Glenn Greenwald Says NSA, GCHQ Dismayed They Don't Have Access To In-Flight Internet Communication

from the one-that-got-away? dept

Glenn Greenwald gave a video keynote speech to the Chaos Communication Congress last Friday. Most of his talk revolved around the Snowden leaks, of which he says there’s plenty more to come. (The most conservative estimate puts the total number of pages taken by Snowden at ~58,000, of which less than 900 have been released. Cryptome’s running count puts it at 799 pages as of Dec. 24th — 1.4% of the most conservative total.)

According to Greenwald, an upcoming story at his new venture will focus on one area the surveillance mesh has failed to cover — one that’s driving the NSA and GCHQ crazy.

He said he was working on a new story indicating that the NSA was “obsessed” by the idea that people could still use some Internet devices and mobile phones on airplanes without being recorded. “The very idea that human beings can communicate for even a few moments without their ability to monitor is intolerable.”

I can imagine this must be very irritating for the two agencies. Somewhere someone (many someones) will be generating data that isn’t immediately being harvested. I’m sure there’s a “fix” on the way to plug this “security hole.” It’s not as if government intelligence agencies are going to sit idly by while a government regulatory agency (inadvertently) creates airborne data havens by loosening restrictions on electronic devices.

Whatever’s preventing the NSA and GCHQ from making a grab for in-flight data and communications isn’t a technological issue. In-flight WiFi and other internet connections have been available for years. All data necessarily flows in and out of airborne choke points, which would make it very easy for the agencies to collect, store and retrieve the data later.

No, what’s holding the agencies back is likely a lack of justification for patching up this hole in its collections. The metadata being generated may not be protected by the Fourth Amendment, but there’s no simple way to collect and minimize this very mobile form of domestic communication. International flights would perhaps provide some leeway for collection. Once the flight is out of domestic airspace or is connecting with foreign communications towers, etc., it could be argued that the data is fair game.

Playing the “national security” card is a non-starter. To claim potential terrorists are using in-flight connections to communicate without fear of surveillance is to call into question the skills of those providing security on the ground, putting the DHS in the awkward position of explaining why its TSA agents are allowing suspected terrorists to board planes. It also would require officials to believe that terrorists would be willing to risk discovery by airport security in exchange for a few hours of surveillance-free internet usage. None of this is very plausible, and deploying arguments along this line would paint the agencies as data-obsessed paranoiacs, not exactly the sort of image they wish to portray at this point in history.

We do know the NSA collects data on flyers via flight reservation systems and Passenger Name Records (PNRs) created and compiled by airlines. This would give the agency some idea who’s flying and where, and there’s little doubt it would like to take a look at any communications occurring during these flights. I suppose if it wanted to pull the data retroactively it could, provided it could convince the FISA court the data would be relevant to terrorism-related investigations. The TSA could be tasked with linking device info with passenger records, but there’s probably no unobtrusive way to achieve this goal. Because of this, it would be simpler for the agencies to require the airlines to trap communications data and hold it for a certain length of time. PNRs could then be matched with flights and that specific data harvested and pored through for possibly “relevant” communications. Again, this would involve many more entities and tons of domestic citizens’ metadata and communications, something that would have been a tough sell five years ago, much less in today’s Security vs. Privacy climate.

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Comments on “Glenn Greenwald Says NSA, GCHQ Dismayed They Don't Have Access To In-Flight Internet Communication”

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29 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

The TSA could be tasked with linking device info with passenger records, but there’s probably no unobtrusive way to achieve this goal.

Are you a betting man?

What kind of telephone activity does the NSA collect on people? Metadata. How harmful is it to your privacy health? Nada. It is only metadata. That has been the line drawn in the sand by government supporters of NSA activities in monitoring calls. Now a Stanford study by two researchers at Stanford has its own message: Individuals can be easily identified through phone numbers. Connecting metadata with individual names is not just easy; they found it was “trivial.” Jonathan Mayer along with Patrick Mutchler, the researchers, earlier this week on the blog Web Policy, which covers technology, policy, and law, posted their findings under the headline, “MetaPhone: The NSA’s Got Your Number.”

phys.org: Experiment shows connecting names with phone metadata is easy

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m calling shenanigans on that one, there’s no way it would be that easy to connect phone numbers with the owners’ names.

I mean, it’s not like there’s some huge book or index that’s filled with nothing but phone numbers and the names of the people they belong to, so making the connection between phone number and person would obviously take significant effort, and could never be automated, as something like that would require cross indexing and matching the data the NSA scoops up with the mythical ‘book of phone numbers'(or ‘phone book’ for short), and since no one would ever bother to put together one of these ‘phone books'(who would ever need something like that?), such a thing could never happen on a large scale like the researches are trying to suggest.

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The problem is collecting device info as the person makes their way through security. The PNR shows who’s traveling but what devices they’re carrying. Tracking down individual’s information is easy. It’s linking them to specific device info that might be harder. Phones are easy, thanks to phone metadata. Laptops and tablets would be a bit more difficult.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It’s really not difficult to capture a person’s MAC address, as that’s one of the primary ways a WiFi access point identifies a specific device. Since this usually is not something that changes, it’d be pretty easy to eventually link a MAC address to an individual over a course of time. Say you have a 3G/4G cellular tablet, or a Kindle, then it’s even easier. I don’t even think that’d be considered to be more than metadata … MAC address is more or less broadcasted in plain view on a public WiFi network.

matt (user link) says:

Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Dec 30th, 2013 @ 3:51am

Why do we demonize yhe NSA, they dont care about you, they care about giving american interests advantage over foreign entities who do the same shit jsut not as well.

I weep each time a read a Snowden leak, so much taxpayer tech to develop, years of work lost, american.. jobs will be lost, lets see u cry ” hero” when u or your family lose a job.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Dec 30th, 2013 @ 3:51am

We demonize the NSA because they were exposed in doing something bad and harmful to the US and the world. The biggest threat to our freedom is a security state. Also, US history shows that time and time again, the spies go too far in their spying and end up using the information they learn against innocent US citizens.

What is so different now that makes you at all confident that history won’t repeat itself yet again?

I weep each time a read a Snowden leak, so much taxpayer tech to develop, years of work lost

Me too. So much money absolutely wasted in the effort to engage in wholesale spying on US citizens, violating the constitution, and punishing people who warned about it all.

Think of all the genuinely good things that could have been done with all that money. Instead, they turned it into a weapon aimed directly at us all.

What jobs will be lost? Jobs at the NSA? I certainly hope so. Perhaps the people who are debasing themselves by working there will find actually gainful employment and be able to sleep better at night.

, american.. jobs will be lost, lets see u cry ” hero” when u or your family lose a job.

That One Guy (profile) says:

That'll slow 'em down all right

…provided it could convince the FISA court the data would be relevant to terrorism-related investigations.

So, all that’s holding them back is the FISA ‘court’s’ approval before they’re likely to start either directly tapping into such communications themselves, or ordering the airlines do to it and then just scooping up that data.

I can see it now…

NSA: We’d like you to approve this order that may or may not have something to do with in-air communications from planes.

FISA ‘court’ stamp holder: I’m afraid you’ll need to give more justification and a more thorough explanation than that if you want us to approve yet another expansion of your powers.

NSA: Because terrorists.

Stamp holder: That’ll do, here’s your authorization.

Anonymous Coward says:

it doesn’t matter which way you coat it, the agencies are totally paranoid and anything they do, regardless of the piss poor reasons they try to put it, it’s an invasion of privacy and a restriction to everyone’s freedom! none of this has the slightest thing to do with catching or even trying to catch terrorists. it’s all to know exactly which citizens are where and what they are saying to each other over various meetings to disrupt some ‘measure’ each government wants to implement. if there were more actions like there were against ACTA, think of the problems governments would have getting changes brought in that were contra the people. think of the problems the various lobbyists, in particular the likes of the Pharma and Entertainment industries would have getting the law changed and new ones introduced if the people knew exactly how they were going to be shafted, again, as usual, by big business! why does anyone think these deals, instigated 99% of the time by the USA, are done in secret? to stop the people knowing what is going to be taken from them next!!i read where a gold mining company is going to sue a country for stopping them from clearing vast areas of the Rain Forest under this new ‘rule’ brought in by the USA. i then read where a Pharma company in the USA has been stopped from selling a new drug until more tests have been conducted and i couldn’t help but wonder if this massive company was going to sue the USA? i assume the answer is ‘NO’ simply because, like all new treaties and rules the USA force every other country to follow, they wont have to!! tell me that isn’t a bit two-faced, a bit bias!!

Ben S (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Communism isn’t about removing the rights of the citizens, and could theoretically be achieved with out doing that. Communism is supposed to be about preventing the regular masses from being exploited by the rich. A government with supreme power is the method used for this, because it makes it harder for a business to try and influence it. It was great in theory, but failed in practice. Yes, the communist governments that formed did remove all ideas of privacy, but that isn’t actually a part of what communism is about.

The Real Michael says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

In every communist state, private property is abolished; the state owns everything. When people in China converse over the internet, their government listens in. Should the state take exception to what someone says, they will punish that person. It is thought crime.

Now then, what do you suppose is the true purpose for the NSA’s domestic spying is? Here’s a hint: it’s not to catch terrorists.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You do realize the red scare is a couple decades old, right? The days where you could go around calling every person and group you didn’t like ‘communists’, as though that was all that needed to be said, and be taken seriously is very much in the past, these days that sorta thing will likely just get some rolled eyes or snickering sent your way.

Besides, in this case it’s rather counter-productive, there are already plenty of much more appropriate labels one could give the NSA(drunk with power, corrupt, a pack of liars, enemies of the public, and so on), bringing out the ‘communist’ label will just cause people to pass your comments over as coming from someone stuck in the past.

Anonymous Coward says:

i’m not sure how much I buy this hole. If the passenger is calling someone on the ground, the other end would be fully trapped. And if they’re calling someone else on another plane, wouldn’t it still have to go through a major telco trunk with upstream collection somewhere?
It may not be as simple as it would be to gather the data fully wrapped by the airline, but I don’t see any impossible hurdles here.
Wifi may be a more challenging issue, as it may be harder for NSA to distinguish users on a flight.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Dec 30th, 2013 @ 7:30am

or maybe it’s cell tower location data that they are missing? Maybe without airline cooperation, they can’t distinguish which calls are on which flight (provided the phone was batteryless on the ground).

I still find it hard to believe they don’t have full cooperation from the airlines.

I’m also intrigued by the phrase:
some internet devices and mobile phones

I wonder why ‘some’?

Androgynous Cowherd says:

He said he was working on a new story indicating that the NSA was ?obsessed? by the idea that people could still use some Internet devices and mobile phones on airplanes without being recorded. ?The very idea that human beings can communicate for even a few moments without their ability to monitor is intolerable.?

They must really hate not being able to intercept people whispering near loud trucks or whatever, then.

Androgynous Cowherd says:

Playing the “national security” card is a non-starter. To claim potential terrorists are using in-flight connections to communicate without fear of surveillance is to call into question the skills of those providing security on the ground, putting the DHS in the awkward position of explaining why its TSA agents are allowing suspected terrorists to board planes.

Ah, I see where you’re confused. That’s an all too common misunderstanding — that the NSA is after fanatics that are looking to fly more planes into more buildings.

No, no, the real terrorists, the real threats to the current business-owner elites, are eco-activists, investigative journalists doing exposes on factory farms, Occupy rabble-rousers, unionists, and so forth, none of whom fall within the area of the TSA’s concern since they don’t try to hijack or blow up airplanes.

The NSA’s worry is that some whistleblower and some journalist are going to meet on a flight or use in-flight wi-fi from separate places to exchange information about some nasty animal cruelty down at a Monsanto farm, or worse, another Snowden will exchange documents with another Greenwald using such means.

*Those* are the “terrorists” the NSA, and the administration pulling the NSA’s strings, and the small cabal of super-wealthy people pulling the administration’s strings, are concerned about.

Sheogorath (profile) says:

He said he was working on a new story indicating that the NSA was “obsessed? by the idea that people could still use some Internet devices and mobile phones on airplanes without being recorded.
So all I have to do to send stories to my beta reader without Gmail ‘losing’ the attachments is to fly to Australia and take advantage of the 21 hour flight? Thanks for letting me know!

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