NSA Is Tracking Mobile Phone Location On So Many People It Can't Handle The Data Storage

from the another-shoe-dropping? dept

We all know that Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been hinting strongly about the NSA tracking people's location via mobile phone location data. Since the Snowden documents started getting reported on, Wyden especially had ramped up his hints that mobile phone location data still undisclosed would be the real shocker. Back in October, it was revealed that the NSA had done a "pilot program" in the US to track people's locations via their mobile phones, but stopped the program and never used the data. In response to that, Senator Wyden hinted that there was much more to come:
“After years of stonewalling on whether the government has ever tracked or planned to track the location of law-abiding Americans through their cellphones, once again, the intelligence leadership has decided to leave most of the real story secret — even when the truth would not compromise national security,” Mr. Wyden said.
It would appear that "the real story secret" has started to come out via some new Snowden documents reported on in the Washington Post by Bart Gellman and Ashkan Soltani. Basically, while the NSA may not be spying on the location of Americans in the US via their mobile phones, they appear to be collecting location data of pretty much anyone all over the rest of the world to the tune of 5 billion records a day -- so much info that the NSA was having trouble storing it all (now you know what some of the Bluffdale datacenter in Utah is for).
The NSA cannot know in advance which tiny fraction of 1 percent of the records it may need, so it collects and keeps as many as it can — 27 terabytes, by one account, or more than double the text content of the Library of Congress’s print collection.

The location programs have brought in such volumes of information, according to a May 2012 internal NSA briefing, that they are “outpacing our ability to ingest, process and store” data. In the ensuing year and a half, the NSA has been transitioning to a processing system that provided it with greater capacity.
The NSA defends the program by saying that it uses the location data to find "unknown associates of known intelligence targets." Basically, it's tracking where everyone goes, just in case people end up spending time with people the NSA deems as being terrorists. However, that also means that the NSA has an astounding amount of really personal data on where pretty much everyone goes outside of the US, including who they meet with. The ability to abuse that data should be rather obvious. From that data, you can not only determine private business meetings, but you can figure out what doctors people go to, if they're cheating on their spouse, etc. And, given last week's revelations that the NSA has no qualms (at all) about using data on non-terrorists to embarrass them for the sake of embarrassing them, it's not difficult to see how the NSA might do the same over information gleaned from this vast trough of location information.

And, yes, despite the claims by the NSA, it appears to end up getting a ton of information on Americans as well, even if it's not actively collecting data within the US (ah, more "incidental" collections):
Some documents in the Snowden archive suggest that acquisition of U.S. location data is routine enough to be cited as an example in training materials. In an October 2012 white paper on analytic techniques, for example, the NSA’s counterterrorism analysis unit cites two U.S.-based carriers to illustrate the challenge of correlating the travels of phone users on different mobile networks. Asked about that, a U.S. intelligence official said the example was poorly chosen and did not represent the program’s foreign focus.
Elsewhere in the article, they quote NSA officials repeatedly saying that the program is "tuned to be looking outside the United States," but not saying it only collects info outside the US. Also, they make clear, once a person leaves the US, the NSA no longer believes the 4th Amendment applies to them, so their location is fair game in this giant database.. Asked for specific numbers, an NSA person said:
“It’s awkward for us to try to provide any specific numbers..."
And, at that point, they were cut off by an NSA spokesperson who didn't want the person to go any further. In other words, it's "awkward" for the NSA to admit that it's spying on pretty much everyone. Everyone.

Oh, and as for the methods used by some to avoid this kind of thing: getting prepaid lines, disposing of phones regularly, etc. Apparently the NSA is tracking that and it leads to greater suspicion:
Like encryption and anonymity tools online, which are used by dissidents, journalists and terrorists alike, security-minded behavior — using disposable cellphones and switching them on only long enough to make brief calls — marks a user for special scrutiny. CO-TRAVELER takes note, for example, when a new telephone connects to a cell tower soon after another nearby device is used for the last time.
The NSA defends this program, arguing (as it always does) that there's nothing wrong with doing what it's doing. Billions of people living around the globe might disagree.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 1:16pm

    How long can they keep this up before some country or countries takes violent exception to rampant American imperialism?

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 4:32pm

      Re:

      True. Treat me like a terrorist for long enough and I'll eventually come around to your way of thinking.

       

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      •  
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        Derek Kerton (profile), Dec 5th, 2013 @ 10:11am

        Re: Re:

        I understand your anger.

        But defining whom you are based on what somebody else does is not displaying much integrity. Character is when you are who you are, no matter the circumstance.

         

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      robyeldon (profile), Dec 18th, 2013 @ 7:39pm

      McCarthyism

      Is it rampant imperialism or a continuation of the USA paronoia dating back from McCarthy's era where anyone who even thought about the word communism were deemed to be enemies of the state.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 1:21pm

    What are the chances they already collect it on all US calls to?

    What are the chances they already collect the same data on all calls in the US to?

    I'd say pretty darn good. After all, by the NSA's logic, not everyone is a US citizen in the US, so the constitution doesn't apply to them. And if a terrorist enters the US, and the NSA is met to stop terrorism, shouldn't they keep on tracking their location when they're here to?

    I don't buy for a second that they aren't doing that already under that logic. We've already seen countless times how the NSA doesn't respect the law or constitution.

     

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      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 1:39pm

      Re: What are the chances they already collect it on all US calls to?

      I don't think the NSA cares about the Constitution or who it may apply too.

      1st, 2nd, & 4th have long been under assault.

      Try posting a joke in the heat of the moment playing a video game with your buddies about blowing something up. The Police might appear and show you how much of the 1st Amendment Protects you.

      Walk down the street with Colt on your hip and see how much the 2nd protects you.

      Get on a plane or visit a border or have CPS called on you and ask were your 4th amendment rights are?

      We shall reap what we sow and this is the result of a lost people. We are ready for a complete takeover by the Police, I don't see anyone protesting much over the shit they have been doing lately.

       

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        robyeldon (profile), Dec 18th, 2013 @ 7:44pm

        Re: Re: What are the chances they already collect it on all US calls to?

        They already do. And this is a direct result of the dumb US electors who voted GW Bush into power! And the dumber ones who are letting Obama get away with not dismantling the NSA.

         

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      That One Guy (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 2:59pm

      Re: What are the chances they already collect it on all US calls to?

      In this case they probably are telling the truth, but only technically.

      You see the NSA doesn't need to directly collect that data on americans to have access to it, they just let some other country's spy agency (like say GCHQ) scoop up the data, and then get it from them.

      Do it that way, and they can still get all that locational data, while still being able to claim that they aren't gathering it.

       

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        nasch (profile), Dec 5th, 2013 @ 7:23am

        Re: Re: What are the chances they already collect it on all US calls to?

        You see the NSA doesn't need to directly collect that data on americans to have access to it, they just let some other country's spy agency (like say GCHQ) scoop up the data, and then get it from them.

        There's an even simpler solution: ask the phone companies for it. They've proven they're willing to give the NSA pretty much anything with no due process at all.

         

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    Richard (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 1:40pm

    "...awkward..." - I don't think that word means...

    "Awkward" as in "self-incriminating to admit the vastness of the overreach as regards the rights of citizens"? "Awkward" as in - "embarrassing to confess the terrifying degree of totalitarian fascism the numbers imply"?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 1:41pm

    This sounds awfully low: "27 terabytes"
    Considering the scale of the effort, I'm thinking of a Hadoop cluster to process and store the dataset. Definition for those that need it.
    I'm thinking that might just be one data node, but out of how many?

     

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      Deranged Poster (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 1:56pm

      Re:

      Is that 27 Terabytes a day, week month or year?

       

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        nasch (profile), Dec 5th, 2013 @ 7:27am

        Re: Re:

        Is that 27 Terabytes a day, week month or year?

        The article doesn't say, but if NSA is having trouble storing that much data, it's got to be at bare minimum per month, more likely per week or per day. Actually I think the most likely scenario is the reporter completely misunderstood the information and the number has very little to do with anything.

         

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      Anonymous Coward, Dec 5th, 2013 @ 6:24am

      Re:

      Half the world makes less then a US Dollar a day in their own currency, and plenty others are so poor they can't afford a cell phone. Plus, this data is probably compressed, and probably mostly just text or numbers, so it likely isn't that big.

       

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    Fin, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 1:52pm

    US tax dollar at work

    Its true most of this data is harmless and the chances it being used against non US citizens is minimal but i'm very happy to say i won't be going back the US again.

    At least in China you know your being fucked over. I would rather go there an know the deal than go to the can't be trusted sneaky mess the US is becoming.

    To think when i was younger and starting my degree education i really wanted to live the american dream.

    Sorry American's reading this, you are most likely awesome but things have now gone just too far.

     

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      BeeAitch (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 5:05pm

      Re: US tax dollar at work

      "Sorry American's reading this, you are most likely awesome but things have now gone just too far."

      Thank you for this. Sometimes it seems that too many people outside the US forget this point.

      There are many of us (US citizens) that are ashamed of what our government is doing lately.

      I only wish that there were more US citizens less focused on the "American Dream" of "more money, more things", and more focused on the (original, sadly mostly defunct) American Dream of freedom.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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    Deranged Poster (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 1:55pm

    So if I'm using disposable Cell phones and switching them, I've got to make sure I give the old ones away to random strangers who will keep using them.

    This way the Old one will be far away from my new one when it's last used.

     

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    •  
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      x, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 3:08pm

      Re:

      yeah but they use an other program to track usage patterns, so depending on how soon the random stragers start using your old phones and how soon you make a few calls on your new one, they will know right away... in an hour or the same day

       

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        Oh reallyz?, Dec 7th, 2013 @ 5:09am

        Re: Re:

        Yeah, well, I use this third-party freeware that accurately anticipates what their "an other" program is calculating, and compensates for that - down to the millisecond.

         

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 3:11pm

    How accurate is cell-tower triangulation?

    Basically, it's tracking where everyone goes, just in case people end up spending time with people the NSA deems as being terrorists.

    Do people become persons of interest by merely being in the same part of a cell-tower Venn-diagram as another NSA target?

     

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      That One Guy (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 3:31pm

      Re: How accurate is cell-tower triangulation?

      If you have a pulse(and probably even if you don't), you're a 'person of interest' to the NSA, given their 'Collect all the data' mantra/mindset.

       

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    Zakida Paul (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 3:34pm

    How exactly does having so much data that you struggle to store and process it keep the country safe?

     

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      The Real Michael, Dec 5th, 2013 @ 5:47am

      Re:

      It doesn't. If anything the mass surveillance poses a very real threat to the American republic, as shown by the politically motivated targeting of groups by the IRS, which is why the NSA always tries to wash its hands of any wrongdoing following these revelations. Billions of tax dollars squandered to violate our Constitutional rights (a serious criminal offense, I might add) and not a single terrorist has been caught, let alone averted (e.g. Boston Bombers).

      Domestic spying is good for national security. Just ask Hitler and Stalin. (The NSA makes both of them seem like rank amateurs.)

       

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        nasch (profile), Dec 5th, 2013 @ 7:35am

        Re: Re:

        If anything the mass surveillance poses a very real threat to the American republic, as shown by the politically motivated targeting of groups by the IRS

        The IRS has nothing to do with the NSA surveillance. Those are two completely unrelated problems.

         

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 3:50pm

    Maybe the world needs a location day where everyone for one hour turns their location services on and off repeatedly

     

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    John Fenderson (profile), Dec 4th, 2013 @ 3:55pm

    Tiny fractions of large numbers

    The NSA cannot know in advance which tiny fraction of 1 percent of the records it may need, so it collects and keeps as many as it can ó 27 terabytes


    As other commenters have pointed out, 27tb consists of the data over what time span? The total is certainly more by now. Nonetheless, a little napkin math.

    27Tb == 29686800000000 bytes. Let's say the "tiny fraction of 1% is 0.001%. that means that they think they need over 196 gigs of location information. Location information is pretty tiny. You can store latitude and longitude with a resolution of .3 inches in 64 bits. let's be generous and add another 32 bytes to hold a GUID to identify the location. That would be a total of, say, 40 bytes (assuming 8-bit bytes) to be very generous.

    That means that they are interested in about 7,421,700 location identifiers.

     

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      nasch (profile), Dec 5th, 2013 @ 7:39am

      Re: Tiny fractions of large numbers

      You can store latitude and longitude with a resolution of .3 inches in 64 bits. let's be generous and add another 32 bytes to hold a GUID to identify the location. That would be a total of, say, 40 bytes (assuming 8-bit bytes) to be very generous.

      There could be a lot more information than that, though.

      - which tower it's connected to
      - previous tower it was connected to
      - which network
      - most recent phone call
      - other phones connected to the tower
      - how long it's been connected to that tower
      - signal strength
      - phone model
      - operating system

      Who knows what else, but there's a lot of things that could be included in the category "location information".

       

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 4:39pm

    We're very selective about who we track.
    Exactly who do you track?
    Everyone
    and by that you mean?
    Yes, Everyone

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 5:06pm

    Go figure.

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 6:40pm

    I wonder how many people are, at this very moment, tracing out a man sausage whilst driving with cell phone.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 7:16pm

    ...but points for typing man sausage...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 7:17pm

    oh, I get it, Ima trace one out right now complete with happy ending...

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 8:17pm

    "a "pilot program" in the US to track people's locations via their mobile phones"

    Actually he said a pilot program to track US people's phones IN REAL TIME. The phone metadata has enough information in it to calculate the triangulation data and get a location, and NSA gets that data. It does have Americans location data too from the meta data. It may only be *near* real-time and not *real-time*, but it is location tracking.

    And of course once they tapped the backbone, they also intercept all the location requests smartphones make too. So when your Smartphone asks a location service to estimate the location based on nearby wifi and cell tower points, it's actually reporting your location to the NSA, because they see those requests too.

    Now you can see the "correlation" trick. If you want to know who associates with who, you can correlate their locations and see who moves together, or who 'associates'. They don't need to call each other or make otherwise interact, simply the fact that their locations track together over a period of time shows the association.

    The next step of this would be outside NSA, so not in the Snowden leaks, but certainly happens, leverage!

    Made up example: UK Minister 'Keith' likes to pickup rent boys. NSA correlates 'Keith' and his rent boy, and is able to determine which rent boy he bums.
    CIA visits 'Keith' and as 'pals', suggest he keeps his rent boy bumming more discrete. Showing him the evidence and 'befriending' Keith. Later on, asking their new 'friend' for his help in protecting their surveillance of Brits, after all, they did him a favor and now he should do them one in return. Keith then attempts to silence the press about the NSA surveillance for self preservation.

    You can see how easy it is to lose a democracy when you introduce surveillance. Keith no longer works for his country, he works for the foreign power.

    Now what happens when the spy agency (like FSA/KGB) spies on their own country? Exactly the same, only the power is then in the spy agencies hands, not the voters.

    So you can also see why this surveillance will inevitably end US democracy.

     

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      Mike Masnick (profile), Dec 5th, 2013 @ 2:01am

      Re:

      The phone metadata has enough information in it to calculate the triangulation data and get a location, and NSA gets that data.

      I'm pretty sure this is not true. Or, rather, not what has been disclosed. I could be wrong, but all the reports I saw said location data was not included. Do you have a source for the claim?

       

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        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Dec 5th, 2013 @ 3:56am

        Re: Re:

        "said location data was not included"

        Location data is not included in phone metadata. Cell tower is. It used for billing and service.

        The cell towers are know locations, your phone is connecting and disconnecting from these towers as you move. Your signal strength is known, hence location is triangulable. This is based on my own knowledge of these systems circa late 90's.

        And of course the Smartphone wifi version of triangulation thing (which NSA gets whenever your browser uses a location service) is well documented.

        https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/geolocation/

        "By default, Firefox uses Google Location Services to determine your location by sending:
        your computerís IP address,
        information about the nearby wireless access points...
        Google Location Services then returns your estimated geolocation (e.g., latitude and longitude)."

         

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 5th, 2013 @ 12:36am

    Well its a good thing that as an American living in the UK, that both countries have an agreement not to spy on eachothers residents... ohwait.

     

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    Ninja (profile), Dec 5th, 2013 @ 1:06am

    So to stop them we just need to overload them with information? Gentleman, turn on your encryption and start generating data. We have a datacenter to overload.

     

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      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Dec 5th, 2013 @ 5:23am

      Re:

      AH-ha, this is why they do not want cell phones turned on in flight.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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      nasch (profile), Dec 5th, 2013 @ 7:42am

      Re:

      Gentleman, turn on your encryption and start generating data. We have a datacenter to overload.

      So... you're trying to get them to build more datacenters? Because that sure wouldn't convince them to stop spying.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 5th, 2013 @ 5:33am

    Anyone still think

    Anyone still think that Sept. 11th 2001, was not an inside job?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
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    Derek Kerton (profile), Dec 5th, 2013 @ 10:27am

    You Can't Get Pre-Paid SIMs Easily Anymore

    As a cellular industry consultant and long-time geek, I've had two personal cell phones since 1999. One was a US phone with an account at a US carrier, and the other was always a "world phone" with multiple bands, and bought full price and unlocked, which I used as a travelling phone.

    Whenever I went abroad, most countries would sell a SIM card in the airport, or on the main street shops, I'd just pop it into my phone, and in most cases, incoming calls were then free (to me). This was way better than the $4/min AT&T was offering.

    I spend years doing this with great ease. Most developing countries had low fees for the SIM, and the EU was easy, but Japan and Korea were tougher because of technology differences. But through the period of 2002 through 2009, the world pretty much closed down for SIM card business.

    Most countries now require a very large amount of personal data on a person for them to get a SIM card or cellphone. You need to provide passport numbers, local Citizen IDs (Spain), an official home address in the country (France). India, after the Mumbai bombings, required photocopies of the passport, an address (hotel), some forms completed. Bear in mind, this is all at some tin box roadside vendor. He collects the paperwork, sends it by bike to the town's main telco branch. The telco processes it. In my case, some small error on a form meant that my SIM card was cancelled 2 days after I paid for it, and in the middle of my trip. Fun.

    So, globally, now it's pretty hard to just pick up a local SIM. They want to know exactly who you are. That applies whether you're a terrorist, a holidaymaker, or a business shmoe.

    Bear in mind, same thing has happened in hotels. Used to be you could travel anonymously, but now a passport is somehow a required document for a hotel room in many countries.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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      John Fenderson (profile), Dec 5th, 2013 @ 11:12am

      Re: You Can't Get Pre-Paid SIMs Easily Anymore

      In the US, at least, you can still buy a cell phone for about $10 cash and absolutely no need to identify yourself to anyone. You will pay fairly steep per-minute charges, though.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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    Araldo (profile), Dec 5th, 2013 @ 12:01pm

    The NSA, GCHQ and other secret agencies already have unfathomable more secret power and information about us citizens, than Lavrentiy Beria or Heinrich Himmler both infamous secret services chiefs during Stalin's rule of the Soviet Union or Hitler's rule of Nazi Germany. Now, they want to destroy the freedom of the press in order to have total control. They are no different from other human beings anywhere, when given uncontrolled power they become corrupt,paranoid and quite dangerous to us all. It is high time to make them fully accountable/stop them using any available non-violent means of resistance as our freedoms and democracies are at stake!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 11th, 2013 @ 2:26pm

    Spying on everyone's personal lives and associations. Out of all the leaked documents, this story pisses me off the most.

    The spies have torched the constitution though their "incidental" collection, and storage, of all American's movement patterns.

    The only thing that can ultimately come from these mass surveillance programs is some form of totalitarianism.

    Which is why the Founding Fathers of the United States explicitly included the 4th Amendment. I'm sure if cellphones were around back then, the amendment would have read, "Secure in person, papers, effects, (and) cellphone records!

    This pisses me off so bad. The spies are destroying our democracy. Bunch of rat bastard traitors. Every last one of them.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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