Talking tech since 2003

The deluge of details regarding the NSA’s surveillance tactics shows no sign of abating, as yet another document leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden has made its way into the pages of the New York Times. According to the report, the NSA has tools at its disposal that allow the agency to monitor computers not even connected to the Internet.

This particular tactic seems relatively low-tech—at least compared with some of the more sophisticated methods we’ve heard about in recent weeks. The report says that the NSA implants radio transmitters into USB cards and cables that are inserted into target computers. Then, agents can monitor those computers as long as the transmitters are still connected to the computers, whether they’re actually connected to the Internet or not. The piece also says that these tactics have been in use since at least 2008, and have targeted “units of the Chinese Army,” “Russian military networks,” “systems used by the Mexican Police and drug cartels,” as well as different targets within the European Union and Middle Eastern nations.

But what’s interesting about this particular leak is that, for once, American citizens are not listed as targets. This is significant, since much of the uproar over the initial PRISM leaks from last summer was because it detailed the ways that the NSA was monitoring US citizens, who, of course, have always supposed to be exempt from government surveillance under the Fourth Amendment.

While there’s been some debate as to whether or not the NSA’s tactics indeed violate the Fourth Amendment or if the agency’s activity is authorized under the Patriot Act, the NSA’s surveillance techniques on non-American targets has rarely been called into question in terms of legality under US law.

While many privacy advocates could neatly fall into the “pro-Snowden” camp because of the information that’s been uncovered as a result of his leaks, it’s important to point out that the “anti-Snowden” folks have some very legitimate claims against his actions, and this particular leak would seem to justify those claims.

It’s one thing to shine a light onto ways that the government is violating the rights of its own citizens; it’s quite another to expose tactics utilized by the government to fulfil its duty to protect those citizens from threats outside of its borders. While the idea of the US government spying on foreign governments isn’t one that fills me with optimism for the human race, it’s difficult to take the agency to task for actually performing the functions it was created to carry out.

Exposing these methods publicly could, in fact, set agency’s legitimate intelligence gathering powers of back quite a bit. That’s one of the negative consequences of Snowden’s attempt to expose what he saw as violations of US citizens’ rights.

If anything, these latest revelations highlight the ways that both the NSA and Snowden himself are neither heroes nor villains in this ongoing saga, but rather occupy that gray area in between, where nothing is certain.

It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, President Obama does to change the NSA’s tactics when he addresses these issues going forward. Stay tuned.

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