Posts Tagged ‘PRISM’

Post reveals more NSA PRISM slides

July 1, 2013

Over the weekend the Washington Post revealed more of the NSA slide presentation on the secret PRISM program.  Click on NSA slides explain PRISM data-collection program for the Post’s report.  Here are the slides, in their order on the Power Point presentation.   I think they make more sense in that order, even though you have to scroll down to see the newly-released slides.   Double click on the slides to enlarge them.

prism-slide-1 (more…)

The global elite and the surveillance state

June 10, 2013


Ian Welsh on his web log made observations that I find hard to accept, but impossible to disprove.

Liberalism, classic and modern, believes that a properly functioning “freer” society is a more powerful society, all other things being equal.  This was, explicitly, Adam Smith’s argument.  Build a strong peacetime economy, and in wartime you will crush despotic nations into the dirt.

If you want despotism, as elites, if you want to treat everyone badly, so you personally become more powerful and rich, then, you’ve got two problems: an internal one (revolt) and an external one: war and being out-competed by other nations’ elites, who will come and take away your power, one way or the other (this isn’t always violently, though it can be.)

The solution is a transnational elite, in broad agreement on the issues, who do not believe in nationalism, and who play by the same rules and ideology.  If you’re all the same, if nations are just flags, if you feel more kinship for your fellow oligarchs, well then, you’re safe.  There’s still competition, to be sure, but as a class, you’re secure.

That leaves the internal problem, of revolt. The worse you treat people, the more you’re scared of them.  The more you clamp down.  This is really, really expensive and it breaks down over generations, causing internal rot, till you can’t get the system to do anything, no matter how many levers you push.

What is being run right now is a vast experiment to see if modern technology has fixed these problems with surveillance and oppressive states.   Is it cheap enough to go full Stasi, and with that level of surveillance can you keep control over the economy, keep the levers working, make people do what you want, and not all slack off and resist passively, by only going through the motions?

The oligarchs are betting that the technology has made that change.  With the end of serious war between primary nations (enforced by nukes, among other things), with the creation of a transnational ruling class, and with the ability to scale surveillance, it may be possible to take and keep control indefinitely, and bypass the well understood problems of oligarchy and police and surveillance states.

via Ian Welsh.

My gut reaction to this post is that it is paranoid, even though it fits all the facts.  But it certainly is true that there is a tiny and increasingly powerful global elite which feels increasingly connected with each other and decreasingly connected with the rest of us.  It is true that the rise of this global elite coincides with the rise of the secret and lawless power by governments.  It is true that, in the name of national security, there has been a crackdown on dissent of all kinds.   It is true that increasingly militarized local police forces act as if they expect some kind of revolutionary uprising.

What I find hard to accept is that all of this is intentional.  The reason I find it hard to believe is that I judge others by myself.   I have done bad things in my life, but, at the time I did them, I had to be able to justify them in my mind.   In my mind, I imagine the ruling class thinks the same way.   I imagine they honestly think that they are the creators of wealth and jobs, and that all the rest of us are parasites on them.   I imagine that members of the secret national security establishment honestly think they are making the nation more secure.

But maybe not.  Maybe they are aware of what they are doing and don’t care.   Maybe I should think about sociological and psychological studies that indicate that the holders of wealth and power on average have a sense of entitlement that makes them feel exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else.  Maybe I should think about the classic definition of the paranoid—one who lacks the normal person’s ability to diminish awareness of reality.

In the end, it doesn’t matter.   What goes on in the minds of the elite is unknowable and irrelevant.   All I can judge is the probable consequences of their actions, which I think Ian Welsh judges correctly.


If you want to keep something secret … …

June 10, 2013

If you want to keep a secret, you shouldn’t tell anybody.   The more people you tell a secret “in confidence,” the greater the certainty that it will cease to be a secret.  Everybody knows this.

Everybody, it seems, except the Homeland Security agencies.  Dana Priest and William R. Arkin reported three years ago that there were at least 854,000 Americans with top-secret clearances—not just access to classified information, but access to top secrets.   It wouldn’t be surprising if the number now exceeded 1 million.  If the top secrets are known to hundreds of thousands of people, how secret can they be?

top.secretDaniel Ellsberg, who made public the Pentagon Papers, which outlined the secret history of the Vietnam war, was a member of the inner circle of government.  He was a consultant to Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, and helped write the Pentagon Papers.   A low-ranking person like Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden would not have had access to that information.

In the novels of John Le Carre, the fictional spy George Smiley never writes down any of his big secrets.   In the National Security Agency, the supposedly big secrets are put on slides for Power Point presentations.   It seems to me that when you disseminate information this widely, it is bound to leak out to the general public.

The alleged crime of Edward Snowden is to alert foreign terrorists to the fact that their electronic communications are being monitored.  But they already know that.  Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants stopped using e-mail or cell phones years ago, and communicated only by courier.   What Snowden did in releasing the PRISM slides is to provide proof to the public of what most well-informed people had believed all along.

The real way to keep secrets is:  (1)  Minimize the number of top secrets.  (2) Minimize the number of people who know the top secrets.


NSA’s PRISM slides: what they show

June 9, 2013

The leak of a set of Power Point slides revealed the surprisingly wide scope of the National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance program.  Click on Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations for a report on the leaker and his motivations by Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras for The Guardian.

But just what is on the slides?  This is what I found in a Google Image search.

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new prism slide

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The top slide indicates that the NSA is leveraging the United States’ position as the world’s telecommunications center in order to monitor Internet and electronic traffic which, as indicated in the third slide, covers virtually everything.

The second slide shows the dates in which the NSA started collecting PRISM data from various companies.  I wonder why they started with Microsoft in 2007 and didn’t get to Apple until five years later.  Did Apple management have objections?  How were those objections overcome?  Or was there some technical reason why it wasn’t practical to start PRISM collection with all the companies all at once.

The bottom slide indicates that the NSA does not depend on access to Google, Microsoft, Facebook and the other six companies in the PRISM program for electronic eavesdropping.  It collects information as data flows through fiber optics cables and Internet nodes.   PRISM is just a supplemental program.


A hidden world, still growing beyond control

June 8, 2013

Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William R. Arkin wrote a fine series three years ago about the out-of-control growth of secret national security and intelligence agencies.   The recent PRISM disclosures make it more relevant than ever.  Here’s their lede, following by some of my miscellaneous thoughts:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

top.secretAfter nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.


The fact that an enormous amount of money is being spent, and nobody knows quite how to account for it, has a corollary:  Some people are making a lot of money, and have a vested interest in keeping their income stream.

The PRISM program is not a new concept, although its scope is unprecedented.  As early at 1997, before the 9/11 attacks, the FBI was using a software program called Carnivore to monitor and process electronic and e-mail communication.

The Total Information Awareness program supposedly was abolished in 2003.  Click to view.

The Total Information Awareness program supposedly was abolished in 2003.  Click to view.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created what it called the Total Information Awareness program, which gathered and correlated information on everyone in the United States, including phone calls, social networks, credit card records, phone calls and medical records.   When it became known, there was a great public outcry, and Congress de-funded the program in 2003.  But evidently the essential part of the program continued to exist.

I remember J. Edgar Hoover and the enormous power he wielded because of the Federal Bureau of Investigations files.  If you were a politician or public official and you displeased J. Edgar Hoover, chances are that the FBI had a file on you, and that any sexual, political or financial indiscretion would be leaked to favored members of the press.   He gathered and leaked information on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he regarded as a Communist.  No President dared interfere with him.

Now maybe there isn’t anybody in the National Security Agency who is exactly like J. Edgar Hoover.   Maybe the NSA is completely focused on its mission to learn about potential threats to the United States, and never abuses its power.  Behind the NSA cloak of secrecy, there’s no way to tell.  Knowledge is power.  When a secret government agency potentially can know everything there is to know about citizens, but citizens have no right to know anything about the secret agency, that is a power imbalance that is not compatible with American freedom and democracy as I was brought up to believe in them.

I remember that the government did have all the information it needed to stop the 9/11 attacks, including reports of suspicious characters taking pilot lessons, but not bothering to learn how to land the planes.  The problem was not a lack of information, but lack of ability to sort out the wheat from the chaff.   I don’t think that indiscriminately collecting more chaff necessarily makes the country safer.

Another aspect of the PRISM program is what it does to the ability of companies such as Google, Microsoft and Apple to compete overseas.  No foreign company will want to buy a product that contains a trapdoor for the National Security Agency.   As somebody remarked, it would be as if every Japanese car contained a tracking device so that Japanese intelligence could know your location at all times.   You probably would not be reassured if the Japanese government said that they only tracked foreigners and not Japanese citizens.