The New Scandal Brewing

When the news of the White House/NSA wiretapping scandal hit the front pages, there was a public backlash. Pundits’ heads spun, lawsuits were filed, and congressional hearings were scheduled. When Alberto Gonzalez testified he told us that the programs had ended and gave us his word that no new programs would be authorized without FISA approval, “scouts honor.” Now we had Gonzalez “promise” that our telephones would not be unconstitutionally tapped, but to make sure we couldn’t do anything about it, Congress passed immunity laws for telecommunication companies who had allowed our private conversations to be monitored.

Many had questions about how the NSA had operated the program. When whitsleblower Mark Klien, a former AT&T employee, revealed schematics he uncovered detailing the system at an AT&T office, we saw just how the system was structured. Klien was just a contract worker for AT&T when he first became suspicious. He noticed a room being built with a large amount of cables leading into it, yet no one in the office knew what is was being used for, nor did they have access to it. It turned out that the NSA had constructed the room to route all traffic into it. The data was then funneled through a data crunching system designed to scan everything coming in and pull data out that was flagged by a set criteria created by the NSA.  So to boil it down, all your calls went into an NSA secret room where keyword software would initiate recordings. Now you know why AT&T needed lawsuit protection: otherwise their entire consumer base would have a case against them.

Supposedly this has been halted, though the Obama administration has come out in support of this program. Without this large souce of “intelligence,” our intelligence community has come up with a new way to monitor communications. Recently the investment arm of the CIA known as In-Q-Tel has sunk a large chunk of money into the software company Visible Technologies, which specializes in monitoring social networking sites. The system works similarly to what the software that the NSA had employed with the wiretapping scandal.

Visible crawls over half a million web 2.0 sites a day, scraping more than a million posts and conversations taking place on blogs, online forums, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon. (It doesn’t touch closed social networks, like Facebook, at the moment.) Customers get customized, real-time feeds of what’s being said on these sites, based on a series of keywords.

The difference between this program and the one conducted under the NSA is that the information is in the public domain. Your photos that you have uploaded, the tweets you post, the blogs you write are already free domain for anyone to read/view. The CIA just wants to monitor and collect them to create profiles on “possible threats.” Of course, this is being sold to us as a way to monitor “foreign traffic” and will not be used to monitor U.S. Citizens. But as with the NSA program, which was sold in the exact same way, how can we trust that the CIA will not follow in the NSA’s footsteps and turn this program inward? With the DHS announcing that now just about about anyone is a possible terrorist, what gurantee do we have that the information used by this new CIA software won’t be focused on us? As the past has shown us, if there is the capability for the government to abuse their power, they typically do.

Anything that is out in the open is fair game for collection,” says Steven Aftergood, who tracks intelligence issues at the Federation of American Scientists. But “even if information is openly gathered by intelligence agencies it would still be problematic if it were used for unauthorized domestic investigations or operations. Intelligence agencies or employees might be tempted to use the tools at their disposal to compile information on political figures, critics, journalists or others, and to exploit such information for political advantage. That is not permissible even if all of the information in question is technically ‘open source.’

As shown in this quote, some people already expect it to happen. But if you’re not doing anything wrong you’ve got nothing to worry about…right?

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