Magazine article The Christian Century

Being Watched: Surveillance and the Christian Community

Magazine article The Christian Century

Being Watched: Surveillance and the Christian Community

Article excerpt

IN RECENT WEEKS, revelations about government surveillance have highlighted the size and scope of U.S. intelligence operations in the post9/11 world. Initial reports from the Washington Post and the Guardian suggested that federal agencies--primarily the National Security Agency--have been using secret programs to collect information on all calls and text messages placed to or from the U.S. through Verizon phone networks (and presumably others). Likewise, the NSA appears to be accumulating information on emails, chat sessions and other online communication--with assistance from companies such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Apple.

These tech companies assert that the NSA does not have direct access to their data. Instead, they maintain that they have installed special "lockbox" servers onto which they can load specific information requested through a court order--a far smaller slice of the entire pie. Intelligence agencies can then download the material, along with instructions on how to parse what remain very large data sets. Without this assistance from the companies, the government argues, interpreting the information would take far too long to be useful.

Big tech is eager to reassure customers that the government has only limited access to personal information. Facebook, for example, has released data showing that fewer than 19,000 accounts (out of 1.1 billion total) were accessed by government agencies at any level in the second half of 2012. Closer scrutiny of leaked NSA documents seems to back up the companies' claims that government spies are able to look only at materials provided to them on the lockbox servers. At the moment, the government doesn't appear to be able to conduct blanket surveillance of electronic communications.

But reports by whistleblowers allege that the government has built special switches into the physical structure of telephone networks that allow them to drink directly from the data firehose. And public information about the workings of the NSA suggests that it is building data farms capable of intercepting, storing and deciphering all phone and online traffic in the U.S.--an enormous undertaking, and one shrouded in secrecy. The NSA appears to see its mission as part of a greater cyberwar capability that includes infrastructure defense, hacking and "cyber-kinetic" attacks such as Stuxnet, the computer worm used to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program.

Still, the NSA and other agencies are rarely interested in the actual content of phone calls or e-mails, all late-night jokes and editorial cartoons aside. Access to such specifics requires a warrant attesting to probable cause.

What government agents can access more easily is metadata: information about, say, the numbers dialed from a cell phone, when and from where. This can reveal a lot, all without listening in on a single call. A reporter's call records can pinpoint their sources for leaks. Much can be ascertained about someone's health based on the specific medical specialists he or she dials. And extramarital affairs can be exposed simply by showing where a cell phone spent the night. Online metadata can be just as revealing. In one study, researchers at MIT were able to out gay men using nothing but their friend lists on Facebook.

The ability to analyze a person's social connections has been around for a while. Not surprisingly, it's gotten more sophisticated with the rise of social media and big data. Law enforcement agencies have used such data to catch fugitives and track terrorist cells. It's how they caught Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, among others.

In repressive nations, the same techniques have been used to monitor and disrupt opposition groups. It's remarkably easy to use connections made through cell phones and social media to convince people that they're being watched 24/7. This makes dividing and conquering a snap: all it takes is a visit from the police or, even better, an anonymous e-mail or call. …

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