Computing Profession

CFP: Whither the NSA Warrantless Internet Surveillance Program

The Computer, Freedom & Privacy Conference logo
The logo of the Computers, Freedom & Privacy Conference.

Not surprisingly, the NSA's warrantless surveillance program is of strong interest to many of CFP's attendees. Today's lunch panel on the program certainly did not disappoint. Our panel is quite distinguished with fascinating backgrounds. You can read more about each of them here

James Bamford began with an excellent overview of the history of the NSA and its predecessors. He explained how it has been collecting data on Americans since the 1920s.

Bill Binney, who formerly worked for the NSA, described the volumes of information that he and his coworkers combed through. As he said, they had to go through tens of terabytes of data per minute and boil it down for something that analysts could manage. It comes as no surprise that getting through all the info was difficult. The solution was to look at metadata. The metadata helped create an index of the information and relationships. While Binney was there, the information was encrypted and the FBI did not have access. Today, as we saw through the FISA order that the Guardian published, the FBI now has access to this information.

Would you ever put all your personal and private information, all phone calls you have ever made, your bank statements, utility bills, and all relationships in a lock box and give it to another person for safekeeping? Most answer no, reasoning that they could not trust the other person. Thomas Drake asked why, if we are not okay with this scenario, would we entrust our government with this information? He warned that we have a secret government that is not operating in our own interests.

Alex Abdo stressed the secrecy that shrouds all the programs and allows the programs to thrive. The shield of privacy has been used for far too long. There's an uncomfortable tension between the government's certainty of the lawfulness of these programs and the efforts to which the government went to keep them from ever being reviewed by the courts. If the government is so sure of the legality, they should defend it in the courts. Instead, they repeatedly have hidden behind secrecy, demanding that a plaintiff prove that she was surveilled in order to challenge the surveillance laws. That's what the Supreme Court told the ACLU and other organizations who attempted to stop the government from such massive surveillance in February. You can read more about that here

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