Motherboard, 10 June 2013
Since retiring from a three-decade career at the NSA in 2001, a mathematician named William Binney has been telling anyone who will listen about a vast data-gathering operation being conducted by his former employers. “Here’s the grand design,” he told filmmaker Laura Poitras last year. “You build social networks for everybody. That then turns into the graph, and then you index all that data to that graph, which means you can pull out a community. That gives you an outline of everybody in that community. And if you carry that out from 2001 up, you have 10 years of their life that you can then lay out in a timeline that involves anybody in the country. Even Senators and Representatives—all of them.”
The invasive spying program Binney described—one that could build a “social graph” of nearly any user of the American Internet, like some massive, secret Facebook—was in the works, he says, when he left the agency. The details of this program, known as “Stellar Wind,” have never been made explicitly public. Lawsuits and complaints about this and other programs (for instance, by lawyers for Guantanamo Bay prisoners, who suspect their phone calls were intercepted) have been dismissed by the government because potential evidence—like the court that administers these programs—is itself secret.
But now we know more about one aspect of the US’s surveillance arsenal. A tool called PRISM, the top secret project described last week in the Guardian and The Washington Post, is sucking in data directly from the big Internet companies to do much the same thing that Binney warned about when he described “Stellar Wind.” Rather than going to Internet companies piecemeal with search warrants and requests, a system like this provides “lock boxes” for data co-located at companies’ servers, allowing government analysts a far more easier way to access entire troves of a person’s data, and to do with it what they will. Obama and others have insisted that even if Americans’ data is swept up, searches through this data are focused on foreign nationals, and are “very narrowly circumscribed.” But when Senators asked for details last year about how many Americans have been swept up in the NSA’s dragnet, the agency replied that revealing that number would “itself itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons.”
Agencies like the FBI, which itself has been quietly pushing for a “back door” system like this, call it crucial for national security. The leaker of the document, government contractor Edward Snowden, who has sought asylum in Hong Kong, calls it a recipe for “turnkey tyranny.” With a single PowerPoint, we’ve been teleported from shadowy hacker spy movies and giant Internet conspiracy theories (it’s the CIA who actually invented Facebook, right?) into a reality that is simultaneously gut-wrenchingly alarming, and—unless you’ve been hibernating for the past dozen years—not terribly surprising.
This was not the kind of reality that Binney, like Snowden and other recent espionage whistleblowers, signed up to build. For decades, he and his colleagues were tasked with crafting systems for scanning the communications of foreigners, not Americans. A program that Binney and others championed, ThinThread, was designed to encrypt Americans’ communications, but was dropped by the NSA in favor of a more expansive project (though reportedly not before it was tested on New Zealanders.) (Binney’s story is told in Poitras’ short film, “The Program,” released last year by The New York Times, which you can watch it below; Poitras is also one of the journalists whom Snowden first contacted, and she filmed his interview with Glenn Greenwald for the Guardian.)