The Evil Empire

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The Guardian has its latest scoop on NSA spying, describing the extent to which Microsoft helps the government spy on its customers. This bullet list is just some of what the article reveals.

  • Microsoft helped the NSA to circumvent its encryption to address concerns that the agency would be unable to intercept web chats on the new Outlook.com portal;
  • The agency already had pre-encryption stage access to email on Outlook.com, including Hotmail;
  • The company worked with the FBI this year to allow the NSA easier access via Prism to its cloud storage service SkyDrive, which now has more than 250 million users worldwide;
  • Microsoft also worked with the FBI’s Data Intercept Unit to “understand” potential issues with a feature in Outlook.com that allows users to create email aliases;
  • Skype, which was bought by Microsoft in October 2011, worked with intelligence agencies last year to allow Prism to collect video of conversations as well as audio;
  • Material collected through Prism is routinely shared with the FBI and CIA, with one NSA document describing the program as a “team sport”.

But I’m as interested in some of the details about the cooperation as the impact of that cooperation.

For example, the story describes that this cooperation takes place through the Special Source Operations unit.

The latest documents come from the NSA’s Special Source Operations (SSO) division, described by Snowden as the “crown jewel” of the agency. It is responsible for all programs aimed at US communications systems through corporate partnerships such as Prism.

But we saw that when NSA approached (presumably) Microsoft in 2002, it did not approach via SSO; it used a more formal approach through counsel.

In addition, note how Skype increased cooperation in the months before Microsoft purchased it for what was then considered a hugely inflated price, and what is now being called (in other legal jurisdictions) so dominant that it doesn’t have to cooperate with others.

One document boasts that Prism monitoring of Skype video production has roughly tripled since a new capability was added on 14 July 2012. “The audio portions of these sessions have been processed correctly all along, but without the accompanying video. Now, analysts will have the complete ‘picture’,” it says.

Eight months before being bought by Microsoft, Skype joined the Prism program in February 2011.

According to the NSA documents, work had begun on smoothly integrating Skype into Prism in November 2010, but it was not until 4 February 2011 that the company was served with a directive to comply signed by the attorney general.

The NSA was able to start tasking Skype communications the following day, and collection began on 6 February. “Feedback indicated that a collected Skype call was very clear and the metadata looked complete,” the document stated, praising the co-operation between NSA teams and the FBI. “Collaborative teamwork was the key to the successful addition of another provider to the Prism system.”

While this isn’t as obvious as Verizon’s MCI purchase — which for the first time led that carrier to hand over Internet data — it does seem that those companies that cooperate with the NSA end up taking over their rivals.

 

Remember, the Department of Commerce plays some kind of role in ensuring that companies cooperate in protecting our critical infrastructure.

As of 2:30, Microsoft stock is at a high on the day.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

16 replies
  1. Z says:

    “As of 2:30, Microsoft stock is at a high on the day.”

    It’s been pretty clear for a long time now that our rulers and their corporate-wall street-federal reserve-government partnership have so much control over the stock market at this point that they can pretty much etch-a-sketch ‘F U America’ in the stock market indices if they chose to. A couple of years back some of the big wall street outfits made overall trading profits every single day of the quarter. That’s not the action of a naturally functioning market, but it’s not all that hard to do when you have the fed backstopping you almost infinitum at the time which allows you to muscle around the markets per your benefit. It’s just another aspect of the fascist state and a very empowering one to them at that. The federal reserve’s role in the development of the fascist state has been huge … you control the money printing presses you can control damn near everything and they are far far from independent (thank you, uncle alan!).

    The stock action on msft today is probably just another way for our rulers to “inform” their subjects that these nsa revelations will mean nothing … nothing. Not that I agree. And we are starting to see in the recent Snowden polling that their power games aren’t as influential on their subjects as they’d like them to be.

    Z

  2. Z says:

    By the way, I used to have a hotmail account, but several months ago msft forced all hotmail email accounts to change to the outlook platform. I was thinking at the time that the reason for that had something to do with this. Way back then that was black helicopter thought to most folks.

    Z

  3. greengiant says:

    Still wondering how Wyden can say Prism targets foreigners. Wish someone would ask him.

  4. JohnT says:

    @jo6pac:

    I never thought I’d see the day when when Russia (USSR) has the moral high ground over the US

    But thanks to shrub and Zero it’s happened

  5. JohnT says:

    But we saw that when NSA approached (presumably) Microsoft in 2002, it did not approach via SSO; it used a more formal approach through counsel.

    In addition, note how Skype increased cooperation in the months before Microsoft purchased it

    Maybe this explains why I’ve been getting a bazillion emails from Skype wanting me to join

  6. Z says:

    @JohnT:

    Soon with a subscription to skype, you’ll get 10% off your federal income taxes. They’re both part of the same conglomerate anyway …

    Z

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “While this isn’t as obvious as Verizon’s MCI purchase — which for the first time led that carrier to hand over Internet data — it does seem that those companies that cooperate with the NSA end up taking over their rivals.”

    And to hell with traditional antitrust law, designed to prevent dominant economic positions and their abuse.

    Free passes for antitrust violations – and for merger approvals – are now the partial cost of a ticket to spy more freely. Not to spy on actual criminals, mind, but to create a system of spying that fortifies the government’s dominant position against those individuals and groups which would reduce the power of those who already have the most power.

  8. Z says:

    @earlofhuntingdon:

    Yeah, it’s certainly in our rulers’ interests to have the internet ad money quasi-monopolized by one of the corporate partners (google) and google gets away with all sorts of anti-competitive behavior. Which makes it harder for independent, uncorrupted websites to be able to support themselves on the internet and get their views out to the public. Which is why our rulers in the public sector allow google to do what they do …

    Z

  9. Z says:

    Here’s another thing that I’ve always wondered about: how the hell do the anti-virus software companies financially survive when they are continually offering full rebate deals on their products? I know they must make money selling to businesses, but I’d imagine that their licensees’ incoming data, which they are constantly rifting through for viruses, ought to be worth something to the feds. So, there’s some potential synergy between them and the feds since the federal agencies probably are some of their biggest customers.

    Z

  10. joanneleon says:

    I hadn’t thought about telecom consolidation being encouraged by the government. The fewer “providers” they have to interface with, the better.

    Also, it occurs to me that these big tech companies that provide so much data to the govt. so cooperatively will probably now be considered “Too Big To Fail”, just like the banks. That could be one reason why their stock went up. Wall Street loves TBTF (though you’d think they’d be worried about their own personal communications. Do they get an exemption?)

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