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Keeping Up with the Snoops

Even months after Edward Snowden’s initial revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency’s data collection programs, it seems like we learn something new every day. The details can be overwhelming, but it’s an issue about which we feel everyone should be well informed. With that in mind, here’s a collection of the latest developments.

First, if you need to catch up on the story so far, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has done a heroic job of telling the story of the NSA’s data collection programs since the 9/11 attacks. It’s a long, long article, so I recommend saving it to a read-later service like Instapaper or Pocket, or even printing the whole thing out. Lizza tells the story of how former Vice President Dick Cheney helped create the current situation, how President Obama helped codify it, even after campaigning against President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping programs, and how intelligence officials lied to Congress and the secret FISA courts to protect the programs. Everyone should read and share this article.

What Lizza’s article doesn’t mention is the just-revealed intelligence operations occurring in online game services like World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Xbox Live. Agents with the NSA and its British counterpart, the GCHQ, have used online games since at least 2007 to monitor communications, friend networks, behaviors, biometric data, and to recruit potential informants. Blizzard Entertainment, maker of World of Warcraft, said that if any surveillance was taking place, it was without its knowledge or consent. Microsoft, maker of Xbox Live, and Linden Labs, producer of Second Life, refused to comment.

It’s disturbing enough that the NSA is monitoring games played (at least in part) by children, but the agency is also seeking to recruit, or “convert” them, as the NSA is fond of saying. NSA college internship programs target journalism students with a 3.0 or above GPA, which is a tempting prospect in an increasingly difficult field. It’s not just college — the NSA’s High School Work Study Program seeks kids as young as 15 years old for entry-level positions. It sounds like a pretty good first job, with 20–32 hours of work per week, paid federal holidays, and sick leave. And, over the last three years, 100 percent of high school participants who wished to “convert” were hired.

Even more disturbing is the recent revelation from a former FBI assistant director that the FBI is able to activate your webcam without your knowledge in order to spy on you. Covering your webcam with a piece of tape, once largely limited to paranoid tinfoil hatters, now seems like a sensible precaution. Christopher Poole, the founder of the infamous 4chan image board, has teamed up with General Electric to create a 3D-printed bit of plastic to block webcams. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Meanwhile, the outcry over pervasive NSA surveillance is growing. A group of well-known authors, including several Nobel laureates, has signed a statement protesting mass surveillance and calling for an international bill of digital rights. If you wish, you can join them in signing the pledge at And it’s not just writers. Former President Bill Clinton has condemned the collection of economic data under the guise of security.

But perhaps most importantly, Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and AOL have signed a joint statement asking for the following surveillance reforms:

  1. Limits on governmental authority to collect user information

  2. Increased oversight and accountability

  3. The ability to publish government demands promptly

  4. The free flow of information between borders and for countries to not require service providers to operate locally

  5. A treaty to unify these processes between governments

The potential economic consequences are dire for the tech industry (particularly with regard to item 4 above), as our own Geoff Duncan pointed out in “Are We Ready for the Post-Snowden Internet?” (6 December 2013). The tech sector in the United States has been built in large part on a worldwide trust in the American Internet, and now with that trust vanishing, the future of our healthy tech sector is in jeopardy.

But even with potentially devastating consequences for the U.S. economy, Senator Ron Wyden, an outspoken critic of NSA surveillance who was featured in Lizza’s article, doesn’t have much hope for true reform, since Congress is largely in favor of surveillance. And Wyden’s friend-turned-rival, Senator Diane Feinstein, is pushing for “reform” that in fact would legitimize NSA data collection with only a minimum of additional oversight.

That’s it for this week’s depressing headlines — apart from the sensible precautions suggested in Joe Kissell’s “Take Control of Your Online Privacy,” the best thing you can do if you’re concerned about the NSA’s spying on U.S. citizens (and you’re a U.S. voter) is express that concern to your elected representatives in Congress. You can also support the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is actively fighting the NSA in court. Change won’t be easy or come quickly, but it’s clear that transparency and accountability must be codified in law if they are to happen.


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Comments about Keeping Up with the Snoops
(Comments are closed.)

Brandt Hardin  2013-12-11 13:20
The dystopian fantasies of yesteryear are now a reality. We’ve allowed the coming of an age where the civil liberties our forefathers fought so hard for are being eroded by the day. Freedom of Press, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly are mere ghostly images of their original intent. We’ve woken up to an Orwellian Society of Fear where anyone is at the mercy of being labeled a terrorist for standing up for rights we took for granted just over a decade ago. Read about how we’re waging war against ourselves at
Ed Wood  2013-12-16 19:46
I find it very interesting that major companies have banded together to fight NSA spying.while I certainly agree with them, I wonder if they would agree to stop their own data collection about their customers and visitors to their websites. If laws are passed to preserve our secrets from NSA they should also apply to the Apples Googles, and Microsofts.
That's a great point. No one should mistake their support for such things as being their concern about liberty. They simply think that for them it would be good for business.

I'm also taken by the rhetoric over this when so many of the same folk are silent on things like the ACA which is similarly a curtailment of liberty in the name of the common good.

Let's be truly open minded and liberal in the best sense of the word!
John B  2013-12-17 11:52
Aside from overlooking the for-profit aspect of those companies, you're also overlooking the role of those companies for providing backup services for many of us who use their IMAP e-mail services. They've developed their own sense of data handling.

In the new digital age, the proprietary aspect of data is part of the current hullabaloo because the resulting concerns are not explicitly addressed in existing law. With landlines, the calls didn't need to be managed in the same detail as digital messages via wireless. Today, the proprietary aspect of metadata is not currently in favor of the customer. The snail mail analog, in which the contents, only, are privacy-protected, is not readily serviceable in the new context. The postal conveyance infrastructure is protected at a different level and its ownership is separate and different from content ownership. Is the context of the antiquated phone book a flaw in the current assumptions about the handling of telecommunications metadata?
Elfinn F�rev�g  2013-12-16 23:38
Electronic surveillance is a very serious danger to our democracy. The authorities can clamp down on all dissidents, critical research into government abuse or corruption can easily be halted and journalist can not get information as both they and their sources can be spotted.
Eg.: If I am critical to the official story of 9/11 I set myself at danger if I study online information, as the electronic searchlights will easily find me. Maybe I will not be granted a visiting visa to the US if I wanted to. Maybe I will get in trouble here in my country if the NSA informs my government that I am a budding problem.
Steven Oz  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-12-17 08:17
It's not about security or public safety; it's about power.

From a recent Snowden letter to Brazilians...and quoted from the New York Times (12/17/2013):

In his letter, Snowden dismissed U.S. explanations to the Brazilian government and others that the bulk metadata gathered on billions of emails and calls was more "data collection" than surveillance.

"There is a huge difference between legal programs, legitimate spying ... and these programs of dragnet mass surveillance that put entire populations under an all-seeing eye and save copies forever," he wrote. "These programs were never about terrorism: they're about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They're about power."