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Will Obama preside over the coming of Big Brother?

Taylor Armerding | April 26, 2012
Privacy advocates and civil libertarians say among the president's broken promises is a failure to restrain the NSA's growing domestic surveillance

If President Barack Obama is going to win a second term, he may have to do it without the support of privacy and civil liberties organizations, including those in information and personal security.

Increasingly the president, who was expected to fulfill the dreams of civil libertarians by creating a more open, transparent and less-intrusive government, is instead being viewed as a nightmare.

Many of the complaints are focused on broken promises regarding the aftermath of 9/11: The president pledged to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and it remains open. He attacked the Patriot Act as a candidate, but it also remains. And according to his critics, while he slammed President Bush's tactics in the "war on terror," he has now embraced and expanded most of them, including the killing of U.S. citizens abroad who are deemed to be terrorists.

But for cyber-privacy advocates, the major concern is that they believe the Big-Brother and "thought police" nightmare of George Orwell's "1984" could be a reality by 2013, when the National Security Agency's new data center is due to open at the Utah National Guard's Camp Williams, south of Salt Lake City in Bluffdale.

Some in the infosec and privacy community say it is not so much about who is president as it is about the reach, power and inertia of the intelligence establishment. Whatever, the reason, the coming Utah Data Center is expected to give a whole new meaning to the concept of Big Data.

NSA, which already has vast powers to sift and analyze digital communications by people with the bland job description of "traffic analyst," is expanding those powers to the point where, according to James Bamford, writing last month in Wired magazine, it will be able to intercept, store and analyze, "all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails-- parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital 'pocket litter.'"

The center will also be dedicated to breaking codes, since "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," Bamford writes.

The publicly stated goal of the center is to protect the nation from cyber attack. But privacy advocates fear that the data collection power could extend far beyond spying on the nation's enemies.

They point to the fact that at the groundbreaking of the center in January 2011, nobody from the Department of Homeland Security (the agency whose mission is to guard civilian networks from cyber attacks) spoke. Instead, it was CIA veteran Glenn A. Gaffney. They point to reports that the NSA is increasingly relying on private firms to mine data, because they don't need a search warrant. Only government searches and seizures are limited by the Constitution.


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