There is a bizarre disconnect between news coverage of Internet surveillance and censorship in Iran and here in the US. To a certain point, this has some rational basis: after all, US citizens are not out in the street laying down their lives in defense of democracy. Here in the US, nine years ago we all stayed home and watched on TV while the Supreme Court handed a contested election to George W. Bush.
Be that as it may, Americans need to take a deep breath and a look in the mirror, for the same technical surveillance capabilities being used and abused in Iran are being used - and abused - here at home.
A lead article in today's Wall Street Journal reports on the Iranian government's web surveillance technologies, specifically a "monitoring center" installed last year within the government's telecom monopoly, provided to the theocratic state by the Finnish cell phone giant Nokia and the German electronics conglomerate Siemens AG. According to the WSJ, the technology enables the Iranian state to scan through vast amounts of electronic communications searching for particular keywords and the like. This is ominous, because it suggests that the Iranian authorities may have been tracking the identity of those who have been emailing and tweeting about opposition activities over the last week, and may now be in a position to begin picking these people off in a highly targeted way, if they are not doing so already.
Incredibly, this lead story in this leading news publication also tells us
in the U.S., the National Security Agency has such capability, which was employed as part of the Bush administration's "Terrorist Surveillance Program." A White House official wouldn't comment on if or how this is being used under the Obama administration.
Hello? That's it? Really?
Time to review what we know, and what we don't know, about Internet surveillance in the US.
In 2005, AT&T technician Mark Klein "blew the whistle" on the existence of a secret "monitoring center" at AT&T's facility located at 611 Folsom Street in San Francisco, where a complete copy of all the Internet traffic AT&T receives at that center is diverted onto a separate fiber-optic cable which is connected to a room secretly run by the NSA. Subsequent lawsuits by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as congressional hearings, have established that there are at least 15 to 20 other such "monitoring centers" at other AT&T facilities around the country and possibly more, and likely equivalents at other corporate facilities. All of which is completely unconstitutional and illegal.
Unfortunately, much of the effort to find out exactly what happens in these "monitoring centers" was derailed last year when congress passed and President Bush signed the FISA Amendments Act (FISAAA), which gave the giant telecomms retroactive immunity for breaking the law in facilitating the illegal NSA surveillance. Then-candidate Barack Obama initially promised to join Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold in a filibuster against the law, then reversed himself and voted for it, triggering intense dissent among his activist base. Obama defended his flip-flop arguing that the revised law would create a legal structure for ensuring that state surveillance of electronic communications was kept within constitutional bounds.
Last April, less than a year after FISAAA was passed and only three months into Obama's term, the administration announced it had already "discovered" that the NSA has been - surprise surprise - engaging in "significant and systemic... overcollection" of domestic communications between Americans. In other words, the NSA was and is engaged in exactly what Obama had preposterously claimed the new law would prevent.
Then just last month, a federal appeals court dismissed dozens of lawsuits challenging illegal domestic surveillance of American citizens, ruling that FISAAA gave the giant telecomms immunity from liability. Finally, at closed-door congressional hearings just a couple of weeks ago, NSA officials again asked forgiveness for "inadvertent overcollection" of surveillance on American citizens.
The dismissal of the lawsuits brings to a screeching halt the related discovery efforts of the ACLU and EFF to learn exactly what happens in the secret monitoring centers the NSA runs across the country. This was actually one of the main arguments used against the FISAAA legislation last summer: that giving the corporations retroactive immunity would halt the discovery proceedings attached to lawsuits, that were our best shot at learning what goes on in those secret centers. As of a couple of weeks ago, this has come to pass in exactly the manner foreseen.
Meanwhile, with a democratic insurrection exploding on the streets of Tehran, Nokia and Siemens AG are under extreme pressure to fess up and tell the world exactly what is in that monitoring center they built for the Iranian government. Which leaves you and I in the supremely ironic situation that we know less about the surveillance operations of our own government than we do about the surveillance operations of the theocratic Islamic regime in Tehran.
I wonder if there is a word in Farsi for "overcollection."
Fact is, there is no word for it in English either. "Overcollection" is not part of the English language. Google it and you will see that this word was actually born three months ago, birthed in the Obama administration's bumbling effort to explain away the new surveillance regime.
One of the surest clues to the abuse of power is when state officials start inventing new words to describe their own actions.
If you want to know more about what you and I don't know about what our government knows about us, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation at http://www.eff.org.
And remember, what you don't now can hurt you.