Your Best Secrets Worth Tracking, and Keeping

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

Saturday, June 8, 2013: The area is called Camp Williams. Its location is panoramic and beautiful, nestled as it is on rolling flinty hills with steely pastel blue mountains rising in silence against a breathtaking clear western sky. Once just desert, sand, grasses and sagebrush, the site is now the home to heavy construction and the ten thousand details which accompany large scale projects like shopping malls, hotels and tourist resorts, or massive theme parks.  Only in this case, this place has little to do with fun, tourism, or shopping.  Well, sort of.

NSA facility in UtahSomewhere along the county line which separates Salt Lake County from Utah County, about an hour drive south of downtown Salt Lake City, the National Security Administration is spending between $1.9 billion and $3.2 billion (official numbers are nearly impossible to pin down) on what will soon be the largest set of computers and file servers on earth. The purpose of these machines is straight out of science fiction or high tech action adventure stories: the government wants to track your every move. And in an age of digital interaction in nearly every aspect of our lives, these massive supercomputers, hard drives and file servers will be easily capable of building a dossier on you which will be more complete and more all-knowing than those things you think you know about yourself.

The scope and scale of the NSA project—now at the heart of bitter controversy and contention by both the left and the right—is unprecedented. Indeed, never in human history has there been a repository of such grandeur. But this is no library, and this is no public archives. Don’t make plans to drop by to borrow a copy of Moby Dick or check out Titanic on DVD. Unless you carry the right kind of badge, this place will be off limits to you.

Instead, using all available means of data collection, collation and synthesis, these massive computers will insert your every transaction, interaction and conversation into its files. Any by every, I mean quite literally every. Accompanying this week’s fanfare and outcry* about just how much data has been secretly fed to government snoopers over the last 10 years—from companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, Verizon, AT&T, Google, Facebook, YouTube and Apple—comes the cold reality that all that information, once sorted, will soon be stacked by the trillions of bits.

Movie imagery helps. Remember that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? The little fellow pushing the handcart along the path between boxes stacked to the ceiling inside a huge secret warehouse somewhere out west? Something like that—only this place will move one million times faster than that little man with the cart. Okay, so maybe that movie image lollygags. How about the HAL9000 supercomputer in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Here, in the combined visions of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, was a thinking machine whose ability to collate and manage data was very nearly total, and in its growing self-awareness and paranoia began watching and tracking the every move and facial tic of its human companions.

Am I being paranoid myself? Or am I overstating?

Look at it this way: imagine a scenario in which your every digital conversation, every tweet, every Facebook message, every phone call—and perhaps, as many investigative and technology reporters now theorize—your every credit card or debit transaction, had been quietly collected and stashed going back to as early as 2003. What sort of file can the government build on you and your family and friends?

The Utah Data Center, as it is generically called now, will be designed to manage the vast flow of precisely that information, perhaps collected but backlogged beginning as early as fall 2003. Almost entirely in secret, using little more than top secret requests and court orders under a program called PRISM, virtually every major provider of internet, wireless phones, handheld devices, email platforms, social media and search engine applications (as well as many software and computer makers) have already been feeding your activities to the NSA. Logically, some of that data may also include your online transactions—searches for books, movies and other products on Amazon or E-Bay; your search engine requests and preferences, including images and the kind of content you view or read; the data viewed, uploaded or downloaded on your smart phone or tablet device; file transfers between your computer and other hard drives; attachments to emails; correspondence between you and tech support or customer support for the products you own, including the computer or device you are using to read this article.

That such sweeping powers exist should not, in the context of the last four or five weeks of news, come as a total shock to anyone but the most naïve. Just since the end of April we have learned of the Obama administration’s easy embrace of invasiveness and snooping: IRS over-zealousness in scrutiny of political and religious activity by any organization which used the words "Tea" or "Patriot" or "Freedom"; Justice Department overreach into the phone records and contact lists of reporters; heavy-handed tracking of cell phone records of calls made to, or received from, overseas lines; and harsh retribution and prosecution of news entities for simply exposing government secrets—like the tragic and deadly circumstances of events in Benghazi during the unstable period following the death of dictator Muammar Gadhafi.

Now we learn that such a pattern has existed for years. According to new sources, the White House may have been informed of the IRS intrusions as far back as late 2010 or mid-2011. If this allegation proves correct, it undercuts the President’s official claim that he learned of the IRS’s bad behavior at the same time as everyone else—by seeing it reported on the news. Some editors and journalists now feel rightful concern that the collection of phone records by the Justice Department may be only the tail-end of something larger and more pervasive. And new revelations about security and military quick-response forces being asked to stand down during the most volatile hours of the attacks on the consulate in Benghazi seem to confirm the darkest suspicions that individuals at higher levels of the U.S. Government intervened—clumsily or blindly perhaps—to prevent a measured and prudent counteraction against the deadly assault.

Still, to many civil libertarians—on the left and the right—the matter of the NSA’s massive campaign of data collection looms larger than any other issue, and though it can be argued it is unrelated to the Obama administration’s current crop of troubles (it was, after all, implemented during the George W. Bush years and approved quietly by Congress), it can also be seen in the larger context of government overreach—regardless of party affiliation or political stripe.

The question begged is a simple one: how much information about our life do we want a secretive government agency to know? Assuming that our security is at stake, how much data is deemed sufficient by a free people to ensure safe borders and prevent an act of terror?

At the heart of the matter first is the process known as data mining. This works on the simple premise that by employing advanced search mechanisms looking for key words and key phrases—in text messages and tweets, in social media and instant messages, in emails and in cell phone conversations—the computer tools used by security experts can quickly and effectively cull those correspondences deemed suspicious and highlight them for more careful scrutiny.

But in an age in which the growth of alternative communications technologies has been dazzling, to say the least, even current computing standards and speeds have been insufficient to sort and prioritize all the information harvested in a single day. So, beginning around 2003, the government allegedly entered into secret arrangements with dozens of major companies to begin collecting the data en masse. This was done without traditional warrants or court orders, as in the program of warrantless wiretapping introduced in the Bush years. In other cases, secret and/or coerced practices were established between the NSA and companies like Google, Yahoo, Verizon, AT&T and AOL, including technological upgrades to ensure comprehensive collection of data.

This recent disclosure harkens back to the rumors which circulated in the 1970s and early 80s that IBM, NCR, Burroughs and other computer makers had knowingly allowed the NSA to foist minor alterations onto computer designs in order to give the government better access to transactions and content—especially as it related in those days to banking, finance and major newspapers. Those rumors—dismissed officially by the feds and the CEOs of IBM and other companies—would later prove largely accurate as many engineers entering retirement admitted that the government wanted to be able to outflank the encryption techniques used in business, academic and media computers.

Recent events have illuminated the scope and context of hacking and the moral complexity we now seem to face in the post-9/11 age of security versus privacy. Even as President Obama and other top officials testily defend the government’s intrusions—especially in the grand scheme of the NSA—as essentially good-guy hacking, the President must remain poised and grim as he asks top Chinese leaders to stop using the very same high-tech intrusions and thievery to obtain sensitive American technology and steal U.S. corporate property.

President Obama has recently defended the PRISM program by declaring that its purpose is not to spy on Americans. “You can complain about big brother spying,” he told reporters, “and how this is a vast program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.” Civil libertarians and traditional libertarians wince at those words. The President also added the caveat that we “can’t have 100% security and then have 100% privacy…we’re going to have to make some choices.”

Several technology company executives and spokespersons have offered explanations that range from vague to oblique, while other companies said they had no knowledge of such a program—this despite leaked documents and PowerPoint presentations by the FBI and the NSA which show precisely the full scale of quiet cooperation between the feds and companies like Microsoft, Hotmail, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Skype.

Just the other day a conservative friend asked the rhetorical question, as we sat with his wife on their sun deck sipping iced tea, “how is that we can dedicate these billions of dollars to spy on our own people—looking for key words and phrases—but we don’t have a paper trail, or a single educated grown-up who is willing to step up and take responsibility for decisions in Benghazi?” Good question.

Still, the larger question which lands in front us is a deeply important one. For the billions of dollars that will be spent by the time the massive NSA data center is complete—and the unforeseen tens of millions more after the facility begins full operations—will we be truly safer from the generalized specter of foreign terrorism?

And if so, what have we traded as a free society?

*Editor’s note: The British newspaper The Guardian revealed the day after we posted this piece that the primary source of the leaks about the extent of the NSA’s spying program was a recent CIA employee named Edward Snowden, now sought by U.S. and British authorities. Showden is belived to be in Hong Kong. Snowden apparently told The Guardian that he was willingly allowing himself to be identified despite the fact that he may very well be prosecuted by the U.S. Government for his whistleblowing.