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How the NSA Eavesdrops on Americans

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Two weeks ago, the Guardian published two new Snowden documents. These outline how the NSA's data-collection procedures allow it to collect lots of data on Americans, and how the FISA court fails to provide oversight over these procedures.

The documents are complicated, but I strongly recommend that people read both the Guardian analysis and the EFF analysis -- and possibly the USA Today story.

Frustratingly, this has not become a major news story. It isn't being widely reported in the media, and most people don't know about it. At this point, the only aspect of the Snowden story that is in the news is the personal story. The press seems to have had its fill of the far more important policy issues.

I don't know what there is that can be done about this, but it's how we all lose.

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barendt
2711 days ago
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popular
2711 days ago
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redson
2711 days ago
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The NSA eavesdropping story *CANNOT* fall through the cracks.
DGA51
2711 days ago
It's not like this is really anything new: http://www.stonekettle.com/2013/06/essential-liberty-in-post-911-world.html

The Problems with CALEA-II

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The FBI wants a new law that will make it easier to wiretap the Internet. Although its claim is that the new law will only maintain the status quo, it's really much worse than that. This law will result in less-secure Internet products and create a foreign industry in more-secure alternatives. It will impose costly burdens on affected companies. It will assist totalitarian governments in spying on their own citizens. And it won't do much to hinder actual criminals and terrorists.

As the FBI sees it, the problem is that people are moving away from traditional communication systems like telephones onto computer systems like Skype. Eavesdropping on telephones used to be easy. The FBI would call the phone company, which would bring agents into a switching room and allow them to literally tap the wires with a pair of alligator clips and a tape recorder. In the 1990s, the government forced phone companies to provide an analogous capability on digital switches; but today, more and more communications happens over the Internet.

What the FBI wants is the ability to eavesdrop on everything. Depending on the system, this ranges from easy to impossible. E-mail systems like Gmail are easy. The mail resides in Google's servers, and the company has an office full of people who respond to requests for lawful access to individual accounts from governments all over the world. Encrypted voice systems like Silent Circle are impossible to eavesdrop on—the calls are encrypted from one computer to the other, and there's no central node to eavesdrop from. In those cases, the only way to make the system eavesdroppable is to add a backdoor to the user software. This is precisely the FBI's proposal. Companies that refuse to comply would be fined $25,000 a day.

The FBI believes it can have it both ways: that it can open systems to its eavesdropping, but keep them secure from anyone else's eavesdropping. That's just not possible. It's impossible to build a communications system that allows the FBI surreptitious access but doesn't allow similar access by others. When it comes to security, we have two options: We can build our systems to be as secure as possible from eavesdropping, or we can deliberately weaken their security. We have to choose one or the other.

This is an old debate, and one we've been through many times. The NSA even has a name for it: the equities issue. In the 1980s, the equities debate was about export control of cryptography. The government deliberately weakened U.S. cryptography products because it didn't want foreign groups to have access to secure systems. Two things resulted: fewer Internet products with cryptography, to the insecurity of everybody, and a vibrant foreign security industry based on the unofficial slogan "Don't buy the U.S. stuff -- it's lousy."

In 1993, the debate was about the Clipper Chip. This was another deliberately weakened security product, an encrypted telephone. The FBI convinced AT&T to add a backdoor that allowed for surreptitious wiretapping. The product was a complete failure. Again, why would anyone buy a deliberately weakened security system?

In 1994, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act mandated that U.S. companies build eavesdropping capabilities into phone switches. These were sold internationally; some countries liked having the ability to spy on their citizens. Of course, so did criminals, and there were public scandals in Greece (2005) and Italy (2006) as a result.

In 2012, we learned that every phone switch sold to the Department of Defense had security vulnerabilities in its surveillance system. And just this May, we learned that Chinese hackers breached Google's system for providing surveillance data for the FBI.

The new FBI proposal will fail in all these ways and more. The bad guys will be able to get around the eavesdropping capability, either by building their own security systems -- not very difficult -- or buying the more-secure foreign products that will inevitably be made available. Most of the good guys, who don't understand the risks or the technology, will not know enough to bother and will be less secure. The eavesdropping functions will 1) result in more obscure -- and less secure -- product designs, and 2) be vulnerable to exploitation by criminals, spies, and everyone else. U.S. companies will be forced to compete at as a disadvantage; smart customers won't buy the substandard stuff when there are more-secure foreign alternatives. Even worse, there are lots of foreign governments who want to use these sorts of systems to spy on their own citizens. Do we really want to be exporting surveillance technology to the likes of China, Syria, and Saudi Arabia?

The FBI's short-sighted agenda also works against the parts of the government that are still working to secure the Internet for everyone. Initiatives within the NSA, the DOD, and DHS to do everything from securing computer operating systems to enabling anonymous web browsing will all be harmed by this.

What to do, then? The FBI claims that the Internet is "going dark," and that it's simply trying to maintain the status quo of being able to eavesdrop. This characterization is disingenuous at best. We are entering a golden age of surveillance; there's more electronic communications available for eavesdropping than ever before, including whole new classes of information: location tracking, financial tracking, and vast databases of historical communications such as e-mails and text messages. The FBI's surveillance department has it better than ever. With regard to voice communications, yes, software phone calls will be harder to eavesdrop upon. (Although there are questions about Skype's security.) That's just part of the evolution of technology, and one that on balance is a positive thing.

Think of it this way: We don't hand the government copies of our house keys and safe combinations. If agents want access, they get a warrant and then pick the locks or bust open the doors, just as a criminal would do. A similar system would work on computers. The FBI, with its increasingly non-transparent procedures and systems, has failed to make the case that this isn't good enough.

Finally there's a general principle at work that's worth explicitly stating. All tools can be used by the good guys and the bad guys. Cars have enormous societal value, even though bank robbers can use them as getaway cars. Cash is no different. Both good guys and bad guys send e-mails, use Skype, and eat at all-night restaurants. But because society consists overwhelmingly of good guys, the good uses of these dual-use technologies greatly outweigh the bad uses. Strong Internet security makes us all safer, even though it helps the bad guys as well. And it makes no sense to harm all of us in an attempt to harm a small subset of us.

This essay originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

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barendt
2734 days ago
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petrilli
2738 days ago
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I'm reminded of the line from Clue: Colonel Mustard: Why is J. Edgar Hoover on your phone?
Wadsworth: I don't know, he's on everybody else's, why shouldn't he be on mine?
Arlington, VA
christophersw
2738 days ago
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"What the FBI wants is the ability to eavesdrop on everything." Some things never change.
Baltimore, MD

Alien Astronomers

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Alien Astronomers

Let's assume there's life on the the nearest habitable exoplanet and that they have technology comparable to ours. If they looked at our star right now, what would they see?

—Chuck H.

Answer:

Let’s try a more complete answer. We’ll start with ...

Radio transmissions

Contact popularized the idea of aliens listening in on our transmissions. Sadly, the odds are against it.

Here’s the problem: Space is big. Really big.[1]

You can work through the physics of interstellar radio attenuation, but the problem is captured pretty well by considering the economics of the situation: If your TV signals are getting to another star, you’re losing money. Powering a transmitter is expensive, and creatures on other stars aren’t buying the products in the TV commercials that pay your electricity bill.

The full picture is more complicated, but the bottom line is that as our technology has advanced, less of our radio traffic has been leaking out into space. We’re closing down the giant transmitting antennas and switching to cable and fiber and tightly-focused cell-tower networks.[2] 

While our TV signals may have been detectable—with great effort—for a while,[3] that window is closing. In the late 20th century, when we were using TV and radio to scream into the void at the top of our lungs, the signal probably faded to undetectability after a few light-years.[4] The potentially habitable exoplanets we’ve spotted so far are dozens of light-years away, so the odds are they aren’t currently repeating our catchphrases.

But TV and radio transmissions still weren’t Earth’s most powerful radio signal. They were outshone by the beams from early-warning radar.[4]

Early-warning radar, a product of the Cold War, consisted of a bunch of ground and airborne stations scattered around the Arctic. These stations swept the atmosphere with powerful radar beams 24/7, often bouncing them off the ionosphere, and people obsessively monitored the echos for any hints of enemy movement. (I wasn’t alive during most of this period, but from what I hear, the mood was a little tense.)

These radar transmissions leaked into space, and could probably be picked up by nearby exoplanets[5] if they happened to be listening when the beam swept over their part of the sky. But the same march of technological progress that made the TV broadcast towers obsolete has had the same effect on early-warning radar. Today’s systems—where they exist at all—are much quieter, and may eventually be replaced completely by new technology.

Earth’s most powerful radio signal is the beam from the Arecibo telescope. This massive dish in Puerto Rico can function as a radar transmitter, bouncing a signal off nearby targets like Mercury and the asteroid belt. It’s essentially a flashlight which we shine on planets to see them better. (This is just as crazy as it sounds.)

But it transmits only occasionally, and in a narrow beam. If an exoplanet happened to be caught in the beam, and they were lucky enough to be pointing a receiving antenna at our corner of the sky at the time, all they would pick up would be a brief pulse of radio energy, then silence.

So hypothetical aliens looking at Earth probably wouldn’t pick us up with radio antennas.

But there’s also ...

Visible light

This is more promising.  The Sun is really bright[citation needed] and its light illuminates the Earth.[citation needed] Some of that light is reflected back into space as “Earthshine”. Some of it skims close to our planet and passes through our atmosphere before continuing on to the stars. Both of these effects could potentially be detected from an exoplanet.[4][6]

They wouldn’t tell you anything about humans directly, but if you watched the Earth for long enough, you could figure out a lot about our atmosphere from the reflectivity. You could probably figure out what our water cycle looked like, and our oxygen-rich atmosphere would give you a hint that something weird was going on.

So in the end, the clearest signal from Earth might not be from us at all. It might be from the algae that have been terraforming the planet—and altering the signals we send into space—for billions of years.

Of course, if we wanted to send a clearer signal, we could. A radio transmission has the problem that they have to be paying attention when it arrives.

Instead, we could make them pay attention. With ion drives, nuclear pulse propulsion, or just clever use of gravitational slingshots, we could probably send a probe out of the Solar System fast enough to reach a given nearby star in a few dozen millennia. If we can figure out how to make a guidance system that survives the trip (which would be tough) we could use it to steer toward any inhabited planet.

To land safely, we’d have to slow down. But slowing down takes even more fuel. And, hey, the whole point of this was for them to notice us, right?

So maybe if those aliens looked toward our Solar System, this is what they’d see:

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popular
2746 days ago
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barendt
2746 days ago
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Eloquence
2743 days ago
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We are alone because that's how God wants us to be. The unfallen races have been told not to come here by the Lord. It is what it is.
Baltimore, Maryland
ocrammarco
2738 days ago
What?
llucax
2744 days ago
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Sorry!
Berlin
jlvanderzwan
2745 days ago
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"These radar transmissions leaked into space, and could probably be picked up by nearby exoplanets[5] if they happened to be listening when the beam swept over their part of the sky."

Eh... angular velocity anyone? Wouldn't the time window of any sweep that hits other planets be in the order of we-don't-even-have-a-name-for-it-it's-that-small seconds?
derintendant
2745 days ago
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Contact was wrong.
Karlsruhe
mikevine
2745 days ago
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The algae line was particularly good.
Arcadia
rclatterbuck
2746 days ago
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I know what note to write on the next brick I toss through a window.
digdoug
2746 days ago
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*sigh* so alone.
Louisville, KY

Cells

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Now, if it selectively kills cancer cells in a petri dish, you can be sure it's at least a great breakthrough for everyone suffering from petri dish cancer.
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barendt
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