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Released Documents Show NSA Actually Surprised To Find Itself Portrayed Negatively In Popular Culture

January 27, 2016

The NSA may know lots of stuff about lots of people, but it’s still fairly clueless about how the world works. Documents obtained by Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski show the NSA was shocked to find it hadn’t been portrayed more favorably in a major motion picture.
The National Security Agency attempted a public relations makeover in 1998 via the Jerry Bruckheimer–produced spy thriller Enemy of the State, but the agency was disappointed it was portrayed as the “bad guys” in the film, internal emails between agency officials obtained by BuzzFeed News through the Freedom of Information Act show.

One employee wrote in 1998, “Unfortunately, the truth isn’t always as riveting as fiction and creative license may mean that ‘the NSA,’ as portrayed in a given production, bears little resemblance to the place where we all work.”
Even in the halcyon pre-Snowden days, it was unlikely a massive government spy agency would be depicted as “lawful neutral,” much less “good” in any form of entertainment media. Shadowy agencies make for great conspiracy theories and potentially riveting entertainment (as for “Enemy of the State,” YMMV…). Certainly, it’s unlikely that the NSA would kill a congressional representative for opposing surveillance expansion and it probably doesn’t have any “goons” to send out to intimidate witnesses (that’s more of a CIA thing…). But for the NSA to expect it would be portrayed as the heroes — despite holding meetings with the producers before the film’s release — is a pretty good indication of how isolated it is from the general public.

This brief burst of reality led to a facesaving effort by the NSA, spearheaded by Michael Hayden, who invited CNN to profile the agency to counteract the negative portrayal. Fighting pop culture with pitched puff pieces is a terrible way to rehabilitate a reputation, but that’s the NSA for you. It’s never going to win hearts and minds. (I was originally going to add some qualifiers to the previous sentence but couldn’t find any that worked.) Any effort expended in this area is wasted.

Even more hilarious than the NSA’s dismay at this completely predictable pop culture portrayal is its employees’ complaints about violated privacy.
“I was standing in the parking lot staring like an idiot, wondering why this helicopter with some strange object underneath it was hovering over me,” one employee complained after a production helicopter flew above the agency to get establishing shots. “Will Touchstone be getting in touch with me so I can get paid for my appearance in this movie? Because I have no intention of allowing my image to be used for free,” the employee concluded, unaware of public access laws…

One employee fretted that their car would now be seen in the film, while another complained that his window blinds were up during filming.
Yes, you can fly an aircraft over the NSA headquarters and no one can do anything about it. As long as you follow the FAA guidelines, you can capture establishing shots or vehicles in the parking lot or any “idiot” staring at your aircraft. The NSA is not a military base and very little about what goes on inside can be determined from 500 feet above the building.

Still, as Kaczynski notes, the negative portrayal of the agency and the intrusion of unwanted aerial “surveillance” did little to stifle employee enthusiasm for the upcoming film. Unfortunately, the released documents do not contain post-viewing comments from NSA staff after they’d shelled out $5 for the dubious privilege of watching their big screen counterparts murder a congressman and intimidate a witness.

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Data and Goliath: The War Against Government Surveillance Could Be Lost Forever

January 25, 2016

At the end of 2015, tyranny was codified into law with the ratification of the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), a name that pays lip service to the nefarious and deceptive purpose that the law really embodies. CISA is a surveillance law of the worst kind, bent on circumnavigating current legislation and protections to create a culture of fear and paranoia all in order to prevent people from standing for privacy.

CISA is the most recent incarnation of a Congressional pretext to disguise the burgeoning federal authority to access information without warrants under the guise of “information sharing”. Designed to allow organizations to “share information more easily in order to prevent cyber attacks”, CISA actually creates massive loopholes that allow companies to share any information with the government reportedly without legal consequence.

Corporations can and will be forced to hand over data circumnavigating current privacy laws under the guise of “cybersecurity”. This information is automatically shared with the National Security Agency (NSA), who has no restrictions on how the data is used.

CISA was valiantly fought against since the legislation was proposed in 2011, and it took an insidious form of law smuggling by the sponsors to get it approved in the House after the Senate ratified it in October. Last year, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced a newly minted version of the omnibus bill, an agreement that must pass because it funds the federal government well into the next year. CISA was ensconced inside the legislation, ensuring that it was passed after being stripped of the weak privacy protections that initial drafts did contain.

The full text of the omnibus bill (2000 pages) was released on December 14th, with CISA buried on page 1728. The vote was set for four days later, giving representatives no time for a debate on a vital budget bill that also had provisions about Syrian refugees, oil exports and the Obamacare “Cadillac tax”.

Even worse, the final vote was carefully calculated to minimize public fallout as it was scheduled on the last Friday before Christmas to keep it out of the day’s news.

With a swift stroke of the pen by President Obama, thanks to some help by some unscrupulous Congressmen, the American people let tyranny win and stayed completely silent.

United States Representative Justin Amash later asserted after the vote that “many of my colleagues remain unaware” about a bill that he calls the “worst surveillance bill since the Patriot Act” because they may have “been misled into believing this bill is about cybersecurity.”

The provisions within CISA ensure that citizens will have no way of knowing if their data has been shared by corporations or federal agencies. The government now has the power to use the information it acquires to prosecute any type of criminal activity and does not have to scrub personal information unrelated to “cyber threats”. Legal immunity to a variety of actors is rampant through the legislation – only ensuring that data will continue to be stolen from millions of citizens, organisations and businesses and used against them.

The extrajudicial cyberwar against the personal and everyday information of millions continues to wage unchecked at will.

Fortunately, some steps can be taken to draw a line in the sand as CISA provisions only apply to American companies or programs hosted in the United States.

Using privacy services such as VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) and programs that emphasise end to end encryption provide protections that stand strong via mathematical laws. Using internet browsers that do not collect data and practicing basic internet security are some of the simplest ways to begin to protect yourself. The above is not an all encompassing list of steps, rather it is a laundry list of how anyone can begin to regain their privacy while they are online.

The best way to fight against CISA and its draconian siblings is to create a culture of encryption among all citizens.

Overall, CISA only expands the government’s surveillance program and will be used to investigate, threaten and incarcerate more citizens as human rights and protections are pitted against security.

The warning signs are clear.
Tyranny continues to creep surreptitiously into the American consciousness.
The only thing that we will remember is the silence of those who could of made a change.

Don’t be on the wrong side of history.

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Microsoft shows off just how much data it’s collecting from Windows 10 users

January 6, 2016

Despite its continued insistence that Windows 10 isn’t spying on anyone, Microsoft has done little to convince the majority of concerned users that its latest operating system isn’t taking more data than it needs.

In order to reinforce its claim, Microsoft updated its privacy policy to clarify how and when the OS utilizes user data, but the company took two steps back this week when it published an enthusiastic blog post filled with data mined from users.

READ MORE: Sphero’s BB-8 droid toy can now be controlled with the Force

On Monday morning, Yusuf Mehdi, Corporate VP of the Windows and Devices Group, revealed that Windows 10 is now active on an astonishing 200 million devices. Its low price of “free” is clearly the primary factor contributing to its rapid growth, but it doesn’t hurt that the software is leaps and bounds more user-friendly than its predecessor.

But in order to illustrate just how popular Windows 10 has become, Microsoft felt the need to share some milestones:

People have spent over 11 billion hours on Windows 10 in December alone.
Over 44.5 billion minutes spent in Microsoft Edge across Windows 10 devices in just the last month.
Over 2.5 billion questions asked of Cortana since launch.
Around 30% more Bing search queries per Windows 10 device vs. prior versions of Windows.
Over 82 billion photos viewed within the Windows 10 Photo app.
Gaming continues to grow on Windows 10 – in 2015, gamers spent over 4 billion hours playing PC games on Windows 10.
Gamers have streamed more than 6.6 million hours of Xbox One games to Windows 10 PCs.
Admittedly, these are interesting statistics. That’s a lot of Xbox One gaming on Windows 10 PCs! But it’s easy to see why Martin Brinkmann of gHacks might find these data points troublesome.

“The statistics indicate that Microsoft may be collecting more data than initially thought,” writes Brinkmann. “While it is unclear what data is exactly collected, it is clear that the company is collecting information about the use of individual applications and programs on Windows at the very least.”

Data collection to a degree is inevitable. It happens on every connected device on the planet. What’s especially worrisome about Windows 10 is that we don’t know what’s being collected, and there’s no easy way to turn it off (if there’s even any way at all). We can only hope that while Microsoft celebrates its 2015 milestones, it looks to become more transparent in 2016.

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Why is Microsoft monitoring how long you use Windows 10?

January 5, 2016

The various privacy concerns surrounding Windows 10 have received a lot of coverage in the media, but it seems that there are ever more secrets coming to light. The Threshold 2 Update did nothing to curtail privacy invasion, and the latest Windows 10 installation figures show that Microsoft is also monitoring how long people are using the operating system.

This might seem like a slightly strange statistic for Microsoft to keep track of, but the company knows how long, collectively, Windows 10 has been running on computers around the world. To have reached this figure (11 billion hours in December, apparently) Microsoft must have been logging individuals’ usage times. Intrigued, we contacted Microsoft to find out what on earth is going on.

If the company has indeed been checking up on when you are clocking in and out of Windows 10, it’s not going to admit it. I asked how Microsoft has been able to determine the 11 billion hours figure. Is this another invasion of privacy, another instance of spying that users should be worried about? “I just wanted to check where this figure came from. Is it a case of asking people and calculating an average, working with data from a representative sample of people, or it is a case of monitoring every Windows 10 installation?”

You think that Microsoft — keen as it is on transparency — would be quite happy to explain how it came about the information, and why it is being collected in the first place. But no. A Microsoft spokesperson provided BetaNews with the following statement:

Thank you for your patience as I looked into this for you. Unfortunately my colleagues cannot provide a comment regarding your request. All we have to share is this Windows blog post.

Microsoft’s spying is intrusive enough to reveal how long you have been using Windows 10, but the company is not willing to be open about the collection of this data.

Cause for concern, or is this just another example of what we have come to expect from Microsoft?

Photo credit: veronchick84 / Shutterstock

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SPYING ON THE INTERNET IS ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE MORE INVASIVE THAN PHONE METADATA

January 4, 2016

When you pick up the phone, who you’re calling is none of the government’s business. The NSA’s domestic surveillance of phone metadata was the first program to be disclosed based on documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden, and Americans have been furious about it ever since. The courts ruled it illegal, and Congress let the section of the Patriot Act that justified it expire (though the program lives on in a different form as part of the USA Freedom Act).

Yet XKEYSCORE, the secret program that converts all the data it can see into searchable events like web pages loaded, files downloaded, forms submitted, emails and attachments sent, porn videos watched, TV shows streamed, and advertisements loaded, demonstrates how Internet traffic can be even more sensitive than phone calls. And unlike the Patriot Act’s phone metadata program, Congress has failed to limit the scope of programs like XKEYSCORE, which is presumably still operating at full speed. Maybe Verizon stopped giving phone metadata to the NSA, but if a Verizon engineer uploads a spreadsheet full of this metadata without proper encryption, the NSA may well get it anyway by spying directly on the cables that the spreadsheet travels over.

The outrage over bulk collection of our phone metadata makes sense:Metadata is private. Americans call suicide prevention hotlines, HIV testing services, phone sex services, advocacy groups for gun rights and for abortion rights, and the people they’re having affairs with. We use the phone to schedule job interviews without letting our current employer know, and to manage long-distance relationships. Most of us, at one point or another, have spent long hours on the phone discussing the most intimate details about our lives. There isn’t an American alive today who didn’t grow up with at least some access to a telephone, so Americans understand this well.

But Americans don’t understand the Internet yet. Bulk collection of phone metadata is, without a doubt, a violation of your privacy, but bulk surveillance of Internet traffic is orders of magnitude more invasive. People also use the Internet in all the ways they use phones — often inadvertently sharing even more intimate details through online searches. In fact, the phone network itself is starting to go over the Internet, without customers even noticing.

XKEYSCORE, as well as NSA’s programs that tap the Internet directly and feed data into it, have some legal problems: They violate First Amendment rights to freedom of association; they violate the Wiretap Act. But the biggest and most obvious concerns are with the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is short and concise:

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.

It means that Americans have a right to privacy. If government agents want to search you or seize your data, they must have a warrant. The warrant can only be issued if they have probable cause, and the warrant must be specific. It can’t say, “We want to seize everyone’s Internet traffic to see what’s in it.” Instead, it must say something like, “We want to seize a specific incriminating document from a specific suspect.”

But this is exactly what’s happening:

The government is indiscriminately seizing Internet traffic to see what’s in it, without probable cause. The ostensible justification is that, while tens of millions of Americans may be swept up in this dragnet, the real targets are foreigners. In a legal document called USSID 18, the NSA sets out policies and procedures that purportedly prevent unreasonable searches of data from U.S. persons.

But it doesn’t prevent, or even claim to prevent, unreasonable seizures.

Kurt Opsahl, general counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explains: “We have a fundamental disagreement with the government about whether [data] acquisition is a problem. Acquisition is a seizure and has to be compliant with the Fourth Amendment.”

If you read USSID 18 carefully, you’ll see that it appears to limit, with many exceptions, the government’s ability to intentionally collect data concerning U.S. persons. But the Department of Defense, under which the NSA operates, defines “collection” differently than most of us do. It doesn’t consider seized data as “collected” until it’s been queried by a human.

If you email your mom, there’s a good chance the NSA will intercept the message as it travels through a fiberoptic cable, such as the ones that make up the backbone of the Internet, eventually making its way to an XKEYSCORE field site. You can thwart this with encryption: either by encrypting your email (hopefully someday all parents will know how to use encrypted email), or by using email servers that automatically encrypt with each other. In the absence of such encryption, XKEYSCORE will process the email, fingerprint it and tag it, and then it will sit in a database waiting to be queried. According to the Department of Defense, this email hasn’t been “collected” until an analyst runs a query and the email appears on the screen in front of them.

When NSA seizes, in bulk, data belonging to U.S. citizens or residents, data that inevitably includes information from innocent people that the government does not have probable cause to investigate, the agency has already committed an unconstitutional “unreasonable seizure,” even if analysts never query the data about innocent U.S. persons.

The NSA has legal justifications for all their surveillance: Section 215 of the Patriot Act, now expired, was used to justify bulk collection of phone and email metadata. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act(FISA) is currently used to justify so-called “upstream” collection, tapping the physical infrastructure that the Internet uses to route traffic across the country and around the world in order to import into systems like XKEYSCORE. Executive Order 12333, approved by President Reagan, outlines vague rules, which are littered with exceptions and loopholes, that the executive branch made for itself to follow regarding spying on Americans, which includes USSID 18.

But these laws and regulations ignore the uncomfortable truth that the Fourth Amendment requires surveillance of Americans to be targeted; it cannot be done in bulk. Americans are fighting to end bulk surveillance in dozens of lawsuits, including Jewel v. NSA, which relies on whistleblower-obtained evidence that NSA tapped the fiber optic cables that carry Internet traffic in AT&T’s Folsom Street building in San Francisco. It’s easy for the government to stall cases like this, or get them dismissed, by insisting that talking about it at all puts our national security at risk.

And, of course, let’s not forget the 6.8 billion people on Earth who are not in the United States. Article 12 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rightsstates:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

The NSA has very few restrictions on spying on non-Americans (it must be for “foreign intelligence” or “counterintelligence” purposes, and not other purposes), despite XKEYSCORE and the bulk collection programs that feed it being an “arbitrary interference” with the privacy of such persons. NSA doesn’t even have restrictions on spying on allies, such as Germany and France.

Facebook feeds everywhere are decorated with baby pictures. When those babies are grown up and getting elected to Congress, maybe then Americans will understand how the Internet works, and that bulk surveillance of phone metadata is just a tiny sliver of the enormous “collect it all” bulk surveillance pie.

Photo: Getty

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