Victory means exit strategy, and it's important for the President to explain to us what the exit strategy is.    The Honorable Governor of Texas, George W. Bush

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.    Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, December 26, 2005

I'm Shocked, Shocked that Illegal Activity is Going On at the NSA

This, my friends, is what is has been euphamistically referred to recently as a wiretap. This is Menwith Hill, the busiest listening station in the world, located in Yorkshire, England. It's run by the NSA and the Army, and part of a worldwide listening project called ECHELON. The Yorkshire location is convenient to the UK terminus of transatlantic cables, and so what you see is only half the story. Virtually all of the UK's international and domestic wired communication passes through this base, where hundreds of mainframe computers utilize sophisticated software to "mine" intelligence, to automatically shift from monitor to targeter, and to transcribe voice to data and print.

There is much more to ECHELON, including similar sites in Sugar Grove, WV, and Yakima, Washington. these sites not only download information from spy satellites, but also are located very close to facilities that receive signals from major commercial communications satellites, the better to hear you with, my dears.

The goal is to monitor each and every domestic and overseas communication, and they're doing there damnest to get there.

Though there are others involved in ECHELON, it's primarily a US/UK deal, which is probably why the EU had enough concern to commission a study on ECHELON called REPORT on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system) (2001/2098(INI)). following is as excerpt:

Possible threats to privacy and to businesses posed by a system of the ECHELON type arise not only from the fact that is a particularly powerful monitoring system, but also that it operates in a largely legislation-free area. Systems for the interception of international communications are not usually targeted at residents of the home country. The person whose messages were intercepted would have no domestic legal protection, not being resident in the country concerned. Such a person would be completely at the mercy of the system. Parliamentary supervision would also be inadequate in this area, since the voters, who assume that interception only affects people abroad, would not be particularly interested in it, and elected representatives chiefly follow the interests of their voters. That being so, it is hardly surprising that the hearings held in the US Congress concerning the activities of the NSA were confined to the question of whether US citizens were affected by it, with no real concern expressed regarding the existence of such a system in itself. It thus seems all the more important to investigate this issue at European level.

The EU was understandably miffed when Airbus lost a big deal with the Saudis because it was the NSA who produced memos exposing how the Euros had used bribery to obtain the contract, and they came up with recommendations for EU businesses and citizens to use cryptography in their communications. Though public key encription (look it up) has raised the bar on governments' ability to decipher communications, no one can be certain that the hardware doesn't exist to do so.

On the private front though, let's focus on "...not usually targeted at residents of the home country." The way this works is that the US and UK have data on their own citizens collected on the other nation's soil, and then it's a simple matter to ship the data back and forth, essentially avoiding privacy law.

What does the NSA have to say about this. In "frequently asked questions" on their web site they respond:

We have been prohibited by executive order since 1978 from having any person or government agency, whether foreign or U.S., conduct any activity on our behalf that we are prohibited from conducting ourselves. Therefore, NSA/CSS does not ask its allies to conduct such activities on its behalf nor does NSA/CSS do so on behalf of its allies.

So, the NSA doesn't spy on US citizens, or British citizens, or Canadian citizens. The British don't spy on their own citizens. The Canadians don't spy on it's own citizens. Yet a highly automated ECHELON network has facilities in the US and Canada and Britain capable of intercepting billions of communications. The US installation in Yorkshire is connected to the trunk lines of the domestic BTA phone networks with fiber optic lines capable of transmitting 100,000 messages simultaneously and the largest American installations are positioned to intercept the earthbound beams of all telecom satellites handling American and Canadian phone calls. Are we to believe that all non-warranted domestic hits in this lot are simply ignored? Nobody is sharing anything within America, Canada, and Britain without a warrant?

The convenience of our modern communications has left us increasingly transparent, there is little privacy in it. We would be wise to examine this phenomenon as there may be little time left to affect a better compromise between security and privacy. Encryption, itself of unknown quality, will be useless in a legal environment that curtails it. Suspicious minds might suggest that the absence of legal aggression against public key encryption may hint of an existing ability to break it. Perhaps, if more people used public key encryption, the NSA would push for laws in the attempt to bluff us into thinking they can't crack it efficiently. All this spy versus spy stuff makes me dizzy.

This ECHELON stuff is old news already, yet we continue with this misled debate over orders issued by our President authorizing the NSA to do what it has obviously been doing all along.

There are two issues here, one partisan and one not. Bush did not invent Big Brother. He's been here a long time, and is maturing rapidly. We are being monitored, with increasing efficiency but with no more enthusiasm than under Clinton. The hits are there. What Bushco wants is to make hits legal without having to chase down a warrant.

And mind you, this also "legitimizes" non-security hits, mandating the NSA to turn them over to other enforcement agencies.

Lord knows, Bush is the last guy we want behind this wheel. But that's a different topic than whether the damn thing is just too big for the highway in the first place.


At 11:15 PM, Blogger bob said...

ABC Nightline had a great piece on this NSA activity tonight (Jan 10, 2006). If you can find it online, I think you'd really find it interesting. Its an interview from the first pseudo-whisleblower about what actually is going on.


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