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[liberationtech] NYT report on Obama admin's wiretap plans

justin saunders justin at
Mon Sep 27 16:53:15 PDT 2010

From that article: “We’re not talking expanding authority. We’re talking
about preserving our ability to execute our *existing*
authority..."(emphasis mine). Well, I would substitute the word 'power'
for 'authority', but I think that statement is illustrative of something
that often gets a bit lost in the discussion of digital surveillance trends.

Bills such as this don't really give the US an ability to perform
intercepts that it didn't have before. They merely codify existing
ability in law and broaden the scope of usage among a larger group of
federal agencies. As I'm sure we all know, sigint organizations in UKUSA
countries have long had the capability to perform intercepts on
virtually every medium of digital communication that exists. A
tremendous amount of resources have been sunk into maintaining that
capability over the years as new digital tools have been developed.

Ostensibly, such resources are traditionally focused on international
and not domestic targets and the ability to intercept != the ability to
effectively analyze. And to be sure, some of these new tools have made
effective surveillance more difficult. Capturing all the signals
traffic in the world without the ability to decrypt it, or know the
where and who of source and destination (not to mention analyzing it
all) isn't particularly useful. Nevertheless, the United States is not
exactly behind the curve in terms of surveillance capability and they
certainly aren't 'going dark'.

What is happening here is primarily social in nature: the offloading of
the costs and time traditionally spent on surveillance from government
to the private sector - to ISP's, software developers, and other service
providers - by mandating the provision of backdoors and such. It's a
kind of digital panopticon in which we help construct the means of our
own imprisonment. Perhaps I'm restating the obvious. However, I often
feel that we speak about surveillance as if we were still partially free
from it, or if having the right digital security tools will suffice to
combat determined surveillance by a three letter agency with enough
resources to throw at them. Maybe they will, maybe they wont, and as
Jacob mentioned in his post a sufficiently well funded adversary can do
quite a bit.

I'm reminded of an NSA program (named Shamrock) in which every major
US-based telegraph company illegally handed over all international
cables originating in the US to the NSA every day for over 30 years -
after one informal request shortly after the end of WWII. This program
was actually forgotten about by the agency and by the companies involved
for decades; around the end of the Nixon administration someone
realized the intercepts were still being sent by courier to the Agency
and the program was officially shut down.

That same kind of tendency toward social compliance is (potentially) at
work here, and imho is the real issue. At the end of the day, even if
legislation fails to 'expand' surveillance, we can bet it's still going
to be expanded illegally. The Obama administration is merely moving the
skeletons a bit further out of the closet, making them look pretty and
seeing if everyone will buy it.


(I've been lurking on this list for a bit, but this is my first post)

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