Ryan Gallagher reports: In March 2011, two weeks before the Western intervention in Libya, a secret message was delivered to the National Security Agency. An intelligence unit within the U.S. military’s Africa Command needed help to hack into Libya’s cellphone networks and monitor text messages.
For the NSA, the task was easy. The agency had already obtained technical information about the cellphone carriers’ internal systems by spying on documents sent among company employees, and these details would provide the perfect blueprint to help the military break into the networks.
The NSA’s assistance in the Libya operation, however, was not an isolated case. It was part of a much larger surveillance program—global in its scope and ramifications—targeted not just at hostile countries. [Continue reading…]
Peter Koop writes: Documents recently disclosed by Edward Snowden show that the NSA’s fourth-largest cable tapping program, codenamed INCENSER, pulls its data from just one single source: a submarine fiber optic cable linking Asia with Europe.
Until now, it was only known that INCENSER was a sub-program of WINDSTOP and that it collected some 14 billion pieces of internet data a month. The latest revelations now say that these data are collected with the help of the British company Cable & Wireless (codenamed GERONTIC, now part of Vodafone) at a location in Cornwall in the UK, codenamed NIGELLA.
For the first time, this gives us a view on the whole interception chain, from the parent program all the way down to the physical interception facility. Here we will piece together what is known about these different stages and programs from recent and earlier publications. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Many of the brightest minds from the National Security Agency and GCHQ staff tire themselves out from long years of service, moving out into the comfort of the private sector.
Unsurprisingly, the security industry welcomes them with open arms. After all, who better to hand out advice than alumni of two of the most sophisticated intelligence agencies on the planet?
A young British company called Darktrace, whose technology was spawned in the classrooms and bedrooms of Cambridge University, can now boast a covey of former spies among their executive ranks. Jim Penrose, who spent 17 years at the NSA and was involved in the much-feared Tailored Access Operations group (TAO), is one of Darktrace’s latest hires.
Though he declined to confirm or deny any of the claims made about TAO’s operations, including Edward Snowden leaks that showed it had hacked into between 85,000 and 100,000 machines around the world, Penrose spoke with the Guardian about how people might want to defend themselves from government-sponsored cyber attacks. [Continue reading…]
Wired reports: Lawmakers are considering a bill that would shut off the water spigot to the massive data center operated by the National Security Agency in Bluffdale, Utah.
The legislation, proposed by Utah lawmaker Marc Roberts, is due to go to the floor of the Utah House of Representatives early next year, but it was debated in a Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee meeting on Wednesday. The bill, H.B. 161, directs municipalities like Bluffdale to “refuse support to any federal agency which collects electronic data within this state.”
The NSA brought its Bluffdale data center online about a year ago, taking advantage Utah’s cheap power and a cut-rate deal for millions of gallons of local water, used to cool the 1-million-square-foot building’s servers. Roberts’ bill, however, would prohibit the NSA from negotiating new water deals when its current Bluffdale agreement runs out in 2021.
The law seems like a long-shot to clear legislative hurdles when Utah’s legislature re-convenes next year, but Wednesday’s committee hearing was remarkable, nonetheless, says Nate Carlisle, a reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune who has waged a fight with the NSA and Bluffdale officials to determine how much water the data center is actually using. “What’s noteworthy is no one on the panel said: ‘Hey, wait a minute, we can’t do this,’” he says. “They had some specific concerns about the language of the bill, but there was no outright opposition.” [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: A little-known provision of the Patriot Act, overlooked by lawmakers and administration officials alike, appears to give President Obama a possible way to keep the National Security Agency’s bulk phone records program going indefinitely — even if Congress allows the law on which it is based to expire next year.
Senate Republicans on Tuesday night used a filibuster to block consideration of a bill to end and replace the N.S.A. phone records program. The debate about what may happen next has played out based on a widely held premise: that the legal basis for the program, Section 215 of the Patriot Act, will expire on June 1, so if Congress remains gridlocked, the program will automatically shut down.
“I believe that if we do not pass this bill, the metadata program is at risk because the 215 program sunsets next year,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, said in Tuesday night’s debate. But that premise may be incorrect. If the summer arrives and the program is facing a shutdown, Mr. Obama could invoke the provision to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to keep it going.
Several executive branch officials said the administration had not been studying that option and expressed doubt that Mr. Obama would take such a step, or that the Surveillance Court would agree to it if he tried. Still, the mere existence of a potential way for the program to keep going without congressional action could recast the debate. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked a sweeping overhaul of the once-secret National Security Agency program that collects records of Americans’ phone calls in bulk.
Democrats and a handful of Republicans who supported the measure failed to secure the 60 votes they needed to take up the legislation. The vote was 58 to 42 for consideration.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who drafted the bill, blamed what he said was fear-mongering by the bill’s opponents for its defeat. “Fomenting fear stifles serious debate and constructive solutions,” he said. “This nation deserves more than that.” [Continue reading…]
Shane Harris writes: In a meeting of senior national security officials with President George W. Bush in the spring of 2007, the commander-in-chief authorized the NSA to begin hacking into the phone and computer networks of Iraqi insurgents.
The Iraqi cell phone network was a potential intelligence gold mine. Cell phone contracts were among the first business deals struck in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was driven from power. Wireless was cheaper than wired communications, and cell phones were proliferating. The NSA had access to foreign telecommunications networks through agreements struck with the United States—based carriers that operated them. These companies were paid handsomely — each receiving tens of millions of dollars annually, according to one former company executive — to give the spy agencies privileged access to their networks and the data coursing through them….
After Bush gave his order, daily strikes in Iraq were being carried about by a hybrid military and intelligence unit that brought together soldiers and spies. Their center of operations was a concrete hangar at the Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, which had once housed Iraqi fighter jets. Most of the planes here now were unmanned drones. Their pilots worked alongside NSA hackers, FBI cyber forensics investigators, and special operations forces — the military’s elite commando squads. They all broke off into clusters, working with a seamless, almost organic precision. The hackers stole information from the enemy’s electronic devices and passed it to the analysts, who drew up target lists for the troops. As they went off on raids, the drone pilots watched overhead, giving eye-in-the-sky warning to the troops on the ground, thanks to sophisticated cameras and other sensors developed by the CIA. Sometimes the drone pilots themselves made the kill with a missile shot.
When an attack was finished, the troops gathered more intelligence from the site or from the fighters they captured — cell phones, laptop computers, thumb drives, address books, scraps of paper called “pocket litter” that might contain nothing more than a name, a phone number, or a physical or e-mail address. The troops brought the information back to the base and gave it to the analysts, who fed it into their databases and used data-mining software to look for connections to other fighters either in custody or at large. They paid close attention to how the fighters were getting money for their operations, including sources outside Iraq — in Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Every day the unit netted between ten and twenty fighters. Whole terrorist networks were illuminated in this way, by U.S. forces who were starting to think and act like their enemy. They structured themselves not in vertical hierarchies but in networks, each member responding to conditions on the ground. They were making it up as they went along, and creating a new kind of warfare. [Continue reading…]
John Naughton writes: A headline caught my eye last Tuesday morning. “Privacy not an absolute right, says GCHQ chief”, it read. Given that GCHQ bosses are normally sensibly taciturn types, it looked puzzling. But it turns out that Sir Iain Lobban has retired from GCHQ to spend more time with his pension, to be followed no doubt, after a discreet interval, with some lucrative non-exec directorships. His successor is a Foreign Office smoothie, name of Robert Hannigan, who obviously decided that the best form of defence against the Snowden revelations is attack, which he mounted via an op-ed piece in the Financial Times, in the course of which he wrote some very puzzling things.
Much of his piece is a rehearsal of how good Isis has become at exploiting social media. Its members “use messaging and social media services such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, and a language their peers understand. The videos they post of themselves attacking towns, firing weapons or detonating explosives have a self-conscious online gaming quality. Their use of the World Cup and Ebola hashtags to insert the Isis message into a wider news feed, and their ability to send 40,000 tweets a day during the advance on Mosul without triggering spam controls, illustrates their ease with new media. There is no need for today’s would-be jihadis to seek out restricted websites with secret passwords: they can follow other young people posting their adventures in Syria as they would anywhere else.”
All of which is spot-on. From the very beginning, Isis fanatics have been up to speed on this stuff. Which raises an interesting question: how come that GCHQ and the other intelligence agencies failed to notice the rise of the Isis menace until it was upon us? Were they so busy hoovering metadata and tapping submarine cables and “mastering the internet” (as the code name of one of their projects puts it) that they didn’t have time to see what every impressionable Muslim 14-year-old in the world with an internet connection could see? [Continue reading…]
Bloomberg reports: Brazil is planning a $185 million project to lay fiber-optic cable across the Atlantic Ocean, which could entail buying gear from multiple vendors. What it won’t need: U.S.-made technology.
The cable is being overseen by state-owned telecommunications company Telecomunicacoes Brasileiras SA, known as Telebras. Even though Telebras’s suppliers include U.S. companies such as Cisco Systems Inc., Telebras President Francisco Ziober Filho said in an interview that the cable project can be built without any U.S. companies.
The potential to exclude U.S. vendors illustrates the fallout that is starting to unfold from revelations last year that the U.S. National Security Agency spied on international leaders like Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Germany’s Angela Merkel to gather intelligence on terror suspects worldwide.
“The issue of data integrity and vulnerability is always a concern for any telecom company,” Ziober said. The NSA leaks last year from contractor Edward Snowden prompted Telebras to step up audits of all foreign-made equipment to check for security vulnerabilities and accelerated the country’s move toward technological self-reliance, he said. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The former director of the National Security Agency has enlisted the US surveillance giant’s current chief technology officer for his lucrative cybersecurity business venture, an unusual arrangement undercutting Keith Alexander’s assurances he will not profit from his connections to the secretive, technologically sophisticated agency.
Patrick Dowd continues to work as a senior NSA official while also working part time for Alexander’s IronNet Cybersecurity, a firm reported to charge up to $1m a month for advising banks on protecting their data from hackers. It is exceedingly rare for a US official to be allowed to work for a private, for-profit company in a field intimately related to his or her public function.
Reuters, which broke the story of Dowd’s relationship with IronNet, reported that the NSA is reviewing the business deal.
Since retiring from the NSA in March and entering the burgeoning field of cybersecurity consulting, Alexander has vociferously defended his ethics against charges of profiting off of his NSA credentials. Alexander was the founding general in charge of US Cyber Command, the first military command charged with defending Defense Department data and attacking those belonging to adversaries. Both positions provide Alexander with unique and marketable insights into cybersecurity. [Continue reading…]
Failure is success: How American intelligence works in the twenty-first century
By Tom Engelhardt
What are the odds? You put about $68 billion annually into a maze of 17 major intelligence outfits. You build them glorious headquarters. You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities. Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for… well, the salacious hell of it. Your employees even use aspects of the system you’ve created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of “spycraft” gains its own name: LOVEINT.
You listen in on foreign leaders and politicians across the planet. You bring on board hundreds of thousands of crony corporate employees, creating the sinews of an intelligence-corporate complex of the first order. You break into the “backdoors” of the data centers of major Internet outfits to collect user accounts. You create new outfits within outfits, including an ever-expanding secret military and intelligence crew embedded inside the military itself (and not counted among those 17 agencies). Your leaders lie to Congress and the American people without, as far as we can tell, a flicker of self-doubt. Your acts are subject to secret courts, which only hear your versions of events and regularly rubberstamp them — and whose judgments and substantial body of lawmaking are far too secret for Americans to know about.
You have put extraordinary effort into ensuring that information about your world and the millions of documents you produce doesn’t make it into our world. You even have the legal ability to gag American organizations and citizens who might speak out on subjects that would displease you (and they can’t say that their mouths have been shut). You undoubtedly spy on Congress. You hack into congressional computer systems. And if whistleblowers inside your world try to tell the American public anything unauthorized about what you’re doing, you prosecute them under the Espionage Act, as if they were spies for a foreign power (which, in a sense, they are, since you treat the American people as if they were a foreign population). You do everything to wreck their lives and — should one escape your grasp — you hunt him implacably to the ends of the Earth.
As for your top officials, when their moment is past, the revolving door is theirs to spin through into a lucrative mirror life in the intelligence-corporate complex.
Quinn Norton: “It’s called ‘the crackpot realism of the present’” someone said to me, and handed me a note. I folded up the note, and stuffed it in my purse. This was a phrase used to explain, much more clearly than I was doing at the time, the bias of thinking that now is right, forgetting that the future will look back on our ideas with the same curious and horrified amusement we watch the human past with. It’s believing, without any good reason, that right now makes sense.
The present I was in right then didn’t make a lot of sense.
I was sitting in a cleared facility near Tyson’s Corner in Virginia, the beating heart of the industrial-military-intelligence-policing complex, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. I was there to help the government. Of the places I did not expect to ever go, at least not of my free will, the ODNI would be up there.
A few weeks ago, a friend from the Institute for the Future [IFTF] asked me if I would fly to DC for a one day workshop on the future of identity with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “What?” I sputtered, “Did they google me?” and then, mentally: Duh. The ODNI can do a lot more than google me.
I knew IFTF had intel clients, with whom I have occasionally chatted at events in the past. My policy when confronted with spooks asking questions about how the world works is to give them as much information as I can — one of my biggest problems with how security services work is their lack of wisdom. If I can reach people in positions of power and persuade them to critically examine that power, I consider that a win. I also consider it a long shot.
An invite from the ODNI is a strange thing. I’ve been publicly critical of them, sometimes viciously so. A few days earlier I tweeted that their director should be publicly tried for lying to Congress. I’ve written about the toxicity of the NSA spying (under ODNI direction), the corrupt fictions of Anonymous staged by the FBI (FBI/NSB is within ODNI’s area) and spoken out countless times in the last eight years against warrantless spying. I have even less love for the FBI and DOJ.
I turned the offer over in my head. I was influenced by a few things –yes it was paid, but not well paid. It was what I normally get from IFTF for a day of my time, and given the travel commitment, a bit low. I weighed the official imprimatur of involvement, and that was a factor. I am afraid of being pursued and harassed by my government. This has never happened to me in relation to my work, though I have been turned down for housing by people who feared I might bring police attention. It has to my friends, sources and associates. I know what it feels like, what they do when you’re a target, because I have been subject to terrorizing tactics and harassment because of whom I chose to love. I have publicly acknowledged that I self-censor because of this fear. I have a child to raise, and you can’t do that while you fight for your life and freedom in court. Raising my profile with the government as an expert probably makes me harder to harass.
I told my IFTF contact I don’t sign NDAs (which he already knew) and that I’d have to be public about my attendance and write about it. He told me they were publicly publishing their work for the ODNI too. “Huh,” I said to my screen. The organizers were on board with all of it. They wanted me in particular.
Finally, I thought about the hell I would get from the internet — like government harassment, internet harassment is part of the difficult and hated process of self-censorship for me.
In the end, I said yes, because you only get so far talking to your friends. [Continue reading…]
In “The most wanted man in the world,” his feature article for Wired on Edward Snowden, James Bamford writes: The massive surveillance effort was bad enough, but Snowden was even more disturbed to discover a new, Strangelovian cyberwarfare program in the works, codenamed MonsterMind. The program, disclosed here for the first time, would automate the process of hunting for the beginnings of a foreign cyberattack. Software would constantly be on the lookout for traffic patterns indicating known or suspected attacks. When it detected an attack, MonsterMind would automatically block it from entering the country — a “kill” in cyber terminology.
Programs like this had existed for decades, but MonsterMind software would add a unique new capability: Instead of simply detecting and killing the malware at the point of entry, MonsterMind would automatically fire back, with no human involvement. That’s a problem, Snowden says, because the initial attacks are often routed through computers in innocent third countries. “These attacks can be spoofed,” he says. “You could have someone sitting in China, for example, making it appear that one of these attacks is originating in Russia. And then we end up shooting back at a Russian hospital. What happens next?”
In addition to the possibility of accidentally starting a war, Snowden views MonsterMind as the ultimate threat to privacy because, in order for the system to work, the NSA first would have to secretly get access to virtually all private communications coming in from overseas to people in the US. “The argument is that the only way we can identify these malicious traffic flows and respond to them is if we’re analyzing all traffic flows,” he says. “And if we’re analyzing all traffic flows, that means we have to be intercepting all traffic flows. That means violating the Fourth Amendment, seizing private communications without a warrant, without probable cause or even a suspicion of wrongdoing. For everyone, all the time.”
As I have written here before, as much as we should fear the immense power of intelligence agencies such as the NSA, it’s important to recognize that secrecy does not merely function as an instrument of power — just as importantly it functions to conceal incompetence.
The agencies want to sustain their mystique as the valiant and stealthy defenders of national security. What they dread is being seen as over-funded bunglers.
On November 29, 2012, the internet went down in Syria. The following day, the Washington Post reported:
Though the rebels and the Syrian government blamed each other for the prolonged outage, most technology experts believe Syrian authorities caused the blackout to try to impede the rebels’ interactions and online broadcasts of the fighting.
More honest reporting might have said, it’s anyone’s guess what happened, but for what it’s worth here’s some speculation from some so-called experts.
It turns out, apparently, that the experts were wrong and the cause of the outage was a bungled NSA operation.
James Bamford has just done an extended interview with Edward Snowden which includes this:
By the time he went to work for Booz Allen in the spring of 2013, Snowden was thoroughly disillusioned, yet he had not lost his capacity for shock. One day an intelligence officer told him that TAO — a division of NSA hackers — had attempted in 2012 to remotely install an exploit in one of the core routers at a major Internet service provider in Syria, which was in the midst of a prolonged civil war. This would have given the NSA access to email and other Internet traffic from much of the country. But something went wrong, and the router was bricked instead—rendered totally inoperable. The failure of this router caused Syria to suddenly lose all connection to the Internet—although the public didn’t know that the US government was responsible. (This is the first time the claim has been revealed.)
Inside the TAO operations center, the panicked government hackers had what Snowden calls an “oh shit” moment. They raced to remotely repair the router, desperate to cover their tracks and prevent the Syrians from discovering the sophisticated infiltration software used to access the network. But because the router was bricked, they were powerless to fix the problem.
Fortunately for the NSA, the Syrians were apparently more focused on restoring the nation’s Internet than on tracking down the cause of the outage. Back at TAO’s operations center, the tension was broken with a joke that contained more than a little truth: “If we get caught, we can always point the finger at Israel.”