National Uproar: A Comprehensive Overview of the NSA Leaks and Revelations
I am finding it difficult to keep up with the flood of reports in my little free time, while still finding the time to brush up on relevant history. My hope is to provide a summary of recent events and additional background—along with a plethora of references—that will allow the reader to perform further research and to formulate educated, personal opinions on the topics. If you do not care for my commentary, simply scroll to the list of references at the bottom of this article.
Many individuals and organizations have long warned of digital privacy issues, but there has been one agency in particular that has been the subject of much scrutiny—the National Security Agency (NSA), which is a United States government agency that has a long history of controversial spying tactics on its country’s own citizens. It is a chilling topic—one that can easily make any person sound like they’ve latched onto an Orwellian conspiracy.
Wednesday, June 5th, 2013—the Guardian newspaper publishes a leaked document6 ordering Verizon to
[…] produce to the National Security Agency (NSA) upon service of this Order, and continue production on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this Order, […] an electronic copy of the following tangible things: all call detail records or “telephony metadata” created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls. [emphasis added]
The order goes on to describe “telephony metadata” to include routing information, source and destination telephone numbers, IMSI and IMEI numbers, and time and duration of the call; it “does not include the substantive content of any communication”—the communication content itself. This order was issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) under section 215 of the Patriot Act. (This news comes less than three months after United States District Judge Susal Illston ruled NSA Letters’ gag provisions unconstitutional.)
This report caused a massive uproar, but came as no surprise to many security researchers and privacy advocates. Early last year, Wired released an article stating that the NSA “Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center”. Privacy concerns were raised in November of last year by the Petraeus scandal. In March of this year, Google released figures showing that the NSA is secretly spying on some of its customers. Two months later, outrage after the Associated Press discovers that the Justice Department collected the calling records of many of its reporters and editors. Additionally, the EFF already had cases against the NSA’s actions—Jewel v. NSA and Hepting v. AT&T both focus on unconstitutional dragnet surveillance of innocent citizens’ data and communications. These cases will be explored in further detail throughout this article.
But the chaos didn’t end there.
Thursday, June 6th, 2013—just one day after the Guardian reported on the leaked Verizon order, the newspaper reports on a leaked slideshow describing PRISM, a top-secret program that "claims direct access to servers of firms including Google, Apple and Facebook. According to the leaked document, the NSA supposedly has the ability to collect material including e-mail, chat, video and voice communications, photos, stored data and more.. Responses from most companies was immediate. In a blog post entitled “What that…?”, Larry Page—Google’s CEO—put very plainly that Google does not participate in such a program and denied any knowledge of PRISM:
First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday. Second, we provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law. –Larry Page, Google CEO
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook also denied involvement, calling such claims “outrageous” and encouraging governments to be “much more transparent about all programs aimed at keep the public safe”:
I want to respond personally to the outrageous press reports about PRISM: Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn’t even heard of PRISM before yesterday. […] We strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe. It’s the only way to protect everyone’s civil liberties and create the safe and free society we all want over the long term. –Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO
Indeed, all companies eventually denied involvement with PRISM.
Friday, June 7th, 2013—Two days after the initial Verizon report and one day after the publishing of portions of the PRISM documents, the White House responded to the Guardian reports with President Obama defending his administration. Unfortunately, given the history of the NSA surveillance programs—especially since the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks—it may be difficult to believe that his words are the whole truth. As such, we will use portions of his transcript to guide the remainder of this discussion.
Jackie Calmes: Mr. President, could you please react to the reports of secret government surveillance of phones and Internet? And can you also assure Americans that the government — your government doesn’t have some massive secret database of all their personal online information and activity?
Obama: […] Now, the programs that have been discussed over the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they’re classified, but they’re not secret in the sense that when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program.
With respect to all these programs, the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs. These are programs that have been authorized by broad, bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006. And so I think at the outset, it’s important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we’re doing.
There are some important notes regarding the phrasing of the President’s statement. Firstly, it is important to note that the President is confirming the existence of the programs that “have been discussed over the last couple days in the press”—that is, the Verizon FISA Court order and the PRISM leak. However, it is also important to take a step back and note that the President did not state outright that the reports tell the whole—or even the correct—story. So what do we know?
On June 6th—a day before the White House responded to the leaks—the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper declassified certain information pertaining to the “business records” provision of FISA, stating, “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”. This statement mentions that:
Although this program has been properly classified, the leak of one order, without any context, has created a misleading impression of how it operates. […] The program does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone’s phone calls. The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the identity of any subscriber. The only type of information acquired under the Court’s order is telephony metadata, such as telephone numbers dialed and length of calls.
The term “telephony metadata” could mean anything; the “numbers dialed” and “length of calls” are part of it, but what does the Court order specifically request?
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that [Verizon] shall produce to the [NSA] […], and continue production on an ongoing daily basis […] for the duration of this Order, […] all call detail records or “telephony metadata” […]. Telephony metadata includes comprehensive communications routing information, including but not limited to […] originating and terminating telephone number, […] International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, International Mobile station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, […] trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of call. Telephony metadata does not include the substantive content of any communication […], or the name, address, or financial information of a subscriber or customer. –FISA Court order
The President made this point very clear:
Obama: When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program’s about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism. If these folks — if the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they’ve got to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation. So I want to be very clear. Some of the hype that we’ve been hearing over the last day or so — nobody’s listening to the content of people’s phone calls.
The EFF provides compelling arguments as to why metadata is important to our privacy. One such example: “They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don’t know what was discussed.” The EFF further states, “the government has given no assurances that this data will never be correlated with other easily obtained data”. So, while the President may try reassuring us by stating that “they’ve got to go back to a federal judge”, he certainly does not make it clear that they may already have enough information without having to do so—from this supposedly non-content metadata. They do not need to subpoena the phone company for the name or address of the individual in most cases, as reverse telephone directories are readily available. With that, they then have the names of yourself, everyone you have called and GPS data.
Another argument worthy of strong consideration is posed by Daniel J. Solove—what if the government is wrong about your intentions? How can you go about correcting incorrect data if its very existence is hidden from the public?
What if the government leaks the information to the public? What if the government mistakenly determines that based on your pattern of activities, you’re likely to engage in a criminal act? What if it denies you the right to fly? What if the government thinks your financial transactions look odd—even if you’ve done nothing wrong—and freezes your accounts? What if the government doesn’t protect your information with adequate security, and an identity thief obtains it and uses it to defraud you?
These are serious questions. Even if you—the reader—are of the type that sates “I don’t care; I have nothing to hide”, then consider that, despite the government’s best efforts to secure and protect the data, it could possibly fall prey to enemies of the United States. Consider that the Chinese cracked into Pentagon systems, taking “designs for more than two dozen major weapon systems used by the United States military”.
Of course, we are now assuming that that the NSA is (a) operating in accordance with the Court order with respect to the privacy of communications content and (b) that the President’s statement is not intentionally omitting projects that do warrantlessly wiretap innocent Americans’ communications. Historically, the NSA has not given us reason to entertain either of these thoughts.
January 31, 2006—Hepting v. AT&T; the EFF files a case suing AT&T on behalf of its customers for “violating privacy law by collaborating with the NSA in the massive, illegal program to wiretap and data-min Americans’ communications”. This case included “undisputed evidence” from former AT&T technician Mark Klein showing that AT&T routed a copy of all Internet traffic to an NSA-controlled room in San Francisco:
Through the “splitter cabinet,” the content of all of the electronic voice and data communications going across the Peering Links […] was transferred from the WorldNet Internet room’s fiber optical circuits into the [NSA-controlled] SG3 Secure Room […] including such equipment as Sun servers and Juniper (M40e and M160) “backbone” routers. The list also included a Narus STA 6400, which is a “Semantic Traffic Analyzer.”
That is—allegedly, AT&T indiscriminately passed all of the traffic passing through its San Francisco facility into the NSA-controlled “SG3 Secure Room” where the NSA performed their own filtering, storage and analysis however they pleased. This is an astounding accusation. Additionally, Klein further states that “other such `splitter cabinets’ were being installed in other cities, including Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego”.
Unfortunately, Hepting was dealt a fatal blow in July 2008 when both the government and AT&T were awarded retroactive immunity by the FISA Amendments Act (FAA). This startling turn was signed by President Bush in response to the EFF’s court victories in the case and “allows the Attourney General to require the dismissal of the lawsuits over the telecoms’ participation in the warrantless surveillance program”. The case was dismissed in June 2009 and dozens of other lawsuits.
Fortunately, the battle is not over. The EFF then filed Jewel v. NSA which directly targets the “NSA and other government agencies on behalf of AT&T customers to stop the illegal unconstitutional and ongoing dragnet surveillance of their communications and communications records”. This case was too based on the testimony of Klein. Additionally, the EFF had declarations of William Binney, Thomas Drake and Kirk Wiebe—three NSA whistleblowers. Most interesting (and damning) for the purposes of our discussion is the Summary of Voluminous Evidence.
I have served on the Intelligence Committee for over a decade and I wish to deliver a warning this afternoon. When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted [the business records provision of FISA], they are going to be stunned and they are going to be angry.1 –Senator Ron Wyden
Note that the Senator is referring to precisely the same provision—business records—that was partly declassified by James Clapper on Thursday. Of course, we are assuming that the NSA decides to go to the FISA Court for permission; this apparently has not always been the case.
According to the summary of evidence, the NSA stated:
To perform both its offensive and defensive mission, NSA must “live on the network.” [The program would be] a powerful and permanent presence on a global telecommunications infrastructure where protected American communications and targeted adversary communications will coexist.
This certainly shares some similarities with the Verizon case. But FISA stood in the way of this goal; John Yoo explains why FISA was insufficient for such a dragnet operation:
[U]nder existing laws like FISA, you have to have the name of somebody, have to already suspect that someone’s a terrorist before you can get a warrant. […] it doesn’t allow you as a government to use judgment based on probability to say: “[…] there’s a high probability that some of those calls are terrorist communications. But we don’t know the names of the people making those calls.” You want to get at those phone calls, those e-mails, but under FISA you can’t do that.2 –Jon Yoo
After the September 11th attacks, “FISA ceased to be an operative concern”. If that statement sounds unsettling, that is because it is; President Bush subsequently authorized the NSA to “conduct electronic surveillance within the United States” without an order from the FISA Court (FISC). General Hayden phrased it as such: the program “is a more […] `aggressive’ program than would be traditionally available under FISA”.3 What—if anything—does this mean about any current NSA operations (including the Verizon order)? If Bush is able to authorize such actions, what is to say that Obama will not (and has not)?
Let us return to the statements from both Clapper and Obama stating that “nobody is listening to the content of your phone calls”. We can certainly hope that this is the case, but we shall continue to draw from evidence in the Jewel v. NSA case to see what the NSA has done in the past.
It was the biggest legal mess I’ve ever encountered.4 –Jack Goldsmith, Justice Department’s Office of Legal Consel
The program operated “in lieu of” court orders.5 Even more alarming (if such a thing is possible), “neither the President nor Attorney General approved the specific interceptions; rather, the decision to listen or read particular communications was made by intelligence analysts”; the only authorization needed was by an NSA “shift supervisor”.6 So, let’s reiterate:
Obama: If these folks — if the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they’ve got to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation.
It may very well be that Obama is being truthful within context of the Verizon order; perhaps they have learned from their mistakes with the AT&T dragnet. Unfortunately, their secrecy is making it very difficult for the public to make an informed analysis of the matter.
Ultimately, it is believed that Attorney General Comey’s initial certifications of the program were “based on a misimpression of those activities” due to a botched legal analysis by Jon Yoo that was described as “at a minimum […] factually flawed”. Yoo was the only OLC official to read into the program since its inception in October 2001 until his leaving in May 2003. When Comey refused to reauthorize the program, Bush did so himself, resulting in threats of resignation from Comey and “about two dozen Bush appointees”. However, “[d]espite the illegality of the Program, no officials resigned.”.
In 2009, the New York Times published a series of articles regarding the program, exposing a “serious issue involving the NSA” concerning “significant misconduct”. This included a “`flagrant’ overcollection of domestic email”.
Because each court order could single out hundreds or even thousands of phone numbers or e-mail addresses, the number of individual communications that were improperly collected could number in the millions, officials said.
That was then; this is now, right? How can we be sure of any connection between the NSA of a decade ago vs. the NSA of today? Well, as an average citizen with no security clearance, I can’t. However, there are some important connections that can be made. Firstly, recall Ron Wyden’s quote above stating that the public will be “stunned” and “angry”.7 On Thursday, June 6th, he released this statement on his Senate website:
The program Senators Feinstein and Chambliss publicly referred to today is one that I have been concerned about for years. I am barred by Senate rules from commenting on some of the details at this time. However, I believe that when law-abiding Americans call their friends, who they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information. Collecting this data about every single phone call that every American makes every day would be a massive invasion of Americans’ privacy. –Senator Ron Wyden
Perhaps the most obvious and direct connection is that the government asked for more time in Jewel v. NSA (and Shubert v. Obama) in light of the NSA revelations.
The revelations not only confirmed what EFF has long alleged, they went even further and honestly, we’re still reeling. EFF will, of course, be continuing its efforts to get this egregious situation addressed by the courts.
[…] EFF and others had long alleged that, despite the rhetoric surrounding the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act, the government was still vacuuming up the records of the purely domestic communications of millions of Americans. And yesterday, of course, with the Verizon order, we got solid proof.. And it appears that the reach of this vacuum goes much further, into the records of our Internet service providers as well. –Electronic Frontier Foundation
This brings us back to PRISM. Numerous sources reported that the White House confirmed its existence. Indeed, if you consider the President’s original words— “the programs that have been discussed over the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they’re classified”—this does seem to be a verification of the project’s existence. However, confusion ensued when companies like Google and Facebook denied involvement, despite what the leaked information seems to state. Yonatan Zunger—chief architect at Google—reiterated the words of Larry Page:
I can also tell you that the suggestion that PRISM involved anything happening directly inside our datacenters surprised me a great deal; owing to the nature of my work at Google over the past decade, it would have been challenging – not impossible, but definitely a major surprise – if something like this could have been done without my ever hearing of it. And I can categorically state that nothing resembling the mass surveillance of individuals by governments within our systems has ever crossed my plate. –Yonatan Zunger, Chief Architect, Google
Questions then arose as to what exactly “PRISM” is. Marc Ambinder with The Week reported that PRISM is nothing more than one of many different “data collection tools” that may be used by the NSA. One day later, Marc posted another article entitled “Solving the mystery of PRISM”
Each data processing tool, collection platform, mission and source for raw intelligence is given a specific numeric signals activity/address designator, or a SIGAD. […] PRISM is US-984XN. Each SIGAD is basically a collection site, physical or virtual; […] PRISM is a kick-ass GUI that allows an analyst to look at, collate, monitor, and cross-check different data types provided to the NSA from internet companies located inside the United States.
Others hypothesized that, due to the denial of involvement from various companies, PRISM may operate by intercepting communications. The Guardian countered by releasing another slide from the leaked presentation, stating outright that “[b]oth of these theories appear to be contradicted by internal NSA documents”.
It clearly distinguishes Prism, which involves data collection from servers, as distinct from four different programs involving data collection from “fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past”.
This sounds a great deal like Klein’s description of the SG3 Secure Room at AT&T (though I do not intend to imply that they are the same thing—that is not clear, nor does Klien state that he ever noted the word “PRISM” on any documents). The Guardian goes on to state that “[a] far fuller picture of the exact operation of Prism […] is expected to emerge in the coming weeks and months”. (Is that foreshadowing or an educated guess?)
There is, of course, the other obvious hypothesis—that organizations including Google, Facebook and Microsoft are being deceptive or not telling the whole truth. Alternatively, maybe such operations were being done under the noses of executives. On Friday, the New York Times published an article stating that the technology companies “cooperated at least a bit”.
[Google, Micorsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL, Apple and Paltalk] were legally required to share the data under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. […] But instead of adding a back door to their servers, the companies were essentially asked to erect a locked mailbox and give the government the key, people briefed on the negotiations said. Facebook, for instance, built such a system for requesting and sharing the information, they said.
This does not necessarily mean that these companies had any knowledge, specifically, of “PRISM”. As the Guardian said, I will be curious to see what information surfaces in the coming months; the gag provisions of the orders make for an unfortunate situation for everyone involved.
Let us return to the President’s statements.
Obama: And I welcome this debate. And I think it’s healthy for our democracy. I think it’s a sign of maturity, because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate.
This is a difficult debate to have, Mr. President, when the public does not know of the existence of these programs; we only have knowledge of these programs due to the aforementioned leaks—courageous individuals who feel that their government is not representative of the democracy and freedom that it supposedly represents. This segues into another statement from the President:
Jackie Calmes: Do you welcome the leak, sir? Do you welcome the leak if you welcome the debate?
Obama: I don’t—I don’t welcome leaks, because there’s a reason why these programs are classified. […] But that’s also why we’ve set up congressional oversight. These are the folks you all vote for as your representative in Congress, and they’re being fully briefed on these programs.
Unfortunately, Obama seems to have missed another critical fact. We—the people—vote for representatives that, well, “represent” the issues that we care about. Those who are strongly opposed to gun legislation will vote for those representatives that share those feelings and will fight to oppose such legislation. Similarly, a pro-life supporter will probably not vote for a candidate in favor of abortion. But what if there is a candidate that shares one opinion but not another—say, opposes gun regulation but supports abortion, when you as a voter are a pro-life gun-owner against gun legislation? Then you will likely vote for the issues that you feel most strongly about (or what you feel is a fair balance between all the other issues you follow). The problem here, Mr. President, is that we—the people—are not made aware of these issues because they are classified. How many people may not have voted for you, Mr. President, had they known that you would support dragnet surveillance of innocent Americans?
Sunday, June 9th, 2013—The Guardian continues to surprise the world by releasing the name of the NSA whistleblower at his request. Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant and current defense contractor employee is responsible for what The Guardian is calling “the biggest intelligence leak in the NSA’s history”. Reporting from Hong Kong—where Snowden fled to on May 20th in the hope of resisting the U.S. government—Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras report on his motives.
Three weeks ago, Snowden made final preparations […] [a]t the NSA office in Hawaii where he was working, [copying] the last set of documents he intended to disclose.
Snowden describes situations where he began to begin questioning his government, such as a case where a CIA operative purposely encouraged a Swiss banker to get intoxicated and drive drunk so that he would be arrested. “Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world.” He mentioned that the election of Obama in 2008 gave him hope for reform, but watched in 2009 as “Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in. […] I got hardened.”
It is this statement from Snowden that, if accurate, suggests that Obama not only supports Bush’s initial dragnet operation, but has further expanded it.
At this point, since the news is still quite young at the time that this article was written, the world must wait to see what action the government will attempt to take against Snowden. Reuters had already reported the previous day that the government is likely to open a criminal probe into the NSA leaks.
James Clapper, the director of U.S. national intelligence, condemned the leaks and asserted that the news articles about PRISM contained “numerous inaccuracies.”
Snowden is not the first to come forward as a whistleblower from the NSA—as we discussed previously, three NSA whistleblowers came fourth previously to back the EFF in Jewel v. NSA; they each had the charges either cleared or dropped. That said, Obama has been aggressively pursuing whistleblowers. Snowden mentioned that he views his best hope of freedom as the possibility of asylum with Iceland. It appears that such may already be working in his favor, with Iclandic Legislator Birgitta Jonsdottir already starting the process to apply for asylum, although it is not clear if Snowden has already applied.
There is a great deal to think about. Even though the evidence against the NSA dates far back, the recent revelations invoke emotions that are difficult to describe. With countless individuals working to sift through the information, the Obama administration under attack and nobody knowing if the Guardian is sitting on even more information, the entire world will continue to watch impatiently…and act.
While all this is going on, it would be useful to reiterate certain privacy and security topics that have already been covered at large. Firstly, consider checking out the EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense website, which contains information on a number of topics including anonymity and how to respond to court orders. Consider using Tor for anonymity online (but recognize that it is not a full solution in itself). Consider keeping your data to yourself rather than storing it on “cloud” services—Richard Stallman explains how Software as a Service (SaaS) differs in dangers from proprietary software. Consider using only free software to limit further sacrifices in personal freedom and to limit the information that corporations and third parties collect from you while using your computer and other devices. Finally, if you have information that you want to leak to the press (whether or not you are an NSA employee), you may be able to consider tools such as The New Yorker’s Strongbox; it uses software created by Aaron Swartz shortly before his untimely death early this year.
Finally, aid senators like Rand Paul in developing legislation to curb the powers of the government. We must also do our best to fight for the rights of brave whistleblowers like Snowden. To end with the words of the EFF, “we need a new church committee and we need it now”.
Ibid. 157 Cong. Rec. S3372–3402, S3386 (May 26, 2011) [Vol. VI, Ex. 111, p. 4286] (Statement of Sen. Ron Wyden, On Patriot Act Reauthorization)↩︎
Ibid. PBS Frontline, Spying on the Homefront, Interview with John C. Yoo at 4 (Jan. 10, 2007) [Vol. I, Ex. 10, p. 394]↩︎
Ibid. Press Briefing by Att’y Gen. Alberto Gonzalez and Gen. Michael Hayden, Principal Dep. Dir. for Nat’l Intelligence (Dec. 19, 2005)↩︎
Ibid. Preserving the Rule of Law in the Fight Against Terror: Hearing before the S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 110th Cong. 7 (Oct. 2, 2007) [Vol. III, Ex. 42, p. 1307] (testimony of Jack Goldsmith)↩︎
Ibid. Press Briefing by Att’y Gen. Alberto Gonzalez and Gen. Michael Hayden, Principal Dep. Dir. for Nat’l Intelligence (Dec. 19, 2005)↩︎
Ibid. Remarks by Gen. Michael Hayden, Address to the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. (Jan. 23, 2006) [Vol. IV, Ex. 73, p. 1809]↩︎
Ibid. 157 Cong. Rec. S3372–3402, S3386 (May 26, 2011) [Vol. VI, Ex. 111, p. 4286] (Statement of Sen. Ron Wyden, On Patriot Act Reauthorization)↩︎