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posted by martyb on Wednesday November 22 2023, @03:13AM   Printer-friendly
from the who's-looking-at-you,-kid? dept.

[Editor's note. I found it unnerving to see tracking links in this article. I encourage readers to "right-click" and "view source" on each link before actually clicking on each link in the article. (I despise trackers!) You have been warned. --Martyb]

Here's what you need to know.

For the past week my social feeds have been filled with a pretty important tech policy debate that I want to key you in on: the renewal of a controversial program of American surveillance.

The program, outlined in Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), was created in 2008. It was designed to expand the power of US agencies to collect electronic “foreign intelligence information,” whether about spies, terrorists, or cybercriminals abroad, and to do so without a warrant.

Tech companies, in other words, are compelled to hand over communications records like phone calls, texts, and emails to US intelligence agencies including the FBI, CIA, and NSA. A lot of data about Americans who communicate with people internationally gets swept up in these searches. Critics say that is unconstitutional.

Despite a history of abuses by intelligence agencies, Section 702 was successfully renewed in both 2012 and 2017. The program, which has to be periodically renewed by Congress, is set to expire again at the end of December. But a broad group that transcends parties is calling for reforming the program, out of concern about the vast surveillance it enables. Here is what you need to know.

Of particular concern is that while the program intends to target people who aren’t Americans, a lot of data from US citizens gets swept up if they communicate with anyone abroad—and, again, this is without a warrant. The 2022 annual report on the program revealed that intelligence agencies ran searches on an estimated 3.4 million “US persons” during the previous year; that’s an unusually high number for the program, though the FBI attributed it to an uptick in investigations of Russia-based cybercrime that targeted US infrastructure. Critics have raised alarms about the ways the FBI has used the program to surveil Americans including Black Lives Matter activistsand a member of Congress.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer this week, over 25 civil society organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said they “strongly oppose even a short-term reauthorization of Section 702.”

Wikimedia, the foundation that runs Wikipedia, also opposes the program in its current form, saying it leaves international open-source projects vulnerable to surveillance. “Wikimedia projects are edited and governed by nearly 300,000 volunteers around the world who share free knowledge and serve billions of readers globally. Under Section 702, every interaction on these projects is currently subject to surveillance by the NSA,” says a spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation. “Research shows that online surveillance has a ‘chilling effect’ on Wikipedia users, who will engage in self-censorship to avoid the threat of governmental reprisals for accurately documenting or accessing certain kinds of information.”

The main supporters of the program’s reauthorization are the intelligence agencies themselves, which say it enables them to gather critical information about foreign adversaries and online criminal activities like ransomware and cyberattacks.

In defense of the provision, FBI director Christopher Wray has also pointed to procedural changes at the bureau in recent years that have reduced the number of Americans being surveilled from 3.4 million in 2021 to 200,000 in 2022.

The Biden administration has also broadly pushed for the reauthorization of Section 702 without reform.

“Section 702 is a necessary instrument within the intelligence community, leveraging the United States’ global telecommunication footprint through legal and court-approved means,” says Sabine Neschke, a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Ultimately, Congress must strike a balance between ensuring national security and safeguarding individual rights.”

The proposal to reform the program, called the Government Surveillance Reform Act, was announced last week and focuses on narrowing the government’s authority to collect information on US citizens.

It would require warrants to collect Americans’ location data and web browsing or search records under the program and documentation that the queries were “reasonably likely to retrieve foreign intelligence information.” In a hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security on Wednesday, Wray said that a warrant requirement would be a “significant blow” to the program, calling it a “de facto ban.”

Senator Ron Wyden, who cosponsored the reform bill and sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has said he won’t vote to renew the program unless some of its powers are curbed. “Congress must have a real debate about reforming warrantless government surveillance of Americans,” Wyden said in a statement to MIT Technology Review. “Therefore, the administration and congressional leaders should listen to the overwhelming bipartisan coalition that supports adopting common-sense protections for Americans’ privacy and extending key national security authorities at the same time.”

The reform bill does not, as some civil society groups had hoped, limit the government’s powers for surveillance of people outside of the US.

While it’s not yet clear whether these reforms will pass, intelligence agencies have never faced such a broad, bipartisan coalition of opponents. As for what happens next, we’ll have to wait and see.

Original Submission

Related Stories

The Internet Enabled Mass Surveillance. A.I. Will Enable Mass Spying 30 comments

Spying has always been limited by the need for human labor. A.I. is going to change that:

Spying and surveillance are different but related things. If I hired a private detective to spy on you, that detective could hide a bug in your home or car, tap your phone, and listen to what you said. At the end, I would get a report of all the conversations you had and the contents of those conversations. If I hired that same private detective to put you under surveillance, I would get a different report: where you went, whom you talked to, what you purchased, what you did.

Before the internet, putting someone under surveillance was expensive and time-consuming. You had to manually follow someone around, noting where they went, whom they talked to, what they purchased, what they did, and what they read. That world is forever gone. Our phones track our locations. Credit cards track our purchases. Apps track whom we talk to, and e-readers know what we read. Computers collect data about what we're doing on them, and as both storage and processing have become cheaper, that data is increasingly saved and used. What was manual and individual has become bulk and mass. Surveillance has become the business model of the internet, and there's no reasonable way for us to opt out of it.

Spying is another matter. It has long been possible to tap someone's phone or put a bug in their home and/or car, but those things still require someone to listen to and make sense of the conversations. Yes, spyware companies like NSO Group help the government hack into people's phones, but someone still has to sort through all the conversations. And governments like China could censor social media posts based on particular words or phrases, but that was coarse and easy to bypass. Spying is limited by the need for human labor.

A.I. is about to change that.

[...] We could limit this capability. We could prohibit mass spying. We could pass strong data-privacy rules. But we haven't done anything to limit mass surveillance. Why would spying be any different?


Original Submission

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  • (Score: 5, Informative) by takyon on Wednesday November 22 2023, @09:05AM

    by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Wednesday November 22 2023, @09:05AM (#1333843) Journal

    "history of abuses" link in TFA, removed in the summary here, leads to this:

    The page that you are trying to access cannot be loaded.
    Due to an internal error, this web page could not be loaded. We recommend that you close this page.
    Microsoft Defender for Office 365 has encountered an error.

    Learn more about Microsoft Defender for Office 365

    Never seen that warning before. It's likely to be lazy rather than malicious intent, but it's a good time to remind everyone they literally killed Aaron Swartz.

    It's just a link to the EFF Deeplinks blog, although it had a bunch of cruft on the end. []

    [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 []
  • (Score: 2) by Rosco P. Coltrane on Wednesday November 22 2023, @09:34AM (2 children)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane (4757) on Wednesday November 22 2023, @09:34AM (#1333848)

    At least we know about this one. I'm sure there are 10 more we know nothing about. Because Nashunal Security...

    • (Score: 2) by crafoo on Wednesday November 22 2023, @01:13PM (1 child)

      by crafoo (6639) on Wednesday November 22 2023, @01:13PM (#1333857)

      you may be right, but without any actual evidence or comment to make, such a comment is nothing but pure demoralization. Why would you say that? What is the purpose?

      • (Score: 4, Touché) by Rosco P. Coltrane on Wednesday November 22 2023, @01:37PM

        by Rosco P. Coltrane (4757) on Wednesday November 22 2023, @01:37PM (#1333860)

        I'm sorry, I didn't know maintaining your morale was more important than reminding people they live in an obscene dystopia, and that most stuff they get to learn about are probably decoys to distract them from the rest and keep them thinking democracy still functions.

  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Thexalon on Wednesday November 22 2023, @11:57AM

    by Thexalon (636) on Wednesday November 22 2023, @11:57AM (#1333852)

    I'm quite certain that this effort will eventually be defunded. Just like its predecessor, "Total Information Awareness" (rebranded "Terrorism Information Awareness" halfway through due to the bad press about it), was defunded back in 2003, a little over 20 years ago. And they solved that problem by renaming what they were doing and splitting it among several different teams or agencies so it no longer was the thing that Congress said they couldn't do, so presumably will find some sort of way to make Section 702 continue in some way or form.

    As long as the tech exists to do something like this, the feds will do something like this, regardless of what politicians have to say about it. And the tech exists, easily. So you should assume that you are being watched pretty much everywhere the feds can watch you, and should you become interesting to them (e.g. you have a bad date with somebody with access to this stuff) they will look you up and learn anything interesting or embarrassing that they can for use against you.

    The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by crafoo on Wednesday November 22 2023, @01:18PM (12 children)

    by crafoo (6639) on Wednesday November 22 2023, @01:18PM (#1333858)

    We will not be able to remove these laws without first removing the people that created them and continue to support them from within the government. From both elected and unelected positions. To do this you must first identify who these people are and how they conduct themselves.

    who are the neo-cons? how did they gain power? how did they maintain power? which foreign interloping meddlers fund them and direct them?

    also realize that staff appointees hide in think tanks/spook tanks while their patrons are temporarily out of power.

    • (Score: 5, Interesting) by crafoo on Wednesday November 22 2023, @01:23PM (4 children)

      by crafoo (6639) on Wednesday November 22 2023, @01:23PM (#1333859) []

      I'm not making a value judgement on project 2025 or the people behind it. But maybe take 20 minutes or so and look at the brief biographies of the people running Heritage Foundation. Do they have America's best interest in mind? Do they want America to be a free and prosperous nation, free of all foreign entanglements?

      • (Score: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 22 2023, @05:58PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 22 2023, @05:58PM (#1333875)

        No, of course not. They want an institutional hierarchy on steroids. Favors and free passes for those in the in-group and toil and labor for everyone else. It's basically a religion - Scientology - based on hocus pocus but with very strict hierarchical order. That is in fact all it is - a hierarchy, either belief in it (the Great Man theory) or simply a belief in the favors accorded those in the hierarchy (every shitty clique in the Universe).

      • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Thursday November 23 2023, @02:49AM (2 children)

        by Reziac (2489) on Thursday November 23 2023, @02:49AM (#1333914) Homepage

        That's a good question, and I expect the real answer is that Heritage has been around long enough to succumb to Pournelle's Iron Law.

        And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
        • (Score: 2) by crafoo on Thursday November 23 2023, @05:56AM (1 child)

          by crafoo (6639) on Thursday November 23 2023, @05:56AM (#1333925)

          while I catch the theme of your post, I do not think so. I believe the people staffing the HF have a specific end-goal in mind.

          • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Thursday November 23 2023, @06:55AM

            by Reziac (2489) on Thursday November 23 2023, @06:55AM (#1333932) Homepage


            I have long believed that the Libertarian Party is in fact controlled by the DNC, for the express purpose of splitting the conservative vote. I don't know how that relates to HF. (Can't say I pay them special attention.)

            And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
    • (Score: 2) by epitaxial on Wednesday November 22 2023, @08:56PM (6 children)

      by epitaxial (3165) on Wednesday November 22 2023, @08:56PM (#1333890)

      The right hates Bernie Sanders but he has consistently voted against these things going back to the Patriot Act. Here he is voting no for section 702 back in 2018. []

      • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Thursday November 23 2023, @02:39AM (4 children)

        by Reziac (2489) on Thursday November 23 2023, @02:39AM (#1333911) Homepage

        From over here on the scary right... I don't even particularly dislike Bernie Sanders, tho I think he's a tool, and wrong about most things.

        But yeah, sometimes he's right.

        Tho my cynical little voice wonders if his vote was because of his own foreign interests better not investigated. (We all know where he honeymooned.)

        And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
        • (Score: 2) by tekk on Thursday November 23 2023, @05:05AM (3 children)

          by tekk (5704) Subscriber Badge on Thursday November 23 2023, @05:05AM (#1333921)

          In a country which'd collapsed 10 years prior and which had its political system demonstrably under the thumb of the US only a handful of years before?

      • (Score: 2) by crafoo on Thursday November 23 2023, @05:59AM

        by crafoo (6639) on Thursday November 23 2023, @05:59AM (#1333926)

        Bernie is the left-hand side of the kosher sandwich. Use deductive thinking (in contrast to inductive) and break out of the prison they have constructed for your mind. Look around you. Take note of verifiable facts.