Demystifying the NSA Surveillance Program
By John Prados
7-15-13

So much has been written and said recently about the National Security Agency (NSA) monitoring of cellphone calls, emails, and other internet communications that a great deal of misinformation has clouded proper understanding. Some of this is chatter from people following the news but a great deal consists of statements by officials desperately defending their intrusive monitoring, either obfuscating the issue or invoking terrorism to rescue themselves from very serious charges of illegality. Officials continue to cloak the true dimensions of their activity behind a wall of secrecy, even as President Obama earnestly says Americans should be having a debate about these eavesdropping programs. It is past time to inject more clarity into this “debate.” Absent the NSA and other authorities declassifying sufficient information on which to have a realistic debate, this piece seeks to deconstruct a number of the claims that have been made regarding the NSA eavesdropping. It is formatted as a series of propositions followed by commentary on each one.

No one should worry because the NSA only collects metadata. The types of information collected are said to include the times and dates of phonecalls, volume and duration, phone numbers, and location of originating and destination points. These are called “metadata.” Citizens are supposed to be reassured that no one is listening in. Functionally speaking such items can be called the “externals” surrounding message content. In two world wars and many other conflicts the external elements of communications formed the basis for “traffic analysis,” which has been viewed as the glue that held together radio intelligence when codebreakers were not actually decrypting message content. In World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere, traffic analysis identified superiors and subordinates, chains of command, movements to concentrate, and more. A key purpose of traffic analysis was to discover targets. The enemies then were nation states, but the target set of NSA eavesdropping today has expanded to include citizens. That citizens are targets ought to worry every individual, especially since the explicitly-stated purpose of the spying is to protect them.

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