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NSA Data Mining Leak By Snowden

US Capitol domeOn June 6, 2013, The Washington Post and British newspaper The Guardian received top-secret information regarding a data mining program, code-named “PRISM”, which is run by the National Security Agency (NSA).  The leaked documents identify the country’s largest technology companies; Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple; as participants in the program. This NSA data mining leak by Snowden has created a lot of news around the world.

Update (Aug 2, 2013): Snowden Finds Asylum in Russia

In the first act of formal support from another government, Russia has granted Edward J. Snowden temporary asylum.  He spent almost six weeks in legal limbo, confined to the transit zone of an airport Moscow.  WikiLeaks made a statement to a national news source indicating Snowden was accompanies by WikiLeaks representative Sarah Harrison. She has stayed by Snowden’s side since Hong Kong in June.

Russia made this decision despite appeals from the Obama administration, and Russia now risks a break in U.S. diplomatic relations. The asylum document was issued on Wednesday, July 31, and Snowden left the transit zone on Thursday afternoon. His current whereabouts are still unclear. Snowden may have walked out of the Sheremetyevo airport a free man, but his asylum document is only valid for one year. While the document may be renewed annually, Snowden still only has temporary refugee status and he may decide to seek permanent asylum in another country.

Will he receive a warm welcome or face a tough exile? Will he make a public appearance soon? Some news outlets have reported that Snowden has received letters from companies seeking to hire him, so for now, his long-term future seems unclear.

What is PRISM?

On June 6, 2013, NSA tech contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents, plus 41 PowerPoint slides, to The Washington Post and The Guardian.  These documents revealed a few interrelated NSA programs, including one that collects telephony metadata from every major carrier in the country and another that tracks and maps the sources of the NSA’s Internet intelligence. The third program, PRISM, enables in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored data. It targets the customers of the aforementioned companies who live outside the US or American citizens whose web communications include people outside the country.  The Washington Post wrote that the NSA and FBI tap “directly into the central servers of nine leading US Internet companies.” According to the PowerPoint slides included in the NSA documents, the agency has direct access to servers and can access information including email, voice and video chat, videos, photos, file transfers, login activity, and social network details.

Response from the tech companies

Executives from some of the companies identified in the leaked documents released statements denying any knowledge of PRISM. Numerous outlets, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, TechCrunch, and Mashable, reported the following statements:

A statement issued by Google reads, “Google cares deeply about the security of our user’s data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data.”

Over the weekend, Ron Bell wrote the following on Yahoo’s Tumblr page:  “The notion that Yahoo! gives any federal agency vast or unfettered access to our user’s records is categorically false. Of the hundreds of millions of users we serve, an infinitesimal percentage will ever be the subject of a government data collection directive.”

CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed media reports about PRISM were “outrageous.” He also stated “Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the U.S. or any other government direct access to our servers.”

In a statement issued last week, Microsoft stated, “We only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data, we don’t participate in it.”

Steve Dowling, a spokesman for Apple said “We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order.”

The Whistleblower

Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former technical assistant for the NSA, has been called a hero by some and a criminal by others.  After he came forward to say he was responsible for the leaked data, Snowden requested that The Guardian and The Washington Post identify him by name.  He told The Guardian, “I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong.” In various interviews last week, he stated that he wanted to expose the extent of surveillance by the US government on its own citizens.

Image Source: Yahoo! News

According to The Guardian, Snowden copied the documents he planned to leak and then told his NSA supervisor that he needed to go on medical leave for two weeks. He subsequently flew to Hong Kong and rarely left his hotel room.  He told reporters that in the short term, he hoped the Chinese government wouldn’t deport him.

Stop Watching Us

Within a week of the PRISM leak, a new website called StopWatching.Us was created to protest government surveillance. Mozilla launched the site on June 11, 2013 calling it “a campaign sponsored by a broad coalition of organizations from across the political and technical spectrum calling on citizens and organizations from around the world to demand a full accounting of the extent to which our online data, communications and interactions are being monitored.”

The campaign asks organizations and individuals to a letter to Congress demanding they take action to halt “surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s and the FBI’s data collection programs.” The letter also calls on Congress to reform Section 215 of the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act.  In addition, the letter demands Congress create a committee to fully investigate and report on domestic spying, and to hold accountable the public officials found to be responsible.

Over 85 businesses and organizations have signed the letter so far, including Mozilla, Reddit, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet Archive, Greenpeace USA, the World Wide Web Foundation, and the American Library Association.  Public figures and private citizens who have added their names as well include actors John Cusak and Wil Wheaton, former US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, author Cory Doctorow, and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian.

what’s Next?

Since the information leaked, the Obama administration has acknowledged PRISM’s existence, but the tech companies have denied that they gave the NSA access to their servers. However, the slides leaked by Snowden indicate that PRISM enables data collection, including emails, chat records, photos, videos, and file transfers, directly from the servers of the aforementioned tech companies.  This information has led to some critical questions regarding the extent of information the government constantly collects and whether it is subject to judicial oversight.

As for Snowden, the Department of Justice has filed criminal charges against him, which will facilitate his extradition from China.  The FBI and NSA will also conduct investigations to determine the amount of information he released. Snowden has gone underground since Monday, after he checked out of the Hong Kong hotel where he gave interviews last week.

The Guardian stated that Snowden leaked “thousands” of documents, of which “dozens” are newsworthy and have not yet been published. We may or may not receive more details from the NSA about their surveillance programs, I’m sure we will certainly hear more about Edward Snowden.

Snowden Live Telecast at SXSW 2014

Our team at A Secure Life was lucky enough to be in Austin for South By Southwest this March. And, we got front row seat for the Edward Snowden telecast! There was huge buzz at the conference about this speaker as well as about security and privacy on the whole. You can watch the live telecast of the Snowden session at: http://new.livestream.com/texastribune/events/2823117 at noon EST on March 10, 2014.

Catch him if you can

Where in the world is Edward Snowden? We’ve been tracking the whereabouts of this NSA Whistleblower. There has been a man hunt for him by U.S. officials to find the person who is being sought after for espionage. He arrived in Russia late Sunday June 23, 2013, and stayed overnight however his whereabouts is still unknown. As of the morning of Monday June 24, 2013, Snowden is currently awaiting to board a flight in Moscow, Russia but it is unclear where his final destination will be. Rumors originally said he was confirmed on a flight to Havana, Cuba but the flight has since departed and he was not onboard. This could have been an attempt to trick those who are tracking him but he is currently rumored to be heading to Ecuador to seek asylum but how he gets there, nobody knows.

Tracking the whereabouts of NSA Whisleblower

Photo Source: New York Daily News

Why Ecuador? Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, has been given refuge for the past year in London in the Ecuador Embassy and the Prime Minster of Ecuador is said to be in talks with Assange about working with them to help support Snowden’s asylum request. Snowden has been consulting with the organization Wikileaks to help transport him from country to country in a cat and mouse game that has been keeping the media and government on their toes over the past few days. The U.S. State Department has revoked access to Snowden’s passport, but he has supposedly been able to travel with the assistance of Wikileaks who provided him with documents that have allowed him to travel without a passport.

Will he be able to seek refuge? The Ecuador Prime Minster is considering it but no formal announcement yet. The U.S. is applying pressure to those countries where he might flee. There is still also an option that the U.S. could send authorities to those places where Snowden is heading next to capture him, however that is the final resort and a risky option that could cause turmoil and adverse state relations with those countries where he could be heading next.

More information & Tell us your thoughts

We will keep up with new developments to this story, so check back here for updates. Let us know your thoughts on the subject by commenting below.


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