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Friday, August 9, 2013

NSA Reading Pretty Much Everything

In the latest round of revelations on the intrusiveness of the United States government’s surveillance techniques, the New York Times has reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) is searching the contents of email and text messages being sent into and out of the country. The scope of these sweeps are not limited to the messaging of specific suspects, but is instead casting a far wider net, looking for references to specific individuals and organizations across much larger blocks of messaging.

And, in the icing on today’s expanding surveillance cake, The Guardian highlighted a legal loophole being leveraged by the NSA to allow for warrantless search of US citizens’ phone calls and emails. NSA agents can search available databases for a particular individual’s name, returning data on that person’s communication history. This contradicts earlier government claims that such warrantless data access was limited to only foreign nationals.

Against this backdrop of growing surveillance concerns, President Obama announced today the creation of a task force of outside intelligence and civil liberties experts to advise the government on their digital intelligence gathering programs. He also promised limited improvements to transparency of the N.S.A. surveillance apparatus, including releasing a previously-classified legal analysis of the case for current surveillance practices. The President told reporters “It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them as well.”

Encrypted Email Services Shutting Down

Two popular providers of email encryption technologies, including one reportedly used by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, announced Thursday that they would be discontinuing services, apparently to avoid threats to customer privacy from government security investigations. Ladar Levison, the proprietor of Lavabit, told users in an email “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.” Levison ended his email with a rather dire warning : “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 which also provides encrypted phone and teleconference services, announced, via a post on their website, that they would be discontinuing their email service as a pre-emptive measure. “We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now.”

Calls to Boycott Russia Olympics, for Very Different Reasons

Calls for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics, scheduled for next February in Sochi, Russia, have been growing louder in recent days, and coming from vastly different political circles. Yesterday, the White House rejected calls, including one from Republican Lindsey Graham, to boycott the event based on Russia’s granting of asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden. White House spokesman Jay Carney downplayed the impact of Snowden on relations between the two countries, and emphasized that while President Obama had cancelled a planned September visit to Moscow, high level talks were still being scheduled between both governments.

Meanwhile, others have been calling for a similar boycott of the event, based on Russia’s recent passage of a number of anti-gay laws. Actor/writer Stephen Fry compared the anti-gay shift in Russia to pre-World War II Nazi Germany, and likened participation in next winter’s Olympics to participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Fry wrote “Putin is eerily repeating this insane crime, only this time against LGBT Russians. Beatings, murders and humiliations are ignored by the police. Any defense or sane discussion of homosexuality is against the law.”

Dead Dolphins Washing Ashore Along the Atlantic Coast

More than 120 dead bottlenose dolphins have washed up on beaches along the East Coast since June. Representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which reported the findings, said they’ve yet to determine the causes of death. Susan Barco, a researcher with the Virginia Aquarium, called the uptick in deaths “absolutely alarming.” Last month, the aquarium responded to calls for 44 dead dolphins; the previous July average was just seven. WTVR in Richmond reported earlier this week that an additional 13 dead dolphins were found over last weekend.

What might be causing the deaths? NOAA’s Maggie Mooney-Seus posited “It could be biotoxins. It could be disease. It could be human interactions with fishing gear.” Previous periods of increased dolphin morbidity have been linked to viruses. In 1987 and 1988, more than 750 dead dolphins washed ashore along the Atlantic Coast. Most of those deaths were eventually linked to morbillivirus, which is related to measles. Many of those dolphins showed signs of measles or pneumonia, and researchers are exploring the virus as one potential explanation for this year’s increased strandings and deaths.

Weekend Read: Taken

Thanks to civil forfeiture laws, Americans who haven’t been charged with any wrongdoing can have their homes, cars, and other property taken away from them. Sarah Stillman tells the story in The New Yorker.

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