Thursday, Apr 24, 2014
Columns

10 things you don't know about how the NSA spies on you


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Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian says "a lot more significant revelations" about America's colossal Orwellian surveillance state are coming down the pike - courtesy of the thousands of pages of classified documents he obtained from Edward Snowden, the heroic former CIA contractor.

In the meantime, we've got a pair of doozies to digest: Verizon's decision to turn over its the "metadata" - everything about every phone call (except the sound) to the NSA, and the PRISM program, under which the biggest Internet companies let the NSA read our emails, see our photos, even watch our Skype chats. Let's get some clarity on what's really going on with 10 things you probably don't know about the NSA scandals:

1. PRISM, not Verizon, is the bigger story. Government-aligned mainstream media outlets like The New York Times and NPR focus more on Verizon because it's less indefensible. "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," Obama says. PRISM, they keep saying, is targeted at "foreigners" so Americans shouldn't be angry about it. But.

2. PRISM really is directed at Americans. "Unlike the call data collection program, this program focuses on mining the content of online communication, not just the metadata about them, and is potentially a much greater privacy intrusion," notes Popular Mechanics.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress that the NSA does not collect "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans." "Not wittingly." As The New York Times said in an uncharacteristically bold post, this is a lie. The NSA collects the search histories, emails, file transfer records and actual live chats of every American. They store them in a data farm. Whenever the NSA wants to look at them, they can. But according to Clapper, this isn't "collecting." It's only "collecting" when they choose to read what they have.

3. President Obama should be impeached over this. Richard Nixon was. Or would have been, if he hadn't resigned. Obama, his top officials and his political surrogates have repeatedly and knowingly lied to us when they said the NSA didn't "routinely sweep up information about millions of Americans." He should go now. So should others who knew about this.

4. PRISM and other NSA spy programs are not approved by courts or by Congress. White House defenders say the surveillance - which is, remember, a comprehensive vacuuming up of the entire Internet, and of every phone call ever made - has been approved by the legislative and judicial branches, so there's nothing to worry about. But that isn't true. The "FISA court" is so secret that, until last week, no one had ever seen a document issued by it. It's not a real court.

Very few members of Congress were aware of the Verizon or PRISM programs before reading about them in the media.

5. There is no evidence that NSA spying keeps America safe. According to government officials, PRISM saved the New York City subways from being bombed in 2009. Actually, the alleged would-be terrorist was caught by old-fashioned detective work, not data-mining. There is zero evidence that the NSA has saved a single American from being blown up. Terrorism isn't enough of a danger to justify taking away the privacy rights of 320 million people.

6. This is not a post-9/11 thing. We're being told that PRISM and the latest Patriot Act-approved surveillance state excesses date back to post-9/11 "make us safe at any cost" paranoia. In fact, the NSA has been way up in your business long before that. Back in December 1998 the French newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur revealed the existence of a covert partnership between the NSA and 26 U.S. allies. "The power of the network, codenamed ECHELON, is astounding," the BBC reported in 1999. "Every international telephone call, fax, email, or radio transmission can be listened to by powerful computers capable of voice recognition."

7. Edward Snowden expects to be extradited. U.S. state media wonders aloud, "puzzled" at whistleblower Snowden's decision to go to Hong Kong, which routinely extradites criminal suspects to the United States. But Snowden's explanation is crystal clear. All you have to do is listen. "People who think I made a mistake in picking HK as a location misunderstand my intentions," he told a local newspaper. "I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality."

He's staying put because he wants to face trial in the U.S. And I doubt he'll cop a plea when he does. He wants a political hearing so he can put the system on trial.

8. Caught being evil - or collaborating with evil - Google and other tech companies are scared. And they should be. Consumers and businesses know now that when Big Brother comes calling, Big Tech doesn't do what they should do - protect their customers' privacy by calling their lawyers and fighting back.

9. Fifty-six percent of Americans trust the government's PRISM program, which the government repeatedly lied about. What people don't know should worry them. The data collected by the NSA isn't likely to stay locked up in Utah forever. Data wants to be free - and hackers have already proven they can access the NSA.

10. In the long run, the end of privacy will liberate us. Everyone (who isn't boring) has a dirty secret. The way things are going, all those secrets will be as out as Dan Savage - and just as happy and self-assured. Blackmail only works if most dirty secrets are hard to come by. But if everyone's got a nude photo online, the power of shame goes away as quickly as it does at a nudist colony.

Ted Rall's website is tedrall.com.

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