Cyberwars: ACLU and NSA ex-Director to Debate Tomorrow!

keith-alexander-nsa-flickrIn what is sure to be a barn-burner of a debate, the former head of the National Security Agency – General Keith Alexander – will be participating tomorrow in a with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. The televised, surveillance-themed debate, will take place tomorrow –  June 30th, 10:30am Eastern Time – on MSNBC. The subject: whether or not the NSA’s vast surveillance and data mining programs are making American’s safer.

While many would prefer that the current head of the NSA be involved in the debate, General Alexander is a far better spokesperson for the controversial programs that have been the subject of so much controversy. After all, “Emperor Alexander” – as his subordinates called him – is the man most directly responsible for the current disposition of the  NSA’s cyber surveillance and warfare program.Who better to debate their merit with the head of the ACLU – an organization dedicated to the preservation of personal freedom?

Edward-Snowden-660x367And according to classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, General Alexander’s influence and power within the halls of government knew no bounds during his tenure. A four-star Army general with active units under his command, he was also the head of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service, and the commander of the US Cyber Command. It is this last position and the power it wields that has raised the greatest consternation amongst civil-libertarians and privacy advocates.

Keith Alexander is responsible for building this place up between 2005 and 2013, insisting that the US’s inherent vulnerability to digital attacks required that he and those like him assume more authority over the data zipping around the globe. According to Alexander, this threat is so paramount that it only makes sense that all power to control the flow of information should be concentrated in as few hands as possible, namely his.

NSA_fort_meadeIn a recent security conference held in Canada before the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Alexander expressed the threat in the following, cryptic way:

What we see is an increasing level of activity on the networks. I am concerned that this is going to break a threshold where the private sector can no longer handle it and the government is going to have to step in.

If this alone were not reason enough to put people on edge, there are also voices within the NSA who view Alexander as a quintessential larger-than-life personality. One former senior CIA official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, claimed:

We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander—with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets. We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.

And it is because of such freedom to monitor people’s daily activities that movements like the February 11th “The Day We Fight Back” movement – an international cause that embraced 360 organizations in 70 countries that were dedicated to ending mass surveillance – have been mounted, demanding reform.

us_supremecourtIn addition, a series of recent ruling from the US Supreme Court have begun to put the kibosh on the surveillance programs that Alexander spent eight years building up. With everything from cell phone tracking to cell phone taps, a precedent is being set that is likely to outlaw all of the NSA domestic surveillance. But no matter what, the role of Snowden’s testimony in securing this landmark event cannot be underestimated.

In fact, in a recent interview, the ACLU’s Anthony Romero acknowledged a great debt to Snowden and claimed that the debate would not be happening without him. As he put it:

I think Edward Snowden has done this country a service… regardless of whether or not what he did was legal or illegal, whether or not we think the sedition laws or the espionage laws that are being used to possibly prosecute Snowden are too broad, the fact is that he has kick-started a debate that we did not have. This debate was anemic. Everyone was asleep at the switch.

One can only imagine what outcome this debate will have. But we can rest assured that some of the more predictable talking points will include the necessities emerging out of the War on Terror, the rise of the information revolution, and the dangers of Big Brother Government, as well as the NSA’s failure to prevent such attacks as the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Benghazi Embassy bombing, and a slew of other terrorist incidents that took place during Alexander’s tenure.

Do I sound biased? Well perhaps that’s because I am. Go ACLU, stick to Emperor Alexander!

Sources: engadget.com, democracynow.org

News From Space: NASA Severs Ties to Russia

ISS_crewYesterday, NASA officially announced that it intends to cease most work with the Russian Federal Space Agency amid growing tensions concerning the Ukrainian crisis. The statement came from Bob Jacobs, NASA’s deputy associate administrator of communications, who formalized the space agency’s position with a message sent to Universe Today, a copy of which was then posted on it’s Google+ message board on Wednesday, April 2nd.

In the statement, they indicate that while the International Space Station will still see work to “maintain safe and continuous operation”, most work with Roscosmos (Russia’s federal space agency) will cease. In addition, they were sure to include a reminder to Congress, saying that they now face a choice between fully funding human U.S. launches again in 2017, or facing years more of sending money to the Russians for Soyuz launches from Kazakhstan.

Soyuz_capsuleThe full text of the statement appears as follows:

Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation.  NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.

NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space.  This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year.  

With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017.  The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians.  It’s that simple.  The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.

So far, it’s not exactly clear what activities would constitute “safe and continuous operation” of the station. So, for example, whether or not NASA will continue to send photographers to cover launches and landing in Russia, or to what extent NASA TV broadcasts of Russian spacewalks would be affected, remains to be seen. And in the meantime, missions already scheduled for launch – such as Expedition 40, which will launch aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in May – are still expected to go ahead.

ISS_exp40Since the Space Shuttle Program was retired in 2011, NASA and other space agencies such as the European Space Agency have relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to bring astronauts to the International Space Station. Crews are generally made up of large proportions of Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts, as well as a few astronauts from other agencies. The current Expedition 39 crew has has three Russians, two Americans and a Japanese commander, Koichi Wakata.

The relationship between NASA and Russia stretches back to the 1970s when Russia was still the Soviet Union, with their first joint mission (the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project) taking place in 1975. The relationship expanded when several NASA shuttles visited the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for the International Space Station agreement today. And 2011, that relationship expanded considerably, with Russian rockets not only transporting ISS crews, but also US and European satellites into orbit.

Earth_&_Mir_(STS-71)NASA is working on a commercial crew program that right now is slated to bring U.S. astronauts back into space from American soil by 2017. There are several proposals being considered: a human-rated version of SpaceX’s Dragon, Blue Origin’s New Shepard, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser and the Boeing CST-100. However, these depend upon continued funding and it is currently unclear how much money the CCP program will receive in the upcoming fiscal 2015 budget request before Congress.

Historically, NASA has repeatedly received less funding than what it has requested, which has resulted in missions being delayed – sometimes by years. But the new tensions with Russia may alter that situation somewhat, and judging from their statement, NASA is counting on this very thing. In the meantime, International Space Station operations were extended to at least 2024, and NASA officials have pointed out that it and similar agreements have weathered other world crises.

Source: universetoday.com

Fears of a Police-Drone State

UAVsIn a decision which has been decried by countless community activists and civil rights leaders, the Alameda  County Sheriff’s Department announced plans last month to deploy up to two small, lightweight drones to assist in police surveillance. Despite resistance from the community, the town seems poised to join many other cities in using UAV’s for domestic security, effectively steam-rolling over concerns over privacy and “Big Brother” government.

As it stands, several police agencies across the US are currently using drones, including the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Until recently, the Seattle Police Department also employed a two-drone fleet, but grounded them amidst growing concerns over privacy and a recent government report, which warned that drone use could become even more commonplace.

california_dronesBefore anyone gets too worried, rest assured that the drones in question are a far cry from the UAV’s currently conducting armed missions overseas. Unlike the Predator and Reaper drones that carry multiple Hellfire missiles and can level entire villages, these drones are relatively benign, weighing only a few pounds and relying on a series of propellers to keep them aloft. But of course, the potential for harm resides in their ability to monitor, not to kill…

UAV_scoutConcerns over domestic drone surveillance reached a sort of climax  last February after federal lawmakers signed the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 into law. Among other things, the act required the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to accelerate drone flights in U.S. airspace. In response, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that the act would allow drone use to become commonplace in the US.

In accordance with that law, drones, known in the report as “unmanned aerial systems,” are currently limited in the United States to law enforcement activities, search and rescue, forensic photography, monitoring or fighting forest fires, border security, weather research, scientific data collection and even hobbies. However, the law calls for expansion so drones can be used for commercial, utility and public  uses.

UAV_dom1Naturally, the FAA feels that the new law doesn’t take into account several key problems – notably concerns surrounding privacy, security and even GPS jamming and spoofing. In short, they pointed out that despite drone’s on-board navigation and detection system that allow them to avoid crashes, said systems could cause complications if and when drones share airspace with private aircraft.

Among other things, the FAA recommended that drone GPS systems undergo encryption so they would be resistant to jamming and hacking, which is apparently a danger in non-military unencrypted drones. They also advised that the government set up secure operation centers for unmanned drones, and recommended that the government formulate privacy protections to head off potential “abuses”.

UAV_domObviously, the FAA’s report and public concern struck a note. Just last month, federal lawmakers introduced legislation regulating state and federal government use of unmanned drones in the United States. This legislation prohibits drones from being armed, and would demand that agencies register drones and adopt privacy polices. What’s more, the proposal would allow drones to be used only in criminal matters, in which warrants would be required.

Once again, it appears that the Obama administration is willing to step in where public concerns over developing technology are concerned. Recall the instruction signed by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter back in December of last year designed to limit the development of autonomous aerial drones? Well here too, instructions have been given, but the general sense of worry is far from alleviated.

X-47BIt puts me in mind of a prediction Arthur C. Clarke made shortly before he died in 2008. He predicted that despite concerns over “Big Brother”-type monitoring, that digital surveillance would be adopted by every city within the civilized world, until such time that crime was virtually eliminated. Much like many predictions he made, this one proved a little optimistic and futurist for some of his fans (including this one!).

As it stands, the use of remote machines to monitor our world is an ongoing and growing concern, and the debate will hardly be decided so easily. In the end, we all just have to ask if we really want to live in a post-privacy state, what the costs of living in that kind of world will be, and whether or not it will truly mean the emergence of dystopian scenarios, as envisioned by George Orwell and others.

Source: Wired.com, (2)