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  (Source: Gabe Clogston)
NSA was intercepting massive amounts of data, using it, in part, to spy on Americans

On Wednesday a slide -- Entitled "Google Cloud Exploitation" -- from Obama administration's U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) leaked, revealing how agents were using cybercriminal tactics to spy on American citizens and law abiding foreigners in ally nations, alike. The NSA is working on this network penetration effort -- dubbed MUSCULAR -- with the help of the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), England's NSA equivalent, with whom it shares Americans' sensitive data.

I. The Leak Heard Round the World

A hand drawn sketch by NSA engineers cheekily depicts the public internet feeding into (GFE) Google Front-End (GFE), with a handwritten "joke" point to GFE with the text "SSL (encryption) added and removed here!"

Google


The move has Google -- a top donor to President Obama's 2008 and 2012 election efforts -- feeling betrayed.  Google engineers contacted by The Washington Post "exploded in profanity" when being shown the document and commented, "I hope you publish this."

And publish the post did, creating another firestorm of public -- and this time corporate -- outcry.

NSA spying taxpayers
PRISM -- an NSA effort to spy on American citizens and U.S. allies -- gets much of its data from the secret "MUSCULAR" effort. [Image Source: The People's Cube]
 
It appears that MUSCULAR uses one or more highly controversial methods.  First, some are suggesting that the NSA may directly hack into Google Inc. (GOOG) or Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO) servers.  While unlikely, it's within the realm of fathomable possibilities, given what we've learned in recent months.

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, for what it's worth, directly denied this possibility, stating:

[We] never [hacked into Google servers]. In fact, there was this allegation last June that NSA was tapping into the servers of Yahoo or Google or our industry reps. That is factually incorrect. The servers and everything that we do with those, those companies work with us. They are compelled to work with us.

And a Yahoo spokesperson told the post:

We have strict controls in place to protect the security of our data centers, and we have not given access to our data centers to the NSA or to any other government agency.

So how is the NSA getting its data?

II. Digital Pirates of the High Seas -- How the NSA is Looting Americans Data

More likely, according to an All Things D post by Arik Hesseldahl and The Washington Post piece, the NSA is hacking into undersea fiber optic cables.  In 2001 The Wall Street Journal reported that the USS Jimmy Carter -- a nuclear submarine -- had been outfitted with equipment to siphon signals off of fiber optic cables for NSA "fibertap" efforts.  The U.S. government has also reportedly examined putting direct interception devices into points where the light-based signals are boosted and rebroadcast, in remote mid-ocean locations along the conduit.

fiber cablesUndersea cable
Cables like this ferry your data across the deep depths of the ocean. [Image Source: Unknown (left); AFP (right)]

Eric Grosse, vice president for security engineering at Google, acknowledged that data is often rebroadcast as unencrypted copies along data centers for economic reasons.  This is standard practice for most companies as tapping fiber optic signals without anybody knowing is extremely hard in practice -- particularly when your conduit is underground or at the bottom of the sea.  In practice, the technical hurdles have meant that only a government player could consider such a tactic -- although it was unclear until now whether they had.


The NSA more or less acknowledged that it was somehow getting unencrypted versions of U.S. internet firms encrpyted data -- without them being aware -- writing in response to the reports:

NSA has multiple authorities that it uses to accomplish its mission, which is centered on defending the nation. The Washington Post’s assertion that we use Executive Order 12333 collection to get around the limitations imposed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and FAA 702 is not true. The assertion that we collect vast quantities of U.S. persons’ data from this type of collection is also not true. NSA applies attorney general-approved processes to protect the privacy of U.S. persons – minimizing the likelihood of their information in our targeting, collection, processing, exploitation, retention, and dissemination. NSA is a foreign intelligence agency. And we’re focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets only.

There was a rash of cable cutting 2008, affecting five cables in and around the Middle East.  DailyTech reported on the first pair of cut undersea cables on January 31, the report of the third cable cut came in on February 4; the fourth cut cable was announced on February 5 with the final report of a cut cable coming in on February 6.  It was later revealed two of the five cable failures were due to faulty power supplies, and not physically severed cables

At the time any report that an international government might be involved was viewed as conspiracy theory.  However, given what we know now -- plus the fact that undersea cables are shield to withstand thousands of pounds of force, which the high-pressure ocean depths exert -- these incidents should certain be looked at in a new light.

Here's an infographic from The Washington Post that hints at such a possibility:

NSA hacking

As the above graphic suggests, cable tapping is a far bigger ethical issue than it appears on the surface, as these cables don't solely contain foreigners’ data.  Many companies -- including Yahoo, Google, and Facebook, Inc. (FB) shuffle American consumers data across various points in their global data center network -- a practice that plays nicely into the NSA's unspoken ambition to spy on American citizens.  This data shuffling is done partially from a resources perspective, and partially so that American citizens can enjoy stead access to their favorite services when they travel overseas for business or pleasure.

Google sign
Google say it's in a constant battle with the U.S. gov't to keep consumers data private.
[Image Source: Triple Helix Online]

Google is now working to add encryption to some of data links, but this will require significant time and investment.  Mr. Grosse told The Washington Post, "It’s an arms race.  We see these government agencies as among the most skilled players in this game."

III. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, AOL, and Yahoo! Back Bill to End NSA Spying on Americans

Now Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, and AOL, Inc. (AOL) have written a letter to the Senate protesting this collection.  Somewhat unexpectantly Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Apple, Inc. (AAPL) joined the effort.  While typically top legal rivals to Google, this pair appears united with Google in its opposition of NSA spying.

USA Freedom Act Letter 10-31-13.pdf



The letter is addressed to Sens. Michael S. Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Verm.) who co-sponsored the "USA Freedom Act of 2013".  In a post on the bill's introduction, Sen. Leahy argued that the intelligency agencies failed to demonstrate that the programs to spy on Americans and law abiding citizens of ally states produced any real benefits in fighting terrorism, over traditional lawful methods.

NSA Director, Gen. Alexander in a recent Senate hearing retracted his previous assertion that the monitoring efforts had stopped 54 assasination attempts or terrorist plots, saying that he believed they "possibly" stopped two.  But he was unable to produce any evidence -- on the record -- that these plots would not have been discovered and stopped without spying on Americans.

General Keith Alexander
Gen. Keith Alexander is viewed by critics as a naive, power-hungry proponent of Orwellian spying. [Image Source: DefenseTech]

In other words, despite having months to argue its case, the record shows that the NSA so far has completely failed to show that its sweeping programs of spying on Americans and citizens of ally nations has accomplished anything other than to erode civil liberties and funnel American taxpayers' money into the pockets of special interest donors.

Some view Gen. Alexander's "retirement" as the NSA director "taking the fall" for President Obama.  Critics believe that the move is designed to distract the public that spying is ongoing -- before or after Gen. Alexander's reign at the NSA.

He also noted that the Obama administration's own FISA court -- the special "spy court" that grants blanket data collection approvals for "counterterrorism" purposes, noted "system noncompliance" with the laws, as agencies like the NSA opted to spy on Americans without any sort of court permission -- regardless of whether that action broke the laws of the nation.

NSA spying
The NSA argues it has to break the law sometimes to perform its duties.
[Image Source: Activist Post]

Sen. Leahy in a comment on the undersea cable data grab revelations posted:

I am deeply concerned by reports that the NSA is breaking into the overseas communications links between data centers operated by U.S. companies.  If the reports are true, this infiltration could be sweeping in the communications of millions of Americans who use the services of these two U.S. companies every day.  I have asked the administration for a briefing on this matter.  I will be asking whether this report is accurate, what legal authority the government is using, and how they are protecting the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans.

But not all are on his side of the debate.

IV. Amazon Stays Silently Supportive of NSA; Oracle Vocally Attacks Google and Other Critics Saying Spying is "Absolutely Necessary"

With some members of Congress opposed to USA Freedom -- both the bill, and the notion in general -- they're finding some support in the tech community as well.

Amazon.com (AMZN) a top provider of cloud computing services is rumored to have a deep relationship with the NSA, and possibly even be assisting in its cloud computing efforts.  Notably Amazon was the only major cloud service provider not listed in the leaked program slides from the NSA, suggesting the agency has a unique relationship with it.

Amazon recently scored a $600M USD contract to build a massive data center for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which could also be shared with other intelligence data collection efforts -- including the NSA's.

Payroll tax cut
Some companies have lobbied to increase spying, a potential paycheck. [Image Source: CNBC]

And Oracle Corp. (ORCL) -- a high tech firm that basically started as a CIA contractor -- is taking things a step farther than Amazon's "support by silence" approach, vocally cheering the NSA's efforts to spy on Americans.

The database firm, which reportedly holds a number of contracts with the NSA and other intelligence agencies totalling billions, has gone to bat for its spying partner. CEO Larry Ellison said in an interview that spying on Americans was "absolutely necessary" and that he saw no harm in the government spying on U.S. citizens as long as the ruling regime did not use that information to crack down on its dissidents.

Larry Ellison
Oracle CEO Larry Ellison approves of the NSA spying on Americans[Image Source: Getty Images]

Amazon and Oracle's apparent support of NSA spying stands in stark contrast to Microsoft -- despite the fact that Microsoft is also a top provider of cloud services.  One key factor may be that Microsoft's Azure service has reportedly been scorned by intelligence agencies, which prefer to host their data with(and by proxy shower with taxpayer dollars) Amazon and/or Oracle.

Oracle and Amazon cumalitively paid off members of Congress to the tune of $2M USD in Q3 2012 alone.

Amazon
                                      For Amazon a spy state means more profit. [Image Source: AP]

Thus while the issue of spying has for the most part unilaterally filled American citizens with disgust -- it has divided Silicon Valley, much like it has decided Congress.  Some feel the costs are not worth, it while other salivate that tens, if not hundreds of billions to be made if every man, woman, and child in America and overseas is digitally spied on American taxpayers tab.

Sources: The Washington Post, Letter from Google, USA Freedom Act of 2013, All Things D



Comments     Threshold


This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

Here's hoping...
By sh3rules on 11/1/2013 5:58:21 PM , Rating: 2
...that more and more people care about what our government is doing. I supported Obama back in 2008, but I've been pretty disgusted with both parties for years now. Time to send both parties packing! It's a long shot, but I also hope that a new political alternative comes along soon.




RE: Here's hoping...
By Chyort on 11/1/2013 7:11:49 PM , Rating: 2
At the end of the day, they try to get around the rules by saying "Everyone does it!"

Problem is, i don't mind Russia or China snooping into bits and pieces of my information online. Tyrants halfway around the world don't bother me... Its the ones in my backyard that do.

It is in a government's nature to reach for more and more power... And eventually this will be abused, Hard, when someone gets into office that thinks the ends justify the means. Be it a die hard liberal, or a die hard conservative. Both sides have the extremists that might vastly disagree on any given topic, but be more than willing to use the exact same tools to advance their own agenda.

Just look at what Russia is doing with their information... All it would take is a few bad elections and we could be looking at a lot of the same things.


RE: Here's hoping...
By JasonMick (blog) on 11/1/2013 7:57:00 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Just look at what Russia is doing with their information... All it would take is a few bad elections and we could be looking at a lot of the same things.
In Soviet Russia, the vote castes you!


RE: Here's hoping...
By Spookster on 11/4/2013 12:13:24 PM , Rating: 3
In Soviet Russia your homosexual fantasies about Snowden would be frowned upon.


RE: Here's hoping...
By Schrag4 on 11/4/2013 1:00:54 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Problem is, i don't mind Russia or China snooping into bits and pieces of my information online. Tyrants halfway around the world don't bother me... Its the ones in my backyard that do.


+1

Since I live in the US, are the Chinese or Russian govt going to kick in my door if I speak out against them? Of course not. I could get an unfriendly visit from my own govt though. This is not really a difficult concept to grasp.


RE: Here's hoping...
By superstition on 11/1/2013 8:43:15 PM , Rating: 4
Obama, Oschmama

People are so caught up in the partisan theatrics that they don't realize that this is a global problem.

UK DOCUMENTS: Glenn Greenwald's Partner Involved In 'Espionage' And 'Terrorism'
quote:
"For all the lecturing it doles out to the world about press freedoms, the UK offers virtually none...They are absolutely and explicitly equating terrorism with journalism," Greenwald said.

The UK is a more obvious police state in the making. There are more surveillance cameras per capita there than anywhere else on the planet. We have more imprisoned than anywhere else and prison labor is becoming the new outsourcing. Two peas in a pod...

David Gregory, a great example of our corporate media, wants journalists like Greenwald to be jailed for practicing journalism as well. He's silent about James Clapper and others who actually committed felonies by lying to Congress repeatedly -- and who still has his job.


Is it me?
By retrospooty on 11/1/2013 6:02:11 PM , Rating: 4
Or does Larry Ellison look more and more like an arch villain with every passing year? Scary because he has the funds to do some damage.




RE: Is it me?
By Omega215D on 11/2/2013 12:34:28 PM , Rating: 2
I always thought of him as a Hans Gruber wannabe. Hopefully there's a John McClain out there that will throw him out of a building.


RE: Is it me?
By Reclaimer77 on 11/2/2013 7:17:11 PM , Rating: 2
There was a movie or show I saw where an actor was playing Satan or some evil figure, I dunno.

I can't place the name, but I swear he looks JUST like him lol.


RE: Is it me?
By mmatis on 11/3/2013 7:19:47 AM , Rating: 2
Are you thinking of "The Bible" miniseries? Yes, Satan did INDEED look just like him.

Or was that not the "him" of whom you were speaking???


RE: Is it me?
By Reclaimer77 on 11/3/2013 7:48:18 AM , Rating: 2
Never saw that one. But I just Googled it and wow you're not kidding.


By danjw1 on 11/2/2013 11:52:37 AM , Rating: 2
How can you call the FISA court the Obama Administration's, when in fact the judges on the court are appointed by Chief Justice Roberts? It is far more his court, than the administration's.




"'Cloud' Providers Whinging"
By croc on 11/4/2013 6:51:38 AM , Rating: 2
OK, Google, Apple, M$, AOL, Yahoo!, and Facebook have ALL pissed me off at one time or another. Well, not Facebook, but only from lack of use... So now they have a bit of their own medicine? Changing the 'terms of service' so to speak... Without THEIR permission. Or maybe with their permission, but now it is a good time to squeal like Deliverance... Anyway, they are now squealing like the proverbial stuck pig, and wondering why I don't really feel much sympathy. I will say, however, that while I am ambivalent towards their plight, I AM NOT ambivalent about the NSA treating the world's data warehouses like their own private sandbox. I see nothing good coming from this, for US cloud providers anyway, and wonder what country will be the first to demand reparation for damage to their sovereign property (underwater cables do not come cheap).

I did find it ironic that the undersea map of data cables was provided by Huawei...

And a bit of Mick bashing... The FISA court is NOT Obama's court, it is properly speaking the property of Jimmy Carter. To my way of thinking though, it is actually the greatest legacy of the Nixon years. However, any way you look at it Obama had NOTHING to do with it. I know that you know this, so it just makes you look like a partisan putz when you include something like this in what otherwise is a rather unbiased artical.




Oh the irony
By troysavary on 11/1/13, Rating: -1
RE: Oh the irony
By bill.rookard on 11/1/2013 7:30:31 PM , Rating: 5
With all due respect, there's a difference though, one made by being in a 'business relationship' of sorts with Google. Yes, they aggregate data and use it for advertising purposes, but that is a choice that you can make and/or end at any time you choose. Simply pick a different search engine that values privacy and an email service that does the same.

The problem with the NSA is that you're not getting a choice, they're sucking up all your data because they want it, and you don't have a business relationship with them, and it doesn't matter who you're getting your services through.

Huge difference between a voluntary arrangement (you and Google, free email in exchange for aggregated data) and an involuntary one (you and NSA, all your data, regardless of your desires - and regardless of the legality of it).


RE: Oh the irony
By troysavary on 11/2/2013 5:25:09 AM , Rating: 3
That would be a valid argument if Google only snooped on its' users. Did the victims or the "accidental" WiFi snooping by Streetviews cars have a choice. (Well, I guess they should have had their WiFi password protected, but that is beside the point, Google had no business collecting that data) What about people who do not use Gmail, but have contacts that do? Their e-mail is read too. I am not trying to claim that Google spies to the same extent as the NSA does, but that it is ironic that Google is crying foul over something that it does too.


RE: Oh the irony
By Reclaimer77 on 11/3/2013 6:24:18 AM , Rating: 4
You're really showing your true colors here. No wonder you have a problem with anyone who doesn't straight up hate Google as much as you. You're an idiotic activist.

quote:
Google had no business collecting that data


How do you figure? An unsecured Wifi router blasting data in the clear is no different than someone using a HAM radio and you tuning in. If you don't lock your router down, that's on you, and the data is no longer private.

It's a brave new electronic world now, and I really suggest you wake up and join it.

quote:
but that it is ironic that Google is crying foul over something that it does too.


No that's not irony, that's just you being biased and stupid again. If you can't see the difference, and the position the Government is forcing these companies in, talking to you is a waste of time.

quote:
Did the victims...


Can you produce a single "victim" of Googles business model for me? Who's been harmed? Who's had their identity stolen because of Google, or had Google crash their bank accounts? What victims!

The fact is YOU might have a problem with Google's business model, but billions of people use their services every day and not a SINGLE ONE has been harmed in any tangible way.

Troll on Troy, just troll on....


RE: Oh the irony
By troysavary on 11/4/2013 12:15:04 PM , Rating: 2
What a surprise, the resident Google apologists shows up to defend Google's honour again. It is not just me that thinks Google's actions were illegal. Many governments are taking issue with Google blatantly stealing data. But of course, Google can do no wrong to you, so it is hopeless trying to argue the point.

Using your argument, the NSA did nothing wrong snooping on Google since the data was not encrypted. If you want to send data unencrypted over fiber, "that is on you, and your data is no longer private." I guess Google isn't ready for the "brave new electronic world" they have been taking advantage of.


RE: Oh the irony
By abzillah on 11/4/2013 3:39:49 PM , Rating: 2
You forgot to mention that google gives us the products for FREE, while we PAY the NSA to break our constitutional rights, by paying taxes.


RE: Oh the irony
By JasonMick (blog) on 11/1/2013 7:43:32 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Google, a company who makes its' living snooping on our data, is crying foul when it is done to them. Not that I am in favour of the NSA, but I can't bring myself to feel sorry for Google either.
This is an intellectual dishonest comment.

It's perfectly legitimate to debate whether or not Google is using data consumers trust it with appropriately, in the context of whether or not you should choose to use Google.

But to compare Google to the NSA is ridiculous. Americans choose to use Google and it's free. Americans have NO CHOICE whether the NSA spies on them, and moreover it's not free -- you pay tens of thousands of taxes yearly to the feds, unless you're poverty level or unemployed (which you may be)...


RE: Oh the irony
By superstition on 11/1/2013 8:08:07 PM , Rating: 2
It has been exposed that major tech firms like Microsoft (and minor ones, also) have been working with the government to help them spy. The big gap between corporation and government that some would like to pretend exists doesn't exist.
quote:
Google engineers contacted by The Washington Post "exploded in profanity" when being shown the document and commented, "I hope you publish this."

That sounds like pure PR.

Snowden document reveals key role of companies in NSA data collection
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/01/nsa-d...
quote:
The names of these "corporate partners" are so sensitive that they are classified as "ECI" – Exceptionally Controlled Information – a higher classification level than the Snowden documents cover.

Major Tech Companies Helped NSA Monitor the Internet
quote:
The agency, according to the documents and interviews with industry officials, deployed custom-built, superfast computers to break codes, and began collaborating with technology companies in the United States and abroad to build entry points into their products.

In some cases, companies say they were coerced by the government into handing over their master encryption keys or building in a back door. And the agency used its influence as the world’s most experienced code maker to covertly introduce weaknesses into the encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world.
quote:
Although the NSA documents did not specify which companies lent their support willingly, The Guardian reported in July that Microsoft had been one of them. Microsoft attempted to explain its role but was not clear on the extent of its involvement, and succeeded only in confusing the issue further.


RE: Oh the irony
By Reclaimer77 on 11/2/2013 8:12:22 AM , Rating: 3
Helped the NSA? You people make it sound like they were given a choice.

Its sad the average person still doesn't get how much power the Gov is wielding. If you stand up to them, they have the means to crush you or make life hell.


RE: Oh the irony
By superstition on 11/3/2013 1:19:02 AM , Rating: 2
Corporations choose cash.


RE: Oh the irony
By Schrag4 on 11/4/2013 12:48:40 PM , Rating: 2
They didn't choose cash. They were hit with orders that they give up data AND that they not expose to the public that they were even given those orders. That is not the willing partnership you make it out to be.


RE: Oh the irony
By superstition on 11/4/2013 10:24:57 PM , Rating: 2
And you continue to labor under the illusion that corporations are people with a conscience. They aren't. They choose cash. That's what they do. That's what they're about.
quote:
Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.


RE: Oh the irony
By mmatis on 11/3/2013 7:13:14 AM , Rating: 2
They do indeed have that capability. But if one has honor or morals or scruples or principles, one chooses as Mr. Snowden did. Instead of sucking FedPig dick, as so many others have done.


RE: Oh the irony
By troysavary on 11/2/13, Rating: -1
RE: Oh the irony
By Monkey's Uncle on 11/2/2013 11:10:04 AM , Rating: 2
Agreed. NSA is spying on US citizens but the citizens of its allies . The NSA has no business snooping on emails I share with friends & relatives in the U.S.

However I am a realist. I assume there is no privacy whatsoever on the Internet. I assume that unless my data is protected behind firewalls and a bazillion levels of quantum encryption, there will be someone, somewhere in the world snooping thru my data.

There is only one sure-fire way to protect your data. Never allow it to be accessible via the Internet. Stay away from clouds - you might as will put your data out there with a big neon "Come take a look!" sign pointing at it. Emails? no such thing as email privacy even if you have your own email servers and don't use gmail, hotmail or live.


RE: Oh the irony
By troysavary on 11/4/2013 12:19:10 PM , Rating: 1
Oh look, I was downvoted. I guess Americans can't take it when I point out that there government is only doing to them what they seem to think is acceptable for them to do to the rest of the world. You are surprised that the rest of the world is pissed off at America for snooping on everyone, not just potential enemies?


RE: Oh the irony
By Dr of crap on 11/4/2013 12:36:35 PM , Rating: 1
Spying on other countries, or other people, has been going on since there were countries to spy on!
This is what I don't get. And you don't think other countries aren't spying on the US??
IS it only a problem since "proof" has come to light?

Get over yourself.


RE: Oh the irony
By troysavary on 11/4/2013 4:31:23 PM , Rating: 2
People tend to expect a country to spy on leaders of foreign countries, or businesses, or some other areas where it may benefit said country. The NSA is apparently spying on average citizens, both foreign and domestic, just because it can. What possible reason would they have to tap into phone records of people in Spain, for example? And then you seem baffled that Spain is angry? If that is fine for the NSA, why the American outrage when China hacks into American companies and steals their secrets? America has this image problem throughout the world because they are seen to think different rules apply to them than to everyone else.


RE: Oh the irony
By FaaR on 11/1/2013 8:25:05 PM , Rating: 1
By 'not wanting to feel sorry for google', you're actively devaluing and in fact even undermining your own freedom. Why would you even want to do such a thing...? Regardless of what one may feel about google as a company, they're standing up for you here.


RE: Oh the irony
By superstition on 11/1/2013 8:37:02 PM , Rating: 2
What proof do you have of that? We do have proof that corporations have been working with the NSA.

Google stands up for cash. It's a corporation. Corporations are not people. They're even greedier, although I realize that's hard to imagine.

quote:
Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.


"The whole principle [of censorship] is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak." -- Robert Heinlein














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