Entries Tagged "PATRIOT Act"

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NSA Abandons "About" Searches

Earlier this month, the NSA said that it would no longer conduct “about” searches of bulk communications data. This was the practice of collecting the communications of Americans based on keywords and phrases in the contents of the messages, not based on who they were from or to.

The NSA’s own words:

After considerable evaluation of the program and available technology, NSA has decided that its Section 702 foreign intelligence surveillance activities will no longer include any upstream internet communications that are solely “about” a foreign intelligence target. Instead, this surveillance will now be limited to only those communications that are directly “to” or “from” a foreign intelligence target. These changes are designed to retain the upstream collection that provides the greatest value to national security while reducing the likelihood that NSA will acquire communications of U.S. persons or others who are not in direct contact with one of the Agency’s foreign intelligence targets.

In addition, as part of this curtailment, NSA will delete the vast majority of previously acquired upstream internet communications as soon as practicable.

[…]

After reviewing amended Section 702 certifications and NSA procedures that implement these changes, the FISC recently issued an opinion and order, approving the renewal certifications and use of procedures, which authorize this narrowed form of Section 702 upstream internet collection. A declassification review of the FISC’s opinion and order, and the related targeting and minimization procedures, is underway.

A quick review: under Section 702 of the Patriot Act, the NSA seizes a copy of all communications moving through a telco — think e-mail and such — and searches it for particular senders, receivers, and — until recently — key words. This pretty clearly violates the Fourth Amendment, and groups like the EFF have been fighting the NSA in court about this for years. The NSA has also had problems in the FISA court about these searches, and cites “inadvertent compliance incidents” related to this.

We might learn more about this change. Again, from the NSA’s statement:

After reviewing amended Section 702 certifications and NSA procedures that implement these changes, the FISC recently issued an opinion and order, approving the renewal certifications and use of procedures, which authorize this narrowed form of Section 702 upstream internet collection. A declassification review of the FISC’s opinion and order, and the related targeting and minimization procedures, is underway.

And the EFF is still fighting for more NSA surveillance reforms.

Posted on May 19, 2017 at 2:05 PMView Comments

Policy Repercussions of the Paris Terrorist Attacks

In 2013, in the early days of the Snowden leaks, Harvard Law School professor and former Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith reflected on the increase in NSA surveillance post 9/11. He wrote:

Two important lessons of the last dozen years are (1) the government will increase its powers to meet the national security threat fully (because the People demand it), and (2) the enhanced powers will be accompanied by novel systems of review and transparency that seem to those in the Executive branch to be intrusive and antagonistic to the traditional national security mission, but that in the end are key legitimating factors for the expanded authorities.

Goldsmith is right, and I think about this quote as I read news articles about surveillance policies with headlines like “Political winds shifting on surveillance after Paris attacks?

The politics of surveillance are the politics of fear. As long as the people are afraid of terrorism — regardless of how realistic their fears are — they will demand that the government keep them safe. And if the government can convince them that it needs this or that power in order to keep the people safe, the people will willingly grant them those powers. That’s Goldsmith’s first point.

Today, in the wake of the horrific and devastating Paris terror attacks, we’re at a pivotal moment. People are scared, and already Western governments are lining up to authorize more invasive surveillance powers. The US want to back-door encryption products in some vain hope that the bad guys are 1) naive enough to use those products for their own communications instead of more secure ones, and 2) too stupid to use the back doors against the rest of us. The UK is trying to rush the passage of legislation that legalizes a whole bunch of surveillance activities that GCHQ has already been doing to its own citizens. France just gave its police a bunch of new powers. It doesn’t matter that mass surveillance isn’t an effective anti-terrorist tool: a scared populace wants to be reassured.

And politicians want to reassure. It’s smart politics to exaggerate the threat. It’s smart politics to do something, even if that something isn’t effective at mitigating the threat. The surveillance apparatus has the ear of the politicians, and the primary tool in its box is more surveillance. There’s minimal political will to push back on those ideas, especially when people are scared.

Writing about our country’s reaction to the Paris attacks, Tom Engelhardt wrote:

…the officials of that security state have bet the farm on the preeminence of the terrorist ‘threat,’ which has, not so surprisingly, left them eerily reliant on the Islamic State and other such organizations for the perpetuation of their way of life, their career opportunities, their growing powers, and their relative freedom to infringe on basic rights, as well as for that comfortably all-embracing blanket of secrecy that envelops their activities.

Goldsmith’s second point is more subtle: when these power increases are made in public, they’re legitimized through bureaucracy. Together, the scared populace and their scared elected officials serve to make the expanded national security and law enforcement powers normal.

Terrorism is singularly designed to push our fear buttons in ways completely out of proportion to the actual threat. And as long as people are scared of terrorism, they’ll give their governments all sorts of new powers of surveillance, arrest, detention, and so on, regardless of whether those powers actually combat the threat. This means that those who want those powers need a steady stream of terrorist attacks to enact their agenda. It’s not that these people are actively rooting for the terrorists, but they know a good opportunity when they see it.

We know that the PATRIOT Act was largely written before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that the political climate was right for its introduction and passage. More recently:

Although “the legislative environment is very hostile today,” the intelligence community’s top lawyer, Robert S. Litt, said to colleagues in an August e-mail, which was obtained by The Post, “it could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

The Paris attacks could very well be that event.

I am very worried that the Obama administration has already secretly told the NSA to increase its surveillance inside the US. And I am worried that there will be new legislation legitimizing that surveillance and granting other invasive powers to law enforcement. As Goldsmith says, these powers will be accompanied by novel systems of review and transparency. But I have no faith that those systems will be effective in limiting abuse any more than they have been over the last couple of decades.

EDITED TO ADD (12/14): Trevor Timm is all over this issue. Dan Gillmor wrote something good, too.

Posted on November 24, 2015 at 6:32 AMView Comments

Basaaly Moalin: The One "Terrorist" Caught by Section 215 Surveillance

Remember back in 2013 when the then-director of the NSA Keith Alexander claimed that Section 215 bulk telephone metadata surveillance stopped “fifty-four different terrorist-related activities”? Remember when that number was backtracked several times, until all that was left was a single Somali taxi driver who was convicted of sending some money back home? This is the story of Basaaly Moalin.

Posted on January 26, 2015 at 5:51 AMView Comments

Pre-Snowden Debate About NSA Call-Records Collection Program

AP is reporting that in 2009, several senior NSA officials objected to the NSA call-records collection program.

The now-retired NSA official, a longtime code-breaker who rose to top management, had just learned in 2009 about the top secret program that was created shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He says he argued to then-NSA Director Keith Alexander that storing the calling records of nearly every American fundamentally changed the character of the agency, which is supposed to eavesdrop on foreigners, not Americans.

Hacker News thread.

Posted on November 20, 2014 at 2:42 PMView Comments

More on the NSA Commandeering the Internet

If there’s any confirmation that the U.S. government has commandeered the Internet for worldwide surveillance, it is what happened with Lavabit earlier this month.

Lavabit is — well, was — an e-mail service that offered more privacy than the typical large-Internet-corporation services that most of us use. It was a small company, owned and operated by Ladar Levison, and it was popular among the tech-savvy. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden among its half-million users.

Last month, Levison reportedly received an order — probably a National Security Letter — to allow the NSA to eavesdrop on everyone’s e-mail accounts on Lavabit. Rather than “become complicit in crimes against the American people,” he turned the service off. Note that we don’t know for sure that he received a NSL — that’s the order authorized by the Patriot Act that doesn’t require a judge’s signature and prohibits the recipient from talking about it — or what it covered, but Levison has said that he had complied with requests for individual e-mail access in the past, but this was very different.

So far, we just have an extreme moral act in the face of government pressure. It’s what happened next that is the most chilling. The government threatened him with arrest, arguing that shutting down this e-mail service was a violation of the order.

There it is. If you run a business, and the FBI or NSA want to turn it into a mass surveillance tool, they believe they can do so, solely on their own initiative. They can force you to modify your system. They can do it all in secret and then force your business to keep that secret. Once they do that, you no longer control that part of your business. You can’t shut it down. You can’t terminate part of your service. In a very real sense, it is not your business anymore. It is an arm of the vast U.S. surveillance apparatus, and if your interest conflicts with theirs then they win. Your business has been commandeered.

For most Internet companies, this isn’t a problem. They are already engaging in massive surveillance of their customers and users — collecting and using this data is the primary business model of the Internet — so it’s easy to comply with government demands and give the NSA complete access to everything. This is what we learned from Edward Snowden. Through programs like PRISM, BLARNEY and OAKSTAR, the NSA obtained bulk access to services like Gmail and Facebook, and to Internet backbone connections throughout the US and the rest of the world. But if it were a problem for those companies, presumably the government would not allow them to shut down.

To be fair, we don’t know if the government can actually convict someone of closing a business. It might just be part of their coercion tactics. Intimidation, and retaliation, is part of how the NSA does business.

Former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio has a story of what happens to a large company that refuses to cooperate. In February 2001 — before the 9/11 terrorist attacks — the NSA approached the four major US telecoms and asked for their cooperation in a secret data collection program, the one we now know to be the bulk metadata collection program exposed by Edward Snowden. Qwest was the only telecom to refuse, leaving the NSA with a hole in its spying efforts. The NSA retaliated by canceling a series of big government contracts with Qwest. The company has since been purchased by CenturyLink, which we presume is more cooperative with NSA demands.

That was before the Patriot Act and National Security Letters. Now, presumably, Nacchio would just comply. Protection rackets are easier when you have the law backing you up.

As the Snowden whistleblowing documents continue to be made public, we’re getting further glimpses into the surveillance state that has been secretly growing around us. The collusion of corporate and government surveillance interests is a big part of this, but so is the government’s resorting to intimidation. Every Lavabit-like service that shuts down — and there have been several — gives us consumers less choice, and pushes us into the large services that cooperate with the NSA. It’s past time we demanded that Congress repeal National Security Letters, give us privacy rights in this new information age, and force meaningful oversight on this rogue agency.

This essay previously appeared in USA Today.

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

Posted on August 30, 2013 at 6:12 AMView Comments

Security Problems with U.S. Cloud Providers

Invasive U.S. surveillance programs, either illegal like the NSA’s wiretapping of AT&T phone lines or legal as authorized by the PATRIOT Act, are causing foreign companies to think twice about putting their data in U.S. cloud systems.

I think these are legitimate concerns. I don’t trust the U.S. government, law or no law, not to spy on my data if it thought it was a good idea. The more interesting question is: which government should I trust instead?

Posted on December 6, 2011 at 1:50 PMView Comments

Fighting Misuse of the Patriot Act

I like this idea:

I had to sign a tedious business contract the other day. They wanted my corporation number — fair enough — plus my Social Security number — well, if you insist — and also my driver’s license number — hang on, what’s the deal with that?

Well, we e-mailed over a query and they e-mailed back that it was a requirement of the Patriot Act. So we asked where exactly in the Patriot Act could this particular requirement be found and, after a bit of a delay, we got an answer.

And on discovering that there was no mention of driver’s licenses in that particular subsection, I wrote back that we have a policy of reporting all erroneous invocations of the Patriot Act to the Department of Homeland Security on the grounds that such invocations weaken the rationale for the act, and thereby undermine public support for genuine anti-terrorism measures and thus constitute a threat to America’s national security.

And about 10 minutes after that the guy sent back an e-mail saying he didn’t need the driver’s license number after all.

Posted on March 8, 2006 at 7:17 AMView Comments

The Terrorist Threat of Paying Your Credit Card Balance

This article shows how badly terrorist profiling can go wrong:

They paid down some debt. The balance on their JCPenney Platinum MasterCard had gotten to an unhealthy level. So they sent in a large payment, a check for $6,522.

And an alarm went off. A red flag went up. The Soehnges’ behavior was found questionable.

And all they did was pay down their debt. They didn’t call a suspected terrorist on their cell phone. They didn’t try to sneak a machine gun through customs.

They just paid a hefty chunk of their credit card balance. And they learned how frighteningly wide the net of suspicion has been cast.

After sending in the check, they checked online to see if their account had been duly credited. They learned that the check had arrived, but the amount available for credit on their account hadn’t changed.

So Deana Soehnge called the credit-card company. Then Walter called.

“When you mess with my money, I want to know why,” he said.

They both learned the same astounding piece of information about the little things that can set the threat sensors to beeping and blinking.

They were told, as they moved up the managerial ladder at the call center, that the amount they had sent in was much larger than their normal monthly payment. And if the increase hits a certain percentage higher than that normal payment, Homeland Security has to be notified. And the money doesn’t move until the threat alert is lifted.

The article goes on to blame something called the Bank Privacy Act, but that’s not correct. The culprit here is the amendments made to the Bank Secrecy Act by the USA Patriot Act, Sections 351 and 352. There’s a general discussion here, and the Federal Register here.

There has been some rumbling on the net that this story is badly garbled — or even a hoax — but certainly this kind of thing is what financial institutions are required to report under the Patriot Act.

Remember, all the time spent chasing down silly false alarms is time wasted. Finding terrorist plots is a signal-to-noise problem, and stuff like this substantially decreases that ratio: it adds a lot of noise without adding enough signal. It makes us less safe, because it makes terrorist plots harder to find.

Posted on March 6, 2006 at 10:45 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.