August 5, 2014 – Many have heard the wise words that were offered by Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Are we listening? With intelligence agencies undermining liberty in the name of national security, it is important to remember Franklin’s advice.
Of course, we have seen surveillance throughout American history. Civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Whitney Young were specifically targeted by NSA spying. Others, including members of Congress, journalists, and athletes were also tracked.
The common denominator appeared to be that if you were opposed to war, were a minority, or held an unpopular view, you were more likely to be surveilled by your own government.
A congressional hearing in 1975 revealed plots of assassination and mass surveillance. Sen. Frank Church went so far as to say, “If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capability that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny.”
The very fact that this history is currently repeating itself says a lot.
Again, under the George W. Bush administration, the NSA collected domestic communications without a warrant under “The Terrorist Surveillance Program.” The president used broad interpretations from the Patriot Act and Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution to bypass safeguards that were set in place under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.
Cosmetic changes, like FISA amendments, only swept the issues under the rug. This is evidenced in recent revelations of intelligence agencies and their activities.
According to documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the NSA continues to have their hand in mass surveillance, assassination programs, parallel construction, undermining encryption, and more.
Perhaps some of the most startling revelations relate to the NSA’s mission, according to their own documents, to “collect it all” (p. 5). A mentality of collecting and exploiting all communications is the antithesis of security, much less freedom. Yet, the NSA and its allies are interested in undermining encryption through project BULLRUN, attacking anonymity through EGOTISTICAL GIRAFFE, breaking into thousands of networks, backdooring iPhones, hunting and hacking system administrators, and deploying cyber-warfare intelligence gathering units.
According to The Intercept, intelligence agencies go so far as to manipulate public polls, discredit reputations, and influence online discussions by studying how to best manipulate audiences.
Intelligence agencies, according to Edward Snowden, have also plotted to leak confidential information from companies to the press, planned to discredit targets by spying on pornographic habits, and shares sext messages as a “fringe benefit.”
What’s more, reports by The Intercept revealed that the NSA and FBI have been specifically monitoring Muslim-American civil rights activists, lawyers, academics, and a political candidate. Some documents even used discriminatory statements, like “Mohammad Raghead,” to describe a Muslim target.
Other groups of people, like computer security enthusiasts, have been targeted simply for what they read. Readers of the Linux Journal forum are categorized as extremist, while users and promoters of privacy software are also automatically targeted.
Although there has been talk of bipartisan support for NSA reform in Congress, there is yet to be any real action. While legislation like the S.1599 USA FREEDOM Act appears to be a good first step, not all issues are addressed, and there exist potential loop-holes that can be exploited.
President Obama has been a defender of the surveillance programs, going so far as to claim that “nobody is listening to your phone calls.” Meanwhile, a federal judge ruled that NSA surveillance of American citizens is likely unconstitutional, being “almost Orwellian” in its scope. Many suspect that the Supreme Court will hear a case regarding the NSA.
The NSA is collecting so much data that it would be difficult to suggest that they are only targeting terrorists. Whistleblower William Binney described the NSA’s collection posture as “total population control,” set to collect 966 exabytes of data annually by 2015. For reference, one exabyte is equivalent to about 100,000 libraries of Congress.
Until proper legislation can rein in these unconstitutional practices, there are a number of steps that individuals can take to combat unwarranted surveillance. In response to the NSA’s mantra to “collect it all,” users should encrypt it all. By encrypting all communications, the task of intelligence agencies becomes increasingly difficult. This is why they are so opposed to privacy and anonymity tools like OpenVPN, Tor, and Tails.
Web administrators should seek to implement SSL/TLS with strict transport security, a protocol that provides communication security to individuals who browse the web. In turn, everyday web users should install HTTPS-Everywhere, software developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Those who are interested in encrypting their Domain Name System communications should investigate DNSCrypt and OpenDNS, while those who want to encrypt all internet connections should use an open source VPN.
Individuals who wish to safeguard the content of their email should investigate GPG. Similarly, those who are interested in private chat communications should use OTR with an open source chat program.
Those who are concerned with anonymity should investigate Tor. For the even more privacy conscious, operating systems like Tails sends out all internet traffic through Tor by default. Anonymity is not a tool that is exclusive to criminals and terrorists. It is the hallmark of free speech, used throughout history to protect good people from evil forces. Even contributors to the Federalist Papers, like James Madison, wrote under the pseudonym of Publius.
It is important for consumers to demand open source software and hardware, while software developers and hackers respond with secure tools that are easily usable.
With intelligence agencies armed with the technological capability to impose a total tyranny, it is important that we immediately heed the warnings of Benjamin Franklin and Frank Church. It is imperative that politicians, activists, computer security enthusiasts, hackers, coders, and lovers of freedom stand together. We all have individual roles that we can play. Together, we can take back our liberty, allowing freedom to improve our security.