Obama and the Age of Surveillance

Obama and the Age of Surveillance

National Security Agency Headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. Source: NSA
National Security Agency Headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. Source: NSA

Today we're taking another step. I've signed an executive order that authorizes new sanctions against the Syrian government and Iran and those that abet them for using technologies to monitor and track and target citizens for violence . . . These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them.

So said US President Barack Obama during his speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum yesterday. They are noble words indeed. The Iranian and Syrian governments are some of the worst regimes in the world when it comes to internet censorship and electronic surveillance of political dissidents (besides, of course, the US' number one trading partner, China). Yet, the President's words come at a very peculiar time.

Barely a month ago, Wired magazine's James Bamford came out with an explosive exposé on the National Security Agency's (NSA) latest eavesdropping super-facility being built in Utah, with the ability to illegally monitor practically every electronic communication of both American citizens and foreign nationals.[1] And not one person has been tried or convicted for the NSA's illegal warrantless wiretapping program under the Bush administration. So how committed is the US, actually, to protecting political dissidents and free speech from abusive government surveillance?

The executive order signed by President Obama on Monday, April 23rd, is supposedly designed “primarily to address the need to prevent entities located in whole or in part in Iran and Syria from facilitating or committing serious human rights abuses.”[2] The order prohibits financial transactions with any persons or groups (exempting US government agents, of course) who operate “information and communications technology that facilitates computer or network disruption, monitoring, or tracking” enabling human rights abuses in Syria or Iran.

While those companies selling surveillance technologies to Syria and Iran would certainly include US firms as well as companies contracting with the US government, such as Siemens[3], BlueCoat[4], Cisco[5], Hewlett-Packard[6], and NetApp[7], it is unlikely any action will be taken due to their cozy relationship to the US intelligence community. And this doesn't even cover US companies, such as McAfee and Websense[8], helping oppressive regimes in other countries to monitor and track dissidents[9].

Whether or not the US follows through on its promise to impose sanctions on companies such as these, the fact that the US government itself has an extensive history, and present day practices, of criminal electronic surveillance of peaceful activists shows that its hypocrisy and doublespeak is so blatant as to be nothing short of Orwellian.

The US Surveillance State

The surveillance of peaceful activists by US intelligence agencies and security forces is nothing new. From the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., and military spying on Vietnam anti-war protest groups, to Maryland State Police surveillance of Baltimore anti-death penalty and peace groups four years ago[10], one consistency is the legal impunity with which state surveillance is done, regardless of the practices' legality.

Perhaps most well-known is the NSA's post-9/11 warrantless wiretapping program, which operated with approval from the Bush administration.[11][12] With the all-too-willing help of AT&T and Verizon, the NSA monitored the phone calls and emails of millions of American citizens, breaking a number of laws including the Pen Register Act and Stored Communications Act of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, the National Security Act of 1947, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.[13] When these criminal practices were brought to public attention, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, in effect legalizing the warrantless wiretapping and giving immunity from prosecution to the telecom providers that made it possible.[14]

Three months ago, the Supreme Court declared that the FBI's warrantless attachment of GPS tracking devices to someone's car constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, the US state surveillance apparatus is now turning to warrantless tracking of cell phone data.[15][16] A report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that of over 200 police departments surveyed, virtually all “said they track cell phones, [and] only a tiny minority reported consistently obtaining a warrant and demonstrating probable cause to do so.”[17] Also, despite the Supreme Court's ruling on warrantless GPS tracking of vehicles, over 19 states are using legal loopholes to continue the practice.[18]

Later that same month, several big websites made headlines for their highly-visible, and highly-effective, protests against the proposed legislation known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Sites around the country, including Google and Wikipedia, blacked out their websites in a coordinated day of action in order to bring attention to the issue. SOPA would have allowed the government to take down any website deemed as infringing or facilitating the infringement of copyright laws. Effectively, this would have allowed the government to censor the internet at the least provocation and without any evidence. The legislation was never passed.

This week in Congress, dubbed “Cybersecurity Week”, the House will be considering a bill known as the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). Although not exactly similar to SOPA, the bills share several of the same problems. Brock N. Meeks from Wired magazine describes the problems as:

  • An overly broad, almost unlimited definition of the information can be shared with government agencies. And because that info is shared “notwithstanding any law,” CISPA trumps any federal or state privacy law that currently prohibits disclosure.
  • Enactment is likely to lead to expansion of the government’s role in the monitoring of private communications.
  • It could shift control of government cybersecurity efforts from civilian agencies to the NSA.
  • It creates a backdoor wiretap program because the information shared with the government isn’t limited to just cybersecurity, but could also be used for other purposes, such as law enforcement or by intelligence agencies.[19]

The US government's latest assault on privacy and free speech came just six days ago, when Federal authorities raided a New York computer server facility shared by activist groups Riseup Networks and May First/People Link. The FBI seized a server run by the European Counter Network, which was used to host an anonymous remailer service. Remailers are “important for corporate whistle blowers, democracy activists working under repressive regimes, and others to communicate vital information that would otherwise go un-reported.”[20]

According to the Riseup press release, “over 300 email accounts, between 50-80 email lists, and several other websites” used by “academics, artists, historians, feminist groups, gay rights groups, community centers, documentation and software archives and free speech groups” were taken offline by the seizure. Although the FBI claims the remailer server was used to send bomb threats to the University of Pittsburgh, Riseup claims the FBI knew that the server collected no identifiable information of its users. This shows the raid was not done to aid the investigation, but rather to intimidate and punish activists who run such online anonymity services. According to Riseup member Devin Theriot-Orr, “This is plainly extra-judicial punishment and an attack on free speech and anonymity on the internet and serves as a chilling effect on others providers of anonymous remailers or other anonymous services.”

In the Shadow of the Juggernaut

The massively growing US state surveillance apparatus can best be understood by looking at one agency in particular: the NSA. In recent years, the NSA's global network of facilities has increased dramatically. Two new facilities to recently open are the $358 million CAPT Joseph J. Rochefort Building at NSA Hawaii, and the 604,000-square-foot John Whitelaw Building at NSA Georgia.[21] One of the NSA's many foreign eavesdropping facilities, in Yorkshire, England, recently got a $68 million expansion. And in Fort Meade, Maryland, the NSA is getting a $2 billion, 1.8-million-square-foot expansion to its headquarters, including a cybercommand complex and a new supercomputer center expected to cost nearly $1 billion.

But most ominous of all is a $2 billion, 1-million-square-foot facility being built in the middle of the Utah desert. Serving as a massive data “black hole” of sorts, the so-called Utah Data Center will likely be the world's largest data collection facility when it opens in September of 2013. According to James Bamford's recent exposé in Wired magazine[22], which I highly recommend reading, “Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital 'pocket litter.'”

Most worrisome is that this new facility will be used to extend to unprecedented levels the NSA's (unconstitutional) practices of monitoring the electronic communications of American citizens. An unnamed top NSA official interviewed by Bamford said, “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.” Able to process, monitor, and record an unfathomably large amount of communication data in real time in the US and globally (on the order of trillions of gigabytes), the facility's similarity to Big Brother from George Orwell's 1984 becomes less and less rhetorical, and more disturbingly factual.

An over 30-year veteran of the NSA William Binney, now turned whistleblower, told Bamford that the software running the NSA's mammoth eavesdropping program was “created by a company called Narus that’s now part of Boeing, is controlled remotely from NSA headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland and searches US sources for target addresses, locations, countries, and phone numbers, as well as watch-listed names, keywords, and phrases in email.” If any of the communication intercepted seems suspicious, says Binney, all communications to and from that person are then automatically recorded, stored, and analyzed.

Freedom Fighters—Who Gets to Decide?

Whistleblowers like Binney, of course, are now being targeted for punishment and retribution by the US government. The Obama administration has stepped up the attack on whistleblowers more than any of his predecessors, and with a vengeance. In 2007, Binney's house was raided and he was held at gunpoint.[23] Private Bradley Manning, accused of leaking information to Wikileaks, has been subjected to “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” treatment, according to a report by the United Nations special rapporteur on torture.[24] Other anonymity and free speech activists have been routinely targeted, harassed, detained, and electronically surveilled by government agents.[25]

And yet, here we are, listening to the moral pontification of President Obama, condemning the electronic surveillance of dissidents in Syria and Iran and claiming solidarity with their fight for self-determination.

To be fair, the US government has given significant contributions to the research and development of free speech and anonymity technologies, such as the Tor Project.[26] Technologies created and fostered by the US government have been invaluable in the fight for freedom all around the globe. After all, it was the US military that created the precursor to the internet, called ARPANET.

But without the ability to be accountable for its own crimes, and to protect the rights of those in opposition to its own policies, the US continues its greatest tradition of hypocrisy. The Obama administration lifts up the struggles of those fighting its enemies with one hand, while attacking those who speak up about injustices of US-sponsored regimes with the other. All the while, it is slowly and secretly building up its omni-present police state at home.

At one point during his speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, President Obama spoke words that resonated with everyone listening, especially considering the context of his speech: “Awareness without action changes nothing. In this sense, 'never again' is a challenge to us all -- to pause and to look within.”

I wonder, however, just what exactly President Obama would see if he were to look within.



If you're interested in learning more about counter-surveillance technologies and measure you can take to protect your privacy, be sure to come to my workshop "Privacy and Security Technologies for Activists: An Antidote to Government and Corporate Surveillance" at this year's Mobilizing and Organizating from Below Conference in Baltimore, June 1-3.  More information can be found at http://mobconf.org.

[1] http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/
[2] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/04/23/executive-order-blocking-property-and-suspending-entry-united-states-cer
[3] http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,826860,00.html
[4] http://anoncentral.tumblr.com/post/13551487387/us-and-european-firms-help-syrian-regime-spy-on
[5] http://www.tnr.com/article/world/101732/syria-spyware-surveillance-revolution-assad-activists-human-rights
[6] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-18/hewlett-packard-computers-underpin-syria-electonic-surveillance-project.html
[7] http://www.theatlanticwire.com/technology/2012/04/obamas-new-tech-sanctions-could-hit-home/51470/
[8] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704438104576219190417124226.html
[9] http://wikileaks.org/the-spyfiles.html
[10] http://www.aclu.org/national-security/aclu-maryland-lawsuit-uncovers-maryland-state-police-spying-against-peace-and-anti
[11] https://www.eff.org/issues/nsa-spying
[12] http://wiredpen.com/resources/political-commentary-and-analysis/warrantless-wiretapping-a-timeline/
[13] http://www.democracynow.org/2012/4/20/exclusive_national_security_agency_whistleblower_william
[14] http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/
[15] http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/04/mobile-carriers-object/
[16] http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/feds-move-to-cell-site-data/
[17] http://www.aclu.org/protecting-civil-liberties-digital-age/cell-phone-location-tracking-public-records-request
[18] http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/04/dea-use-of-gps-tracker/
[19] http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/04/opinion-meeks-cispa-cyber/
[20] https://help.riseup.net/en/seizure-2012-april
[21] http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/04/shady-companies-nsa/
[22] http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/
[23] http://www.democracynow.org/2012/4/20/exclusive_national_security_agency_whistleblower_william
[24] http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/manning-treatment-inhuman/
[25] http://www.democracynow.org/shows/2012/4/20
[26] https://www.torproject.org

Daniel Staples

Daniel is a collective member of the Indypendent Reader.  His interests include technology, feminism, sexuality, economics, and music.  Daniel has a Master's degree in Women's and Gender Studies from Towson University, and develops mesh network technology at the Open Technology Institute.  He maintains the Indyreader website.

Reach him by e-mail at dan.indyreader[at]riseup.net, or follow him on twitter @0xDanarky.