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Opinion: Tech giants fight against Big Brother’s bloat

Travis Kelly
Free Press Opinion Columnist

Three years ago, my friend and colleague — New York-based journalist Christopher Ketcham — and I pitched a story to Rolling Stone magazine about Google’s cooperation with the U.S. intelligence community. They gave us the green light, and our research determined that Google had developed apps for both the CIA and the NSA, and that three NSA officers were mysteriously posted at Google’s Mountain View, California headquarters. Google’s spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny this.

We speculated that the vast amount of data-mining Google and other IT giants perform to identify personal information for the purpose of tailored advertising (you’ve all probably experienced the Internet ads that pop up on sites relevant to a search term you have recently used) could easily be repurposed for illegal surveillance and political purposes. All it would take, we said, was a single fiber optic line connecting Google’s data banks with the new NSA center in Utah, and the Big Brother nightmare would become a reality.

Ultimately, Rolling Stone paid us a kill fee and didn’t publish the story, because although we had former intelligence sources, we didn’t have a recently active whistleblower within the CIA or NSA — we didn’t have an Edward Snowden.



Now, thanks only to Mr. Snowden, we know that everything we speculated about three years ago has come true. The NSA has been hacking into Google, Bing and other companies’ fiber optic lines to steal their data. Presentation slides revealed by Snowden indicate that the NSA is using the same “cookies” employed by IT giants to track consumer’s browsing habits for the purpose of “remote exploitation” — i.e., surveillance and possible offensive hacking operations. An NSA program named HAPPYFOOT can track people’s physical location when using mobile phone apps, and another Snowden document revealed that the most widely used cellphone encryption technology is easily defeated by the NSA.

In November, Glenn Greenwald reported that the NSA has been recording visits to online porn sites by targeted persons, “to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches.” One of the targets was not a Muslim jihadi, but a “well-known media celebrity” in America whose crime was being a “9/11 truther.” In other words, use your First Amendment right to dissent against a widely disputed government fairy tale, and become a targeted “enemy of the state.”



Even more outrageously, the NSA has been sharing its illegally acquired data with a foreign nation — Israel. Which suggests an ominous potential: criticize America’s or Israel’s many recent and ongoing violations of international law in an online forum, and maybe your computer will be hacked with a disabling Stuxnet virus, or your confidential visits to JasminesHotShots.com will broadcast to the world.

Fortunately, the IT giants are pushing back against the encroachments of the Big Brother state: Apple, Google, Microsoft AOL, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and Yahoo have joined forces, publishing an open letter in many top U.S. newspapers: “The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution… We urge the U.S. to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.”

Their case was just bolstered by federal judge Richard Leon’s ruling that the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records is unconstitutional and “almost Orwellian” in scope, prompting Ed Snowden to declare that he is now vindicated.

While the self-interest of these powerful corporations may eventually curtail the trend of obsessive government surveillance, there is a parallel and opposing trend that needs to be rectified — obsessive government secrecy about its own operations. In a recent column I noted that several thousand documents related to the JFK assassination are still absurdly classified 50 years after the event. And that is the tip of an enormous, ever-expanding iceberg. Obama even recently announced that the final volume of the CIA’s probe of its disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion must be kept secret from the public. Despite promising greater transparency when he assumed office (like many of his equally dissimulating predecessors), Obama has taken government secrecy to new heights. In 2011 alone, the Executive Branch made an astounding 92,064,862 classification decisions, according to the Information Security Oversight Office.

Whose history, and whose government, is this anyway? If all American citizens are indeed shareholders in this democracy, and the agencies and offices of the federal government are our representatives and servants, by what right are vast details of the government’s activities kept under lock and key, often evading effective oversight even by duly authorized congressional committees?

The ever useful excuse is that “national security” would be harmed. But we know beyond dispute that far too often it is not “national security,” but gross incompetence, dereliction, fraud, and outright crime hidden under this elastic rubric.

Travis Kelly is a web/graphic designer, writer and cartoonist in Grand Junction. See his work or contact him at http://www.traviskelly.com.


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