The NSA never takes “no” for an answer

September 6, 2013

At several recent junctures, the U.S. government has publicly sought to expand its power and control over the electronic privacy of its citizens. At each point, the government was roundly foiled by the public and the majority of the political class, which rebuked it. But that has evidently never stopped the government from imposing its will surreptitiously. As the reporting of the New York TimesProPublica, and the Guardian about the National Security Agency’s programs exposed by Edward Snowden showed once again yesterday, when the government really wants something, it can be temporarily denied but rarely foiled.

In the early 1990s, computer scientist and activist Phil Zimmerman created an encryption program called Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP for short, to block the government and other snoopers from reading the emails and files of users. To retard PGP, the government targeted Zimmerman with a criminal investigation for “munitions export without licenses” after the program appeared overseas, explaining that the program’s encryption exceeded what U.S. export regulations allowed.

Zimmerman and his allies eventually won the PGP showdown, as did privacy advocates in the mid-1990s, defeating the government’s proposal for the “Clipper chip,” which would allow easy surveillance of telephone and computer systems, and again after 9/11, when Congress cut funding for the Defense Department office in charge of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, a massive surveillance database containing oceans of vital information about everybody in the United States.

But the journalistic record proves we can’t trust government’s white flag of surrender. In the case of TIA, the government abandoned the program’s name but preserved the operation, as Shane Harris and others reported seven years ago, giving it new code names and concealing it in places like the NSA. The documents Snowden stole from the NSA show the government capturing and analyzing much of what TIA sought in the first place.

Yesterday’s Times-ProPublica-Guardian pieces revealed the government accomplishing its PGP and Clipper chip goals by similar subterfuge. The NSA has “circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems,” reported the joint ProPublica and Times article. The agency spends hundreds of millions a year in its work “with technology companies to ‘covertly influence’ their product designs” to make end-user communications more visible to its eyes, reported the Guardian. At Microsoft, the NSA coerced its way into pre-encryption access to the company’s email service, its Skype phone system, and SkyDrive, its cloud storage service.

The NSA’s techno-dodges give civil libertarians a choice of two large pitches on which to throw their fits. Should they be more angry about the national security bureaucracy first seeking the public’s consent to drink from the national information stream and then, when told “no,” ignoring the thumb down? Or is the greater outrage the fact that the vast and secret surveillance program was established at all, and not how it was established? As a fit-throwing civil libertarian, I intend to alternate from one field to the other. On even days I’ll scream about the basic outrage. On odd days, I’ll stamp my feet over the “you asked for permission, I said ‘No,’ and you went ahead and did it anyway” transgression.

Who made the U.S. government’s decision to bootleg its expansive surveillance system into place? To compromise the Internet and the devices we use to connect? To intentionally weaken the existing security systems by installing secret “back doors,” thereby making us all more vulnerable to a hostile cyber-attack by foreign powers or individuals who discover them? To reverse the popular will — or least the politically possible — without any further discussion? That last move would smack of totalitarianism, except that totalitarians make no pretext about needing the consent of their citizens to rule.

If you think I’m playing civil-libertarian Chicken Little about how small compromises can fissure and can suddenly grow big, consider the example of Edward Snowden, who stole the tens of thousands of pages revealing the NSA’s surveillance practices and architecture. But Snowden didn’t have the right to view all of them. As NBC News reported last month, he used his power as a system administrator to exploit design weaknesses in NSA internal systems (which NBC News calls “antiquated“) and assume the electronic identities of top NSA officials. These officials were authorized to view the more sensational documents, and once Snowden donned the mask, he could view them, too. Ordinarily, NSA employees can’t copy data off of computers, for the obvious security reasons. But because Snowden held administrator rights, he could and did and then distributed copies to journalists. According to NBC News, the NSA employs 1,000 system administrators.

Can somebody explain to the NSA that Snowden has merely done to the NSA what the NSA has been doing to U.S. citizens and business for decades? Snowden deceitfully ignored the legally binding promises he made to the NSA; the NSA similarly runs roughshod over both the letter and the spirit of surveillance legislation (and systematically lies about it, something Snowden doesn’t do). Snowden stole secrets; the NSA steals secrets (and encryption keys, according to yesterday’s reports), only at a more colossal level. Snowden took it upon himself that he, not the NSA or his government, knows best; the NSA and its governmental partners believe they know best; Snowden creatively exploited the technical weaknesses in the computer matrix to accomplish his goals; so does the NSA.

Everything Snowden knows about following the rules he learned from the NSA. Somebody, somewhere in the agency must be perversely proud of what he’s done.


Too late to groom Snowden to head the NSA? He’d know how to clean the place up. Send nominations to My Twitter feed is watching you. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: A satellite dish is seen in the former monitoring base of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Bad Aibling, south of Munich, August 13, 2013. REUTERS/Michael Dalder


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Yet it loves to provide ”no” as an answer.


NSA Director Keith Alexander’s lies made to the United States Congress on 20 March 2012:

Rep. Johnson: “Does the NSA routinely intercept American citizens’ emails?”
Gen. Alexander: “No.”
Rep. Johnson: “Does the NSA intercept Americans’ cell phone conversations?”
Gen. Alexander: “No.”
Rep. Johnson: “Google searches?”
Gen. Alexander: “No.”
Rep. Johnson: “Text messages?”
Gen. Alexander: “No.”
Rep. Johnson: “ orders?”
Gen. Alexander: “No.”
Rep. Johnson: “Bank records?”
Gen. Alexander: “No.”


”We do need to know the truth” bM

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

I think the way to defeat NASA is to get it to engage in more wild goose chases than there are Canada Geese!

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive

“Can somebody explain to the NSA that Snowden has merely done to the NSA what the NSA has been doing to U.S. citizens and business for decades?”

Excellent point!

Thank you Edward Snowden!

Posted by Des3Maisons | Report as abusive

With Congress back in session it’s time for every American citizen to contact their two Senators and representative in the House. Contact them repeatedly and unrelentingly and demand that heads roll and that they get this situation under control.

Posted by Des3Maisons | Report as abusive

The NSA has not cracked anything. PGP and SSL encryption, the backbone of all encryption methods used across the web and in computers are still safe and sound. It would take the NSA over a million years, using all the computers in the world, to crack those encryption methods.

However, what they have done is ask for the keys to the data from the very people who are tasked with keeping it safe. Using mobster tactics of intimidation and extortion, the NSA has successfully gotten access to the data by going around encryption methods. So stay calm, if you encrypt your own data, you are still safe from their prying eyes.

Posted by Kempfjj | Report as abusive

However, I have seen nothing –yet–in all of Snowden’s releases, that the NSA used the data it vacuumed up for anything other than it’s stated goal of tracking potential terrorists. We are at this point concerned about the “potential” for abuse. In balancing privacy and security, my vote is to lean towards the latter today until another Snowden shows that the data was being abused. He or she would be the whistle-blower I would stand behind.

Posted by BenMC | Report as abusive

The big, bad nefarious agency that you describe seems to fit right in with Hollywood’s image. If they’ve really got the number of employees (tens of thousands) that is reported, and they were really doing these awful things, wouldn’t more have been or begin coming forward to back up Snowden’s story? Where are they? Aren’t they citizens and taxpayers, too?

Posted by Binxy | Report as abusive

BenMC, I think the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits searches and seizures without a warrant. There is no exception. Even if the search and/or seizure reveals wrongdoing. In collecting and storing private data of any citizen without a warrant, the NSA is clearly violating the U.S. Constitution. If we blow this off, saying “well, it’s for a good purpose” or “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about” or “if they aren’t misusing the data, it’s OK,” we are allowing the government to weaken the Constitution, the very foundation of the freedoms that you and I enjoy.

Posted by Darthen | Report as abusive

They’ve (ab)used (depending on your will to delve in reality) 9/11 to enact the Patriot Act, then they’ve abused it to enable mass surveillance of the worldwide populace.

And we know about it.

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

BenMC – it not what the did but the potential for what they can do which is dangerous – the Soviet era under Stalin in the end sent an estimate of tens of millions of people to their death from what started as the innocent idea of ‘spy on your neighbour to protect the system’. Throughout history, there are numerous cases of abuses of power by government. The way to stop this is to reserve as much power as possible for the people. The government should exist as a servant of their people – not as their overlords.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Snowden didn’t “steal” damned thing. As a citizen he paid for the information that he provided to the public. He paid with his taxes just like everyone else. We, the people, have a right to know what our government is up to, especially as it concerns us so intimately. This entire debacle is a travesty and some heads need to roll in the NSA and other agencies. Snowden is a Hero.

Posted by Bentine | Report as abusive

I believe they’re keeping their heads down, unwilling to abandon their families, brace for the enormous amount of *** slinging hurled at them by the government and to have to live on the run out in Hong Kong/Moscow.

Posted by K.MacKenzie | Report as abusive

The usual stories from the media as each of these behaviors are “revealed” is to shout, “Surprise!” As this article points out for the umpteenth time is that these behaviors have been well known for decades. Why is anyone surprised or shocked? The intel community calls it the Wink-Wink Program. It’s a decades old program used extensively by the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, Homeland Security, … And, the “oversight” judicial agency, the mock FISA Court rubber-stamps it all.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

The NSA may not accept no for an answer, but the American population and others might say no.

The “War on the Rocks” website has an interesting podcast which looks at the Snowden affair. It contains a strategic/operational and tactical intelligence community damage assessment and compares PRISM to the “total information awareness project” of Admiral Poindexter. It has an intro by Mark Stout of the International Spy Museum.

The podcast also compares the “writs of assistance” issued by King George II in 1760 to the NSA spying on Americans. John Adams (second US president) stated that the “writs of assistance ” by KGII were the spark that lit the fires of the American Revolution. Are we there again?

The podcast is at: -mirrors-episode-1/
The bit on Snowden etc starts at 26:20

Posted by BrokenMirrors | Report as abusive

Domestic spying on its own citizens without fourth amendment protections is just wrong. Period!

Posted by bornfreeAmeri | Report as abusive

Why no real debate on domestic spying. Reporters are going to soon realize their trusted sources for newsworthy stories have dried up because of the chilling effect spying has on normal political debate. Your e-mail question to your Dr.s office or search engine search about dizziness or blackouts will result in a DMV suspension of YOUR drivers license, nevermind you were looking for answers for your aging father. Oh, an e-mail question to your family lawyer or CPA about figuring your cost basis in a capital gain transaction (ie sale of house) will generate an IRS audit. The Authors of the bill of rights didn’t know about computors and metadata 200 years ago, but they understood goverment misuse of power.

Posted by bornfreeAmeri | Report as abusive

Note that the news media is not interviewing any members of Congress on this issue, either that or they are not giving interviews, but the news media hasn’t told us that either. After all, it is the fault of Congress that they haven’t put the skids on the spies. Just where has Congress been all these years? Ohhhhh! I know! They were groveling to Corporate America to get their campaign war chests filled.

Posted by Des3Maisons | Report as abusive

@binxy. Snowden is one in a million. His co-workers don’t stand up because they’d lose their jobs. Snowden put his future on the line because he is a true patriot, and no doubt sick of all the corruption that goes on in the Obama Administration.

Posted by p19 | Report as abusive

The method for making Government employees who betray their country and their oath of service is well known, widespread and clear. The crime is a felony called *treason* and the penalties are clear. If applied to those who defied the People and the Constitution of the United States, we would need to make executioner a Civil Service position and they would be very busy for a long time.

But to be convicted of treason, you must first have charges brought by the Administrations that promoted these outrages to begin with. And that not only has not happened, it will not happen. That is because law and especially law enforcement is for “little people” and for “show”. They have made a laughingstock of what they swore to defend “against all enemies, foreign and domestic”.

So do not swallow that stuff about these people being our “servants”. They are our masters.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

the legitimate intelligence agencies around the world are getting info to protect its citizens from terrorist harm and preserve capitalism and free markets. Innocent people’s lives are being trampled upon.They are murdered. Their lives destroyed by these intelligence efforts. No expense will be spared to win this ongoing battle. Corruption and thuggary are methods to accomplish this.

Posted by wolfgangmoses | Report as abusive

Hello Jack Shafer,

I agree with your opinion on mass storage of unrelated data by the NSA and TIA and also feel that such a violation of privacy is unacceptable. I also feel that there are positive aspects to government surveillance that cannot be ignored and the key is regulation, not abolition of the programs.

Would you mind reading my blog at oom/jspoelstra/? I would like to have your perspective.

Jacob Spoelstra
The Green Room at Iowa State University

Posted by Jacob_Spoelstra | Report as abusive