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First POST: Thousands

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, August 16 2013

Thousands of Instances

  • Here's our Sarah Lai Stirland this morning, summing up the Washington Post's huge new scoop on the NSA front and its political implications:

    A startling new report published late Thursday evening that reveals for the first time thousands of instances where the National Security Agency overstepped its legal authority by illegally collecting the phone and e-mail communications of U.S. citizens is likely to put privacy and surveillance issues on the front-burner next month when members of Congress return to Washington D.C. from the August recess.

    A top-secret audit" of the NSA's surveillance activities dated May 2012 documented 2,776 "incidents" in the preceding 12 months of "unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications," The Washington Post reported Thursday evening. The Post based its report on an audit provided to its national security reporter Barton Gellman by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

  • In addition, a second story by the Post's Carol Leonnig found that the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court overseeing the NSA can't really do its job. "The FISC does not have the capacity to investigate issues of non-compliance," its chief judge Reggie Walton, told the Post in a written statement. Leonnig notes, "The court’s description of its practical limitations contrasts with repeated assurances from the Obama administration and intelligence agency leaders that the court provides central checks and balances on the government’s broad spying efforts."

  • Kudos to Barton Gellman not only for breaking the story, but like Glenn Greenwald, for sticking around on Twitter as it broke to respond to comments and offer further clarifications.

  • As the Post's Andrea Peterson noted, "Remember when Obama said the NSA wasn't 'actually abusing' its powers? He was wrong."

  • BoingBoing has a great wrap-up of the instant reactions to the Post's new stories.

  • Marcy Wheeler sums up the extent of congressional, judicial and internal oversight of NSA surveillance. Cindy Cohn and Mark Jaycox of EFF pile on.

  • Joseph Lorenzo Hall of the Center for Democracy and Technology, one of the key groups in Washington DC working to keep the internet open and free, gets into the weeds and suggests that what we don't know about the closure of Lavabit, one of the two secure email services to shut themselves down in the wake of the NSA surveillance disclosures, might go beyond anything covered under the current Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). He writes:

    We think the law is clear: if you’ve built a secure email service, the government can’t secretly force you to break it and rebuild it to be insecure under the “provider assistance” mandate that might accompany a surveillance order or directive. If that's what the government is demanding here, then we have CALEA II design mandates imposed by secret court order, going far beyond anything that Congress ever intended with the “assistance” requirements of current law and far beyond anything in CALEA I.

    If it is the government’s theory that existing law already empowers it to demand secret alterations in communications services, then the shutdowns of Lavabit and Silent Mail are very troubling indeed. Take just one concern: the personal safety of human rights activists who depend on secure email service in carrying out their work. The U.S. government has actually supported the development of secure communications tools for human rights activists. Does the shutdown of Lavabit mean that secure email services cannot be secure against government access? Or does it say the U.S. will not tolerate in the U.S. the kind of secure communications it is promoting in Iran or Tibet?

  • With all the news breaking about the NSA's secret programs, did someone at the CIA decide that this would be a good time to finally acknowledge the existence of Area 51? (And how is it that in 2013, the National Security Archive's url is still

In other news around the web

  • Sarah Carr is live-tweeting her eye-witness account of protestors in Egypt jumping off a Cairo bridge to avoid live gunfire from soldiers.

  • Wired's editors offer their handpicked list of the bloggers and news sources -- "the best reporters, writers and thinkers on the Internet'--the people who understand what's happening" -- that they think people should follow. "The following 101 signals--blogs, feeds, podcasts, and more--provide everything you need to know and nothing you don't." Apparently, among the things you "don't need to know" are the voices and views of women. While many of the sources Wired lists are group blogs or aggregators, of the ones that are run by individuals we counted 45 led by men and just 8 from women. #WiredFAIL.

  • Yelp, the restaurant review site, has joined forces with ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, to push against lawsuits that are designed to reduce public participation (so-called SLAPP suits). At first glance, this could be seen as innocuous, as such lawsuits are against the interest of web platforms that encourage user-generated content. But ALEC has also been the vehicle for all kinds of other legislation, including stand-your-ground laws, restrictions on abortion, and privatization of education. So now activists are attacking Yelp with, of all things, a page on ALEC on Yelp's site that is filled with thousands of negative reviews of the organization. Ben Jacobs details the story on the Daily Beast. Yelp has responded, in part, by tweeting that "we fight for user's #freespeech on all sides of aisle."

  • Foreign Policy is featuring an odd article called "Zero Degrees of al Qaeda" that claims that Twitter is "supercharging jihadist recruitment" because the platform will recommend "terrorists" for someone to follow once they follow a few well known "terrorists." The author, J. M. Berger, never proves that the site's recommendation engine has actually recruited anyone to anything. Nor does he take note of the ways that actual on-the-ground experiences and conditions may contribute to an individual's decision to join an actual "terrorist" group. But that doesn't stop his overheated rhetoric:

    Twitter's recommendations are the cream of the crop, all the essential accounts a budding terrorist might want to discover. But it's not just the low-hanging fruit. The more focused your initial follows are, the more specific the recommendations. Further experimentation shows that if you know one honest-to-God terrorist online, Twitter will cheerfully connect you with many others.

  • Shark Week is over, and that means marine conservationists like David Shiffman, who took advantage of Upwell's data-driven "sharkinars" on how to use social media to surf public attention during the Discovery Channel's annual blast, are very, very happy with the results.

  • And for your weekend reading enjoyment, do not miss Rusty Foster's darkly hilarious short story in The Awl, "I May Not Harm Jeff Bezos."

Note to subscribers: Yours truly is taking next week off to enjoy a little bit of what's left of summer, so First POST will be on hiatus until the week of August 26.