I’m glad I’m not the only one who was immediately reminded of this when the NSA spying story broke.

If you are interested in the perspective of a computer security specialist definitely take a look at what Bruce Scheneier has been writing. Schneier’s theory on why Bush needed to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Security Court is pretty harrowing.

The NSA’s ability to eavesdrop on communications is exemplified by a technological capability called Echelon. Echelon is the world’s largest information “vacuum cleaner,” sucking up a staggering amount of voice, fax, and data communications – satellite, microwave, fiber-optic, cellular and everything else – from all over the world: an estimated 3 billion communications per day. These communications are then processed through sophisticated data-mining technologies, which look for simple phrases like “assassinate the president” as well as more complicated communications patterns.

Supposedly Echelon only covers communications outside of the United States. Although there is no evidence that the Bush administration has employed Echelon to monitor communications to and from the U.S., this surveillance capability is probably exactly what the president wanted and may explain why the administration sought to bypass the FISA process of acquiring a warrant for searches.

Honestly, this kind of behavior from the Bush Administration isn’t at all surprising given their “go it alone” attitude. However I’m really dissapointed that the ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees didn’t make noise–any noise. I imagine they are bound by some oath or whatnot…but what good are checks and balances if they don’t work properly?

Indeed, a recent article from the NYTimes indicates that Schenier’s theory may in fact be, umm fact:

The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former government officials.

The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system’s main arteries, they said.

As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said.

I’m really worried that we’re not teetering on a slippery slope but are actually in free fall. It appears that telecommunications companies are helping feed data mining operations at the NSA in real time. Perhaps they have a googlish front end where ‘professionals’ can type in ‘keywords’ and hit “I’m feeling lucky” and get a list of phone conversations or emails.

The Bush Administration’s prolific use of “fear” as an policy wedge is extremely dangerous. As Roosevelt famously said in a time of national crisis:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself: nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

On a somewhat lighter note, Schneier linked to a little trick devised by Richard M. Smith which allows you to detect if the NSA is monitoring your email communications. As my friend Ed Silva pointed out in IM:

I wouldn’t try it if you are planning on flying.

Uh, yeah I was planning on going to code4lib 2006 in a few months….maybe I’ll wait.