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NSA Whistleblower Explains How The NSA Is Collecting Data On All Of You (And He's Sorry About It)

from the unfortunate dept

Last year, in writing about the US government’s vindictive lawsuit against whistleblower and former NSA employee Thomas Drake, we also talked about William Binney — another ex-NSA employee and whistleblower (who was also raided by the feds, though they failed to find anything they could pin on him in a lawsuit). Binney is the mathematical genius behind one of the key algorithms the NSA is using to track everyone. Here’s what the New Yorker said about Binner over a year ago:

Binney expressed terrible remorse over the way some of his algorithms were used after 9/11. ThinThread, the “little program” that he invented to track enemies outside the U.S., “got twisted,” and was used for both foreign and domestic spying: “I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.”

Now, the NY Times has something of a following, including a short documentary feature about Binney and his whistleblowing over the NSA’s domestic spying. It’s really worth watching as it very simply highlights how vast the domestic spying effort is, however powerful it can be — and also how the NSA dances around the fact that it’s not allowed to spy on Americans. They claim that as long as they’re not actually looking at the content they record and store directly, it’s just collecting the info and not actually spying on people. That is, they think that acquiring all this data is fine, so long as they don’t directly query the info. But… as Binney explains, his algorithms (which have likely been updated quite a bit) can still go through all this info and build basic “profiles” of just about anyone. It’s really worth watching, if only to wonder how anyone thinks this is acceptable.

I’d embed the video here, except the geniuses over at the NY Times seem to have not figured out how to allow embeds with their video player.

The documentary was put together by Laura Poitras, who notes that thanks to some over-aggressive surveillance she, too, is on a “watch-list,” thanks to a documentary she did about Iraq.

I have been detained at the border more than 40 times. Once, in 2011, when I was stopped at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and asserted my First Amendment right not to answer questions about my work, the border agent replied, “If you don’t answer our questions, we’ll find our answers on your electronics.”’ As a filmmaker and journalist entrusted to protect the people who share information with me, it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to work in the United States. Although I take every effort to secure my material, I know the N.S.A. has technical abilities that are nearly impossible to defend against if you are targeted.

All of this attention, by the way, is to question why Congress is so intent on re-authorizing the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) which is what gives the NSA a pass on much of this spying, thanks to a “secret interpretation” of the law, which the public is not allowed to even know about. If this sounds like the sort of thing that shouldn’t be allowed in a free and open society, you’re just beginning to grasp the problem.

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Comments on “NSA Whistleblower Explains How The NSA Is Collecting Data On All Of You (And He's Sorry About It)”

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Anonymous Coward says:

the problem is actually the politicians that dont understand or dont care about the permissions they give, either willingly or unintentionally, to law enforcement agencies. as stated, this basically means that instead of protecting your own citizens, they are the targets, more than anything because it’s easier. the real elements that should be watched, often very closely, slip and slide about almost undetected and unhindered. talk about getting things arse backwards!

John Fenderson (profile) says:

I do not accept his apology

This falls squarely in the “what did you think was going to happen?” category. I have turned down several lucrative jobs because what I was asked to develop was almost guaranteed to be abused in a manner that would be harmful to society at large. I think any ethical person would do the same, and those who take that sort of work are ethically challenged.

People who do this kind of work either know that their work is going to be used for evil, or remain intentionally ignorant of that fact. I have no sympathy for them, and do not accept their apologies when they later learn the damage that they’ve caused — which happens pretty frequently.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:


As much as I think most politicians are idiots, I think the fault here lies with the NSA. Sure, congress (and the president) gave them FAA, but they’re still relying on a secret interpretation, and they’re still spying on Americans. Something tells me that if Congress repealed FAA the only reaction by the NSA would be to hide what they are doing, not actually stop.

A sure fire way to be stop the NSA? I hear bullets can be pretty effective. And that, friends, is how you end up on a watch list. To my new NSA buddies: do I get a door prize?

Wally (profile) says:

My thoughts in cannon on 2007&2008 revisions to FISA

Now that all of you kn ow me better:

I would like to point out that the Foreighn Intelegence Serveillance Act of 1978 was just fine. It the provisions in the 2007 and 2008 amendments that are most agregious to the 4th amendment.

Excerpt from Wikipedia:
The Protect America Act of 2007 (PAA), (Pub.L. 110-55, 121 Stat. 552, enacted by S. 1927), is a controversial amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that was signed into law on August 5, 2007. It removed the warrant requirement for government surveillance of foreign intelligence targets “reasonably believed” to be outside of the United States.[1] The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 repealed the Protect America Act, but replaced it with similar provisions in Title VII of FISA.

Meaning warrants are not required with “probable cause” during surveillance of Foreighn entities. This explains why the DOJ thinks they could handle the Megaupload case as they did.

The 2008 Amendment to FISA 1978 is much much worse:
1. Prohibits the individual states from investigating, sanctioning of, or requiring disclosure by complicit telecoms or other persons.
Telecoms added this to prevent the states from investigating their illegal practices….6 strikes anyone?

2. Permits the government not to keep records of searches, and destroy existing records (it requires them to keep the records for a period of 10 years).
That’s just great. They don’t have to keep records of when they search you or tap your wires or monitor your communications. That is a clear violation of the 4th Amendment to the US constitutional bill of rights. Oh if the evidence that you’ve been proven innocent is destroyed, that has the potential to destroy the Double Jeoperdy clause.

3.Protects telecommunications companies from lawsuits for “‘past or future cooperation’ with federal law enforcement authorities and will assist the intelligence community in determining the plans of terrorists.” Immunity is given by a certification process. The certification can be overturned by a court on specific grounds.
Once again, how the 6 strikes program became legalized in the US.

4. Removes requirements for detailed descriptions of the nature of information or property targeted by the surveillance if the target is reasonably believed to be outside the country.
One word alone can describe a recent incident….Megaupload.

5. Increased the time for warrantless surveillance from 48 hours to 7 days, if the FISA court is notified and receives an application, specific officials sign the emergency notification, and relates to a U.S person located outside of the U.S with probable cause they are an agent of a foreign power. After 7 days, if the court denies or does not review the application, the information obtained cannot be offered as evidence. If the United States Attorney General believes the information shows threat of death or bodily harm, they can try to offer the information as evidence in future proceedings.
Well who wants this with Atorney General Eric Holder in power?

6. Permits the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General to jointly authorize warrantless electronic surveillance, for 1-year periods, targeted at a foreigner who is abroad. This provision will sunset on December 31, 2012.
This did not ever happen under the Bush Jr administration.

7. Requires FISA court permission to target wiretaps at Americans who are overseas.
What interest the Feds will have with my Archtect sister Working for Starbucks in China when she calls home I’ll never know. Oh, and while I’m in the subject, ive answered the phone with her voice and a PRC office could be heard in the background during her pre-Starbucks contracts.

8. Requires government agencies to cease warranted surveillance of a targeted American who is abroad if said person enters the United States. (However, said surveillance may resume if it is reasonably believed that the person has left the States.)
This applies to all of us. I just hope my wife doesn’t find out thevfeds listened in on our sexting during our Cancun honeymoon.

9. Prohibits targeting a foreigner to eavesdrop on an American’s calls or e-mails without court approval.[17]
Well at least someone thought of scenarios simular my comment to number 8. Mexico, it’s none of your goddamn business what I say to
My wife… Though this doesn’t make it right for the Feds either.

10. Allows the FISA court 30 days to review existing but expiring surveillance orders before renewing them.
That’s most likely 30 days more they will be watching you.

11. Allows eavesdropping in emergencies without court approval, provided the government files required papers within a week.
Ok, what if the wrong papers are filed? Oh I know, barge in anyway. Seize the mansion of an extremely loveable and eccentric tech.

12. Prohibits the government from invoking war powers or other authorities to supersede surveillance rules in the future.
Screams of “this is MY jurisdiction bub, stay the fuck out”.

13. Requires the Inspectors General of all intelligence agencies involved in the President’s Surveillance Program to “complete a comprehensive review” and report within one year.
Prevents another watergate from happening…this means cover up whatever crime the President commits during his time in office.

Source for the Privisions:


Rapnel (profile) says:


This is so big of a problem that it’s not really a problem is it? I think I would like to default that they’re holding to their stated missions – national security. Not a horrible thing, by default.

What we have here are the makings of “what was once fiction” (which, in fact, is oft repeated). It seems to be getting worse too. A string match grows into a catalog string match grows into a records collection grows into a full past and present locations collection grows into a full finance trace and voila – profile. So, yes, we are all cataloged where any root product of the day happens to exist. It’s the “root product of the day” that we should be wary of. It would seem some are wary but now the beast has outgrown its cage. Being wary is wholly insufficient. Transgressions will continue and the glamor and prestige and finance of gaining and maintaining a political position combined with party ownership is resulting in accelerated deterioration of this particular form of government in this particular country it would seem.

The government agencies – the product of legislation and executive administrations are overwhelming the continent. They’re overwhelming the people with power, authority, bureaucracy, selective enforcement, uncontained and manipulative rules of engagement. Then we have the ever more powerful large, multi-national corporations (about 14 filthy rich guys I’d guess). Particularly egregious their influence is.

Life is still good right now – tough but good, yes? We can only string along content with government by economy for so long though. I guess how long is the question. How long is too long? How soon is now? And why would a lot of these “lightly armed” government agencies be requisitioning ammunition? Hollow point?

So, I guess the “problem” is not one of prevention or containment anymore is it? A bit like diplomacy with Hitler that.

I think, and it is just a thought, that we are on the verge of requiring an altogether new means of governing. I mean if this Internet thing has anything to show us then having a couple hundred well heeled representatives is sadly insufficient. Underrepresented is the word I think, and how. Worries about who fucks who, who smokes what and who wears what to church and which church has no place in national policies. None. At all. Not this nation. Not any nation if I had any say. Anyway, seriously though, that’s the damn deal with copyright? Who put them in charge?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

My thoughts in cannon on 2007&2008 revisions to FISA

I would like to point out that the Foreighn Intelegence Serveillance Act of 1978 was just fine

I would disagree with that characterization. It’s fairer to say that it’s much better than later amendments and revisions.

The biggest problem I have with FISA is the creation of the FISA courts. The FISA courts are a joke, a mere rubber-stamp operation that allows the government to do nearly anything they want. They just have to get the FISA court to approve it, and the FISA court has approved very nearly 100% of everything that’s been asked of it.



Of course they would hide their spying. Of course they do now and always have done. Read “Enemies” by Weiner, the recent book on the history of the FBI. It has always been this way. If the ability or technology exists it will be used. You can’t uninvent things. Being aware that this is happening is about the only relief you can get.

Wally (profile) says:


“Soldiers and other enforcers won’t want to shoot their fellow countrymen, so the gov’t would have that hurdle to face in revolutionary war. Wait until they have better robots than just UAVs that can assassinate one or two people at a time, then the USA’s population is fucked.”

UAV’s are flown by remote control, so even then, there is a human element.

Ed C. says:


Soldiers and other enforcers won’t want to shoot their fellow countrymen…

Not quite. All it would take now is for some bureaucrat to put your name on a high-profile terrorist list, or even a kill list. With all of the anti-terrorist rhetoric being drilled into their heads, there’s definitely soldiers who’d be willing to look you in the eye and shoot you dead on the spot without blinking, at least enough to put down any localized uprising. If push comes to shove, Washington would use drone strikes and mercs against American citizens, even on American soil. To many of the bureaucrats and politicians, they’re protecting their countrymen–and by “countrymen”, they mean themselves.

Michael says:


Fly in the ointment: the police/soldiers would have to do it realizing that their families and loved ones’ lives would be at risk. I can’t imagine there’d be high morale within their ranks knowing full and well that they’re working to bring about America’s doom. Heck, there’d be so much dissent from within their ranks, they’d turn against each other, as well as have to deal with a population of hundreds of millions of people united against them.

But that would be just the beginning of our troubles. If our nation ever fell into civil unrest/war, our enemies would inevitably take advantage at our time of weakness and division. So, either way, we’d all lose.

Ed C. says:

Re: Re:

Yes, any sort of rebellion at a nation level would be a problem. But I specifically said “any localized uprising”. Local police, or even national guard, usually wouldn’t have a problem putting a small group of people in their crosshairs, as they believe they’re in fact doing it to protect their families and loved ones’ lives from “terrorist”. Of course, they don’t any need proof either, just the order. This is what happens when you suspend due process for a “shoot first” regime.

Now, if the targeted group was bigger and included the families and loved ones of local enforcement, or even enforcement officers themselves, the government would simply bring in other troops from further away–ones with less personal investment in the community. They would simply be told that the “terrorist” have infiltrated the local law enforcement, creating a “stronghold”, and that the “terrorist” must be hunted to “contain” the uprising and protect their their families and loved ones’ back home. And if that fails, the government would escalate to options that are even more detached from the community, such as drone strikes and mercs. Now, stop and actually think about this for a moment. Does ANY of this sound familiar?

You know, the “War on Terror”? I’m talking about what would be War on Terror 2.0, Homeland Edition. The government would fight to keep uprisings “contained” and localized. By branding them as “terrorist”, the government would try to demoralize instigators in other regions and distance the general population from them to keep others from joining. Divide and conquer is a strategy as old as war itself.

Rapnel (profile) says:


I’m pretty sure we have about five viable candidates. “Wasting votes” aside it’s the media rigging and dual-party coordinated shutdown methods that force the US into a walking dead result. These methods bring about the forced perception that approximately 50% of the voting public is “behind” one candidate or the other candidate. When it does happen to suite one of the two parties’ agenda then they’ll play up the “other option”, hell they’ll even help financially under cover.

It’s high time we vote conscience and forgo the false dream of betterment from the top two.

Anonymous Coward says:


You’re forgetting the spin that would be used…national security, good of the homeland…etc…it’s not like we haven’t seen examples of this before.

That’s why control of communications will always trump control of the means of destruction.

The Pen is still mightier than the Sword.

Also the reason why the 1st Amendment is first and the 2nd Amendment is second.

Anonymous Coward says:


GOP is ready to fracture and will when they don’t win the Presidential race this year. The Dems have been moving right since, what, the 1980s?

Our history is full of examples of broad changes in party philosophy – there’s been something like 4 or 5 two-party systems in the U.S.

You’re forgetting your history lessons.

Dirkmaster (profile) says:


THAT, dear friends, is the point.

If either party just produces something you are unsatisfied with, then you are “just throwing away your vote” there too. Might as well throw it away someplace where at least you are making a statement. If enough of us stop supporting the two ruling parties, we might be able to affect some change.

But we never will as long as you reject the possibility of an alternative.

John Fenderson (profile) says:


Soldiers and other enforcers won’t want to shoot their fellow countrymen

They may or may not want to, but they will nonetheless. Even in just 20th century American history, we see numerous examples.

In any case, the ancient Romans figured out how to work around that. It’s not hard: you take advantage of regional bigotry, and have the citizens of one area be enforcers over the citizens of an area they’re already biased against.

JohnG (profile) says:


I don’t reject the possibility of an alternative — I’m a libertarian myself. The reality is the established parties (D and R) will work tirelessly, joined with a compliant media, to marginalize any candidate that isn’t one of them. Just look at how CNN has stacked the polling criteria against Gary Johnson, the same criteria used to get into the Presidential debates.

Anonymous Coward says:

I do not accept his apology

That’s a little harsh. Politicians can always find another ethically challenged genius to do the work they want, or compartmentalize it enough that the geniuses working on it don’t know what they’re really doing. The problem can’t be stopped with demanding that the intelligent among us not use their brains for their job. It is SUPPOSED to be stopped with the educated masses voting the incompetent power-hungry jerks out of office when they pass these sorts of nonsense.

Congress should accept all the blame, all the scorn, all the hatred for what they started, not so much the tool used.

Ninja (profile) says:

I find it amusing when they throw the “secret interpretation” label all around.

Law: You shall not kill.
Interpretation: You cannot take any person’s life.
Secret interpretation: It’s okay to kill if the victim uses a turban and says Allah regularly.

There’s nothing written that even indicates the act can be done but they take those secret interpretations out of their collective behinds and use it. And no1 can challenge those interpretations because they are secret. What kind of fucked up logic is that?

Anonymous Coward says:

everybody likes a conspiracy theory

a bank holds your money, but it cannot legally spend it…do we assume it’s spending it, just because it’s there? NSA holds data, but cannot legally process or view it, so we assume they are using it and building profiles? to what end? they have no authority to act on the domestic activities?

why not be more concerned about the FBI’s data, being it actually has the authority to act on domestic data and activities?

InfamousValdon (profile) says:

I really appreciate the fact that your exposing the facts the the USA is not only violating international law but also in violation of the US constitution. It’s up to all us free thinking people to make the real difference, to educate the un-educated, THIS IS YOUR LIFE, YOUR FUTURE, It’s time WE the people, take back, The powers and rights that have be taken from us, under your nosese. Soldier For Rights.

Anonymous Coward says:

everybody likes a conspiracy theory

These things have been used by the ruling class since society was created. Does anyone remeber the kent state shootings in 1972? If you think that you cant get shot remeber that was national guard not even regular govt troops. Whats been happening all along is the people in charge, not our govt as you would have had drilledinto your head since you were born, but the people that control our food sources, monsanto for ex., and our resources, if you look at who controls these things then you will know. The govts of the world are only the tools used to control us. We are slaves as sure as we breathe air. It has been this way thruout history. Individuals are smart but if you gather them all together we act like a bunch of lemmings. Doing exactly what they want us to do cause we are scared. Its a simple principle. Cause a problem, present a solution that you want, enforce it. And guess what you have? Synthesis. Create a problem, present your solution, get the desired result to push or nudge the popultaion to do what you want them too. Its how every govt or ruling class functions. Think about it? Before govts they used religions. What better tool than using the name of god to enforce what you believe to be the correct thing to do. I have nothing against god, i do believe in a higher power. Its just that that belief had been twisted in societies since the very beginning.

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