What they mean when the government says “We do not have ‘direct’ access to your info”

Summary: Even the best journalists and national security experts have difficulty with technical stories like the recent NSA revelations. Today Marcus Ranum (bio) cuts through the government’s lies, explaining the truth behind the NSA’s tapping vital telephone and email communication systems.

These are the small ones.
These are the small ones; America’s nerves


Article deleted at author’s request.


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The revelations:


Consequences: the US government has just trashed the overseas reputation of our tech & telecom industries

Posts about these revelations, and what they show about America:

We must conquer the future, or it will conquer us




24 thoughts on “What they mean when the government says “We do not have ‘direct’ access to your info””

  1. It’s simply disgusting. Do we have a Constitution, or don’t we? Do we have a Rule of Law, or not? Are all people created equal, or are there only prisoners and wardens? One thing is certain, the lunatics ARE running the asylum now.

    1. All good questions. To which I have a simple answer.

      These are not things given by God, or Nature’s God. They are things we make so by our will, acting together, and pass on to our children so they can do the same. Should we find the burden of doing so too great, than others will govern.

      Because the nation will be governed. We will be governed, by ourselves or by others.

      None of this implies or requires lunatics, nor makes America an asylum.

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  3. A small comment on the last section, about the impact all of this will have on tech companies over seas:

    Most folks in the U.S. are not aware, but the Chinese government has launched a sustained media campaign against Apple since April. There were four or five weeks in a row where a week did not go by without a prime-time special report on Apple’s corruption, an announcement from officials that Apple had broken law x or law z, or a special editorial in the People’s Daily slamming Apple for distributing pornography or something else. It is all very reminiscent of the attacks that landed on Google before Google was kicked out of the country.

    With Google it seemed fairly obvious why – just a few months before Google disclosed that China had hacked its servers in order to access e-mails accounts of dissidents. With Apple things are a lot harder to read. There really isn’t a reason for this new found hostility, save a realization on China’s part that Apple is too entwined with the U.S. government or just too independent to further China’s national interest.

    A few weeks ago that might have seemed kind of silly. Not so now! These PRISM revelations justify that reasoning, don’t they? It makes one wonder what the Chinese know that we do not.

    How my Chinese friends have crooned. Just chatted with one yesterday – she was quite blunt. “Everybody gets upset when China spies on people, but we are not the only ones who do it. America is just as bad. We have always known that. Now you do too.”

  4. I guess the only source of comfort is that the speech-to-text algorithms probably work about as well as this speech-to-text transcription of president Obama’s inaugural address:

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  5. A little more fine-parsing of the descriptions of these systems makes me inclined to project another piece of their architecture: I’ve heard it described as the system collecting metadata and then an analyst can “task” it for more detailed collection. So here’s a hypothetical that’s in line with Drake’s disclosures of the “thin thread” system: the sniffer/sensor collects everything it can, then generates metadata from it. So, for example, an email message going past might be collected and the From:/To:/Subject:/Message-ID/IP source/IP destination/PGP key fingerprint (if any) are recorded. That information is compressed and sent “upstream” to additional analysis engines. The message itself is saved on the sensor in a round-robin database – depending on the amount of storage in the sensor, it might last weeks or months. If an analyst on the back-end decides to examine data in more detail, he “tasks” the system to retrieve the actual message, which triggers a query to the sensor to submit the entire message into the data stream.

    Drake described ‘thin thread’ as protecting citizens’ data by not collecting everything – in this case we define “collecting” as “keeping and bringing to someone’s attention.” The data is simply kept around long enough for the rest of the system to decide whether or not it matters.

    I am willing to bet a stack of donuts that’s how it works. And I’ll go a step further and point out that architecture lends itself to abuse (in spite of what Drake says) because there’s no way to tell a “tasking” operation from an “archiving” operation. Someone with, say, a great big data center in Utah, might extend that idea to the point of retrieving nearly everything and storing it then classifying the complete retrievals. The left hand has no need to know that the right hand is collecting everything – the system is designed to obscure that fact even from itself.

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  10. One thing that no one seems to have picked up is that these programs are a massive threat to US (and associated countries such as Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) national security themselves. When you have such far reaching systems and so many people having access to it (estimates vary between 500,000 to a million) then they offer very easy access by other parties to use these systems against themselves.

    For example, if I wanted to spy on the US I wouldn’t waste time setting up spy network or bugging people, I’d just simply corrupt (or blackmail, whatever) one of that million and use the US’s own systems to spy on the people, organisations, etc that I am interested in.

    I will guarantee out of that 500,000 to a milllion crowd there are many that have already been bought off (etc) by Russia, China, Israel, India, et al. Thereby turning the whole system against itself. It is also wide open to be abused by criminal elements. For example, there must be some of those people corrupted (etc) by various drug lords. There will almost certainly be some of those people, with all that access, selling information on people and organisations on the black markets right now.

    If the system is not already corrupt it will soon be. Politicians will use it to get access to information against other ones, corporations using to gain advantage over others, drug lords finding out about actions against them, blackmailers finding out things to make money from, et al. As well, what about when it is (and it will be) hacked, then all that information will be available everywhere….

    Human nature, taking a simple example, you are a low level person, making say 70,000 a year, then you find you can track (say) a politician who is a into kinky sex or cheating or their wife, well easy way to make some money isn’t it? Or if someone comes up to you and offers you (say) half a million for all the phone records of a particular person what do you think will happen? And organised crime, if it hasn’t already, will latch onto to this and use it.

    This is a system designed for total corruption.

    1. Unfortunately your forecasts about America have proven correct so far. And these warnings certainly appear correct.

      But I fear these are the almost-trivial aspects, in one sense. These things were kept secret, I suspect, because of fear. What might happen if the public learns about them? Now the public has learned about them. What if there is no reaction? I have seen nothing substantial so far. Our ruling elites will be emboldened, quite rightly, by our apathy and disinterest.

      If so, then we will be moving to the 2nd part of the downward “S” curve. The steep part.

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