Surprised, or maybe not surprised. According to senior NSA official Bill Binney, the US government is all up in your bidness all day every day. They’re not peering into your window, and they may not know you by name, but every email, credit card transaction, phone call and internet search goes through a filter, where data is analyzed for trends and possible threats.
Binney, a career NSA employee who first volunteered for the army in the mid-1960s, has now become a high-profile thorn in the side of NSA chiefs when they deny the programme’s existence.
At a hacking conference this summer in Las Vegas, NSA director General Keith Alexander said the NSA “absolutely” did not keep files on Americans.
“Anyone who would tell you that we’re keeping files or dossiers on the American people knows that’s not true,” Alexander told an audience of computer and security experts. But Binney himself was at the same conference and publicly accused Alexander of playing a “word game”.
“Once the software takes in data, it will build profiles on everyone in that data,” he told a convention panel there.
Binney’s outspokenness has earned him media appearances on shows across America’s political spectrum ranging from ultra-conservative Glenn Beck’s TV show to the liberal radio icon of Democracy Now.
“This is not a political issue. People on both sides are concerned,” Binney said.
The story Binney tells is one of extreme over-reaction by America’s national security establishment post-9/11. He recounts developing a small software system, called ThinThread, in the late 1990s at the NSA where he was the technical director of the organisation’s 6,000-strong World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group.
ThinThread correlated data from emails, phone calls, credit card payments and Internet searches and stored and mapped it in ways that could be analysed.
Binney wanted to use ThinThread to track foreign threats but it worked too well and kept catching data on Americans too.
So Binney’s team built in safeguards that encrypted that data. But, by 2000, the NSA decided to go with developing a larger scale programme called Trailblazer to be built by outside contractors (that eventually failed to make it past the design stage) and ThinThread was effectively mothballed.
Then September 11 happened. Within a few weeks, Binney says, he realised parts of ThinThread were now being used by the NSA in a massive and secret surveillance operation.
But his safeguards had been removed allowing for far more targeted surveillance of American citizens. “I knew the dangers so I built in protections. And you could still find the bad guys with the protections in it. But that wasn’t what they wanted so they took those things out,” Binney said.
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