Tag Archive for 'nsa'

Don’t Worry NSA, Google Has E-mail Surveillance Covered

It shouldn’t be surprising that Google monitors Gmail for child pornography. After all, this is the same company that scans e-mails and bombards uers with advertising for legal services. However, the scans of John Skillern’s Gmail will likely result in a lengthy prison sentence rather than annoying advertisements.

gmail surveillanceIn 2008, Google applied new software to its e-mail system. The software consists of a “database” of child abuse images (only data, no actual pictures!) which is compared to Gmail attachments. If there is a match, child protection agencies are alerted, who then send tips to local police.

The system is automatic, so Google employees aren’t involved in the process. Since Google’s e-mail system is the world’s largest web-based e-mail service, with about 425 million users worldwide, this system is one of the largest surveillance systems in human history.

A few weeks ago, Google’s new software led to the arrest of John Skillern. Skillern is a registered sex offender, convicted of sexually assaulting an eight year old boy in 1994. After Google scanned Skillern’s Gmail, police obtained a search warrant and allegedly found child pornography on his phone and tablet. The 41 year old Houston City restaurant cook was charged with one count of possession of child pornography and one count of the promotion of child pornography.

“Those Who Sacrifice Liberty for Security Deserve Neither”

Pedophiles who thought the “right to be forgotten” could shield their evil online are in for a rude awakening. There is no doubt that child pornography and the child abuse it promotes is profoundly wrong and people like Skillern deserve to rot in the deepest prison cells.

However, this type of surveillance is morally ambiguous at best and outright dangerous at worst. First, there’s the slippery slope argument. If Google can monitor private communications for child pornography, could they also monitor Gmail for drug use or criminal conspiracies? Can the software scan for politically sensitive issues like religion or terrorism? How about activists’ movements like Occupy or Tea Party? Surveillance always starts with good intentions. If the NSA has proven anything, it’s that employees of massive surveillance technology abuse it at the first opportunity.

Of course, slippery slopes are an easy argument, even if America’s legal system tends to ride slippery slopes all the way to crazy town. Google currently has little potential for employee abuse since Google’s system is automatic, with almost no human control. The software automatically compares data, not even actual photos, for a match. When Detective David Nettles said “I can’t see that photo, but Google can,” he was misleading reporters.

So what could go wrong when a computer system does all the surveillance? Ignoring the obvious Terminator reference, machines don’t understand context. Many child pornography laws require that the defendant have a certain state of mind, a criminal intent, for the defendant to be convicted. Suppose a defendant’s Gmail was hacked. Or a virus spread images of child pornography across random computers. Or if a child protection agency employee Gmailed a district attorney the photos as evidence. Google would pick out the transmissions, even though none of these cases would result in a conviction. Skillern looks like he possessed child pornography for the purpose of looking at and selling young children, but with 425 million users, there could easily be grey area cases.

Judge Rules the NSA Can’t Collect Your Phone Metadata

If you own a cellphone, then you freely allow telephone companies to access the metadata on your phone. If you live in the United States, then the National Security Agency (NSA) has complete access to that same metadata.

Judge LeonThis reality first became known when Edward Snowden leaked information concerning the NSA’s mass surveillance programs. To justify its collections of cellphone metadata, the government claims that cellphone users don’t have an expectation of privacy over their metadata since they freely give it to third-part phone companies. A recent decision by US District Court Judge Richard Leon begs to differ.

On December 16, 2013, Judge Leon granted a preliminary injunction against the government. Since the government will likely appeal, enforcement of the judgment will be delayed.

Judge Leon ruled that the privacy interests of US citizens outweigh the government’s interest in massively collecting “metadata” from phone calls. Specifically, the government has been unable to show the court that metadata collection assists in stopping terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, the government’s intrusion, at face value, does seem to violate our protection against unreasonable searches and seizure under the 4th Amendment. In fact, Judge Leon calls the government’s metadata seizures “almost Orwellian.”

NSA Data Collection May Violate Your Expectation of Privacy

The scope of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizure’s is determined by our “reasonable expectation of privacy.” For example, people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in garbage they put outside in garbage bins. When a “search and seizure” goes beyond the scope of a reasonable expectation of privacy, it will be declared an invasion of the 4th Amendment’s protection of unreasonable searches and seizures and barred from use in trial.

This closely-watched case will determine the future standard by which the government can gather and use information in criminal cases. The current standard for phone line  privacy concerns was established by the Supreme Court in Smith v Maryland.  In Smith, the Supreme Court held that the installation and use of the “Pen Register” was not a “search” under the 4th Amendment, so a search warrant was not necessary. The Court in Smith determined there is no legitimate expectation of privacy where the numbers are given voluntarily in addition to being available and recorded by the phone company anyway.

Judge Leon’s determination was that the collection and use of phone metadata violates the public’s expectation of privacy—particularly where there is no suspicion of criminal activity. When the government appeals Judge Leon’s decision, we will likely see a clarification of the standard of privacy expectations from Smith v. Maryland.

Review of the NSA Surveillance Program

The NSA surveillance program has recently sparked considerable controversy. However, in terms of possible interferences with civil liberties, many critics of this limited surveillance program may be missing the point.

Detractors worry that the NSA’s surveillance of telephone calls is a threat to the general public. While the manner in which these suspicious telephone calls are checked is unclear, some experts report that even wiretapping may not be involved. Instead, “pen registers” may be used; and these devices only register basic information such as phone numbers—not even the communication’s contents.NSA Surveillance Program

In the post 9/11 world, the common sense approach of mining some data from suspicious telephone calls involving terrorist ties cannot seriously endanger our civil liberties. If the NSA cannot utilize non-invasive, technology-based procedures for analyzing terrorist activities, then they would presumably have to undertake much more direct and intrusive procedures—physical searches or interrogations by authorities. Such direct intrusions on our privacy are much more susceptible to violating civil liberties. Also, they lack the scale, effectiveness, and preventative effects of a sophisticated, high-tech surveillance program, responsibly run for a limited purpose.

What about Data Mining of Electronic Communications?

The public has also been unnerved by the fact that the NSA surveillance program reportedly engages in data mining of electronic communications, such as call records and emails. Apparently the NSA engages in assessing certain code words and establishing patterns in electronic communications. Here, again, there are more questions than answers. Without more information about NSA surveillance, one cannot conclude that private confidential information has in fact been jeopardized.

Has Our Confidential Information Ever Been Safe?

The truth is that we change the nature of what’s confidential or not in our lives regularly, without ever thinking about the consequences. We post alarming amounts of private information on Facebook and other social networking outlets, making our personal data susceptible for the identity thief. Our health, background, and employment information can always be shared with all sorts of institutions and government agencies through the waivers that we sign. Private companies monitor our online activities for marketing and other commercial purposes. Whether we consider the best or the worst case scenario, our personal information is jeopardized every day—mostly through our own lack of vigilance.

NSA: No Speech Allowed

If you search the Internet for government agencies, you’ll find that FBI stands for “Female Body Inspectors,” CIA stands for “Central Idiot A-holes,” and TSA is part of the “Department of Molestation.” These are all examples of the First Amendment in action. In a free nation, it is essential for citizens to be able to criticize their government.nsa-logo-parody

According to the National Security Agency (NSA), however, the use of the initials “NSA” in this manner is illegal. In 2011, the NSA, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), sent a cease and decease letter to Zazzle.com. Zazzle is a website which makes and sells parody merchandise. Zazzle cooperated and took down the merchandise.

The merchandise in question was T-shirts and mugs making fun of the NSA and the DHS. The T-shirts and mugs utilized the NSA logo and underneath said: “The only part of the government that listens.” The DHS designs had the DHS logos, but replaced the name with “Department of Homeland Stupidity.”

The designer of the logos and slogans, Dan McCall, responded by filing a lawsuit against the NSA and the DHS. In his lawsuit, McCall made two claims: 1) The laws that the NSA and the DHS were relying on did not apply to his case and 2) the laws are unconstitutional because they infringe on his right to free speech.

The laws that the NSA and the DHS invoked are actually two different laws. The NSA law forbids the use of the words “National Security Agency,” “NSA,” or the seal of the agency, in connection with merchandise that gives the impression that the NSA endorses, authorizes, or approves of that use. The DHS has as similar law, which forbids the use of any agency seal to fraudulently or wrongfully buy, purchase, transfer, or use another document or paper.

Based on the wording of these laws, the government agencies are really stretching the laws in order to prevent this type of political commentary. No one with a brain would believe that the phrase “the only part of the government that listens” is currently endorsed by the NSA.

Similarly, the law invoked by the DHS is only supposed to be used against “fraudulent or wrongful practices.” A real violation of the DHS law would be like a man sending a letter to a bank asking for his ex-wife’s records and using the DHS seal to fool the bank. In this case, a man is selling merchandise to make fun of the government. There is nothing fraudulent about that.

McCall’s second (and more important) claim is that the laws are unconstitutional. The First Amendment preserves freedom of speech, especially political speech. This is especially important when the speech involves a government agency which frequently collects information on the American people.

Other people on the Internet might claim that McCall’s speech is protected under the First Amendment because the T-shirts and cups are parodies. Although it is true the products are parodies, the parody exception is meant to be protection against violations of copyright law. The government, in defending these laws, would probably not claim that the seals and initials are copyrighted since the seals are suppose to be public symbols.

No, the government would probably claim the purpose of these laws is to protect people from criminals who would abuse government symbols to fool other people. The NSA and DHS would say that the laws don’t violate free speech because there are alternative forms of expression. The laws don’t prevent people from criticizing the government; the laws only stop a particular manner of speech, the use of government logos and names.

There are two problems with this argument. First, logos and names are often the most identifiable parts of government agencies. How do people know that a particular agency is being criticized if the name is not used? McCall needed to have the initials and logos on his T-shirts and mugs in order for him to get his message across.

Appeals Court Rules In Favor Of NSA Warrantless Wiretapping, Forgets Constitution Exists

Life has a funny sense of irony.  One moment you can be opening a Christmas gift from a loved one and finding a shiny brand new smart phone complete with a year of paid service, and the next moment you open a web browser to find this.

Yep, it’s the last story that anyone in America with a cell phone wants to hear: the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has given its okay over the National Security Agency’s latest foray into domestic surveillance.  The madness started way back in 2008 when Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  The law in essence allows the federal government to tap phones of those suspected to be conducting illegal espionage missions for foreign governments.  The law extends not only to foreign nationals, but also to U.S. citizens.  In addition, it also allows the President to authorize these types of searches without a warrant or by the government itself with a warrant given by a special FISA court established to review these specific requests.

The trouble before the courts started when the NSA turned its attention to U.S. telecommunications companies, putting pressure on them to assist the government agency into wiretapping a number of the company’s customers.  This led to the filing of 33 lawsuits against these same companies, which were eventually consolidated into the case that was heard by the 9th Circuit.

The ruling should come as a huge disappointment to privacy advocates and the public alike simply because of what it allows the government to do.  Our country’s highest court of the land has essentially given a hall pass to our country’s leaders to use the guise of national security to intrude into our private lives.  The decision gives immunity to not only government officials, but also any private companies that cooperate with their efforts.  This makes suing both the government and any private parties to the violation no longer possible.

Now the Court and NSA attorneys stress that the need for this type of lawsuit immunity is required in order to allow government agencies to effectively utilize FISA to protect our borders, as they reason that private companies likely won’t cooperate with NSA requests without the protection.  However, though this is certainly a very compelling argument in favor of the ruling, the fact remains that the negative consequences of it are so much greater.

For instance, the Court creates a strong anti-privacy precedent here that can be potentially abused to great lengths by any governmental agency looking to conduct searches that would otherwise normally be protected under the Fourth Amendment.  That amendment has long established our right to be protected from warrantless searches in places where we have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

It’s now easier than ever for the FBI or some other federal agency to cite FISA to tap into any of the public’s private conversations.  Scarier still is that these same agencies could very well choose to carry out a warrantless search and have the evidence not be excluded in court by citing this horrible precedent.  It’s sad to see the protections guaranteed by our Constitution and cultivated by cases like Katz v. United States and its progeny be slowly eroded away like this.

Hopefully with the election coming up soon, one of the nominees or at least our current President will broach the subject of privacy.  But chances are with all the mudslinging going on they probably won’t get a chance to drop a legitimate point without an extramarital affair or two being brought up.  Que Sera, Sera, thus is the world of politics.