If a Tree Falls…

warrantlessI have not been in the blogging mode, or mood for awhile now, but the latest “revelations” about the PRISM program – and all the media confusion about what it really means – have driven me to write this. Having started one of the first ISPs back in the early days of the Internet as we know it today, I’ve tried to keep track of how government responds to it, everything from taxing ecommerce to monitoring the SPEW of information that vomits forth on fiber optics backbones.
Four years ago, I recall watching NOVA’s “The Spy Factory” in which an AT&T engineer described the secret installation of NSA equipment at MAE-West, the AT&T master hub on Folsom st in San Francisco where virtually ALL internet and phone traffic enters and leaves. At the time I scoffed at the idea that anybody could make any sense of such a firehose of disjointed information.
The leaked document includes information on the “Boundless Informant” program and lists “cooperating entities” such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, etc – all of which deny having any knowledge of the program, and insist that nobody has access to their servers.

Google datacenter
Google datacenter

People seem outraged, despite the fact that it has been common knowledge for years now that the major routing centers are all “tapped”. Think about it: If you have access to all the information flowing into and out of Google’s servers, you don’t NEED to access their servers.
My theory is that it has taken the NSA all these years to develop the programs that sift through the SPEW and begin connecting the dots.  From the spy-master’s standpoint its a dream come true! All the data anybody sends anywhere, (and these days a phone call is just another form of data) at your fingertips. Now as the president says “Nobody is listening to your phonecalls” – UNLESS there is reason to believe there might be something suspicious going on, in which case, its all there waiting for somebody to click on and listen to.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this is the revelations of how the IRS can depart from its role as a “neutral” organization to begin showing favoritism or impediment depending on whether you’re the president’s brother or a Tea-Party organizer.  Programs like PRISM or Boundless Informant are ripe for the very same abuse of government power, all hidden behind the smokescreen of national security.

Our legislators passed laws allowing all this. Our oversight committees supposedly knew about all this. Or did they” Are they tech-savvy enough to understand the implications? Are the FISA judges that gave opinions saying it was all constitutional and legitimate tech-savvy enough to understand what it means?
And how is it possible to make any sense of the TRILLIONS of data items in the SPEW?

Consider the new Utah Data Center.  This sprawling $2B facility is where all that data ends up filling countless memory devices. Unheard by anybody – UNLESS….

Utah Data Center
Utah Data Center

If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody there to hear it…. Or if a phone conversation is recorded but nobody listens to it… is that a warrantless wiretap? And if some algorithmically or politically inspired justification leads to somebody clicking on it and listening in – in the name of national security – is that the best use of our already bankrupt government spending? After all, despite all this, and despite being warned twice by the Russians, we still missed the Boston Bombers. Should we put a gps locator on every tree in case it should happen to fall?

The bottom line is: Yes, they CAN listen. So be careful what you say and do on the phone or the Internet!

Some images of interest:

MAE-West, Folsom St, San Francisco
MAE-West, Folsom St, San Francisco
The "Secret Room" at MAE-West
The "Secret Room" at MAE-West
Data Backbones in the US
Data Backbones in the US

One thought on “If a Tree Falls…”

  1. Thanks David for your thoughts and perspective.
    We have all seen this coming for years, and accordingly ‘not-too-surprised’.
    Doesn’t make it any easier to swallow tho.

    I’m not a big Rush_Fan; but this transcript was relayed to me,
    and again provides more perspective and peripheral view…

    I’m personally not getting over-excited, but have a growing concern of :
    Just What in the Hell Are We Supposed To Do ?
    I know it is not the best answer, but I just want to go away and hide.
    Thanks /;^)

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