aNewDomain.net — The NSA knows you better than you do. That’s thanks to the NSA PRISM social network. Our Ted Rall digs deep into the NSA PRISM scandal, its social ramifications and on why he says it’s time to dump Facebook.
Given the Fukushima-esque deluge of horrifying stories about the NSA’s numerous spying programs against, well, everybody, it’s perfectly rational to conclude that 1984 is here. I mean that in the fullest Orwellian, dystopian sense of the word, as envisioned in George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Credits: image Wikipedia, book cover artist Michael Kennard
The United States is a full-fledged authoritarian super-security state against which resistance is futile. Might as well hunker down and pray for the leviathan to collapse under the weight of its own bloated, deficit-financed fasco paranoia.
There is, after all, every reason to assume that the privacy ship has sailed off the edge of the Earth, never to be seen or heard from again.
First we learned about the NSA PRISM program, in which big Silicon Valley companies like Google and Apple allowed the NSA to intercept their customers’ email, text messages and other (previously) private communications.
Next came Verizon’s telephone metadata dump to the spooks of Fort Meade. And AT&T’s.
If it’s digital, the NSA gets it. That means phone calls, phone data, texts, bank transfers, bank records … everything.
Even EXIF information, the descriptors that tag digital photos, is targeted by the NSA’s XKeyscore program. Then the NSA stores it in a giant data farm in Utah where, if the consistently-previously-lying NSA is to be believed, your digital life is available to analysts for merely the next five years.
If you’ve been paying attention, you know these things.
Now the latest in Snowden’s drip-drip-drip: the NSA has developed sophisticated algorithms to develop its own internal social network.
It’s like Facebook or OkCupid, times a zillion.
A commercial social network cross-references everything it can find about you — personal data like when and where you were born, photos about and by you, timeline posts and comments, what you “like” and so on — toward two purposes. First, in order to keep you coming back, it connects you to other people you’re more likely to like than not. Second, to make money, it packages your digital profile to sell to advertisers and marketers.
The bigger the network, the more people upload info about each other (for example, tagging one another in photos), the more accurate and valuable the Big Data results.
You can’t access the NSA’s social network, but congratulations! You’re already a member.
According to The New York Times, the agency has been creating “sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information” since 2010.
They create “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata” obtained by programs like PRISM and XKeyscore” and cross-reference the communications data with “material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data.”
Ever wonder why Homeland Security asks for your birthdate when you book an airline reservation? The NSA, that’s why. According to the Times story, the NSA’s meta-social network is a social network of, you guessed it, commercial social networks:
A 2009 PowerPoint presentation provided more examples of data sources available in the ‘enrichment’ process, including location-based services like GPS and TomTom, online social networks, billing records and bank codes for transactions in the United States and overseas.”
It is possible that the NSA knows you better than your spouse — maybe better than you know yourself. “NSA analysts can exploit that information to develop a portrait of an individual, one that is perhaps more complete and predictive of behavior than could be obtained by listening to phone conversations or reading e-mails, experts say. Phone and e-mail logs, for example, allow analysts to identify people’s friends and associates, detect where they were at a certain time, acquire clues to religious or political affiliations, and pick up sensitive information like regular calls to a psychiatrist’s office, late-night messages to an extramarital partner or exchanges with a fellow plotter.”
Oh, right, terrorism. Preventing terrorism — the scourge that kills an average of 16 Americans per year — worldwide — is the self-proclaimed mission of the post-9/11 intelligence experts at the NSA.
And man, do they suck at stopping terrorism.
When the Snowden leaks began, NSA PR flaks argued that turning the country into the set of “Big Brother” was a small price to pay to stop the 50 terrorist plots that were claimed to have been foiled. (Never mind the fact that the NSA’s own charter limits its activities to spying outside the U.S. Even unintentional spying on Americans by the NSA is illegal.) The spies’ defense was unverifiable and almost certainly a lie.
What we do know is that several terrorist attacks unfolded without being detected in advance by American intelligence. In each case, the attackers left a digital trail that a smart NSA analyst ought to have picked up, and didn’t.
Richard Reid was restrained by fellow airplane passengers while he was trying to light his shoe bomb.
A street vendor thwarted the would-be Times Square bomber.
The capture of the Boston Marathon bombers was lauded as a triumph of high-tech surveillance cameras, but dystopia had nothing to do with it. The surviving Tsarnaev had staggered past the security cordon unseen only to be noticed later bleeding out in a boat, when its owner slipped out for a smoke and called police.
Clearly the NSA isn’t good at its stated purpose, capturing terrorists. As for its real purpose, who knows? The evidence suggests they’re a lot more interested in tracking Joe and Jane Sixpack than Joey Jihad. Which is evil and wrong.
If they’re going to rape our privacy this badly, the least the NSA could do is let us sign up for their newly-revealed social network. After all, we paid for it with our taxes.
Finally: a reason to quit Facebook.
For aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.
Based in Boston, Ted Rall is a nationally-syndicated columnist, editorial cartoonist and war correspondent who specializes in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The author of 17 books, most-recently published The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt, Rall is twice the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Follow him @TedRall, check out his Facebook fan page and definitely follow his Google+ stream here. Ted’s upcoming book After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is due out in 2014.