Tag Archives: surveillance

New Snowden Documents Reveal Secret Memos Expanding Spying

by Julia Angwin & Jeff Larson, ProPublica, Charlie Savage, the New York Times, and Henrik Moltke, special to ProPublica
June, 2015

Without public notice or debate, the Obama administration expanded the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of Americans’ international Internet traffic to search for evidence of malicious computer hacking, according to classified NSA documents.

In mid-2012, Justice Department lawyers wrote two secret memos permitting the spy agency to begin hunting on Internet cables, without a warrant and on American soil, for data linked to computer intrusions originating abroad — including traffic that flows to suspicious Internet addresses or contains malware, the documents show.

The Justice Department allowed the agency to monitor only addresses and “cybersignatures” — patterns associated with computer intrusions — that it could tie to foreign governments. But the documents also note that the NSA sought permission to target hackers even when it could not establish any links to foreign powers.

The disclosures, based on documents provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA contractor, and shared with the New York Times and ProPublica, come at a time of unprecedented cyberattacks on American financial institutions, businesses and government agencies, but also of greater scrutiny of secret legal justifications for broader government surveillance.

While the Senate passed legislation this week limiting some of the NSA’s authority, it involved provisions in the U.S.A. Patriot Act and did not apply to the warrantless wiretapping program.

Government officials defended the NSA’s monitoring of suspected hackers as necessary to shield Americans from the increasingly aggressive activities of foreign governments. But critics say it raises difficult trade-offs that should be subject to public debate.

The NSA’s activities run “smack into law enforcement land,” said Jonathan Mayer, a cybersecurity scholar at Stanford Law School who has researched privacy issues and who reviewed several of the documents. “That’s a major policy decision about how to structure cybersecurity in the U.S. and not a conversation that has been had in public.”

It is not clear what standards the agency is using to select targets. It can be hard to know for sure who is behind a particular intrusion — a foreign government or a criminal gang — and the NSA is supposed to focus on foreign intelligence, not law enforcement.

The government can also gather significant volumes of Americans’ information — anything from private emails to trade secrets and business dealings — through Internet surveillance because monitoring the data flowing to a hacker involves copying that information as the hacker steals it.

One internal NSA document notes that agency surveillance activities through “hacker signatures pull in a lot.” Brian Hale, the spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said, “It should come as no surprise that the U.S. government gathers intelligence on foreign powers that attempt to penetrate U.S. networks and steal the private information of U.S. citizens and companies.” He added that “targeting overseas individuals engaging in hostile cyberactivities on behalf of a foreign power is a lawful foreign intelligence purpose.”

The effort is the latest known expansion of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program, which allows the government to intercept Americans’ cross-border communications if the target is a foreigner abroad. While the NSA has long searched for specific email addresses and phone numbers of foreign intelligence targets, the Obama administration three years ago started allowing the agency to search its communications streams for less-identifying Internet protocol addresses or strings of harmful computer code.

The surveillance activity traces to changes that began after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The government tore down a so-called wall that prevented intelligence and criminal investigators from sharing information about suspected spies and terrorists. The barrier had been erected to protect Americans’ rights because intelligence investigations use lower legal standards than criminal inquiries, but policy makers decided it was too much of an obstacle to terrorism investigations.

The NSA also started the warrantless wiretapping program, which caused an outcry when it was disclosed in 2005. In 2008, under the FISA Amendments Act, Congress legalized the surveillance program so long as the agency targeted only noncitizens abroad. A year later, the new Obama administration began crafting a new cybersecurity policy — including weighing whether the Internet had made the distinction between a spy and a criminal obsolete.

“Reliance on legal authorities that make theoretical distinctions between armed attacks, terrorism and criminal activity may prove impractical,” the White House National Security Council wrote in a classified annex to a policy report in May 2009, which was included in the NSA’s internal files.

About that time, the documents show, the NSA — whose mission includes protecting military and intelligence networks against intruders — proposed using the warrantless surveillance program for cybersecurity purposes. The agency received “guidance on targeting using the signatures” from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to an internal newsletter.

In May and July 2012, according to an internal timeline, the Justice Department granted its secret approval for the searches of cybersignatures and Internet addresses. The Justice Department tied that authority to a pre-existing approval by the secret surveillance court permitting the government to use the program to monitor foreign governments.

That limit meant the NSA had to have some evidence for believing that the hackers were working for a specific foreign power. That rule, the NSA soon complained, left a “huge collection gap against cyberthreats to the nation” because it is often hard to know exactly who is behind an intrusion, according to an agency newsletter. Different computer intruders can use the same piece of malware, take steps to hide their location or pretend to be someone else.

So the NSA, in 2012, began pressing to go back to the surveillance court and seek permission to use the program explicitly for cybersecurity purposes. That way, it could monitor international communications for any “malicious cyberactivity,” even if it did not yet know who was behind the attack.

The newsletter described the further expansion as one of “highest priorities” of the NSA director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander. However, a former senior intelligence official said that the government never asked the court to grant that authority.

Meanwhile, the FBI in 2011 had obtained a new kind of wiretap order from the secret surveillance court for cybersecurity investigations, permitting it to target Internet data flowing to or from specific Internet addresses linked to certain governments.

To carry out the orders, the FBI negotiated in 2012 to use the NSA’s system for monitoring Internet traffic crossing “chokepoints operated by U.S. providers through which international communications enter and leave the United States,” according to a 2012 NSA document. The NSA would send the intercepted traffic to the bureau’s “cyberdata repository” in Quantico, Virginia.

The disclosure that the NSA and the FBI have expanded their cybersurveillance adds a dimension to a recurring debate over the post-Sept. 11 expansion of government spying powers: Information about Americans sometimes gets swept up incidentally when foreigners are targeted, and prosecutors can use that information in criminal cases.

Citing the potential for a copy of data “exfiltrated” by a hacker to contain “so much” information about Americans, one NSA lawyer suggested keeping the stolen data out of the agency’s regular repository for information collected by surveillance so that analysts working on unrelated issues could not query it, a 2010 training document showed. But it is not clear whether the agency or the FBI has imposed any additional limits on the data of hacking victims.

In a response to questions for this article, the FBI pointed to its existing procedures for protecting victims’ data acquired during investigations, but also said it continually reviewed its policies “to adapt to these changing threats while protecting civil liberties and the interests of victims of cybercrimes.”

None of these actions or proposals had been disclosed to the public. As recently as February, when President Obama spoke about cybersecurity at an event at Stanford University, he lauded the importance of transparency but did not mention this change.

“The technology so often outstrips whatever rules and structures and standards have been put in place, which means that government has to be constantly self-critical and we have to be able to have an open debate about it,” Obama said.

 Creative Commons

Laura Poitras contributed reporting. This story was co-published with the New York Times. For more coverage, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on the NSA’s efforts to break encryption, our NSA Programs Chart and the agency’s spying operations on cell phone apps.ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

 

Related reading on F&O:

Digital Domesday: surveillance and serfdom, by Graham Murdock

45 years later, Ottawa fumbles national security, by Jonathan Manthorpe (paywall)

Supporting BDS not “anti-Semitic”, by Tom Regan

Freedom of the press ain’t so free anymore, by Tom Regan

Suit by Wikimedia and partners targets American mass surveillance, by Deborah Jones

Mumbai Attacks: Piles of Spy Data, a Puzzle Unsolved, by Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica, and James Glanz and David E. Sanger, New York Times

How to Stop Being Tracked Online, by Hanging Chen, ProPublica

Privacy Tools: Encrypt What You Can, by Julia Angwin, ProPublica

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Headliners

A snapshot this week from the surveillance beat:

Writers of the world call for end to mass online surveillance

Five Nobel literature laureates are among 560 international writers who today have put their names to an appeal, “A stand for democracy in the digital age”, against widespread “mass surveillance” by governments and corporations.

It is, they argue, an attack on “a basic pillar of democracy . . . the inviolable integrity of the individual.”

The Irish Times

Dog waste-scooping business takes page from ‘CSI’

“…  using dog DNA to track down owners who break property rules.”

Chicago Tribune story in Seattle Times, widely republished

Further reading:
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. ”It is far more likely that the Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled.”
UK Guardian story: World’s leading authors: state surveillance of personal data is theft

 — Deborah Jones

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Art tackles big data

That didn’t take long: artists have surged into the wake left by whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden, whose revelations of America’s massive surveillance program roiled the murky waters of  international politics.

An art show in Munich last month, Big Data Art 2013, interprets digital information. One piece, by German artists Sebastian Drack and Tobias Feldmeier, changed shape and colour whenever someone sent a contentious word into cyberspace on Twitter. The words were included on the list of hundreds of keywords monitored by American security agents, reported The Guardian.

The following video is one example. I don’t find its audio and visual interpretation of data at all attractive. It is, in truth, downright uncomfortable. And that’s the point.

APNOA Trailer from Sebastian Drack on Vimeo.

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Evidence lacking in U.S. claim that NSA thwarted attacks

 

by Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer
Published October 23, 2013

Two weeks after Edward Snowden’s first revelations about sweeping government surveillance, United States President Obama shot back. “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information not just in the United States, but, in some cases, threats here in Germany,” Obama said during a visit to Berlin in June. “So lives have been saved.”

In the months since, intelligence officials, media outlets, and members of Congress from both parties all repeated versions of the claim that U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance has stopped more than 50 terrorist attacks. The figure has become a key talking point in the debate around the spying programs.

“Fifty-four times this and the other program stopped and thwarted terrorist attacks both here and in Europe — saving real lives,” Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said on the House floor in July, referring to programs authorized by a pair of post-9/11 laws. “This isn’t a game. This is real.”

But there’s no evidence that the oft-cited figure is accurate.

The NSA itself has been inconsistent on how many plots it has helped prevent and what role the surveillance programs played. The agency has often made hedged statements that avoid any sweeping assertions about attacks thwarted.

A chart declassified by the agency in July, for example, says that intelligence from the programs on 54 occasions “has contributed to the [U.S. government’s] understanding of terrorism activities and, in many cases, has enabled the disruption of potential terrorist events at home and abroad” — a much different claim than asserting that the programs have been responsible for thwarting 54 attacks.

NSA officials have mostly repeated versions of this wording.

When NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander spoke at a Las Vegas security conference in July, for instance, he referred to “54 different terrorist-related activities,” 42 of which were plots and 12 of which were cases in which individuals provided “material support” to terrorism.

But the NSA has not always been so careful.

During Alexander’s speech in Las Vegas, a slide in an accompanying slideshow read simply “54 ATTACKS THWARTED.”

And in a recent letter to NSA employees, Alexander and John Inglis, the NSA’s deputy director, wrote that the agency has “contributed to keeping the U.S. and its allies safe from 54 terrorist plots.” (The letter was obtained by reporter Kevin Gosztola from a source with ties to the intelligence community. The NSA did not respond when asked to authenticate it.)

Asked for clarification of the surveillance programs’ record, the NSA declined to comment.

Earlier this month, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pressed Alexander on the issue at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

“Would you agree that the 54 cases that keep getting cited by the administration were not all plots, and of the 54, only 13 had some nexus to the U.S.?” Leahy said at the hearing. “Would you agree with that, yes or no?”

“Yes,” Alexander replied, without elaborating.

It’s impossible to assess the role NSA surveillance played in the 54 cases because, while the agency has provided a full list to Congress, it remains classified.

Officials have openly discussed only a few of the cases (see below), and the agency has identified only one — involving a San Diego man convicted of sending $8,500 to Somalia to support the militant group Al Shabab — in which NSA surveillance played a dominant role.

The surveillance programs at issue fall into two categories: The collection of metadata on all American phone calls under the Patriot Act, and the snooping of electronic communications targeted at foreigners under a 2007 surveillance law. Alexander has said that surveillance authorized by the latter law provided “the initial tip” in roughly half of the 54 cases. The NSA has not released examples of such cases.

After reading the full classified list, Leahy concluded the NSA’s surveillance has some value but still questioned the agency’s figures.

“The American people are getting left with the inaccurate impression of the effectiveness of NSA programs.”

“We’ve heard over and over again the assertion that 54 terrorist plots were thwarted” by the two programs, Leahy told Alexander at the Judiciary Committee hearing this month. “That’s plainly wrong, but we still get it in letters to members of Congress, we get it in statements. These weren’t all plots and they weren’t all thwarted. The American people are getting left with the inaccurate impression of the effectiveness of NSA programs.”

The origins of the “54” figure go back to a House Intelligence Committee hearing on June 18, less than two weeks after the Guardian’s publication of the first story based on documents leaked by Snowden.

At that hearing, Alexander said, “The information gathered from these programs provided the U.S. government with critical leads to help prevent over 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world.” He didn’t specify what “events” meant. Pressed by Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., Alexander said the NSA would send a more detailed breakdown to the committee.

Speaking in Baltimore the next week, Alexander gave an exact figure: 54 cases “in which these programs contributed to our understanding, and in many cases, helped enable the disruption of terrorist plots in the U.S. and in over 20 countries throughout the world.”

But members of Congress have repeatedly ignored the distinctions and hedges.

The websites of the Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee include pages titled, “54 Attacks in 20 Countries Thwarted By NSA Collection.”

And individual congressmen have frequently cited the figure in debates around NSA surveillance.

  • Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., who is also on the House Intelligence Committee, released a statement in July referring to “54 terrorist plots that have been foiled by the NSA programs.” Asked about the figure, Westmoreland spokeswoman Leslie Shedd told ProPublica that “he was citing declassified information directly from the National Security Agency.”
  • Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, issued a statement in July saying “the programs in question have thwarted 54 specific plots, many targeting Americans on American soil.”
  • Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., issued his own statement the next day: “The Amash amendment would have eliminated Section 215 of the Patriot Act which we know has thwarted 54 terrorist plots against the US (and counting).” (The amendment, which aimed to bar collection of Americans’ phone records, was narrowly defeated in the House.)
  • Mike Rogers, the Intelligence Committee chairman who credited the surveillance programs with thwarting 54 attacks on the House floor, repeated the claim to Bob Schieffer on CBS’ “Face the Nation” in July.”You just heard what he said, senator,” Schieffer said, turning to Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., an NSA critic. “Fifty-six terror plots here and abroad have been thwarted by the NSA program. So what’s wrong with it, then, if it’s managed to stop 56 terrorist attacks? That sounds like a pretty good record.” Asked about Rogers’ remarks, House Intelligence Committee spokeswoman Susan Phalen said in a statement: “In 54 specific cases provided by the NSA, the programs stopped actual plots or put terrorists in jail before they could effectuate further terrorist plotting.  These programs save lives by disrupting attacks. Sometimes the information is found early in the planning, and sometimes very late in the planning. But in all those cases these people intended to kill innocent men and women through the use of terror.”
  • Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., went even further in a town hall meeting in August. Responding to a question about the NSA vacuuming up Americans’ phone records, he said the program had “been used 54 times to be able to interrupt 54 different terrorist plots here in the United States that had originated from overseas in the past eight years. That’s documented.”
  • The same day, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who sits on the Intelligence Committee, defended the NSA at a town hall meeting with constituents in Cranston, R.I. “I know that these programs have been directly effective in thwarting and derailing 54 terrorist attacks,” he said. Asked about Langevin’s comments, spokeswoman Meg Fraser said in an email, “The committee was given information from NSA on August 1 that clearly indicated they considered the programs in question to have been used to help disrupt 54 terrorist events. That is the information the Congressman relied on when characterizing the programs at his town hall.”

Wenstrup, Heck and Lankford did not respond to requests for comment.

The claims have also appeared in the media. ABC News, CNN and the New York Times have all repeated versions of the claim that more than 50 plots have been thwarted by the programs.

The NSA has publicly identified four of the 54 cases. They are:

  • The case of Basaaly Moalin, the San Diego man convicted of sending $8,500 to Somalia to support Al Shabab, the terrorist group that has taken responsibility for the attack on a Kenyan mall last month. The NSA has said its collection of American phone records allowed it to determine that a U.S. phone was in contact with a Shabab figure, which in turn led them to Moalin. NSA critic Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has argued that the NSA could have gotten a court order to get the phone records in question and that the case does not justify the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.
  • The case of Najibullah Zazi, who in 2009 plotted to bomb the New York subway system. The NSA has said that an email it intercepted to an account of a known Al Qaeda figure in Pakistan allowed authorities to identify and ultimately capture Zazi. But an Associated Press examination of the case concluded that, again, the NSA’s account of the case did not show the need for the new warrantless powers at issue in the current debate. “Even before the surveillance laws of 2007 and 2008, the FBI had the authority to — and did, regularly — monitor email accounts linked to terrorists,” the AP reported.
  • A case involving David Coleman Headley, the Chicago man who helped plan the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. Intelligence officials have said that NSA surveillance helped thwart a subsequent plot involving Headley to attack a Danish newspaper. A ProPublica examination of that episode concluded that it was a tip from British intelligence, rather than NSA surveillance, that led authorities to Headley.
  • A case involving a purported plot to attack the New York Stock Exchange. This convoluted episode involves three Americans, including Khalid Ouazzani of Kansas City, Mo., who pleaded guilty in 2010 to bank fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to provide material support to Al Qaeda. An FBI official said in June that NSA surveillance helped in the case “to detect a nascent plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.” But no one has been charged with crimes related to that or any other planned attack. (Ouazzani was sentenced to 14 years last month.) The Kansas City Star reported that one of the men in the case had “pulled together a short report with the kind of public information easily available from Google Earth, tourist maps and brochures” and that his contact in Yemen “tore up the report, ‘threw it in the street’ and never showed it to anyone.” Court records also suggest that the men in Yemen that Ouazzani sent over $20,000 to may have been scamming him and spent some of the money on personal expenses.

Published under Creative Commons licence

Further reading:
ProPublica series on surveillance

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