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NSA's Surveillance Powers Extend Far Beyond Counterterrorism (eff.org)
145 points by sethbannon 1526 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments



Here's NSA's own statement on their SIGINT mission:

"The National Security Agency is responsible for providing foreign Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) to our nation's policy-makers and military forces. SIGINT plays a vital role in our national security by providing America's leaders with critical information they need to defend our country, save lives, and advance U.S. goals and alliances globally."

http://www.nsa.gov/sigint/

Now, it's not an accident that "policy-makers" comes first in that sentence. The truth is that the vast majority of productized intelligence is used solely to inform policy-makers in a capacity that will never lead to any form of military or clandestine intervention. Yes, operational uses certainly do exist, but they are not the norm.

Unfortunately, you won't find a government spokesman or politician coming out and admitting that in most cases, because it's a complicated and nuanced position. Instead of having that conversation (and risking both ignorant and informed criticism) they take the cynical approach of framing it as something that's hard to argue with. For many decades it was defending against the communists, and since 2001 it's been protection against terrorism.

So, articles like this one are the unavoidable result of avoiding a difficult conversation. That's why the public at large (and even many supposed experts) have entirely the wrong idea about why nations collect foreign intelligence.


>Unfortunately, you won't find a government spokesman or politician coming out and admitting that in most cases...

IMO these overstatements of threat are far less benign than that. I believe they know that the true scope and scale of their secret surveillance activities can only be justified using extreme scare tactics, such as the threat of terrorism. I believe this is true even if the American public was in full understanding of whatever nuanced policy benefits actually resulted for the citizenry as a whole.

That is, the problem may well be that the benefits do not accrue to the general populace, but to a much narrower set of vested interests. So, if Americans knew fully and exactly who benefited and to what degree, they may find that said benefits for the general populace do not justify the NSA's "attack" on the general populace.

So, this is not about avoiding a nuanced conversation. It's that the the measures themselves have been turned against the U.S. citizenry such that the benefits of the resulting policy decisions do not outweigh the affront to privacy and Constitutional rights. If these affronts cannot be justified even while they are turning their powers against the very people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries, then we must naturally ask the question "then whose interests are really being served here?"

That is the real conversation that they wish to avoid.

Further evidence of the dissonance is revealed when you consider the NSA SIGINT mission statement you provided. It's a very generic statement that wouldn't cause concern given what we knew and expected of the NSA's actual activities (i.e. prior to the Snowden leaks). It's only when you realize the fuller scale of NSA activity and its targeting of the broader U.S. population that this statement seems woefully inadequate to justify the attendant activities.


> It's only when you realize the fuller scale of NSA activity and its targeting of the broader U.S. population that this statement seems woefully inadequate to justify the attendant activities.

I've not even seen evidence that NSA is actually targeting the greater American population though. The issue is that NSA has expanded the scope of what they look at, and made it easier for their analysts to get away with assuming someone is not an "USPER". That obviously carries a greater risk of lumping Americans into that net where they wouldn't have before, but no one (not even Snowden, AFAICS) has been able to demonstrate the NSA is actually trying to deliberately target Americans with any of this.


Well, I think here the word targeting is a matter of semantics. I mean, if you know that you are engaged in programs that will necessarily sweep in vast amounts of data from the American population, then you are not not targeting them. I think this is what's unsettled those who are unsettled.

So, we can call it the "dissolution of presumed protections" instead of targeting, but for this discussion, I don't believe that it matters. That is, by any name, to the extent that Americans feel that the NSA has transgressed against its own citizens, the NSA's justification has been terrorism.

EDIT: To be clear, I believe there is considerable compelling evidence that Americans are routinely targeted through various programs. I just don't think it's necessary to have that debate in the context of this discussion.


I think you're right about it being semantics. In fact I think that would explain a lot of the reaction on all sides.

E.g. when we allow the FBI to wiretap people pursuant to a lawfully-issued warrant, that's in reality done with the understanding that the FBI had the technical capability to execute that wiretap, warrant or not. The warrant isn't technically required anymore, it's only a procedural safeguard. But most people do not necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about how the FBI could be listening to all of their phone calls, since they know that they are not actually being targeted in practice.

So it is on what is truly a global Internet. The IP packets don't go flying around with "I'm an American" bits set, so in the end the only real safeguard if you're going to try to mine data of national interest from the Internet is procedural. At best technical safeguards could be used within the NSA's various data warehouses after collection has occurred, but there's no way to get around the fact that American and non-American data is intermingled everywhere on the Internet.

Is this a satisfactory state of affairs? Nope! If you're a privacy advocate you might say that the response is to simply stop collecting intelligence at all and accept all the consequences that follow from that. If you're kind of in the middle you might want to add more oversight, transparency and other safeguards to retain the ability to gain intelligence (not just for counter-terrorism, but for everything the nation needs it for), while not risking mass abuse of civil liberties by differenting definitions of "targeting".

But the sea change was not the NSA deciding to spy on Americans, it was Americans deciding to join the rest of the world on a global network, a problem the NSA didn't previously have to really sort through. I won't say I agree with all the inventive ways they've found to try to collect intelligence, but nor do I think that there is some directed effort by NSA to violate American civil liberties as a goal in and of itself.

You're right that "terrorism!" has been their go-to reasoning in the public eye, but to be fair that is one of the big things the people are large are concerned with and, to parrot the top comment on this thread, the full truth about diplomatic cloak-and-dagger games is rather nuanced.


No. This is not what I meant at all. Your post seems almost comically apologetic. For instance:

>the sea change was not the NSA deciding to spy on Americans, it was Americans deciding to join the rest of the world on a global network

What? That's spit-take worthy. So, it's not that the NSA is doing anything to Americans. It's that the NSA was just minding its business and silly Americans got in the NSA's way?

That's pretty funny on its face. Of course, it's also wrong. America created the Internet. We didn't just join in what the world was doing. But, it wouldn't absolve the NSA of its responsibility in any case.

Look, these programs are designed to sweep in American's info and store it indefinitely. Period. Worse, they do not have the appropriate protective safeguards or oversight. There's no qualifying clause in the Fourth Amendment that reads, "unless it's really, really hard".

>nor do I think that there is some directed effort by NSA to violate American civil liberties as a goal in and of itself

Of course not. Neither is throwing detainees in Gitmo an effort to violate people's civil liberties as a goal in and of itself; and nor is torture for that matter. What earthly difference does it make? I don't even understand that argument. Are you saying that the government can do what it wants as long as it doesn't have an end goal of violating civil liberties?


> America created the Internet. We didn't just join in what the world was doing.

While pedantically true, you should really read 'The Cuckoo's Egg'. And research into this CERN scientist named Tim Berners-Lee. The Internet has had an international development behind it since it was still split into NSFNET/ARPANET/MILNET/etc. But NSA wasn't there, and in fact couldn't have cared less, because the nascent Internet wasn't where their adversaries were at.

> Are you saying that the government can do what it wants as long as it doesn't have an end goal of violating civil liberties?

The end goal of an action is definitely part and parcel of the morality of that action. It's inseparable. E.g. the government could go around shooting people for being black and that would be unmistakeably horrifying. The government could also give the same weapons to the police for self-protection purposes only and we'd (mostly) consider that acceptable, as long as those weapons were only discharged for self-defense, defense of property (e.g. nuc weapons), etc.

Also, your Gitmo example demonstrates much the opposite point. Prisons aren't inherently evil because they are used for an evil purpose at Gitmo. Call me weird, but I kind of prefer that serial killers are locked away myself.

So yes, intent matters. I mean, I agree with you that neither the safeguards nor oversight needed for NSA programs are currently in place, but what if those safeguards and oversight were put into place? Would you be OK with some of those programs then?


>But NSA wasn't there, and in fact couldn't have cared less, because the nascent Internet wasn't where their adversaries were at.

Yeah, so that pretty much completely undermines your previous point. And again, it's laughable to say that the NSA was just minding its business when a bunch of Americans suddenly got in their way.

>The end goal of an action is definitely part and parcel of the morality of that action. It's inseparable.

You're committing a flagrant logical fallacy here and with your subsequent examples. Intent may help to determine the morality of a thing, but the absense of intent does not necessitate that something is morally appropriate. That is, of course they are completely separable.

>Also, your Gitmo example demonstrates much the opposite point.

It really doesn't. See previous comment regarding intent. Also, you completely miss the point and you seem to be confusing yourself. Your previous assertion was that the NSA's not setting out to violate detainee rights as an end goal absolves them (or matters at all) to some extent. If you agree that "prisons are [or even could be] used for an evil purpose at Gitmo", as you say, then you have conceded my point. That is, whether they intended for Gitmo to violate detainee civil rights as the end goal, the evil that now exists is unacceptable and there are people who are responsible for it. No one is talking about the rightness of prison as a concept or whether serial killers should be incarcerated. That's just strange.

In general, you seem to just throw out a bunch of pedantic or semantic arguments as red herrings and strawmen. You are missing the fundamental points that started this thread.

>Would you be OK with some of those programs then?

See what I mean? I think my feelings on the matter are pretty clear.


That's why the public at large (and even many supposed experts) have entirely the wrong idea about why nations collect foreign intelligence.

If you have the right idea, then why not share it here? It'd be a valuable comment, and I'd like to hear your point of view.


I'm not sure I understand your question. Nations conduct foreign intelligence primarily to inform policy makers in ways that help them further their own national interests. The majority of the time, doing so doesn't involve military or clandestine intervention. The specific reasons are as varied as nations and national interests. It could be as a diplomacy tool, to identify strategic areas for investment, to make informed decisions about trade policy and treaties, or just to keep track of what's going on in the rest of the world.


Wow... So I turned to my right, where "The Art of Software Security Assessment" is sitting on my desk, then I read your profile and did a double take.

Thank you for writing that wonderful book!

Also, thanks for your reply. I didn't really have a focused question; I'm just interested in learning more about the government and its machinations. It's quite interesting to know that gathering intel about strategic areas for investment falls within their purview.


I'd say we will know the NSA's data is getting used when some up-and-coming political figures get sent back down due to revelations about weird porno habits, or other internet-related pecadilloes.

Or maybe when we notice an entire generation does not have any representative leaders in national US politics. Only old farts, whose predilections were exercized pre-Intenet, remain. Hmmm.....


Already happened, although it wasn't the NSA in particular. Look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliot_Spitzer_prostitution_scan... . Gee, I feel safer already.


How do we know the NSA wasn't involved? Perhaps Spitzer is on the business end of a "parallel construction".

That's the problem with Secret Evidence, obtained by illegal means. How can we be sure that the Secret Evidence wasn't used to start a parallel construction?


A world without Spitzer is in fact safer...


Well, yeah, but still. The ends don't justify the means.


But one without Petraus? Perhaps less so.


or when politicians don't execute their promises after being elected.


Terrorism and paedophilia are the usual scapegoats to justify unacceptable policies.


You forgot drugs, witchcraft, etc. Whatever the uneducated masses are irrationally afraid of will be used by those in power to justify their abuses.


If I could spy on anyone, I'd game the market, subvert the rule of law, and declare all my competitors terrorists. That is the American way.


Industrial espionage + attacking political opponents + labeling whistleblower as crazy and commit them to the hospital.


Sounds sufficiently Soviet to me.


We hate them because they remind us of ourselves.


[deleted]


Ultimately it has to be "the people". My casual survey of people in my social circle indicates that because most americans "have nothing to hide", they aren't too concerned.

The U.S. is collectively getting what it deserves.


It's like the definition of a cancer


Of course it does, Counterterrorism is one of many missions it must undertake. It's not like the NSA was set up during the Cold War when terrorism was barely a policy making blip on anybody's radar or anything.

In other words, Spy Agency does Spying, news at 11.


This is a classic strawman that the EFF sets up to easily knock down. No one in their right mind thinks that the sole purpose of the NSA is terrorism. All American interests are to be looked after. The NSA unilaterily disarming would be a dream come true to many, mostly those who would like to see the West decline.


From my conversations with friends and family, I think many people think that the NSA's sole purpose is to fight terrorism. That thinking has been reinforced by the NSA and the administration repeatedly claiming that NSA surveillance is justified because it prevents terrorist attacks. If not the "sole" purpose, in the least they think it's the NSA's "main" purpose.

But the main point of the article is that the Obama administration justifies surveillance by saying it's critical to preventing terrorism, but that surveillance is being used for many many purposes beyond just counterterrorism, making it a poor case.


> But the main point of the article is that the Obama administration justifies surveillance by saying it's critical to preventing terrorism, but that surveillance is being used for many many purposes beyond just counterterrorism, making it a poor case.

Being useful for one major thing doesn't mean that a tool is not also useful for other things. You can in fact point out as many other minor things as you wish, but that doesn't invalidate (by itself) the usefulness for the major task. So I don't see EFF's point here.

In fact that was the point I was about to make before screening the comments: "Of course NSA's powers extend beyond simple counterterrorism, who is claiming otherwise? Did they not read even a synopsis of the relevant law?"


"No one in their right mind thinks that the sole purpose of the NSA is terrorism."

Funny how the government keeps bringing up terrorism when people ask why the NSA is violating our privacy rights. Why is the government not pointing to all those other important American interests the NSA is protecting?


Because fighting commies isn't as sexy as it used to be.


> No one in their right mind thinks that the sole purpose of the NSA is terrorism.

There are a lot of people on HN who think that the sole purpose of the NSA is terrorism. Most of these people can't be bothered to visit the front page of nsa.gov.


Should we not commend the EFF for correcting this misconception?


Well then you know .. with that position .. you are invoking the Imperial clause, and the age of Sovereignty of the individual is over. We are such fodder, given your terms, for master plans. Indeed: chattel.


Bingo. The real crux of the NSA issue isn't about privacy, or "checks and balances", it's about individual sovereignty and the fundamental question of the legitimacy of government.


Actually, the strawman here is your assertion that the NSA has set up a strawman.

Let's not forget that this article was prompted by the NSA's universal, "because, terrorism" answer to virtually every "uncomfortable" question about its secret activities aimed at Americans.


So who's in your rogue's gallery of enemies of freedom(TM) and justice(TM)? Inquiring minds....




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