Triangulating On Truth – The Totalitarian State

The Guardian breaks a big story yesterday – a court document authorizing the FBI and NSA to secretly collect customer phone records. All of them, for all Verizon customers.

Then today the Washington Post breaks an even bigger story – a leaked presentation stating that the NSA is “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies” to collect information on users. The project is code-named PRISM.

These are the huge repositories of user information from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple. Dropbox, we’re told, is “coming soon.” Twitter is noticeably absent.

Then the counter stories – most of the companies mentioned in the NSA presentation have denied that the NSA has access to their servers. And people are pointing out that the Verizon order doesn’t include actual phone conversations, just the metadata around those conversations.

On the WP story, that means one of these things must be true:

1. The NSA presentation is fake and the Washington Post got duped, or

2. Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Apple, etc. are lying, or

3. The presentation is real, and the companies are carefully drafting responses so that they aren’t technically lying.

I believe the third option above is truth.

The denials are all worded too similarly and too specifically:

Comparing denials from tech companies, a clear pattern emerges: Apple denied ever hearing of the program and notes they “do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers and any agency requesting customer data must get a court order;” Facebook claimed they “do not provide any government organisation with direct access to Facebook servers;” Google said it “does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data”; And Yahoo said they “do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network.” Most also note that they only release user information as the law compels them to.

How else could these companies be supplying the data? Easy, by simply sending a copy of all data to the NSA. Verizon’s court order, for example, required that they send call data daily.

The companies sending the data have both immunity from prosecution and are also prohibited from disclosing that the NSA has requested or received the data.

The truth of what’s going on becomes obvious.

The U.S. government is compelling companies to turn over all personal information of users to the NSA. They have immunity for this, and they are absolutely prohibited from admitting it.

The result is a massive NSA database that includes information about everything we do online, and everything we do offline that has any online ghost (checkins, photos, etc.).

If twenty years from now the government wants to listen to my phone calls from today, they’ll be able to, because they’re all being stored. Or see who I voted for, or who I associate with. A simple AI can parse all this and profile me. And a hostile government, intent on attacking political enemies, can target me (or anyone).

If you missed this story from May read it now. Former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente says that the U.S. government already has the ability to listen to past phone calls:

CLEMENTE: “No, there is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. It’s not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her. We certainly can find that out.

BURNETT: “So they can actually get that? People are saying, look, that is incredible.

CLEMENTE: “No, welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.”

That’s why Mathew Ingram is totally correct when he says that we desperately need “a stateless repository for leaks” (such as WikiLeaks) to have any chance of fighting back.

But what I would like to see right now is for people at these internet companies to stand up and say the truth, all of it, about their dealings with the NSA.

It doesn’t matter if it’s the CEOs or lower level employees. It can be anonymous or on the record. Unless that Washington Post presentation is a fraud, then a lot of people in Silicon Valley know what’s going on, or parts of what’s going on. They have a duty to stand up to the government, and their employers, and tell the world the truth.

Because right now it certainly looks to me like we’re living in a totalitarian state. And the amount of control that state has over all of us, through intimidation and fear, will only grow over time.

Now is the time to stand up and talk, and be a hero.

Or not, and be complicit.

For my part, I don’t give a damn that Senator Feinstein and others in our government say that this is “called protecting America.”

It doesn’t, it’s Orwellian and it kills liberty and freedom on a scale never seen before. It’s not a way to stop terrorism. It IS terrorism.

The courts are allowing this. The government loves this. The only ones left to oppose it are us.

65 thoughts on “Triangulating On Truth – The Totalitarian State

  1. Chad says:

    Thanks for this piece Michael.

    It’d be interesting to get Dick Costolo’s opinion on this… if this is all true, he must be hounded by the NSA for not being included in this operation.

  2. Chad Huber says:

    Thanks for this piece Michael.

    It’d be saddening to learn that these companies – all of whom I trust more than the government – would be deceiving us in this way.

  3. Aaron says:

    “Because right now it certainly looks to me like we’re living in a totalitarian state.” Well, I have to disagree with you there, based on a some common historical definitions of totalitarian states, namely that a totalitarian state holds all authority over society and seeks to control lives private as well as public. We aren’t there in the United States yet. Of course, “yet” is the key word as apparently we are on a slippery slope and going down fast. It’s also important to keep in mind that there is a vested interest at stake that wants this to occur that spans ‘partisan lines’ as they relate to the two major parties.

    • Peter Hershberg says:

      Well, I kind of agree with on this point, only because the structure we’re living under isn’t classic totalitarianism, it’s more accurately described as “inverted totalitarianism.”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverted_totalitarianism

    • I think it’s an exaggeration to say we are living in a totalitarian state, but this kind of program by the Federal Government would certainly be near the top of my wish list if I were going to institute a dictatorship. Imagine what Nixon would have done with this kind of a program. Then ask yourself how long you think it will be until the next Nixon gets elected. There are a number of people who worry that “the next Nixon” is in the White House right now.

  4. ajf says:

    Sorry, but weren’t you calling for 2nd Amendment infringements a while back? You know, for the children…

    The Constitution is not à la carte.

    • actually, it is. amendments can be changed or overturned, as we’ve done multiple times in the past. if you’d like to propose a change to the 1st amendment, you are certainly welcome to…

      • ajf says:

        Non sequitur. Amending is not the same as violating.

        The Constitution is a simple, unambiguous document. It may be hard to tell given that successive generations of utterly corrupt people in government (all branches, since, at least, the 1930′s) have tried to obscure that simple truth. However, anyone with a basic understanding of the English language and even a modicum of reason can understand what it says, just by reading it…

        • Aaron says:

          The constitution is a simple, unambiguous document? You might want to read transcripts of the Constitutional Convention debates, both in Philadelphia and in the state legislatures. The founding fathers own words disagree.

        • Simple? Maybe. Unambiguous? Not by a long shot. Check out the “necessary and proper” clause. It’s hard to get more vague than that, hence the need for a simple and straightforward Bill of Rights.

  5. Marty Duren says:

    “It’s not a way to stop terrorism. It IS terrorism.”

    Great line.

  6. Michael, this post mirrors exactly what I have been saying today. I am heartened to see someone of your calibre taking a public stand like this.

    Change starts with we the people.

  7. Dave Winer says:

    This is a remarkable and good piece Mike, esp because the people you’re talking about are almost certainly your Silicon Valley friends, or people you probably would like to be friends with. Thanks for telling the story anyway, even though it’s certain to piss a lot of people off.

  8. well said mike. we need to shine a light on this.

  9. Sumit says:

    Too late mate! Govt.(s) US and at least Indian (as per the ICMS information available publicly), got the internet infrastructure by it’s balls.

    So setting up something like Wikileaks is going to be impossible! Only thing left is to take the ‘defeatist’ stance saying I’ve got nothing to hide so ‘f*** u govt.’

    But, I do agree that Govts. worldwide use terrorism as a pretext to do this which is in turn terrorism itself!

    Now I’ll go back and put my tinfoil hat on, at least I have my thoughts to myself (for now).

  10. As a nation- conceived in liberty from oppressions- this is an almost inconceivable deception and disregard for our most sacred liberties. For anyone to argue that this shadowy practice should stand on the shaky leg: “if one terrorist incident is thwarted, the ends justify the means” is shameful and misunderstands America, the adjective. We should remember: history teaches us that great nations fall- not from a bomb- but from the rising amplitude of vociferation reaching a resonant frequency

  11. Pete says:

    I find it sad/funny that even to comment on this blog post, I need to use my email address.

    • Shane J. says:

      That’s ok the government probably has you post before it gets here.
      They have your ip address, mac address and through that probably know who you are. An email address just makes it easier is all.

    • I was going to comment on Google’s denial in the vein of this blog but to do so I had to set up Google+ (which I hadn’t done yet) and then to use the name I wanted, I would have had to provide documentation of my identity. Under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have hesitated, but we now know Google is at best a tool of the oppressors. No thanks. WordPress is already established and doesn’t represent any new disclosures (though I am using Chrome to post).

  12. Well, while we’re trying to dig our way out of an Orwellian nightmare, can we figure out why that friend-of-the-boston-bomber died under such mysterious circumstances? Or maybe figure out why armed men were going door to door in Watertown, searching houses without warrants, while an entire city was on “lockdown”? Or why the FBI has a well-known history of setting up young loner Muslim guys?

    These are puzzling questions.

    Can a totalitarian way of living just ‘slip’ into being? It seems like it’s possible. But it’s up to the press and individual bloggers to investigate and show the way out. Mobilization of the public seems like it’s only possible when a story like this goes viral. If The Guardian was the only one to publish the NSA doc, it may have sparked little outrage. Isn’t that scary?

    When the press works together in inaction, it can stifle change. When they work together to expose truth, it can create change.

    Now, to get people thinking outside of blue or red, conservative or liberal. Partisan politics has spurred the apathy of a nation. It’s no wonder we’ve forgotten who we are as Americans.

  13. tonia says:

    What a great (and necessary) post. This is why so many are opposed to universal background checks on firearms. Once you have a database of names and what they own, it becomes all too easy to simply come and take them away, effectively circumventing constitutional rights in the name of eliminating “terrorism”.

    Being a young (half) Black American, I’ve never feared my government the way my parents & grandparents did. But with PRISM, I can understand some of the fear they must have felt.

  14. Max Beggelman says:

    I’ve seen another interpretation from a TPM reader suggesting that the data was taken directly, but that a big-data contractor like Palantir was contracted to do the actual connection and data gathering, which they forwarded to the government. All the responses emphasize that they provided no “direct” server access to a “government” agency or organization, but there are plenty of ways in which a middleman could have been involved, and plenty of ways to transmit the data that didn’t include direct access.

  15. How can such an attack on the Fourth amendment be allowed to stand?

  16. Pete Rooke says:

    The NSA docs were published simultaneously by Guardian and Post. Both had them.

  17. Joe says:

    Microsoft and Dropbox’s denials are worded differently than the rest:

    Microsoft:

    “We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don’t participate in it.”

    Also, I am having trouble finding it now, but Google gave a second statement to one of the tech sites I was reading when that site asked them if they just didn’t know the name, but were actually providing a portal of API to the information. They said they didn’t take part in any program like that under any name.

    I presume more information will be coming out about all of this, because it is really weird to have an authenticated slideshow for a program that both the government and companies involved deny actually exists.

  18. Kathryn Adams says:

    You are right this could be abused in the future. There is a fine line here. However I am more concerned what businesses use with my private info than the government. Business sell my info and yours. The businesses do not care what thief they sell to, as long as they pay their price. Pick the important battles first. There is a bigger picture here
    Be sure that we don’t win the battle, but lose the war…Food for thought!!!

    • InsaneDreamer says:

      “businesses do not care what thief they sell to, as long as they pay their price”

      governments don’t care about collateral damage as long as the end justifies the means

      I’m not too sure one is worse than the other.

    • Since the Government has an Army and Air Force, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the government is a bigger threat than Google selling my profile to spammers (as awful as that would be). I say this is the more important battle that needs to be prioritized.

  19. The companies denied even knowing what Prism was… so either the NSA has a second name they use with the companies , their spokespeople weren’t informed (probable) or they just lied (I find that more difficult to believe)

  20. David says:

    I think they will use the obtain information to find Tea Party members.

    • Or the next president might use it to obtain information about Occupy members. Every government has people they wish would just shut up and any government with this kind of power is going to be tempted to use it, whether it’s just low level members in the Cincinnati Office or the guy in the Oval Office or anyone in between. Ask yourself this question: What Would Nixon Do?

  21. There is a fourth possibility: that the companies participating *don’t know* they are participating.

    Imagine if NSA managed to get some of its people on staff at those companies as senior engineers. Or if they managed to “turn” existing engineers there into exploitable intelligence assets, either voluntarily by appealing to their patriotism, or (if that doesn’t work) with bribery or blackmail. Those engineers would be in a very good position to give the NSA its backdoor without management ever knowing about it.

    How many consumer-oriented tech companies are operating at a security level where they would be able to recognize and identify a sophisticated, well-funded nation-state intelligence operation carried out in part by their own people? Even defense companies get penetrated in such ways sometimes, and security is a much deeper part of their culture than it is of SV’s.

    I have no idea if this is actually how PRISM has been operating; it just seems like a valid possibility, given the confusion the companies are expressing and the way intelligence agencies frequently work.

  22. alex says:

    Great read. If anyone wants to know about whatelse they’re doing. Wired wrote a story on complex they’re building to store all of this about a year ago. It’s a lot more than phone calls and social network data. Super computers and much much more. Here’s the link: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/

  23. I am totally disgusted. This is in fact worse than terrorism!

  24. This is a very important post. It will piss off a lot of SV people probably but the truth or strong articulated rebuttals need to come out. Btw, I do not think Twitter is included as the vast majority of Tweets are public anyway.

  25. DmitryM says:

    Um , when did everyone turn into a hippie? What’s next, everyone gonna cry and whine because “Google reads all your email messages” ??

    Grow up people. U want to live in the wealthiest society on this planet, be ready for stuff like this.

    • The same argument could be made against the American Revolution in 1776. Me, I think the “hippies” who signed the Declaration of Independence and worked out the compromises that became our Constitution and Bill of Rights had the right idea.

  26. tudobeleza says:

    Instead of a war on terror, it’s a war of terror (by the gov’t, on the people). Just a one letter difference. It’s been this way since the start, today’s news didn’t bring it upon us. Before, the bad guys were within foreign borders, today, the terrorist could be sitting next to you.

  27. Thank you for this, Michael. Here’s a chest bump, ’cause I know you don’t shake hands.

  28. I think this is right on the money. Thanks for saying it. The big question for all of us is what we do now, and you hint at some very good ideas. We do have to act.

  29. JamieD says:

    The reality is they do not even need access to those companies to get at that data. All you need is a backhoe and to know where the fiber paths are. A fiber tap is a much easier way to get the data AND for the said “9 largest internet companies” in the world to “not” supply the data that the govt is in fact getting.

  30. This is the greatest article I’ve read about the issue. Congrats. And now it’s time to act.

  31. This is the best article I’ve read about the issue. Congrats. And now it’s time to act just like we did with SOPA/PIPA… unless Washington Post, Guardian and whistleblowers from NSA are not telling the truth.

  32. Ray Cromwell says:

    You think it is feasible for Google to mirror copies of their entire datacenters to the NSA? This sounds like a pretty poor theory.

    How about these explanations:

    Either
    1) NSA has spies who got employed at this companies and had them install backdoors

    or

    2) PRISM is the government’s automated National Security Letter clearing house app. You type in what you want, it sends a snail mail threatening letter to Google or Facebook. If they comply, the information is enabled for fetching, and the PRISM app copies it back into the NSA database. No widespread “grepping” of yottabytes of private user data. Essentially equivalent to a wiretap without a warrant.

    Could this all be just a scary sounding name for a lame in-house partner / legal request intranet app?

  33. Dale Larson says:

    Mike, this may be your best post ever. Kudos. I hope it helps someone to step forward in sharing more truth, and unraveling this mess. Who knows, it may just be a net positive uniting a larger force than any political party to stand for basic human rights and freedom.

  34. “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” —Benjamin Franklin

  35. MrXOrange says:

    NSA having backdoors is not new, anyone remember the Windows’s NSAKEY story back in 1999?

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/NSAKEY

  36. zato says:

    “It’s not a way to stop terrorism. It IS terrorism.”

    Or maybe it’s BS, and it’s the click-whoreing bloggers and tech websites that are the terrorists. And maybe it’s intentional propaganda, lies generated by someone who gains if the present US government is discredited.

    • Well, since it’s been all but confirmed by everyone from the President on down, denials from the companies notwithstanding, I’m pretty comfortable working on the assumption that it’s real. Next Steps: Call my Congressman and Senator, find people to run against them, and/or run myself.

  37. Tim Green says:

    This is a failure of checks and balances: If the Mafia got to define what is legal everything they do would be technically within the law as well. We need to figure out a better way to bell the cat.

  38. Capt Black says:

    Can we have a Kickstarter project to acquire Plantir? …and secondly why aren’t we promoting ways to make the NSA’s job harder, like TOR and .onion sites?

  39. Dzil-priceaz says:

    The repercussions of the Totalitarian State is already evident in our ,States, like Arizona Politically. The misperceptions and deceptions are made total and complete, it is beyond complicit or Orwellian. It’s occurring in real time is the/its greatest success and secrets. Too big to fail– patriot acts! Patriot(p)(r)ism. The great continuum, obstruction, imprisonment of Privacy, Liberty, Freedom, Speech, and Constitution by traitors and cowards ultimately. Thank you! For your forthrightness! Vigilance!

  40. Justin says:

    So if this is true, why didn’t the government get orders for ALL phone companies instead of just Verizon? Wouldn’t the bad guys just switch to some provider not being monitored?

    Also, who really makes such an amateurish PowerPoint presentation, or is that typical for government workers?

  41. Dzil-priceaz says:

    There is a local, domestic, national pattern absolutely! The tracks footprints are all traceable and current history. Pre- post 9/11

  42. Tan Man says:

    I still have a copy of my first email and the response, exchanged in the early 90s. From that moment on, I knew “See-Through Man” had finally evolved: NO MORE SECRETS. Once you signed up for an email account, a facebook account or even logged into a computer (like a smart-phone, for example) connected by a wire or IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence (WiFi) to routers, servers and remote storage devices, you made a decision to go public.

    The so-called “Cloud” or the “Dropbox” are simply storage facilities featuring banks of hard drives that hold and “serve” data on demand. Similar to the baggage claim at the train station or the luggage hold of an airplane, the data on those wires and on those hard drives is yours just like the stuff in your suitcase is yours. BUT: an authorized person can make a decision to open your suitcase in the train station or on the plane if they’re looking for something that might endanger others. An authorized person can even search your pockets if you have been targeted as a public risk.

    The INTERNET is therefore about as safe a place to store personal data as a suitcase is a safe place to store diamonds. Obviously, an UNAUTHORIZED person might also find ways to access your data in the Cloud or your diamonds in that suitcase. My point is: it’s too late to cry about spilt milk when you yourself started spilling it by the bucket the moment you connected to the Internet the first time. My other point is that you have as much right to any data you share over wires or WiFi as you have to the junk you keep in the trunk of your car or the words you speak into a telephone. Your car or your telephone could be stopped or tapped at any time by a cop or a criminal and its contents used against you.

    Totalitarianism has been a fact of life on Earth since the first census was taken in Egypt more than 5000 years ago. If you want a little more control, control yourself and stop sending emails, stop chatting and stop posting your status. You could, of course, make real friends and just talk…

  43. Irony. To keep communications secure use pen and paper and the US mail (no encryption required).

  44. Steve Gorton says:

    “I’m afraid, based on my own experience, that fascism will come to America in the name of national security”: Jim Garrison

  45. Couldn’t have said it better myself. I’m saying similar things over on my blog.

  46. Reblogged this on moderatelyradical and commented:
    Insightful analysis of the whole PRISM thing. When are we going to start the “revolution” (strictly by ballot box of course; don’t want the Secret Service AND the NSA on my ass)?

  47. racerrick says:

    The reason why Twitter is not included in the list is because the Twitter data is already public. They can have access easily and are probably less interested because it is already public.

  48. bvdon says:

    Good to hear another voice taking a standing against the government killing the Constitution. We need all to speak loud and clear on this issue before it’s too late. What I do today should not be something in the hands of the government five years from now to be used against me…. so regardless if they are looking today, they are storing it NOW and violating my rights since they have no reason to store data about me.

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