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A German magazine lifted the lid on the operations of the National Security Agency’s hacking unit Sunday, reporting that American spies intercept computer deliveries, exploit hardware vulnerabilities, and even hijack Microsoft’s internal reporting system to spy on their targets.
- Watch NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s surveillance warning
- Snowden document shows Canada set up spy posts for NSA
Der Spiegel’s revelations relate to a division of the NSA known as Tailored Access Operations, or TAO, which is painted as an elite team of hackers specializing in stealing data from the toughest of targets.
Citing internal NSA documents, the magazine said Sunday that TAO’s mission was “Getting the ungettable,” and quoted an unnamed intelligence official as saying that TAO had gathered “some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen.”
Der Spiegel said TAO had a catalogue of high-tech gadgets for particularly hard-to-crack cases, including computer monitor cables specially modified to record what is being typed across the screen, USB sticks secretly fitted with radio transmitters to broadcast stolen data over the airwaves, and fake base stations intended to intercept mobile phone signals on the go.
The NSA doesn’t just rely on James Bond-style spy gear, the magazine said. Some of the attacks described by Der Spiegel exploit weaknesses in the architecture of the Internet to deliver malicious software to specific computers. Others take advantage of weaknesses in hardware or software distributed by some of the world’s leading information technology companies, including Cisco Systems, Inc. and China’s Huawei Technologies Ltd., the magazine reported.
Der Spiegel cited a 2008 mail order catalogue-style list of vulnerabilities that NSA spies could exploit from companies such as Irvine, California-based Western Digital Corp. or Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc. The magazine said that suggested the agency was “compromising the technology and products of American companies.”
Old-fashioned methods get a mention too. Der Spiegel said that if the NSA tracked a target ordering a new computer or other electronic accessories, TAO could tap its allies in the FBI and the CIA, intercept the hardware in transit, and take it to a secret workshop where it could be discretely fitted with espionage software before being sent on its way.
Intercepting computer equipment in such a way is among the NSA’s “most productive operations,” and has helped harvest intelligence from around the world, one document cited by Der Spiegel stated.
Allegations taken seriously
One of the most striking reported revelations concerned the NSA’s alleged ability to spy on Microsoft Corp.’s crash reports, familiar to many users of the Windows operating system as the dialogue box which pops up when a game freezes or a Word document dies.
The reporting system is intended to help Microsoft engineers improve their products and fix bugs, but Der Spiegel said the NSA was also sifting through the reports to help spies break into machines running Windows.
One NSA document cited by the magazine appeared to poke fun at Microsoft’s expense, replacing the software giant’s standard error report message with the words: “This information may be intercepted by a foreign sigint [signals intelligence] system to gather detailed information and better exploit your machine.”
Microsoft said that information sent by customers about technical issues in such a manner is limited.
“Microsoft does not provide any government with direct or unfettered access to our customer’s data,” a company representative said in an email Sunday. “We would have significant concerns if the allegations about government actions are true.”
Microsoft is one of several U.S. firms that have demanded more transparency from the NSA — and worked to bolster their security — in the wake of the revelations of former intelligence worker Edward Snowden, whose disclosures have ignited an international debate over privacy and surveillance.
Der Spiegel did not explicitly say where its cache NSA documents had come from, although the magazine has previously published a series of stories based on documents leaked by Snowden, and one of Snowden’s key contacts — American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras — was listed among the article’s six authors.
No one was immediately available at Der Spiegel to clarify whether Snowden was the source for the latest story.
Another company mentioned by Der Spiegel, though not directly linked with any NSA activity, was Juniper Networks Inc., a computer network equipment maker in Sunnyvale, Calif.
“Juniper Networks recently became aware of, and is currently investigating, alleged security compromises of technology products made by a number of companies, including Juniper,” the company said in an email. “We take allegations of this nature very seriously and are working actively to address any possible exploit paths.”
If necessary, Juniper said, it would, “work closely with customers to ensure they take any mitigation steps.”
The Canadian government has spent $13.2 billion more than it has taken in so far this year, a slightly larger deficit than the one for the same period in 2012.
The Department of Finance said Monday the federal deficit was $13.2 billion for the fiscal year up to October. That’s ahead of the $11.9 billion during the same period in 2012.
But that data is skewed by two major one-time events that impacted Ottawa’s finances: The Alberta floods of last summer, and the government’s sale of $700 million worth of GM shares in September.
Excluding the two events, the annual deficit would have been slightly smaller, at $11.1 billion.
For the fiscal year as a whole, Ottawa has taken in $144.9 billion and spent $158.2 billion so far. On a monthly basis, October’s deficit was $2.5 billion, the same as the one from the same month last year.
“The Government remains on track to balance the budget in 2015,” the department said in a release.
Federal Judge Strikes Down NSA’s Bulk Metadata Program: “I Cannot Imagine a More ‘Indiscriminate’ and ‘Arbitrary Invasion’ Than This Systematic and High-Tech Collection and Retention of Personal Data On Virtually Every Single Citizen” Washington’s Blog
Federal Judge Strikes Down NSA’s Bulk Metadata Program: “I Cannot Imagine a More ‘Indiscriminate’ and ‘Arbitrary Invasion’ Than This Systematic and High-Tech Collection and Retention of Personal Data On Virtually Every Single Citizen” Washington’s Blog.
“The Government Does Not Cite A Single Instance In Which Analysis Of The NSA’s Bulk Metadata Collection Actually Stopped An Imminent Attack”
A federal court has just struck down the NSA’s bulk metadata spying program today.
The court notes:
The Government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the Government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.
There is no indication that these revelations were immediately useful or that they prevented an impending attack.
I have serious doubts about the efficacy of the metadata collection program as a means of conducting time-sensitive investigations in cases involving imminent threats of terrorism.
The Fourth Amendment typically requires “a neutral and detached authority be interposed between the police and the public,” and it is offended by “general warrants” and laws that allow searches to be conducted “indiscriminately and without regard to their connection with [a] crime under investigation.”
I cannot imagine a more “indiscriminate” and “arbitrary invasion” than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval. Surely, such a program infringes on “that degree of privacy” that the Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment. Indeed, I have little doubt that the author of our Constitution, James Madison, who cautioned us to beware “the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power,” would be aghast.
The judge is right:
- Mass surveillance has not stopped a single terrorist attack
- Top counter-terror experts say that the government’s mass spying doesn’t keep us safe; moreover, they say that mass spying actually hurts U.S. counter-terror efforts (more here and here), andweakens digital security
- Experts say (including congress members) say that the spying program is illegal, and is exactly the kind of thing which King George imposed on the American colonists … which led to the Revolutionary War
- Two American presidents and a vice president say that NSA spying is turning the U.S. into a dictatorship
- Indeed, most Congress members had no idea what the NSA is doing. Even staunch defenders of the NSA – and congress members on the intelligence oversight committees – now say they’ve been kept in the dark
- The FISA court provides no real oversight. Even the current judges on the secret spying court now admit that they’re out of the loop and powerless to exercise real oversight
National Affairs Specialist
Greg Weston is an investigative reporter and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio and Television. Based in Ottawa, he has afflicted governments of all stripes for over three decades. His investigative work has won awards including the coveted Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism. He is also the author of two best-selling books, Reign of Error and The Stopwatch Gang.
The revelation that a little-known Canadian intelligence operation has been electronically spying on trading partners and other nations around the world, at the request of the U.S. National Security Agency, has critics wondering who’s keeping an eye on our spies.
The answer is a watchdog, mostly muzzled and defanged, whose reports to Parliament are first censored by the intelligence agency he is watching, then cleared by the minister politically responsible for any problems in the first place.
By the time the reports reach the public, they are rarely newsworthy.
The Harper government recently appointed a new oversight commissioner for Canada’s electronic spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment Canada. But he will be only part-time until next April.
Even then, Senator Hugh Segal, the chief of staff to former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and someone with a long involvement in security intelligence issues, says any notion of effective public oversight of Canada’s electronic spying agency is “more like a prayer” than fact.
The debate over who’s keeping tabs on our spies has heightened in recent days following a CBC News report detailing a top secret document retrieved by American whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The document shows that the agency known as CSEC set up covert spying posts around the world at the request of the giant NSA.
Both agencies gather intelligence by intercepting mostly foreign phone calls and hacking into computer systems around the world.
U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered a widespread investigation of the NSA after leaked Snowden documents revealed the agency was gathering massive amounts of information on millions of American citizens.
In this country, the Harper government simply keeps pointing to CSEC’s oversight commissioner as proof that Canadians have nothing to worry about.
As Defence Minister Rob Nicholson told the Commons this week: “There is a commissioner that looks into CSEC [and] every year for 16 years has confirmed that they’ve acted within lawful activities.”
Well, not exactly.
‘Contrary to law’
Only months ago, the recently retired CSEC commissioner, Justice Robert Decary, stated in his final report that he had uncovered records suggesting some of CSEC’s spying activities “may have been directed at Canadians, contrary to law.”
The retired justice said the CSEC records were so unclear or incomplete that he was unable to determine whether the agency had been operating legally.
Decary’s predecessor, Justice Charles Gonthier, filed the same complaint about incomplete or missing records in his day, which forced him to report in a similar fashion that he could not determine if CSEC had been breaking the law.
Gonthier also alluded to a CSEC operation in 2006 that he suggested may have been illegal.
The head of CSEC at the time, John Adams, recently told CBC News that, as a result of that discovery, “I shut the place down for a while.”
However, intelligence experts have told CBC News that the oversight problems at CSEC are much deeper than poor record-keeping.
They say successive commissioners have simply lacked both the resources and the legal mandate to conduct meaningful oversight.
The current commissioner, Judge Jean-Pierre Plouffe, operates with a staff of 11, about half of whom actually work on investigations, largely to ensure CSEC isn’t abusing its powers by spying on Canadians.
But CSEC employs over 2,000 people who covertly collect masses of information recently described as more data per day than all the country’s banking transactions combined.
As Segal says, the result is obvious: “When there are thousands of people at CSEC processing millions of messages every day of all kinds, the notion that a group of 11 might be able to provide proper oversight is more like a prayer than any kind of constructive statement of fact.”
Not exactly as written
Of course, even if a commissioner did discover something seriously amiss at the electronic eavesdropping agency, there is a chance Canadians would never know.
Here’s how the system works:
Suppose the commissioner’s oversight sleuths discover that CSEC is illegally intercepting phone calls and hacking into the computers of certain Canadians.
The oversight commissioner is required to report his discovery in a top secret report to the defence minister.
That happens to be the same minister responsible for CSEC, and from whom the agency gets its government direction.
It is also the minister who would be at the centre of any CSEC scandal if news of this breach leaked out.
If the minister refuses to expose his own agency’s wrongdoing, the oversight commissioner can try to use his annual report to Parliament to do that.
But a funny thing happens on the way to Parliament.
First, CSEC gets to censor the entire report. Then it goes back to the same defence minister.
The minister is required to present the sanitized version of the report to Parliament, but has no obligation to mention it is not exactly as originally written.
Former CSEC chief Adams admits the agency is “very, very biased towards the less the public knows the better.”
He points out that in the spying business, opening an agency’s operations to full public scrutiny “would be kind of like unilateral disarmament, because if Canadians know everything CSEC can and can’t do, then everyone else will too.”
But as the leaked Snowden documents continue to force back the curtains at CSEC, Adams says it is time to find a better way to reassure Canadians about what they are doing.
“I think a knowledgeable Canadian is going to be much easier to deal with,” he says.
If the public reaction to the Snowden revelations is any indication, Canadians are all ears.
Canada’s electronic spy agency is defending its espionage activities against countries around the world, including trading partners — often at the request of the U.S. — as necessary to support government decision-making and provide a better understanding of global events.
The statement came in response to questions that CBC News posed to the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the little-known spy service that collects intelligence by intercepting mainly foreign communications and hacking into computer data systems.
CBC News reported Monday that a top secret document retrieved by American whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals Canada has set up covert spying posts at the request of the giant U.S. National Security Agency, and is involved in joint espionage operations with the NSA in about 20 countries.
CSEC says it has a “mandate to intercept foreign communications signals to respond to government of Canada priorities.”
The agency says it collects foreign intelligence “to protect Canadians from threats, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”
It is not clear in either the leaked Snowden document or CSEC’s response to it, what kind of threats Canada faces that would require it to conduct espionage against 20 countries, including some of its important trading partners.
The secret document reveals that Canada has undertaken spying operations in countries that are “unavailable” to the NSA, as well as setting up listening posts “at the request” of the U.S. agency.
CBC News asked CSEC whether it does whatever the NSA asks it to do.
The agency replied that its activities respond only to the priorities of the Canadian government, “many of which are common to our allies.”
All of this sparked some heated questions for the Harper government in the House of Commons today.
NDP MP Jack Harris demanded to know whether the government would implement some form of parliamentary oversight of the spy service in light of the CBC News report.
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, who is responsible for CSEC, pointed out only that the operations of the intelligence service are already reviewed by an oversight commissioner.
That commissioner reports to Nicholson.
Ed Snowden’s latest revelation may leave SEC officials quaking as the NSA “has been gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches.” Of course, as we have seen, this ‘information’ would never be used by the government for non-radical-terrorist suppressing reasons, as the ACLU notes, is is “an unwelcome reminder of what it means to give an intelligence agency unfettered access to individuals’ most sensitive information using tactics associated with the secret police services of authoritarian governments.”
The National Security Agency has been gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches, according to a top-secret NSA document.
The document, provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, identifies six targets, all Muslims, as “exemplars” of how “personal vulnerabilities” can be learned through electronic surveillance, and then exploited to undermine a target’s credibility, reputation and authority.
The NSA document, dated Oct. 3, 2012, repeatedly refers to the power of charges of hypocrisy to undermine such a messenger.”
Full ACLU Statement:
The NSA considered discrediting six people by revealing surveillance evidence of their online sexual activity, visits to pornography websites, and other personal information, according to a report today in The Huffington Post. The article cited documents leaked by former NSA contactor Edward Snowden. The targets of the NSA’s plan were all Muslims whom the NSA characterized as “radicals” but who were not believed to be involved in terrorism. The documents say one of the targets was a “U.S. person,” a term describing American citizens and legal permanent residents, but all of the targets were reportedly outside the United States.
American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer had this reaction:
“This report is an unwelcome reminder of what it means to give an intelligence agency unfettered access to individuals’ most sensitive information. One ordinarily associates these kinds of tactics with the secret police services of authoritarian governments. That these tactics have been adopted by the world’s leading democracy – and the world’s most powerful intelligence agency – is truly chilling.”
A federal review agency says sensitive information gathered by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service could be abused by Canada’s allies due to lax sharing policies.
In its annual report, the watchdog that keeps an eye on CSIS flags concerns about what happens to intelligence that CSIS passes to the national eavesdropping agency, which in turn shares the details with foreign allies.
- EXCLUSIVE | Inside Canada’s top-secret billion-dollar spy palace
- EXCLUSIVE | Spy agency CSEC needs MPs’ oversight, ex-director says
- CSEC: What do we know about Canada’s eavesdropping agency?
The report underscores the fact CSIS is collaborating ever more closely with Communications Security Establishment Canada, which has come under scrutiny lately due to its participation in the international Five Eyes alliance.
CSEC, which monitors foreign telephone, satellite and Internet traffic, shares information with the U.S. National Security Agency and counterparts in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
The American NSA has been the subject of almost daily headlines due to leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden that have revealed the agency’s vast surveillance of worldwide communications.
In its report, tabled in Parliament, the Security Intelligence Review Committee recommends CSIS develop clearer and more robust principles of co-operation with CSEC to ensure appropriate information sharing.
- BC Civil Liberties Association launches lawsuit against Canadian government over CSEC spying (blogs.vancouversun.com)
- Are you in Canada’s cyberspy data banks? Maybe. But good luck getting that info (globalnews.ca)
- Canadians sue their own government over domestic spying (dailydot.com)
- Allegations of CSEC spying against Brazil raise calls for greater oversight of secretive agency (canada.com)
Head of Congressional Intelligence Committee: “You Can’t Have Your Privacy Violated If You Don’t KNOW Your Privacy Is Violated” | Washington’s Blog
Argues Spying Okay As Long As Government Doesn’t Get Caught
The chair of the House Intelligence Committee – Mike Rogers – said yesterday in an NSA spying hearing which he led that there is no right to privacy in America.
Constitutional expert Stephen I. Vladeck – Professor of Law and the Associate Dean for Scholarship at American University Washington College of Law – disagreed.
Here’s the exchange:
Rogers: I would argue the fact that we haven’t had any complaints come forward with any specificity arguing that their privacy has been violated, clearly indicates, in ten years, clearly indicates that something must be doing right. Somebody must be doing something exactly right.
Vladeck: But who would be complaining?
Rogers: Somebody who’s privacy was violated. You can’t have your privacy violated if you don’t know your privacy is violated.
Vladeck: I disagree with that. If a tree falls in the forest, it makes a noise whether you’re there to see it or not.
Rogers: Well that’s a new interesting standard in the law. We’re going to have this conversation… but we’re going to have wine, because that’s going to get a lot more interesting…
What Rogers is really saying is that the government has the right to spy on everyone so long as it doesn’t get caught doing so.
How’s that different from arguing that it’s okay for a thief to takes $100 from your bank account as long as you don’t notice that the money is missing? Or that it’s okay to rape a woman while she’s passed out so long as she doesn’t realize what happened?
That’s beyond ridiculous.
It flies in the face of more than 200 years of American law. In fact, experts say that the NSA spying program is wildly illegal, and is exactly the kind of thing which King George imposed on the American colonists … which led to the Revolutionary War.
- Head of Congressional Intelligence Committee: “You Can’t Have Your Privacy Violated If You Don’t KNOW Your Privacy Is Violated” (fromthetrenchesworldreport.com)
- Jon Stewart says NSA spying is like health care: ‘If you never find that tumor in your b*ll sack, it can’t kill you’ (rawstory.com)
- Rep. Mike Rogers Angrily Defends Bathroom Spycam (popehat.com)
- CISPA and You – A Guide To Privacy (theblogpirate.wordpress.com)
The “Five Eyes” Spy On Economic Rivals
It has long been clear that the NSA spying program is being used for industrial espionage, by spying onlarge foreign corporations, and the biggest financial payments systems such as VISA and Swift. Indeed, in a slide leaked by Edward Snowden, “economic” was one of the main justifications for spying.
And it has long been known that the “Five Eyes” – the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand – share their spying information amongst themselves.
So it should not come as a total surprise that other members of the Five Eyes – such as Canada – are also engaged in industrial espionage.
Specifically, documents leaked by Edward Snowden show that Canadian spies targeted Brazil’s Mines and Energy Ministry.
The government’s repudiation of this serious and unacceptable violation of national sovereignty and the rights of people and companies…
- Harper ‘Very Concerned’ By Reports Of Canada Spying On Brazil (olduvaiblog.wordpress.com)
- Brazil accuses Canada of spying after NSA leaks (theguardian.com)
- Harper ‘very concerned’ over Brazil spy claims (globalnews.ca)
US Government Fails Honesty Standards of 12 Year Olds
Government leaders have been caught in lie after lie about spying … but keep on spouting new lies:
- The heads of the intelligence services have repeatedly been caught lying about spying … again andagain and again and again. Security expert Bruce Schneier writes: “This is getting silly … Now they’re just looking shiftier and shiftier.” It has gotten so bad that a leading groups concludes: “US Government Fails Honesty Standards of 12 Year Olds“. And even liberal publications are forced to conclude that Obama is intentionally lying about spying
- Obama says he’ll rein in spying … but his words and deeds indicate that he won’t. Indeed, Obamaappointed the fox to guard the chicken coop
- While the Obama administration is spying on everyone in the country – it is at the same time themost secretive administration ever (background). That’s despite Obama saying he’s running the most transparent administration ever…