Back-door email searches, Obama-tech execs meeting and other NSA spying news

Another day, another report detailing U.S. government spying: The NSA has what one senator calls a “back door” ability to search Americans’ emails and phone calls without a warrant. With this latest report, President Obama, who has scheduled a news conference today, has a lot of explaining to do.

The Guardian reports today that the surveillance is made possible through a loophole approved by National Security Agency authorities in 2011. Yesterday, we mentioned a New York Times report that the government is searching the content — not just metadata such as dates and times and who’s communicating with whom — of Americans in contact with foreign suspects.

Obama has scheduled a news conference at 3 p.m. Eastern time/noon Pacific time today to announce measures meant to “restore public trust,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The government, including the president, has issued repeated denials that Americans’ privacy is being violated, and has said its mass surveillance programs are important to fighting terrorism. (The Washington Post reports about one case the government is using as justification.)

The news conference comes a day after Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google executive and Internet evangelist Vint Cerf and others met with Obama to talk about government surveillance. (Politico was the first to report the meeting took place; a White House official and Apple have confirmed, according to USA Today’s Jon Swartz.) Apple and Google are among the tech companies that have what they say is an involuntary role — details of which they are legally required not to talk about — in the NSA’s Prism program.

Meanwhile, the email provider Edward Snowden is said to have used has shut itself down. The former government tech contractor, who is now wanted by the U.S. government, leaked the documents on which the reports by the Guardian and other newspapers are based.

Lavabit, a Texas-based provider of encrypted email service that was apparently founded because of privacy concerns about Gmail, said Thursday it would rather shut down than turn over information about its users to the government. The company’s website says it is now collecting donations for a legal defense fund, with the hope it can rise again.

“I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit,” owner Ladar Levison wrote on the site. He also said he could not reveal details of his dealings with the government, and closed with the following: “Without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.”

Silent Circle, a company similar to Lavabit, said today it also had decided to discontinue its email service. The Maryland company has not been contacted by the government, but CEO Michael Janke writes on Quora that “we saw the writing on the wall.”


Photo: President Obama, who met with tech executives including Tim Cook and Vint Cerf yesterday, is scheduled to talk about government surveillance today. (Associated Press)


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  • Lynn

    like highway web cams. impossible to catch one license plate of a bad guy, when you don’t know when he’s going to drive by, without catching everyone else in the process. also similar to dolphins caught in tuna nets ;/

    until they run into dolphins that are more like this sheep ;p LOL

    aka the ‘juiciest hack on the planet’? so ‘surprised’ nothing has ever come out at Defcon or Blackhat about hacking the back doors? ;p And they just ‘seem’ like wall st. geniuses? ;p pwwwth.