The scariest revelation to come out of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks is that everything you’ve ever known or suspected about government spying, including the use of sinister-sounding code-names, is true — and then some.
In early June, The Guardian began publishing articles by journalist Glenn Greenwald about the United States government’s top-secret spying on US citizens through their phones and internet use. News of the mass surveillance programs set off an ongoing international storm of controversy over security and the ethics around the idea of the federal government acting like the government in George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, where “Big Brother is watching you.”
Greenwald soon disclosed that it was Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old American computer specialist and former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, who had downloaded a trove of top secret documents from NSA systems concerning several top-secret US and British government surveillance programs. The disclosure of Snowden’s identity was made at his request. "I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," he said.
Snowden had fled the U.S. in anticipation of Greenwald’s story breaking. In early July, Indian Country Today Media Network’s Washington bureau chief Washington bureau chief Rob Capriccioso speculated about whether Snowden could find asylum with an American Indian tribe. The answer was no, because the U.S. government would almost definitely barge onto the “sovereign” Indian land to grab Snowden and lock him up — federal prosecutors had charged Snowden with espionage in June. Snowden has since found asylum in Russia, which refused to extradite him, straining the relationship between the two countries.
But the issue of mass surveillance raises questions about the impact of government spying on Indians. While the totalitarian vision of Big Brother spying on our conversations and emails and stalking us through cyberspace is scary for everyone, are American Indians more vulnerable to being swept up in the frenzy of the hunt for terrorists? The government says the massive, indiscriminate sweeps of citizens’ phone calls, emails and other information are to help stop terrorist attacks before they happen, but consider how easily it linked Indians and terrorists recently. In 2011, the Obama administration casually used Geronimo, one of the most revered figures in American Indian history, as the codename for Osama bin Laden and the operation to assassinate him. That same year, government prosecutors compared the Seminoles to terrorists and cited Andrew Jackson’s genocidal wars against the Florida Indians as a precedent for the prosecution of Al Qaeda suspects. During the 2012 presidential campaign, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich also conjured up Jackson as a model for the way the U.S. should approach its “enemies” today. “Kill them!” he said.
Is there reason to fear that the government would use information it seizes from phone calls and the Internet to launch “counter-terrorist” actions against sacred land advocates or indigenous activists involved in the struggle for land rights or protesting against devastating proposals like the controversial Keystone XL pipeline or other extraction projects? According to Revenue Watch, American Indian lands include an estimated 30 percent of the nation’s coal reserves west of the Mississippi, as much as 50 percent of potential uranium reserves, and up to 20 percent of known natural gas and oil reserves. The lands also may contain rare earth minerals, increasingly sought after by powerful multinational corporations for use in manufacturing – especially the manufacturing of the electronic devices the government sweeps with its state-of-the-art mass surveillance tools.
Should we be afraid, very, very afraid? Decide for yourself. Here are some of the key revelations from Snowden’s leaks:
1. Big Brother can force Big Companies to roll over.
The federal government forced Verizon and other giant telecommunication companies to spy on their customers. The NSA, on a request from the FBI, indiscriminately collected the telephone records of millions of US Verizon customers – regardless of whether they were suspected of wrongdoing — under a top secret court order granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The order allowed the collection of massive amounts of “metadata” or transactional information — the numbers of both parties on a call, location data, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls, but not the contents of the conversation.
2. Big Brother can forbid Big Companies from telling you they rolled over.
Verizon was not only forced to spy on its customers, but also expressly barred from disclosing either the FBI's request for its customers' records or the court order itself.
3. Constitutional right to privacy? You don't have one anymore.
President Obama assured the public that “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” and minimized the inconvenient truth that the government had violated the Constitutional protection of privacy in the Fourth Amendment . “[The collection of this data] help us prevent terrorist attacks and the modest encroachments on privacy. . . was worth us doing,” Obama said.
4. Remember when they said they weren't reading your e-mails? They were reading your e-mails.
But another Guardian report disclosed that the NSA was accessing the content of emails. The agency had obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants through a program called Prism, which grabbed both metadata and the content of search history, file transfers, live chats and emails.
5. It seems you can't trust Big Brother OR the Big Companies.
The Prism program was documented in a 41-slide PowerPoint that claimed the program is run with the assistance of the companies, but “all those who responded to a Guardian request for comment. . . denied knowledge of any such program,” the report said. Google said in a statement: "Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government 'back door' into our systems, but Google does not have a back door for the government to access private user data." Whom to believe?
6. Big Brother is collecting an obscene amount of data.
The Guardian reported on the use of the sinister-sounding “Boundless Informant” , a powerful data-mining tool developed by the NSA to collect, record and analyze where its intelligence comes from, “raising questions about its repeated assurances to Congress that it cannot keep track of all the surveillance it performs on American communications,” the report said. Another document showed the agency collected almost three billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March. Who can resist wondering if their emails were among the pieces?
7. A surprising number of people can access and analyze this obscene amount of data.
In July the Guardian reported on another sinister-sounding NSA program – XKeyscore—that allows analysts with no authorization to search through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals. NSA training materials described XKeyscore is its "widest-reaching" system for developing intelligence from the internet.
8. Your secure and encrypted e-mail is neither.
Another set of documents revealed that Microsoft collaborated closely with US intelligence services to allow users' communications to be intercepted, the Guardian reported. The documents show that Microsoft helped the NSA to circumvent its encryption to address concerns that the agency would be unable to intercept web chats on the new outlook.com portal. The NSA already had pre-encryption stage access to email on Outlook.com, including Hotmail. Microsoft worked with the FBI this year to allow the NSA easier access via Prism to its cloud storage service SkyDrive, which now has more than 250 million users worldwide, and with the FBI's Data Intercept Unit to "understand" potential issues of a feature in Outlook.com that allows users to create email aliases.
9. Now that Microsoft owns Skype, your Skype calls are fair game.
In July last year, nine months after Microsoft bought Skype, the NSA boasted that it had “tripled the amount of Skype video calls being collected through Prism,” The Guardian reported.
10. It's a team sport, and you're outmatched.
The report also revealed that material collected through Prism is routinely shared with the FBI and CIA, with one NSA document describing the program as a "team sport."
If that isn’t enough to scare anyone, consider the impact of the government’s secret surveillance programs on a free press — the foundation of a free society. On August 18, British security agents detained Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, for nine hours at London Airport under the British Terrorism Act of 2000 . Officials confiscated Miranda’s mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles. “This is a profound attack on press freedoms and the news gathering process," Greenwald said. Miranda’s detention and the seizure of large amounts of his possessions, included research data he had collected, “is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation to those of us who have been reporting on the NSA and [its British equivalent]. The actions of the UK pose a serious threat to journalists everywhere.”
They also make it clear “that it would be highly unadvisable for Greenwald (or any other journalist) to regard any electronic means of communication as safe,” Alan Rusbridger wrote in a Guardian report dated August 19. “The Guardian's work on the Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of flights in order to have face-to-face meetings. Not good for the environment, but increasingly the only way to operate. Soon we will be back to pen and paper.”