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Keeping Up with the Snoops 3: A New Hope

Several weeks ago, President Obama announced a number of modest reforms for the NSA (see “Grading Obama’s Proposed NSA Reforms,” 17 January 2014), in response to Edward Snowden’s revelations about mass surveillance practices, but did they go far enough? Perhaps not, as the furor over NSA activities continues to grow.

On 22 January 2014, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), a part of the executive branch established by Congress in 2004, released a damning report on the NSA’s program to collect metadata on Americans’ phone calls, saying in no uncertain terms that it is illegal and must stop.

The report said, “We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation. Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

The NSA isn’t catching fire just from within the U.S. government, but also from the European Union as well. An EU parliamentary inquiry has declared that mass surveillance programs in both the U.S. and Britain appear to be illegal, and like the PCLOB, are calling for their immediate termination.

Nor are the latest Snowden documents helping the NSA’s argument that it collects data only to protect us. Recently released documents show that the NSA and GHCQ targeted “leaky” iPhone apps like Angry Birds to gather personal data such as age, gender, and location, and, in the case of some apps, even such details as sexual orientation. Other documents have revealed that the NSA spied on the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit in order to gain an advantage in negotiations — adding weight to claims that NSA spying serves an economic function.

While pressure mounts, the Obama administration is trying to open the release valve ever so slightly before the situation explodes. For example, the administration has cut a deal with large tech firms like Apple, Google, and Facebook to allow them to release more information about national security requests. The deal effectively settles a lawsuit the companies had filed against the government, and Apple updated its public letter on national security and law enforcement orders almost immediately with the new information.

While the agreement may be a step in the right direction for privacy advocates, it comes with several caveats. The companies are still not allowed to publish specific numbers, only vague ranges, and they still cannot deny any requests they find egregious. Worse, the agreement applies only to established communication services, not to those that have existed for less than two years. So while Apple may be able to disclose national security requests, Snapchat could not. Likewise, if Microsoft were to release a new chat platform tomorrow, it would be two years before it could disclose information.

Not only that, but the agreement applies only to “customer selectors.” It does not reflect anything regarding mass data collection, like PRISM. In some ways, the agreement is like a burglar throwing a steak to a guard dog. The dog is happy, but the burglar still gets to poke around your house.

Despite the administration placating the tech giants, the intelligence community is still in hot water with Congress. In a Senate hearing on 29 January 2014, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was grilled by Senator Ron Wyden, who was promised answers within 30 days on whether American intelligence agencies have ever searched for information on American citizens. Likewise, CIA director John Brennan has a week to answer whether the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act applies to his agency, and FBI director James Comey must explain the burden of proof FBI agents must establish before tracking cellphone locations. However, in that same hearing, Clapper seemed to imply that any journalist who reports on Snowden’s revelations is an accomplice to a crime. Finally, for the first time, the NSA has a privacy officer to advise on civil liberty issues.

As for Edward Snowden, the whistleblower behind it all, he has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. If he wins, will fellow Nobel winner Barack Obama congratulate him? Snowden gave an extensive interview to Germany’s Norddeutscher Rundfunk, with a number of interesting claims. However, it’s important to remember that individual revelations come not from Snowden himself, but from the documents that he provided to journalists, giving them and their publishers the responsibility to choose what to publish and verify the information before doing so.


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Comments about Keeping Up with the Snoops 3: A New Hope
(Comments are closed.)

Anonymous  2014-01-30 15:01
Below is the lead on your email notifications describing the purpose of Tidbits:
"Thoughtful, detailed coverage of the Mac, iPhone, and iPad, plus the best selling Take Control ebooks."

The one-sided political screed in this [and earlier articles] has nothing to do with that purpose.

If you want publish such material, how about putting it a blog somewhere and limit your email notification to something like "Josh Center's views on Snowden, NSA, and Obama can be found at 'url' ."

Just saying.

Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-01-31 08:27
I'd beg to differ.

Thoughtful - To be thoughtful implies having a viewpoint. No, I'm not a fan of these mass data collection programs — I think they're illegal, ineffective, and dangerous. That's what the facts tell me, and members of all three branches of the federal government share that view. I'd be happy to give the NSA's take on it, if it would present a compelling argument. But it hasn't, other than James Clapper asking us to trust him, and considering that he blatantly lied to Congress, I don't see him as a reliable source.

Detailed - OK, you have me there. These are capsule summaries, not in-depth pieces. I started writing these because I was struggling to keep up with the flood of information, and I thought others might appreciate having all these scattered stories linked in one place.

Coverage of the Mac, iPhone, and iPad - Apple has been one of the NSA's targets, and Apple has been a major player in pushing for reform.

Plus, several Take Control ebooks, notably Joe's "Take Control of Your Passwords" and "Take Control of Your Online Privacy," touch on this topic. :-)
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-01-31 08:30
That tagline is intentionally short, but we have always covered broader topics of import in the technology world, and we always will.

Plus, a number of these topics are absolutely related to the Apple world. Writing about DROPOUTJEEP (the NSA's iPhone malware that circumvents Apple's security protections) would be uncontroversial if it had been developed by unknown hackers, organized crime, or some other government. Plenty of iOS users play Angry Birds and other games that have leaked personal data. And it's certainly relevant news when Apple CEO Tim Cook meets personally with President Obama - along with the heads of Google and Facebook - about anything.
Kendall  2014-02-05 21:34
Every publication I read has articles I'm not interested in; I simply don't read them. I suggest you do the same.

Adam, et al. - thanks for these summary articles, which frequently are at the intersection of tech (including Apple tech), privacy (something that is much in the tech press in other ways, e.g., Apple or Google collecting data for their OWN purposes), legal, and other issues.
Dennis B. Swaney  2014-02-09 14:34
Why are you hiding who you are? What are you scared of? If you don't want to be identified, then don't post on the Internet.

Bottomline: no one is forcing you to read everything in TidBITS.
JohnB (SciFiOne)   2014-01-30 16:28
Thank you. Please continue doing these reports. I enjoy reading concise effective reports on what is going on. (Especially compared to the other news options.)
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-01-30 17:00
Thanks John, couldn't ask for a better reader!
Mark Miller  2014-01-30 17:34
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of how my Mac, iPhone, and iPad are being used by my own government (or anyone else) to secretly collect information about me is exactly what I would want from Tidbits. I would be surprised and disappointed if Tidbits did not provide such coverage and I am grateful for it. Josh and Tidbits, keep up the good work.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-01-31 08:48
Thanks Mark!
Norbert E Fuchs  An apple icon for a TidBITS Benefactor 2014-01-31 05:25

Thank you again for your concise report, and especially for also mentioning what is going on here in Europe.

--- nef
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-01-31 08:48
Thanks Norbert!
George Stamas  2014-01-31 12:06
This type of activity Josh is covering in these articles is very relevant to anyone who is connected to the internet or to a cellular network. No matter what actor is hacking into our devices, it compromises our security, as well as our privacy. It takes courage (ironic that that's controversial to some; this is the home of the brave is it not?) to speak up about these issues. This is not a left versus right situation. Bravo to everyone at TidBits for covering all aspects of the technology that is now so entwined in our lives.
James Wechsler  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2014-02-03 16:18
I am very much against what the NSA has been doing and for more reasons than just privacy. Burying oneself under mountains of data is unlikely to increase intelligence or add the accuracy needed to protect us. That said, confusing Snowden with the value of his revelations is not particularly thoughtful. Read Sean Wilentz's article in the New Republic before smearing Obama and praising the false privacy advocates.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-02-04 07:55
We're very much trying to draw a distinction between Snowden himself and the value of the his revelations at the end of this piece - sorry if that somehow wasn't clear.

The New Republic article is at:

and it's worth listening to On The Media's interview with the author at:

Plus, in both cases, the comments are worth reading for additional perspective.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-02-04 08:15
As Adam said, I've tried to steer the spotlight away from Snowden's character and toward the facts. The fact that he's been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize was too interesting not to note, but the debate about Snowden himself is a distraction from what the U.S. government is doing. And as we pointed out, just because Snowden said something doesn't mean it's true.

I read the New Republic piece when it was published. Frankly, I wasn't impressed. The allegations seem to be that Snowden at one time was a big fan of what the NSA was doing (which if anything, shows that he didn't join just to leak info — he actually believed in what he was doing), and that Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have libertarian streaks. Those might be bad things to readers of the progressive New Republic, but I fail to see how that hurts their credibility.

Nor do I believe that we are smearing the President. But he is doing the exact opposite of what he so passionately spoke out for in 2007: