A Terrifying Look Into The NSA’s Ability To Capture And Analyze Pretty Much Every Communication

You may recall that we’ve written a few times about the “turf war” between the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department’s NSA over who gets to run the “cybersecurity” efforts for the country. The NSA has been particularly insistent that all cybersecurity efforts should go through it, and an amazing, detailed and positively frightening article from James Bamford at Wired Magazine, which is ostensibly about the NSA’s massive new spy center in Bluffdale, Utah, but is really a rather detailed (and well-sourced) account of just how much spying the NSA is doing on pretty much all communications. The article breaks some news in not just confirming the details of the infamous warrantless wiretapping that started under President Bush and has continued unabated under President Obama, but also explains how the program is more advanced and more expansive than previously thought. Basically, the NSA now collects everything, whether or not the law allows it — and it’s building massively powerful computers to break any encryption that is used on that communication.

In regards to the question of “cybersecurity,” one reason why the NSA wants official control over cybersecurity is that’s the curtain it tries to hide behind to explain its massive spying operations:

A short time later, [NSA deputy director Chris] Inglis arrived in Bluffdale at the site of the future data center, a flat, unpaved runway on a little-used part of Camp Williams, a National Guard training site. There, in a white tent set up for the occasion, Inglis joined Harvey Davis, the agency’s associate director for installations and logistics, and Utah senator Orrin Hatch, along with a few generals and politicians in a surreal ceremony. Standing in an odd wooden sandbox and holding gold-painted shovels, they made awkward jabs at the sand and thus officially broke ground on what the local media had simply dubbed “the spy center.” Hoping for some details on what was about to be built, reporters turned to one of the invited guests, Lane Beattie of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. Did he have any idea of the purpose behind the new facility in his backyard? “Absolutely not,” he said with a self-conscious half laugh. “Nor do I want them spying on me.”

For his part, Inglis simply engaged in a bit of double-talk, emphasizing the least threatening aspect of the center: “It’s a state-of-the-art facility designed to support the intelligence community in its mission to, in turn, enable and protect the nation’s cybersecurity.” While cybersecurity will certainly be among the areas focused on in Bluffdale, what is collected, how it’s collected, and what is done with the material are far more important issues. Battling hackers makes for a nice cover—it’s easy to explain, and who could be against it? Then the reporters turned to Hatch, who proudly described the center as “a great tribute to Utah,” then added, “I can’t tell you a lot about what they’re going to be doing, because it’s highly classified.”

And then there was this anomaly: Although this was supposedly the official ground-breaking for the nation’s largest and most expensive cybersecurity project, no one from the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for protecting civilian networks from cyberattack, spoke from the lectern. In fact, the official who’d originally introduced the data center, at a press conference in Salt Lake City in October 2009, had nothing to do with cybersecurity. It was Glenn A. Gaffney, deputy director of national intelligence for collection, a man who had spent almost his entire career at the CIA. As head of collection for the intelligence community, he managed the country’s human and electronic spies.

The entire article is worth reading, as it details the extent of the NSA’s spying, as well as their near total lack of concern for what the law says it’s allowed to do. A former NSA official who left the agency soon after all this started notes that the organization “violated the Constitution setting it up,” and that “they didn’t care. They were going to do it anyway and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way.” This same officials notes multiple ways that the NSA could have set up programs that only focused on specific “targets” or those close to the targets, to stay within the framework of the law. He even suggested these to people at the NSA and elsewhere in the federal government and was completely brushed off. The temptation to collect everything is apparently just too powerful.

As the article notes, even if such an effort may be useful in getting information on those who wish to do us harm, the threat of it being massively abused is incredibly high:

But there is, of course, reason for anyone to be distressed about the practice. Once the door is open for the government to spy on US citizens, there are often great temptations to abuse that power for political purposes, as when Richard Nixon eavesdropped on his political enemies during Watergate and ordered the NSA to spy on antiwar protesters. Those and other abuses prompted Congress to enact prohibitions in the mid-1970s against domestic spying.

But it appears that things have gone very much in the other direction now, with the NSA having much more ability to spy on people today than in the past. And even the idea of strong encryption may only be a temporary way of keeping the NSA from knowing everything you’ve communicated. Bamford details the NSA’s classified effort to build superfast supercomputers that can help in breaking even the strongest encryption being used today. It’s not quite there yet, from the sound of things, but it also appears they’re advancing faster than most people predicted.

The whole article is worth a read, but it’s a frightening reminder of the amount of power the federal government has today and its ability to abuse it.

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