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LOVEINT: Abusing NSA surveillance power in the name of ‘love’

Aug 25, 20134 mins
Data and Information SecurityEnterprise ApplicationsMicrosoft

Some NSA agents have abused the agency's electronic surveillance capabilities to spy on 'love interests.'

Some NSA officers have tapped into the agency’s massive surveillance capabilities to spy on “love interests,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Although it supposedly doesn’t happen often, “it’s common enough to garner its own spycraft label: LOVEINT.”

Spy agencies often refer to their various types of intelligence collection with the suffix of “INT,” such as “SIGINT” for collecting signals intelligence, or communications; and “HUMINT” for human intelligence, or spying.

The “LOVEINT” examples constitute most episodes of willful misconduct by NSA employees, officials said.

Most of the LOVEINT incidents were described as “self-reported,” but that seems a bit misleading since an “admission” of the spying abuse is exposed when taking a lie-detector test in order to renew a security clearance.

About the NSA’s LOVEINT, Privacy SOS wrote, “Don’t get sexually involved with NSA analysts or intelligence contractors. … As far as I’m concerned, using secretive and unconstitutional spy powers to monitor the private communications of someone you have a crush on doesn’t mean you love them. It means you are a creep.”

If LOVEINT spying is a sign of “love,” then it might be wise to run, run as fast as you can in the other direction. But spying in the name of “love” happens all the time, whether it is parents installing an app to monitor their kid’s online or smartphone activities, or a jealous person installing an app to determine if their partner is cheating. One such app called “Boyfriend Tracker” was recently yanked from the Google Play in Brazil, but not before “tens of thousands managed to download the software.”

A woman who caught her husband cheating tried to explain why the app was not violation of privacy.

‘It’s a different type of spying,’ she said of comparisons to the NSA surveillance program. ‘You’re checking up on somebody you know intimately, not some stranger.’

No matter how it is justified, spying in the name of “love” boils down to trust issues. And speaking of a lack of trust…

Last week, Die Zeit, a German newspaper, reported that security experts in the German governments warned against using Windows 8 because it allegedly has a “backdoor for the NSA” that “cannot be closed. This backdoor is called Trusted Computing and could have the effect that Microsoft can control any computer remotely and control. And thus the NSA.”

But a person could get whiplash, as the German government quickly rejected the “Windows 8 is downright dangerous” report.

Instead, the Federal Office for Security in Information Technology (BSI) claimed that it would rather “maintain a self-determined and autonomous dealing with information technology.” From its perspective, “the use of Windows 8 in combination with a TPM 2.0 is accompanied by a loss of control over the operating system and the hardware used.”

More specifically, for federal users and critical infrastructure computers, if something were to go wrong with Windows 8 OS or a TPM 2.0 chip, then BSI warned it could brick the system. This might occur by accident, such as a bug, or it might be exploited by nation state hackers for cyber espionage. “In addition, the newly established mechanisms can also be used for sabotage of third parties.”  

Basically that is wisdom as history has shown us that most any system can be compromised if an attacker is determined enough. History has also shown us that people in positions of power eventually abuse surveillance systems whether the digital snooping is done in the name of “love,” hate or mistrust.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.