Spying to continue, House votes down plan to defund the NSA

As sickening as it is if you value privacy, the spying, prying and possibly lying will continue as Rep. Justin Amash’s proposal to defund the NSA was narrowly defeated. The vote was 205 – 217. Be sure you check out how your representative voted, if he or she was for the NSA to continue hoovering data and surveillance business as usual, or against it. Either way, we’re possibly screwed when it comes to reining in the surveillance state.

NSA spying, electronic surveillance, to continue

“The piece of technology we consider vital to the conduct of our everyday personal and professional life happens to be a combination phone bug, listening device, location tracker, and hidden camera,” said Senator Ron Wyden when talking about mobile phones that we willingly carry on us at all time. “There isn’t an American alive who would consent to being required to carry any one of those items and so we must reject the idea that the government may use its powers to arbitrarily bypass that consent.” Wyden was one who warned that Americans would be upset once they knew about the spying due to the way the Patriot Act was secretly being interpreted.  

Almost immediately after the public learned the NSA was collecting phone records of Verizon customers, lawyers got excited about getting their hands on those phone records to help in cases ranging from divorce to murder. A robbery suspect also wanted the records to prove his innocence as he claimed the metadata would show he wasn’t at the crime scene. Although that was shot down, citing national security reasons, now the NSA claims it doesn’t have the technology to search its own emails!

NSA Freedom of Information Act officer Cindy Black told ProPublica’s Justin Elliott that the NSA’s system is “a little antiquated and archaic." She added, "There's no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately."

Well that sounds strange, as Elliott pointed out, since the “NSA is a ‘supercomputing powerhouse’ with machines so powerful their speed is measured in thousands of trillions of operations per second. The agency turns its giant machine brains to the task of sifting through unimaginably large troves of data its surveillance programs capture.”

How mindboggling are those treasure troves of data? While trying to make a different point, NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander’s figures are around 150 billion daily. He told NBC that it “would be impossible to listen to every phone call and read every e-mail even if the government wanted to, which it does not. Consider, he said, the sheer volume — 114 billion e-mails, 24 billion text messages, and over 12 billion phone calls worldwide every day.”

Furthermore, the NSA isn’t trying to hide the spying program from you, but from the people “trying to kill you.” Alexander's precise quote was, “The purpose of these programs, and the reason we use secrecy, is not to hide from the American people, not to hide it from you, but to hide it from those who walk among you who are trying to kill you.”

That was echoed by Steven G. Bradbury, former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. He claimed the NSA phone metadata collection efforts should not be constrained, or else “Americans will be distinctly less safe.” Of course Gen Alexander agreed. "We have concrete proof that they have already, terrorists groups and others, are taking action, making changes, and it's going to make our job tougher." Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was also “very concerned” about restrictions on NSA phone surveillance.

Meanwhile, non-U.S. consumers and businesses are canceling contracts and fleeing cloud hosting companies based on U.S. soil. Some Americans previously unconcerned about their privacy may have taken this NSA domestic spying to heart and finally joined the cool kid crowd that embraces encryption, or at least started using HTTPS Everywhere. While some of Snowden’s leaked documents showed that the use of encryption will get your communications flagged and stored, Alexander had previously claimed, “Strong encrypted data is virtually unreadable.” That may be true if you don’t have the private key to decrypt it. Better yet, the government wants the master keys.

An anonymous source who “responded to government attempts to obtain encryption keys” told CNET, “The government is definitely demanding SSL keys from providers."

Declan McCullagh reported, “These demands for master encryption keys, which have not been disclosed previously, represent a technological escalation in the clandestine methods that the FBI and the National Security Agency employ when conducting electronic surveillance against Internet users.”

The person said that large Internet companies have resisted the requests on the grounds that they go beyond what the law permits, but voiced concern that smaller companies without well-staffed legal departments might be less willing to put up a fight. "I believe the government is beating up on the little guys," the person said. "The government's view is that anything we can think of, we can compel you to do." 

The White House and Senate Intelligence Committee members were ticked about Rep. Justin Amash’s amendment [pdf] “to the Defense Appropriations Bill, which would defund any surveillance program that doesn’t explicitly limit data collection of people not under investigation.” The Obama Administration made it very clear that it didn’t want the NSA defunded.

Now that the people who represent us and our rights voted not to stop the NSA data collection, here’s something to ponder. “If we do not seize this unique moment in our constitutional history to reform our surveillance laws and practices, we will all live to regret it,” warned, Senator Ron Wyden. “The combination of increasingly advanced technology with the breakdown of checks and balances on government action could lead us to a surveillance state that could not be reversed.”

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