US Expands Global Electronic Surveillance
Andrei AKULOV | 26.06.2013 | WORLD / Americas

US Expands Global Electronic Surveillance

The spy spooky stories hit the radar screens again. Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA, who has also worked at the National Security Agency for the last four years as an employee of various outside contractors, is on the way to the relative safety abroad, probably South America. He has asked for political asylum in Ecuador, the country that has also given shelter to the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. Snowden has decided to disclose numerous top-secret documents to the public, including a series of leaks about the NSA (as well as Britain's spy center GCHQ cooperating closely with the US agency). Both the Guardian and the Washington Post have said that U.S. security services had monitored data on phone calls from Verizon and Internet data from large companies. The US vast spy network is enjoying virtually unhindered access to any phone call or online communication as part of the «war on terror». The NSA and the FBI are directly tapping central servers at nine US internet companies.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W Bush authorized the NSA to carry out a range of electronic surveillance inside the United States, including calls between Americans and potential terrorist suspects. In 2005, telecoms firms were ordered by the Bush administration to hand over the phone records of customers. The NSA’s mission was to trawl through the records using algorithms to spot patterns that could signal possible plotting by terror suspects. The authorities must seek a warrant for the operation every three months from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which operates behind closed doors. The warrants allow a search through phone record «meta-data,» including the times of phone calls and the duration, but not the content of the conversations, something easy to ignore.

The Internet surveillance program collects data from online providers, including e-mail, chat services, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers, video conferencing and log-ins, according to classified documents obtained. Called Prism it is authorized to do so under a foreign intelligence law that has been recently renewed by Congress. It is to minimize the collection and retention of information about US citizens and permanent residents. Some Internet companies said they have refused open-ended access to their servers but complied with specific lawful requests for information. The Prism program grew out of the National Security Agency’s desire several years ago to begin addressing the need to keep up with explosive growth of social media. 

A huge proportion of global Internet traffic flows through networks controlled by the United States because eight of 15 global tier 1 telecommunications companies are American, the majors like AT&T, Century Link, XO Communications and Verizon. The social media services are mostly provided by giants headquartered in the United States, like Google, Facebook, Yahoo! and Twitter. No matter where their services are offered or their servers located, all of these companies conduct their activities according to U.S. law, including the Patriot Act. The world's Internet traffic is routed through the United States territory providing its national security agencies an enormous home-field advantage in comparison with other countries. 

According to Snowden, «The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything to Snowden», He said «With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife's phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards». The exposure of the secret programs has triggered widespread debate within the US and abroad about the vast reach of the NSA, which has expanded dramatically under the Obama administration. 

International outcry

The intense international reaction threatens to complicate U.S. foreign policy, and pose legal problems for the U.S. government. The United States’ claimed leadership on internet freedom is called into question. While much of the controversy in the United States revolves around privacy rights and possible violations of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, the scope of the PRISM story is actually world-wide. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has confirmed that it operates under a controversial section of FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978) that authorizes broad surveillance of non-U.S. persons.

On June 10 the European Commission expressed concern about the U.S. internet snooping. The next day it outlined plans to raise the PRISM matter with U.S. authorities «at the earliest possible opportunity» and will «request clarifications as to whether access to personal data within the framework of the PRISM program is limited to individual cases and based on concrete suspicions, or if it allows bulk transfer of data». The German government is also demanding explanations from the U.S. after it emerged that PRISM has been collecting more information from Germany than any other EU country. The Swiss are also raising alarms about the NSA’s hacking activities on their territory, concern that has been compounded by other revelations shared by Snowden about CIA agents resorting to blackmail ploy in Switzerland for recruiting purposes. US - based internet companies cooperating with the NSA under the PRISM program could face legal action in the European Union. The European Commission has warned U.S. tech companies that they must adhere to EU law or face the consequences. The Association for Progressive Communications has issued a statement to the Human Rights Council on behalf of civil society regarding the impact of state surveillance on human rights. Concerning the legal aspect of the matter, it says, «These revelations suggest a blatant and systematic disregard for human rights as articulated in Articles 17 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as Articles 12 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights».

Human Rights Watch has noted that the recent revelations of NSA surveillance are impinging on privacy. It expressed particular concern over the total lack of concern for the rights of non-U.S. citizens. «The U.S. government’s credibility as an advocate for Internet freedom is at serious risk unless it ensures that privacy is protected along with security and acts with much greater transparency», said HRW executive director Kenneth Roth. «There is a real danger that other governments will see U.S. practice as a green light for their own secret surveillance programs. That should be chilling to anyone who goes online or uses a phone». (1)

China's official Xinhua news agency said the revelations had «put Washington in a really awkward situation». «They demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber-attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age», it said. China has called on the United States to address the international community’s concerns in the wake of the revelations over the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities. The Global Times, a newspaper that is part of the China’s Communist Party-run People’s Daily group, called for assertive Chinese action to confront Washington in the wake of Mr. Snowden’s revelations. «Before the U.S. government rushes to shut Snowden’s mouth, China also needs to seek an explanation from Washington,» the newspaper said in an editorial. «We are not bystanders. The issue of whether the U.S. as an Internet superpower has abused its powers touches on our vital interests directly». (2) The protests have been reported to be voiced in the UK, Canada, Pakistan, Egypt and many countries of Africa. 

Inside the country debates

For US citizens, the recent NSA scandal has touched off discussions about the legality of mass surveillance programs, whether they violate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution, and whether proper oversight is in place to protect human rights.

Government officials defended the activities as authorized under law, approved by Congress and necessary to counter terrorist threats. «It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States». James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement, describing the law underlying the program. «Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats». (3) The White House and Congressional leaders defended the phone program, saying it was legal and necessary to protect national security. Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters aboard Air Force One that the kind of surveillance at issue «has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States». He added: «The president welcomes a discussion of the trade-offs between security and civil liberties». (4) On June 18, 2013 National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander testified before the House Intelligence Committee that phone and Internet surveillance programs prevented approximately 50 terrorist plots since 2001, 10 of which targeted the US. According to him, the programs are «subject to rigorous oversight» and touted the agency's «rigorous training programs» for analysts. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the Fourth Amendment – which protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure – does not protect the phone records of Americans because customers of phone companies do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy for records of who they call. «Every now and then, there may be a mistake», Cole admitted, but he said those instances are «reported to the FISA court immediately», as well as congressional judiciary and intelligence committees. The officials told lawmakers that the secret government collection and retention of Americans' communications are permitted by Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act and by Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Some members of Congress have indicated support for the NSA activities, while others pushed for tougher oversight and possible changes to the law authorizing the surveillance. Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have disputed that the NSA's collection of phone records on millions of Americans was key to preventing any terrorist attack. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has denounced the move as an «outrageous breach of Americans' privacy» in a statement on June 6, while Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., termed it «an astounding assault on the Constitution». (5) Edward Snowden is hailed as a hero by many for exposing the government's controversial spy operations as a petition urging the Obama administration to pardon Snowden posted to the White House website reads. It has more than 110000 signatures (6). «Welcome to the era of Bush-Obama, a 16-year span of US history that will be remembered for an unprecedented erosion of civil liberties and a disregard for transparency», the National Journal’s Ron Fournier wrote. «The United States could have skipped the 2008 election. It made little difference». (7)

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But the dangers lie in the various legal and ethical thresholds being crossed as a result of intelligence gathering moving forcefully into capturing the worldwide web. The U.S. government’s counterterrorism policies appear to have gone too far, especially if one adds the going-on debates on the legality of drone attacks abroad and the use of remote control air vehicles for spying on US citizens inside the country or the Home Security Department filling ammunition storages for emergency situations. The Patriot Act has no chance of being recalled soon, if ever. One row related to covert activities of US special services follows another. The Snowden’s revelations have complicated the relations with the outside world, including the closest allies. The country’s image abroad is down to low ebb. With all this in mind, it is really funny to hear US politicians pontificating about human rights with their incurable propensity to teach others instead of looking at what’s happening in their own backyard… 


Tags: Spying