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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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