Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Working in a data mine

So you think there's such a thing as a reasonable expectation of privacy anymore? If you do, James Bamford has some news for you.

In the current issue of Wired magazine, Mr. Bamford explores the new data mining facility being constructed by the NSA in a Utah desert and the world's fastest supercomputer housed in the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee. He also paints a haunting picture of just how much information our own government is collecting on its own citizens.
But “this is more than just a data center,” says one senior intelligence official who until recently was involved with the program. The mammoth Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is also critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.” 
In its never-ending quest to keep us safe from some unnamed enemy, the government has instituted a program by which the NSA is intercepting every telephone call, email, internet search, e-purchase and toll tag receipt in an attempt to data map the entire United States.

The facility being built in the Utah desert will be five times the size of the US Capitol. Its warehouses will store an ungodly amount of raw data that its supercomputers will sift through for patterns that will allow the NSA to decrypt encrypted messages and attempt to predict what the supposed terrorists will be up to next.

Of course the NSA's track record has been pretty abysmal. Despite their budget and high tech goodies, the NSA failed to predict either of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the attack on the USS Cole or the bombings of embassies in East Africa. But, what the hell, let's give them a few more billion dollars and lift the ban on domestic spying and see what they can do.

Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. 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.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy. 
Through agreements with AT&T and Verizon, the NSA collects data at switches across the United States. A special thanks should be due to all the iPhone and iPad users for their contribution to domestic spying.

The data mining raises questions about the fate of the Fourth Amendment as such an operation will render the reasonable expectation of privacy test all but moot. Los federales will be recording your phone calls, text messages and e-mails. The only safe avenues of communication will be face-to-face and by the old fashioned letter. If you know your communications are being captured, you can't say with a straight face that your expectation of privacy was reasonable.

More disturbing is the effect on lawyer-client confidentiality. Your phone calls with your client will be sitting in a database somewhere in Utah along with your email correspondence. And don't forget that supposedly secure remote teleconferencing you've been using. The all-knowing eye in the sky knows all.

You wanted the government to keep you safe from any potential danger anywhere in the world, no matter how remote or unlikely. Now you've got it. You traded your freedom for security. How does it feel? Somewhere along the line we've forgotten that the government is supposed to work for us. Instead, we have a government that's spying on us.

As Billy Joel once sang "This is what you wanted ain't you proud? / 'Cause everybody loves you now."

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