NSA Needs To Give Its Rank-and-File New Talking Points Defending Surveillance; The Old Ones Are Stale

from the that's-not-really-going-to-cut-it dept

It would appear that the NSA’s latest PR trick is to get out beyond the top brass — James Clapper, Keith Alexander, Michael Hayden and Robert Litt haven’t exactly been doing the NSA any favors on the PR front lately — and get some commentary from “the rank and file.” ZDNet apparently agreed to publish a piece from NSA mathemetician/cryptanalyst Roger Barkan in which he defends the NSA using a bunch of already debunked talking points. What’s funny is that many of these were the talking points that the NSA first tried out back in June and were quickly shown to be untrue. However, let’s take a look. It’s not that Barkan is directly lying… it’s just that he’s setting up strawmen to knock down at a record pace.

As someone deep in the trenches of NSA, where I work on a daily basis with data acquired from these programs, I, too, feel compelled to raise my voice. Do I, as an American, have any concerns about whether the NSA is illegally or surreptitiously targeting or tracking the communications of other Americans?

The answer is emphatically, “No.”

Well, good for you. But others are worried, because it’s already been shown that, in fact, yes, the NSA is both targeting and tracking communications of Americans. Now, I recognize that the NSA has redefined “targeting” and “tracking” to mean things that their plain English definitions don’t mean, but for those of us who speak English, it’s clear that the NSA collects data on every phone call of every American. It also does things like “three hops” analysis, which covers many Americans. Furthermore, even if Barkan isn’t concerned, the FISA Court apparently felt otherwise. As we noted, just last week the government declassified documents showing how the NSA massively abused the rules set up by the FISA Court to do regular searches on incoming business records covering Americans, despite rules that said it shouldn’t without a “reasonable and articulable suspicion,” which the NSA didn’t actually have in the majority of cases. Oh right, but I forget, the NSA also redefined “abuse,” so those don’t count as abuses.

Analysts are not free to wander through all of NSA’s collected data willy-nilly, snooping into any communication they please. Rather, analysts’ activity is carefully monitored, recorded, and reviewed to ensure that every use of data serves a legitimate foreign intelligence purpose.

Perhaps analysts are carefully monitored, but it appears that at least 1,000 sys admins had free rein to check out whatever they wanted without leaving any trail at all. You think no analysts at the NSA have figured that out as well?

We’re not watching you. We’re the ones being watched.

Well, you’re not being watched if you can cover your tracks, login as someone else, and use a variety of other tricks that outside contractors like Snowden could apparently do. And, yes, if you’re collecting everyone’s data, you are, in fact, watching us. That’s kind of how it works by definition.

Further, NSA’s systems are built with several layers of checks and redundancy to ensure that data are not accessed by analysts outside of approved and monitored channels.

As already explained, that’s simply not true. Or, rather, while it might be true for analysts, it’s clearly not true for others, such as sys admins. And, at the same time, just last week the NSA claimed that no one actually understood how its systems worked, so how can we actually be sure that these checks and redundancy work? They clearly didn’t with Snowden.

When even the tiniest analyst error is detected, it is immediately and forthrightly addressed and reported internally and then to NSA’s external overseers. Given the mountains of paperwork that the incident reporting process entails, you can be assured that those of us who design and operate these systems are extremely motivated to make sure that mistakes happen as rarely as possible!

And yet, there’s an entire LOVINT classification for analysts spying on love interests. And those only cover the “abuses” done by someone who follows the rules and doesn’t try to cover their tracks.

A myth that truly bewilders me is the notion that the NSA could or would spend time looking into the communications of ordinary Americans.

Total strawman. People don’t think you’re randomly checking in on random people here and there, but the power to dig into anyone of interest and potentially abuse that power is immense. We’ve covered numerous stories of cases involving trumped up and piled on charges in this world of “three felonies a day” overcriminalization. Furthermore, it’s already been revealed that the NSA has helped the DEA with evidence that then gets laundered. If someone suddenly is “of interest,” the power to abuse the massive data store you have to “help out” others in law enforcement is quite a strong temptation.

Even if such looking were not illegal or very dangerous to execute within our systems, given the monitoring of our activities, it would not in any way advance our mission.

Well, as noted, there are clearly ways around the monitoring system. But, more to the point, while Roger Barkan may be a truly standup guy who is focused solely on the NSA’s “mission,” how can he say with certainty that every other employee and contractor working for the NSA has the same moral code? He can’t. The history of surveillance is littered with examples of people abusing those powers. Hell, remember when the NSA listened in on phone sex calls and shared them around the office? I’m curious if Roger Barkan can explain how that advanced the NSA’s mission?

We have more than enough to keep track of — people who are actively planning to do harm to American citizens and interests — than to even consider spending time reading recipes that your mother emails you.

Another strawman. Of course you’re not “spending time” reading the recipes someone’s mother sends them, but that’s not what people are worried about. They’re worried that if they get into some other trouble, the NSA will connect various dots to find other charges to pile on. It’s not like J. Edgar Hoover did all this kind of stuff with a lot less power in ancient history.

Much of the focus of the public debate thus far has been on the amount of data that NSA has access to, which I feel misses the critical point. In today’s digital society, the Big Data genie is out of the bottle. Every day, more personal data become available to individuals, corporations, and the government. What matters are the rules that govern how NSA uses this data, and the multiple oversight and compliance efforts that keep us consistent with those rules. I have not only seen but also experienced firsthand, on a daily basis, that these rules and the oversight and compliance practices are stringent. And they work to protect the privacy rights of all Americans.

The oversight is stringent? Is this why members of the House Intelligence Committee weren’t told about abuses, despite thousands of actual abuses? Or how about Senate Intelligence Committee boss Dianne Feinstein claiming to have not seen a key report on NSA abuses? Or, how about House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers deliberately withholding the details of some of the spying from incoming House members who had to vote on whether or not to renew one of the key surveillance programs? What about the FISA Court’s chief judge admitting that his “oversight” is limited to what the NSA tells him? And, when he finally finds out the details of the program, he quite reasonably freaks out about the widespread abuse.

That’s not oversight. And there’s no evidence that this protects the privacy rights of Americans. The details suggest otherwise. No, you might not be reading my mom’s recipes, but if you wanted to do something nefarious against certain individuals, it’s pretty clear that many people within the NSA have the ability to do so. And that’s a problem.

I have every confidence that when this is done, the American people will see what I have seen: that the NSA conducts its work with an uncompromising respect for the rules — the laws, executive orders, and judicial orders under which we operate.

While that may be true of Roger Barkan, how can he say that with such confidence of every other NSA employee and contractor, especially since it’s already been proven false. That “uncompromising respect for the rules” seems to involve the NSA regularly reinterpreting basic English words to try to pretend they’re still following the rules, while clearly going against their intent. And, let’s remember, that this is the same NSA that told the FISA court that the reason it was doing full searches without warrants on incoming data was because it believed that the rules on minimization only applied to “archived data,” not the new firehose of info coming in each day. Even the head of the FISA court noted this “strains credulity.” This is not an “uncompromising respect for the rules.” This is a shady effort to figure out any way possible to get around the rules.

If it is determined that the rules should be changed or updated, we at NSA would faithfully and effectively adapt. My NSA colleagues and I stand ready to continue to defend this nation using only the tools that we are authorized to use and in the specific ways that we are authorized to use them. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

We never forget that we, too, are Americans.

Again, while that may be true for Roger Barkan, and it may be true for the majority of NSA employees and contractors, how can he say with such certainty that it’s true of every American? Plenty of Americans have abused such powers in the past. What makes the current staff immune from the same temptations? The answer is absolutely nothing.

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Comments on “NSA Needs To Give Its Rank-and-File New Talking Points Defending Surveillance; The Old Ones Are Stale”

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Anonymous Coward says:

the NSA should be disbanded for good along with the other ‘security agencies’ and a clean, new start should happen. this time, there needs to be far more openness in what is happening, what safeguards are in place and what oversight is available, not from within, but from outside! any courts that are involved need to ensure that all rules are applied and followed at all times, no excuses, no exceptions. anyone failing to follow all the rules all of the time being in deep shit, from which there is no escape!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Given how security driven the NSA is, one has to assume every thing is celled in some manner. That if you work in one branch, you don’t know enough about what another branch is doing to spill the beans over there too. This is common sense and takes no master of mathematics to figure out. It’s why Snowden had to log in using others passwords. Were it not this way, he would have had direct access without having to go through hoops to get it.

Now suddenly some supposedly Average Joe NSA worker can stand up and say, “we don’t do that”. Yet every piece of evidence coming through says yes you do.

What this reveals to me is that the NSA is getting very uncomfortable with it’s name recognition being coupled with what it actually does. There’s no lying in the revelations. It knows that it is in trouble and has found out that lying no longer works. It is desperate to change that to something it knows and can deal with and is failing miserably.

It has reached the point it knows changes are coming, there is no way out of it. So at this point I know what I am seeing is damage control and nothing else. There is no way I will believe anything put out by the NSA as they have no creditability any longer.

Brandt Hardin (user link) says:

Living in a Society of Fear

The dystopian fantasies of yesteryear are now a reality. We?ve allowed the coming of an age where the civil liberties our forefathers fought so hard for are being eroded by the day. Freedom of Press, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly are mere ghostly images of their original intent. We?ve woken up to an Orwellian Society of Fear where anyone is at the mercy of being labeled a terrorist for standing up for rights we took for granted just over a decade ago. Read about how we?re waging war against ourselves at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/09/living-in-society-of-fear-ten-years.html

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Living in a Society of Fear

Let me inject a note of optimism into this.

The dystopian fantasies of yesteryear were not really talking about what could happen in the future, they were describing what was happening in their own time. What is happening now is part of a regular cycle — we’ve been there before.

But cyclic things are predictable things — we can predict that this cycle will continue and we will emerge as free people again (after which the cycle will continue and tyranny will remerge, be beaten down, emerge, get beaten, and so on.)

This is optimistic because the long-haul history on this is pretty clear. Despite the back-and-forth that can make it hard to see in the moment, the trend is toward freedom.

As a great man once said, “the arc of history bends toward justice.”

Loki says:

Do I, as an American, have any concerns about whether the NSA is illegally or surreptitiously targeting or tracking the communications of other Americans?

Notice also, that he isn’t stating that the NSA is not in fact doing these things. He’s stating that he doesn’t have any concerns about it. Of course he’s not concerned. He’s a military drone.

Loki says:

Further, NSA’s systems are built with several layers of checks and redundancy to ensure that data are not accessed by analysts outside of approved and monitored channels.

And yet, by the NSA’s own “admissions” the system is “so complex” that no one person can know everything. So how can he, or anyone else, claim those checks and redundancies can’t be bypassed or that someone hasn’t found a way.

After all, six months ago they would have told us what Snowden (and I still believe he wasn’t the first, just the first to expose it to the public) did would have been impossible. And yet that was proven wrong in time too.

TheLastCzarnian (profile) says:


If the NSA is tracking all overseas e-mail and financial transactions, why do they let so many Americans send money to scammers? Why can’t these scammers be prosecuted? Are we supposed to believe that they filtered the scammers out? That no scammer money goes to some terrorist somewhere?
Damn, do something useful with that ill-gotten data.

Anonymous Coward says:

Having an employee, who is currently employed at the NSA, telling me not to worry. Makes me worry even more.

It’s kind of like having one of Al Capone’s thugs asking for the names and addresses of all your family members.

Then having the thug say, “Don’t worry, I work for Al Capone. He’s a great guy. Plus, he’s an Amercian. You can trust him, because he’s my boss.”

It’s funny because the only people who the NSA has try and defend itself. Is NSA insiders. No-one on the outside will do it.

Congressional intelligence board members don’t count as outsiders. You can’t count people receiving money from the NSA as a outsiders.

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