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NSA, the Cloud, and Profit

August 29, 2013 Leave a comment

The NSA's Utah Data Center

The NSA’s Utah Data Center


[AP/Rick Bowmer]

This site is great. (Hat tip: Jim Fallows.)

I suggested months ago that the NSA should go into business as the ultimate cloud service.

Isn’t it great to know they’re backing up all our email? And phone conversations too? … Why don’t they offer to charge us a fee for access to old data? … I would pay for this. Wouldn’t you?

(I know, I’m not the only one to think of this. But I’ll accept credit as an independent suggester, having written about it before seeing the idea anywhere else.)

And now, as an offshoot of the NSA’s PRISM program, there’s PRSM, which provides the very service I had in mind. Some highlights:

  • Unlimited Storage: With the world’s largest data center, share endlessly.
  • 320 million strong: You’ll find every person you’ve ever known. Even grandma.
  • Instantly upload trillions of megabytes of data.
  • Really big computers: Our datacenter can store up to 5 zettabytes of information.

And then there’s the list of key partners: Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo!, Microsoft, AOL, and AT&T. I recommend exploring all the service’s features.

Meanwhile, back in the non-parodic world, Craig Timberg and Barton Gellman write in today’s Washington Post:

The National Security Agency is paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year to U.S. companies for clandestine access to their communications networks, filtering vast traffic flows for foreign targets in a process that also sweeps in large volumes of American telephone calls, e-mails and instant messages.

The bulk of the spending, detailed in a multi-volume intelligence budget obtained by The Washington Post, goes to participants in a Corporate Partner Access Project for major U.S. telecommunications providers. The documents open an important window into surveillance operations on U.S. territory that have been the subject of debate since they were revealed by The Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper in June.

New details of the corporate-partner project, which falls under the NSA’s Special Source Operations, confirm that the agency taps into “high volume circuit and packet-switched networks,” according to the spending blueprint for fiscal 2013. The program was expected to cost $278 million in the current fiscal year, down nearly one-third from its peak of $394 million in 2011.

Voluntary cooperation from the “backbone” providers of global communications dates to the 1970s under the cover name BLARNEY, according to documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. These relationships long predate the PRISM program disclosed in June, under which American technology companies hand over customer data after receiving orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

In briefing slides, the NSA described BLARNEY and three other corporate projects — OAKSTAR, FAIRVIEW and STORMBREW — under the heading of “passive” or “upstream” collection. They capture data as they move across fiber-optic cables and the gateways that direct global communications traffic.

The documents offer a rare view of a secret surveillance economy in which government officials set financial terms for programs capable of peering into the lives of almost anyone who uses a phone, computer or other device connected to the Internet.

Although the companies are required to comply with lawful surveillance orders, privacy advocates say the multimillion-dollar payments could create a profit motive to offer more than the required assistance.

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Video Calls

September 23, 2009 Leave a comment

brooksmother

Albert Brooks’ Mother is high on the list of our favorite movies. After watching it years ago, we immediately added one of its phrases to our vocabulary: protective ice. This is the phrase that the Debbie Reynolds character — the mother — uses to describe the crystallized layer of ice on top of the ice cream in an old container that her son — the Albert Brooks character — takes out of her freezer. We remember with equal fondness her failed efforts to use a new video phone. Her performance would convince anyone that however the technology evolves, we won’t be making video calls in the future.

Then came Skype. And iChat. And a variety of other programs to make free video calls via computer — free, that is, once one has a computer and high-speed internet access. Who doesn’t make video calls now?

Well, we didn’t. Our two most likely skype partners, my sister (in Paris) and Joel (in Boston), weren’t too keen to do it. Gail skypes from time to time with our friend Carol in Edinburgh. But my sister and I still use the phone, or email, and Joel prefers regular phone calls or texting. He may figure that the less we see of him, the better.

But that has suddenly changed, now that Joel is in Grenoble. Given the cost of international calls on his iPhone, even after we added the international calling option with AT&T, it just makes more sense to use the internet. As a result, we have had two video conversations with him in the last ten days, using both Skype and Apple’s video iChat.

No big deal, I know. But what interested me in thinking about our chat yesterday was a completely natural occurrence that almost surely wouldn’t have happened in an audio-only call. Joel is living with a host family. Unlike in the standard host model, his family consists of just a single individual, a young man with a two-bedroom home. What happened during yesterday’s chat was that as we talked with Joel, the host’s girlfriend came in, and Joel asked her if she wanted to say hello. She walked closer to his computer and there we were, on screen, saying hi to her. She speaks French, of course. I said a few words in poor French that she may or may not have understood. Then they called her boyfriend (Joel’s host) in, and we met him too. We didn’t say much. They said goodbye after a few moments and left us with Joel.

Can you imagine how weird this would have been if we were on the phone with Joel? Had his host or the girlfriend come in, he wouldn’t have suggested that we say hello. The difference, no doubt, is that people are accustomed to casual hellos and goodbyes in person, with visual cues allowing introductions to be made while minimizing the need for any substantive verbal conversation. That’s how it felt yesterday. Just a normal introduction to new people. On the phone, in contrast, we would have had to rely on words alone, and even without the language barrier, that would have been awkward.

We look forward to seeing our new acquaintances in person next month, when we visit Joel in Grenoble.