June 20, 2013

Government spying: Metadata is key to all of your secrets

By LINDSAY WISE and JONATHAN S. LANDAY McClatchy Washington Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

Cell Phone
click image to enlarge

Smartphones are a part of any Americans’ lives, but few realize that their phone reveals a trove of personal information – from travel habits to consumer choices and preferences.

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

Edward Snowden, 29, is accused of disclosing data on National Security Agency programs.

WATCHDOG: SECURITY CHECK ON SNOWDEN MAY HAVE BEEN FLAWED

WASHINGTON - A government watchdog testified Thursday there may have been problems with the security clearance background check conducted on the 29-year-old federal contractor who disclosed previously secret National Security Agency programs for collecting phone records and Internet data.

Appearing at a Senate hearing, Patrick McFarland, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's inspector general, said USIS, the company that conducted the security clearance investigation of former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, is now under investigation itself.

McFarland declined to say what triggered the inquiry of USIS or whether the probe is related to Snowden. But when asked by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., if there were any concerns about the USIS background check on Snowden, McFarland answered: "Yes, we do believe that there may be some problems."

McFarland declined after the Senate hearing to describe to reporters the type of investigation his office is conducting. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she was told the inquiry is a criminal investigation related "to USIS' systemic failure to adequately conduct investigations under its contract."

USIS, based in Falls Church, Va., said in a statement that it has never been informed that it is under criminal investigation. USIS received a subpoena from the Office of Personnel Management IG in January 2012 for records, the statement said. "USIS complied with that subpoena and has cooperated fully with the government's civil investigative efforts," the company said.

The background check USIS performed on Snowden was done in 2011 and was part of periodic reinvestigations that are required for employees who hold security clearances, according to McFarland and Michelle Schmitz, the assistant inspector general for investigations at OPM.

-- The Associated Press

A former senior official of the National Security Agency said the government's massive collection of metadata allowed the agency to construct "maps" of an individual's daily movements, social connections, travel habits and other personal information.

"This is blanket. There is no constraint. No probable cause. No reasonable suspicion," said Thomas Drake, who worked unsuccessfully for years to report privacy violations and massive waste at the agency to his superiors and Congress.

Metadata "is more useful than (the) content" of a telephone call, email or Internet search, Drake said in an interview. "It gets you a map over time. I get to map movements, connections, communities of interest. It's also a tracking mechanism."

The NSA "can easily associate" a phone number with an identity, he added. "All location information comes from a (cellular) tower. There are tower records. They are doing this every single day. It's basically a data tap on metadata, and I can build a profile (of an individual) instantly."

The agency has programs that also can mine the metadata of emails and other electronic information, Drake said.

With advances in data storage, he continued, the NSA is able to maintain massive amounts of metadata for as long as it wants.

Drake added that U.S. telecommunications companies are prohibited from publicly disclosing arrangements with the NSA and are protected under the Patriot Act from lawsuits. "They literally have the protection of the U.S. government from any, any lawsuit. The United States is literally turning into a surveillance state," he said. "This is the new normal."

At a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill, FBI Director Robert Mueller said metadata obtained under Section 215 of the Patriot Act had helped authorities "connect the dots" in investigations that had prevented 10 or 12 terrorist plots in recent years. Mueller defended the collection of metadata and warned against restricting or ending the program.

"What you want is as many dots (to connect) as we can. If you close down a program like this, you are removing dots from the playing field."

 

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