back to article NSA in new SHOCK 'can see public data' SCANDAL!

In the latest round of increasingly-hyperbolic leaks about what spy agencies are doing with data, reports are emerging that the NSA has been graphing connections between American individuals. Moreover, it's using stuff that people publish on their social media timelines to help the case along. According to this item in the New …


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  1. GaryDMN

    Top to bottom, the Obama administration is the most corrupt the USA has seen in a century. The NSA, CIA, DHS, DOJ, EPA, and IRS are all guilty of breaking laws, but they are even denying the existence of any scandals.

    1. ThomH

      I assume you single out Obama on technical grounds? The well-known warrantless wiretaps under his predecessor were declared retroactively legal, after all.

      1. VBGuy

        ThomH, it has gotten much worse under Obama. They now collect all the content of emails and phone conversations. That's what the new data center in Utah was built for, so they could store more. So they collect it and "supposedly" don't look at it without a court warrant from the secret court, FISA, that you will never know about. That court has only denied less than 10 out of 11000+ warrant requests. Can you say "rubber stamp". Oh, yes, there are also reports that NSA analysts have used the system to "stalk" their love interests. Wonder how many of them are in prison?

      2. BillG

        Oh, Grow Up!

        He singled out Obama because the NSA, CIA, DHS, DOJ, EPA, and IRS all work for him.

        And with all due respect, BUSH ISN'T PRESIDENT ANYMORE!!! So shut up, get over yourself, and grow the &%@#$ up.

        Modern liberals seem to lack a sense of personal irony. Whenever Obama is caught red-handed doing something that openly and blatantly violates the Constitution, something he specifically campaigned against, and has the complete and total personal authority and power to stop without needing approval from Congress or anybody - something Obama can stop with one telephone call - modern liberals cry and whine that "Bush did it so it's O.K. for Obama to do it NOW SHUT UP I CAN'T HEAR YOU LALALALALALA WHAAAAAAAA!!!!"

        I'm a Kennedy liberal and I can't get over the hypocrisy of modern liberals. I'm embarrassed to call myself a liberal by today's standards. My loyalty is to my principles and causes. But today's liberals focus with a creepy, cult-like adoration on personalities with the belief that the object of their adoration can do no wrong.

        The liberals of my generation stand by the value of "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it". Modern liberals hate that statement.

        1. ThomH

          Re: Oh, Grow Up! (@BillG)

          Saying "this person also deserves criticism" with the implicit point being that blame doesn't divide along party lines isn't really an indicator of political leanings.

          Conversely, trying to frame any criticism of Bush as necessarily liberal propaganda does suggest somewhat of a bias.

          My interpretation of events since 2001 — the terrorist attack, not the change of administration — would be that these agencies have spiralled beyond anyone's control. The whole point of the constitution is that it creates competing interests and no single actor has control of all powers. Trying to pin all your national problems on this president or that party is inaccurate and unhelpful.

          1. BillG

            Re: Oh, Grow Up! (@BillG)

            Conversely, trying to frame any criticism of Bush as necessarily liberal propaganda does suggest somewhat of a bias

            Your missing the point. This isn't about blame, this is about AUTHORITY AND ABILITY.

            Obama has the unrestricted authority and ability to shut down these programs illegally spying on Americans because the agencies doing this are directly under his control. Agreed?

            So, the question is, Why doesn't Obama keep his promises and shut these illegal programs down? (hint: saying "Bush did it" is not an answer).

            At this point liberals are screaming "I CAN'T HEAR YOU LALALALALALALAA NOW SHUT UP!!!!!!"

            1. Gav

              Re: Oh, Grow Up! (@BillG)

              You do realise that waving the feebly derogatory "liberals" stick around just damages any point you might want to make? Even if you want to qualify that with a "modern liberals".

              A few points of clarification for you; Making up insulting names for those you disagree with is for school children. Those who support Obama are not "liberals". I'm not sure what you'd call them, but "supporters of Obama" or "Democrats" might come close.

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Obama has the unrestricted authority and ability

              Obama doesn't even have the "unrestricted authority and ability" to pass his budget or shut down Guantanamo - the US Presidency isn't as simplistically authoritarian like that. It'd not be surprising (if, hypothetically, whatever) that he might have similar problems (as eg budgets, Guantanamo) shutting down this or that NSA program should he happen to decide he wanted to.

              1. BillG

                Re: Obama has the unrestricted authority and ability

                The President has the unrestricted authority to mange, or cancel, any funded U.S. government program that is run out of an agency of the Executive Branch. You should read up on the Executive Branch to see what that statement means. Congress can't interfere with the President shutting down a program under his control because that violates Separation of Powers as well as Article IV, S. 4 of the U.S. Constitution.

                That means that any Agency that is a part of the Executive Branch is directly under Obama's control.

                Now, the President cannot do anything that is not funded, but Executive Branch programs that *are* funded he can shut down because they are a part of the Executive Branch and he is the head of the Executive Branch. All he needs to do is issue an Executive Order. For further proof, note that there exists no mechanism to punish a President that shuts down a program under his authority.

                I suggest you get a basic book on the U.S. government and learn how this works.

                It is entertaining to note that, during the recent U.S. government "shutdown", Obama has CHOSEN not to cancel these expensive surveillance programs, but he HAS chosen to defy Congress and cancel the investigations into whether or not these programs are illegal.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      With all due respect this started under Bush

      With all due respect, what we see now started on Dubya's watch. As far as NSA downloading all accessible social media data and treating telecoms metadata to build social graphs, sorry I do not get it - what is new here?

      Most of the el-reg readership who read the first leaks groked that one. You do not need to decrypt the entire internet if you have managed to analyze it down to "interesting conversations". Interesting means both "conversations with subversives" as well as "conversations with a subversive pattern". All classic "isolation" schemes used to protect "resistance" such as "know only 3 neighbours", etc shine like beacons on the social graph.

      This is also why NSA talks to the likes of LinkedIn, F**Book and Tw*tter - it is ansilliary data to refine the graph. This is also why its claims that it takes only "specific" data from there are not believable. If you use specific data to feed into a statistical or neural net number-cruncher you bias it. You need the whole raw feed in order for it to produce the correct results.

      1. tom dial Silver badge

        Re: With all due respect this started under Bush

        With due respect, this started well before "Dubya's watch", probably before 1950.

        1. Anonymous Coward

          Re: With all due respect this started under Bush

          I have to agree that after nearly 5 years, these programs are now Obama's baby, not Bush's.

    3. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      "Top to bottom, the Obama administration is the most corrupt the USA has seen in a century. The NSA, CIA, DHS, DOJ, EPA, and IRS are all guilty of breaking laws, but they are even denying the existence of any scandals."

      Set up by Shrub over a decade ago.

      Obama's crime is to allow this "State of Fear" to continue.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yes, I'm sure that all this was setup during the Obama administration and is absolutely nothing to do with the previous administration. No, they were all whiter than white and never did anything wrong or morally dubious in any way.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What's new is that it demolishes the previous claim that the Agency is only spying on non-Americans.

    Sure, the stuff that people post on social media is public.

    But the idea that Americans were somehow "exceptional" and ergo exempt from spying — that's out the window now.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      re: social media is public

      Assuming you friended the NSA !

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        Re: re: social media is public

        "Assuming you friended the NSA !"

        Have you read the T&Cs?

      2. CommanderGalaxian

        Re: re: social media is public

        "Assuming you friended the NSA !"

    2. Ian McNee

      @AC 02:31 - out the window two and a half years ago...

      Cast your mind back to the spectacular Anonymous hack of HBGary Federal in early 2011. Aaron "Fail" Barr shot his mouth off about how clever his social media scraping software was at tracking down Anons by graphing public social media connections. This was all part of bigging-up himself and HB Gary Federal to get fat FBI contracts as well as all sorts of other questionable deals with corporations and govt. agencies wanting to snoop on US and other citizens.

      Of course that particular episode had (at least partially) a happy ending as he was very publicly handed his own sorry butt by Anonymous. The story is well-documented on Ars Technica .

    3. Don Jefe

      Logic Chain

      How do you propose the NSA determine if someone is a foreigner without spying on them? The NSA can't predict the future either so they have no way to determine if someone might become a foreigner. In today's globalized markets that could happen.

      Short, but relevant, anecdote: Years ago I was working on a contract in a National Park Service office that was being remodeled. The staff were moving things around that they needed access to and/or out of the way and they needed to move an empty filing cabinet.

      The office chief said the cabinet might exceed lifting weight limits so he rang up a Federal Services depot in Rockville, MD (70 miles away) and had a large scale delivered. They brought the scale in and left, and the staff proceeded to lift the cabinet onto the scale to determine if it was too heavy to lift! It was, in fact, too heavy and they were calling the service depot back to send movers.

      All this made my head hurt so I went over, popped the drawers out and sat the cabinet on the scale and the staff verified they could now move it. That insane logic chain that led them to violate the rules so they wouldn't violate the rules is everywhere in US government. I doubt the NSA is immune, we already know they're clowns, so it might even be worse with them.

      1. Oninoshiko

        Re: Logic Chain


        If they cannot determine it, they don't spy.

  3. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Crack down on childporn?

    So now who has the worlds biggest collection of under-age self photographs then.

  4. dan1980

    Yet more cards removed.

    There's nothing new - it's just another indication of the mindset and goals of the US Government, working through the NSA.

    It's a bit poetic really - you take all the data points and when you piece them together you have a very solid picture of what is going on with them.

    What has been shown repeatedly and now without doubt is that all assurance of due process and oversight and best intentions are bunk. Each revelation (not that this is overly revelatory) has returned increasingly poor defences until finally they have fallen back to: "what we did was technically legal".

    Whether any given program of collection was legal or not is largely beside the point; the issue is whether it is in the best interests of the people and, trumping even that, whether the people want it. It doesn't matter if you can point to some secret court setup by a secret vote that okayed secret spying in a secret decision.

    The question the Government and the NSA have to ask themselves is: "If the people had full knowledge of what we are doing, would they approve of it?". It's clear that the Government and the NSA realised that the people would NOT approve of it because they lied and evaded and talked around the issue once they were found out.

    In short, they knew full well that the people would not and do not approve but did it anyway.

    Worse, once they were found out, everything they said to try and placate the people and explain their behaviour turned out to be a lie.

  5. Resound

    I still find it bizarre that they're allowed to spy on citizens of other countries - over whom they have no juristiction - but not citizens of their own country. I can only imagine the lurid tantrums that would be thrown if another country's intelligence agency was known to be gathering as much information as it could about US citizens.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yes, it is strange. On the other hand, this policy does help to reinforce an US vs. THEM mentality.

      Since 9/11, Americans have been told repeatedly that the country is at war with the rest of the world, with the implication that anybody not on the side of the US (e.g., the UN, France, Russia, etc.) might as well be supporting the enemy. So, it is natural that the US "needs" to spy on all non-Americans. It "makes sense" because "of course we can't trust them".

      What is not questioned here, is that the same surveillance system has and will be used against Americans too, especially those who dare to question the status quo. During the 1960s, after all, the FBI surveilled Martin Luther King, and tried to use recordings of his romantic affairs to destroy him. The then-Assistant Director of the FBI sent King an anonymous letter threatening blackmail, and suggesting that he commit suicide as a way out.

      Surprisingly, this use of the surveillance system for political blackmail is not well-known in the US. Perhaps people would react differently to the current revelations if they knew the history.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      "I still find it bizarre that they're allowed to spy on citizens of other countries - over whom they have no juristiction - but not citizens of their own country. I"

      Well in theory that's where most "threats" come from.

      But the fact US citizens still tend to feel they have a right to privacy means they might lawyer up and start pressing charges.

      1. FuzzyTheBear

        At the time of writing , the worst threat to the USA is the Tea Party.They are the enemy of any social measure that helps those in need. They are the " faction " that shut down the government. They are the ones supporting domestic spying and support the agencies breaking the law . Look no further , there is no need , the Tea Party is THE enemy of the People . Worldwide.

    3. ratfox

      Fairly standard

      I used to do military service in electronic warfare, i.e. listening to the radio. We were only allowed to "identify", but not listen to, civil communications in our country. Everything else was fair game, including baby listening devices and old wireless phones which were still using non-digital transmission. We had trigonometric detection of the place of emission, so we could know that it was coming from outside the country.

    4. VBGuy

      " I can only imagine the lurid tantrums that would be thrown if another country's intelligence agency was known to be gathering as much information as it could about US citizens." They're called the Chinese.

    5. big_D Silver badge

      The same everywhere

      Bizarre? It is standard practice, the UK is the same, GCHQ is only allowed to spy on Johnny Foreigner, not Johnny English. Germany is the same. The "spies" are generally allowed to spy on the outsiders for their xenophobic masters, whilst the internal police and security forces are only allowed to spy on their own citizens with court approval.

      As you can't get court approval in a foreign land for spying on their population, the spies get pretty much carte blanche to spy in those lands, on the proviso that what they are doing is technically illegal and they could end up at the wrong end of a short piece of rope and a long drop or the wrong end of a bullet.

      This is at odds with what the government and its agents are allowed to do at home, which is covered by law, so spy agencies are generally not allowed to sh1t in their own back yard.

      That said, they sometimes set up recipricol agreements, you spy on our citizens and give us what you get and we'll spy on yours and we'll tell you that we have given you everything we found .

  6. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Peeping Toms are never ever the sharpest of bods in smarter fields of alien foreign boffin interest

    The most revealing aspect to those who and/or that which be contemporaries/adversaries/competitors to NSA type operations is their abject failure to do anything remarkable with the information/intelligence which they might be discovering when trawling/phishing/snooping/skulking.

    And of course, all such organs are highly susceptible to immaculate grooming which delivers to them that which they cannot do without in order to stay ahead and in the lead of their games.

  7. Cliff

    Free intelligence

    Did anyone really believe an intelligence agency whose whole basis was building intelligence would ignore free material from social media providers? They'd be mad to pass it up, especially as they're publicly funded so have to get the best for their taxpayer dollar!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Free intelligence

      Don't forget it might work the other way around. Social media hight be funded in part by the NSA in order to put in features that collect as much useful data as possible.

    2. big_D Silver badge

      Re: Free intelligence

      Free? I thought a CIA front was one of the backers for Facebook...

      Quickly dons tinfoil hat, those black helicopters outside look menacing.

    3. Black Rat

      Re: Free intelligence

      " material from social media providers? They'd be mad to pass it up... "

      Understanding the data however is a three edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth. One wonders how often does a lie need to be repeated across the internet before agents are dispatched to investigate?

    4. Don Jefe

      Re: Free intelligence

      You're correct as far as you go but have missed the terribly wrong part of all this. They are combining this 'free' intelligence with intelligence they shouldn't have been gathering in the first place.

      It is like getting a free sample of food at the grocery store then robbing that persons home refrigerator later that night. Doing one thing according to accepted practices doesn't offset doing something wrong.

  8. Schultz

    Perfectly legal

    According to some FISA court opinion, the NSA has to expect a > 50% probabililty that the snooping subject is a foreigner to hoover data. By indisciminately snooping on the whole world population, the probability to snoop on a US citizen is only about 300 M / 7 G, i.e. some 4 %. All legal then.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Perfectly legal

      Perfectly legal according to a Star Chamber court with according to the 'fundamental American Law' is illegal. Of course they have used our system of laws (particularly General Welfare and Protection (Laws of so called necessity according to them)) to circumvent our laws and protect their otherwise criminal endeavors.

  9. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    And let's not forget that with Facebook servers based in the US THE PATRIOT Act

    Makes it all legal anyway.

    So with all this data and all this graphing how many actual terrorists have they caught

    Because I can think of a couple recently who weren't.

    BTW This is the same BS the UK Home Office pushed with the Data Communications Bill.

    1. dan1980

      Re: And let's not forget that with Facebook servers based in the US THE PATRIOT Act

      Don't be so quick - I think you'd find that such a graph exonerated the NSA rather smartly and feel you would be quite chastened were you to realise just how many otherwise catastrophic terrorist attacks have been stopped by these well-targeted, thoroughly vetted, constantly scrutinised and completely proportional reactions.

      Well, you _would_ but unfortunately we can't let you see all that data that really does show we've been protecting you all quite efficiently and thanklessly all this time.

      Jokes aside, right now the US Government is in the midst of a big backlash and if there were real supporting figures, then they would be used to help justify these programs and paint Obama as a great and selfless patriot (lower case). Instead we have him standing up saying he "welcome(s) this debate". Sure.

  10. Chris Miller

    Easy answer

    Let's start a web campaign to overwhelm their listening capabilities by flooding the social media with trivial and irrelevant nonsense. Oh, wait ...

    1. Bloakey1

      Re: Easy answer

      Why not fllood them out with selfies of older gentlemen with impressive equipment [1]?

      I think that is a certain quid pro quo at work here. the NSA has systems that are not secure, users that are dodgy and procedures that do not work. Hmm, a bit like the people that they are spying on. This Interweb thingy is a lark.

      I am currently setting up some secure PGP Blackberries for people. Word has got around and they might find that certain areas start to go dark mighty quick.

      1. Linux gear, routers, servers of every hue, OS2, OSX, DOS and even the mighty Millenium..

  11. cortland


    It can't be "hyperbolic," surely? How about "hypergolic?"

  12. Eugene Crosser

    Social network != "Social network"

    Someone on reddit makes a good point:

    A lot of people commenting are confused by how New York Times is using the term "social network." They're not talking about Facebook, Myspace, etc. They're talking about the NSA secretly building graphsyour real-life social network without warrants: everyone you talk to, do business with, etc.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Social network != "Social network"

      Yes, that's definitely the impression I got from reading reports over the weekend. They mine all your data and then fit you into their social relationships model.

      1. Bloakey1

        Re: Social network != "Social network"

        Yep. That is what i took it to be. Pattern analysis, life style analysis etc.

        Soon we will be getting phone calls saying a certain Mr Terry Taliban amd Seamus O' Bomber want to add us as friends

  13. Chris G

    "Read him his rights!"

    " You do not have to say or do anything but anything you do say or do or you have ever done or said, transmitted or received via any medium can and will be used against you (sometimes in a court of law)."

    You read you new rights here first.

    Given the vast warehousing government agencies must have and the ability to collate everything more efficiently, this is what we have to look forward to.

    What I find fascinating through all of this is just how quiet the FBI and other agencies and governments are while we are all looking at the NSA.

  14. Drbig

    Only totalitarian regimes follow their citizens

    I have regularly travelled to China for the last 30 years. In the 1980s you used to hear stories of people who were followed by plain clothed agents. I remember one story of a rather delicate australian woman who upon realizing she was being followed by a state agent, promptly vomited because the revelation was so gut wrenching.

    Sure, all of this was in "public", but the fact that the state is trying to compile data on personal movements, though they be public is still extraordinarily disturbing. Even if data on social media is public, which a lot of it isn't, (I personally don't release data except to close friends). The fact that the NSA is hoovering up all this data for later analysis on everyone is just as totalitarian as sending out plain-clothes agents to follow everyone around in public.

    The fact is that the NSA has gone far beyond the surveilance that was carried out by the totalitarian regimes of Communist Russia, East Germany, Communist China and the Nazis. It is right that we are outraged, appaled, indignant and insistant that it must stop.

    1. dan1980

      Re: Only totalitarian regimes follow their citizens

      Spot on.

      The behaviour being demonstrated here is quite simply: if we CAN do it, we will. As the old saying goes, just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Only totalitarian regimes follow their citizens

      @Drbig > "I personally don't release data except to close friends."

      NSA edit: "You THINK you personally don't release data except to close friends."


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