Former NSA Head Says You Can Avoid Government Spying By Using This One Simple Trick

from the 'simple'-as-in-'slow' dept

Former NSA head Keith Alexander — the original Million Dollar (a month) Man and premier cybersecurity consultant to the banking industry — is taking his years of expertise (and several mysteriously non-public patents) on the road, speaking at whatever venue will have him.

He recently delivered remarks at MIRcon in Washington, explaining exactly how simple it is for Americans to avoid the sort of domestic surveillance they always assumed they’d never have to worry about (you know, because of the Constitution and its various amendments, etc.). And remember, this man is asking $1 million a month to rent his brain.

“Our data’s in there (NSA databases), my data’s in there. If I talk to an Al Qaeda operative, the chances of my data being looked at is really good, so I try not to do that. If you don’t want to you shouldn’t either,” he told MIRcon delegates.

Easy for Alexander to say. He probably has a general idea who they are. But what about the rest of us? It’s not like Al Qaeda operatives are particularly forthcoming about their day jobs. How are we supposed to stay off the NSA’s radar? And what if it’s not us, but a friend of a friend talking to… I don’t know… students of Yemeni descent who currently reside in the Alabama area?

This advice is less than useless. Those who actively seek contact with terrorists likely know to stay clear of surveilled channels. Those who aren’t seeking contact have their data (and sometimes communications) agnostically hoovered up by the US government’s various surveillance and investigatory arms.

And what about other threats, both acknowledged and unacknowledged? Lots of rumbling is being heard about new strains of domestic extremism and threats, many of which sound suspiciously like groups the government finds annoying rather than actually dangerous.

Alexander’s answer is worse than just being overly-simplistic. It’s glib. It’s the sort of flip answer no one who exited a national security agency mid-crisis should be handing out. While I understand that going much deeper into the subject matter would soon take it into classified areas, this is the sort of obtuse answer one expects from a clueless, low-level local politician, rather than from someone who spent more than a decade overseeing the NSA’s operations.

It’s the same sort of condescension we see far too often from people in positions of power. Don’t want trouble with the cops? Well, don’t break laws and don’t give us any lip. Except that being law-abiding doesn’t keep you from having your car impounded or your house raided. Don’t want extra attention from the NSA? Follow Keith Alexander’s advice — advice that’s nullified if anyone a hop or two away on the communication chain has communicated with Al Qaeda operatives. Or if your communications are routed through overseas internet ‘backbones.’ Or any number of other variables.

I guess one of the few things we have to look forward to is Keith Alexander turning some of our nation’s banks into temporary homes for document-leaking insiders. Installing an NSA head as a security consultant will probably prompt a few suited revolutionaries to spring into action, finally putting those administrative privileges and USB drives to work for the public good.

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Comments on “Former NSA Head Says You Can Avoid Government Spying By Using This One Simple Trick”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

'Just ignore the camera at the window, they probably won't look at the pictures later.'

Our data’s in there (NSA databases), my data’s in there. If I talk to an Al Qaeda operative, the chances of my data being looked at is really good, so I try not to do that. If you don’t want to you shouldn’t either,” he told MIRcon delegates.

First and foremost, just because the idea is completely and utterly ridiculous, he used to run the NSA, there is no way in hell his personal information is in the database. That database is an arsenal waiting to be used(maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but as long as it exists, so does the potential), I find it highly unlikely he’d allow information that could be used against him at some point to remain in it.

That out of the way, it’s important to note that he’s not telling people how to avoid government spying. That statement has nothing about not being spied on unless you believe in the peeping tom defense, the ‘It’s not a violation of your privacy if you don’t know about it and we don’t look at it’ one they like to trot out every so often.

No, the only thing he’s saying is that to decrease the odds of your information being looked at, you need to do the impossible and not talk to anyone tagged as ‘dangerous’. Or talk to anyone who may in turn talk to someone on one of the ‘dangerous person’ lists. Depending on how many ‘jumps’ they still consider relevant, the list may be even more extensive than that, but given we’re talking about the NSA, who couldn’t answer honestly even if you just asked them what time it is, knowing how long the chain is is all but impossible.

He’s not telling people how not to be spied on, he’s telling people that they will be spied on, like it or not, and if they don’t want their information looked at, they need to do the impossible and know everything there is to know about who they talk to, who the people they talk to talk to, and so on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: 'Just ignore the camera at the window, they probably won't look at the pictures later.'

Not only are they in there, but some of them deal directly with heads of state of enemy countries who by their very nature put them within 2 hops of the “watched”. One hop out from the officials takes in every single important person in the world. The sear potential for blackmail would never be abused by our glorious leaders though.

Anonymous Hero says:

Not everyone can be perfect

> Those who actively seek contact with terrorists likely know to stay clear of surveilled channels.

I don’t think this is likely at all. The silk road guy likely knew how to stay clear of surveilled channels and look how that turned out for him.

Just because you want to “blow up infidels”, or whatever, doesn’t make you a computer network security expert.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Not everyone can be perfect

Just because you want to “blow up infidels”, or whatever, doesn’t make you a computer network security expert.

I would say at this point being a computer network security expert and avoiding surveilled channels are unrelated, because the computer networks are all surveilled. The people who want to talk about blowing stuff up without getting caught don’t even use cell phones, let alone computers.

Whoever says:

Buy pizza from the wrong store ....

If you phone for pizza from the same store as someone who happens to be a suspect, your data is now subject to search. That’s how ridiculous this is.

But as to renting Alexander’s brain — that’s not what anyone is going to pay him for. It’s his connections that are the main draw, and perhaps the hope of getting useful but classified information from him.

Let’s face it, he is completely clueless when it comes to technology. Which means clueless when it comes to data security.

Anonymous Coward says:

The only way to avoid NSA surveillance

Stay on surveillance-free channels, which mostly means low-tech/no-tech channels: cash-only purchases, meetings only in-person, no electronic records of your day. But then if you do that, you end up being a luddite hermit and will probably get branded as a Lone Wolf for shunning technological society.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

How many times can I mark this as insightful?

In the best tradition of soft tyranny, a government can shape the political dialog to fit its agenda, just by telling its citizens that they are being watched. In one sense, the Snowden leaks were a boon to those in power: since his leaks, I find myself pausing before writing certain thoughts in emails, or searching for specific terms on the web.

Chasis (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

What? Do you think that with all the surveillance that he had being done, that he’d start a business for banks without sufficient coercion material? Get real. He’s gonna make his own “bank,” so to speak. You don’t really think the banks would pay him his asking price of $1 Million/month for security purposes do you? Hell, they send sensitive information over the wire unencrypted, they don’t need no shteenking security.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

. Everything is monitored, stored, and can haunt you to the end of time.

The most important point, maybe you can avoid associating with people who are officially on today’s list of targets BUT.

1. The NSA might not be telling us the full list of “dangerous associations” (given their track record it would be really surprising if they were).

2. As has been pointed out before – not everyone with access to this data is necessarily “on our side”. The government has been successful in identifying “whistleblowers” who have access to the data – but then that is comparatively easy because they put the information itself into the public domain. Edward Snowden could have secretly passed his information to the Iranians or even IS or Al Qaeda and no one would have found out.

3. The nightmare scenario is what happens if the nature of the US government changed and decided to act against groups or opinions that are currently regarded as fine. The data is there ready to be used even against those who currently think of themselves as “the good guys”.

ut imagine what might happen if the ethos of the government changed

Anonymous Coward says:


I would be stunned if the CIA or NSA or maybe even the DEA didn’t have a call center in the middle east. They hire a handful of people, make them sign a document saying they are tetrorists, and then give them a list of numbers to call.

They probably had to staff up after Obama dropped the hop count from 3 to 2.

And now that I’ve posted this, if they didn’t already have one they will soon.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Sophistry

I really wish that was more in tin-foil hat territory, but honestly, these days, and seeing just how far the various agencies will go as long as they can justify their actions to themselves(because they don’t answer to anyone else), such a scheme wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if it turned out they were doing something like that.

Want to spy on a given individual, just have someone you’ve had tagged as a ‘terrorists’ or ‘dangerous individual’ give them a call, and just like that, instant legal justification to tap into and scoop up their communications.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

its like all the other profiling...

1. you are guilty if you look nervous…
2. you are guilty if you look calm…
3. you are guilty if you assert your rights…
4. you are guilty if you refuse your rights…
5. you are guilty if you talk…
6. you are guilty if you don’t talk…
…et cetera ad infinitum ad nauseum

to sum up: you are guilty unless you are of the 1%…

Anonymous Coward says:

A big failure with the idea that you should not talk to extremists

Courts have long held that the cure for bad speech is not to suppress the bad speech, but to encourage good speech. Yet here terrorist Keith Alexander says that you must not talk to bad people if you want to avoid surveillance. That might make sense if it was a given that talking to bad people made you a bad person, but it totally ignores the existence of good samaritans who talk to bad people for the purpose of convincing them that extremism is the wrong solution. You can’t convert the absolute fanatics, but you might turn back someone who is not too far down the path of being “radicalized.” Yet if you even try to talk them down, you get put on the surveillance special list because you’re talking to bad people.

Rapnel (profile) says:

Oh hey guys, don’t associate with known or suspected terrorists and your stuff might remain private. Don’t be suspected of dealing drugs and you might not get shot. Don’t be disrespectful of police and you might not get beaten. Don’t stop in public and you might not get arrested. Don’t speak or you might be heard.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
.. and with my golden key will listen to you all forever more from my golden throne and you will be secure. Fuck this guy.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: There's another way to avoid Government Spying.

“Elect politicians who will cut the NSA’s budgets.”

Methinks that much/most of the NSA’s public surveillance program is specifically aimed at gathering dirt on anyone in America who might run for office with the sort of mindset you mention above. To the NSA, that sort of person is the true Terrorist Under The Bed.

If you can find such people, you can likely vote’em in to office, but they will belong to the NSA immediately afterwards.

shane (profile) says:


The excuses for all of this surveillance just do not hold water. We are constantly told the government is on top of all of this, and then terrorist attacks and large scale crimes happen all the time. There is still a ton of drug related crime. You’re going to tell me they can prevent terror but can’t prevent crack cocaine sales. It is fairly obvious the reason there have been so few terrorist attacks in the US is because the number of people willing to carry them out is substantially smaller than the number of people willing to traffic in narcotics.

There are not enough people in the world to effectively keep tabs on all the people in the world.

All this data just serves as a method for convicting someone based on circumstantial evidence after the fact.

It’s like all of the arguments in support of torture. In the end, torture is actually detrimental to any military effort as it undercuts the perception of the just cause and also motivates the enemy to fight to the death rather than surrender. The reality of spying on citizens is that it causes the government itself to function as a criminal entity, undermines its authority, and in the end does no real good in terms of preventing the acts it purports to prevent. Rather, it replaces them with an even more pervasive threat of violence from the government itself.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“It’s just statistics.”

And statistically, the odds that you interact with someone two or three “hops” distant from someone who is connected to terrorism (in the eyes of the government) is very, very high. Which is what makes the advice glib: it’s worthless advice that is easily said.

Also, it’s just plain wrong. If I genuinely have no interaction with anyone of interest to terrorist-hunters, even four hops distant, my communications are still being spied on by the NSA and stored in their database.

Which makes the advice worse than glib. It’s a lie.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Also, it’s just plain wrong. If I genuinely have no interaction with anyone of interest to terrorist-hunters, even four hops distant, my communications are still being spied on by the NSA and stored in their database.

As mentioned earlier, this isn’t advice on how to not have your data collected – that’s impossible. It’s how to not have your data “looked at”.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

What about framing?

In the TV show The Good Wife, an NSA agent was “framed” by the simple expedient of placing his work phone number on one of those supermarket-type “Car for Sale” advertisements…except that, in the show, the ad was posted on the bulletin board at a mosque. The ensuing flood of phone calls from Muslims to the NSA agent’s work phone resulted in suspicion being aroused and the agent being suspended.

So, Mr. Alexander, I ask you: How would you avoid suspicion if…someone…were to post your phone number on a “Car for Sale” ad, in a mosque? If you agree that might raise a false suspicion (or two) against you: perhaps you should rethink the system that would place you on an endless merry-go-round of suspicion over something so trivial.

The bottom line is that your “one simple thing” doesn’t work, with the system the way it is. There will always be people who wind up on the merry-go-round of suspicion because of something idiotic over which they had no control.

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