Monday, June 23, 2014

NSA mixing rule of law with cloak-and-dagger spy world - expert

Photo: East News/ Hermann Bredehorst
Voice of Russia | Jun 22, 2014 | Lilia Dergacheva

The most recent leaks by ex NSA contractor Snowden confirm that US National Security Agency has collaborated with 33 third-party countries to monitor global internet communications, phone calls and private messages, to name just a few. With an intense surveillance debate going on for over a year now, Snowden's latest revelations can hardly be described as a surprise, says Danny O'Brien, international director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international non-profit digital rights group.

The recent leak has not made headlines by chance, since it uniquely details the statistical data on who else, apart from the US, is involved in unlawful spying on people:

"It does give an insight into the level of cooperation between the countries and extent to which all of these countries were intercepting the communications of their own innocent citizens."

Similar revelations couldn't but have an immediate effect on how society functions, namely lobby groups increasingly working to seek greater internet privacy.

To illustrate the point, Mr.O'Brien cites the latest cross-party vote to defund the NSA's involvement in interfering with encryption standards.

"Defunding the NSA is fairly severe step for politicians to take. Ironically, that kind of signal is a little bit easier for them to show their concern than an extensive reform, surveillance law that's actually needed in this area."

The expert sees a big problem in that US' and other countries' legislation clearly distinguishes between intrastate and global surveillance, which at some point made "at least some sense".

"A big problem that we have is that the laws both in the US and other countries make this dividing line between surveillance domestically and surveillance of the rest of the world. There was a time when the dividing line made some sort of sense, since the idea was that low-cost surveillance was for law enforcement, and for everybody else it was spook work, it was tapping spies."

Later, with the advent of cutting-edge technology and the internet era, there emerged the possibility for unlimited global spying, which took the shape of mass surveillance in the absence of a full-fledged legal framework.

"The problem is, now, with the international internet everyone has this capability of spying all around the world, and because there really isn't any true regulation of that, it's become lawless surveillance, mass surveillance of many of the people."

The number of people actively spied on shouldn't be underestimated, the expert suggests. The scale is so enormous that the collected database turns into "a huge honey pot" that the authorities have the power to use to whatever end, any time of our life.

"The problem with that is that it becomes a huge honey pot for governments to use not just to do what we imagine (spying is tracking one particular person), but to learn about the habits and the behavior, even the location in real time of an entire population."

The common anti-spying debate does not basically imply that all citizens have something to conceal, something they would prefer the government not to know, but fears an authoritarian system will be built to keep track of each and every one of us.

"Even if you feel you have nothing to hide the idea is the idea is that we're building an infrastructure that means that the government has that kind of knowledge about everyone in advance, and whether they are being investigated for a crime or seen as spied is a real topic of concern, I think."

Notably, the NSA's last year effort to meddle in encryption policies raised pretty much concern, which is now likely to ease with top programmers and computer experts working on more advanced encryption techniques.

"Last year we were all very disturbed that the NSA had managed to try and influence the encryption standards, put a "back door " into them, so that even if you thought you were secure the NSA would have a secret way of decoding encrypted communications. We're pretty sure that while there were attempts for the NSA to do that, they were largely unsuccessful, and programmers and security experts are spending right now a lot of time securing encryption from all sorts of vulnerability,"

Mr. O'Brien notes. He is sure strong encryption, common "hhtps" lock at webpages' top at the very least, does give you sufficient protection against mass surveillance, now that the risks are clearly observed.

"(The) Good thing is that companies around the world are doing hard work activating the secure protection that's always been around, but people haven’t seen the reason to turn it on for now, because they didn't see the extent of the risk."

Earlier this year, US President Barack Obama said he plans to ask Congress to end the bulk collection and storage of phone records by the NSA. Meanwhile, the main concern is, that "every country around the world wants this kind of surveillance". Danny O'Brien goes on to say this is exactly the reason why they're happy to trade information collected jointly with other intelligence services across the globe.

What's no less worrying is that there's strong evidence that US' secret spying agencies are actually now being courted by national law enforcement, involved in investigation of everyday crimes. "That's a real concern, because what you have is the rule of law and traditional legal systems mixing with cloak-and-dagger, supersecret world of spying."

What regular citizens need in this respect is overall transparency and the chance to understand how evidence is collected in the event of criminal or civil prosecution. O'Brien goes back to one of Snowden revelations that indicated a strategy of what's called "parallel construction", which stands for the law enforcement resorting to NSA's style spying to find out who they want to prosecute and then reconstruct the reasons to do so based on public sources of evidence.

The technique is apparently used under cover, with intelligence services taking all possible measures not to make it public, as one recent case proved:

"There's an interesting case going on right now where the FBI asked local law enforcement to not tell the court what technology there were using to conduct interception, so that that technique would remain secret."

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