State Surveillance

Edward Snowden and the Surveillance State

I have just finished reading the book titled “No Place To Hide” written by Glenn Greenwald. The first two chapters of the book read like a spy thriller as Greenwald makes contact with Edward Snowden. Greenwald travels to Hong Kong to meet with Snowden. Before they meet, Snowden tells Greenwald to remove the battery in his cellphone. This was a revelation to me. I didn’t know that authorities could track your location through your cellphone even if it is turned off.

I remember when this story broke. I remember watching the news and hearing about revelations of NSA surveillance. As I read this book and delved into the details, I was blown away by the scope of the surveillance program. I had no idea it was this pervasive.

On April 25, 2013, a top secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court compelled Verizon to turn over to NSA all information about it’s customers’ telephone calls.

In 2010, the Washington Post reported that “every day, collection systems at NSA intercept and store 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other types of information” from Americans.

For the one-month period beginning March 8, 2013, a leaked NSA Powerpoint slide showed that a single unit of the NSA, Global Access Operations had collected data on more than 3 billion emails and phone calls that has passed through the US telecommunications system.

PRISM (another NSA unit) allows the NSA to collect data directly from the servers of nine of the biggest internet companies. The companies include Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, Youtube, Skype. These companies are listed on a classified NSA Powerpoint slide. The companies ultimately did not deny that they worked with the NSA to set up a system through which the agency could directly access their customers’ data.

Canada is a very active partner with the NSA. At the 2012 SigDev conference, the Communications Services Establishment Canada (CSEC) boasted about targeting the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy. There is evidence of widespread CSEC/NSA cooperation, including Canada’s efforts to set up spying posts for communications surveillance at the behest of the NSA.

The group of hactivists known as Anonymous was targeted by  a unit of the British spy agency (GCHQ). One Powerpoint slide presented by GCHQ surveillance officials at the 2012 SigDev conference describes the tactics used to “discredit a target”. These include “set up a honey-trap”,”change their photos on social networking sites”,”write a blog purporting to be one of their victims” and “email /text their colleagues, neighbors, friends, etc”.

“Setting up a honey-trap” involves luring a target to a compromising site or online encounters.

“Targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs, resulting in the stifling of legitimate dissent” says Gabriella Coleman, a specialist on Anonymous at McGill University.

In chapter 4 of the book, the author talks about the harm of surveillance. I agree with the author when he states that mass surveillance by the state is inherently repressive.

PEN America released a report in November 2013 entitled Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self Censor. The survey found that many writers now “assume that their communications are being monitored” and have changed their behavior in ways that “curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information”.

The FBI’s domestic counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO (see my previous blog entry) explained in one of its memo that “paranoia” could be sown among antiwar activists by letting them know there was “an FBI agent behind every mailbox”.

In a 2013 documentary entitled 1971, several of the activists described how Hoover’s FBI was “all over” the civil rights movement with infiltrators and surveillance. The monitoring impeded the movement’s ability to organize and grow.

An experiment entitled “The Chilling Effects of Surveillance” was conducted in 1975 by Stanford University psychologists Gregory White and Philip Zimbardo. The participants were placed under varying levels of surveillance and asked to to give their view on the legalization of marijuana. The “threatened” subjects were told that their statements would be shared with the police “for training purposes”. Only 44 percent of subjects under surveillance advocated legislation compared to 77 percent of those not so “threatened”.

Surveillance cheerleaders defend mass surveillance by saying that it stops terrorism. This is not true.

In a Washington Post article published in December 2013, a federal judge said that the Justice Department failed to “cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.”

That same month, Obama’s hand-picked advisory panel convened to study the NSA through access to classified information concluded that the metadata program “was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.”

Democratic senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich – all members of the Intelligence Committee – baldly stated in the New York Times that the mass collection of telephone records has not enhanced Americans’ protection from the threat of terrorism.

A study by the New America Foundation concurred that the bulk metadata program “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism”.

The author discusses the state of journalism in chapter 5. He writes “those who thrive within the structure of large corporations tend to be adept at pleasing rather than subverting institutional power. It follows that those who succeed in corporate journalism are suited to accommodate power. They identify with institutional authority and are skilled at serving, not combating it”.

The New York Times suppressed, at the White House’s behest, James Risen’s discovery of the NSA’s illegal wiretapping program in 2004. In a similar incident at the Los Angeles Times, editor James Baquet killed a story in 2006 by his reporters about a secret collaboration between AT&T and the NSA, based on information given by whistle-blower Mark Klein. He had come forward with reams of documents to reveal AT&T’s  construction of a secret room in its San Francisco office, where the NSA was able to install splitters to divert telephone and internet traffic from the telecom’s office into agency repositories.

During a 2011 appearance on the BBC, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times explained that the Times takes direction from the US government about what it should and shouldn’t publish.

In September 2013, Seymour Hersh did an interview with the Guardian. Hersh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who uncovered both the My Lai massacre and the Abu Gharib scandal. In the interview, Hersh railed against what he called “the timidity of journalists in America, their failure to challenge the White House and be an unpopular messenger of truth”.

The author withstood a lot of attacks from the government and from his fellow journalists which he talks about in the last chapter of the book.

The author includes copies of the actual leaked documents and Powerpoint slides in the book. I highly recommend this book.

Thank you, Edward Snowden for your courageous act.

Thank you, Glenn Greenwall for writing this book.

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