Why NSA surveillance is worse than you’ve ever imagined

May 11, 2015


Last summer, after months of encrypted emails, I spent three days in Moscow hanging out with Edward Snowden for a Wired cover story. Over pepperoni pizza, he told me that what finally drove him to leave his country and become a whistleblower was his conviction that the National Security Agency was conducting illegal surveillance on every American. Thursday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York agreed with him.

In a long-awaited opinion, the three-judge panel ruled that the NSA program that secretly intercepts the telephone metadata of every American — who calls whom and when — was illegal. As a plaintiff with Christopher Hitchens and several others in the original ACLU lawsuit against the NSA, dismissed by another appeals court on a technicality, I had a great deal of personal satisfaction.

It’s now up to Congress to vote on whether or not to modify the law and continue the program, or let it die once and for all. Lawmakers must vote on this matter by June 1, when they need to reauthorize the Patriot Act.


Edward Snowden during an interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, June 6, 2013. WIKIPEDIA/Screenshot of a Laura Poitras film by Praxis Films

A key factor in that decision is the American public’s attitude toward surveillance. Snowden’s revelations have clearly made a change in that attitude. In a PEW 2006 survey, for example, after the New York Times’ James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed the agency’s warrantless eavesdropping activities, 51 percent of the public still viewed the NSA’s surveillance programs as acceptable, while 47 percent found them unacceptable.

After Snowden’s revelations, those numbers reversed. A PEW survey in March revealed that 52 percent of the public is now concerned about government surveillance, while 46 percent is not.

Given the vast amount of revelations about NSA abuses, it is somewhat surprising that just slightly more than a majority of Americans seem concerned about government surveillance. Which leads to the question of why? Is there any kind of revelation that might push the poll numbers heavily against the NSA’s spying programs? Has security fully trumped privacy as far as the American public is concerned? Or is there some program that would spark genuine public outrage?

Few people, for example, are aware that a NSA program known as TREASUREMAP is being developed to continuously map every Internet connection — cellphones, laptops, tablets — of everyone on the planet, including Americans.

“Map the entire Internet,” says the top secret NSA slide. “Any device, anywhere, all the time.” It adds that the program will allow “Computer Attack/Exploit Planning” as well as “Network Reconnaissance.”

One reason for the public’s lukewarm concern is what might be called NSA fatigue. There is now a sort of acceptance of highly intrusive surveillance as the new normal, the result of a bombardment of news stories on the topic.

I asked Snowden about this. “It does become the problem of one death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic,” he replied, “where today we have the violation of one person’s rights is a tragedy and the violation of a million is a statistic. The NSA is violating the rights of every American citizen every day on a comprehensive and ongoing basis. And that can numb us. That can leave us feeling disempowered, disenfranchised.”

An illustration picture shows logos of Google and Yahoo connected with LAN cables in Berlin

An illustration picture shows the logos of Google and Yahoo connected with LAN cables in a Berlin office, October 31, 2013. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski​

In the same way, at the start of a war, the numbers of Americans killed are front-page stories, no matter how small. But two years into the conflict, the numbers, even if far greater, are usually buried deep inside a paper or far down a news site’s home page.

In addition, stories about NSA surveillance face the added burden of being technically complex, involving eye-glazing descriptions of sophisticated interception techniques and analytical capabilities. Though they may affect virtually every American, such as the telephone metadata program, because of the enormous secrecy involved, it is difficult to identify specific victims.

The way the surveillance story appeared also decreased its potential impact. Those given custody of the documents decided to spread the wealth for a more democratic assessment of the revelations. They distributed them through a wide variety of media — from start-up Web publications to leading foreign newspapers.

One document from the NSA director, for example, indicates that the agency was spying on visits to porn sites by people, making no distinction between foreigners and “U.S. persons,” U.S. citizens or permanent residents. He then recommended using that information to secretly discredit them, whom he labeled as “radicalizers.” But because this was revealed by The Huffington Post, an online publication viewed as progressive, and was never reported by mainstream papers such as the New York Times or the Washington Post, the revelation never received the attention it deserved.

Another major revelation, a top-secret NSA map showing that the agency had planted malware — computer viruses — in more than 50,000 locations around the world, including many friendly countries such as Brazil, was reported in a relatively small Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, and likely never seen by much of the American public.

A parabolic reflector with a diameter of 18.3 metres (60 ft.) is pictured at the former monitoring base of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Bad Aibling

​A parabolic reflector with a diameter of 18.3 metres (60 ft.) at the National Security Agency’s former monitoring base in Bad Aibling, south of Munich, June 6, 2014. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

Thus, despite the volume of revelations, much of the public remains largely unaware of the true extent of the NSA’s vast, highly aggressive and legally questionable surveillance activities. With only a slim majority of Americans expressing concern, the chances of truly reforming the system become greatly decreased.

While the metadata program has become widely known because of the numerous court cases and litigation surrounding it, there are other NSA surveillance programs that may have far greater impact on Americans, but have attracted far less public attention.

In my interview with Snowden, for example, he said one of his most shocking discoveries was the NSA’s policy of secretly and routinely passing to Israel’s Unit 8200 — that country’s NSA — and possibly other countries not just metadata but the actual contents of emails involving Americans. This even included the names of U.S. citizens, some of whom were likely Palestinian-Americans communicating with relatives in Israel and Palestine.

An illustration of the dangers posed by such an operation comes from the sudden resignation last year of 43 veterans of Unit 8200, many of whom are still serving in the military reserves. The veterans accused the organization of using intercepted communication against innocent Palestinians for “political persecution.” This included information gathered from the emails about Palestinians’ sexual orientations, infidelities, money problems, family medical conditions and other private matters to coerce people into becoming collaborators or to create divisions in their society.

Another issue few Americans are aware of is the NSA’s secret email metadata collection program that took place for a decade or so until it ended several years ago. Every time an American sent or received an email, a record was secretly kept by the NSA, just as the agency continues to do with the telephone metadata program. Though the email program ended, all that private information is still stored at the NSA, with no end in sight.

With NSA fatigue setting in, and the American public unaware of many of the agency’s long list of abuses, it is little wonder that only slightly more than half the public is concerned about losing their privacy. For that reason, I agree with Frederick A. O. Schwartz Jr., the former chief counsel of the Church Committee, which conducted a yearlong probe into intelligence abuses in the mid-1970s, that we need a similarly thorough, hard-hitting investigation today.

“Now it is time for a new committee to examine our secret government closely again,” he wrote in a recent Nation magazine article, “particularly for its actions in the post-9/11 period.”

Until the public fully grasps and understands how far over the line the NSA has gone in the past — legally, morally and ethically — there should be no renewal or continuation of NSA’s telephone metadata program in the future.


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Might is right.What citizen can do when the constitution of America is ignored.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Police powers = too much power.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Americans are complacent not because they do not understand the scope of the NSA (though they do not), but because they do not foresee a situation in which the government will use the data against them or people they like. We are still at the “First they came for…” stage. To create outrage, we must either create sympathy for those who the NSA is going after or fear that they might come after us. Despite the rhetoric in press and from podium, Americans, by and large, don’t fear their government. And most of those who do fear the government, fear infiltration by foreign extremists far more. Expanded awareness of known NSA programs will not change that by itself.

Posted by RossRBB | Report as abusive

Good news! The Era of Absolute Privacy is coming! No need in cookies or browsing history anymore. NSA is harmless.

I discovered and patented how to structure any data: Language has its own Internal parsing, indexing and statistics. For instance, there are two sentences:

a) ‘Victory!’
b) ‘My aunt had obtained a signal victory over Mrs. Crupp, by paying her off, throwing the first pitcher she planted on the stairs out of window, and protecting in person, up and down the staircase, a supernumerary whom she engaged from the outer world.’

Evidently, that the ‘victory’ has different importance into both sentences, in regard to extra information in both. This distinction is reflected as the phrases, which contain ‘victory’, weights: the first has 1, the second – 0.13; the greater weight signifies stronger emotional ‘acuteness’.
First you need to parse obtaining phrases from clauses, restoring omitted words, for sentences and paragraphs.
Next, you calculate Internal statistics, weights; where the weight refers to the frequency that a phrase occurs in relation to other phrases.
After that data is indexed by common dictionary, like Webster, and annotated by subtexts.
This is a small sample of the structured data:
this – signify – : 333333
both – are – once : 333333
confusion – signify – : 333321
speaking – done – once : 333112
speaking – was – both : 333109
place – is – in : 250000
To see the validity of technology – pick up any sentence.

Do you have a pencil?

All other technologies depend on spying, on quires, on SQL, all of them on External statistics. See IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo? Apache Hadoop and NoSQL? My technology is the only one that obtains Internal statistics directly from texts themselves.
Being structured information will search for users based on their profiles of structured data. Each and every user can get only specifically tailored for him information: there is no any privacy issue, nobody ever will know what the user got and read.

What NSA can spy after, in my system? No queries, no browsing history. And, after all, NSA can be controlled, to some degree.

The technology came from Analytic Philosophy, Internal Relations Theory.

Sleep well, I protected you.

Posted by IlyaGeller | Report as abusive

Its relatively easy to truly hamper NSA surveillance on Americans, just keep corporations from collecting the data. The U.S. government sub-contracts everything. Even Edward Snowden worked for Booz Allen Hamilton as a sub contractor. Keep Google, Apple, Yahoo, Comcast, Time-Warner, Verizon, and AT&T from collecting and keeping data indefinitely here and abroad and the U.S. government programs slow and then stop.

Posted by MattThornton | Report as abusive

“Has security fully trumped privacy as far as the American public is concerned?”

Yes and this isn’t new. “National security” and fear of unknown enemies has dominated the news and presidential elections for some time now.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

Not all comments get through the moderation process. There’s quite a bit to be said on the subject.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

So there are Americans who believe this Stasi 2.0 mass surveillance is keeping them safe? When the government becomes all-knowing and all-powerful, who will keep Americans safe from the government?

“I’m not doing anything wrong, so I have nothing to fear.” The earth is full of millions of graves occupied by people who thought the same. Try opening a history book sometime. Do you think all those victims ever expected to have their own governments and military forces turn on them?

You can’t have freedom OR security without privacy. There is a good reason why mass surveillance is the hallmark of totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany, East Germany, the USSR, North Korea, and now this country, which USED to be the United States of America when its Constitution was still more or less in force.

So much for the military “defending our freedom” and honoring its oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The military takes orders from the domestic enemies of the Constitution.

Posted by Heretic50 | Report as abusive

Folks, the commercial data gather’s know as much or more about you then does NSA, who probably sources Google,Yahoo and many sites for your data. Yet none say a word about that massive industry of personal data.

Posted by fwrfwr | Report as abusive

You give a pig some power, and you have a powerful pig. So quit cheering them on TV, and grow up. This is pig power in action.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

When has the NSA data collection ever prevented a terrorist attack? What makes the volume of data collected irrelevant to any national security is that Obama won’t let them, use any data collected on radical Muslims to prevent their terrorist actions.

The NSA & FBI knew qgo were the Garland, Texas terrorists. TRhry had been trackiong both of them for years. They also know that oneof them had a peiope attrewmpted trerrorist chargeon their rapsheet.

Posted by Petet_Ratz | Report as abusive

“Folks, the commercial data gather’s know as much or more about you then does NSA, who probably sources Google,Yahoo and many sites for your data.”

Yea…. does Google come to my house with armed personnel? Does Google try to use my personal information to blackmail me for political purposes?

Posted by bvdon123 | Report as abusive

NSA = police wet dream. Zero regard for 4th Amendment, tracking movements and communications of any citizen at any time. Stop worshiping police as heroes, and you might have a chance at waking up.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

So when I break the law, I get arrested, charged and punished; but when the Government breaks the law, they try to modify the law, and never punish anyone?

Posted by Laerrus11 | Report as abusive