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It’s Time to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love PRISM

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The other night, Jay Leno put into words the deepest fears of many in America: “See, when I was growing up, we were always afraid of Big Brother watching us. And now with Obama, we actually have a brother watching us.” Edward-Snowden-NSA-spy-scandalThe liberal side of the media – and especially that driven by my fellow progressives – are up in metaphorical arms over PRISM, an electronic surveillance program used to collect electronic data from phones or emails. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has stated that PRISM cannot be used to illegally collect data on any American citizens or people within the United States. I personally support the government’s PRISM program – I’ll go into that later – but I must admit that I don’t believe Mr. Clapper for a moment, if for no other reason than the tendency of humans, when they have been given a certain power, to put that power to use in almost every possible way, whether for good or ill. Indeed, PRISM isn’t so much a new program as it is an upgrade of existing initiatives. From the same reference:

NSA whistleblower William Binney has stated that PRISM is just another source of input of information. “The telecoms were giving NSA access to their communication lines. The Narus devices that the NSA put in different rooms around the AT&T fiber-optic network, or Verizon’s network, couldn’t collect everything. They could get most of it, but they couldn’t get it all. So in order to get all the data, they had to go to the service providers to fill in the blanks. That’s what the PRISM program is for—to fill in the blanks. It also gives the FBI basis for introducing evidence into court.”

If one follows the link, one finds that ‘Narus’ was a company founded in Israel and is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boeing, and they ramped up their surveillance capabilities after 9/11. Can anyone say “neo-con”? Anyway, The Guardian‘s revelations about PRISM dovetail quite nicely with an article that Wired magazine published early last year in which we find that the NSA is building a facility that could potentially hold a yottabyte of information; “it would be equal to about 500 quintillion (500,000,000,000,000,000,000) pages of text.” A yottabyte, by the way, is ten-to-the-twenty-fourth-power bytes – that’s a lot of data. But perhaps this is the most pertinent paragraph of the article:

But “this is more than just a data center,” says one senior intelligence official who until recently was involved with the program. The mammoth Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is also critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”

Pay attention to that next-to-last sentence: it’s not just the storage of the data, it’s the ability to crack the encryption of that data. Now take a gander at this article on ArsTechnica a couple of weeks ago:

In March, readers followed along as Nate Anderson, Ars deputy editor and a self-admitted newbie to password cracking, downloaded a list of more than 16,000 cryptographically hashed passcodes. Within a few hours, he deciphered almost half of them. The moral of the story: if a reporter with zero training in the ancient art of password cracking can achieve such results, imagine what more seasoned attackers can do…

…The most thorough of the three cracks was carried out by Jeremi Gosney, a password expert with Stricture Consulting Group. Using a commodity computer with a single AMD Radeon 7970 graphics card, it took him 20 hours to crack 14,734 of the hashes, a 90-percent success rate. Jens Steube, the lead developer behind oclHashcat-plus, achieved impressive results as well. (oclHashcat-plus is the freely available password-cracking software both Anderson and all crackers in this article used.) Steube unscrambled 13,486 hashes (82 percent) in a little more than one hour, using a slightly more powerful machine that contained two AMD Radeon 6990 graphics cards. A third cracker who goes by the moniker radix deciphered 62 percent of the hashes using a computer with a single 7970 card—also in about one hour.

Anyone who’s computer-literate is probably putting together the pieces I’ve listed above already: PRISM (and earlier, similar programs) are used to record the data which is then stored at the NSA’s facility in Utah, and the government’s best and brightest crackers go to work. And this is a good thing.

Yes, you read that right – this is a good thing.

If you, the reader, are liberal or progressive (like myself), or libertarian or wear any such stripe of political philosophy that believes in small (or next-to-nonexistent) government, your head is probably exploding. But before you start firing off digital broadsides in my general direction, hear me out.

1. Ever since ancient times, the side that had the fastest, most secure communications – whether it was smoke signals, runners, or beacon fires – held a distinct advantage in war. In WWI, a carrier pigeon was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur for flying through enemy fire to deliver a critical message. One of the more significant advantages that panzer tanks had in WWII was that their command tanks had FM radios which had longer range with much less static. Every bit as crucial was the ability to detect and decrypt those messages; indeed, allied victories in the greatest battles of the war – Kursk, Moscow, Midway, and the Battle of the Atlantic – were all largely enabled by counter-intelligence. Today there are those who want to attack America – and thanks to our past conduct I can’t say I really blame many of them – but what is crucial to their operations is the ability to communicate with each other. Likewise, it is crucial to our national well-being that we are able to detect and decrypt their communication.

In August of 2000, I was serving on board USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). Our office received a telephone threat wherein someone with a foreign voice told us that when we pulled into port in the Middle East in our upcoming deployment, we would be blown up. We were briefed on this – we all knew we would be the highest-profile target in the Eastern hemisphere – and we were ordered not to tell our families. The remaining three weeks before we departed made for a lot of sleepless nights. We pulled into Dubai in early October, made liaison with some special forces in the area who were sent there because of the threat, and four days later pulled out with a sigh of relief. Four days later the USS Cole (DDG 67) was attacked. They, not us, were the target – but that also told us that the threat was likely made by someone in a position to know of the plans.

What does this have to do with PRISM? I’m sure the government was able to track down the phone number that made the call, but if we’d had PRISM then, perhaps the government not only could have found that terrorist’s phone number but also all other phone numbers that had either called or been called from that terrorist’s phone number – and they likely could have had all this information in less than an hour. In all likelihood, the bombing of the Cole could have been averted. Not only that, but the planning for the attack was attended by one of the 9/11 hijackers – who would have thus been identified, and, by extension, all those who he communicated with could have been identified as well. In other words, PRISM, had it been in use at the time of the attack on the Cole, could have prevented 9/11 (or at least provided the CIA with much more warning evidence with which to beat George W. Bush over the head). If 9/11 had been prevented, then Bush would have had that much less of an excuse to invade Iraq, and America would not have gone through the psychosis we suffered as a nation in the 2000s. Yes, this is a lot of extrapolation and none of it can be proved – but it is quite possible.

2. The ability to record all our phone calls and emails (at least within single networks) already exists in the world’s major telecoms, and as the article from ArsTechnica shows, most encryption is easily cracked anyway, even by those with little formal training. Knowing this, it takes no great intellectual leap to realize that if we in America can do this, then so can any other significant nation, like Russia, and especially China. Have we not all seen how often China has breached even our most secure government and corporate systems over the past couple of years? Dear Reader, neither the Russians nor the Chinese are stupid – they’re at least as smart as we are. China probably has – hell, must have – their own version of PRISM, they’ve been using it for some time, and they’ve no national tradition of a right to privacy (except that of Party leaders, of course).

So those who would shut down PRISM would be doing the Information Age equivalent of getting rid of America’s nuclear arsenal at the height of the Cold War, something that sounds altruistically nice in the abstract, but in the real world would be foolish in the extreme. Regardless of what right-to-privacy fearmongers would have us believe, getting rid of PRISM would take away what is likely the government’s best tool for stopping, say, a yacht with a nuclear weapon hidden inside from pulling in to scenic places like New York City or Washington D.C. or Houston or Seattle. Perhaps Bill Maher, whom no one could ever accuse of being a right-wing lunatic, said it best:

But what tips the scale for him, Maher continued, are nuclear weapons.

“We live in a world of nuclear weapons,” he said. “And there are religious fanatics who would love to get one and set it off here…I don’t know that they would have been as absolutist about their love of privacy if there were nukes in the world,” he told the panel. “The fact that a city can be just demolished in 1 second kinda tips the scale for me. I’m not saying to look into your emails is the right thing, I’m just saying, I’m not gonna pretend it’s ’cause I’m brave; it’s ’cause I’m scared.”

Yes, Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would trade in their freedom for their protection deserve neither. Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.” But when it comes to the very real possibility of thousands – or hundreds of thousands – of lives being snuffed out in an instant by one idiot with a weapon of mass destruction, I would rather stick with Shakespeare’s quip from Henry V: “I would give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety.” Would I give up my “right” to keep my phone calls and emails private in order to prevent another 9/11, another illegal Iraq war, another Afghanistan war, another decade of right-wing lunatics and neocons running wild in Washington D.C.? Hell, yes, I would.

The man who exposed PRISM has revealed himself as Edward Snowden. It would appear that he did what he did out of a sense of patriotic altruism, and I’ll take him at his word that such is the case. In order to avoid prosecution, he and his girlfriend suddenly moved to Hong Kong, saying that he chose that city because of its “commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” An article in the New Yorker points out the burning irony:

He’s not wrong about that commitment—it’s one of Hong Kong’s most appealing distinctions—but going to Hong Kong out of devotion to free speech is a bit like going to Tibet out of a devotion to Buddhism; the people love it, though they live under authorities who intervene when they choose. On Monday Wen Yunchao, a liberal blogger in Hong Kong, wrote that Snowden has gone “out of the tiger’s den, and into the wolf’s lair.”

To me, this is not so different from what Bradley Manning did when he exposed over 750,000 documents from the Defense and State Departments and almost certainly endangered far more people than were killed in the war crime he exposed. Bradley Manning and Eric Snowden were both young men with access to far too much confidential information, and neither one really understood the very real and lasting damage they would do to America in their patriotic zeal to expose crimes by the government. Like most young men, they both saw things in terms of black and white, and never comprehended the near-infinite shades of gray in between.

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About Glenn Contrarian

White. Male. Raised in the deepest of the Deep South. Retired Navy. Strong Christian. Proud Liberal. Thus, Contrarian!
  • Victor Lana

    Glenn, while you make some salient points about the need for PRISM, I also wonder about the vast amount of collected information and how secure it will be now and in the future. How many Snowdens could be out there, some with ulterior motives (which I am sure a few people are convinced Snowden has)? I cannot shake the thought of Big Brother not only watching me but knowing when I send every email, text, or phone message. How long before storing this infomration will go to exploring it and exploiting it? Be afraid, Glenn; be very afraid!

    • Glenn Contrarian

      Vic –

      I understand what you mean – I really do. But what we should understand is that it’s not just the American government that has access to all this data, but our corporate overlords as well. AT&T has access to every bit of the information – voice, data, numbers, everything – that the government does when it comes to data that goes over AT&T networks. Same thing with Comcast and Century Link and all the rest.

      Not only that, but one of the most important points I tried to make was that the other nations almost certainly have similar programs, facilities, and capabilities…and the ability to hack into secure systems is such that China (and probably some other nations) almost certainly have nearly as much access to the data as our government does – because data transfer doesn’t recognize borders, remember.

      You might think you don’t need any protection by the NSA, but yes, you most certainly do. If you’ll think about it, the real problem about PRISM wasn’t that it exists and is in use – the real problem is the privatization of our national security, since Snowden was a low-level wonk at a private firm. Reagan was flat wrong – government isn’t the problem. We’re not living in some kind of dictatorship. The sky is not falling…no matter what the small-government types would have you believe.

      • roger nowosielski

        So have you given up on the new BC, Glenn? Haven’t seen you post a single comment on any of the threads since this here response to Victor.

  • cindy
  • bliffle

    The determined miscreant should have no problem escaping detection and keeping his personal business and dangerous messages secret. Only the clumsy and foolish are trapped by things like PRISM. Fortunately, most spies, like other criminals, are clumsy and foolish.

    The dangers are primarily in the area of false positives, where an innocent citizen is harmed by misinterpretation by naive detectors.