• United States



Contributing writer

Syria not alone in spying on citizens

Dec 05, 20126 mins
Data and Information SecurityPrivacy

Repression like that in Syria is not happening now in the U.S., but the tools are in place

The Internet, long viewed as a tool to expand freedom, is an equally effective tool for repression. That is just as true in the United States as anywhere else.

Security guru Bruce Schneier noted in a recent blog post, citing Evgeny Morozov’s book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” that, “Repressive regimes all over the world are using the Internet to more efficiently implement surveillance, censorship, and propaganda. And they’re getting really good at it.”

Schneier, chief security technology officer at BT and a well-known author, wrote that while IT technologies are generally mastered first, “by the more agile individuals and groups outside the formal power structures … unfortunately, and inevitably, governments have caught up.”

One of the most visible examples of that at present is Syria, where in February 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring demonstrations, the government of President Bashar al-Assad inexplicably reversed a long-standing ban on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the Arabic version of Wikipedia.

But it was essentially a sting. The government used those social networking sites to spy on and track dissidents, and then to arrest and torture them, Stephan Faris reported for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Faris reported on the case of Taymour Karim, who withstood torture under interrogation and refused to give up the names of his friends, all for naught.

“It didn’t matter,” Faris wrote. “His computer had already told all. ‘They knew everything about me,’ Karim said. ‘The people I talked to, the plans, the dates, the stories of other people, every movement, every word I said through Skype. They even knew the password of my Skype account … My computer was arrested before me.'”

Assad has long been known as an oppressive dictator, and U.S. officials including President Obama have called for his ouster. But Americans watching from half a world away should not get too smug, say some security experts. If the U.S. ever gets its own version of a President Assad, the tools are not only in place to monitor the activities of citizens, they are already in use.

William Binney, the well-known whistleblower who worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) for 32 years, said he resigned in protest in 2001 after the Bush administration launched a top-secret surveillance program to spy on U.S. citizens without warrants. It was code named Stellar Wind, or just “The Program.”

In a New York Times “op-doc” by independent filmmaker Laura Poitras, Binney is shown at a conference saying,”NSA’s charter was to do foreign intelligence and I was with that and did that all the way. Unfortunately they took those programs that I built and turned them on you, and I’m sorry for that.”

Binney has been saying for a decade that the U.S. is collecting every electronic activity of its citizens. In a recent interview with RT, he estimated the number of electronic documents now being stored at “probably close to 20 trillion.”

He said the recent scandal involving former CIA director David Petraeus and Gen. John R. Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, offers evidence of that, since the FBI collected thousands of pages of emails from presumably private accounts, even though neither man has been charged with a crime. “What probable cause did they have?” he asked. “There was no crime.”

Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said if government really is collecting purely domestic electronic communications, that would violate the law. “But they operate in secret. It’s all classified. That’s our biggest concern,” she said. The rulings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court are secret, she noted.

[See also: Privacy war heats up between ACLU, DOJ]

Richardson said she suspects most citizens are unaware of the profile that government can develop with electronic eavesdropping. “I would say through the last 10 years, Congress has made it easier and easier to collect it over the Internet,” she said.

“Maybe you don’t care if they know that you visit a certain website. But it includes how you live your life, where you go, who you associate with, your age, race, religion. Companies are doing it for advertising purposes, but to have government doing it is incredible,” she said.

Richardson said the idea was that tracking all the activities of suspected terrorists was called a “mosaic theory.”  If they just keep collecting information, “the connections will pop out.”

“That never really worked, but it hasn’t stopped them from continuing to do it,” Richardson said.

Binney said citizens who think they have nothing to fear because they have done nothing wrong should think again. “They don’t get to define [right or wrong],” he told RT. “The central government does. If their position on something is against what the administration has, then they could easily become a target.”

Have things changed since President Obama took office?”The change is that it’s getting worse,”  Binney said, noting that Obama supports the building of a government data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah, which he said will be able to hold five zettabytes of data, equivalent to the information on about 250 billion DVDs.

Rebecca Herold, CEO of The Privacy Professor, said that under current law “there are very few, if any, types of surveillance that the government and investigators cannot realistically do. And, there is no true accountability on behalf of those doing the surveillance for the impacts of their actions. This is something that is long overdue for correcting.”

Filmmaker Laura Poitras notes a personal experience that, while it does not involve torture, has unsettling parallels to that of Syrian Taymour Karim.

She wrote in her op-doc: “Once, in 2011, when I was stopped at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and asserted my First Amendment right not to answer questions about my work, the border agent replied, ‘If you don’t answer our questions, we’ll find our answers on your electronics.'”

Herold said the only way to ensure even a measure of privacy is to use strong encryption with secure keys, “and a different, non-public, communications channel.”

But she noted that Congress is considering some legislation that would seek to peer into such private networks as well.