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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

Bamford reported that William Binney, 68, a former NSA crypto-mathematician, told him that once data is collected and stored, everything a person does, including "financial transactions or travel or anything" can be charted on a graph. Bamford said Binney told him, while holding his thumb and forefinger close together, "We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state."

Are such worries overheated paranoia? Perhaps. Kevin McAleavey, cofounder and chief architect of the KNOS project, says the kind of snooping NSA will be doing of Internet service providers won't be much different from what it has done for decades in telephone wiretapping.

And he says people will find ways to work around the NSA, even with its expanded powers.

"In 2001, while the feds were looking for traffic from al Qaeda participants, I found a little trick they were engaged in," he says.

"They'd log into Hotmail, write a draft email and then others would log in with the same account and read and modify the draft email and just save it in place. At no time was the draft ever emailed! That's how they communicated, while NSA was waiting for the email to get sent."

Gary McGraw, CTO of Cigital, says the NSA is just doing, "exactly what Amazon and Google are doing. We have to have Big Data capabilities just to keep track of people in other parts of the world. And I hope they're doing that very well in Iran."

McGraw says with the diminished effectiveness of firewalls, it is, "very hard, and will be harder to distinguish American traffic from other traffic that we really should be spying on. But that's just the way the world works."

But he says privacy advocates are probably more worried than they need to be. "The NSA doesn't care about them," he says.

Still, for the average, unsophisticated user, the prospects can be chilling. Law professor and privacy adviser Rebecca Herold says it is not just the president who is involved.

"Decisions on how the U.S. government is using personal information are being made by Congress, the president, and in many ways the judgments of the Supreme Court. All branches bring concerns for privacy with regard to how personal information is being mined," she says.

Privacy advocates see the pending Cyber Intelligence Sharing Protection Act (CISPA) in Congress as enabling Big-Brother-style domestic surveillance, and wonder why Obama is not doing more to lobby his fellow Democrats in Congress to oppose it.

 

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