Message from DC Conference on Surveillance: Online, You Are Never Alone

In an era with more people connected to each other, Americans should assume that their online communications are being collected and monitored. This concern and its ramifications was the topic analyzed during the inaugural CATO Institute Conference on Surveillance, held on December 12, 2014 in Washington D.C.In his opening remarks, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) discussed how the next Congress has a unique opportunity for surveillance and National Security Administration reform. He is one of the few pushing an effort in Congress to ban federal agencies from requiring companies to provide ‘backdoor’ access to their products for surveillance and to end warrantless surveillance. His proposed amendment passed the House in a landslide victory in June 2014, but was firewalled from the “CRomnibus” bill — a 1,600 page long legislation that covered $1.1 trillion in spending— as the year wrapped up for senators. A few days before the CATO conference Massie, along with Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif) reintroduced the measure as the Secure Data Act of 2014.A panel discussing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act 702 (FISA) and Executive Order 12333 (EO 12333) was moderated by Charlie Savage, Washington Correspondent for the New York Times and included John Napier Tye, Former Section Chief for Internet Freedom at the State Department.Most of the public debate about NSA surveillance is focused on Section 215 of the Patriot Act and Section 702 of FISA, which authorizes the collection of communications of foreign targets within the U.S. According to Tye, the National Security Administration can use the EO 12333 to collect similar communications overseas. He said that there are massive constitutional violations taking place everyday that prompted him to file complaints. When his official grievances received unsatisfactory replies, he hired lawyers to protect himself from ending up in the same position as Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked classified information about global surveillance systems. Tye’s attorneys make sure he knows the limits of the law and does not disclose classified information to unauthorized users.On the panel, journalist Dr Marcy Wheeler of Emptywheel.net noted that “bulk collection for even just one topic means the collection of everything, as counterterrorism serves as the excuse to get all phone records in the US in the phone dragnet”. Alex Joel, Civil Liberties Officer, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, also on the panel did not dispute this. He explained that the recent Presidential Policy Directive 28 covers EO 12333 and limits the use of data that has been collected, but does not stop data collection. Further exchanges during the session between Tye and Joel highlighted the fact that a significant amount of data is still being collected.Google President Eric Schmidt spoke at the conference on several topics of concern to users of the world’s largest search engine. Google has faced public criticism over the collection of personal data, including search history and daily activities, and over reports of information leaks to the government. He said he first learned about NSA spying on Google servers from a newspaper. Schmidt stressed that the government doesn’t need a back door to get communications, because it has a front door called “warrants” and “good police work”. “The NSA’s best frenemy” as described by Cato Institute fellow Julian Sanchez, said that “we do need to retain a certain amount of information for our systems to work, but unlike many others we make it very easy for you to delete that, mask it or avoid it entirely.” He encouraged the use of his products and the use of incognito browsing mode.Some voices stood out at the conference, especially whistleblower John Tye, Patrick Eddington, the Cato Institute’s policy analyst on civil liberties, formerly a CIA analyst, and Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist at the speech, privacy and technology project at the ACLU. Soghoian fact checked Schmidt on his claim that web browser Chrome keeps communications safe. “Incognito mode will do nothing to protect you from surveillance by the authorities – that is not the right technology and there are technologies like Tor that will do a much better job,” said Soghoian. Tor is a free software and open network which provides anonymity while web browsing.Speaking on the Domestic Surveillance: Law Enforcement in the Digital Age panel, about the militarization of the domestic police force, Soghoian also said that along with military equipment, surveillance technology is also is trickling down to local law enforcement. Of concern to many were ‘Stingrays’, small devices that mimic cell phone towers used to locate suspects by sniffing out their cellular phone signals. The devices gives police and government agencies the ability to capture people’s cellular data in real-time, including from the phones of every innocent bystander. Recently police in Chicago used this device to monitor an anti-police brutality protest leader’s phone and disrupt cell phone calls from the protest.The best thing that could happen is for the public to stay mad about bulk collection and contact Congress — a powerful tool if enough people do it, said CATO’s Eddington. Public pressure is the only thing that will change the status quo, echoed co-panelist Harley Geiger. He stressed the importance of actually contacting the government. “[N]ot just federal but local and state [governments] and not angry tweets because they are not reading your tweets,” said Geiger, who is the Advocacy Director and Senior Counsel at Center for Democracy and Technology.Faisal Gill, a lawyer who served in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, was scheduled to speak at the all-day conference but had to cancel due to bad weather. Gill was the target of government surveillance, scrutiny he believes was account of his Islamic faith and political activism.A highlight of the event was a live address by Edward Snowden, the computer professional who leaked thousands of classified NSA documents to media outlets in 2013. He spoke from Russia which has given him temporary asylum. The US has charged Snowden with espionage.Snowden said he is happy average Americans are concerned and increasingly involved with issues of surveillance and privacy, citing evidence of how 39 percent of the 702 million people around the world using the internet are taking steps to avoid NSA surveillance. Snowden also echoed the ACLU’s concerns about domestic police forces, saying that ‘our police are capable of things that other countries’ spy agencies aren’t capable of.” The US shares private information on many US individuals with Israel but this is frequently under reported, said the former Booz Allen Hamiliton contractor. He urged companies like Google to protect consumers in the same way Apple has by adding encryption features that protect iMessages and Facetime calls from surveillance. Snowden also criticized internet giant Amazon.com for not protecting its customers from insecure connections. Creating products that have inherent insecurities weakens the basis of the modern economy because America relies on the internet for economic gain, he said. He drew a parallel between torture and mass spying, saying that both are harmful to security.The well-coordinated event brought speakers from civil libertarians to public servants in one room. The day closed with a standing ovation for Edward Snowden and a practical session on techniques to secure network connections.

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