Keys, Immunity, And Valuation

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

keysThe U.S. government has demanded that internet companies turn over their master encryption keys that are used to secure Web communication. Web encryption is active when an HTTPS appears on the URL. The technique is called SSL, or Secure Sockets Layer. For example, HTTPS encrypts communications only between the browser and Gmail’s servers. With the master keys, decryption of the contents of the intercepted communication is possible. “Strongly encrypted data are virtually unreadable,” according to NSA director Keith Alexander. The internet is fast becoming an encrypted model as more internet companies adopt SSL.

The internet companies are refusing to say if the government has requested their master keys. A Google spokesperson said that Google has “never handed over keys” to the government. A more impressive response came from Richard Lovejoy, a director of the subsidiary FastMail, who said “Our interpretation is that we are prohibited by law from releasing our SSL key. In the event that we received such a request, we would refuse, for both legal and ethical reasons.”

Meanwhile, NSA director Keith Alexander has been working Congress to get them to provide blanket immunity to any internet service that helps the government fight cyberattackers. The concern for civil libertarians is that the immunity would be used to cover the companies violating privacy laws when giving the NSA data. A previous telecom immunity bill, supported in an about-face by then candidate Barack Obama, has left a bad taste in the mouths of many. One source has characterized Alexander’s requests for bill language that’s “as ill-defined as possible.”

Leading the Obama Administration’s charm offensive to convince us to love the surveillance state is John C. Inglis, the deputy director of the NSA. He had grand stories to impress on us that the billions spent spying on Americans are merited. Inglis picked two episodes to highlight the “contributions” provided by NSA programs. In the first case, several men in San Diego were sending money to a Somali terrorist group. In the second case, the NSA discovered that a suspect in a subway bomb plot, who was already under scrutiny, was using a different phone.

In the words of Jed Clampett: “Pitiful … just pitiful.”

A suspect under scrutiny means a suspect under surveillance. There are cheaper ways that spoof a cell phone into thinking it’s talking to a cell tower and collect the phone’s metadata.

Claims regarding the thwarting of 54 terrorist events and the capture of 300 terrorists are often cited to justify the effectiveness of NSA programs. However, these figures are from programs that target noncitizens abroad and have apparently been quite valuable. The success of foreign operations is often conflated with domestic surveillance programs to make it appear that domestic programs provide a valuable contribution. When the domestic program is isolated, as above, its real merit is expectedly dismal.

H/T: Charlie Savage and David E. Sanger,  Declan McCullagh, Kevin Drum, Tony Romm, Mano Singham, Steve M.

48 thoughts on “Keys, Immunity, And Valuation

  1. L.K. and Darren,

    I was in a hurry and should have chosen my words more carefully. I know neither of you support mass surveillance. You have been consistently outspoken that it is wrong. I’m sorry if I made it sound otherwise. That was a mistake on my part.

    L.K. Thanks for your concern for everyone!

  2. ” The massive NSA surveillance program revealed in June by Edward Snowden may have narrowly survived an up-or-down vote in the House of Representatives last week, but the battle is far from over. As the House Judiciary Committee mulls a second bill limiting NSA telephone intrusions, it’s worth revisiting the ground rules governing the ongoing debate. In particular, should members of Congress use their special constitutional powers of free speech to force the facts about the government’s secret activities out into the open?

    Up until now, Congress has allowed Barack Obama’s administration to say one thing in secret sessions and something very different in public. The most notorious instance involved Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who brazenly denied in a March hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the National Security Agency was collecting data on millions of Americans. Clapper has since apologized to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for lying to his face.

    Clapper’s confession spurred calls for his resignation. But now that the White House has stood firmly behind the director of national intelligence, the ball is in Congress’s court. Clapper, moreover, doesn’t seem to have learned his lesson. On Tuesday, Wyden reported that Clapper’s response to a more recent inquiry by 26 senators was inadequate. In his view, Clapper minimized the extent to which intelligence agencies have been violating court orders. Wyden claims that these infractions “are significantly more troubling than the government has stated.”

    Wyden knows what he is talking about. As a member of the Intelligence Committee, he has been briefed on the ins and outs of domestic snooping operations at secret sessions. Given Clapper’s continuing evasions, Wyden should no longer content himself with telling us that the administration is misrepresenting the facts. He should instead let Americans know the truth, even at the cost of revealing some classified information presented to him in secret sessions.”

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/08/1/breach_or_debate_congress_snowden_prism%20?page=0,0

    • @Jill

      Up until now, Congress has allowed Barack Obama’s administration to say one thing in secret sessions and something very different in public.

      What is clear is that they are not going to offer anything that is not otherwise revealed. You’ll notice that they deny that there is anything else going on beyond the last exposure until the next one surfaces.
      What is needed is a critical mass of exposures so that there is literally no recourse left but to discuss the entire syndrome both as to the underlying philosophy (in re the constitution, rights , et al), function, necessity, viability, and actual (vs simply asserted) effectiveness.

      I agree with you re your closing paragraph/point. However you are asking for a degree of courage and willingness to take the responsibility as well as the consequences of being a patriot, (in the most true sense of the term), and being an elected representative sworn to uphold the constitution, to a height that is uncommon may be even unheard of in the modern era.
      It is “Snowden” level of awareness and risk and patriotism that is unwilling to live with the lie in the face of knowing the truth.

      It may be that Wyden and others are playing a long game. And if that is the case then that will be manifest over time. But for them to actually publish what they know now??? Snowden would become an afterthought and the full fury would be directed at them.
      It would be fascinating to see. It would inspire and focus some amazing public outrage…maybe even change something at some fundamental levels.

      I wonder if any of the lawyers/legal experts here could comment on what could, would, and must happen if Wyden or any of these officials actually breached their confidentiality to the Intelligence Committee? To they have immunity for being in Congress?

      Michael

  3. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get
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