Sunday, 9 June 2013

We need to talk about digital spying in the modern age - Part 1

Americans woke up on Friday June 7 to multiple articles in the Guardian and Wall Street Journal newspapers revealing that the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) has gained access to some of the world’s largest digital corporations and their storage servers.

As far as the reports and leaked documents show, this access is extremely broad covering everything from Microsoft servers to Facebook data. Everything from file transfers between users and login details, to voice and video communication is being both monitored and stored by the NSA at a cost of about US$20 million per year.

 According to U.S. state officials, the data being gathered is too vast for on-going surveillance of every internet user and the information collected is simply being stored in huge data warehouses. Instead of a “Big Brother” state, the data is being employed to assist in creating patterns to trace individuals suspected of terrorism or criminal activities in the United States. This program of collection has been codenamed PRISM and has been in operation since perhaps 2007.

The extent of the NSA dragnet operations is ruffling feathers in the United States. The corporations reportedly included in the program are: Facebook, Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, Skype, Apple, Youtube, Paltalk, and AOL. All these digital systems are in heavy use by everyday United States citizens, not to mention by almost everybody in the world with an internet connection.

Before this piece continues, it is very important to remember that freedom does not mean people can yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The same goes for the internet. Just because you can write or say anything you want on the internet, does not mean you should. There are plenty of nefarious criminal groups - and even malicious nation states – already waiting to suck up your personal details to use in ways the NSA cannot even dream. And they’ve been there, stealing your privacy, for a lot longer than the PRISM project.

Kids in schools should be taught as a foundational life-skill that in everything you do on the internet, you must assume your personal data security is already compromised. Even with encryption, the most secure way to encrypt files is offline. There are no safe places on the internet. If this is understood at even a cursory level, the whole mind-set of privacy in the digital world changes.

Consecutive U.S. administrations and NSA directors assured their public that the role of the National Security Agency is to monitor and gather information from foreign countries for the benefit of the United States. They are a spy organisation and the collection of data from U.S. citizens has been stressed time and again as being outside the gamut of the world’s largest signals intelligence (SIGINT) agency. However, in light of last week’s revelations, it is becoming clear the NSA’s collection methods could be vacuuming up American data as well.

From an American civil liberties perspective, this is not what they were led to believe. In fact it is the complete opposite. For a long time, rumours abounded of the dangerous reality that NSA and other intelligence agencies monitor American communications, but little evidence existed to back those claims.

Looking at the leaked PRISM document, it is now clear those rumours were mostly accurate, as the first corporation to join PRISM was back in 2007. So presumably, the “privacy” which is so vehemently being defended today has been compromised for almost seven years. One wonders whether Americans felt violated for each of those seven years, or whether their lives were perfectly fine up until the leaked NSA document told them they were being spied on the whole time.

The amount of data being collected is so great that the NSA is already building new warehouses like the one in Bluffdale, Utah. This facility will have the reported capacity to store all internet traffic, probably excluding video and voice files, for at least the next 100 years – apparently even compensating for the trends of increased traffic amounts over that time.

According to James Bamford, the foremost expert on NSA, the agency is developing computers with mind blowing speeds to process all this information. These computers are so fast they “clocked in at 1.75 petaflops, officially becoming the world’s fastest computer in 2009”. And yet the agency “is not satisfied with breaking the petaflop barrier. Its next goal is to reach exaflop speed, one quintillion (1018) operations a second, and eventually zettaflop (1021) and yottaflop.”

These speeds are phenomenal, and will potentially make mincemeat of the internet information flowing into NSA like so much water over the Niagara Falls. And just like the waterfall, it is difficult to see where privacy starts and anonymity ends. If the NSA is collecting data from American citizens alongside foreign internet users, then the time is fast approaching for a conversation about just how far Americans are willing to allow their security apparatus to reach to protect their society. As a civilian agency working for the good of the average United States citizen, the NSA is a servant of the people. It exists to protect them from all those who would do evil. The question is: how much protection do Americans want?

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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