COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., August 25, 2013 — When the government says it is not reading the content of your emails and other digital communications, just collecting the “metadata,” rather than being reassured, you should be alarmed.
Let’s see how this works.
When you send a letter to someone the contents are sealed inside an envelope and no one other than the recipient should know the contents. That is what we generally think of as privacy. The external information on the envelope—the To and From addresses and the cancelled stamp—are there for everyone to see. Those elements are necessary to get the letter from you to the recipient; they have to be there for the postal services to be able to deliver the mail.
We don’t think of the envelope as important. Once we open the letter, we generally throw it away. To the intelligence analyst, however, envelopes are a gold mine of information. The elements on the outside of the envelope are the “message externals” or “routing information” in email terms. The art of obtaining intelligence from them is called traffic analysis.
One envelope or email or phone call doesn’t tell you much, but the more of them you collect, the more you begin to see patterns of communication. That is because of a piece of communications theory that intelligence analysts and designers of networks know very well: when you communicate with someone, you are likely to communicate with that someone again.
Think of it this way: there are over 7 billion people on the world but you know and communicate with only a very small fraction of them. That constitutes your personal network. By monitoring your communications through the routing information—the metadata—over time the analyst can build up a picture of your personal network, even if he or she doesn’t know exactly what you’re communicating.
If you saw the movie Zero Dark Thirty, you may recall that intelligence analysts found Osama bin Laden by tracking the couriers. They had no idea of the content of the messages.
What if the government could monitor all of your communications?
That is exactly what PRISM aims to do. In the digital world of the 21st century, all of our communications—other than face to face—are translated into a series of ones and zeroes, broken down into small groups called packets, disassembled,sent over a series of connected networks known collectively as “the internet” and reassembled at the other end.
Each of those little packets contains the routing information that allows the message to be reassembled and delivered. That’s metadata. It performs exactly the same function as the envelope does to a letter.
That is why the metadata is so important and why you should be very concerned that the government is collecting it on every single American.
The final piece of this puzzle is how the government collects the data.
Knowing how the packets get from point A to point B isn’t important, unless you intend to intercept it along the way. All of your communications go through gateways. Think of them as the onramps to the information highway. By standing at the onramps you can monitor the traffic flow.
Those onramps are your internet service providers—known as ISPs for short. They’re Microsoft for Hotmail and Google for Gmail, AT&T, AOL and many others. Using the Patriot Act as justification, the government goes to the ISPs asking for information.
More than just getting historical data, however, the government has actually installed sensors at some ISP locations so that they can gather real-time information around the clock.
But wait, you might say: that’s a lot if information. The government can’t possibly collect and sift through it all.
Yes, they can.
The content behind the metadata sits in huge computer databases. Using keyword searches, as Edward Snowden described, they can get to any information they have pretty quickly. They no longer have to capture and analyze the data as it comes in. They have it recorded and ready whenever they need it.
Government collection of information about you started with your communications but it doesn’t end there.
Think about this: as Obamacare is being implemented, your medical records are going online into government databases. In 2012 the Colorado legislature approved funding to update Colorado’s databases to be compatible with federal Department of Human Services databases.
This is not conspiracy theory. It is happening now in states that have set up insurance exchanges.
And then there is Common Core. All of your educational records centralized into government databases at the Department of Education—and keyed to you personally with biometric signatures. Children in Florida are being given retina scans.
This too is not conspiracy theory. It is happening now in states that are implementing Common Core.
Soon the government will know, at a time and place of its choosing, virtually everything about you. Personal privacy, personal space, is rapidly shrinking.
Perhaps that’s why all seven of Colorado’s Congressional representatives—liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike—voted to defund the PRISM activities of the NSA. Overall, however, the vote failed.
The only thing standing between you and Big Brother’s totalitarian government is the Constitution and the liberty movement that supports it.
And as the IRS scandal shows, we’re already on Big Brothers’ radar.
Al Maurer worked for the intelligence community for more than twenty years, including an assignment as a Director’s Fellow at the National Security Agency and as a direct report to two NSA Directors. He is co-author of the 1985 book, Intelligence: Policy and Process. He was trained as a traffic analyst.
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