers’ privacy by calling their lawyers and fighting back. This could hurt their bottom lines. “Other countries will start routing around the U.S. information economy by developing, or even mandating, their own competing services,” speculates Popular Mechanics. Europe, worried about the U.S. exploiting the NSA for industrial espionage, began working on work-around systems that avoid U.S. Internet concerns.

9. 56% of Americans trust the government’s PRISM program, which the government repeatedly lied about. What people don’t know should worry them.

You’re not a terrorist. You don’t hang out with them. So why worry? Because the data collected by the NSA isn’t likely to stay locked up in Utah forever. Data wants to be free — and hackers have already proven they can access the NSA. Some want to sell it to private concerns. To insurance companies, so they can determine whether your buying habits make you a suitable risk. To banks. To security outfits, to run background checks for their clients. To marketers. Mining of Big Data can screw up your life — bad credit, can’t get a job — and you’ll never know what you hit you. Oh, and don’t forget: governments change. Nixon abused the IRS and FBI to attack political opponents. Innocuous census data that collected religious affiliations was used by the Nazis to round up Jews when they came to power.

10. In the long run, the end of privacy will liberate us.

Everyone (who isn’t boring) has a dirty secret. The way things are going, all those secrets will be as out as Dan Savage — and just as happy and self-assured. Blackmail — the nobody-talks-about-real-reason-PRISM-is-creepy — only works if most dirty secrets are hard to come by. But if everyone’s got a nude photo online, if everyone’s sexual deviations are searchable and indexed, the power of shame goes away as quickly as it does at a nudist colony. By the time the surveillance state plays out, we may look back at 2013 as the year when America began to move past Puritanism.

If we’re not in a gulag.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: The PRISM Scandal: The Last Chance for America

Will We Resist a Massive Government/Corporate Conspiracy?

Turkey teeters on the brink of revolution — because the government wants to build a mall in the middle of a public square in Istanbul.

What will we do about the PRISM conspiracy?

With due respect to the Turkish protesters — with whom I agree — PRISM is a trillion times worse than Taksim Square.

PRISM is run by the NSA and FBI.

The charter of the National Security Agency, a spy agency created to collect foreign intelligence, specifically states that it is prohibited from “acquiring information concerning the domestic activities of United States persons.” Simple English. NSA isn’t even allowed to spy on Americans accidentally.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s self-professed mission is to “protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats, to uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and to provide leadership and criminal justice services to federal, state, municipal, and international agencies and partners.”

The NSA claims that its actions are “consistent with U.S. laws and the protection of privacy and civil liberties.”

Yet:

Not.

The darkest dystopian visions of the future — 1984, Brazil, Sleep Dealer — have come to chilling, horrific life. There can no longer be any illusion that the U.S. is a democratic republic. Everything we learned as schoolchildren was a lie. The U.S. government does not serve us. This is not a government by the people or for the people. The regime in Washington no more respects our rights as citizens, our dignity as individuals, than the North Korean dictators of Pyongyang. We eat better and watch better TV but where it counts, at essence, we are exactly the same.

The Washington Post and the British newspaper The Guardian have broken a startling blockbuster, perhaps the biggest story of our lives. “The NSA and the FBI,” writes the Post, “are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track one target or trace a whole network of associates.”

This is a government-big business conspiracy of the first order, so breathtaking in scope and ambition that it is scarcely comprehensible.

According to a classified PowerPoint presentation leaked by a patriotic intelligence officer said to be consumed with “horror at the capabilities” of the PRISM system, the U.S. government taps directly into the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. Google, the biggest Internet company on earth, controlling 16% of global Internet traffic, pretended to stand up to China’s clumsy attempts to censor the Web, but when the NSA came calling, they saluted, bent over and paid for lube.

Google could have litigated. They could have called a press conference. They could have leaked the threats. Instead, they turned over everything. Voluntarily. If you’re online, Google has given your “private” information to the feds. “Don’t be evil?” Ha.

If capitalism counts for anything, contracts have to be enforced. There is a universally understood implicit contract between Internet users and companies like Microsoft and Apple: they keep your data private to the best of their abilities. They might get hacked; a court may serve them with a subpoena. Stuff happens. But they’re not supposed to voluntarily give every bit and byte to the government just because they asked nicely. Because they want to be considered, in government parlance, “a trusted company.”

The government trusts them. But now, can anyone else?

These Internet giants had a choice. They could have told the government to take a walk. According to the Post: “Apple demonstrated that resistance is possible when it held out for more than five years, for reasons unknown, after Microsoft became PRISM’s first corporate partner in May 2007. Twitter, which has cultivated a reputation for aggressive defense of its users’ privacy, is still conspicuous by its absence from the list of ‘private sector partners.'”

PRISM exposes the horrifying, galling partnership between the biggest Silicon Valley corporations and an out-of-control security state. No one is safe in a society governed by such powerful elites colluding so closely.

It also belies previous official claims that anti-terrorism and other security-based intelligence-gathering operations are specifically targeted at likely threats. To the contrary, the U.S. government is plainly interested in — and has largely succeeded at — intercepting, collecting and analyzing every electronic communication in the United States, and presumably abroad as well.

For example:

“According to a separate ‘User’s Guide for PRISM Skype Collection,’ that service can be monitored for audio when one end of the call is a conventional telephone and for any combination of ‘audio, video, chat, and file transfers’ when Skype users connect by computer alone. Google’s offerings include Gmail, voice and video chat, Google Drive files, photo libraries, and live surveillance of search terms.”

Offerings.

That’s what they’re calling the emails we send each other. The photos we store in the “cloud.” Our video chats.

Everything we do online. Our entire online lives.

Offerings. They’re offering us up.

Yeah, of course, we knew they — the government — not our government, mind you — They — the others — the minions of the 1% — were spying on Americans at an epic scale that the Stasi spymasters depicted in the East German drama “The Lives of Others” couldn’t have dreamed of.

First came the 2001 USA-Patriot Act, which opened the door to officially-sanctioned law breaking in the supposed service of national security. In 2002 there was DARPA’s Total Information Awareness, the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 data mining operation, an attempt to “turn everything in cyberspace about everybody—tax records, driver’s-license applications, travel records, bank records, raw F.B.I. files, telephone records, credit-card records, shopping-mall security-camera videotapes, medical records, every e-mail anybody ever sent—into a single, humongous, multi-googolplexibyte database that electronic robots will mine for patterns of information suggestive of terrorist activity.” After an uproar, Congress defunded TIA — so its staff and activities simply packed up and moved to the NSA, where they continue to work today.

There was also AT&T’s secret room 641A, the site of “clandestine collaboration between one big telecommunications company, AT&T, and the National Security Agency to facilitate the most comprehensive illegal domestic spying program in history.” That story broke in 2007.

A few days ago, another sweeping violation of privacy came to light. This time, “the government has obtained phone numbers of both parties on every Verizon call, the call’s duration, location data and the time of day the calls were made.” That program is ongoing. (Were other telecommunications carriers involved? Probably. This is one of the few rubber-stamp FISA court warrants to come to light.)

It doesn’t take a genius to extrapolate from these stories to the massive scope of PRISM. But there’s a big difference between knowing the government is reading your emails and looking at your dirty pictures, and KNOWING they’re doing it. Now we KNOW.

So. What are we going to do about this?

Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Apple have all denied participation in PRISM. Maybe it’s all just a bad dream!

Probably not, though.

First: we need a full, independent investigation. Not by Congress. By someone we can trust. It’s hard to imagine who. Certainly not one of the big tech companies accused of betraying us.

Second: if this story turns out to be true, President Obama, Vice President Biden and the entire cabinet must resign and face prosecution. According to the Post, data collected from the rogue PRISM program is relied upon for roughly one out of seven of the President’s Daily Briefs on intelligence matters. “That is a remarkable figure in an agency that measures annual intake in the trillions of communications,” notes the newspaper. It means that knowledge of PRISM, and authorization thereof, goes to the Oval Office. There must be accountability. Swift accountability.

Members of Congress, corporate executives of the Internet companies involved, and of any other companies, must be held to account as well. Prosecutions should come quickly.

Finally, we have some hard questions to ask ourselves.

I’d start with this one:

What does it mean to be an American? Are we citizens, free men and women? Or are we serfs, not vested in even the primal right to talk to our friends and family members without some goddamn government asshole listening in?

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in April by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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