Looking Through A PRISM - The NSA’ s Metadata Problem

By WILLIAM MAYER

January 23. 2018 - San Francisco, CA - PipeLineNews.org - This article was first published four years ago [January 20, 2014] during the period of time immediately after the Snowden revelations. We are reprinting it for two reasons. First we hope that the information might help to understand the importance of [and some of the issues regarding] the WikiLeaks Vault 7 data dump and secondly we wanted to revisit a bit of the modern history of U.S. signal intelligence [SIGINT], especially as it relates to the capabilities of the first genuinely global data collection network which was developed by the U.S. and its closest allies in the mid 1980s under the code name Project Echelon...

The word “metadata” is on the lips of a lot of media types these days.

Our guess is that most of them have little or no idea at all what they are talking about.

The term itself is imprecise; some say ambiguous, others say it’s meaningless without being placed in context. The way the punditocracy is using the word, they might as well just say data, because in their frame of reference it’s [as applied to NSA and other government intel organizations] simply information.

There is a technical definition however, which is a lot more esoteric as it applies to the format into which information is put, essentially data about the data, the way databases are constructed, display characteristics, relationship matrices etc.

Both of these apply to the current controversy but given the emphasis of the press and since they are using the word indiscriminately [most of them simply to appear to be brighter than they are] let’s deal with it as one concept, an approach which should promote a broader discussion of the weighty issues involved.

All of the major and minor world powers routinely conduct some kind of electronic espionage. The U.S. is no different, but some understanding of its true capabilities only came to public consciousness with the Snowden revelations.

The question is to what extent is this prudent and in the U.S., consistent with the 4th Amendment’s guarantee that citizens will not have their privacy invaded without due cause.

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

As breathless as the press is about this matter, it’s a very good bet that without the revelations made by Edward Snowden, none of the current discussion would be taking place.

When Americans learned that our intelligence organizations were intercepting just about every piece of electronic data, regardless of source, they rightfully became concerned.

Oddly there seems to be little consistency in predicting who is supporting this program and who is opposing it, there are liberals, conservatives and libertarians on both sides of this topic.

We do find it condescending however, when people such as Fox News’ Brit Hume make blanket statements suggesting that there is not a single case of the metadata being misused. Mr. Hume has absolutely no basis for making such a statement since his characterization can’t be proven regardless of the level of one's access to privileged information.

The data passes through too many hands.

It’s quite possible that many of the talking heads know little about the program which they defend – though it’s important to note here that more than a few of these commentators are defending the program out of a laudable, but misplaced patriotism.

The U.S. and its allies became seriously involved in Signal Intelligence, SIGINT, dating from the launching of the first telecommunications satellite in the mid 1960s. As refinements in this new technology came on line, so did the government’s ability to intercept these signals.

The enemies of the West’s NATO alliance then were the large state practitioners of communism, primarily the Soviet Union and to a lesser degree “Red” China and the various allies of these countries, many of them unwilling as was the case with much of Eastern Europe and half of Germany.

It was no surprise that the communications of these hostile powers were intercepted to whatever degree was possible. To do otherwise would have been a dereliction of duty. Thus a partnership was formed during the Cold War to share SIGINT between the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

As time progressed and as the capabilities of computers and signal gathering technology rapidly increased, so did the appetite of those who were tapping into this increasing storm of electronic information.

As this took place a coordinated system of data interception began to take form [circa late 1980s]. It was code named ECHELON and grew quite naturally from the listening capabilities developed during the Cold War by the “5 Partners” noted above.

Each of these countries became data collection points, linked together to provide the ability to essentially grab all of the transmitted electronic communications on earth.

That it was statutorily forbidden to tap into the communication of American citizens at this time, presented no problem. The information could be obtained from one of the partners not so constrained.

ECHELON became a kind of cause célèbre during the mid to late 1990s, with Congressmen Bob Barr [R-GA] probably being its chief critic:

“Last week, U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., maneuvered an amendment into the national-security budget to evoke some answers from the notoriously close-mouthed National Security Agency about a controversial surveillance system code-named Project Echelon…[which] began with a secret post-World-War-II pact between the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand…These groups funnel intelligence to the NSA…The project has five "ear-in-the-sky" satellites capable of monitoring sounds from thousands of miles away. They allow Echelon to intercept virtually any internationally-transmitted phone call, fax, e-mail or data transfer for the ostensible purpose of tracking international terrorist groups or drug cartels. But unlike many spying relics of the Cold War, Echelon is aimed at surveillance of civilian communications, such as business and personal e-mails….While the NSA will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the Echelon system, a report commissioned by the European Parliament last year confirmed that every communication in Europe has been subject to surveillance for years and the system can decode any clever encryptions. More alarmingly, European business intelligence has been known to leak from the NSA to American businesses, providing American businesses with illicit information on mergers, take-overs and bids…” [source, Jack Anderson, Douglas Cohn, Shhh Uncle Sam Is Listening, November 16, 1999]

Fast forward to 2014…

Though this relatively crude capability [by modern standards] has existed for so long, it’s power increased by several orders of magnitude as the threat of Soviet Communism waned and was replaced by the asymmetrical warfare of Islamic jihad came to the fore, as demonstrated most notably of course in the events of September 11, 2001.

The mass electronic communication collection system morphed into a powerful ability to mine the information, hoping, it was and is being argued, to come across evidence of potential threats before they were able to come to fruition.

The data is sifted against “dictionaries” and various other grids and filters hoping to grab key words, patterns or other information with the intention of making it possible to identify the bad guys before they strike and understand the internal operations of their various organizations.

Without taking sides in the controversy regarding the morality of what Edward Snowden has been revealing there can be no question it’s an absolute certainty that the intelligence agencies’ variously collected data has been misused.

What better proof do we have than Mr. Snowden himself?

For some background reference, please see the below linked media coverage – in doing so we highly recommend caveat emptor:

NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others - The Guardian

U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program - Washington Post

NSA slides explain the PRISM data-collection program: Original Slides Published - Washington Post

UK gathering secret intelligence via covert NSA operation | - The Guardian

How Microsoft handed the NSA access to encrypted messages - The Guardian

NSA slides explain the PRISM data-collection program: Slides published June 29 - Washington Post [preceding information sourced via Al Jazeera, Timeline of Edward Snowden's revelations]

It’s beyond the scope of this piece to analyze the legal and ethical questions raised by PRISM, but it should be apparent to everyone now, that at least the technology, if not the intent in some cases, of Big Brother is here.

No can reasonably assume that his or her “private” communications are any longer safe from prying eyes, despite the strictures of the 4th Amendment, because it isn’t.

The concept of privacy in this context no longer exists, period and to hear genuinely well-meaning people such as Brit Hume [we aren’t picking on him, but we do find his categorical statements to be troubling] defend a program which no one outside of a very select few, has any real understanding, smacks of either a misplaced knee-jerk patriotism, journalistic laziness, incompetence, or worse, journalistic malpractice.

On a broad basis we find the prospect that the communications of American citizens are not only being sucked up by the NSA, they are being archived for future analysis, to be repugnant.

To what degree remains to be seen. However there is something intrinsically evil lurking here and it’s impossible at this point to determine its exact proportions.

When the machinery of a police-state exists in a republican democracy, the only barrier between the ability to protect a society and the march of the hob-nail-boots is largely determined by the character of whatever administration is running DC.

Viewing the actions of Mr. Obama and the generally lawless nature of his administration over the last 5 years does not imbue us with much confidence that this vast power is not already being abused.

©2014 PipeLineNews.org LLC, William Mayer. All rights reserved.