Friday, November 28, 2014

FELTS: Your cell phone is listening

By TOMMY FELTS, Voices From the News | 8/2/2013

A dark night has indeed fallen on America.

For those who think their lives aren’t as exciting as a Hollywood blockbuster, just look around: You’re living in the high-tech, privacy-free world of the movies. You know the place — where slick government agents employ all manner of spy gadgets to hack into global technology, pin-pointing people with the help of innocent everyday devices.

A dark night has indeed fallen on America.

For those who think their lives aren’t as exciting as a Hollywood blockbuster, just look around: You’re living in the high-tech, privacy-free world of the movies. You know the place — where slick government agents employ all manner of spy gadgets to hack into global technology, pin-pointing people with the help of innocent everyday devices.

It’s cool when they use it to catch the bad guys, right?

Consider the case of Batman’s cell phone sonar machine in the 2008 film “The Dark Knight.”

The caped crusader builds a machine that turns all the cell phones in Gotham into portable mini sonar beacon devices, bouncing signals off their surroundings and allowing Batman to “see” all across the city. The technology ultimately allows the hero to locate the film’s arch-villain, the Joker. All’s well that ends well, right?

Not so fast.

In the film, Batman’s tech support guru — Lucius Fox (as portrayed by Morgan Freeman) — objects to the machine’s use on the grounds that Batman (played by Christian Bale) is spying on the people of Gotham without their knowledge or consent. Fox notes that it’s too much power for Batman to wield and the film’s hero agrees to destroy the machine once Joker is found.

And he does.

Could we trust our government to be so conscientious with our privacy?

A new report published Thursday in the Wall Street Journal says the Federal Bureau of Investigation has developed hacking tools that allow its agents to remotely activate the microphones in cell phones running certain Google Android software to record conversations. The agency can do the same to microphones in laptops without the user knowing, according to the Wall Street Journal’s reporting.

This alarming revelation comes on the heels of numerous stories — greeted with a shrug by most Americans — detailing secret government programs and tactics aimed at spying on U.S. citizens ... all in the name of national security. The government in each case has vehemently denied targeting specific citizens and protested claims that intelligence agencies are listening to Americans’ phone calls or reading their emails.

“We do not indiscriminately sweep up and store the contents of the communications of Americans or of the citizenry of any country,” Robert Litt, National Security Administration general counsel, told PBS’ Judy Woodruff Thursday on “Newshour.” “We do collect metadata, information about communications [such as the times, lengths and locations of phone calls], more broadly than we collect the actual content of communications, but that’s because it is less intrusive than collecting content and in fact can provide us information that helps us more narrowly focus our collection of content on appropriate foreign intelligence targets.”

Obama administration officials have attempted to comfort the American people with this increasingly difficult to believe explanation, while also reassuring them that only highly qualified professionals can access any such records — and only with a warrant approved by the nation’s FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court.

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist from the Guardian newspaper who broke the NSA spying story earlier this summer, says both claims are blatantly false. He asserted earlier this week that even low-level analysts have the ability to search records without any supervisor approval, let alone authorization by the court.

“The NSA has trillions of telephone calls and emails in their databases that they’ve collected over the last several years,” Greenwald told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. “And what these programs are, are very simple screens, like the ones that supermarket clerks or shipping and receiving clerks use, where all an analyst has to do is enter an email address or an IP address, and it does two things. It searches that database and lets them listen to the calls or read the emails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories or Google search terms that you’ve entered, and it also alerts them to any further activity that people connected to that email address or that IP address do in the future.”

Other intelligence experts agree the U.S. government isn’t telling the whole story about how much information is being gathered and stored. Russell Tice, a former National Security Agency analyst, told PBS’ Woodruff that U.S. intelligence agencies are building a greater database than what is publicly being disclosed.

“Well, two months ago, I contacted some colleagues at NSA. We had a little meeting, and the question came up: Was NSA collecting everything now? Because we kind of figured that was the goal all along,” Tice said. “And the answer came back. It was yes. They are collecting everything, contents word for word, everything of every domestic communication in this country.”

That’s right.

“Word for word.”

Woodruff responded by asking Tice and William Binney, a former National Security Agency technical leader, about the Obama administration’s claims about limited analysis of citizens’ communications.

“Both of you know what the government says ... We’re collecting the number of phone calls that are made, the emails, but we’re not listening to them.”

“Well, I don’t believe that for a minute. OK?” Binney said.

“I mean, that’s why they had to build Bluffdale, that facility in Utah with that massive amount of storage that could store all these recordings and all the data being passed along the fiberoptic networks of the world,” he continued. “I mean, you could store 100 years of the world’s communications here. That’s for content storage. That’s not for metadata.

“Metadata, if you were doing it and putting it into the systems we built, you could do it in a 12-by-20-foot room for the world. That’s all the space you need. You don’t need 100,000 square feet of space that they have at Bluffdale to do that. You need that kind of storage for content.”

In the silver screen world of Batman, the “Dark Knight” uses the imminent threat of a super villain to justify his intrusion on the private lives of the Gotham’s residents.

And in the wake of this week’s revelations about the government’s spying programs at home, the U.S. issued a dramatic and widespread global terror alert Friday “warning that al Qaeda and its affiliates are planning terrorist attacks that may materialize before the end of August,” CBS News reported.

Terrorism is a real threat to Americans. It’s irresponsible and naive to think otherwise.

But there’s something else waiting for us in the dark.

It’s watching us. And listening.

Tommy Felts is managing editor for The Ottawa Herald. Email him at tfelts@ottawaherald.com

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