David Hewitt’s Techdirt Profile

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  • Mar 21st, 2012 @ 4:44pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Universal intercept is the holy grail

    The law has been in place and quite clear for a long time. But because of the super secretive nature of what they do, it is easy to suspect that those violations of the law that have come to light over the years represent just the tip of the iceberg of what goes on routinely. What I'm trying to argue for is a compromise, which allows them to put the pieces in place, which they so obviously desire, without changing the law that says they cannot do domestic spying on US citizens.

    I think that the current situation tends to drive them underground -- if that's possible -- because they assume we don't understand the realities of the technical difficulties of implementing an intercept with current technology. So whenever a situation comes up in which they deem it necessary to put a physical intercept in place, because they have already violated the law once, it's easy for them to violate the law again and leave the tap in place in case they ever need it again. Or while they're in there, they think they might as well put the tap in the entire fiber optic big-as-tree-trunk bundle and leave it there in case it's ever needed.

    My theory is that maybe we would stand a better chance of compliance if we would allow them to put the physical apparatus in place. In return, we would ask them to honor the law and the Constitution and respect the privacy rights of private citizens. I believe they routinely break the law in this regard, and they can get away with it because the sun does not shine on their activities. And the sun never will shine on their activities because they are thoroughly and relentlessly secretive.

    We've been playing cat-and-mouse with them for years, but they have an advantage -- they can break the law, but we seldom know about it. Perhaps there is a chance that they would do the right and honorable thing and obey the law if we allow them to put their tools in place. Cynically, I think there will still be abuses of privacy. But there seems to be no stopping them -- it's been illegal for many years, but illegality has never stopped them, as far as I know.

    As you suggest, there should be consequences for violation of the law. I don't recall what happened to those analysts who were caught listening in on phone sex between a GI in Iraq and his wife back home -- but it made me angry, and I hope they were at the very least fired. Perhaps in exchange for concessions on intercept and collection we could get promises of prosecution of wrong-doing, along with the creation of a credible internal division that monitors legal compliance. To a cynic, that sounds like a fox guarding the hen house. There would be vast peer pressure against enforcement. But maybe there is a chance that some people would take it seriously.

  • Mar 21st, 2012 @ 3:49pm

    Re: which is almost certainly untrue.

    Imagine the bandwidth needed for Total Information Awareness. The new NSA center in Utah must have a new major Internet backbone node, bigger than Chicago or New York or LA.

    Maybe they have their own redundant power plants. Nuclear? Coal? Probably not solar or wind, unless I am underestimating them.

    Is it still legal to run PGP on routine email?

    Is TOR legal?

  • Mar 21st, 2012 @ 3:27pm

    Re: Re: Universal intercept is the holy grail

    I disagree. The Constitution is pretty clear on this point, too. I have the right to not have my data collected without my permission, except through due process.

    I understand, and I tend to agree. But my sense of the reality of the situation is that NSA will inexorably move forward with their reach -- their ability to quickly intercept anything that's out there. If you read Bamford's Body of Secrets, you'll probably get the sense of the lengths to which NSA will go to put taps in place. He tells a story that they successfully used a specially-equipped submarine to place a tap in an undersea fiber optic cable. That, and other anecdotes tell me that regardless of their legal ability to put eyes on your data, they will earnestly try to improve their ability to do universal intercept and collection.

    I imagine that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, for example, is aware of NSA's professed needs, and has been willing to allow them to push the state of the art.

    I already operate under the assumption that everything I externalize from my mind is either discoverable or discovered. I try to be prudent. I try to be a good citizen. There's an old story that Richard Nixon's favorite secure communications technique was to invite his companions to the beach, roll up his pants legs and wade out into the surf, turn his back to shore, and speak in low tones or a whisper and caution the others to do the same. I certainly don't want to live my life that way. But I think our best option is to try to institute a compliance division within NSA, with an ombudsman to handle internal reports of privacy violations. If that system doesn't work, a whistle-blower would only need to say "It's not working" to trigger an investigation.

    To put my position in perspective, I think we moved off center years ago, toward the far right, and are on a slippery slope toward a fascist-controlled police state. I know they hate not being able to hear what's going on, and I am certain they will push the envelope toward what is currently impossible, to make it possible. But as long as we are still pretending to be a nation of laws, we should establish legal safeguards and public policy that acknowledges the new realities of modern communication techniques. Inevitably we will fight Constitutional battles about free speech and a modern interpretation of "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated..." Cynically, I believe they are going to intercept and collect me physically, regardless, so I want to try to put some legal constraints on the "reasonable" part of search and seizure. Don't look at my communications unless or until you have some other plausible reason to think I'm some kind of threat.

  • Mar 21st, 2012 @ 2:19pm

    Re: Re: Universal intercept is the holy grail

    No, not sure, just instinct. Those numbers are certainly impressive. But it boils down to the classical problem of artificial intelligence. Will the machines ever be able to reason and make illogical leaps of imagination the way (some) humans do? Will the most sophisticated synaptical machine intelligence be able to ferret out a real threat out of the huge volume of mundane traffic? Will playful civil disobedience be made illegal, such as the strong encryption of polite chit chat, or firing off frequent messages of random characters using strong encryption, just to make their privacy invading monitoring somewhat less convenient in terms of machine resources? If you and your friends use one-time pads to chat about the weather will you be placed into the "put human eyes on this one" queue?

    I doubt that the state of the art of machine capabilities has caught up with the enormity of the task. Try as they might, I suspect their mental prosthesis is more like an Iraq combat veteran's artificial leg -- useful, but nowhere near as good as the real thing.

    Anyway, my point does not hinge on the state of the art. I say let them push the evolution of the machinery. Just as the gamers push the evolution of video cards and PC throughput, I believe NSA is helping to push the evolution of AI. But my point is about analysis and the Constitution. Regardless of NSA's ability to intercept and collect SIGnals INTelligence, we citizens of the USA need to draw a line regarding an expectation of privacy. I don't want to be required to talk to law enforcement because the meaning of my electronic communication is not clear to them. I have had more than one encounter with law enforcement that I did not deserve, so it is easy for me to imagine undeserved future encounters based on the intelligence community's failure to trust that I am a good and loyal citizen, regardless of their ability to figure out what the heck I am talking about. I know there are people out there who wouldn't even need a flimsy pretense to interfere with my ability to live my life harmlessly as I see fit. A limit on what can be legally analyzed would serve NSA's purposes as well because they are all mere mortals, who can be distracted by the apparent low-hanging fruit of grandma's encrypted bread recipe, or love-talk between a deployed combat soldier and his wife at home. We need a clear, bright line -- and probably an internal NSA compliance division -- to ensure that universal intercept and collection of SIGINT does not impinge on the privacy of domestic US citizens.

    If this approach would become public policy, at some point NSA would ask for a legal definition of the point at which a flag on a communications stream should be escalated to put human eyes on it. The current approach seems to be that we citizens want to prevent intercept in order to protect our privacy. But that is an antiquated view. Gone are the days when all that was needed for a wiretap was a court order and alligator clips on a phone relay at the phone company's CO. Modern communications technologies require that the taps already must be in place. The point of law should focus on when it is permissible to actually look at the data.

  • Mar 21st, 2012 @ 12:47pm

    Universal intercept is the holy grail

    As an NSA employee, when you speak in public you are always mindful of protecting the secrets you know. The Chief would know all the high-level details about agency capabilities. His public pronouncements would be carefully measured, and an honorable official would try to be truthful without giving away anything deemed necessarily secret. Make of it what you will.

    NSA's holy grail must surely be universal intercept, total collection of what is intercepted, and careful analysis of what is collected. That holy grail is surely a futuristic dream that will never be realized. The sheer volume of signals intelligence must be HUGE. To detect or intercept everything that's out there must be a constant quest. If your job is to know what your known adversaries, and potential adversaries, are communicating about, you will worry that somebody has figured out some new way to modulate the background noise level of the universe. Of the techniques you know about, you naturally want to scoop up all of it.

    After intercept, collection is the next phase of the task. Imagine the volume of data that would derive from universal intercept. If it is physically impossible to actually look at all that data in real time, you must store it for later retrieval and analysis. How many petabytes per second worth of bandwidth do you suppose that adds up to? And what kind of physical memory storage capability would that take? And how long would you keep it before purging to make room for more? It would need to be HUGE.

    And ultimately, after intercepting and storing all that data, how would you analyze it? You would try to dedicate as much machinery to the task as physics and the budget will allow. But ultimately the available human minds dedicated to analysis can only look at a small subset of the daily digest. Targets of interest probably take precedence over random snooping on grandma's email. The opportunity cost is dire -- while reading grandma's recipe for sourdough bread, looking for the hidden message, you may miss a hint elsewhere that actually would have an impact on national security.

    I am becoming convinced that public policy should acknowledge that universal intercept is necessary, from NSA's viewpoint, and concomitant collection is necessary for the same reasons. We can be sure they want to do both, and will press on in that quest, regardless of the niceties of the law. The machines can do both tasks with little human intervention. The rights of citizens should come into play at the analysis stage. NSA should be enjoined from analyzing or looking at collected data unless they can show probable cause to do so.

    The dilemma, of course, is that occasionally when looking at a random data stream, or filtering for certain words or patterns, the alarms go off and they find evidence of a conspiracy to commit a crime. Certain elements want to analyze everything, watch our every move. That's where we need to draw the line. I don't want to worry that if I quote Walt Whitman or Bob Dylan it will be misinterpreted as a coded message to my cell.

  • Mar 21st, 2012 @ 12:41pm

    Universal intercept is the holy grail

    As an NSA employee, when you speak in public you are always mindful of protecting the secrets you know. The Chief would know all the high-level details about agency capabilities. His public pronouncements would be carefully measured, and an honorable official would try to be truthful without giving away anything deemed necessarily secret. Make of it what you will.

    NSA's holy grail must surely be universal intercept, total collection of what is intercepted, and careful analysis of what is collected. That holy grail is surely a futuristic dream that will never be realized. The sheer volume of signals intelligence must be HUGE. To detect or intercept everything that's out there must be a constant quest. If your job is to know what your known adversaries, and potential adversaries, are communicating about, you will worry that somebody has figured out some new way to modulate the background noise level of the universe. Of the techniques you know about, you naturally want to scoop up all of it.

    After intercept, collection is the next phase of the task. Imagine the volume of data that would derive from universal intercept. If it is physically impossible to actually look at all that data in real time, you must store it for later retrieval and analysis. How many petabytes per second worth of bandwidth do you suppose that adds up to? And what kind of physical memory storage capability would that take? And how long would you keep it before purging to make room for more? It would need to be HUGE.

    And ultimately, after intercepting and storing all that data, how would you analyze it? You would try to dedicate as much machinery to the task as physics and the budget will allow. But ultimately the available human minds dedicated to analysis can only look at a small subset of the daily digest. Targets of interest probably take precedence over random snooping on grandma's email. The opportunity cost is dire -- while reading grandma's recipe for sourdough bread, looking for the hidden message, you may miss a hint elsewhere that actually would have an impact on national security.

    I am becoming convinced that public policy should acknowledge that universal intercept is necessary, from NSA's viewpoint, and concomitant collection is necessary for the same reasons. We can be sure they want to do both, and will press on in that quest, regardless of the niceties of the law. The machines can do both tasks with little human intervention. The rights of citizens should come into play at the analysis stage. NSA should be enjoined from analyzing or looking at collected data unless they can show probable cause to do so.

    The dilemma, of course, is that occasionally when looking at a random data stream, or filtering for certain words or patterns, the alarms go off and they find evidence of a conspiracy to commit a crime. Certain elements want to analyze everything, watch our every move. That's where we need to draw the line. I don't want to worry that if I quote Walt Whitman or Bob Dylan it will be misinterpreted as a coded message to my cell.