The U.S. government has been looking and often gathering and collecting data on almost every phone call, website visited, and credit card transaction we make. In case you want to get caught up one this issue which hit the news world hard yesterday, this article on the National Security Agency (NSA) program called Prism is a good quick start. Here's a juicy quote of a quote from the article:

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.

The highly classified program, code-named PRISM, has not been disclosed publicly before. Its establishment in 2007 and six years of exponential growth took place beneath the surface of a roiling debate over the boundaries of surveillance and privacy. Even late last year, when critics of the foreign intelligence statute argued for changes, the only members of Congress who know about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues.

While it's hard to feel happy about this, could it be necessary to prevent another 9/11? If it did prevent something like a nuclear device being detonated in Chicago killing a million people, would it be worth it? Does this revelation give the bad guys notice that they need a new way to stay in touch?

Obviously, a government needs some secrecy, but how much is too much?

Tags: Agency, FBI, NSA, National, Security, data, mining, privacy, secrecy

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PRISM is not gathering metadata. The article in the Washington Post specifically states it gathers actual data. This is based on the information contained in the top secret documents.

Note that when NSA analysts search it, they only need warrants to look at results from "foreign" targets. For added perspective, here is the standard the NSA uses to determine a target's "foreigness" as described by the Washington Post:

Analysts who use the system from a Web portal at Fort Meade key in “selectors,” or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness.” That is not a very stringent test. Training materials obtained by the Post instruct new analysts to submit accidentally collected U.S. content for a quarterly report, “but it’s nothing to worry about.”

Think about that. 51%?

The NSA analyst fires up a special search engine that has access to all the email inboxes, instant messages, and personal files people put on Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, (soon) Dropbox, and the rest.

The analyst types in "bomb plot" or whatever. The search tool flips a coin for each search result. If it's heads, it's foreign and the analyst gets to read it.

But say the search tool is 49% wrong. The analyst ends up NOT looking at some worthless, undeserving foreigner's email. The analyst ends up looking at an American citizen's email. There was no search warrant to do so: a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

But according to official NSA training policy, it's just a non-worrisome routine that gets added to a quarterly "oops" report (does it?) before the analyst looks at the next search result.

I never really considered the internet private, but I'll tell ya the Yahoo spam detector is pretty dam accurate. They may claim 51% for legal reasons, but that would bury them in bad data. People are so predictable, I'll bet their algorithms are >95%. Plus the Chinese are reading your emails anyways and Facebook knows more about us than the NSA ever will. I always chuckle as they lead the child porn guy away in cuffs. He usually seems so shocked, thinking he lead a private life of debauchery.

When it comes to spam detection, I've always said that Gmail's borders on magic. I long ago stopped looking through the results since after a while I realized I wasn't going to find anything. They do let some things through, but at least they err on the side of not marking anything as spam if it is not. It's also clear it's constantly learning from how users handle the spam that does get through.

The "metadata" thing applies to telephone records, I think. With email it's a far simpler thing to examine the stream for key words and key phrases and other patterns. If all email is kept, it can't be forever due to the sheer quantity. I can believe that email that contains the key words or phrases might be kept for some period of time, though.

I'd like to know, is the following something you can cite or is it sheer speculation?:

The NSA analyst fires up a special search engine that has access to all the email inboxes, instant messages, and personal files people put on Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, (soon) Dropbox, and the rest.

The analyst types in "bomb plot" or whatever. The search tool flips a coin for each search result. If it's heads, it's foreign and the analyst gets to read it.

But say the search tool is 49% wrong. The analyst ends up NOT looking at some worthless, undeserving foreigner's email. The analyst ends up looking at an American citizen's email. There was no search warrant to do so: a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

I'd like to know, is the following something you can cite or is it sheer speculation?:

I cited it already, quoting from the Washington Post article that broke the original story. The Post's source were top secret documents from the NSA and the FBI:

"Analysts who use the system from a Web portal at Fort Meade key in “selectors,” or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness.” That is not a very stringent test. Training materials obtained by the Post instruct new analysts to submit accidentally collected U.S. content for a quarterly report, “but it’s nothing to worry about.”"

That's how search engines work. A crawler indexes all the data from the source-- in this case the user data on the servers at Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, etc.-- and puts the results into a relational database. Then a query tool is used to search it: the reference to the search terms and the web portal at Fort Meade.

Note the article specifically refers to analysts being instructed not to fret about the "collected US content" not collected US metadata.

PRISM is the NSA's own private 'Google' search tool only it has unrestricted access into everybody's private (that word seems almost funny now) email, web, instant message, and file storage accounts.

The flip side of 51% confidence in "foreignness" is 49% that they'll end up in an American account without a warrant.

For a rundown of what the Supreme Court has ruled is a requirement to get a warrant to wiretap an American's electronic communications-- which includes email, web, texts, instant message, etc.--  see this post which includes citations.

Officially, it's metadata, but the whole program is so shrouded in the cloak of "national security interests" that it could be far more than that and we'd never know. As I already pointed out in the article above, if they are doing deep-packet inspection of information passing through their lines, then they are able to see everything.

Also like I pointed out, if they only wanted to collect data to and from overseas, then they would have tapped into the junctions where the lines come in from the undersea cables and not across the US. Then there's issues like this room found in 2006.

"AT&T provided National Security Agency eavesdroppers with full access to its customers' phone calls, and shunted its customers' internet traffic to data-mining equipment installed in a secret room in its San Francisco switching center, according to a former AT&T worker cooperating in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit against the company.

Mark Klein, a retired AT&T communications technician, submitted an affidavit in support of the EFF's lawsuit this week. That class action lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco last January, alleges that AT&T violated federal and state laws by surreptitiously allowing the government to monitor phone and internet communications of AT&T customers without warrants."

...

"Klein said he came forward because he does not believe that the Bush administration is being truthful about the extent of its extrajudicial monitoring of Americans' communications.

"Despite what we are hearing, and considering the public track record of this administration, I simply do not believe their claims that the NSA's spying program is really limited to foreign communications or is otherwise consistent with the NSA's charter or with FISA," Klein's wrote. "And unlike the controversy over targeted wiretaps of individuals' phone calls, this potential spying appears to be applied wholesale to all sorts of internet communications of countless citizens."

Besides, do you really think they are going to admit to that they are recording all that data or that they are obtaining information that's more than what they claim to be getting? I don't think there is enough transparency or accountability to trust what they are saying at this point.

The legal issue stems over whether this sort of monitoring violates the fourth amendment for "illegal search" and "illegal seizure" and whether electronic records count as "papers and personnel effects."

So you are fine if i wiretap your house as long as i pinky swear that i wont actually listen to the data?

If we want to fight terrorism with means that are impossible to abuse, what are we left with?

That's funny Rocky john!  Can you imagine what it would be like to have the job of sifting through the data?  it would be like being force fed every bit of Facebook, all the crap comments, every bit of Youtube, and all those awful comments, all the dross and humdrum of mundane communication, just so you could have the small possibility of catching something untoward.  I can't imagine that the conversations in my house would keep you enthralled for even five minutes.

Go ahead, wire tap us - you would be screaming to get away within hours.

That's funny Strega! You realize that job does not belong to a human, right? 

Also, there's no listenable data, just metadata.

From what i have got they do record audio but need a fifa order to be able to go back and listen to it. That is if they are even telling the truth about needing a fifa judge's order. Remember these fifa procedures are secret and it was created just to give a veneer of legality to prism.

I also think it is important here to put the danger from terrorism in perspective. You are far far more likely to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist.

If you want to stop terrorists i would say the first step would be to stop indisciminantly trying to bomb them back to the stone age and get out of their countries. Terrorism has nearly always been the tactic of an invaded country when it cannot hope to stand upto the military might of an invader.

@strega- Your problem is complacency, None of us know the future so i prefer to play it safe as this sort of ability and power is highly dangerous in the long term. You should ask someone from china or iran whether they think it would be a good thing to protect online privacy. You must realize that tomorrow will likely be different than today. If we dont standupto this early when it seems unimportant  then we have a good chance of not being able to do so when it does become important.

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