All Your Message Are Belong To US
We learned last week, on the May 1 edition of CNN’s Out Front with Erin Burnett, that our government has been spying on all of us for years. In the relevant portion of the transcript, former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente tells us so matter-of-factly that he almost seems surprised that we didn’t already know:
BURNETT: Tim, is there any way, obviously, there is a voice mail they can try to get the phone companies to give that up at this point. It’s not a voice mail. It’s just a conversation. There’s no way they actually can find out what happened, right, unless she tells them?
CLEMENTE: “No, there is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. It’s not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her. We certainly can find that out.
BURNETT: “So they can actually get that? People are saying, look, that is incredible.
CLEMENTE: “No, welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.”
At this point I don’t see any harm in discussing it, though I’ve known about this for longer than I’d care to admit. One of the difficult aspects of working in the security realm is that I hear many things from many sources, and quite a few of them involve topics I can’t (or won’t) divulge to others. So it is in this case.
But now that the cat is out of the bag, it’s worth looking at this a bit more thoroughly.
Once you know that all of our telephone conversations are being recorded (and who knows what else is being done with them), it almost seems quaint to worry about “IMSI catchers”, which are used by the government to perform man-in-the-middle attacks on all cell phones within range. Why, in fact, would IMSI catchers be used when everything is recorded anyway?
Because IMSI catchers can be used with search warrants, which allows the evidence collected to be used in court. The sorts of collection and storage referred to by Clemente cannot. Of course, law enforcement agencies can (and do) use evidence collected through such means as a “hint” as to where to get evidence that can be used, as long as they can produce a plausible explanation for how they managed to find the evidence.
Yet the courtroom is one of the least interesting uses of information collected from our telephone calls, text messages, and emails (all of which are in that magical data warehouse). J. Edgar Hoover figured out a much better use: blackmail. Everyone has skeletons in their closets…something that we’d rather the world at large, or certain people in particular, not to know. What better way to build a dossier on one’s political enemies than to know everything they’ve said on any phone call, text message, or email? And, unlike Richard Nixon’s CREEP, one doesn’t need to conduct any third-rate burglaries to get the info.
There’s more that I can’t share, naturally, but here are a few tidbits that I can tell you.
I’m pretty sure that not all digital communications are tracked. Not because the government doesn’t want to, and not because it isn’t trying to, but rather because it cannot…quite. Communications that are encrypted end-to-end, with identity validation on both ends and sufficiently complex encryption, cannot be viewed by the government. There are tools available that provide this level of encryption, though the parties on both ends must use it.
At one time, Skype had such end-to-end encryption. I honestly don’t know whether it still does. At the very least, people in China must use a version designed to allow the Chinese government to monitor the communications. It’s possible that the same applies in the United States for the version supplied by Microsoft. I wish I had the confidence to say that the Microsoft version does not have a decryption backdoor, but I just don’t know. Nor would I be able to find out.
Even in cases where we use end-to-end encryption on our computers, it is not only possible, but trivial, for our government to plant spyware on all of our computers. That’s not to say that it is happening today; I have no knowledge one way or the other about that. But it’s possible. And, as Tim Clemente disclosed, as long as it’s possible it eventually becomes not only probable, but certain, that it’s happening.
It’s shameful that we have a government that blatantly violates the Bill of Rights in this way. And it’s shameful that the Supreme Court is indemnifying them from such violations, as long as they aren’t directly used in criminal proceedings. Sure, I don’t think that most of us are at risk, under our current leadership, by such practices. But that merely means that we are beholden to the benevolence of our leaders. Our Constitution was designed explicitly to not require us to be beholden to the benevolence of our leaders. In fact, it’s written more like the X-Files mantra, “Trust No One”.
Benjamin Franklin is believed to have said, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” When we as a nation become complicit in this sort of behavior, we are demonstrating ourselves to be worthy of neither Liberty nor Safety. And we are surely destined to get what we deserve.
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