Comedian John Oliver may be the best communicator in America. No matter what topic he chooses to discuss on his weekly HBO show, Last Week Tonight, people tend to listen, whether he’s examining the lottery, nuclear weapons, or civil forfeiture.
It was no different when Oliver focused his lens on the issue of government surveillance, for which he traveled all the way to Moscow to talk with Edward Snowden himself. In the 33-minute segment, Oliver grills Snowden on whether his leaks were responsible, and points out that most people have no idea who Snowden is. (The video is absolutely worth watching if you have any interest at all in this topic. Note that it features strong language.)
While most Americans seem not to care much about surveillance in the abstract, Oliver zeroed in on something people are more concerned about: their junk. Or, less euphemistically, the government looking at pictures of their genitals. He then proceeded to review with a somewhat embarrassed Snowden how each surveillance program enables the government to see any racy pictures you may have taken. It’s funny, but it also throws into sharp relief why everyone should be thinking about government mass surveillance.
As it turns out, mass surveillance began even earlier than we had originally thought. USA Today has revealed that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began logging calls between the United States and 116 foreign countries as early as 1992. The program is the oldest known bulk collection program in the country, and it continued until 2013, when Attorney General Eric Holder ended it in the wake of Snowden’s revelations.
The DEA’s program lasted through four presidential administrations, which raises the question of how the next president will tackle surveillance reform. Of the current candidates, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has been the most outspoken about surveillance reform, going so far as to accept Bitcoin donations and selling an “NSA Spy Cam Blocker” in his campaign store (you can buy an unbranded three-pack for much less at Amazon). At Paul’s campaign announcement he vowed, “As president, on day one, I will immediately end this unconstitutional surveillance.”
However, even if Rand Paul were to win the presidency, would he follow through? Paul has already voted against NSA reform once, as we reported in “Keeping Up with the Snoops 7: Too Many Snoops,” (21 November 2014). Did he vote against the USA Freedom Act, which promised surveillance reform, because it was watered-down, as he claimed, or was it a calculated political move to appeal to surveillance supporters? To be fair, Paul did join a lawsuit against the Obama administration over NSA surveillance. But even if Paul is sincere, can he indeed effect change, much less on day one? After all, Barack Obama promised much the same thing during his campaign. Here’s a video showing Candidate Obama and President Obama debating each other on mass surveillance.
One of Paul’s primary contenders, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), voted in favor of the USA Freedom Act (and lambasted Paul for voting against it). Unsurprisingly, Marco Rubio (R-FL), who has been a staunch defender of the NSA and has called for the Patriot Act to be extended indefinitely, voted against it.
It’s tough to judge candidates based on the USA Freedom Act vote. Part of the divide was due to the fact that the USA Freedom Act reauthorized certain provisions of the Patriot Act through 2017. Even Representative Justin Amash (R-MI), who co-sponsored the original House bill, voted against it. But the Electronic Frontier Foundation, though dismayed by the House’s weakening of the USA Freedom Act, was equally disappointed that it failed to pass the Senate.
Speaking of the Patriot Act: Section 215, which is the legal basis for much of the NSA’s mass surveillance, is set to expire in June. The EFF has launched the Fight 215 campaign urging voters to call their representatives to vote against reauthorization. Unless reauthorization is voted for by Congress, that section will expire on 1 June 2015. To opponents of mass surveillance, that may seem like a good thing, but Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution argues that merely letting it expire might actually be bad, since it will demonstrate that Congress is incapable of proper reform.
Back to the 2016 presidential campaign, the remaining candidate so far is Democrat Hillary Clinton, whose recent comments on mass surveillance have been evasive. See if you can parse this response to Recode’s Kara Swisher:
Well yeah but how much is too much? And how much is not enough? That’s the hard part. I think if Americans felt like, number one, you’re not going after my personal information, the content of my personal information. But I do want you to get the bad guys, because I don’t want them to use social media, to use communications devices invented right here to plot against us. So let’s draw the line. And I think it’s hard if everybody’s in their corner. So I resist saying it has to be this or that. I want us to come to a better balance.
Clinton’s record has been mixed. She voted in favor of the original Patriot Act in 2001, and for its reauthorization in 2006. However, she slammed Barack Obama during the 2008 primary for voting for reauthorization. Her views on the NSA revelations have been mixed, with her saying that she’s “puzzled” by Snowden’s actions, but later that “people felt betrayed,” by the NSA.
If your primary campaign issue is surveillance reform, you’ll get a headache trying to pick the best candidate. The only one with a clear record on surveillance is Rubio, who is all for it. However, if you want to judge the candidates based on how seriously they take their own Web site security, Clinton and Rubio come out on top, at least when it comes to using encrypted HTTPS by default.
If nothing else, Paul and Cruz might succeed in making surveillance a campaign issue. Radley Balko has a long list of questions to ask the presidential candidates about the justice system, including mass surveillance. They’re tough, comprehensive questions, and I hope journalists will ask all of them (and make the candidates actually answer them).
While candidates battle over the figurative Iron Throne, the NSA isn’t slowing down in its mission to collect every piece of data it can. NSA head Admiral Michael Rogers is trying to sell tech companies on giving the agency a “front door” to their customer’s information. The scheme would involve a two-part key that would require one part from the company and another from the government to unlock a user’s data. Security experts are, as you can imagine, skeptical.
As you may recall from “Keeping Up with the Snoops 7: Too Many Snoops,” law enforcement has been using devices that pretend to be cell towers, called Stingrays, to intercept cellular communications and track users. Now the FBI has admitted that these devices disrupt the service of innocent bystanders. In a warrant application from FBI Special Agent Michael A. Scimeca, he states:
Because of the way, the Mobile Equipment sometimes operates, its use has the potential to intermittently disrupt cellular service to a small fraction of Sprint’s wireless customers within its immediate vicinity. Any potential service disruption will be brief and minimized by reasonably limiting the scope and duration of the use of the Mobile Equipment.
So, the next time you mysteriously lose cell service, you might be near a Stingray, though it’s more likely that your cell carrier is just lame.
Speaking of interruptions to your routine, The Intercept recently published an interesting exposé of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). According to internal documents, the TSA has yet to catch any terrorists, instead focusing on illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.
Do you worry that you’ll be marked as a terrorist when you fly? Here are some of the warning signs the TSA looks for:
- Exaggerated yawning
- Excessive complaints about the screening process
- Excessive throat clearing
- Widely open staring eyes
- Wearing improper attire for location
- Whistling as the individual approaches the screening process
- Gazing down
- Exaggerated or repetitive grooming gestures
- Face pale from recent shaving of beard
- Rubbing or wringing of hands
So if you’re flying soon, shave regularly, look up confidently, and don’t whine about the line. Also, be aware that some TSA employees may be plotting to molest you, as two Denver TSA officers were recently found to be doing. But on the plus side, the government might now tell you if you’re on the “no fly” list.
To end on a lighter note, developer Mikengreg LLC has released an iOS puzzle game based on NSA surveillance, called TouchTone ($2.99). Perhaps our next edition of Snoops will be a FunBITS crossover?
Until then, dress appropriately and cover your webcam, just in case.