NSA Surveillance Targets Average Citizens, Not Terrorists


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Much of the debate over NSA surveillance of telephone communications and Web activity over the past few weeks has hinged on the alleged tradeoffs between safety and security in such snooping. "[Y]ou can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.  We're going to have to make some choices," insists President Obama. But those "choices" presuppose that the U.S. government's virtual Panopticon actually provides some degree of security in return for lost privacy and liberty. In an interesting piece at Bloomberg, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky argues that NSA surveillance seems peculiarly targeted at the general population, not terrorists. "The Prism surveillance program focuses on access to the servers of America's largest Internet companies, which support such popular services as Skype, Gmail and iCloud. These are not the services that truly dangerous elements typically use," he argues.

Bershidsky cites a 2012 report from Holland's General Intelligence and Security Service, Jihadism on the Web: A breeding ground for jihad in the modern age, that asks the seemingly key question, "Where do the cool terrorists hang out online?" The report finds that terrorists may meet in well-known social media sites, but these areas are in the small part of the Internet that is indexed and commonly trafficked by regular people. For exactly that reason, that's not where plotting and planning takes place.

They meet in 'public' virtual places, for example on social media, on Internet forums and in chat rooms, but also in semi-public or private virtual places. This is where jihadist activities and processes unfold that constitute the greatest threat. These more private virtual places make up an important part of the Invisible Web (by scientists also referred to as the Deep Web, Da knet or Unde net). Unlike the visible part of the Internet, also called Surface Web or Indexable Web, this invisible Web refers to a part of the World Wide Web that has not (yet) been indexed and that cannot be found by readily accessible search engines such as Google. Scientists estimate that the invisible Web is 550 times larger than the visible Web.

The Dutch report goes on to say that "Just like criminals and hackers, jihadists use the invisible Web as a hiding place and do their utmost to keep activities from being tracked. Virtual gathering places constructed, administered and secured by fanatical jihadists are hidden inside this invisible Web."

But the NSA's Prism specifically targets Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, with promises of more high-profile companies to come. Is there value in that? "The AIVD has found that radicalising persons erase their social media accounts sooner or later. They consider the (mostly American) social media to be kuffa (infidel) sites, and therefore unacceptable and unsafe."

Instead of transmitting information in the clear through high-profile social media, Dutch intelligence finds terrorists to be pretty cagey and security conscious.

This security awareness manifests itself in an aggressive promotion of safe behaviour online and an increased use of usually free software to encrypt technical access to and communication on the Internet. As a result, more and more jihadist actor groups are capable of concealing their identity, their location and the content of their communications.

So, justifying a surveillance net that focuses on Facebook and Google by uttering the magic word "terrorism" is like rationalizing a wide network of license-plate recognition cameras on the grounds that you may take a snap of a "Honk if You Love Jihad" bumpersticker.

We may be trading off privacy for something, but it doesn't seem to be security.

NEXT: Gabrielle Giffords Planning Gun Tour

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  1. This cannot be repeated often enough. The data archive is an insurance policy for the government, it has nothing to do with catching terrorists. Mission creep will bear this out over time.

    “The only means of ridding man of crime is ridding him of freedom.” – Zamyatin

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  2. It’s all in how you define terrorist.

  3. We aren’t trading anything for anything.

  4. well, of course, it’s aimed at citizens. No point in having a police state if you’re focused on terrorists.

    1. The American taxpayer, the American voter, and the people in general are a far greater threat to the power in DC than any terrorist.

      Why would they spy on anyone else?

      1. The American taxpayer, the American voter, and the people in general are a far greater threat to the power in DC than any terrorist.

        You cracked the code……oooh you’re in trouble now!

  5. Someone needs to start doing a better job of explaining terms. If we know who a terrorist is, we would go arrest him or kill him. So any effort to track “terrorists” is necessarily going to by necessity monitor innocent people. The claim that “we will only use this to monitor terrorists” is a logical impossibility.

  6. “Honk If You Love Jihad”. Thanks 2Chili, you just made my day.

  7. And we also need to understand that even if you have the right person, reading their emails or listening to their phone calls is probably going to be of limited utility. If they are truly a professional terrorist send here by Al Quada or whomever, it is doubtful they would ever say anything of value on an open line or email. If they are just some amateur who decides to die for the Jihad, they are unlikely to ever lay out their intentions before they actually do it. We were reading Hassain’s emails to Al Alwalaki. And nothing in them said with any certainly Hussain was going to become a terrorist. They were all him asking if it was okay and or if he had a duty to kill nonMuslims who made war on Muslims. In retrospect you could see what was happening. But if the FBI has pulled Hussain in before the shooting, he could have truthfully told them that he is interested in Islamic thinking and was having a theological debate. They couldn’t have charged him with anything.

    In short, to assume these programs are successful, you have to assume there are groups of terrorists out there who are openly and frankly discussing active plots via email and or phone. That seems rather unlikely.

    1. maybe this repeats the point, but I don’t see how much success can be reasonably expected. After Boston, lots of stories about the US was warned about the brothes. And had they been picked up or detained? The civil rights folks would have been out in full and they would have had a point.

      1. Picked up for what? One of them was a citizen. We can’t arrest people just because the Russians tell us they are a bad guy. And we can’t deport NPRs without giving them a lot of due process. The fact is that there was nothing to arrest them for until they actually started to build the bombs. Everything before that was just loose talk. They hadn’t done anything criminal. And they were not a member of Al Quada, so you couldn’t have even declared them enemy combatants.

        They could have been NSA double secret probation and we could have been watching their every move and chancas are still good they would have pulled off the bombing. Oh, he bought a pressure cooker, send in the SEALS. Fat chance.

        1. Picked up for what?

          I just had a flash back to a very unpleasant conversation I had with the mother of a girl who was dating (and bonking) two sailors on my ship. Mom liked sailor 1 and hated sailor 2. So mom finds out about the bonking and blows a gasket and girl then claims that #2 had gotten her drunk and thus raped her via diminished capacity.

          Local police investigate and talk to people at the party and the local ADA concludes that there isn’t enough evidence to warrant an arrest or a prosecution.

          So mom calls me and starts ranting about what a nice guy #1 is, and how it’s awful that he has to work with #2, and demands that I have #2 thrown in the brig for rape.

          Bonus round: her evidence that #2 was a bad guy was that while #1 never swore, she had heard that #2 swore a great deal. She said that her daddy had been a general in the Vietnam war and that nobody swore when *he* was in charge.

          I dryly reminded her of the widespread usage of the phrase cursing like a sailor, opined that it had some basis in fact and suggested that she watch the movie MASH with Donald Sutherland to get a sense of what was going on in Vietnam when Generals weren’t underfoot, and finished with the observation that the U.S. being a free country we didn’t go around arresting people and charging them with rape on the basis that they had a dirty mouth.

          That TDY was the low point of my career in the Navy. Worse than that time I got confined to the ship for a week.

          1. And today that case would be used as evidence of the Navy’s war on womenz and protection of rapists.

  8. this invisible Web refers to a part of the World Wide Web that has not (yet) been indexed and that cannot be found by readily accessible search engines such as Google.

    Jihad VIP rooms.

  9. Bershidsky cites a 2012 report from Holland’s General Intelligence and Security Service

    What do the fucking Dutch know anyway? There are only two things I can’t stand in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures… and the Dutch. /sarc

  10. The “550 times larger” figure strikes me as dubious.
    Google indexes any darn thing you throw up that isn’t secured.

    I use a personal SVN repo on a VPS for school work, and Google indexes that just because it’s there. IIRC, they even indexed a friggin’ tar file.
    Granted, they don’t index all the deltas. If you start counting meaningless stuff like that, then yeah, it will inflate your figure.

    1. Google TOR (The Onion Router).

      Google ain’t indexing any of the sites on that network… and there are tons of them.

  11. Awesomeness! Ultra-liberal lawyer Dershowitz accuses Greenwald of being an America hating felon.


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  13. Snooping is like gun control – it’s not about the supposed targets, it’s about more power for the government over everyone else.

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  15. Someone has to put Electric Eye, by Judas Priest to good use on the job.


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