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Tuesday 3rd April 2012 | 13:36
Opposition to the Coalition's #telldaveeverything* plans grows by the day.
Under pressure from Lib Dem and Tory backbenchers, both Nick Clegg and David Cameron have been at pains to stress that any new Home Office surveillance bill will include key safeguards for civil liberties.
But as with everything, it is worth looking Stateside to see what may be heading our way in a few years.
The latest edition of Wired magazine* has a fantastic piece by James Bamford on how GCHQ's American cousin, the National Security Agency (NSA), is building a mammoth secure data centre deep in rural Utah.
After a string of failures (including 9/11), the NSA was given a massive increase in resources and remit by the Bush administration. But in doing so it overreached itself.
Bamford has some powerful testimony from whistleblower William Binney, a former NSA code-breaker, revealing how the agency has been building its secret surveillance of US citizens over the past decade.
The programme, codenamed Stellar Wind, installed secret electronic monitoring rooms in major US telecoms companies and embarked on a 'warrantless-wiretapping' campaign. What Binney now reveals is that the network of intercept 'switches' went far beyond phone tapping: it includes emails, internet searches and satellite communications too.
Of Stellar Wind, Binney says: "They violated the [US] Constitution setting it up. But they didn't care. They were going to do it, and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way."
It turns out that the NSA has intercepted between 15 and 20 trillion messages since 9/11. Yet intercepting is just half the job. To get more out of the information, it has to be stored somewhere.
This is where the heavily fortified Utah Data Centre comes in: to store and analyse vast quantities of data. The centre is designed to handle yottabytes of information - and one yottabyte is equivalent to 500 quintillion pages of text.
With such an enormous store at its disposal, the NSA will carry out the 'data mining' and encryption-busting activities that is so worrying for civil liberties campaigners.
Crucially, datamining is used to chart everything a person does, from financial transactions to travel or phone and email conversations. Bamford also quotes Adrienne Kinne, who worked as a voice interceptor for the NSA.
She says that after the 9/11 attacks 'all rules were thrown out the window', with waivers on usual rules of interception. Even journalists calling home from overseas had their calls tapped in real time. "Intimate, personal conversations. It's like finding somebody's diary," says Kinne.
The NSA's Utah Data Centre is due to go live from September 2013. If the Coalition passes its own new surveillance bill, many will suspect that it won't be long before GCHQ asks for a similar data centre in the UK.
In a little-noticed subplot of David Cameron's trip to the US, William Hague last month became the very first Foreign Secretary to visit the NSA's headquarters in Fort Meade. In Washington, Hague was very proud to tell us assembled hacks of this historic honour.
But I wonder if he was briefed at Fort Meade on the progress of the NSA's very own, very big, Big Brother...
FOOTNOTES: *Credit for the #telldaveeverything hashtag goes to @Uninterlocutor. As if to underline the power of Twitter, he has just 18 followers - but his tweet was picked up by journalist @quinnnorton and it then entered the political bloodstream through a string of RTs.
**The Bamford piece was the cover story in the US edition of Wired. But for some bizarre reason, it is not the cover story in the UK. Instead, they have a cover pic of Moshi Monsters founder Micheal Acton Smith. Strange...
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