May 13, 2013

Can the government listen in to your phone calls?

Back in 2001, I wrote for UPI:
Even Conspiracy Theories Can Be True 
We members of the press love to nag you members of the public about why you rush out to see these conspiracy movies. After all, conspiracies don't really exist. If they did, we reporters would know about them! Right? 
Not necessarily. One reason people are interested in conspiracy theories is that at least some important secret operations really do exist. As Henry Kissinger liked to say, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you don't have enemies." 
For example, for a quarter of a century after World War II, the victors kept hidden from the public the very existence of what was possibly the most important factor in the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany: "Ultra." To break the German Enigma codes, the British built a top-secret deciphering complex on the grounds of Bletchley Park in central England. This gigantic project, which lead to the invention of the electronic computer, employed as many as 10,000 workers. 
The German military, it turned out, wasn't paranoid enough. They refused to change their codes because they didn't believe anyone could mount an operation capable of cracking them. 
Omnipresent surveillance is a staple of conspiracy movies, so it can't be true. 
Or can it? For years, it was easy to assume that unhinged-sounding Frenchmen ranting about how the "Anglo-Saxons" were eavesdropping on their telephone calls had just spent too much time at the cinema.

Did I ever crack-up in the 1990s when the president of France would complain that "the Anglo-Saxon powers" were listening in on his phone calls. "Ha-ha," I laughed, "Zee French are so fun-nee! Pe-Pe LePew!"
This Gallic paranoia turned out to be largely accurate, however. The U.S., U.K, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, who have been working together to intercept communications since "Ultra," do indeed team up to run a vast global wiretapping network called "Echelon" 

Awhile ago, I wrote about the Utah Data Center now under construction, but can't seem to find any trace of that posting.


eah said...

Yes. Even encrypted/ciphered mobile calls. There is a big 'black budget', which is approved in secret, and projects like that are part of it.

sunbeam said...

I pretty much think cell phones and the whole internet are insecure.

The only defense, if you value your privacy that much is not to use them, and accept all the tradeoffs that entails.

I've done enough reading to come to a personal conclusion that

1) I am not diligent enough to practice internet security. You have to jump through a lot of hoops and do it EVERY time to make it work.

2) Cookie cutters, proxies, etc. probably aren't that effective anyway if someone really wants to know what you are doing. Get real if the government really wanted to get a handle on your internet activities they can just lean on your ISP, whether it is a local telecom or Verizon.

And all this doesn't consider the privacy invading features that anyone and their brother can implement. I'm kind of expecting face recognition technology to be employed by everyone. Walk by a storefront? A camera catches your face, runs it by some service that id's faces, and the business logs you. Same with walking in the door. I also expect the tech that notices where your eyeballs are pointed, and hence what you are looking at to be widespread. (though I think it is going to be 90% boobs for our male subjects)

Something else I've thought for a while:

Let's say we have an intelligence agency, or a police organization like the FBI.

Do you think it would be useful to run sites like AdultFriendFinder? AshleyMadison?

Not only do you find out all kinds of potentially useful information, hey you might make a profit.

Also exactly who runs Tor? From Wikipedia:

"Originally sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory[8] (which had been instrumental in the early development of onion routing under the aegis of DARPA), Tor was financially supported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation from 2004 to 2005.[10] Tor software is now developed by the Tor Project, which has been a 501(c)(3) research-education nonprofit organization [11] based in the United States of America [1] since December 2006. It has a diverse base of financial support;[10] the U.S. State Department, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and the National Science Foundation are major contributors.[12] As of 2012, 80% of the Tor Project's $2M annual budget comes from the United States government, with the Swedish government and other organizations providing the rest,[13] including NGOs and thousands of individual sponsors.[14]"

Look at it with an air of paranoia. You are the government, or "a government," heck you might even be "Bloomberg."

You set up this free service, and purely as a side effect you find out what people WANT to not have anyone know about.

I don't think there is any defense. The only defense is that no one cares about your pathetic little life anyway.

I keep toying with the idea of making a bot to mine for some obscure, screwy, sexual perversion for them to log.

This stupid crap about women stepping on bugs with stiletto heels might be good.

On either democraticunderground or dailykos they used to call the government guy assigned to monitor them "Agent Mike."

I figure if my bot is ridiculous enough me and Agent Mike can have a slapstick interview if it ever comes up. I'd view breaking some Fed guys stoneface as the only victory possible.

It'd be like:

"Hey dude, I'm in on the gag. No matter how you slice it, you are a chump. I don't give a damn about your chump organization, your chump training, your stupid idealogy. You are still stupid. You will always be stupid. Take that back to Quantico and smoke it with all the other chumps. History will show that you lacked everything, including most importantly a sense of humor. Nothing is more pathetic than someone who take a meaningless activity seriously.

By the way Tard, did you go to HYPS? Know anyone who did besides your boss 3 steps up? Chump."

john marzan said...

tapped cellphone conversations? yes.

Anonymous said...

I am sure the government is employing an enormous number of people at enormous expense to listen to our phone calls and read our emails and internet comments. I'm sure its all stored some where at more enormous expense.

Anonymous said...

I think you can pretty much assume that all internet and telecommunications are recorded somewhere. And it's reasonably likely that the mainstream cryptography is cracked, and that TLAs will be able to find you even if you use TOR. I don't really care though.

One should also remember that even if they collect the data, they need to have competent enough people interpreting it and for there to be some payoff for finding it. These people need to be paid, and probably not worthless AA hires either. And also that you should be important or dangerous if you are to worry. Hell, the FBI didn't do anything about the bomb brothers, do you think they care about some comments on the internet that IQ and race is real?

OMGWTFBBQ someone just posted a comment on SWPL Stormfront, this is a red alert, send out the black helicopters now!!!1one

Superman said...

In the Monica Lewinsky scandal, didn't Bill Clinton reveal that the White House phones are tapped?

Pat Boyle said...

There is a mirror image phenomenon that I call anti-conspiracy bias.

For example, just about every prize fighting movie ever made is built around the phenomenon of the fixed fight. Often the noble pugilist would refuse to take a dive and be killed. The fixed fight movie used to be more popular but as recently as "Pulp Fiction" we see Bruce Willis get into trouble because he won't lose to an inferior fighter.

Yet when I suggest that Muhammad Ali probably won several of his fights only because the fix was in - no one believes me. Ali's whole career was filled with improbable wins and he associated with some very dangerous fanatics who would not have hesitated to threaten his opponents.

People know that some fights are fixed but strongly resist believing that Ali could possibly be involved. The stronger the evidence the stronger the resistance.

The same sort of thing seems to be involved with Barrack Obama and Islam.

Obama was born a Muslim, raised a Muslim, and went to Muslim schools. He has a large extended family and almost all of them are Muslims. In the Fort Hood, incident, the Benghazi incident and the Boston Marathon bombing he has acted in such a way as to protect and defend the Muslim terrorists - yet almost no one seems willing to connect his background with his actions.

Sonny Liston was a bad actor in several senses of the word. But even his ridiculous performance reacting to the 'Phantom Punch' couldn't tarnish Ali's legend. Similarly Obama seems to escape scrutiny because of the public's anti-conspiracy bias.


Anonymous said...

"NSA Whistleblower Says The Feds Are Gathering Data On Nearly Every US Citizen"

"The government has been collecting data on nearly every U.S. citizen and assembling webs of their relationships, National Security Agency whistleblower William Binney told the Hackers On Planet Earth (HOPE) conference last week.

Binney worked for the Defense Department's foreign signals intelligence agency for 32 years before resigning in late 2001 because he "could not stay after the NSA began purposefully violating the Constitution," according to a statement he made in court records.

On April 20 he gave his first interview after resigning to Democracy Now!, asserting that the FBI raided his home after he blew the whistle on the NSA's extensive spying on Americans.

On July 2 Binney, along with two other former NSA employees, agreed to provide evidence in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit that alleges the U.S. government operates an illegal mass surveillance program (i.e. Jewel vs. NSA).

His sworn declaration of facts that he's willing to testify to are both telling and scary:

• In the '90s Binney supervised the development of a NSA program called "Thin Thread" that was designed to identify international networks of connections between people from their internet communications. Since one side of the communications was domestic, the program encrypted the data so as to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens until a warrant could be obtained.

• After 9/11 all safeguards went out the window as "the individual liberties preserved in the U.S. Constitution were no longer a consideration." Members of his Thin Thread team began implementing a program called the President's Surveillance Program (PSP), which collected domestic electronic communications traffic without any privacy protections.

• The NSA began seizing and storing most electronic communications passing through 10 to 20 wiretapping rooms in key telecommunication points throughout the country where all data must pass in order to move from one party’s network to another’s, allowing the government to identify and analyze any individual or group through a searchable database.

• Binney cites the $1.2 billion Utah data center currently being built and the new supercomputing center at the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, pointing out that the immense size and computing power of these facilities far exceeds the capacity necessary for storing targeted communications but is "consistent, as a mathematical matter, with seizing both the routing information and the contents of all electronic communications."

In a nutshell Binney states – with considerable authority – that the NSA has been conducting comprehensive surveillance on U.S. citizens for more than a decade."

Cail Corishev said...

Didn't Tom Clancy write a novel a couple decades ago that talked about the system that scans calls to/from suspicious phones, picks up certain suspicious words, then starts listening to the number at the other end of that call for suspicious words, etc. Seems like in the story they were listening for drug references and the like, but you could just as easily listen for "birth certificate" or "offshore account."

I know his novels are fiction, but they're generally based on known technology, so I assumed it was a system known to be in use then.

Cail Corishev said...

Cookie cutters, proxies, etc. probably aren't that effective anyway if someone really wants to know what you are doing. Get real if the government really wanted to get a handle on your internet activities they can just lean on your ISP, whether it is a local telecom or Verizon.

Absolutely. The ISPs caved in to the RIAA without much struggle; they'll cave even faster to a fed who stops in. I suppose the darknet stuff makes it harder for them if you want to go to that kind of trouble, but I don't think it'd stop them from tracking down a serious troublemaker. I use a pseudonym myself, but it wouldn't take a determined searcher long to figure out who I am. If you need serious anonymity, then as you say, you'd better stay offline and stick to posting up flyers.

Skeptical Economist said...

Years ago, I had some indirect contact with the NSA surveillance apparatus. It wasn't much and I didn't learn anything classified. However, the non-classified information supported the existence of a massive data collection and analysis project.

Just one data point...

Marc B said...

This was admitted prior to the 9/11 attack on a 60 minute segment that is now conveniently difficult to locate on the internet. It's done via US coordination with Interpol. Every form of analog communication, even baby monitors, were tapped and filtered under Echelon/Carnivore. Americans are now expected to give up more freedoms while the alphabet agencies cannot even stop attacks from people they were already investigating or had been warned by about by foreign governments (Chechens Brother/crotch bomber/9.11 plotters).

Skeptical Economist said...

"Obama was born a Muslim, raised a Muslim, and went to Muslim schools."

He was not born a Muslim. His mom was a left/liberal as was his (biological) dad. Neither showed much interest in religion including Islam.

He was partially raised as a Muslim and did attend Muslim schools for a while. However, your interpretation of this is wrong.

His step dad was the best thing that ever happened to young Barry (along with his grandparents). His step dad was no fanatic and clearly a positive influence in his life.

His mother was a dubious flake and his dad was a dead end (literally) drunk. Lolo Soetoro was one of the good guys.

sunbeam said...

Anonymous said:

"I am sure the government is employing an enormous number of people at enormous expense to listen to our phone calls and read our emails and internet comments. I'm sure its all stored some where at more enormous expense. "

I think they are probably employing a lot of people, but I don't think it is an enormous number.

Look Deep Blue or something like it could do quite a good job of analyzing emails and recorded conversations for treason, suspicious ideas, treachery, or heresy, whatever floats your boat. It will work cheaper, not get bored, and will never come to sympathize with the target, unlike that movie about the East German secret police.

It won't give a damn. And as time goes on it will work better and better. Face it most people aren't that complicated.

I'd be willing to bet my left testicle something like this is in operation already, or maybe in a long prototype stage.

As for the rest of what you wrote, our government spends an assload of money on "Black Projects." So much so that the amount is not negligible compared to "on book" things like DoD and even DARPA.

If god came down and told me that he would confirm one way or the other, that the government records every phone conversation and email sent, well I'd bet my other testicle with him they already do.

It's not like this isn't of interest to them. What else do you expect the idiots to do? It's what they are. They wouldn't know a big picture if it walked up and bit them in the ass. Or maybe they just don't have a patriotic bone in their body. Both sentiments fit available evidence.

Whiskey said...

CBS's "Person of Interest," by the Nolan Brothers, continues the Batman film bit about massive, AI surveillance, to the logical conclusion. At issue is not the ability and will of the government to record EVERY phone call, video camera, electronic transaction, and the like, but making sense of that massive amount of data. In the series, a secretive Jobs/Gates like billionaire builds such an AI system, and uses it to stop murders while the government uses it to stop terrorism.

Technology is just a tool, but the tool and its uses can change us. Soon not just the government but really any talented coder could create a distributed AI, as a virus, that can sit in all the smart phones, another devices, and with a massively parallel processing system look, listen, and most critically, understand what is going on and relate that to whoever. Not just the NSA, the Syrians or North Koreans or the Pirate Party in Sweden. All it takes is coding skill.

A computer AI if properly built, can tell the difference between a conversation about the Miami Heat "killing" the Chicago Bulls, and a plot to say, kill a whistleblower over some corrupt scheme. Or a husband griping about his wife, and another plotting to kill her.

Just as gunpowder and the printing press ended the Medieval world and ushered in the modern one, and steam and steel ended the Early Modern world and started the industrial one, so too will computers, AIs and telecommunications enter the era of no real secrets. Unless you have nothing but written messages delivered old school via dead-drops and burnt immediately after reading.

Whiskey said...

Cail Corishev -- the trail can often end at national borders. This just in, China and Russia and the Ukraine are not happy to help the FBI, NSA, etc. since hackers = government there. So, there are limits to the US authority. Real ones. They just exist in foreign and hostile countries.

Anonymous said...

It's pretty obvious from mainstream reporting that most of our electronic communications are under surveillance. That doesn't mean there's no point in trying to avoid it, or that the people running the surveillance are all-powerful, just that you ought to assume anything going out unencrypted is subject to being recorded and listened to. If you want to dig into this a big, google for James Bamford, who wrote an investigative book on the NSA back when they were trying to pretend not to exist, and a more recent one claiming they're up to some serious misdeeds. Or google for Thomas Drake, an NSA whistleblower whose life was wrecked for leaking information about massive lawbreaking. (The usual pattern applies here--there's a big crime exposed by a whistleblower, who then turns out to be the only person who faces any consequences for it.)

Around the time of the 2008 election, there was a bill passed in congress which granted retroactive immunity from prosecution to several phone companies for spying on their customers on the government's behalf. This was explicitly done to shut down lawsuits that were being filed by people who'd been wiretapped illegally. The real fear was that the details of the surveilance would be exposed. From what did come out in those trials, it looks like NSA was vaccuuming up vast amounts of internet and phone call data. It's impossible to tell from that whether or not the NSA was obeying legal restrictions on not looking at the information without a warrant, and whether any ther government agencies were looking, but I would bet a lot of money that there has been a lot of misuse.

It has also come out that cellphone providers routinely provide location tracking information and call records on their customers--a price list for procviding this data to the police was leaked on the internet awhile back. There have been periodic MSM articles about the overuse of national security letters, in which some government agency tells Google to hand over your data, and they do, and they're not allowed to tell you about it.

And so on. My guess is that a huge amount of the world is influenced by this stuff. Think how much it must be worth to the president's political advisors to know what stories will be in the New York Times next week.

Anonymous said...

A lot of the information government agencies and private investigators can dig up on you is stored with third parties. You can prevent a lot of that from being collected by using privacy technology (TOR, adblock, incognito browsing) even if a serious attacker can defeat those technologies. Many common websites (including Wikipedia and Google) will support you connecting up via https. Both will hand over your data if they have it and the right people ask, but why let your ISP or your neighbors know that your favorite search at Google is "big tit dildo bondage?"

The scary technology wrt privacy is smartphones. It's a tracking device, a videocamera, a microphone, your calendar, your phone, your email, and your contact list, all in one, and when someone takes it over, they have *all* that information. And yet, it's so incredibly useful that you'd hate to be without it.

sunbeam said...

Anonymous wrote:

"Both will hand over your data if they have it and the right people ask, but why let your ISP or your neighbors know that your favorite search at Google is "big tit dildo bondage?"

I just googled that. A little disappointed, obviously google found lots of pages with all these words used, but apparently no one has this as a particular fetish.

I am surprised. In a minor way my confidence in my fellow man is undermined.

Apparently I don't know Arkansas.

Oh well, there is still the whole slash fic thing. Anyone who writes sex fiction about Transformers is sick (well stupid) enough to make me happy.

Cail Corishev said...

Cail Corishev -- the trail can often end at national borders. This just in, China and Russia and the Ukraine are not happy to help the FBI, NSA, etc. since hackers = government there.

Right. Like I said, you have to go to a lot of trouble to be seriously anonymous. I think moving to a foreign country qualifies as "a lot of trouble."

Cail Corishev said...

Many common websites (including Wikipedia and Google) will support you connecting up via https. Both will hand over your data if they have it and the right people ask, but why let your ISP or your neighbors know that your favorite search at Google is "big tit dildo bondage?"

If my ISP has nothing better to do than parse URLs out of my traffic to get a chuckle from my web searches, good for them I guess. I thought we were worried about the guys with the flamethrowers coming after us if we speak out against tyranny. Those guys won't need to ask my ISP; they'll just ask Google.

Again, I'm not saying people shouldn't make a reasonable attempt to protect themselves, and you can at least make their job harder.

Anonymous said...

From Wikipedia, a real Suquamish woman:

I wonder if she was a "clam digger"?

Anonymous said...

Use cash wherever possible, and shun payment cards. This will help slow the growth of the borg if enough people do it