The United States of Secrets-Part Two: Privacy Lost

I just watched the 54-minute Frontline follow-up to the first part The United States of Secrets-Part One: The Program that I wrote about here. You can watch this part also online here. It is well worth watching.

This program deals with how nine major private internet companies internet both wittingly and unwittingly provided information to the NSA under the PRISM program: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google private provide people’s information to the NSA., Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple. They were not just collecting metadata from the companies but the entire content of messages, contradicting president Obama’s statements just after the story broke last June. Glenn Greenwald thinks that Obama’s false statements reflected the fact that he did not know the full scope of the program but I don’t agree. Obama’s shifty manner of speech and stumbling response during the press conference suggests to me that he knew and was lying.

These internet companies thought that they were cooperating with NSA on a limited data sharing program. But an NSA program called MUSCULAR was in addition extracting data from fiber optic cables overseas that connect the data centers of the internet companies. The NSA has no legal restrictions on operations overseas and thus can collect bulk data with impunity. Google was sending this data through its cables in an unencrypted form making the NSA’s work easy. We are told that this has now changed and Google is encrypting

Frontline also interviews Mark Klein whom I wrote about three days ago who, as a technician at AT&T, discovered that a secret room had been created within the AT&T building to insert a splitter to tap into all traffic through the AT&T system and send it to the government. This is the story that then editor of the Los Angeles Times Dean Baquet spiked. Baquet is now the new editor of the New York Times which does not bode well for that paper.

The older telecommunications companies seemed more comfortable being handmaidens of the government than the newer internet companies, and the smaller internet companies seem to be more willing to challenge the government than the bigger ones who do a lot of business with the government and thus want to be on good terms with them. The head of Calyx Nick Merrill, whom I had written about just this morning, also appears on the show. He was the first person who on constitutional grounds challenged the right of the government to get data on the customers using his small webhosting services. He won in an appeals court and the FBI withdrew the letter. The big companies did not similarly challenge the government until 2013, although they had the resources to do so. It was only because of concern about loss of customers that thye did anything

Google turns out to be a really evil company. The program says that Google tried to suppress a Washington Post story about how its use of tracking cookies to gain information on people’s used of the internet was used by the NSA by personally attacking the reporters working on it.

All the big internet companies refused to talk to Frontline, which does not speak well for their ethics.

It is an excellent program. You should watch it.


  1. lorn says

    Probably wise on the corporation’s part to avoid any commentary. Every time one of their names gets mentioned in reference to the near comprehensive collection of data it slightly disrupts the message they would like people to believe, that the majority of the data collected and greatest danger comes from efforts by the government.

    The fact is that the government has been a late adopter of the methods and technology. The leaders of automated data collection and analysis were the telephone companies and credit rating agencies. They went into it in a big way back in the day when telephones implied land-lines, and reverse telephone directories and credit ratings were considered confidential information.

    I chuckle when the NSA representative says that the government is, shy a search warrant, unable to collect certain information that would allow them to put a name and address to a phone number. He isn’t lying. But he isn’t telling the whole truth either. Fact is that there are quite a few private corporations that have those key pieces of information. Including the telephone company, your cell service provider, the credit card company, your ISP, and many others. And almost all of them buy and sell whatever information they hold.

    Which means that the while the government might not collect the information needed to match your name to an e-mail, or telephone conversation other people certainly do. And, for a price, they will sell that information to the government.

    If you are an average citizen, and not on a watch list, odds are that the credit card company has far more information on you than the government. They know where you live and what you buy. They sell information to advertisers, or pretty much anyone with money. Which is why looking up vehicle prices on the web often means your mailbox will soon be filled with flyers from local dealerships and buying diapers means you get offers for maternity clothes, Gerber insurance, and car seats.

    They know when you’re sleeping, they know when you’re awake …

    But please, pretty please, don’t anyone associate spying with the corporations doing most of it.

  2. rory says

    Mano, just a heads up: your first hyperlink above leads to the PBS page for the Frontline episode, not to your post about the first installment.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I don’t watch TV much, but this definitely sounds like it’s worth catching over the holiday weekend.

  3. Paul Jarc says

    Obama’s shifty manner of speech and stumbling response during the press conference suggests to me that he knew and was lying.

    That isn’t much to go on. It could just as easily indicate “Oh crap, I’m responsible for the actions of these people and I have no idea what I’m on the hook for.”

  4. Mano Singham says


    It wasn’t all that I was going on. Obama was apparently briefed after he was nominated and even more later after took office on what the NSA was doing (the first part of the program) and he became a big supporter of them. The fact that he has taken no action at all against anyone suggests that they were not deceiving him or hiding things from him. These people are not fools. They know their jobs depend upon the president being on their side and they are not going to let him be blindsided.

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