PRISM in action?

The NSA Director walks into a bar.
Bartender: I’ve got a new joke for you.
NSA Director: Heard it.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

17 thoughts on “PRISM in action?”

  1. Amusing. Almost as amusing as, “Candidate Obama debates President Obama on Government Surveillance” (a two-minute YouTube video some wicked operative compiled, no doubt).

    N.S.A. = No Such Agency (Beltway bandit joke.)

    But seriously, is it true that nobody here has read “Secret Power” by Nicky Hager (yet)? It really is the best primer on the NSA and their capabilities, even though it is a bit dusty and dated (they do more, not less). (Thanks to the author for putting the book online as a PDF, too! I love it when they do that.)

    Even then (1996) author Nick Hager nicely outlined some of their capabilities which included, yes, listening to the content of all phone calls.

    One way government fibs on this is to allow allied intel staffers to circumvent the letter of the other countries’ laws. For example, a US staffer listens to a NZ phone call, (then hands his report to the NZ officer) to get around (the letter of) NZ privacy laws.

    I think this was one revelation from “Secret Power” among many (along with NSA’s automated dictionary key word programs, too).

    It also looks like Nicky Hager’s NSA expose “Secret Power” may be, still, a book That Shall Not Be Mentioned, in the land of the free and the home of the (cough) brave.

    The damage control themes I see floated these past few post-Snowden days seem to be limited-hangout “just the pen register info”.

    Of course, it goes way beyond that, and has for a long time, before 1996.

    Er, (looks around nervously), that is to say, I mean: no, our loving gov’t would never do that – and anyone must be paranoid to think so, and have something to hide, to boot. And even if they are, I better go along to get along.

    “Everybody’s got something to hide except me and my monkey.” – Beatles

  2. Based on today’s testimony, I’d say the joke is on us.

    It’s true there’s little that truly new, except the systematic and comprehensive nature of sweeping up everything. I’m pretty sure they can’t be trusted to not look at this info, given they trashed the Constitution and Bill of Rights to get it in the first place.

    The main issue with this going “public” — or at least being talked about again — from the NSA’s point of view is that it simply reminds those they’re targeting — and the rest of us, too, now that’s rather obvious — is that folks will start using encryption more. Why al Qaeda and those sort of folks weren’t doing this consistently already is a bit of a mystery, other than they are badly organized, trained, and led and seem to trust god to sort things out — always a dubious plan.

    It’s easy enough to vacuum up plain text and sort through it. And encryption can stick out when only the guilty are using it. Now that lots of Americans are considering what it means for their personal communications to be compromised, many more of us just plain folks who, errr, think of privacy as both a civil right and an expectation, the use of encryption is likely to pick up across the board. It’s not that the NSA can’t break most codes, but it’s a matter of time and resources. If you have a well defined target already, not too big a deal. But if you’re sifting through billions of records, many encrypted, it becomes a far more daunting prospect.

    Oh, and don’t believe for a second they aren’t listening when they so desire as well as vacuuming up metadata.

  3. As Mike said, there is little new revealed by any of the recent revelations. Living as I do on the east side of the pond I’ve known for years that Darth Cheney has listened to my every word as my Mom and I discuss the doings of her cats and the state of her arthritis. He reads my e-mails too.
    But seriously, if you didn’t know Big Brother was listening already it’s just because you really didn’t care.

  4. Hmm, I wonder if the NSA owns stocks in google, microsoft, amazon, verizon, yahoo, facebook, and other “cloud computing” companies.
    I am feeling bullish.

  5. USA United States of Arrogance As long as acts are legal/illegal in the US, it’s irrelevant whether they are legal/illegal abroad!

    Gart Valenc
    Twitter: @gartvalenc

    1. Gart,
      Thanks for the piquant observation on how this is going to help American competitiveness.

      But don’t think avoiding American digital service providers will get you off the hook of NSA surveillance. They seemed to do just fine penetrating foreign computer networks last time I checked. PRISM was simply a domestic enhancement of existing NSA foreign-target surveillance operations.It’s the fact that they’re clearly now treating Americans like we’ve treated the rest of the world for decades that is upsetting folks.

      BTW, there are those who claim this is no big deal. That’s may reflect their personal feelings on the matter, but if so it also reflects a profound ignorance of the implications for them and their lives and freedoms.

      1. Well said, Mike:

        «It’s the fact that they’re clearly now treating Americans like we’ve treated the rest of the world for decades that is upsetting folks.»

        Somebody said that the only way the US can sustain its democratic façade internally is by behaving undemocratically externally. It explains why the country that swaggers about lecturing everybody about the rule of law, democracy and human rights, is the same country that ignores international law, practices extraordinary rendition, tortures, wages illegal wars, finances mercenaries, uses unmanned drones to carry out extra-judicial killings, allows military commission and indefinite detentions, denies due process, and so and so forth.

        Make no mistake, there is nothing paradoxical, unusual or unexpected in the US behaviour: it is what dominant powers are meant to do. The Romans did it, and the British did it, too.

        Gart Valenc
        Tweeter: @gartvalenc

    2. If you look around, you’ll find that the U.S. is hardly the only country that operates with this distinction. We’re bigger, so we do it more comprehensively, but it’s true of almost every intelligence service in the world, except for those that don’t recognize any restrictions on spying on their own citizens. This is less about U.S. arrogance and more about the way that in democracies, domestic citizens have representation in the government and foreigners do not.

      1. “…except for those that don’t recognize any restrictions on spying on their own citizens.”

        I’m curious about which ones you believe that applies to, given I agree with “it’s true of almost every intelligence service in the world…” except I’d argue for dropping the almost.

        Believe it or not, within the NSA there used to be a bright line between it and domestic surveillance operations. The only exceptions were notable for the disgust they engendered among many NSA employees — once revealed — because these were deeply buried exceptions to the rule that the NSA didn’t spy on Americans unless there was a clear foreign nexus and each incident was thoroughly vetted before it was perimitted. That was when we had an implacable, resourceful enemy armed with a vast territory, plus satellite nations under its thumb, and thousands of nukes. When they stepped over the line, they ended up with FISA.

        FISA has itself degenerated, although it wasn’t ever much more than a single orange cone in the middle of a six-lane expressway of spying along with the NSA and our moral principles — all because a madman and few hundred raggedy supporters who are down to using bu**bombs proved that spending all that money is rather pointless if your existing security services are asleep at the wheel.

        The solution? Spend even more money and spy on your own citizens. You’d think they wouldn’t bother with that until they got the hang of spying on foreigners again. It’s tawdry and unjustifiable from a cost-benefits standpoint, let alone that moldy old Constitution. The important thing is when the next incident happens, political leaders will at least be able to get up and say “We did everything possible to prevent this, including spying on all of you.”

  6. I recommend Kieran Healy’s post at Crooked Timber showing how rudimentary tools of network analysis applied to simple metadata, viz. the known membership of various radical clubs in pre-revolutionary Boston, pops up the name of one central, connected person: Paul Revere.

    In comments, Tom Slee – a rated pioneering blogger in his own right – links to this public slideshow from NSA network analysts. They discuss the computing requirements for analysing Big Graphs with billions s of nodes and trillions of edges, like the whole Internet or the human brain. The authors treat this as an interesting but doable technical challenge, not an impossibility.

  7. The NSA Director walks into a bar.
    Bartender: What’ll you have? And by the way I’ve got a new joke.
    On a nearby stool Zuckerberg overhears this and says: He’s heard that joke and he like his whiskey neat.

    Across the pub, the dart match between Glenn Greenwald’s team and Ron Paul’s team stops mid-dart…
    And the players interlock arms and begin cursing the NSA Director for spying on them.
    A lot of spittle gets mixed with the peanut shells on the carpet.
    Shortly afterwards, the dart players update their Facebook pages with what just went down…

    1. Doesn’t it tickle you when you hear people ranting against the government “spying” on their Facebook pages and their phone bills?

  8. “Did you hear the one about the liberal’s reaction to massive Orwellian surveillance of the population during a Democratic administration?”


    “Massive Orwellian surveillance of the population during a Democratic administration.”

    “What’s the joke?”

    “I don’t know, but he seemed to think it was a laughing matter…”

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