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Ex-NSA chief Michael Hayden got schooled on how much eavesdropping stinks

Oct 27, 20134 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

Former CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden is not a big fan of privacy, but perhaps having his own invaded and live-tweeted will teach him how much being spied upon stinks.

Man, it sure does stink to be spied on. Just ask former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden how it feels to be a victim of eavesdropping. Or you could ask Tom Matzzie, the eavesdropper who tweeted what he heard until someone monitoring Twitter sounded the red alert to Hayden.

While he was a passenger on the Acela Amtrak train, Hayden was giving phone interviews to three journalists, allegedly related to “NSA monitoring the calls of 35 world leaders,” on the condition that Hayden be quoted somewhat anonymously and referred to only as a “former senior admin.”

Tom Matzzie, who runs a renewable energy company, was also on the train last Thursday. He overheard Hayden talking and began live-tweeting the details. That is, he was until someone monitoring Twitter in real-time told Hayden and Hayden confronted him.

Hayden reportedly walked over and asked Matzzie, “Would you like a real interview?”

“I’m not a reporter,” Matzzie answered.

“Everybody’s a reporter,” said Hayden.

What happened next? Matzzie summed it up with this tweet: “I just had a very nice conversation with Michael Hayden. He was a gentleman and we disagree.” Hayden said he “went over to Mr. Matzzie and they ‘had a nice conversation’ about the Fourth Amendment, the N.S.A.’s surveillance activities, and their mutual hometown: Pittsburgh.”

After they posed for a picture together, Matzzie tweeted, “On Acela: Hayden’s comments to press were clearly about NSA spying on foreign allies. #haydenacela.” He also realized he was a little afraid.

Hayden later told the Washington Post that Matzzie “got it terribly wrong” and then Hayden “dismissed the tweets as a ‘[bull—-] story from a liberal activist sitting two seats from me on the train hearing intermittent snatches of conversation’.”

“I cannot recall a single disparaging comment I made about the administration,” Hayden told the New York Times. “I wasn’t saying anything sensitive or classified. These were just routine conversations. I can’t believe you guys are making such a big deal out of this.”

The “big deal,” to Bruce Schneier, is that it’s a “demonstration of the U.S. government’s capabilities to monitor the public Internet” in “real time.”

One of my favorite tweets was by Julian Sanchez, aka @normative: “Apparently Michael Hayden attended the Petraeus School of OpSec.”

In the surveillance-turnabout-may-be-fair-play category, “under Hayden’s leadership, the NSA created a domestic telephone call database” and he also “championed the Trailblazer Project.” Also, during a 2006 press conference, Hayden argued that the words “probable cause” are not found in the Fourth Amendment.

Eek! Wrong. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states:

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.

However, after Hayden’s incorrect claim about probable cause and the Fourth Amendment, he added, “…believe me, if there is any amendment to the constitution that the employees of the National Security Agency are familiar with, it’s the Fourth.”

Hayden’s “private” conversation, being conducted in public on a train, dealt with secretive national security spying, and turned into a series of embarrassing tweets. While Hayden has never been a big believer in privacy – other people’s privacy – perhaps having his own invaded will give him more appreciation of it? If nothing else, it probably gave him a taste of how much it sucks to spied upon.

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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.