Thursday, March 22, 2012

How the NSA Will Use Your Emails and Phone Calls Against You

I was quite surprised by the reaction to my post on the Utah Data Center being built for the National Security Agency. It appears the center will be a depository for complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.”

The reaction from many readers was one of unconcern, with the general thought being that it is too much data to look through. However, my concern is more with the ability to "look back" at conversations and emails of the past that you, at the time, thought were harmless.

Consider this report about Goldman Sachs, today:
 Goldman Sachs has begun scanning internal emails for the term "muppet" and other evidence that employees referred to clients in derogatory ways, Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein told partners in a conference call this week, according to people familiar with the call. 
The company-wide email review comes after an executive director named Greg Smith resigned last week in a scathing op-ed column in the New York Times in which he said he saw five Goldman managing directors refer to clients as "muppets," at times over internal email.
Although it is not too bright to refer to clients as "muppets",  I'm sure that no Goldman Sachs employee ever imagined that GS would scour all emails for anyone using the term.

Could you be using some term that might turn into a hot term that the NSA focuses in on? Or perhaps you communicate by phone or email or both with someone that, unbeknownst to you, has become a person of interest to the NSA? Will the NSA run a background communication on this person to see who he has communicated with over the last 5 years and find you? With multitudes of data to cross-check, the number of coincidences that show up will be huge.

There are a lot of ways the Utah Center could cause major problems for innocents. Major coincidences, for one, will be flagged much more often with such a center.

Major coincidences do occur that would be hard to explain as coincidence. Consider: An important client of mine once asked me to check out a Los Angeles-based commodities firm. I flew out to LA and spent two days at the firm. From what the firm would and wouldn't show me relative to their trading documents, I concluded it was some kind of scam and told my client to stay away.

The next week I was in Chicago and saw three interesting ladies at a table at Tavern on Rush. As Bob Murphy  can explain, I have my own unique way of dealing with such a situation by plowing right into the conversation and introducing myself. The gals were just about to leave, so I say to the table, "You know, you all look like interesting ladies, but at least you (and I acknowledge the very attractive one) have to stick around for one more drink."

The others left, she stayed. As we talked I learned she worked for a commodities firm. I then learned that her brothers owned the firm. It turned out that the firm was the clearing firm for the LA firm I was just at. I asked about the LA firm.She told me they were her firms largest client.

The next day the CFTC brought major charges against the LA firm and also against the Chicago firm as some kind of co-conspirator.

Now, if this gal talked to the head of the LA firm and tells him about my approach to her and my questions about the firm, they have to think I'm working for the government trying to get some dirt.

But, here's where things get really crazy. Six months later I'm back in Chicago and walking on State St. and need to go to the restroom. I walk into the Embassy Suites Hotel, which I wasn't staying at and had never been in before. After leaving the restroom, I walked back through the lobby and see standing in line for check-in, the head of the LA commodity firm. He was clearly stunned to see me, as I was to see him. I stopped and talked for a minute and he told me he was checking in for his trial which was starting the next day.

This was all coincidence, but it would be pretty difficult to get the head of that LA commodity firm to believe such.

With the data the NSA is going to store, all kinds of wacky coincidences are going to pop up that are totally innocent but very difficult to explain. And, it is going to be totally random, once they start running different screens, as to who gets caught and harassed because of a series of coincidences.

Innocent people are probably now sitting in jail because of bad groups of coincidences. The Utah Center sounds to me like a huge search engine that will churn out all kinds of coincidences  that will cause trouble for many, many innocents. Coincidences on steroids, if you will. And that's only one of the ways data on steroids will be used against us.


  1. Great story. Bring back the Robert Wenzel Show!

  2. I think you're missing the main concern of this program. Sure it's a concern that anyone's name might be spit out by the suspicious-person algorithm. But the bigger problem is that there is now a wealth of evidence that can be combined with the expanse of laws (see "Three Felonies A Day"), and the only thing saving us is that they can't monitor all of us at once. They can find criminalizing evidence on anyone just by mining the data, so the game is now to avoid giving them a reason to focus on you.

    The NSA can now say:

    “Show me the man and I'll find you the crime.”

  3. Anyone who has not seen "Enemy of the State" with Will Smith and Gene Hackman, needs to see it NOW!!!

  4. If you have ever been involved in a witch hunt, either as a hunter or a prospective witch, you know that it doesn't take much to find one. Run astray of anyone powerful in an organization or appear weak when they require a patsy and your done. Ain't it grand.

  5. If u want a wingman when u r in nyc let me know

    1. Can I find you in the phone book?

  6. The pols are going to run into a wall soon, because of debt. Then the revolution starts and we would seem either to go to totalitarianism or the break-up of the nation.

  7. “Show me the man and I'll find you the crime.” that sums it up pretty well.

  8. Saw a film called "Trumbo" last night about the blacklisting of Hollywood screenwriters (centred on Dalton Trumbo) for allegedly being commies (during McCarthyism). Their lives were destroyed even though most had fought in WW2 against the Japanese or Germans. Great film, and a great warning.

    "Are you or ever have you been a member of the Communist party?" Electronic data trails will allow substitution of the last two words with just about anything the witch hunters please....

  9. I am greatly concerned that even a reflective outlet like your fails to set the debate in the proper linguistic framework. While police state practices undoubtedly ensnare 'the innocent,' and pester everyone else, the real problem lies with the terrifying fact that a group of people representing certain ideological, political, and financial interests, has arrogantly usurped the right to define what constitutes innocence, good, evil, worth, and various other existential foundations. They have subsequently enshrined their beliefs into law, then into enforcement, and today we are waking up to the sound of boots, having not heeded the underlying outrage.

  10. Not just annoying, time consuming, harassment, this could get very expensive, and be an easy way to shut down, shut up, or otherwise immobilize dissidents. Nice Orwellian tool to keep people in line with the prescribed propaganda.

  11. If you follow Wayne Madsen, reporter and ex-Navy man, he used to work at NSA and has contacts there feeding him stories about the SES and upper managers being so very corrupt and degenerate that not only do rhey feel entitled to all kinds of fraud, waste and abuse, as well as indulging in sexually predatory practices on their own employees (demanding sex from women AND men) for promotions, but they have also turned rheir Decurity force into a deviant brown shirt harassment and intimidation force that not only works ON NSA property but also operates freely within Maryland due to coopted and bribed police, local, and atate officials.

  12. I commented, but tour aite frize it and wrased it.


  14. Laugh if you must (nervously maybe) but this is the onset of pre-crime (think Minority Report but using computer simulations as "pre-cogs"). The NSA data warehouse will be mined using software designed to look for threat markers. With NDAA now in place, military units can easily be dispatched to black bag the "suspect" the program spits out. Keep in mind, the standard for disappearing someone is "suspicion" which could simply be algorithmic. Better to be rid of a threat before it manifests as a real threat, right?

  15. This is just like the file that your employer builds on you, including the policies that you signed off on as a condition of your employment. If they one day decide to hang you, they have the justification right there.
    How's that make you feel?