Gwynne Dyer: NSA surveillance and changes to the Internet

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      Edward Snowden is safe from American “justice” for the moment, and he will certainly go down as the most effective whistle-blower in history. His revelations are going to cause a wholesale restructuring of the world’s most important communications system, the Internet. And that, rather than his whereabouts and fate, is now the real story.

      On August 8, Lavabit, a U.S.-based email service provider that promised to keep its clients’ communications private, closed down. The U.S. National Security Agency approached it about six weeks ago demanding the same access to its customers’ emails that it has already extorted from big American Internet companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, and Microsoft.

      The company’s owner, Ladar Levison, is under an NSA gag order, but he wrote to his clients: “I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.”

      Jon Callas, co-founder of Silent Circle, another encrypted email service that has just shut down because it cannot protect its clients’ data, went even further. “Email (that uses standard Internet protocols)...cannot be secure,” he wrote.

      The mass surveillance being carried out by the NSA not only gives the U.S. government access to everything Americans say to one another. It also destroys everybody else’s privacy, because the standard Internet routing protocol sends messages not by the shortest route, but by whichever route is fastest and least congested. That means, in most cases, through the United States, and therefore straight into the hands of the NSA.

      Snowden’s revelations so far have told us about two major NSA surveillance programmes, both probably illegal even under American law. The first collects the mobile phone records of over 200 million Americans.

      Don’t worry your pretty head about that, darling, said Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee: “This is just metadata, there is no content involved.” The NSA isn’t actually listening to your calls.

      Well, of course it isn’t listening to billions of calls. Machines can’t listen to calls, and who has the manpower to do it with human beings? But machines can quickly use the call logs (metadata) to identify everybody you ever talked to, and everybody they ever talked to, and so on out to the fourth or fifth generation.

      If one of those thousands of people ever spoke to somebody abroad with a Muslim name (or somebody who works for Siemens, or Samsung, or some other industrial competitor of the United States), they may take an interest in you. If you’re an American who has never had direct phone contact with anybody abroad, they may then apply to access the content of your calls and emails under the Prism program.

      The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court which reviews such applications has refused precisely 10 of them (out of 20,919) since 2001. Besides, the content of most Americans’ messages can probably be examined without recourse to the judges under one of the blanket authorisations issued by FISC. And if you’re not American, or an American resident who once spoke to somebody abroad by phone, then you’re in a free-fire zone.

      If you are American, you probably don’t care about that, because you are mesmerised by the guff about a huge terrorist threat that the security barons use to justify the endless expansion of their empire (now almost a million employees). A recent opinion poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 62 percent of Americans think “fighting terrorism” is more important than worrying about personal privacy.

      But if you belong to the great majority of Internet users who are not American, are not in a perpetual sweaty panic about “terrorism”, and have no protection whatever under American law from the NSA’s spying, then you will want ways to avoid it. So the market, or other governments, will such create ways.

      What’s needed is a big investment in Internet switching capacity in countries where the spies are not completely out of control. Then non-Americans can just join one of the many servers that will spring up to meet an exploding demand for secure internet services.

      Finnish Internet servers are already emphasising the security of their services. Germany, whose memories of the Gestapo and Stasi secret police make it particularly sensitive about the NSA’s spying, may take the lead in building non-U.S. internet capacity, or it may be big countries like Brazil and India that are relatively invulnerable to U.S. pressure. But this is a huge market opportunity, and it will get done.

      And the losers? The big U.S. Internet providers, who will find that few of their customers want to store their data in American “cloud” services. “If businesses or governments think they might be spied on,” said Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission, “they will have less reason to trust the cloud, and it will be (American) cloud providers who ultimately miss out.”

      As Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at the Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, put it recently: “America invented the Internet, and our Internet companies are dominant around the world. But the U.S. government, in its rush to spy on everybody, may end up killing our most productive industry.”




      Aug 12, 2013 at 3:10pm

      Well said Gwynne.

      I would imagine the bright folks in Bangalore are working on the new ENIGMA Encryption Card with 8GB RAM as we speak, not to mention drawing up plans for air conditioned warehouses full of new ISP mainframes or whatever (I'm no technogeek).

      Your new encryption programs will have a flashing red alert whenever your intended internet route is going through NSA "hacked" servers (anywhere in the US or Britain), yellow alert for dubious "freefire zones" and a friendly green light for exclusive accessing of servers in Iceland, Germany or India.
      Even then, there will be a slight delay in sending and receiving emails as your encyption card does it's thing.

      I predicted this 10 years ago with my friends and colleagues. Heartfelt thanks to Edward Snowden for shining a light into the NSA abyss.


      Aug 12, 2013 at 4:32pm

      I think countries like India and Germany also spy on their net users?


      Aug 12, 2013 at 6:23pm

      I'm actually kind of curious as to whether CSIS is basically doing the same thing, although possibly on a smaller scale due to budgetary, personnel, and technical (not having access to major US backbone routers) constraints.

      S Hubert

      Aug 12, 2013 at 11:56pm

      To play devil's advocate, the US's 'Founding Fathers' never envisioned the power of our modern tools, devices and knowledge when they claimed we should be safe in our person and papers.

      To be rational; I think that we could protect our freedoms, but it would require that the world's populations acquire a measure of security that is not possible with competing governments and businesses and all the rest of our profit driven madness.

      The lesson for me over the course of my life is that there is literally no part of the Constitution, Law, or common sense that can withstand the actions of people who serve market forces instead of humanity.

      I Chandler

      Aug 13, 2013 at 8:21am

      "extorted from big American Internet companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, and Microsoft."

      It looks like Microsoft was eager to please, as they were co-opted in 2007. Apple did not join until Oct 2012 - A year after Steve Jobs died. Steve Wozniak is a fan of Edward Snowden:

      "Dianne Feinstein,The NSA isn’t actually listening to your calls...Well, of course it isn’t listening to billions of calls. Machines can’t listen to calls"

      Peons repeat the non denials on cue. June 7 , Pesident Obama: 'Nobody Is Listening to Your Telephone Calls' -

      Very much like Bush's non-denial of foreknowledge of people going to fly airplanes into buildings"

      Alan Layton

      Aug 13, 2013 at 8:32am

      Gwynne Dyer makes a lot of sense about hosting services in other countries and perhaps putting up with much slower service as a result. Only time will tell.

      One thing that bothers me though is that in the past whenever there has been ANY mention of altering or controlling the internet, then people went ape-shit and wanted the internet to kept completely open. It's a much different story now that most people could be affected negatively.

      I. Chandler

      Aug 13, 2013 at 8:37am

      "If you are American, you probably don’t care about that, because you are mesmerised by the guff about a huge terrorist threat that the security barons use to justify the endless expansion of their empire (now almost a million employees). "

      How this mesmerising guf is used to unite and inspire people , is described by The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear - An award winning documentary:

      I. Chandler

      Aug 13, 2013 at 11:22am

      You cant see this on the BBC or the CBC or their fellow American whore networks. You'll never read this in the New York Times or even this fine publication either - has been censoring my posts lately...

      President Jimmy Carter says U.S. “has no functioning democracy”

      "The 39th U.S. president Jimmy Carter is so concerned about the NSA spying scandal that he thinks it has essentially resulted in a suspension of American democracy."

      Yes But

      Aug 13, 2013 at 4:22pm

      The vast majority of American/Canadians won't have a problem with storing their photos, or emails, or what have you on the cloud within the American servers... because the the vast majority of people aren't trying to store stuff that will get them convicted of any crime whatsoever.