US Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) Condemns NSA Mass Surveillance

Now we know why the president gave his speech on NSA surveillance last week; he wanted to get ahead of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

Last week, it issued a report saying that NSA mass surveillance of Americans is illegal and should end. Both EPIC and EFF have written about this.

What frustrates me about all of this—this report, the president’s speech, and so many other things—is that they focus on the bulk collection of cell phone call records. There’s so much more bulk collection going on—phone calls, e-mails, address books, buddy lists, text messages, cell phone location data, financial documents, calendars, etc.—and we really need legislation and court opinions on it all. But because cell phone call records were the first disclosure, they’re what gets the attention.

EDITED TO ADD (1/28): I should add links to yesterday’s story that the NSA is collecting data from leaky smart phone apps.

Posted on January 28, 2014 at 12:39 PM33 Comments


Great Grand January 28, 2014 12:44 PM

Specifically metadata. Many articles relate the metadata' term only as thephone calls metadata’, whilst there’s a vast array of it, not only related to phone calls.

Andrew Wallace January 28, 2014 1:12 PM

Something that is often missed is the filming of individuals without a warrant.

This is particularly evident in British society, where wholesale mass surveillance of the public via CCTV is rife.

BlackAngel January 28, 2014 1:14 PM

What frustrates me about all of this — this report, the president’s speech, and so many other things — is that they focus on the bulk collection of cell phone call records. There’s so much more bulk collection going on — phone calls, e-mails, address books, buddy lists, text messages, cell phone location data, financial documents, calendars, etc. — and we really need legislation and court opinions on it all. But because cell phone call records were the first disclosure, those are the ones that gets the attention.

Disclosure shock. TMI.

It is hard for people to keep up, there has been so much data released. It can get confusing. Like dentists trying to learn computers. They do something else during the day, then they have their home lives.

Why we need people to hit on the main issues, clarify, hammer the points home.

The human mind is such that you can have a giant purple gorilla right in front of people… they won’t notice. You have to scream it out loud, repeat it. The ludicrous, the crazy… it can bypass the mind.

Obama, NSA, politicians on left and right saying, “It is okay”. They want to believe that.


Anura January 28, 2014 1:25 PM

Note that despite the NSA collecting information about angry birds, it didn’t prevent the brutal, unprovoked attack against the pope’s peace doves.

Okay, more seriously, one problem is that the media, and congress with it, just doesn’t understand what meta data is. To them, meta basically means “not real” – the fact that it’s called meta data is the problem. It is actually data, information that can be used to essentially map where you go, who you know, what your interests are; it has the potential to be extremely intrusive, even if it’s not recording every conversation.

mic January 28, 2014 1:28 PM

As it might be probably of interest Snowden did a TV Interview which was insightful. It is “due to right-restrictions only available in germany” (geo-blocked) as it was done by a german tv-network. Meanwhile there are copies on different places of the web, first find was this here -> German Television does first Edward Snowden Interview (ENGLISH)

jones January 28, 2014 1:46 PM

What frustrates me about all of this

You’re frustrated because you’re assuming the media works in your interest. If you abandon that assumption, and stop expecting the media to behave any differently, there’s less to be frustrated about, and then, you can see there’s a whole lot to be done.

The media is selling stories, not disseminating information.

The media was complicit in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and kept politely quiet about our conduct over there. The media politely kept quiet about the fact mass demonstrations broke out all over the country prior to the invasion, about the fact that we created 5 million Iraqi refugees with our bombing campaign, that at the height of the conflict, 1/4 of the troops over there were national guardsmen, the media kept quiet about the stop loss policy, the media never discussed what it meant that we had 160,000 troops in Iraq while only 30,000 in Afghanistan (where osama bin laden was). The media keeps quiet about CIA torture. The media keeps quiet about Bush-era abuses. The media talks about climate change in only the most carefully couched terms. The media would rather you follow sports instead of anything of consequence.

AlanS January 28, 2014 1:47 PM


Agreed. The PCLOB just focuses on a few areas. I believe they were asked to review Section 215 and Section 702 programs and the operations of the FISA court. Their report on Section 702 hasn’t been released yet.

By “first report” you mean the first report based on Snowden’s disclosures. In truth we’ve known about most of this for a lot longer from the likes of Mark Klein, James Bamford, Bill Binney, etc. Snowden killed the intelligence community’s plausible deniability and made it a political issue for people other than members of the ACLU, EFF and EPIC.

willy January 28, 2014 2:10 PM

It is virtually impossible to explain all/any of this to people that are not involved or interested. Many people have become so numbed or confused that they are simply ignoring the ramifications and just “don’t care”.

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons January 28, 2014 2:20 PM

@ Bruce Schneier

After reviewing the EFF’s deep dive on the First Unitarian Church vs NSA it is obvious that multiple harms have occurred under existing federal action(s). For me, late last year, I had to engage in an out-of-band exercise to contact the alumni group of a university in order to resolve an issue regarding the safety of a fellow colleague. My friend, a mathematician from Argentina and myself were engaged in development work when things started going a little sideways. We’d been discussing, in the clear, the use of AI in cryptographic applications (April 2013). We were both clear on what could be socio-political risks to ourselves, and we both agreed we move forward dispite the perceived risk. In July of 2013 things started to go askew, comms were interrupted, threats were made to my friend. My concern for my friend’s well being reached a climax in Dec 2013 when all communications went black. My friend’s systems had been hacked, accounts hijacked, and my friend said that they were scared. In November of 2013 I visited the campus of my friend’s almuni association to see if they could ascertain the situation. Knowing that calls and conversations were possibly monitored I had to make an appearance in meat space to avoid additional risk to my friends situation. Today the situation appears to have normalized–we discontinued our research and that seems to have tsken the volume down from what was at 11 (from Spinal Tap).

So, for all you arses that believe this is for some greater good–it’s not

crankygeo January 28, 2014 2:38 PM

I particularly enjoyed the President’s response, “I still think the NSA programs are valuable.” Valuable to whom? Yes, some of the programs may be valuable [to the government], but if they’re illegal and/or invading the privacy and diminishing the rights of U.S. citizens, then the programs are certainly not valuable to the voting public.

Skeptical January 28, 2014 3:12 PM

The PCLOB’s report isn’t unreasonable, but I think they erred in including an uneven legal analysis that barely emerged with approval (3-2 vote).

I would have preferred a sharper focus on the procedures in place to prevent abuse along with a deeper analysis of the effectiveness of those procedures.

I also wished that the PCLOB had refrained from engaging in rhetorical flourishes that have punch but lack clarity, such as the comment that the Section 215 program had made no “concrete difference” in any of the cases in which it was used. What exactly does “concrete difference” (as opposed to a non-concrete difference?) mean, and how did they come to that conclusion? Are there plausible scenarios in which the Section 215 program would make a “concrete difference”?

The report very much argues a case rather than analyzes the issues, and as a result it shed less light than it could have.

It is nonetheless valuable and worth reading, and raises some good additional questions in some of its claims (that the NSA is permanently storing the records of “at least” 120 million domestic calls, for example, in the “corporate store”).

AlanS January 28, 2014 5:38 PM


More on harms. In The Shadow Factory, Bamford points out that the NSA has nurtured the surveillance business of the military industrial complex. A lot of work is contracted out and staff move back and forth between contractors and the NSA. There’s a lot of money involved.

Check out who donates money to Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence. Four of her top seven contributors are defense contractors involved in surveillance.

And gear and expertise is sold to more than the US government. And who knows what sort of quid pro quo goes on between the NSA and other governments (aside from the five eyes). When communications moved from satellites to fiber-optic, NSA’s activities got harder. They have to get communications providers to let them tap into the major fiber-optic hubs. A lot of traffic comes through the US but some doesn’t, maybe increasingly so, so they have to figure out how to tap into major junction points outside the US.

Eisenhower’s point about the MIC, that one has to be ever-vigilant or it will subvert liberty and democracy, applies both to the US and outside the US.

Benni January 28, 2014 5:45 PM

After the angry birds news,

the german computer magazine now uses this slightly changed official NSA label:;zoom=2

In the evening these new slides were published:

NSA spys on youtube and facebook to predict riots. This is, what is most closely related to usual and legitimate work of them.
They should analyze news, also videos.

Just that they do this in real time, sitting on googles and facebooks own fibers is highly illegal. And their analysation of social networks is problematic too. The nsa eagles are clearly doing more than hunt for evil pigs, ehh, sorry, terrorists

BlackAngel January 28, 2014 8:28 PM

On harm…

Besides the whole “military-industrial” nastiness — which is bad… basically, bribery. Personally, I find the amount of data they are getting on all Americans to be extremely shady.

If they are engaged in effectively bribery, and there are no controls… if there were no controls to prevent a Snowden or Manning from grabbing all the data they did; if there are no controls for citizen – or even reasonable – oversight on their moves… what, on earth, stops them from going back to the way things were from the 20s to the 70s and engaging in spying on Americans for extortion and political power?

And what is to prevent them from being worse then even Hoover?

After all, it was a massive feat of Hoover to be able to wire the House and Senate (*ref, for one, Enemies, NY Bestseller last year). That was back in the 40s, 50s, 60s. Today, the tech makes such a feat easy. Qualitatively, these guys have way more capabilities and resources then Hoover could ever have dreamed of.

And consider… they are doing industrial espionage. For which companies, exactly? That is the problem with democracies doing industrial espionage. The government does not own these companies, and there will always be competitors. So what companies get the prizes from these efforts?

Nobody is ashamed that the most visible intel leaders are in bed with defense contractors making incredible sums of money. Or the leading politicians that are siding with them. How does any of this differ from bribery? Not at all. So, if they are willing to be so unashamed in the money they are getting for war trafficking… why on earth would they stop there and not engage in using US resources to spy for companies to get some money from them? Why would they stop at bribery and not go on to extortion?

It is all very shady.

I really doubt we have seen the worst of the exposures at all. Sooner or later, all the crimes come to light. Even Hoover couldn’t keep his secrets forever.

_M_ January 28, 2014 8:45 PM

mic • January 28, 2014 1:28 PM
As it might be probably of interest Snowden did a TV Interview which was insightful. It is “due to right-restrictions only available in germany” (geo-blocked) as it was done by a german tv-network. Meanwhile there are copies on different places of the web, first find was this here -> German Television does first Edward Snowden Interview (ENGLISH)
Read more at…

Thanks very much for the link.

yesme January 29, 2014 1:49 AM

@BlackAngel. “Personally, I find the amount of data they are getting on all Americans to be extremely shady.”

Me, as a Dutchman, you know, Europe, also care about the data they are getting from the rest of the world.

I guess it’s the same with a person from Brazil, Russia, China, Australia, etc.

yesme January 29, 2014 2:04 AM

@BlackAngel, I would like to add that I also think that a person living in Iran or Afghanistan deserves his or her privacy.

Sigint should only be used targeted.

Aspie January 29, 2014 4:07 AM


The media wasn’t so much complicit about keeping quiet wrt Iraq lunacy, they were terrified they’d be shut-out – or persecuted by Darth Chny’s minions of mayhem.

The late Helen Thomas continually asked the “hard” questions at WH press briefings and she was shamefully patronised but never given an answer.

That was as closed a shop as I’ve ever seen. (Look up Karen Kwiatkowski’s recollection of events as an insider in the Pentagon during the run-up to Afghanistan/Iraq on

One frustrating aspect is that they’re playing bait-and-switch. When the public interest saturation point is reached the really important topics will be hidden behind the seemingly trifling ones. The govt. will knock down the easy coconuts, declare victory and depart the field.

HWK January 29, 2014 8:46 AM

you can read the broadcasted interview here:

It’s in German, maybe Google translate is your friend.

But it was a little disappointing, that they showed only half an hour of a six hour interview. Also Mr. Snowden did not reveale anything new.
More frustrating was, that German TV broadcasted the interview late in the evening after a political discussion about the interview.
For a world exclusive interview with Edward Snowden about this important topic, the interview was placed at a too late time.

IMHO what comes too short is, that besides the NSA and GCHQ all the other intelligence agencies do the same or cooperate. There was a nice discussion about that on a Swiss/German TV station. We must go to the German Verfassungsschutz and BND, etc. and make them responsible for their cooperation and betrayal of their people. And we have to question what is going on in other countries. E. g. what is the Russian FSB allowed to do?

BlackAngel January 29, 2014 9:53 AM


Yes, apologies, “yesme”, I typically like to include that when writing about this.

Here, like with the original post by Bruce, I was focusing more on the domestic side of this which has some emphasized illegality about it.

  1. They are foreign intelligence and it is supposed to be illegal for them to spy on Americans. They are doing this en masse and so en masse breaking federal laws.

When a cop is breaking the laws, there are no laws.

The only difference between a cop and a criminal in that instance is the cop has a military backing them and the courts. They both do the crimes. One just can’t get caught. That criminals are sentenced becomes hypocritical savagery.

Breaking one federal law, hacking one person… that is one thing. Hacking everyone? That is something else.

Somehow because it is “done for terrorists”, it is “okay”. Hoover did the same thing. Stalin did the same thing. China and North Korea do this.

Heck, just about every criminal has some “good” reason for their crimes. Like that they are ripping people off because they were ripped off [abused] by their parents. The US is doing the same thing. They got ripped off by someone (911), so they are becoming criminals.

“I had a bad childhood”.

Meanwhile, most people get over the abuse of their childhood and act law abiding. Like all the people who are against these actions. And for the constitution. The laws of the country.

  1. Bribery is supposed to be illegal.
  2. Political extortion on foreign politicians is bad. But domestically it is worse because it is the same system that controls these powers. And historically it has been focused on controlling those who would try and curtail these powers.

Some are saying, “Well, they are breaking and entering everyone’s private data — but they are not actually using any of that data for bad means”.

Of course, this is like breaking into people’s houses. Getting caught maybe they would say, “I thought I heard a noise, maybe it was a burglar or a terrorist”. The cops would laugh at this. Even moreso if they broke into everyone’s house.

But, they can’t get this. Yet.

So there is a domestic angle to this.

But, you are right, and I do believe in emphasizing the foreign angle, very often. For instance, they have no reason to be spying on allies. They have extremely limited reason to be spying on “non” allies. But, let us get real here: very little of their massive system is tailored towards terrorists.

What all these factors would lead up to is ten, twenty, fifty years from now we would have a global, totalitarian society. Because the free nations went dark. They used their advantage to close everything down. They start and maintain a global cyber espionage war. Who hits first and hits hardest wins. So everyone is forced to play.

I don’t think any of that will happen, because I think it will get stopped. But it is the road people would take if they could.

yesme January 29, 2014 11:20 AM

@BlackAngel. No need for apologies 😉

We usually only see what happens in our own country.

However, this NSA saga is so massive and global… aargh

BlackAngel January 29, 2014 11:45 AM

No need for apologies 😉
We usually only see what happens in our own country.
However, this NSA saga is so massive and global… aargh

I spent a lot of time dealing with Chinese hackers. No joke. So I do not like seeing that the US has been doing the same thing all along. Explains why they were so silent.

Talking about one country hacking another.

I had my concerns and guesses. But, I genuinely figured they would be hyper focusing on protective intelligence, where an advanced nation has – by far – the most to gain per investment. And not aggressive, offensive intelligence… not industrial espionage. Not political maligning of democratic nations. (Though I had some suspicions there due to past work they have done.)

China, on the other hand, I had seen firsthand using zero day to hack financial institutions in foreign countries. I had not seen evidence they stole money, but that information could obviously be used to further their businesses… and sabotage foreign businesses.

America gets into that game, other democratic nations… very dangerous. There is too much profit to be had. But these things do not fit with democratic nations at all. Not open market economies. You have to favor one business or the other, domestically.

This pollutes and corrupts the systems at their core, and it is wash and repeat, they then outwardly are more menacing.

You end up with a global cyber-“espionage” war: where “espionage” entails severe economic sabotage for domestic economic gain in every form and way.

As it stands, it appears that they are saying, right now, “everyone is game outside our boundaries”. But… not enough exposure on what is going on yet to really know. They are not that good to evade large foreign businesses and their national policing agencies doing major attacks [forever]. (Unless they make it look like it comes from China. Which is stretching it.)

Will foreign security firms be printing up Mandiant style reports on American federal based hackers in a few years?

Or is America just too deeply invested in the underlying communications infrastructure, where hacks are far safer to perform… then the up close and personal attacks China has been performing?

kgj5g54kjg5n54kjn January 29, 2014 3:56 PM

Interesting how PCLOB was content until someone who the bad party credited literally got in front of a camera and said what everyone already knew and what world politics and economics had long reflected..

Another oversight committee who turns a blind eye until their heads turn no more, then look for the most convenient PR maneuvers to save some face.. Anyone bothered to dig into what members of the PCLOB are up to when nobody is looking? I doubt it’s any more honorable..

Tom January 29, 2014 5:45 PM

“The media would rather you follow sports instead of anything of consequence.”

And numbing your mind through violent video games which may include sex with a hooker and returning the favor with a baseball bat and prizes in the form of money falling to the ground.

These violent video games work very well in manipulating a user’s mind and their reactions to real world events.

Do you feel they don’t?

What are TV commercials for? If they didn’t work they wouldn’t show them at all, nor pay millions in air time for them.

yesme January 30, 2014 6:52 AM


I just read an article about that the NSA, together with their puppies, were spying on the climate top in Kopenhagen in 2009. Breaking Danish law.

I really wonder how the next climate top looks like. What the subjects are.

And I get more and more the idea why Snowden did all this.

The National “Security” Agency??? Unable to solve ONE terrorist attack…

Still, how is it possible that public figures can get away with lying?

How can you trust a guy who has been lying in your face (television), over and over again? And how is it possible that the lyers are re-elected?

And talking about hacking. The NSA is doing stuff on daily basis that anyone else gets 35 year for.

There are serious issues here.

BlackAngel January 31, 2014 1:20 PM


There are quite a number of indicators that they are out of control.

The ramifications of that in terms of the future for the world are severe.

Hammurabi February 1, 2014 8:33 AM

On the bright side, Justin Beiber arrived safely at Teterboro (used also for rendition flights, per EU report). This will provide much needed distraction from NSA until next week.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.