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Contributing writer

Will Obama preside over the coming of Big Brother?

Apr 25, 20125 mins
Data and Information SecurityGovernmentIdentity Management Solutions

Privacy advocates and civil libertarians say among the president's broken promises is a failure to restrain the NSA's growing domestic surveillance

If President Barack Obama is going to win a second term, he may have to do it without the support of privacy and civil liberties organizations, including those in information and personal security.

Increasingly the president, who was expected to fulfill the dreams of civil libertarians by creating a more open, transparent and less-intrusive government, is instead being viewed as a nightmare.

Many of the complaints are focused on broken promises regarding the aftermath of 9/11: The president pledged to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and it remains open. He attacked the Patriot Act as a candidate, but it also remains. And according to his critics, while he slammed President Bush’s tactics in the “war on terror,” he has now embraced and expanded most of them, including the killing of U.S. citizens abroad who are deemed to be terrorists.

But for cyber-privacy advocates, the major concern is that they believe the Big-Brother and “thought police” nightmare of George Orwell’s “1984” could be a reality by 2013, when the National Security Agency’s new data center is due to open at the Utah National Guard’s Camp Williams, south of Salt Lake City in Bluffdale.

Some in the infosec and privacy community say it is not so much about who is president as it is about the reach, power and inertia of the intelligence establishment. Whatever, the reason, the coming Utah Data Center is expected to give a whole new meaning to the concept of Big Data.

NSA, which already has vast powers to sift and analyze digital communications by people with the bland job description of “traffic analyst,” is expanding those powers to the point where, according to James Bamford, writing last month in Wired magazine, it will be able to intercept, store and analyze, “all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails– parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.'”

The center will also be dedicated to breaking codes, since “much of the data that the center will handle — financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications — will be heavily encrypted,” Bamford writes.

The publicly stated goal of the center is to protect the nation from cyber attack. But privacy advocates fear that the data collection power could extend far beyond spying on the nation’s enemies.

They point to the fact that at the groundbreaking of the center in January 2011, nobody from the Department of Homeland Security (the agency whose mission is to guard civilian networks from cyber attacks) spoke. Instead, it was CIA veteran Glenn A. Gaffney. They point to reports that the NSA is increasingly relying on private firms to mine data, because they don’t need a search warrant. Only government searches and seizures are limited by the Constitution.

Bamford reported that William Binney, 68, a former NSA crypto-mathematician, told him that once data is collected and stored, everything a person does, including “financial transactions or travel or anything” can be charted on a graph. Bamford said Binney told him, while holding his thumb and forefinger close together, “We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state.”

Are such worries overheated paranoia? Perhaps. Kevin McAleavey, cofounder and chief architect of the KNOS project, says the kind of snooping NSA will be doing of Internet service providers won’t be much different from what it has done for decades in telephone wiretapping.

And he says people will find ways to work around the NSA, even with its expanded powers.

“In 2001, while the feds were looking for traffic from al Qaeda participants, I found a little trick they were engaged in,” he says.

“They’d log into Hotmail, write a draft email and then others would log in with the same account and read and modify the draft email and just save it in place. At no time was the draft ever emailed! That’s how they communicated, while NSA was waiting for the email to get sent.”

Gary McGraw, CTO of Cigital, says the NSA is just doing, “exactly what Amazon and Google are doing. We have to have Big Data capabilities just to keep track of people in other parts of the world. And I hope they’re doing that very well in Iran.”

McGraw says with the diminished effectiveness of firewalls, it is, “very hard, and will be harder to distinguish American traffic from other traffic that we really should be spying on. But that’s just the way the world works.”

But he says privacy advocates are probably more worried than they need to be. “The NSA doesn’t care about them,” he says.

Still, for the average, unsophisticated user, the prospects can be chilling. Law professor and privacy adviser Rebecca Herold says it is not just the president who is involved.

“Decisions on how the U.S. government is using personal information are being made by Congress, the president, and in many ways the judgments of the Supreme Court. All branches bring concerns for privacy with regard to how personal information is being mined,” she says.

Privacy advocates see the pending Cyber Intelligence Sharing Protection Act (CISPA) in Congress as enabling Big-Brother-style domestic surveillance, and wonder why Obama is not doing more to lobby his fellow Democrats in Congress to oppose it.

Sharon Bradford Franklin, writing in US News on April 18, said that, “Although we appreciate the Intelligence Committee’s efforts to improve the bill and willingness to engage in a dialogue with privacy advocates, the changes in its most current draft do not come close to addressing the civil liberties threats posed by the bill, and some of the proposals would actually make CISPA worse.”