NSA spying: Social gathering, thwarting efforts, call for transparency

Welcome to NSA spying roundup No. 3,629. OK, not really. But there’s plenty to catch up on.

• First, the NSA Likes you, it really Likes you. That’s right, the agency is very social and compiles social-network activities to create graphs of people’s connections, according to a New York Times report over the weekend.

It’s probably not surprising considering other revelations about what other information the NSA collects, but it’s just the latest peek into the scope of surveillance — a peek enabled by the leaks by former government tech contractor Edward Snowden. The information from social networks is combined with other data that comes from publicly available information from government agencies and that from commercial entities such as banks and airlines. Oh, and the aforementioned data that the NSA is scooping up, such as phone records and other online communications of Americans along with foreigners.

The Guardian notes a key detail about the latest revelations: The NSA hangs on to the metadata — information such as the parties communicating with each other and the dates and times of those exchanges — it collects for up to a year, regardless of the agency’s level of interest in a person. It’s yet another contradiction with the government’s contentions that its data collection is highly targeted.

• Tech companies and trade and advocacy groups are repeating their calls for transparency related to their role in NSA surveillance. In a letter dated today, they urge the Senate and House Judiciary committees to hurry up and act to allow them to reveal more information about the NSA’s collection of data. “We look forward to working together to achieve passage of legislation that will ensure the level of transparency necessary to appropriately inform the American public and preserve the trust of Internet users around the world,” says the letter, which was signed by Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and others.

• Meanwhile, in case you missed it, there are efforts to thwart the NSA’s data collection. They include a gadget proposed by a famous name both in and out of the tech industry: John McAfee of antivirus software fame, who’s wanted in Belize in connection with a killing.

As the Mercury News’ Tracey Kaplan reported over the weekend, McAfee was at the C2SV tech and music conference in San Jose and talked about his plan  for “Decentral,” a supposedly inexpensive gadget that’s supposed to create floating local networks that can’t be penetrated by spy agencies. The device has been designed but not yet made.

Another surveillance-proof effort comes by way of graphic design. From CNN: A designer — and former NSA contractor, uh-oh — has created new fonts that he says would be “unreadable by text scanning software,” which relies on OCR (optical character recognition). The fonts use dots, patterns and other tricks, but critics are skeptical, saying the fonts don’t use random generation and “could probably be broken.”


Photo: John McAfee reacts to a question at the “Fireside Chat with John McAfee” talk at C2SV  in San Jose on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013.   (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)


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