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Tomgram: Pratap Chatterjee, The Wild West of Surveillance

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The question Senator Ron Wyden asked on March 12th of last year was straightforward enough and no surprise for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.  He had been given it a day in advance of his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee and after he was done, Senator Wyden and his staff offered him a chance to "amend" his answer if he wished.  Did the National Security Agency, Wyden wanted to know, gather "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans"?  Being on that committee and privy to a certain amount of secret intelligence information, Wyden already knew the correct answer to the question.  Clapper, with a day to prepare, nonetheless answered, "No, sir.  Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly." 

That was a bald-faced lie, though Clapper would later term it the "least untruthful" thing he felt he could say.  As we now know, the NSA was, among many other things, gathering the phone "data" of every American and storing it for future use.  In other words, after some forethought, the director perjured himself.

Mind you, Clapper isn't exactly shy about charging other people with implicit crimes.  In recent testimony before Congress, he demanded that whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden "and his accomplices" return all agency documents.  It was a stunning use of a term whose only meaning is criminal and clearly referred to the journalists -- Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and reporters from the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among other papers -- who have been examining and writing about the Snowden documents.

It caught something of the chutzpah of the top officials who run Washington's national security state -- and little wonder that they feel emboldened and demanding.  After all, not only is Clapper not going to be charged with perjury, but he has retained his post without a blink.  He has kept the "support" of President Obama, who recently told CNN's Jake Tapper (in what passes these days for a rebuke of our surveiller-in-chief), "Jim Clapper himself would acknowledge, and has acknowledged, that he should have been more careful about how he responded."  More careful indeed!

I've long argued that while we, the citizens of the U.S., remain in legal America, the U.S. national security state exists in "post-legal America" because no illegal act from warrantless surveillance to torture committed in its service will ever be prosecuted. So it's no surprise that Clapper won't even be forced to resign for lying to Congress.  He's free as a bird and remains powerful indeed. Tell that to some of our whistleblowers.

In his latest post, TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee offers an anatomy of a surveillance world that grows more, not less, powerful and full of itself with every passing moment and technological advance, a national security world whose global ambitions know no bounds. Tom

Selling Your Secrets
The Invisible World of Software Backdoors and Bounty Hunters
By Pratap Chatterjee

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Imagine that you could wander unseen through a city, sneaking into houses and offices of your choosing at any time, day or night.  Imagine that, once inside, you could observe everything happening, unnoticed by others -- from the combinations used to secure bank safes to the clandestine rendezvous of lovers. Imagine also that you have the ability to silently record everybody's actions, whether they are at work or play without leaving a trace. Such omniscience could, of course, make you rich, but perhaps more important, it could make you very powerful.

That scenario out of some futuristic sci-fi novel is, in fact, almost reality right now.  After all, globalization and the Internet have connected all our lives in a single, seamless virtual city where everything is accessible at the tap of a finger. We store our money in online vaults; we conduct most of our conversations and often get from place to place with the help of our mobile devices. Almost everything that we do in the digital realm is recorded and lives on forever in a computer memory that, with the right software and the correct passwords, can be accessed by others, whether you want them to or not.

Now -- one more moment of imagining -- what if every one of your transactions in that world was infiltrated? What if the government had paid developers to put trapdoors and secret passages into the structures that are being built in this new digital world to connect all of us all the time? What if they had locksmiths on call to help create master keys for all the rooms? And what if they could pay bounty hunters to stalk us and build profiles of our lives and secrets to use against us?

Well, check your imagination at the door, because this is indeed the brave new dystopian world that the U.S. government is building, according to the latest revelations from the treasure trove of documents released by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Over the last eight months, journalists have dug deep into these documents to reveal that the world of NSA mass surveillance involves close partnerships with a series of companies most of us have never heard of that design or probe the software we all take for granted to help keep our digital lives humming along.

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There are three broad ways that these software companies collaborate with the state: a National Security Agency program called "Bullrun" through which that agency is alleged to pay off developers like RSA, a software security firm, to build "backdoors" into our computers; the use of "bounty hunters" like Endgame and Vupen that find exploitable flaws in existing software like Microsoft Office and our smartphones; and finally the use of data brokers like Millennial Media to harvest personal data on everybody on the Internet, especially when they go shopping or play games like Angry Birds, Farmville, or Call of Duty.

Of course, that's just a start when it comes to enumerating the ways the government is trying to watch us all, as I explained in a previous TomDispatch piece, "Big Bro is Watching You." For example, the FBI uses hackers to break into individual computers and turn on computer cameras and microphones, while the NSA collects bulk cell phone records and tries to harvest all the data traveling over fiber-optic cables. In December 2013, computer researcher and hacker Jacob Appelbaum revealed that the NSA has also built hardware with names like Bulldozer, Cottonmouth, Firewalk, Howlermonkey, and Godsurge that can be inserted into computers to transmit data to U.S. spooks even when they are not connected to the Internet.

"Today, [the NSA is] conducting instant, total invasion of privacy with limited effort," Paul Kocher, the chief scientist of Cryptography Research, Inc. which designs security systems, told the New York Times. "This is the golden age of spying."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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