Perhaps we should all move to Sweden

It’s always the lies. With the revelation that the US is collaborating with various big name internet companies like Google and Apple to spy on everyone comes round after round of denial, and I don’t know which bugs me more. The latest is the claim that we’re only snooping on foreigners, not US citizens (as if that makes it OK, anyway).

At a hearing of the Senate intelligence committee In March this year, Democratic senator Ron Wyden asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence: "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"

"No sir," replied Clapper.

Oh, yeah? Here’s a screenshot from the NSA datamining tool, called BoundlessInformant (just the name is revealing, isn’t it?). Color is a measure of the degree of surveillance, with red the most and blue the least. What’s that country in the lovely goldenrod somewhere in the middle of the western hemisphere? Oh, that’s us.

boundless heatmap large

Relax, though. All those companies collaborating with the NSA are swearing on a stack of Bibles that they have nothing to do with it.

On the heels of media reports that the NSA has gained access to the servers of nine leading tech companies — enabling the spy agency to examine emails, video, photographs, and other digital communications — Google has issued a strongly worded statement denying that the company granted the government "direct access" to its servers. That statement goes so far as to say that the company hasn’t even heard of "a program called PRISM until yesterday." 

It’s Google. It’s their company policy to not be evil. They wouldn’t lie to us, would they?

According to Chris Soghoian, a tech expert and privacy researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union, the phrase "direct access" connotes a very specific form of access in the IT-world: unrestricted, unfettered access to information stored on Google servers. In order to run a system such as PRISM, Soghoian explains, such access would not be required, and Google’s denial that it provided "direct access" does not necessarily imply that the company is denying having participated in the program. Typically, the only people having "direct access" to the servers of a company like Google would be its engineers. (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has issued a similarly worded denial in which he says his company has not granted the government "direct access" to its servers," but his language mirrors Google’s denial about direct access.)

No, not Facebook, too!

I like the point made by Cenk Uygur in this video: it’s a clear violation of the fourth amendment to the US constitution. Isn’t it cute how people are absolutists about the right to bear arms, but prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures? That we can wobble on.


  1. Beatrice (looking for a happy thought) says

    We never gave them direct access to our servers, silly (duh)! We just gave them the data they asked for.

  2. Sili says

    (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has issued a similarly worded denial in which he says his company has not granted the government “direct access” to its servers,” but his language mirrors Google’s denial about direct access.)

    Because all the top terrorists make their plans on FB?

  3. Nick Gotts says

    It’s interesting to see which non-US countries are most surveilled. Iran, Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt are expected targets (the scale is so small I can’t see if Israel is targeted too), and if anything you’d expect more on China and Russia – perhaps it’s not so easy to spy on them – but why India, Germany and Kenya?

  4. says

    To the NSA person reading this:

    I visited those sites purely for educational purposes. I am studying horse/human hybridization. I am not a pervert.

  5. David Sloan says

    It’s Google. It’s their company policy to not be evil. They wouldn’t lie to us, would they?

    What evidence would you expect to see in a world where Google truly knew nothing about the PRISM program?

    Alternatively, what test could you perform to determine whether they’re telling the truth?

  6. says

    Hmmm. I really don’t know on this one. I’ve seen so many conflicting reports. Every company has come out and said they have not done anything. First they came out and responded to the report about direct access, then when people said they didn’t use direct access they came out and said they gave nothing in any way shape or form direct or not. I’ve seen people suggest (Sam Harris admittedly) that this is just the same kind of data mining and information collecting that police have done for 30 years. The government does not actually have access to the specifics of the data without a court order. My expertise is not in networks, but my initial reaction to tech fear is usually to wait and see because it tends to be an overreaction.

  7. Aliasalpha says

    Wouldn’t the companies be under the seemingly standard gagging order to never talk about whether or not anyone has even asked them about helping the NSA because… national security?

    I’d not be surprised if it was less reputation arse covering & more legal arse covering.

  8. Beatrice (looking for a happy thought) says

    My expertise is not in networks, but my initial reaction to tech fear is usually to wait and see because it tends to be an overreaction.

    This doesn’t strike me as tech fear, at least not in these circles, but fear of government abusing its power which really doesn’t need a stretch of imagination to consider.

  9. says

    So, in the map, are the different countries colour-coded by how much their own governments are snooping on their citizens, or by how much the US government is snooping on their citizens? I presume the latter, but I can’t work it out from the screenshot.

  10. Hortan says

    But why Sweden of all places, wouldn’t the Arctic/Antarctica be the destination of choice when privacy is concerned according to the BoundlessInformant tool?

  11. Billy Ford says

    Not everyone in the U.S. is a U.S. Person. I suspect that color indicates foreigners in the U.S. and Americans that have ties to persons under suspicion.

  12. says

    Sorry, I phrased that badly – I should have said all people living within a country’s borders, not necessarily citizens. But I’m still unclear as to whether it’s a map of snooping by the US government, or a map of snooping by all governments.

  13. Billy Ford says

    Still a good question, David. Not entirely sure. I was actually responding to the OP by PZ.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Color is a measure of the degree of surveillance, with red the most and blue the least.

    Well, the scale ends at dark green. All that’s blue are major bodies of water – I’m sure those aren’t surveyed much, though…

    but why India, Germany and Kenya?

    India has lots of potential sources of conflict that could grow into a nookular war with Pakistan. Germany is known to have been, on occasion, inhabited by al-Qaida. Kenya, though? Are there birfers in the NSA?

  15. Nick Gotts says

    David Marjanović@17,

    Actually my guess for Kenya is that it’s next to Somalia, parts of northern Kenya are inhabited by ethnic Somalis, and there’s probably very limited stuff to intercept in Somalia itself due to lack of infrastructure. But I don’t find your hypotheses on India and Germany very convincing. I guess India probably has significant Islamist jihadi activity, as it has a large Muslim population, but maybe that’s what you were referring to. Brazil’s a nice bright yellow, too; I was wondering if possible future great powers are being watched – India, Germany (as the effective ruler of Euroland) and Brazil would all fit with that.

  16. Ing:Intellectual Terrorist "Starting Tonight, People will Whine" says

    Sign that GOogle isn’t a collaborator? law suit by Google for stealing their data

  17. Azuma Hazuki says

    I am beginning to think we owe the so-called “tinfoil crowd” a large apology. Gods damn it all, these people don’t deserve to live on this planet with us…greedy, sociopathic corporate stormtroopers.

    Do they ever stop to ask what the “endgame” is? What happens when they corner the supplu of currency? In a consumer economy with a floating currency, the money is worthless because no one’s buying anything. What happens when they corner all the political power? They’ll rot from the inside and die cursing their fate like every other despot eventually does.

    Why do people through history keep doing this? It never ends well and you can’t take money or temporal power to the grave…

  18. says

    Regarding google, facebook, apple, dropbox and just about everyone mentioned in the leaked documents. You know it could be that the NSA are obtaining data without their cooperation.

    The tinfoil crowd are like broken clocks. They are right twice a day but it is all mere coincidence.

  19. Abdul Alhazred says

    It’s paranoia until they really do it. Then you’re a stinker for not wanting it.

  20. Owen says

    A lot of it is legal arse-covering. As I understand it, the relevant legislation says something along the lines of “we may decide we want you to hand over all the headers of all the emails. If we tell you to do that, you can’t tell anyone. If we don’t, you still can’t tell anyone.”. The actual contents of the emails require a secondary court order to read, but considering how much you can figure out from looking at the patterns by themselves, that’s not really a comfort. Same goes for the phone records – they have to ask to listen in, but not to find out who you spoke to and when.
    A textbook example of “legal but not ethical”.

  21. Snoof says

    Do they ever stop to ask what the “endgame” is? What happens when they corner the supplu of currency? In a consumer economy with a floating currency, the money is worthless because no one’s buying anything. What happens when they corner all the political power?

    At a guess, they’ll start fighting amongst themselves. It’s not about having enough for that sort of person (, it’s about having more. (And, of course, protecting what’s “yours” from everyone else who wants it, because they also want more.)

  22. Abdul Alhazred says

    There is no “endgame”.

    The policy is one of eternal warfare, because a populace with a wartime mentality is easier to control.

  23. Trebuchet says

    I’m not sure which bothers me more — the government using Google to spy on me, or Google spying on me for its own purposes.

  24. says

    As a old ’60’s radical I’ve got to wonder why anyone is surprised by all this? The COINTELPRO hearings showed the FBI was surveilling everyone they had the manpower to. All that has changed is that technology has given the various government agencies the reach that Big Brother would envy.

  25. briank says

    With the Patriot Act, Recent findings of the courts, etc, I believe those companies are required to keep their mouths shut on such things.

    I do find it ironic that PZ has a posting critical of libertarians just preceding this one. How is all that Statism working for you now PZ?

  26. Beatrice (looking for a happy thought) says

    I do find it ironic that PZ has a posting critical of libertarians just preceding this one.

    Nope. Not seeing the irony.

    There is a hell of a lot of ground between libertarian “every man for himself” bullshit and governments committing world-wide morally repugnant actions.

  27. nullifidian says

    Nick Gotts:
    …but why India, Germany and Kenya?

    India has a significant amount of both Hindu and Muslim radicals who have gone on genocidal rampages against each other (the worst of the recent violence was in 2002), plus a Maoist insurgency by a group called the Naxalites fighting against the Indian government and also committing atrocities against civilians (e.g. the 2010 Dantewada bus bombing).

    Germany has a very large Turkish population, and it’s only minimally integrated into German society for a variety of reasons, most of which are the German government’s fault. Under the old nationality law, it was impossible for a child of a Turkish guest worker to become a citizen at birth, so these children had to have Turkish passports and be set aside as Turkish citizens, even if they’d never seen the place. In 2000, legislation was passed granting children born in German to foreign parents citizenship, effective for children born as of 1990, but with the proviso that they must renounce either one or the other form of citizenship between 18-23 years old, so that’s just now coming due for these German-Turkish children. Dual citizenship can only be maintained by children born to a foreigner and one German parent. Frankly, I’m not sure if this legislation wasn’t crafted to create more mischief and to drive a wedge even deeper into Germany’s population of foreign guest workers. Anyway, the Turks responded to this discriminatory legislation and other unsanctioned discrimination that occurred in practice by segregating themselves off and rejecting German and Western values, although there are still faint traces of assimilation. For example, a recent survey showed that 72% of German Turks thought that Islam was the only true religion, but that means that more than a quarter of them don’t, and given the demographics of Germany’s Turkish population it’s not likely because they’re members of other religions.

    Kenya has been the site of terrorist attacks by Muslims in the past. Perhaps you don’t remember the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings that occurred in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. These were attributed to al Qaeda, but they were carried out by local members Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Later, there were attacks in 2002 on an Israeli plane and a hotel welcoming Israeli tourists. The plane attack failed — the two shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles both missed the plane — but the hotel bombing killed 10 Kenyan workers at the hotel and 3 Israelis and injured 80. Since 2011 and up to the present, there have been attacks on Kenyans that are believed to be retaliations for the Kenyan military’s supporting role in helping the Somalian military in its campaign against the al-Shabaab militants. Since the U.S. military was also involved in this campaign, and since the U.S. has been targeted by Islamic militants in the past, it makes sense for them to listen into chatter from Kenya and see if any retaliations against the U.S. are being planned.

  28. says

    Sweden isn’t such a good example of freedom from integrity breach. A few years back, the Swedish government created a law called IPRED based on the European version of the Intellectual Property Rights Directive, however, the Swedish version allows for any holder of intellectual property to ask a court to order Internet Service Providers to give out private information about their customers.
    Police need not bother, and Due Process be damned, a large copyright owner like SONY can police shared music to their heart’s content. Once they get their hand on the owner of an IP-address, they can send extortion letters like “Pay up $10’000 or we’ll drag your ass to court and then prison”.
    The courts are just as stacked with judges with conflicts of interests as in the US, especially in coprights issues. The Pirate Bay case is prime example of this.

    The Swedish FRA, a part of the Swedish military intelligence gathering organization has the right to read any-and-all communication crossing the Swedish border, including all internet traffic. All internet traffic. Firstly for military purposes, but they can also forward “anything of interest” to civilian authorities like Swedish Secret Police, and the regular police. And there has already been leaks reported.

    It’s not that Swedes have more freedom from draconian surveillance. But in general they are more trusting and content that their government “will do the right thing” with the information they get.
    Which is equally scary.

  29. says

    Sweden? Despite their neutrality it’s possible their equivalent of the NSA shares data with the NSA and other foreign intelligence agencies. That’s one of the dirty secrets of the intelligence biz, even if you’re prohibited from spying on your own citizens there’s nothing stopping allied agencies from spying on them and tell you what they found.

  30. profpedant says

    If I can dig as extensively into the emails, phone calls, website visits, and other communications of government officials and corporate executives as they can into mine I’m fine with it. But if they can go looking for stuff and hide their stuff from me I am so very not cool about that.

  31. zmidponk says

    David Hart:

    I’m still unclear as to whether it’s a map of snooping by the US government, or a map of snooping by all governments.

    Well, going by a report I saw on the BBC news, if it’s a friendly government, like the UK one, the NSA in the US have set up the PRISM system, but allow agencies like the GCHQ (roughly speaking, the UK equivalent of the NSA) access to it, so the answer’s muddled by things like that.

  32. Moggie says

    David Marjanović:

    All that’s blue are major bodies of water – I’m sure those aren’t surveyed much, though…

    Benthic Treaty?

  33. erik333 says

    @14 Abdul Alhazred

    Wtf are you talking about?


    Moving here (Sweden) doesn’t help, we’re having similar issues here even discounting google and facebook. The common rhetoric is the usual: “only people who have something to hide need the identity/emails etc. to remain private”.

  34. flit says

    Sorry, but I think you all need to calm the hell down.

    Protip: Analyzing metadata (The package you’re information is about, not the content) has always been legal in this country.

    If the cops went to your house and read the outside of a mail-package, that is not a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights. Doing the same thing with your phone calls is also not a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights. To hear the phone call you made, they need a warrant. If the FISA courts were more open (that is, open to the public) this would not be an issue.

    IF this all comes out that the NSA really can break the laws of physics and store and analyze billions of communications every day, i’ll eat my hat.

  35. kantalope says

    @flit: boring afternoon in your NSA cubicle?

    Why would anyone be concerned, not that the government could have your data, but that they actually do have your data?

    They can’t read your mail on your own porch, so that must be some relief.

    Used to be the NSA, FBI, and CIA fought the STASI…now they are the STASI. That must feel weird.

  36. madscientist says

    I doubt all this snooping has any value other than to jack off some egos and keep some football flunkees employed – it’s like another DHS or TSA. However, if people really don’t like it, they can always think of creative ways to write to others which set off all the ‘markers’ which the software looks for yet which are obviously not fighting language. That’ll give the morons mountains of stuff to wade through and they’ll be very happy knowing that their jobs are safe. The only down side of course is that the agencies would want to employ even more morons and doubtlessly at the expense of education and social services.

  37. says

    The country I’m in at the moment is a nice lime green. It looks like I’ll have to return to Australia’s greener pastures if I want to plot the overthrow of civilization, (or at least the American bit) as we know it.

  38. clevehicks says

    I would suggest that Democrats PUBLICLY refuse to vote for another Democratic candidate (i.e. Biden, Clinton, et al) UNLESS the Obama administration immediately pardons (or abandons plans for prosecution of) Manning, Assange, Greenwald, Poitras, Snowden, Kiriakou, and all the others who have risked their freedom to fight for our global democracy. I know the risk is that we get another Rethuglican president, but then at least the enemy is in plain view again.

  39. clevehicks says

    I am so pissed off right now. We have spent decades bragging that we are the Land of the Free. And now we are taking the lead in prosecuting, Stalin-like, brave whistle-blowers. Untenable and unconscionable.

  40. briank says

    I’m happy to hear that Drake had charges dropped against him. We do need better protections for whistleblowers in the USA.

    More and more, Obama scares me. I understand the spot he is in. He is held responsible if bad things happen, but stuff like this new leak or things like Bush refusing to sign laptop searches on our borders, while Obama did sign it… makes me utterly sick.