09 June 2013


Geek Time


If you’re the NSA, the largest and most well funded digital security agency in the world, and you have to spy on hundreds of millions of your own citizens – a task too complicated, both technically and legally, for you to carry out by yourself; who’s the only friend you have both talented and trustworthy enough to help you carry it out; Habibi, do you really have to ask? Israel of course.

After reports in both The Washington Post and The Guardian, exposed an NSA program called PRISM, which has been mining the flow of raw data from U.S. citizen communications over the networks of 4 major telecom providers and 9 of the worlds largest tech giants, questions arose on how the NSA was able to accomplish this task legally, without forcing the companies in question to voluntarily fork over their user data.

Director of National Intelligence and Chief of the spooky geeks, James Clapper, in an effort to quell the brewing media storm, declassified and released details about PRISM and its operating principles, stating that actions regarding PRISM were taken with “approval from a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) judge and [were] conducted with the knowledge of the provider and service providers [who] supply information when they are legally required to do so.”

Two problems with this: One, the ‘F’ in FISA stands for Foreign, not Domestic, so how was the NSA able to legally spy on hundreds of millions of communications originating from U.S. residents? Two, all the companies in question have issued statements categorically denying any involvement in the voluntary transfer of anything to the NSA. Something smells rotten in Maryland. How’d you do it Clapper?

One theory that’s been gaining traction as of late, on how the NSA got around those pesky little things called laws, is that they outsourced the project to Israel. In an April of 2012 piece in Wired magazine, James Bamford reported that two Israeli companies, Narus and Verint, both with extensive links to Israel’s elite intelligence unit known as the 8200, have provided hardware and software services to U.S. telecom companies on behalf of the NSA.

OK, so they provided some ‘services’, but that could be anything. Maybe they stocked their vending machines with chumos? Besides, plenty of companies must have provided services to these telecom giants over the years. Who’s to say it was specifically Israel who provided the technology that allowed for the NSA to spy on its own citizens?

Well, according to a former Verizon employee turned whistleblower, Verizon had been using Verint technologies to tap their lines, while AT&T whistleblower, Mark Klein, claimed that his former employer had secret rooms, powered by Narus, designed to vacuum up Internet and phone-call data from ordinary Americans, with the cooperation of AT&T, [gasp]. OK, guilty.

Now, consider the fact that Israel has provided the NSA with state-of-the-art eavesdropping and filtering technology, and combine it with the knowledge that the NSA is currently constructing a $2B facility in the Utah desert, capable of storing and filtering Yottabytes worth of information (or a trillion terabytes, or as I like to think of it, a Jedi master’s worth of bytes), should American citizens be worried that their private lives are being spied upon?

Take it from us Israelis, who have been living with this for some time now, when we say: No, they shouldn’t be.

First off, it’s time to wake up to the reality that everything we do or say in cyberspace (unless you go darknet) is being recorded by someone, somewhere. If it’s not the government, it’s Google, or Amazon or Verizon. Second, the amount of information we’re talking about here, is way too big for the government to actually look at on an individual basis, even if they wanted to. There simply aren’t enough cumulative man hours to go through the data. So no, there are no human eyes looking at what we users do.  What the government can, and does do, is datamine the information for an extremely specific subset of red flags that alerts them as to when a piece of information is worth designating a pair of human eyes to give it a once over. Assuming you’re not surfing the jihad message boards, looking for stimulating, and strictly intellectual conversations on the merits of various brands of fertilizer that offer discounted rates when bought by the ton, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will mistakenly flag your personal communications for human review.

Yes, the Obama administration has overseen some major government abuses lately, like the ongoing IRS scandal, where non-profit requests were filtered and given over to added scrutiny based on political beliefs. But that situation was dealing with cases where people specifically sent in forms to be reviewed directly by human IRS representatives. No terrorists are submitting terror requests to the NSA for review. The NSA has to mine their own information. There’s no way the NSA has the human bandwidth to deal properly with all foreign and domestic digital communication on the sole matter of terror, let alone dividing their efforts for some other nefarious purpose.

On the flip side of things, the filtering system will serve as a powerful tool to aid and abet officials fighting the war on terror, alerting the appropriate authorities when the right digital cocktail of terror communique is mixed, either domestically or abroad. If anything, what US citizens should be worrying about, is the ability of the human element to follow up sufficiently on flags raised by the system. All too often we find out, after the fact, that tragedies could have been avoided if authorities shared and acted upon information with a greater sense of urgency.

About the only thing I can see for US citizens to be upset about, is that once again, this administration is breaking its promises and shipping jobs overseas. You can’t trust anyone these days.