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Security Tech: Google, the NSA, and Monitoring Everyone

By Mark Devlin

March 22, 2012

(In the mood for something a little lighter in terms of privacy and security? How about employers asking for—and in some cases, demanding—Facebook usernames and passwords from job applicants? Here’s a related piece at NetworkWorld, and it’s referred source, The Wall Street Journal.)

Google and Government? The Weirdness Continues.

There are rich companies, there are powerful companies, and there are rich and powerful companies. But how many of the rich and powerful companies get their own NASA runways, as well as parking spots for their custom wide-bodied 767-200 and two other jets? Okay, granted. It’s hardly free, and rich/powerful Google spends $1.3M/year to do so. That was back in 2007, according to this article in the New York Times. With inflation since then, we’ve got to be talking $2M/year. Any company can spend whatever they want. That’s capitalism. But NASA? That’s but one example of a curious private/government connection, to say the very least.

A couple of weeks ago, yet more fuel of paranoia was thrown on the Google-government fire. According to this article at BLT (The Blog of Legal Times, which covers ‘Law and Lobbying in the Nation’s Capital’)…

The Justice Department is defending the government's refusal to discuss—or even acknowledge the existence of—any cooperative research and development agreement between Google and the National Security Agency.

The Washington based advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center sued in federal district court here to obtain documents about any such agreement between the Internet search giant and the security agency.

Apparently, the NSA’s story involves the security of government systems. (Gee, thanks NSA. We’ve all seen how well that’s worked with continued, unbridled hacking and compromising of U.S. and international governments. Consider the Stratfor mess, for example. Here’s another good, related Stratfor story on CNet. Maybe the NSA could also help out the Vatican.)

Wait. It gets better.

NSA Chief: Monitoring Americans? Nah.

Wired, certainly one of the journalism’s most credible sources (in my book, anyway), ran this extensive story, on March 16, about the NSA’s new, still-under-construction spy center. It’s called the ‘country’s biggest’ yet. Here’s an overview clip…

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.

Since 9/11, it’s of course become top-priority to not only monitor terrorist communications, data transfers, files, etc., and also make America much more adept at breaking the related codes and encryption. I’m with ‘em, so far. Go, team.

It’s far too easy to question, though, how could they possibly catch those relatively few but exceedingly dangerous sharks without also wrongly netting a nation of smart, law-abiding dolphins?

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.

Wired continues, saying that this is the first time since Watergate ‘and other scandals of the Nixon administration’ that the NSA has aimed its surveillance weapons at U.S. citizens.


The Wired article is definitely worth your time, whether you’re simply interested as a citizen, paranoid as a citizen, want to protect Constitutional freedoms as a citizen, desire to uphold years worth of respectable privacy laws as a citizen, or if you’re simply a curious technologist or engineer.

Wait. It gets even better.

Wait for it…

‘NSA Chief Denies, Denies, Denies Wired’s Domestic Spying Story’

In this March 20th Wired follow-up story

Congressman Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, asked Alexander whether the NSA could, at the direction of Dick Cheney, identify people who sent e-mails making fun of his inability to hunt in order to waterboard them.

Alexander said “No,” adding that the “NSA does not have the ability to do that in the United States.” Elaborating, Alexander added: “We don’t have the technical insights in the United States. In other words, you have to have [...] some way of doing that either by going to a service provider with a warrant or you have to be collecting in that area. We’re not authorized to do that, nor do we have the equipment in the United States to collect that kind of information.”

(Yes, Johnson was snarky, unprofessional [in my opinion], and obviously political in his questioning, though the issues of technology and access remain valid.)

Here’s Alexander’s testimony before the House Armed Services subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities…

Alexander also said that not only is the NSA technologically incapable of monitoring Americans’ text messages, phone calls, and emails, but said—if such an approach were needed—it’d be up to the FBI ‘to take the lead and fill-out the paperwork.’ Here’s Wired’s response…

That’s an odd statement, since the process for targeting an American by the intelligence services is for the NSA to fill out the paperwork, submit it to the Justice Department and then send it to a secret court, according to statements by former Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell.

Alight. So, that begs the question, “So, what’s the purpose of the new, biggest-ever, $2B Utah Data Center?

“We don’t have the technical insights in the United States,” Alexander said, to do that.

…which then brings us back full-circle to Google, who has not only the emails, calendars, documents and, increasingly, social data, but certainly the technology to reveal any of that to anyone in government.

This story is compelling from so many angles: engineering, technology, costs, cross-aisle politics, national security, citizen and even business privacy…the list could go on and on.

Paranoid on my part? I don’t believe so. Shouldn’t we at least be asking the questions while expecting some answers? (After all, who funds this stuff? Taxpayers.) Political or partisan on my part? I don’t believe so. Both sides have clearly been complicit, regardless of focus group-spun speeches at podiums.

(As an industrial aside, government isn’t all bad. For example, it’s impressive that DHS was on top of Stuxnet when it potentially threatened U.S. manufacturing. Was Stuxnet invented here? Maybe. So, yes, DHS could’ve had a considerable head start.)

With so many people screaming about our Constitutional rights, freedoms, and privacy, I can’t help but wonder: How much remains to protect?

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