Thursday, June 6, 2013

Australians at risk in US electronic surveillance program

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Phone data collected to 'protect America'

Court order for the collection of telephone records of millions of Verizon customers is a renewal of an ongoing practice, says US Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Australians are likely to have been caught up in an American electronic surveillance program that allows analysts to track people's movements and contacts, a lobby group has warned.

Evidence of what may be the largest electronic surveillance operation in history – the gathering of phone and internet data of millions of US citizens - has united criticism of the Obama administration across the political spectrum, from the libertarian right to the liberal left.

They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type. 

On Thursday night the Washington Post and the Guardian reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) was obtaining logs of the internet activity and stored data of users of the nine biggest internet companies in the US, extracting audio, video, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person's movements and contacts.

The US Courthouse in Washington, where the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court resides, is seen in a parking garage safety mirror at left.

The US Courthouse in Washington, where the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court resides, is seen in a parking garage safety mirror at left. Photo: AP

The highly classified program, code-named PRISM, has not been disclosed publicly before.


The technology companies, which participate knowingly in PRISM operations, include most of the dominant global players of Silicon Valley. They are listed on a roster that bears their logos in order of entry into the program: "Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple."

PalTalk, although much smaller, has hosted significant traffic during the Arab Spring and in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Dropbox, the cloud storage and synchronisation service, is described as "coming soon".

Under fire: US President Barack Obama.

Under fire: US President Barack Obama. Photo: AP

Jon Lawrence, spokesman for online users' lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia, said it was likely that Australians' data was caught up in the NSA surveillance program, because many Australians had signed up for online accounts on US-based servers.

''Given the close working relationship between US and Australian intelligence agencies, there's also no reason not to suspect that the NSA has been sharing information gathered about Australians with Australian intelligence agencies," Mr Lawrence said.

The NSA's program was ''extremely alarming and amounts to a mass surveillance scheme which is the 21st century equivalent of the Stasi's program of mass surveillance in the old East Germany'', he added.

NSA: Telephone and internet data collected.

NSA: Telephone and internet data collected. Photo: AP

Peter Black, a senior lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology, said that if the reported details of the NSA program were correct "there would be nothing stopping the US government from conducting in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information of Australians who use those US internet firms".

"It also is unlikely that the Australian government would be aware that this was potentially happening, given that those major US internet firms are denying they had any involvement in or knowledge of this program," Mr Black said.

"However, if the Australian government was aware that this was taking place, it would need to be asked why they continued to allow such unrestricted and unsupervised surveillance of Australians to occur."

The only way individuals could be sure their data was not being monitored would be to stop relying on US firms and entrusting their personal data to them, Mr Black said.

The news followed revelations the night before that the Guardian had obtained documents detailing a secret court order giving the National Security Agency access to the phone records of customers of America's biggest phone company, Verizon. The logs would include who made phone calls, from where, to whom and for how long.

News of the phone data gathering operation prompted a scathing editorial from the New York Times declaring that the Obama administration "has now lost all credibility".

"Mr Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it. That is one reason we have long argued that the Patriot Act, enacted in the heat of fear after the 9/11 attacks by members of Congress who mostly had not even read it, was reckless in its assignment of unnecessary and overbroad surveillance powers."

Despite the criticism some members of congressional intelligence committees from both sides of the political divide supported the surveillance.

The Republican Mike Rogers said: "Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States. We know that."

"It is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress," the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, told reporters at an impromptu news conference in the Capitol. "This is just meta data. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication. … The records can only be accessed under heightened standards."

(It appears the NSA uses the ocean of information to track patterns, but applies for further legal authority if it wants to listen to specific calls.)

Senator Lindsay Graham, normally one of President Obama's most fierce critics, offered his support.

But support in Congress was not unanimous. The author of the Patriot Act, Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, said in a statement: "As the author of the Patriot Act, I am extremely troubled by the FBI's interpretation of this legislation."

"While I believe the Patriot Act appropriately balanced national security concerns and civil rights, I have always worried about potential abuses."

The court order obtained by the Guardian has revealed in startling detail how much information on its own citizens the US government is gathering.

The court order appeared to be a form document that was submitted to a secret court every three months to renew the government's legal authority to collect the data.

Applications to access the information are made by government agencies to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has no public presence.

This lead most commentators to believe that all phone records of all customers of all companies are routinely obtained and held by the NSA, and have been since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act became law seven years ago.

Amie Stepanovich, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, told Fairfax Media the vast surveillance operation was unprecedented, unlawful and probably unconstitutional. According to Ms Stepanovich the FISA act - part of a package of laws designed to be used in conjunction to the patriot act - was designed to be used to gather information to support specific investigations, and it was meant to target communications with foreign parties.

Though the administration had won the support across the aisles in Congress, the former Democratic vice president Al Gore was outraged, tweeting: "Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?"

Under Australian law state, territory and federal law enforcement authorities can access a variety of ''non-content'' data from internet-related companies, like Telstra, Optus and Google, without a warrant.

Data access is authorised by senior police officers or government officials, rather than by a judicial warrant.

During criminal and revenue investigations in 2011-12, government agencies accessed private data and internet logs more than 300,000 times.

If such data requested by a law enforcement authority pertained to a landline phone call, the data provided would not contain what was said in it but when the call was made, the parties it was between and the time and duration.

If the data requested pertained to internet access it would contain so-called ''meta data'', which could include source and destination IP addresses if such data is kept by the ISP it is being requested from.

Such data can help agencies identify, among other things, who someone was talking to and what information they were accessing online.

Last month, it was revealed that the Obama administration's Justice Department had targeted phone logs of 100 Associated Press reporters in a leak investigation, targeted another Fox News reporter after he broke stories based on government information, and that its Internal Revenue Service had targeted organisations critical of the government for extra investigations.

A career intelligence officer provided PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to the Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy.

"They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type," the officer said.

with Washington Post
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