- The NSA is collecting the content and metadata ofemails, web activity, chats, social networks, and everything else as part of what it calls “upstream” collection.— THE WASHINGTON POST
- The NSA “is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans.”— THE WASHINGTON POST
- The NSA “is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world.”— THE WASHINGTON POST
- The NSA “is searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans’ e-mail and text communications into and out of the country.”— THE NEW YORK TIMES
When Edward Snowden met journalists in his cramped room in Hong Kong’s Mira hotel in June, his mission was ambitious. Amid the clutter of laundry, meal trays and his four laptops, he wanted to start a debate about mass surveillance.
He succeeded beyond anything the journalists or Snowden himself ever imagined. His disclosures about the NSA resonated with Americans from day one. But they also exploded round the world.
For some, like Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, it is a vitally important issue, one of the biggest of our time: nothing less than the defence of democracy in the digital age.
But the intelligence agencies dismiss such claims, arguing that their programs are constitutional, and subject to rigorous congressional and judicial oversight. Secrecy, they say, is essential to meet their overriding aim of protecting the public from terrorist attacks.
The debate has raged across time zones: from the US and Latin America to Europe and to Asia. Barack Obama cancelled a trip to Moscow in protest at Russian president Vladimir Putin’s protection of Snowden. Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit to Washington in protest at the US spying on her. Bolivian president Evo Morales’s plane was forced down in Vienna amid suspicion that Snowden was being smuggled out of Russia.
In Germany, a “livid” Angela Merkel accused the US of spying on her, igniting a furore that has seen the White House concede that new constraints on the NSA’s activities may be necessary. Meanwhile, in Britain, prime minister David Cameron accused the Guardian of damaging national security by publishing the revelations, warning that if it did not “demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act”.
Caught in a net
US internet companies, their co-operation with the NSA exposed bySnowden’s documents, fear a worldwide consumer backlash, and claim they were forced into co-operation by the law.
Much of the NSA’s defence is that the public should be unconcerned, summed up by the dictum: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” But civil liberties groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union warn that surveillance goes well beyond what Congress intended and what the US constitution allows.
Cell phones, laptops, Facebook, Skype, chat-rooms: all allow the NSA to build what it calls ‘a pattern of life’, a detailed profile of a target and anyone associated with them.
And the number of people caught up in this dragnet can be huge.
Three degrees of separation
You don’t need to be talking to a terror suspect to have your communications data analysed by the NSA. The agency is allowed to travel “three hops” from its targets — who could be people who talk to people who talk to people who talk to you. Facebook, where the typical user has 190 friends, shows how three degrees of separation gets you to a network bigger than the population of Colorado. How many people are three “hops” from you?
Faced with growing public and political concern over the quantities of data it is collecting, the NSA has sought to reassure people, arguing that it collected only a tiny proportion of the world’s internet traffic, roughly equivalent to a “dime on a basketball court”. But in reality, that is still a huge amount of data. The Library of Congress, one of the biggest libraries in the world, gathers 5 terabytes a month. The NSA sucks up much, much more.
17,811 two-hour HD movies.
The NSA say it needs all this data to help prevent another terrorist attack like 9/11. In order to find the needle in the haystack, they argue, they need access to the whole haystack.