Entries Tagged "National Security Letters"

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Details on NSA/FBI Eavesdropping

We’re starting to see Internet companies talk about the mechanics of how the US government spies on their users. Here, a Utah ISP owner describes his experiences with NSA eavesdropping:

We had to facilitate them to set up a duplicate port to tap in to monitor that customer’s traffic. It was a 2U (two-unit) PC that we ran a mirrored ethernet port to.

[What we ended up with was] a little box in our systems room that was capturing all the traffic to this customer. Everything they were sending and receiving.

Declan McCullagh explains how the NSA coerces companies to cooperate with its surveillance efforts. Basically, they want to avoid what happened with the Utah ISP.

Some Internet companies have reluctantly agreed to work with the government to conduct legally authorized surveillance on the theory that negotiations are less objectionable than the alternative — federal agents showing up unannounced with a court order to install their own surveillance device on a sensitive internal network. Those devices, the companies fear, could disrupt operations, introduce security vulnerabilities, or intercept more than is legally permitted.

“Nobody wants it on-premises,” said a representative of a large Internet company who has negotiated surveillance requests with government officials. “Nobody wants a box in their network…[Companies often] find ways to give tools to minimize disclosures, to protect users, to keep the government off the premises, and to come to some reasonable compromise on the capabilities.”

Precedents were established a decade or so ago when the government obtained legal orders compelling companies to install custom eavesdropping hardware on their networks.

And Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive explains how he successfully fought a National Security Letter.

Posted on July 25, 2013 at 12:27 PMView Comments

Government Secrets and the Need for Whistle-blowers

Yesterday, we learned that the NSA received all calling records from Verizon customers for a three-month period starting in April. That’s everything except the voice content: who called who, where they were, how long the call lasted — for millions of people, both Americans and foreigners. This “metadata” allows the government to track the movements of everyone during that period, and build a detailed picture of who talks to whom. It’s exactly the same data the Justice Department collected about AP journalists.

The Guardian delivered this revelation after receiving a copy of a secret memo about this — presumably from a whistle-blower. We don’t know if the other phone companies handed data to the NSA too. We don’t know if this was a one-off demand or a continuously renewed demand; the order started a few days after the Boston bombers were captured by police.

We don’t know a lot about how the government spies on us, but we know some things. We know the FBI has issued tens of thousands of ultra-secret National Security Letters to collect all sorts of data on people — we believe on millions of people — and has been abusing them to spy on cloud-computer users. We know it can collect a wide array of personal data from the Internet without a warrant. We also know that the FBI has been intercepting cell-phone data, all but voice content, for the past 20 years without a warrant, and can use the microphone on some powered-off cell phones as a room bug — presumably only with a warrant.

We know that the NSA has many domestic-surveillance and data-mining programs with codenames like Trailblazer, Stellar Wind, and Ragtime — deliberately using different codenames for similar programs to stymie oversight and conceal what’s really going on. We know that the NSA is building an enormous computer facility in Utah to store all this data, as well as faster computer networks to process it all. We know the U.S. Cyber Command employs 4,000 people.

We know that the DHS is also collecting a massive amount of data on people, and that local police departments are running “fusion centers” to collect and analyze this data, and covering up its failures. This is all part of the militarization of the police.

Remember in 2003, when Congress defunded the decidedly creepy Total Information Awareness program? It didn’t die; it just changed names and split into many smaller programs. We know that corporations are doing an enormous amount of spying on behalf of the government: all parts.

We know all of this not because the government is honest and forthcoming, but mostly through three backchannels — inadvertent hints or outright admissions by government officials in hearings and court cases, information gleaned from government documents received under FOIA, and government whistle-blowers.

There’s much more we don’t know, and often what we know is obsolete. We know quite a bit about the NSA’s ECHELON program from a 2000 European investigation, and about the DHS’s plans for Total Information Awareness from 2002, but much less about how these programs have evolved. We can make inferences about the NSA’s Utah facility based on the theoretical amount of data from various sources, the cost of computation, and the power requirements from the facility, but those are rough guesses at best. For a lot of this, we’re completely in the dark.

And that’s wrong.

The U.S. government is on a secrecy binge. It overclassifies more information than ever. And we learn, again and again, that our government regularly classifies things not because they need to be secret, but because their release would be embarrassing.

Knowing how the government spies on us is important. Not only because so much of it is illegal — or, to be as charitable as possible, based on novel interpretations of the law — but because we have a right to know. Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we’re living in a police state.

We need whistle-blowers.

Leaking information without getting caught is difficult. It’s almost impossible to maintain privacy in the Internet Age. The WikiLeaks platform seems to have been secure — Bradley Manning was caught not because of a technological flaw, but because someone he trusted betrayed him — but the U.S. government seems to have successfully destroyed it as a platform. None of the spin-offs have risen to become viable yet. The New Yorker recently unveiled its Strongbox platform for leaking material, which is still new but looks good. This link contains the best advice on how to leak information to the press via phone, email, or the post office. The National Whistleblowers Center has a page on national-security whistle-blowers and their rights.

Leaking information is also very dangerous. The Obama Administration has embarked on a war on whistle-blowers, pursuing them — both legally and through intimidation — further than any previous administration has done. Mark Klein, Thomas Drake, and William Binney have all been persecuted for exposing technical details of our surveillance state. Bradley Manning has been treated cruelly and inhumanly — and possibly tortured — for his more-indiscriminate leaking of State Department secrets.

The Obama Administration’s actions against the Associated Press, its persecution of Julian Assange, and its unprecedented prosecution of Manning on charges of “aiding the enemy” demonstrate how far it’s willing to go to intimidate whistle-blowers — as well as the journalists who talk to them.

But whistle-blowing is vital, even more broadly than in government spying. It’s necessary for good government, and to protect us from abuse of power.

We need details on the full extent of the FBI’s spying capabilities. We don’t know what information it routinely collects on American citizens, what extra information it collects on those on various watch lists, and what legal justifications it invokes for its actions. We don’t know its plans for future data collection. We don’t know what scandals and illegal actions — either past or present — are currently being covered up.

We also need information about what data the NSA gathers, either domestically or internationally. We don’t know how much it collects surreptitiously, and how much it relies on arrangements with various companies. We don’t know how much it uses password cracking to get at encrypted data, and how much it exploits existing system vulnerabilities. We don’t know whether it deliberately inserts backdoors into systems it wants to monitor, either with or without the permission of the communications-system vendors.

And we need details about the sorts of analysis the organizations perform. We don’t know what they quickly cull at the point of collection, and what they store for later analysis — and how long they store it. We don’t know what sort of database profiling they do, how extensive their CCTV and surveillance-drone analysis is, how much they perform behavioral analysis, or how extensively they trace friends of people on their watch lists.

We don’t know how big the U.S. surveillance apparatus is today, either in terms of money and people or in terms of how many people are monitored or how much data is collected. Modern technology makes it possible to monitor vastly more people — yesterday’s NSA revelations demonstrate that they could easily surveil everyone — than could ever be done manually.

Whistle-blowing is the moral response to immoral activity by those in power. What’s important here are government programs and methods, not data about individuals. I understand I am asking for people to engage in illegal and dangerous behavior. Do it carefully and do it safely, but — and I am talking directly to you, person working on one of these secret and probably illegal programs — do it.

If you see something, say something. There are many people in the U.S. that will appreciate and admire you.

For the rest of us, we can help by protesting this war on whistle-blowers. We need to force our politicians not to punish them — to investigate the abuses and not the messengers — and to ensure that those unjustly persecuted can obtain redress.

Our government is putting its own self-interest ahead of the interests of the country. That needs to change.

This essay originally appeared on the Atlantic.

EDITED TO ADD (6/10): It’s not just phone records. Another secret program, PRISM, gave the NSA access to e-mails and private messages at Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Skype, AOL, and others. And in a separate leak, we now know about the Boundless Informant NSA data mining system.

The leaker for at least some of this is Edward Snowden. I consider him an American hero.

EFF has a great timeline of NSA spying. And this and this contain some excellent speculation about what PRISM could be.

Someone needs to write an essay parsing all of the precisely worded denials. Apple has never heard the word “PRISM,” but could have known of the program under a different name. Google maintained that there is no government “back door,” but left open the possibility that the data could have been just handed over. Obama said that the government isn’t “listening to your telephone calls,” ignoring 1) the meta-data, 2) the fact that computers could be doing all of the listening, and 3) that text-to-speech results in phone calls being read and not listened to. And so on and on and on.

Here are people defending the programs. And here’s someone criticizing my essay.

Four more good essays.

I’m sure there are lots more things out there that should be read. Please include the links in comments. Not only essays I would agree with; intelligent opinions from the other sides are just as important.

EDITED TO ADD (6/10): Two essays discussing the policy issues.

My original essay is being discussed on Reddit.

EDITED TO ADD (6/11): Three more good articles: “The Irrationality of Giving Up This Much Liberty to Fight Terror,” “If the NSA Trusted Edward Snowden with Our Data, Why Should We Trust the NSA?” and “Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere.”

EDITED TO ADD (6/11): NSA surveillance reimagined as children’s books.

EDITED TO ADD (7/1): This essay has been translated into Russian and French.

EDITED TO ADD (10/2): This essay has also been translated into Finnish.

Posted on June 10, 2013 at 6:12 AMView Comments

The Public/Private Surveillance Partnership

Our government collects a lot of information about us. Tax records, legal records, license records, records of government services received– it’s all in databases that are increasingly linked and correlated. Still, there’s a lot of personal information the government can’t collect. Either they’re prohibited by law from asking without probable cause and a judicial order, or they simply have no cost-effective way to collect it. But the government has figured out how to get around the laws, and collect personal data that has been historically denied to them: ask corporate America for it.

It’s no secret that we’re monitored continuously on the Internet. Some of the company names you know, such as Google and Facebook. Others hide in the background as you move about the Internet. There are browser plugins that show you who is tracking you. One Atlantic editor found 105 companies tracking him during one 36-hour period. Add data from your cell phone (who you talk to, your location), your credit cards (what you buy, from whom you buy it), and the dozens of other times you interact with a computer daily, we live in a surveillance state beyond the dreams of Orwell.

It’s all corporate data, compiled and correlated, bought and sold. And increasingly, the government is doing the buying. Some of this is collected using National Security Letters (NSLs). These give the government the ability to demand an enormous amount of personal data about people for very speculative reasons, with neither probable cause nor judicial oversight. Data on these secretive orders is obviously scant, but we know that the FBI has issued hundreds of thousands of them in the past decade — for reasons that go far beyond terrorism.

NSLs aren’t the only way the government can get at corporate data. Sometimes they simply purchase it, just as any other company might. Sometimes they can get it for free, from corporations that want to stay on the government’s good side.

CISPA, a bill currently wending its way through Congress, codifies this sort of practice even further. If signed into law, CISPA will allow the government to collect all sorts of personal data from corporations, without any oversight at all, and will protect corporations from lawsuits based on their handing over that data. Without hyperbole, it’s been called the death of the 4th Amendment. Right now, it’s mainly the FBI and the NSA who are getting this data, but — all sorts of government agencies have administrative subpoena power.

Data on this scale has all sorts of applications. From finding tax cheaters by comparing data brokers’ estimates of income and net worth with what’s reported on tax returns, to compiling a list of gun owners from Web browsing habits, instant messaging conversations, and locations — did you have your iPhone turned on when you visited a gun store? — the possibilities are endless.

Government photograph databases form the basis of any police facial recognition system. They’re not very good today, but they’ll only get better. But the government no longer needs to collect photographs. Experiments demonstrate that the Facebook database of tagged photographs is surprisingly effective at identifying people. As more places follow Disney’s lead in fingerprinting people at its theme parks, the government will be able to use that to identify people as well.

In a few years, the whole notion of a government-issued ID will seem quaint. Among facial recognition, the unique signature from your smart phone, the RFID chips in your clothing and other items you own, and whatever new technologies that will broadcast your identity, no one will have to ask to see ID. When you walk into a store, they’ll already know who you are. When you interact with a policeman, she’ll already have your personal information displayed on her Internet-enabled glasses.

Soon, governments won’t have to bother collecting personal data. We’re willingly giving it to a vast network of for-profit data collectors, and they’re more than happy to pass it on to the government without our knowledge or consent.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

EDITED TO ADD: This essay has been translated into French.

Posted on May 3, 2013 at 6:15 AMView Comments

Federal Judge Strikes Down National-Security-Letter Provision of Patriot Act

Article, ACLU press release, some legal commentary, and actual decision.

From the article:

The ACLU had challenged the law on behalf of an Internet service provider, complaining that the law allowed the FBI to demand records without the kind of court supervision required for other government searches. Under the law, investigators can issue so-called national security letters to entities like Internet service providers and phone companies and demand customers’ phone and Internet records.

In his ruling, Marrero said much more was at stake than questions about the national security letters.

He said Congress, in the original USA Patriot Act and less so in a 2005 revision, had essentially tried to legislate how the judiciary must review challenges to the law. If done to other bills, they ultimately could all “be styled to make the validation of the law foolproof.”

Noting that the courthouse where he resides is several blocks from the fallen World Trade Center, the judge said the Constitution was designed so that the dangers of any given moment could never justify discarding fundamental individual liberties.

He said when “the judiciary lowers its guard on the Constitution, it opens the door to far-reaching invasions of liberty.”

Regarding the national security letters, he said, Congress crossed its boundaries so dramatically that to let the law stand might turn an innocent legislative step into “the legislative equivalent of breaking and entering, with an ominous free pass to the hijacking of constitutional values.”

He said the ruling does not mean the FBI must obtain the approval of a court prior to ordering records be turned over, but rather must justify to a court the need for secrecy if the orders will last longer than a reasonable and brief period of time.

Note that judge immediately stayed his decision, pending appeal.

EDITED TO ADD (9/9): More legal commentary.

Posted on September 7, 2007 at 10:05 AMView Comments

FBI Issued Illegal National Security Letters Under USA PATRIOT Act

A new Justice Department report concludes that the FBI broke the law in its use of the Patriot Act to secretly obtain phone, business, and financial data about people in the U.S.

The Justice Department’s inspector general has prepared a scathing report criticizing how the F.B.I. uses a form of administrative subpoena to obtain thousands of telephone, business and financial records without prior judicial approval.

The report, expected to be issued on Friday, says that the bureau lacks sufficient controls to make sure the subpoenas, which do not require a judge’s prior approval, are properly issued and that it does not follow even some of the rules it does have.

From the Associated Press:

The FBI’s transgressions were spelled out in a damning 126-page audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. He found that agents sometimes demanded personal data on people without official authorization, and in other cases improperly obtained telephone records in non-emergency circumstances.

The audit also concluded that the FBI for three years underreported to Congress how often it used national security letters to ask businesses to turn over customer data. The letters are administrative subpoenas that do not require a judge’s approval.

[…]

Under the Patriot Act, the national security letters give the FBI authority to demand that telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks, credit bureaus and other businesses produce personal records about their customers or subscribers. About three-fourths of the letters issued between 2003 and 2005 involved counterterror cases, with the rest for espionage investigations, the audit reported.

Shoddy record-keeping and human error were to blame for the bulk of the problems, said Justice auditors, who were careful to note they found no indication of criminal misconduct.

Here’s the report (mirrored here), and here’s a BoingBoing post on the topic; also, this Wired article. And this by Daniel Solove.

Posted on March 12, 2007 at 3:55 PMView Comments

Surveillance and Oversight

Christmas 2003, Las Vegas. Intelligence hinted at a terrorist attack on New Year’s Eve. In the absence of any real evidence, the FBI tried to compile a real-time database of everyone who was visiting the city. It collected customer data from airlines, hotels, casinos, rental car companies, even storage locker rental companies. All this information went into a massive database — probably close to a million people overall — that the FBI’s computers analyzed, looking for links to known terrorists. Of course, no terrorist attack occurred and no plot was discovered: The intelligence was wrong.

A typical American citizen spending the holidays in Vegas might be surprised to learn that the FBI collected his personal data, but this kind of thing is increasingly common. Since 9/11, the FBI has been collecting all sorts of personal information on ordinary Americans, and it shows no signs of letting up.

The FBI has two basic tools for gathering information on large groups of Americans. Both were created in the 1970s to gather information solely on foreign terrorists and spies. Both were greatly expanded by the USA Patriot Act and other laws, and are now routinely used against ordinary, law-abiding Americans who have no connection to terrorism. Together, they represent an enormous increase in police power in the United States.

The first are FISA warrants (sometimes called Section 215 warrants, after the section of the Patriot Act that expanded their scope). These are issued in secret, by a secret court. The second are national security letters, less well known but much more powerful, and which FBI field supervisors can issue all by themselves. The exact numbers are secret, but a recent Washington Post article estimated that 30,000 letters each year demand telephone records, banking data, customer data, library records, and so on.

In both cases, the recipients of these orders are prohibited by law from disclosing the fact that they received them. And two years ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft rescinded a 1995 guideline that this information be destroyed if it is not relevant to whatever investigation it was collected for. Now, it can be saved indefinitely, and disseminated freely.

September 2005, Rotterdam. The police had already identified some of the 250 suspects in a soccer riot from the previous April, but most were unidentified but captured on video. In an effort to help, they sent text messages to 17,000 phones known to be in the vicinity of the riots, asking that anyone with information contact the police. The result was more evidence, and more arrests.

The differences between the Rotterdam and Las Vegas incidents are instructive. The Rotterdam police needed specific data for a specific purpose. Its members worked with federal justice officials to ensure that they complied with the country’s strict privacy laws. They obtained the phone numbers without any names attached, and deleted them immediately after sending the single text message. And their actions were public, widely reported in the press.

On the other hand, the FBI has no judicial oversight. With only a vague hinting that a Las Vegas attack might occur, the bureau vacuumed up an enormous amount of information. First its members tried asking for the data; then they turned to national security letters and, in some cases, subpoenas. There was no requirement to delete the data, and there is every reason to believe that the FBI still has it all. And the bureau worked in secret; the only reason we know this happened is that the operation leaked.

These differences illustrate four principles that should guide our use of personal information by the police. The first is oversight: In order to obtain personal information, the police should be required to show probable cause, and convince a judge to issue a warrant for the specific information needed. Second, minimization: The police should only get the specific information they need, and not any more. Nor should they be allowed to collect large blocks of information in order to go on “fishing expeditions,” looking for suspicious behavior. The third is transparency: The public should know, if not immediately then eventually, what information the police are getting and how it is being used. And fourth, destruction. Any data the police obtains should be destroyed immediately after its court-authorized purpose is achieved. The police should not be able to hold on to it, just in case it might become useful at some future date.

This isn’t about our ability to combat terrorism; it’s about police power. Traditional law already gives police enormous power to peer into the personal lives of people, to use new crime-fighting technologies, and to correlate that information. But unfettered police power quickly resembles a police state, and checks on that power make us all safer.

As more of our lives become digital, we leave an ever-widening audit trail in our wake. This information has enormous social value — not just for national security and law enforcement, but for purposes as mundane as using cell-phone data to track road congestion, and as important as using medical data to track the spread of diseases. Our challenge is to make this information available when and where it needs to be, but also to protect the principles of privacy and liberty our country is built on.

This essay originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Posted on November 22, 2005 at 6:06 AMView Comments

The FBI is Spying on Us

From TalkLeft:

The Washington Post reports that the FBI has been obtaining and reviewing records of ordinary Americans in the name of the war on terror through the use of national security letters that gag the recipients.

Merritt’s entire post is worth reading.

The closing:

The ACLU has been actively litigating the legality of the National Security Letters. Their latest press release is here.

Also, the ACLU is less critical than I am of activity taking place in Congress now where conferees of the Senate and House are working out a compromise version of Patriot Act extension legislation that will resolve differences in versions passed by each in the last Congress. The ACLU reports that the Senate version contains some modest improvements respecting your privacy rights while the House version contains further intrusions. There is still time to contact the conferees. The ACLU provides more information and a sample letter here.

History shows that once new power is granted to the government, it rarely gives it back. Even if you wouldn’t recognize a terrorist if he were standing in front of you, let alone consort with one, now is the time to raise your voice.

EDITED TO ADD: Here’s a good personal story of someone’s FBI file.

EDITED TO ADD: Several people have written to tell me that the CapitolHillBlue website, above, is not reliable. I don’t know one way or the other, but consider yourself warned.

Posted on November 7, 2005 at 3:13 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.