Snowden’s piece in the The New York Times yesterday is a fitting epilog to the vulgar, cynical performance of democracy we have just been subjected to these past few days, wherein Congress and the commentariat rechristened The Patriot Act as The Freedom Act and called it NSA reform. This “victory lap” in The Times as some are seeing it, is vintage Snowden, kitted out with the by now customary hype, infantilizing civics lesson, and hat tip to the private sector, where, according to Ed “progress has come even more quickly [than in government]” via “pioneering companies like Apple.”
“Ending the mass surveillance of private phone calls under the Patriot Act is a historic victory for the rights of every citizen” declared Ed, a statement which would be an outright lie were it not for the lawyer-like “under the Patriot Act” qualifier. Of course everything under The Patriot Act has ended, because the Patriot Act has expired. As Ed most certainly knows, mass surveillance of private phone calls is doing just fine.
The Freedom Act doesn’t end bulk collection of phone data. It simply delegates it to phone companies, pays them for the service and strengthens their immunity from the legal consequences of colluding with the government. The NSA won’t have the same unfettered access it has to its own database, but can still access records tens of thousands at a time with the FISA rubber stamp of a search “selector” — a phone number, email address, key word, company name etc — associated with international terrorism. If you’re really optimistic, you could call the extra layer of busywork for the NSA an improvement, if only very small, were the NSA the single agency seizing phone data without warrants. However, that’s far from the case as I’ll explain further on.
But first, let’s just fondly recall the past few days, and the difficulty the pseudo-reforms of The Freedom Act posed for Snowden industry professionals. Since The Snowden Spectacle is the purest astroturf, this crew has always been somewhat schizophrenic, alternately performing disgust with government and media elites and starry-eyed elation every time some loathsome government or media figure jumped on their bandwagon. It is this schizophrenia that gives astroturf its power over rubes.
However, the happy face and sad face of Snowden professionals are usually worn on different days. So it was highly entertaining to watch Greenwald and the gang hyperventilating about Snowden getting us all to this historic occasion — Congress actually deliberating reform! — while with their patented knowing knowingness they lamented how predictably shitty the resulting “reform” of this historic moment was. We reached peak Snowden Show with the hyping of the Patriot Act’s expiration — as if it promised something other than a couple days ostensible relief from NSA snooping, which would resume intact for up to six months once the Freedom Act passed.
Undoubtedly, all the pros breathlessly hyping this Snowden-gotten gift had to know this respite was to be brief, but then, the heady combo of hype and blatant lies of omission is reflexive at this point. Without it, there’s just a bunch of old files saying essentially the same thing — the NSA collects and stores your data in bulk — and the money and astroturf in that runs out very quickly. What they are scrupulously not saying, is how many entities are watching you and what they’re doing with the information they get. As luck would have it, though, the AP published its FBI spy planes story and in so doing hinted at the true scale of the problem.
For right now, let’s put aside the disclosures in the same article about video surveillance. Video surveillance may yet be our worst nightmare, but in the interest of showing just how much a narrow focus on the NSA omits, let’s contend simply with what the article said about cell phones and spy planes:
the aircraft are equipped with…technology capable of tracking thousands of cellphones…The FBI says the planes are not equipped or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance. The surveillance equipment is used for ongoing investigations…
The Drug Enforcement Administration has its own planes, also registered to fake companies, according to a 2011 Justice Department inspector general report. At the time, the DEA had 92 aircraft in its fleet. And since 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service has operated an aerial surveillance program with its own fleet equipped with technology that can capture data from thousands of cellphones, the Wall Street Journal reported last year.
That’s quite a lot of spy planes, spread over the three Federal agencies wouldn’t you say? And the FBI guy who says they’re not used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance is almost certainly lying. If you follow the leads the article provides and bone up on the U.S. Marshals spy plane program — which the Wall Street Journal reported on in November of last year and March — you will learn that:
1. It began development at least as far back as 2005, in connection with the CIA, which offered a great deal of technical and financial support in developing the technology for both intercepting calls and scooping up cell phone data.
2. The program operates planes that fly from five U.S. cities, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population.
3. The cellphone-tower emulation system the planes use — which is extremely similar, if not identical, to the “dirtbox” system the FBI planes use — can review data from tens of thousands of phones in a single flight.
4. The U.S. Marshals planes provide data to other agencies in the Department of Justice — which would include the FBI, DEA, ATF etc — as well as assist local police departments with their own surveillance efforts.
There is quite a lot of interesting information here. Even without consideration of the FBI and DEA spy planes, it surely confirms enough mass surveillance of cell phones to render the entire Patriot Act expiration show and Snowden’s “victory lap” both ridiculous and mendacious. Of particular interest, though, is the deputizing of the Marshals Service by the CIA. The Wall Street Journal reported that law-enforcement officials called the cooperation between technical experts at the two agencies a “marriage.”
Of course, as we all know — *eyeroll* — the CIA is not supposed to involve itself in domestic surveillance. But anyone familiar with the CIA’s deputizing of the NYPD for multi-state stalking of Muslims knows what bullshit that is. Still, the U.S. Marshals service is quite a deputy for the CIA to have, especially given the extent to which the Marshals — who are basically cops for the Federal Court and Prison system — work with local police departments. This federalizing of local police is nothing new, but this adds insight into the degree of penetration and the very high priority it clearly is for the Intelligence Community.
Which brings us around to local police, and the phone-snooping capabilities they have even without the assistance of Federal agencies. According to USA Today, at least 25 police forces use a Stingray, which is a suitcase-sized device that, like the “dirtboxes” in the Federal spy planes, emulates a cell tower. It’s typically mounted in a vehicle and tricks all nearby phones into connecting to it and feeding data to police. USA Today also reported that a large number of US police forces request tower dumps from service providers, which give all the phone data for a particular cell tower.
To get a Stingray, a police department must sign a lengthy non-disclosure agreement kept by the FBI, stating that they will not reveal any information about the device’s capabilities or use. According to the ACLU —
The result is that members of the public, judges, and defense attorneys are denied basic information about local cops’ use of invasive surveillance gear that can sweep up sensitive location data about hundreds of peoples’ cell phones.
The ACLU claims the FBI intervenes and invokes the non-disclosure agreement when the ACLU sues local agencies for records about Stingray use.
Local police forces also do aerial surveillance via their own planes and drones and while these seem primarily dedicated to video capture, any department with a Stingray can put it in the air. There is also nothing but cost preventing police from securing the more powerful dirtboxes the feds use. They are available from Digital Receiver Technology (DRT), a Boeing subsidiary and the basis for the “D[i]RTbox” nickname. Considering that this technology was reportedly developed in-house by the CIA and U.S. Marshals, one wonders how it became the property of a private company which then became the property of Boeing.
Of course this cell phone data being hoovered up by federal, state and local cops is useless without something to make sense of it, so naturally there is a robust business in so-called digital forensics, analysis enabled by software that integrates phone and computer data with records databases and other surveillance systems, such as license plate scanners, to plot locations, graph relationships, recognize patterns, visualize timelines, identify social hierarchies and otherwise connect dots.
One of these products is Sentinal Visualizer, manufactured by the FMS Advanced Systems Group, which tellingly names In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA, as a partner. BlackBag is another digital forensics company providing phone data analysis software. It too is supported by In-Q-Tel. There is no evidence of In-Q-Tel support for SecureView by the Susteen Company, but according to Susteen, the company created SecureView in response to feature requests from the FBI. The website brags of use by the Department of Justice, the Border Patrol, and The US Marshals Office. Naturally, In-Q-Tel’s jewel, Palantir, also has a hand in this pie, as demonstrated by this sales video featuring one of its satisfied clients, the Los Angeles Police Department, a user of spy planes and owner of a Homeland Security funded Stingray.
The above-named companies are just a fraction of the business being done in this realm, and raise questions about the money being made from mass surveillance, the size of the surveillance economy, and the extent to which profit is driving the proliferation and use of these technologies. It also raises questions about the extent to which this economy socializes risk via In-Q-Tel and government funding and privatizes gains for defense contractors like Boeing. But don’t expect any of this to be mulled over by the Snowden crew, intent as they are on touting private innovation as the cure to state-created ills. If Snowden ever leaked on his last employer — security contractor Booz Allen — I certainly missed it.
The CIA is another former employer that Snowden never blows whistles on, which seems particularly odd now in light of the CIA’s critical role in developing the technology that makes mass phone surveillance by plane possible, and its subsidies to companies that produce the software that makes sense of the data gathered in this way. But Ed is a man of his word, and early on he disclosed why he hadn’t and wouldn’t leak on the CIA:
Most of the secrets the CIA has are about people, not machines and systems, so I didn’t feel comfortable with disclosures that I thought could endanger anyone.
This, from Kevin Gosztola, of Fire Dog Lake, is too hilarious to keep to myself. Sometimes the astroturf is so crude, so ridiculous, it’s funny.
When President Barack Obama signed the USA Freedom Act, it did not end bulk data collection or mass surveillance programs. It did not address many of the policies, practices or programs of the NSA, which NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed. It did not sharply limit surveillance nor was it an anti-surveillance law. The USA Freedom Act renewed Patriot Act provisions, which had sunset days ago. However, it is difficult to disagree with Snowden’s generally optimistic assessment.
Cynical knowing knowingness and starry-eyed credulity all in the same paragraph. Gosztola goes on to align himself even more with Snowden’s misleading optimism, on the grounds that, for all its faults, The Freedom Act is the first bill to attempt reform of the NSA in forty years!
This is what I mean when I say the Snowden Spectacle mandates stupidity.