I waited a couple days to write anything about the new revelations concerning the government’s ongoing surveillance and data mining program, mostly because there’s just so much information coming out and so much to look at. There are actually two different leaks, one involving Verizon and the other involving a number of internet companies and both being broken by the Guardian. Let’s look at the Verizon situation first.
In the Verizon case, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has ordered the company to hand over all of their metadata — that is, all calls originating or reaching their customers, the length of the call and possibly the location of the participants in the call — on a daily basis for the past month and a half.
The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.
The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.
The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.
Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.
That was reported by the Guardian on Wednesday, which happens to have been the first day for my former colleague Spencer Ackerman in his position as the paper’s national security editor (a well-deserved honor; he knows more about national security and foreign policy than anyone I know). Hell of a first day. But the next day brought an even bigger revelation in the same paper, that the government has a program called PRISM that gives them backdoor access to most of the biggest companies that facilitate communication on the internet.
The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.
The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called PRISM, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.
The Guardian has verified the authenticity of the document, a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation – classified as top secret with no distribution to foreign allies – which was apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program. The document claims “collection directly from the servers” of major US service providers.
Although the presentation claims the program is run with the assistance of the companies, all those who responded to a Guardian request for comment on Thursday denied knowledge of any such program.
In a statement, Google said: “Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a back door for the government to access private user data.”
Several senior tech executives insisted that they had no knowledge of PRISM or of any similar scheme. They said they would never have been involved in such a program. “If they are doing this, they are doing it without our knowledge,” one said.
An Apple spokesman said it had “never heard” of PRISM.
Do you believe those denials? I don’t. In the Verizon case, the court order explicitly forbids the company from disclosing the seizure of information, as do the National Security Letters that the FBI routinely uses to seize similar records from telecom and other companies. Not only do I not think they would tell the truth about it, I’m not sure they can. Indeed, the government has now acknowledged both programs, though we should trust them, they say, because there are lots of safeguards built into the system.
It was revealed late Wednesday that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone records of hundreds of millions of U.S. phone customers. The leaked document first reported by the British newspaper the Guardian gave the NSA authority to collect from all of Verizon’s land and mobile customers, but intelligence experts said the program swept up the records of other phone companies too. The possibility of a third secret program letting the NSA tap into credit card transaction records emerged late Thursday in a report in The Wall Street Journal. The White House did not immediately respond to an inquiry about that program.
At the same time, Clapper offered new information about the phone program and another one that collects the audio, video, email, photographic and Internet search usage of foreign nationals overseas who use any of the nine major Internet providers, including Microsoft, Google, Apple, Yahoo and others.
“I believe it is important for the American people to understand the limits of this targeted counterterrorism program and the principles that govern its use,” he said.
Among the previously classified information about the phone records collection that Clapper revealed:
—The program is conducted under authority granted by Congress and is authorized by the Foreign intelligence Surveillance Court which determines the legality of the program.
—The government is prohibited from “indiscriminately sifting” through the data acquired. It can only be reviewed “when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization.” He also said only counterterrorism personnel trained in the program may access the records.
—The information acquired is overseen by the Justice Department and the FISA court. Only a very small fraction of the records are ever reviewed, he said.
—The program is reviewed every 90 days.
Feel better now? You shouldn’t, for many reasons. First of all, why should such wholesale data mining be necessary? If there is any reason to suspect someone of having a connection to terrorism, they can easily get a warrant from the FISC (which almost never turns down such a request). And if it’s an emergency, they are already empowered to start such surveillance immediately and retroactively ask for a warrant within 72 hours. But it seems even those minimal safeguards are too much for them to comply with.
Secondly, the potential for abuse here is almost impossible to overstate, especially in light of the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers. If they think a reporter has been talking to a source, like for these stories, they can now trace every single phone call, email, text message, Skype conversation, etc, between that reporter and anyone they’ve talked to. That takes the seizure of AP phone records seem like child’s play by comparison. But that’s just the beginning. They can also get all sorts of blackmail material, not only on their enemies but on their allies who may be reluctant to go along with them on some legislative matter.
Think I’m being paranoid? The government has already done this in the COINTELPRO program, blackmailing civil rights leaders by illegally wiretapping them in their homes, churches and offices. And don’t think that just because Obama is in charge, that wouldn’t happen. The illegal wiretaps of civil rights leaders was given the greenlight by alleged liberal Robert F. Kennedy.
There’s a tremendous amount of policy detail to dig into here and I’ll be doing that on Tuesday when I co-host Jamila Bey’s radio show. Our guest will be Marcy Wheeler, who has been digging into the documents and doing her usual great job of ferreting out the details that matter.