The New York Times recently reported an allegedly sustained and multi-faceted effort by the United States government to monitor its citizens’ behavior in the name of national defense and homeland security with the assistance of private businesses. The pieces of this puzzle of electronic surveilling of its citizens by a government causes more than a moment of dismay and a period of concern.

An online news outlet has published details about secret rooms in AT&T buildings where government spies are said to be gaining access to millions of private e-mail messages and other Internet traffic.

The original report came from Salon and reporter Kim Zetter who said two former AT&T employees in Bridgeton, Mo. — the location of the management core for all of AT&T’s internet traffic — revealed details of a secure surveillance room, accessible only by a “biometric mantrap” consisting of a “double door with fingerprint and retinal scanners,” that had been maintained at that network operations center since 2002.

The workers said supervisors had told them that AT&T employees were “monitoring network traffic” and that “a government agency” was using the room. “We were told, ‘Do not try to speak to them. Do not hamper their work. Do not impede anything that they’re doing,’ ” one said. Matthew Aid, a specialist on the National Security Agency, told Salon that the Bridgeton operation bore all the marks of an NSA operation.

While there was no direct evidence the NSA was spying on internet traffic, Zetter was able to build a strong case that is precisely why that secure room was created. AT&T and the NSA refused to comment on Zetter’s story because of “national security concerns.”

In May, Wired News published documents that appeared to support accusations by Mark Klein, another former AT&T employee, that the company maintained a similar, though possibly smaller, operation in a San Francisco building.

The most chilling part of this alleged AT&T involvement in helping the government monitor us was a new privacy policy AT&T revealed a couple of weeks ago claiming AT&T and not us, its customers, owns our private information. With that tremendous change in privacy we no longer control what defines us: AT&T own us and has the opportunity to shred or share our private information as they wish without our consent — informed or otherwise.

NewScientist.com reported that the NSA was financing research into “the mass harvesting of information that people post about themselves on social networks” like MySpace. The resulting data, the site reported, could be combined with “details such as banking, retail and property records, allowing the NSA to build extensive, all-embracing personal profiles of individuals.”

It’s horrifyingly fascinating how this government effort to connect all our dots appears to be orchestrated in pieces using separate private companies to deter detection of a non-severed surreptitious intent — banks for banking records; conservative ownership of personal web portals for access to MySpace data; internet providers who reply upon government regulation to stay in business are required to help monitor and analyze internet traffic patterns and process email keyword triggers — leads the cogent among us to question who we really are and if we actually own a right to any sort of privacy whatsoever.

21 Comments

  1. I wonder if it’s an upgrade or expansion of the activity that has been going on since the 1990s?
    The technology has been in place and in use for years.
    From HowStuffWorks.com:

    Carnivore was the third generation of online-detection software used by the FBI. While information about the first version has never been disclosed, many believe that it was actually a readily available commercial program called Etherpeek.
    In 1997, the FBI deployed the second generation program, Omnivore.
    According to information released by the FBI, Omnivore was designed to look through e-mail traffic travelling over a specific Internet service provider (ISP) and capture the e-mail from a targeted source, saving it to a tape-backup drive or printing it in real-time.
    Omnivore was retired in late 1999 in favor of a more comprehensive system, the DragonWare Suite, which allowed the FBI to reconstruct e-mail messages, downloaded files or even Web pages.

    Of course, even if it’s easy to do and has been done ever since the Internet became popular, is it right to “sniff” internet traffic for certain keywords?
    I have mixed feelings.
    I doubt that the government is coordinated enough to figure out everything about everyone, even if it was collecting data on everyone.
    Despite all of our efforts to be proactive, the government is still a reactionary entity. Most of the evidence collected probably becomes important after something has happened.
    But, if the info is being recorded, that means there’s the possibility it can be abused, misused, lost, or stolen.
    Government laptops disappear or are lost.
    Corrupt officials could use information against their political enemies.
    Use of private data against political enemies is not fanciful or the thoughts of the paranoid.
    The Chairman of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee in 2006 wrote that an independent counsel investigation may have shown that the IRS was used in the past in ways that weren’t proper.
    The independent counsel wrote about the discovery of possible IRS abuses of political enemies:

    After a thorough reading of the Report it would not be unreasonable to conclude as I have that there was a coverup at high levels of our government, and it appears to have been substantial and coordinated. The question is why? And that question regrettably will go unanswered. Unlike some coverups, this one succeeded.

    The lesson is that power corrupts and giving the government unfettered access to private internet data will result in an abuse sooner or later.
    History shows that leaders great and not so great have abused their power. It’s a fact of human nature that those in charge will always, if not kept in check, overstep their authority to gain more power.
    No matter who is in charge, we must always develop procedural safeguards to protect our civil liberties.

  2. A slight correction needs to be made: In the fifth paragraph from the bottom, “of political enemies” should be removed and the line should read: “The independent counsel wrote about the discovery of possible IRS abuses.”

  3. Hi Chris!
    I am leaving your correction intact and inline so the thread of your argument can be followed without any editorial intervention on my part.
    Didn’t the FBI program require some sort of individual court approval? The current scheme is much deeper and wide-ranging because, the government argues, you can’t tell the good from the bad unless you surveil everyone and then make a decision on who and what are behaving against the better interests of the United States.
    I am concerned with a “one click” package that will turn on all surveilling for a person and it will pull in all internet searches, city cameras, school grade reports, health records, banking information, and anything else that used to be “paper only” and kept locked in storage.
    When you go completely virtual, but fail to have real locks and vested guardians to watch our backs when we aren’t looking, then the idea of a private person becomes virtual and undetermined and, frankly, meaningless in the long view of what it used to stand for in America.

  4. Hi David,
    You are right that the FBI program did require court approval and that it appeared to be limited in scope to people under investigation.
    If it’s possible to get information on anyone with relative ease, you know the government is going to do it.
    I remember reading the other day that government agencies were buying telephone records from private venders so they wouldn’t need to get a court order for the data. They didn’t ask how the information was obtained and really didn’t seem to care, as long as they got it.
    Not to be paranoid, but we could easily create a police state where everything we do would be readily accessable by an agent sitting at a computer.
    RFID on toll transponders, cell phones, credit cards, and almost everything else we take forgranted in these modern times make it easy to figure out where we are and what we are doing.
    If the wrong people get into power, it could be a nightmare.

  5. I agree, Chris, and the fact that all this information about all of us is being grabbed in the name of “anti-terrorism” and “Homeland Defense” makes me shudder because we’ll always be under attack somewhere so it will be never-ending.
    What will the government do with all that information at their fingertips? It won’t just sit there. it will be churned.
    When terrorism is no longer an immediate threat then the eye will turn to “Moral Fiber” as library databases and online sex shops are added to the mix and the new danger to America will be the provable “decay of the modern morality” and those predators against our good Christian state will be weeded out — all in the name of goodness and apple pie and the safety of our children and to show the terrorists we’re serious about prosecutions — and “good” and “normal” will take on new ominous tones as everyone struggles to erase the sins of their past and pass for mainstream and unaffected in the future.
    We’ll create a nation of robots and the Minutia Men will militantly hold our feet to the fire of following the will of the majority party.

  6. I can see the Minutia Men gathered with their binoculars and cans of beer eagerly waiting, watching, and hoping for a Janet Jackson or Tara Reid “clothing malfunction.”
    This isn’t completely related, but someone’s been keeping an eye on things here to make sure we’re safe:
    I’m proud to report that Urban Semiotic has been tested and no “significant” problems were found.

  7. Chris —
    Yes, the Minutia Men will be ever vigilant to crush any free expression or any behavior perceived as being beyond the norm. It will be a nightmare.
    Now that link is scary — and they obviously don’t read this site much or analyze the comments. We only have dangerous ideas here!
    :mrgreen:

  8. I agree, Dave. It’s hard to believe “The Party of Lincoln” spends so much money on breaking the privacy of its citizens. This virtual sniffing in private places is incredibly distasteful to those of us who live our lives in the quiet right and mighty.
    I’m not so sure the Democrats will be able to win or cure the loss of privacy. They’ve been bullied down and beaten. The media are meek. The strength of the power in place is ruled by fear and loathing and no one is strong enough to fight against that terrified apathy a political system like that creates. We’re already at the bottom of the slippery slope and the Supreme Court is already skewed against personal privacy for the next generation at least.

  9. The Iraq War is interesting in the way it hits home, but isn’t making a huge impact. At least not around where I am.
    One of my wife’s friend’s son was killed by a sniper toward the beginning of the war. Another solider who was friends with a co-worker was killed in the war about a year ago. There are 13 soldiers who have died during the war from my area.
    Despite the casualties, people in the midwest seem to be quiet in their opposition.
    There are couple of war protesters who hold signs at a major intersection in our area on the weekends, but that’s about it. I think most people think we should do what the Russians have vowed to do to the terrorists: find them, kill them, then come home. Others might not share the same view, but aren’t necessarily vocal in opposing the war.
    However, the ultra high gas prices are generating discussion.
    That’s going to be the thing that will hurt the GOP, since paying $50+ to fill the tank hurts everyone. I don’t see how people making $6/hr can afford to do anything when most of their paycheck could go to filling the car.
    I was at the gas station at lunch and heard a woman yell at no one in particular about the high prices. Her friend asked her what was wrong. She said the fill-up was over $60.
    The Iraq War is interesting in who is going over there to do the work.
    My 63-year-old dad, who works as a civilian employee for the military, said he was asked by his bosses if he wanted a tour in Iraq.
    He declined to take them up on their offer.
    While on the subject of the Iraq War, here’s something that people holding all sorts of views about the war seem to agree upon: http://www.operation-helmet.org/ — A program to provide helmet upgrades to the troops.
    Cher has become the celebrity spokesperson for the non-profit group and donated $130,000 for helmets upgrades:

    Cher has teamed up with Dr. Bob Meaders, founder and president of Operation-Helmet.org to help shed light on current problems with the existing helmets being used by members of the US Military, it was announced today.
    The Oscar winning actress and singer has committed to working with Operation Helmet to upgrade existing helmet to protect troops against blasts and impact concussions that they face in bomb blasts and motor vehicle accidents.
    Many of the helmets, including the new Marine Corps lightweight helmet, were designed to protect primarily against bullets and explosive fragments.

  10. The only way we can opt out of this is not to have a home, a TV, a mobile, or fixed internet connection, or a bank account, credit card or social security number ……. sadly each one of these gives them a fix on US , where we are and what we are doing.

  11. Chris —
    I think it’s all part of the administration’s plan to keep the war as far away from the minds of the ordinary people — except when they need to scare them and coerce their feelings of Patriotism.
    There are no open funerals or caskets images or supported stories about suffering once they return home from duty.
    I have always found it curious that every person who is hurt in Iraq “cannot wait to get back into action” because that want goes so boldly against human nature and healing.
    I like the helmet project, but it begs a larger question: Why isn’t the U.S. Military supplying its soldiers with top-notch equipment? Why does Cher have to step in to help?

  12. Hi Nicola —
    Yes, the only way to get away from the new surveillance is to move backward in time and become pioneers or cave people. Perhaps hiding money under the mattress as our grandparents did because they did not trust the banks during The Great Depression might be a way to retain bits of our privacy again.

  13. Hi David,
    That’s a good question about the military equipment.
    I bet part of it is the bureaucracy and design by committee. Another part is waste. And some part might be because the low bidder wins the contract.
    A large part is because nobody thinks ahead more than a quarter or maybe a year at the most. It is a sign of poor planning.