Despite another whistleblower
detailing the National Security Agency’s alleged practice of collecting and analysing virtually all U.S. electronic communications, many Americans are still sceptical about the allegations that America is essentially a surveillance state.They shouldn’t be, according to cyber security expert Mark Wuergler.
Wuergler, the chief senior security researcher at security firm Immunity, told us that he is “not surprised in the least that this is happening,” and actually “would be surprised if it wasn’t happening — from an agency like that, it would mean they are not doing their job.”
The NSA’s official mandate is to listen to and decode all foreign communications of interest to the security of the U.S. Wuergler emphasised that the nation’s premier covert intelligence gathering organisation is good at what it does.
“The government has been watching ever since the NSA was created,” he said. “And they’ve been finding and trying new ways of watching and listening and recording. And they’re really good at it. They’ve perfected their art.”
“If the NSA wants some information, it will find a way to get it,” Wuergler said. “Whether or not it’s via a sophisticated data siphoning attack, paying a guy on the inside, planting a shiny new hire in the right department, they are going to get the information that they’re after.”
The strongest accusation against the NSA is that it hired two Israeli companies to tap the nation’s telecommunications network so that the world’s largest spy agency could continuously collect and data-mining all of the phone and Internet traffic streaming through the country.
“We already know that’s a possibility and with the right amount of money and resources — the NSA has both — then you would be able to come up with [a siphoning system] that would be rather challenging to detect.”
The detection of the domestic dragnet has occurred mostly through whistleblowers like former spy Mike Frost, who told 60 Minutes that all electronic communications are captured and analysed for key words by super computers.
And AT&T engineer Mark Klein, who stumbled into the room where the surveillance hardware has been installed and then blew the whistle after he realised that the the NSA actively “vacuumed up Internet and phone-call data from ordinary Americans with the cooperation of AT&T” through the wiretapping rooms. Klein emphasised that “much of the data sent through AT&T to the NSA was purely domestic.”
Wuergler said this makes sense in theory, given what the NSA does.
“They’re in the business of collecting as much information as they can — that’s what they do,” he said. “They’re job is to protect the nation — they want to know everything going on in that nation. They need to know the secrets and it just so happens that people are giving up those secrets in their communications.”
“I don’t think the NSA is in the business of getting the least amount of information and trying to figure it out,” he told us. “I think they’re in the business of getting as much information as they can and going from there.
And given the fact that business is booming — global Internet traffic is expected to quadruple between 2010 and 2015 — the NSA has more data to collect than ever before.
“Ever since the growth of social media sites, you have this incredible database of personal information,” Wuergler said. “The data mining on this information would answer a lof of questions that [authorities] have, and it’s accessible now.”
Wuergler explained that it comes down to searching for a known threat and having the option to search for an unknown threats, the NSA is “definitely going to take advantage of both of those options. … If the NSA is collecting this information, then they have these dots to connect.”
And that’s precisely what the CIA’s chief technology officer told a GigaOm conference in March.
“Since you can’t connect dots you don’t have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever,” CIA CTO Ira “Gus” Hunt said. “It is really very nearly within our grasp to be able to compute on all human generated information.”
Furthermore, Wuergler noted, that involves a lot more information than is generally thought.
“There is a lot more information flowing through these networks than we think,” he said. “Anything that we are making public and everything that we are not making public are travelling through servers that are not under our control.”
Wuergler said that the average IT security professional knows how to intercept traffic going from one place to another, but the types of data you have access highly depends on the network that you’re on.
“Having access to the data is the tricky part,” he said.
But it’s not at all tricky for the government, as Eric Lichtblau and James Risen of the New York Times reported in this Pulitzer-Prize winning story in 2005:
As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said.
Over the weekend Lichtblau and Risen reported that Verizon has “set up a dedicated fibre-optic line running from New Jersey to Quantico, Va., home to a large military base, allowing government officials to gain access to all communications flowing through the carrier’s operations centre.”
So what is there for U.S. citizens to do? Wuergler says to assume you’re being watched.
“For the average citizen: assume that it is true. Assume that the the government does have access to the data that you are making public on sites like Facebook or Twitter, [and] even the private communications — the cell phone calls are all going through servers you don’t control.”
And he noted that the spying is likely to continue in some form or another.
“Everything in the security industry is an arms race,” he said. “And if you’re figured out a way — you have some secret on how to tap these networks that nobody else has figured out before — you’re going to bank on that until it’s discovered.
“Once it’s discovered you’re going to say, ‘Oops … sorry about that,’ and then you’re going to find another way that hasn’t been detected. That has probably been the pattern for years and always will be the pattern.
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