Stealing Privacy Back From the NSA

The Constitution and rights of citizens have been abrogated, and powerful technologies developed that routinely and casually violate everyone’s privacy.  Neither political party seems very interested in defending these rights.  But now some people are pushing back.

The Smartphone Even the NSA May Have Trouble Hacking is Coming Soon by Paul Szoldra [excerpts]

“If you’re worried about the NSA listening in on your smartphone, Silent Circle’s “Blackphone” may be the last best hope…

While the [$629] price is a bit hefty, it comes with impressive features, including fully encrypted voice, text, and video calls, and a virtual private network that anonymizes web surfing — all built on a custom version of Android…

Demand for such a device certainly ramped up after Edward Snowden began leaking top-secret documents detailing NSA surveillance programs, but Silent Circle had been working on the device long before…

The company has taken great pains to ensure it could not give up user data, even if compelled to by a government.  While many U.S. companies receive controversial national security letters forcing them to share customer info, Silent Circle is incorporated in Switzerland and has Swiss data centers.

But the main thing that sets the security of the phone apart is that the encryption itself resides only on the handset.  While encrypted data passes through the company’s servers, the individual keys necessary to unlock and read the data are only on the phones.

Basically, if Silent Circle was forced to hand over data, all they could give up is a bunch of encrypted gibberish…”

But what about your computer?

An article in New Scientist has some answers:

“Because no one outside the NSA and its partners knows how retro reflectors [listening in on ambient sounds and harvesting keystrokes and on-screen images] operate, security engineers cannot defend against their use.  Now a group of security researchers led by Michael Ossmann of Great Scott Gadgets in Evergreen, Colorado, have not only figured out how these devices work, but also recreated them…

An SDR [Software-Defined Radio signal-processing chip] Ossmann designed and built, called HackRF, was a key part of his work in reconstructing the NSA’s retro-reflector systems.  Such systems come in two parts – a plantable “reflector” bug and a remote SDR-based receiver.

One reflector, which the NSA called Ragemaster, can be fixed to a computer’s monitor cable to pick up on-screen images.  Another, Surlyspawn, sits on the keyboard cable and harvests keystrokes.  After a lot of trial and error, Ossmann found these bugs can be remarkably simple devices – little more than a tiny transistor and a 2-centimetre-long wire acting as an antenna.

Getting the information from the bugs is where SDRs come in…

Having figured out how the NSA bugs work, Ossmann says the hackers can now turn their attention to defending against them – and they have launched a website to collate such knowledge, called  "Showing how these devices exploit weaknesses in our systems means we can make them more secure in the future,“ he says.”

— excerpted from Hackers reverse-engineer NSA’s leaked bugging device by Paul Marks

History Repeats:  NSA and FBI Abuse of Power 40 Years Ago

One more excerpt, this one from an excellent editorial printed in the Los Angeles Times just at the end of last year:

“In the mid-1970s, the Church Committee, named for its chairman, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), made shocking and still-relevant findings.  It found that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spied on hundreds of thousands of Americans who dissented against government policy, on the pretext that they were part of a Kremlin-controlled plot.

The bureau went beyond surveillance to mount, in the committee’s words, a "sophisticated vigilante operation” called COINTELPRO to “disrupt” and “neutralize” dissent, turning counterintelligence techniques developed for use against foreign enemies on students protesting the Vietnam War, civil rights groups and nonviolent leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

FBI officials went so far as to foment violence between the Black Panthers and a rival black power group, United Slaves, in Southern California, the committee found, and then proudly claimed credit for shootings and beatings.

At the University of California, FBI files subsequently uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act show the bureau harassed Mario Savio, a leader of the 1964 Free Speech Movement; waged a concerted campaign to oust UC President Clark Kerr because FBI officials disagreed with his policies; and gave personal and political help to Ronald Reagan, who had been an FBI informer in Hollywood and as governor vowed to crack down on Berkeley protests.

The Church Committee also investigated NSA surveillance and its relationship to its “customer” agencies and their activities.

From 1967 until 1973, the committee said, the NSA targeted the international communications of some 1,200 Americans on a “watch list” of names, submitted mainly by the FBI and other agencies, who ranged from members of radical political groups to celebrities to “ordinary citizens involved in protests against their government.”  Among those listed were King, Muhammad Ali and even Church.

These NSA intercepts were an integral part of massive domestic surveillance that targeted citizens because they exercised their constitutional rights, the committee reported.  The FBI used the information to develop leads at the same time the bureau was conducting COINTELPRO; the CIA used it to spy on antiwar activists under its “questionable” Operation CHAOS; and the Army to improperly amass files on more than 100,000 U.S. citizens engaged in dissent.

In its defense, the NSA claimed that the communications of Americans had been collected “as an incidental and unintended act in the conduct of the interception of foreign communications.”  Sound familiar…?”

Spy Wars: Americans need to know more than Snowden has revealed

Defenders of National Security Agency (NSA) wholesale spyingon Americans have asserted that it was and is legal, thanks to the Patriot Act.

But it turns out that all too often the NSA has broken the law—2,776 times over a one-year period, according to an internal audit leaked by the former NSA contractor and American hero Edward Snowden.  That’s an average of more than 7.6 times per day that the NSA violated privacy rules protecting the communications of those residing in the United States. The New York Times reports that most of the violations resulted from operator and system errors like “inadequate or insufficient research” when selecting wiretap targets.   For example, almost 70% of the violations occurred when a foreigner whose cellphone was wiretapped without a warrant came to the United States, where a warrant was required.

There is no way to prettify this pig: On its face, 2,776 instances of breaking the law in one year seems to prove that there has been a complete breakdown in agency discipline and that abuse of the Patriot Act is rampant.

The fact that it looks as if most of the violations involved taking a shortcut doesn’t absolve the NSA or the Obama administration. Here are some examples of other shortcuts: not asking for a warrant to wiretap an American citizen; doing complete sweeps of the metadata of millions of Americans; military trials to avoid civilian due process; and, of course, the shortest of all short cuts—torture. We’re not talking about a slippery slope here. What’s at issue is a mindset that is willing to break the rules and in the process trample on the rights of millions and to turn our society into a friendly police state.

It’s lose-lose for the NSA. Saying that the number of errors was miniscule compared to the number of wiretaps they are performing would indicate that the NSA is in fact spying on a disturbingly enormous number of people. So either the NSA makes a ton of mistakes or it’s doing massive spying.  That’s about as lose-lose as you can get!

Barack Obama assumed the office of the President of the United States on extremely high moral ground, which mainly reflected American and world disgust with the bumbling butchery of Bush II that birthed two useless but destructive and expensive wars, a torture gulag around the world and shocking new levels of spying on American citizens.  Barry even won a Nobel Peace Prize essentially for not being George Bush.

After the continued use of drones and continued revelations of spying abuses, Obama has lost all that high ground. You can’t stake a claim to a higher morality merely because you never ordered torture (especially if you have essentially suborned torture by not prosecuting the creators of the illegal torture machine). That’s akin to saying that you’re a better person because you only sell crystal meth to those over the age of 18. Of course, if we apply this analogy to Obama’s NSA, it may mean that you still “forget” to ask for ID most of the time!

Unfortunately the answer is not to vote for Republicans in the 2014 mid-term elections, since the Republican Party as a whole buys into the authoritarian state much more than the Democrats do.  Before we can stem the slow drift towards a police state, we have to turn the Democratic Party back towards a reasoned approach to fighting terrorists, one that depends on legal police and intelligence techniques known to work. It would also help if we had a foreign policy that did not overtly exploit and offend the people who represent the terrorists’ constituency.

Ex-Spy Alleges Bush White House Sought to Discredit Critic -

On the front page of the New York Times today, a story by James Risen on professor, blogger and contributor to my latest book, The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Juan Cole and how he was put on the Bush Administration’s enemies list and made a CIA target.

I’m green with envy!

NSA Now Pissing Off the Entire World

Most recently, the offended party is Germany.  Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone has been tapped from the rooftop of the nearby American embassy in Berlin.  But it’s gone beyond that: a double agent working in Germany’s intelligence service, the BND, was just caught providing the CIA papers on the German parliament’s investigation of NSA mass surveillance in their country.  Germany, as America’s strongest ally in Europe, is also America’s largest listening post on the Continent.  And America is Gemany’s largest trading partner outside of Europe.  But even the patience of Angela Merkel’s pro-America center-right government has its limits.

Germany asks top US intelligence official to leave country over spy row by Philip Oltermann and Spencer Ackerman, 10 July 2014 [brief excerpt]

“Diplomatic relations between Germany and the US plunged to a new low after Angela Merkel’s government asked the [CIA station chief] in Germany to leave the country.

While not formally amounting to a full expulsion, the move nonetheless sends a dramatic signal:  after a year-long dispute triggered by the revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Merkel seems to have finally run out of patience with Washington’s failure to explain itself…

According to German media reports, such drastic action had previously only been thinkable when dealing with “pariah states like North Korea or Iran”…”

Europe Treated Like Enemy of the U.S.

The abuse of trust driving between America and her traditional European allies due to over-reach in the spying efforts of the NSA and CIA has been repeated and ongoing.  The excesses of the NSA have gone so far beyond the pale that relations between America and Europe are steadily moving toward a breaking point.

EU confronts Washington over reports it spies on European allies by Ben Deighton and Annika Breidthardt, June 30, 2013 [excerpt]

“A spokeswoman for the European Commission said on Sunday the EU contacted U.S. authorities in Washington and Brussels about a report in Der Spiegel magazine that the U.S. secret service had tapped EU offices in Washington and Brussels and at the United Nations…

“If the media reports are correct, this brings to memory actions among enemies during the Cold War.  It goes beyond any imagination that our friends in the United States view the Europeans as enemies,” said German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger.

“If it is true that EU representations in Brussels and Washington were indeed tapped by the American secret service, it can hardly be explained with the argument of fighting terrorism,” she said in a statement…

“We cannot negotiate over [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership free trade agreement] if there is the slightest doubt that our partners are carrying out spying activities on the offices of our negotiators,” [European commissioner for justice and fundamental rights Viviane Reding] said in comments passed on to reporters by her spokeswoman.

The European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee head Elmar Brok, from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. echoed those views…

“How should we still negotiate if we must fear that our negotiating position is being listened to beforehand?”

NSA Spying Makes Working With America Difficult…or Impossible

Friends Spying on Friends – The View From Europe by Allan Topol, 11/5/2013 [excerpt]

“The documents released by Edward Snowden, the former contractor, reveal how widespread the spying was by the U.S. National Security Agency.  Angela Merkel’s cell phone was only the tip of the iceberg.  The phone calls of up to 35 world leaders were monitored by Washington’s secret agencies.  The French media reported that NSA monitored more than 70 million phone records and text messages in France in one month alone.  According to Spanish newspapers, NSA tapped more than 60 million phone calls in Spain.

…At a Brussels summit, Merkel and French President François Hollande had a private meeting to craft a joint position on the issue.  Spanish authorities summoned the American ambassador and criticized the United States for conduct that was improper and unacceptable…

The damage caused by this spying is hard to overestimate. Unfortunately, there will be much greater fallout than mere embarrassment for Washington…  It is likely that outrage in Europe will derail negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment pact, one of President Obama’s key trade initiatives.  Moreover, it will impede efforts by Washington to persuade Germany and other EU states to assume greater responsibility in assuring world security.  The American-European alliance has become fragile according to Le Monde…”

The Good News: Europe Fighting Back With a Workaround

So far, revelations of the NSA’s out-of-control spying violations have all led to good outcomes for the world’s citizens.  Besides temporarily tabling the EU-USA free trade agreement, the fall-out from surveillance overkill by the NSA has, among other things, led to the following:

Brazil-EU pact to set up direct contact cable ‘rebuff to US’ by Homa Lezgee, February 26, 2014 [excerpt]

“The recent agreement by Brazil and the European Union (EU) to set up a direct undersea communications cable to shield their electronic data from US spying is an act of “rebuff” to the United States, an analyst tells Press TV.

On February 24, Brazil and the EU agreed to set up the cable from Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, to Fortaleza, a city in Brazil, bypassing US cables that have been being used to carry Brazil’s communications to the EU and vice versa.

The agreement came following leaks that the US has been intercepting the communications of top officials in Brazil and the EU, particularly those of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel…”

Everything old is new again: CIA spying on Washington reporters even in Kennedy's presidency.

I just learned today that the practice of the White House spying on reporters happened even in Camelot, the Kennedy years. They were concerned about a leak of classified information that appeared in the NYTimes re nuclear missiles in Cuba. This began a program of wiretapping and monitoring the press. At first, Kennedy asked the FBI to do the spying, and J. Edgar Hoover told JFK in essence to go fly a kite, according to author David Coleman, which tells you a little about the power relationship between the two. (JFK’s inability to keep his pants on opened him up to more potential for blackmail than any leak about Soviet/Cuban missiles.) Kennedy then asked the CIA to do their dirty work – spying on US citizens, in direct contradiction to their charter. 

So Barack Obama’s surveillance of reporters has a long precedent, going back to Kennedy and Nixon. Transparency is anathema to power-mongers. To heck with the law. 

The NYTimes blog reports on the project here. "The task force kept watch on Baldwin, four other reporters, and their sources from 1962 to 1965. By ordering the director of central intelligence to conduct a program of domestic surveillance, Kennedy set a precedent that Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and George W. Bush would follow.“ Not to mention Obama. The NYTimes piece was written in 2007, pre-Obama. 

Author David G. Coleman tells a fascinating tale of the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis and the problem of verifying the removal of Russia’s nukes from Cuba on the John Batchelor Show here. The CIA spying is a small part of that story. 

While Kennedy may have done some heroic things in his life, and accomplished some good things during his presidency, overall I cannot look at Kennedy as an icon, as is the tendency of many to do, even many Republicans. Actually, on the issues, Kennedy, as a Catholic, may have been much more conservative than some Republicans today. With regard to spying on Americans… he was just as willing to violate constitutional rights as some of our worst presidents. 

NSA releases documents confirming a decade of illegal spying on Americans

Bonnie Kristian, The Week, Dec. 26, 2014

On Christmas Eve, the NSA released redacted documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the ACLU that confirm that the agency illegally spied on Americans for more than a decade. In addition to monitoring Americans’ overseas communications, the NSA inappropriately and insecurely shared and stored data it collected about U.S. citizens.

While past NSA revelations have shown agents intentionally misusing their spying power for personal gain–like the case of an employee who monitored his foreign girlfriend’s phone calls for a month–this report also includes at least one noteworthy tale of incompetence: An NSA agent spied on himself when he accidentally requested surveillance “of his own personal identifier instead of the selector associated with a foreign intelligence target.”

The NSA is Coming to Town with Spy Santas:

Activist Post            15th december 2013  

The ACLU’s holiday parody video is making the rounds. Though it’s lighthearted, it concludes with a definitive call to action to end the NSA’s illegal spying activities.

Every week brings new revelations about the depth of the dragnet digital surveillance under which most of the planet currently lives. It has been one of the defining stories of 2013. Let’s do our best to make 2014 the year that this rogue agency is brought under control.


Since we can’t expect the NSA to relinquish power willingly, nor can we fully expect federal legislation to be forthcoming, one initiative gaining momentum is a plan to literally shut down their power. You can learn more about the NSA’s Achilles Heel here, or you can visit, and #NullifyNSA. You can also click the banner beneath the video to learn strategies for how to protect your online communications in the best ways possible.

Meanwhile, enjoy the jingle below. Holidays certainly would be happier in a world free of government surveillance of its own citizens.   Video:

Posted by Activist at 9:07 AM Labels: ACLUActivismActivist Postdomestic surveillance,NSA spyingpoliticsvideo 

Dear director Brennan. You broke the law. Why is no one being prosecuted?

The director of the CIA admitted last week that members of his organization spied on the Senate Intelligence Committee. You can read about here. But when I went to the CIA’s website, and read their FAQ’s I was told that spying on Americans by the agency is illegal. Here’s the text; “By law, the CIA is specifically prohibited from collecting foreign intelligence concerning the domestic activities of US citizens. Its mission is to collect information related to foreign intelligence and foreign counterintelligence. By direction of the president in Executive Order 12333 of 1981 and in accordance with procedures approved by the Attorney General, the CIA is restricted in the collection of intelligence information directed against US citizens. Collection is allowed only for an authorized intelligence purpose; for example, if there is a reason to believe that an individual is involved in espionage or international terrorist activities. The CIA’s procedures require senior approval for any such collection that is allowed, and, depending on the collection technique employed, the sanction of the Director of National Intelligence and Attorney General may be required. These restrictions on the CIA have been in effect since the 1970s.”

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“At least 80% of fibre-optic cables globally go via the US”, Binney said. “This is no accident and allows the US to view all communication coming in. At least 80% of all audio calls, not just metadata, are recorded and stored in the US. The NSA lies about what it stores.”

-William Binney is one of the highest-level whistleblowers to ever emerge from the NSA.

Minnesota Legislature Bans Warrantless Cellphone Tracking

Minnesota Legislature Bans Warrantless Cellphone Tracking

ST. PAUL, Min., – May 14, 2014. A bipartisan bill that bans Minnesota law enforcement from obtaining cellphone location tracking information without a warrant passed final hurdles in the state House and Senate today. The House vote was 130-0 and the Senate vote was 63-1.

SF2466was introduced by Sen. Brandon Petersen (R-Andover) and cosponsored by two democrat and two republican senators. It…

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NSA claims know-how to ensure no illegal spying

The supersecret agency with the power and legal authority to gather electronic communications worldwide to hunt U.S. adversaries says it has the technical know-how to ensure it’s not illegally spying on Americans.

But mistakes do happen in data-sifting conducted mostly by machines, not humans. Sometimes, former intelligence officials say, that means intelligence agencies destroy material they should not have seen, passed to them by the Fort Meade, Md.-based National Security Agency.

The eavesdropping, code-breaking agency is fighting back after last week’s revelations in the media of two surveillance programs that have raised privacy concerns.

One program collects hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records. The second gathers audio, video, email, photographic and Internet search usage of foreign nationals overseas, and probably some Americans in the process, who use major providers such as Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Yahoo.

The programs were first reported in a series of articles published by The Guardian newspaper. On Sunday it identified Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old American who works as contract employee at the National Security Agency, as the source of the disclosures. The newspaper said it was publishing the identity of Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, at his request.

“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” he was quoted as saying.

The National Security Agency filed a criminal report with the Justice Department earlier this week in relation to the leaks. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has stated repeatedly that the NSA’s programs do not target U.S. citizens and that the agency uses a process known as “minimization” to sift out data from “any U.S. persons whose communications might be incidentally intercepted.”

His statement Saturday said that “the dissemination of information about U.S. persons is expressly prohibited unless it is necessary to understand foreign intelligence … is evidence of a crime or indicates a threat of death or serious bodily harm.”

While the NSA has deferred any public comment to Clapper, it did offer an internal article written by director of compliance John DeLong, who is in charge of making sure the NSA protects Americans’ privacy.

DeLong writes that privacy protections are being written into the technology that sifts the information, “which allows us to augment — not wholly replace — human safeguards.”

The NSA also uses “technology to record and review our activities. … Sometimes, where appropriate, we even embed legal and policy guidance directly into our IT architecture.”

What that means is that the data sifting is mostly done not by humans, but by computers, following complicated algorithms telling them what to look for and who has a right to see it, according to Ronald Marks, a former CIA official.

“Through software, you can search for key words and key phrases linking a communication to a particular group or individual that would fire it off to individual agencies that have interest in it,” just like Amazon or Google scans millions of emails and purchases to track consumer preferences, explained Marks, author of “Spying in America in the Post 9/11 World.”

Detailed algorithms try to determine whether something is U.S. citizen-related or not. “It shows analysts, ‘we’ve got a U.S. citizen here, so we’ve got to be careful with it,’” he said.

But the process isn’t perfect, and sometimes what should be private information reaches agencies not authorized to see it.

In that case, there are policies in place to “destroy that kind of information not file it or keep it if an American’s name coincidentally or serendipitously comes up,” John Negroponte, the first director of national intelligence, said in an Associated Press interview Friday.

Marks said that “when information gets sent to the CIA that shouldn’t, it gets destroyed, and a note sent back to NSA saying, ‘You shouldn’t have sent that.’” He added, “Mistakes get made, but my own experience on the inside of it is, they tend to be really careful about it.”

Michael Hayden, who led both the NSA and CIA, said the government doesn’t touch the phone records unless an individual is connected to terrorism.

He described on “Fox News Sunday” how it works if a U.S. intelligence agent seized a cellphone at a terrorist hideout in Pakistan.

“It’s the first time you’ve ever had that cellphone number. You know it’s related to terrorism because of the pocket litter you’ve gotten in that operation,” Hayden said. “You simply ask that database, ‘Hey, any of you phone numbers in there ever talked to this phone number in Waziristan?’”

Hayden said the Obama administration had expanded the scope of the surveillance, but that oversight by lawmakers and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court also had grown because of changes in the law.

U.S. lawmakers who appeared on the Sunday talk shows argued the pros and cons of the surveillance programs.

The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, told ABC’s “This Week” that the phone program had helped disrupt a 2009 plot to bomb New York City’s subways and played a role in the case against an American who scouted targets in Mumbai, India, before a deadly terrorist attack there in 2008.

Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he was not “convinced that the collection of this vast trove of data has led to disruption of plots” against the U.S. He also said he expects “the government to protect my privacy, and it feels like that isn’t what’s been happening.”

The NSA was founded in 1952, but only years later was it publicly acknowledged, which explains the nickname, “No Such Agency.”

The agency also includes the Central Security Service, the military arm of code-breakers who work jointly with the agency. The two services have their headquarters on a compound that’s technically part of Fort Meade, though it’s slightly set apart from the 5,000-acre Army base.

Visible from a main highway, the tightly guarded compound requires the highest of clearances to enter and is equipped with electronic means to ward off an attack by hackers.

Other NSA facilities in Georgia, Texas, Colorado and Hawaii duplicate much of the headquarters’ brain and computer power in case a terrorist attack takes out the main location, though each focuses on a different part of the globe.

A new million-square-foot storage facility in Salt Lake City will give the agency untold additional capacity to store the massive amounts of data it collects, as well as adding to its analytical capability.

“NSA is the elephant of the U.S. intelligence community, the biggest organization by far with the most capability and (literally) the most memory,” said former senior CIA official Bruce Riedel, who now runs the Brookings Intelligence Project.

NSA’s experts include mathematicians and cryptologists, a term that means everything from breaking codes to learning and translating multiple foreign languages. There also are computer hackers who engage in offensive attacks like the one the U.S. and Israel are widely believed to have been part of, planting the Stuxnet virus into Iranian nuclear hardware, damaging Iran’s nuclear development program in 2010.

NSA workers are notoriously secretive. They’re known for keeping their families in the dark about what they do, including their hunt for terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. NSA code-breakers were an essential part of the team that tracked down bin Laden at a compound in Pakistan in 2011.

Their mission tracking al-Qaida and related terrorist groups continues, with NSA analysts and operators sent out to every conflict zone and overseas U.S. post, in addition to surveillance and analysis conducted at headquarters outside Washington.