7 Things You Missed If You Didn't Read Wired's Big Story On How The NSA Is Killing The Internet

from the it's-not-almost dept

Steven Levy, who specializes in massive articles looking into aspects of the tech industry, has a new one for Wired, called How the NSA Almost Killed the Internet. It basically looks at how the NSA legally coerced the tech companies into having to comply with certain court orders to hand over information, and how the tech companies have been gagged from explaining what’s going on. And then… he gets the NSA’s side of the story. Much of what’s in there is stuff that you probably already know (especially if you read Techdirt regularly), but I wanted to call out a few tidbits that I hadn’t seen or heard anywhere else before:

  1. Google doesn’t charge the government for requests for information:

    FISA requires the government to reimburse companies for the cost of retrieving information. Google says it doesn’t bother to charge the government. But one company says it uses that clause, hoping to limit the extent of the requests. “At first, we thought we shouldn’t charge for it,” says an executive of that company. “Then we realized, it’s good—it forces them to stop and think.”

    This is kind of a “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” situation. I know plenty of folks in the civil liberties community go back and forth on it. When companies do charge, then you see articles about how companies are “making a profit” off of violating our privacy. If they don’t charge, then you see arguments about how they’re making it too easy for the government to get info. Either way, the standard has been to charge basic costs, so it’s interesting to see that Google doesn’t charge at all, probably betting on the fact that if they did, it would be misrepresented. Of course, the fact that they don’t might be misrepresented as well.

  2. The NSA has no response to fear of future abuse of programs beyond “we’d never do that.” Seriously.

    Critics charge that while there is not yet any evidence of massive abuse of the NSA’s collected data, there is also no guarantee that a future regime won’t ignore these touted protections. These officials discounted that possibility, saying that the majority of NSA employees wouldn’t stand for such a policy. “If that happened, there would be lines at the Inspector General’s office here, and at Congress as well—longer than a Disneyland line,” Ledgett says. (The fates of several NSA employees-turned-whistleblowers indicate that anyone in that hypothetical queue would be in for a ride far wilder than anything in Anaheim.)

    Sure, except there’s a very long history of the NSA and the FBI doing exactly the opposite (the claim of no evidence of massive abuse is not actually true). And, as Levy notes in that final parenthetical, the way whistleblowers are treated these days would probably shorten that line quite a bit.

  3. Keith Alexander admits that companies were compelled to comply and admits that we should stand up for the companies not to be harmed by all of this:

    “This isn’t the companies’ fault. They were compelled to do it. As a nation, we have a responsibility to stand up for the companies, both domestically and internationally. That is our nation’s best interest. We don’t want our companies to lose their economic capability and advantage. It’s for the future of our country.”

    Those words could have come from a policy spokesperson for Google, Facebook, Microsoft, or Yahoo. Or one of the legislators criticizing the NSA’s tactics. Or even a civil liberties group opposing the NSA. But the source is US Army general Keith Alexander, director of the NSA. Still, even as he acknowledges that tech companies have been forced into a tough position, he insists that his programs are legal, necessary, and respectful of privacy.

    This is just bizarre. If he doesn’t want the companies to lose their economic capability and advantage, maybe he shouldn’t have undermined a large portion of it.

  4. Companies were given about 90 minutes to respond to the (misleading) claims in the original PRISM article that they had given the NSA direct access to their servers.

    “We had 90 minutes to respond,” says Facebook’s head of security, Joe Sullivan. No one at the company had ever heard of a program called Prism. And the most damning implication—that Facebook and the other companies granted the NSA direct access to their servers in order to suck up vast quantities of information—seemed outright wrong. CEO Mark Zuckerberg was taken aback by the charge and asked his executives whether it was true. Their answer: no.

    Similar panicked conversations were taking place at Google, Apple, and Microsoft. “We asked around: Are there any surreptitious ways of getting information?” says Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel. “No.”

    This remains one of the most unfortunate bits about the Snowden leaks. While I think that Barton Gellman, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras have done an incredible job with most of their reporting, the original PRISM stories that appeared in the Washington Post and Guardian both came out rushed and were misleading, which is still impacting how people are reporting on these things today. The PRISM program and Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act have serious issues that need exploring, but it’s all been distorted by the misleading initial claims, which implied things that just weren’t true.

  5. The NSA claims it uses the very same encryption that it tries to push everyone else to use. Yes, the same encryption that Snowden docs have revealed was compromised by the NSA.

    And the NSA insists that, despite the implications of those Snowden-leaked documents, it does not engage in weakening encryption standards. “The same standards we recommend are the standards we use,” Ledgett says. “We would not use standards we thought were vulnerable. That would be insane.”

    Sorry, but no one believes that one at all. The clear takeover by the NSA of NIST standards shows that’s clearly not true.

  6. The NSA still doesn’t realize how serious all of this is. They still think it’s just been blown out of proportion.

    They understand that journalism conferences routinely host sessions on protecting information from government snoops, as if we were living in some Soviet society. And they are aware that multiple security specialists in the nation’s top tech corporations now consider the US government their prime adversary.

    But they do not see any of those points as a reason to stop gathering data. They chalk all of that negativity up to monumental misunderstandings triggered by a lone leaker and a hostile press.

  7. Patent troll Nathan Myhrvold is also completely clueless about national security:

    Former Microsoft research head Nathan Myhrvold recently wrote a hair-raising treatise arguing that, considering the threat of terrorists with biology degrees who could wipe out a good portion of humanity, tough surveillance measures might not be so bad. Myhrvold calls out the tech companies for hypocrisy. They argue that the NSA should stop exploiting information in the name of national security, he says, but they are more than happy to do the same thing in pursuit of their bottom lines. “The cost is going to be lower efficiency in finding terrorist plots—and that cost means blood,” he says.

    This is stupid on so many levels. First, the old argument that it’s somehow equivalent of tech companies and the NSA to make use of information — a claim that Levy ridiculously repeats multiple times in his article — is a line that has been debunked so many times it’s really beneath Levy to give it any life at all, let alone refuse to point out how stupid it is. Companies provide a direct service to users, and they make a decision: If I give this information, I get this service in return. It’s a decision made by the consumer, and a trade-off where they decide if it’s worth it. We can argue that people should have more information about the costs and benefits, but it’s still a trade-off where the final decision is their own. The NSA, on the other hand, is not providing a choice or a trade-off. They’re just taking everything in exchange for nothing. And, oh yeah, they have guns and can put you in jail — something no company can do.

    Second, Myhrvold incorrectly buys completely the line that all this data collection has been helpful in stopping terrorists. There’s just one problem: there is no evidence to support that. Besides, based on his idiotic reasoning, we might as well just do away with pretty much all our rights. For example, I’m pretty sure that we could all have protected Myhrvold more completely if there were video cameras streaming video of everything he did within the privacy of his own home, cars, office or just walking around, right? We could certainly make sure that no one was attacking him or, better yet, that he wasn’t about to attack anyone. The cost of not spying on every moment of Nathan Myhrvold might mean “blood.” So, based on his own logic, we should violate his privacy, right?

All in all there’s a lot in the article that’s worth reading, but those were a few key points that really stood out.

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Companies: google, yahoo

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Comments on “7 Things You Missed If You Didn't Read Wired's Big Story On How The NSA Is Killing The Internet”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The NSA has already lost any creditability it had. It could have just come out and said yeah, we do these things but due to National Security we can only talk about it to approved personnel and then made sure the unrestricted data got spread out. By this time it would have all blown over with just a few humps and bumps.

Instead they chose to lie, to misdirect and obfuscate, and trying to slide out of it waiting for it to all die down. They were caught in the lies with more Snowden revelations. They wasted whatever good will they might have had. Now there is nothing they say I will believe. Face it, it’s worse than we’ve been told as Gellman, Greenwald and Poitras have made it very plain they are not releasing it all due to serious consequences to people on the ground (agents) that could be named. The NSA and the GCHQ are given a chance before these articles go out to stop them. That we don’t want them going out, isn’t a valid reason.

There is no oversight. None whatever when the Oversite Committee can be lied to. There is no whistle blower protections as we have seen time and again with spy trials over whistle blowing. There is no reign in, no check, no amount of money they won’t spend to get what they want. Given that you would now like me to believe that all this data collection won’t be used to move judges and congress critters to favor them? I don’t buy that for a moment but as a speculation it would explain why Obama as a senator was against this type of spying but as president can’t back it enough.

No feel good pull back on the NSA will satisfy the public, the major corporations, nor the global community such as Obama is sure to present. It will have to be real and honest change. Election season is coming and some politicians are fixing to feel the heat over it.

Trevor (profile) says:

What if...

What if Google charged an extremely steep price (like, say, $200,000) per request?

They can argue that the cost includes loss of investor opportunities and trust, and loss of potential contracts because their reputation took the hit (Much like Boeing losing out on a 7 Billion dollar contract…), and the price would be hard to justify asking for hundreds of thousands of records?

Also, Google (being not evil and all) could give that money to charity, or the ACLU, or the EFF and make a big deal about it in the press, so the government backs off.

Or would that reveal the number of requests they got if they revealed how much they charged/received?

out_of_the_blue says:

The incremental cost or profit for Google is near zero.

And that “Google doesn’t charge the government” is COMPLETE DIVERSION! Takes focus off FACT that Google is providing the information to useless discussion of whether or not charging is the right approach! SHEER CORPORATIST PR BALONEY!

GOOLE IS MAKING PROFITS OFF VIOLATING OUR PRIVACY! Every day, every second, EVERY WAY IT CAN! That’s it’s central “business model!”

The Google-Borg. Your privacy becomes our profit.


krolork (profile) says:

In a couple of years, the internet will be more secure. The NSA doesn’t realize that they started the beginning of their end.

Look back at Mega Upload. Did they raid him using illegal means? Probably. So Kim Dotcom made a new service better and more secure. Truecrypt had a crowd finding campaign to audit the program and verify it is all good.

This will only push the Internet into its next version. A more secure version. And in excited.

Anonymous Coward says:

I hate Wired, every single time a controversial trollish story is posted they lock down the comments. They troll then they lock it down so people cannot tell them just how fucking stupid their view is.

It’s only a select few and for the most part the majority of writers do a good job.

Still I refuse to user their site as long as they censor people.

Anonymous Coward says:

I can’t wait for all the new privacy services to start appearing and accepting new customers. I’m personally excited about LEAP (https://leap.se/en) and Mailpile (https://www.mailpile.is/), encrypted email services. I believe these products are designed to resist metadata logging as well.

I’m switching over from Gmail and Hotmail to one of these new privacy services, as soon as one comes online.

I just noticed that neither of these new privacy services appear to be located in the USA. That’s probably a good thing, because I hear there’s a new “mandatory” metadata logging policy coming to the United States soon.

That’s too bad. It’s probably going to prevent American tech. companies, from competitively competing with other online services in the global market.

Anyone who values their privacy, is going to choose a service where they have control over what information they voluntarily hand over to a third party.

madasahatter (profile) says:

National Stupidity Agency

One item that stands out is the NSA appears to believe the Chinese, Russians, Germans, Indians, etc. are too stupid to find their backdoors and keys. Maybe not immediately but eventually. Encryption and code-breaking have been a technical race for a long time with one side gaining the upper hand then losing it. To think any encryption/security system is unbreakable or the other side is too stupid to crack yours is asking for a disaster.

Anonymous Coward says:

Thailand Mirror

In Thailand meanwhile, a coup leader named Suthep marched on Bangkok trying to get the elected government thrown out and 400 of his chosen people in power. That failed.

Various bodies stuffed full of coup-man’s cronies of his are trying to get power other ways.

Electoral Commission (whose only job is to run elections) wants to act as ‘moderator’ between the two sides, (government and coup plotter). On threat of stopping elections by not doing its job.

National Anti Corruption Commission is investigating ministers and senators for proposing a fully elected Senate as an ‘attempt to seize power’. They made it half ‘appointed’ when they took power in the military coup of 2006.

Southern provinces (Sutheps power base) has so far failed to register candidates for elections. Preventing anyone from running for elections, and if 95% of seats aren’t voted in, they can’t form a government ending democracy.

Lots of termites coming out of the woodwork trying to seize power from the elected government and stop elections.

Take a look. This is your future if you don’t keep your agencies under democratic supervision and control.

mrtraver (profile) says:

“And, oh yeah, they have guns and can put you in jail — something no company can do.”

Unfortunately I don’t think this is true any more.

Apple has armed enforcers from ICE do their dirty work. http://www.techdirt.com/blog/wireless/articles/20130429/07214322874/homeland-security-participates-trademark-raid.shtml

RIAA has the FBI. http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140107/01242425782/full-story-behind-riaa-fbis-insanely-wasteful-prosecution-dude-who-streamed-guns-n-roses-album.shtml

MPAA has their own Swedish police force http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20070219/183214.shtml

I’m sure there are others, these are just three I was able to find quickly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Killing the internet??? really ??

” It basically looks at how the NSA legally coerced the tech companies into having to comply with certain court orders to hand over information, and how the tech companies have been gagged from explaining what’s going on.”

and how on earth is that “killing the internet”?? does anyone bother to explain that, or is that just a sensationalist claim? to get page views?

Anonymous Coward says:

Government, contractors, all dangerous

” (the government has)…guns and can put you in jail — something no company can do.”

With the increasing use of mercenaries (for instance Blackwater, Academi or whatever they’re calling themselves this week) by the federal spook agencies, and the fact that these private security companies are able to simultaneously hold contracts with commercial corporations, combined with the willingness of the DOJ and DHS to do the bidding of said corporations, I wouldn’t assume that no corporations are capable of using violence or imprisonment against you and getting away with it.

Lu?s says:

The evidence that the NSA has access into internal networks of American companies is now out there for everyone to see. You can try to defend your companies in every way you want, they’ll take the hit all the same, and rightly so. The only one that acted ethically was Lavabit.

As other commentators noted, a new internet will emerge out of this, and surely one where Americans have much less grip on.

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