Total Information Awareness* is Here

Yesterday Joseph Cannon put up a disturbing post about the American company that made it possible for Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian government to shut down the internet in Egypt, making it much more difficult for Egyptians to communicate over social media like Twitter and Facebook. Be sure to read Cannon’s post and watch the Democracy Now video that he included.

The company is Narus, located in Sunnyvale, CA. The company was purchased by Boeing last summer.

I was intrigued enough to do a little more reading about Narus, and thought I’d add a bit to what Cannon had to say.

According to Wikipedia, Narus (emphasis added)

is notable for being the creator of NarusInsight, a supercomputer system which is allegedly used by the NSA and other bodies to perform mass surveillance and monitoring of citizens’ and corporations’ Internet communications in real-time, and whose installation in AT&T’s San Francisco Internet backbone gave rise to a 2006 class action lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation against AT&T, Hepting v. AT&T.

That’s the NSA spying program that supposedly targeted only foreign communications, but actually spied on all of us.

At the Electronic Frontier Foundation site, I found this report by Brian Reid, who is described as a “telecommunications expert.” He is also a former electrical engineer professor at Stanford and computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University West. Reid was asked by the EFF to examine the technology used by AT&T in the spying program. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, MD

This infrastructure is capable of monitoring all traffic passing through the AT&T facility (some of it not even from AT&T customers), whether voice or data or fax, international or domestic. The most likely use of this infrastructure is wholesale, untargeted surveillance of ordinary Americans at the behest of the NSA. NSA involvement undermines arguments that the facility is intended for use by AT&T in protecting its own network operations.

This infrastructure is not limited to, nor would it be especially efficient for, targeted surveillance, or even untargeted surveillance aimed at communications where one of the ends is located outside the United States. It is also not reasonably aimed at supporting AT&T operations and security procedures.

Reid explains that the equipment he examined “is far more powerful and expensive than that needed to do targeted surveillance or surveillance aimed only at international or one-end foreign communications.” Furthermore:

The documents describe a secret, private backbone network separate from the public network where normal AT&T customer traffic is carried transmitted. A separate backbone network would not be required for transmission of the smaller amounts of data captured via targeted surveillance. You don’t need that magnitude of transport capacity if you are doing targeted surveillance.

The bottom line is that the equipment used to provide data to the NSA for Bush’s spying program was designed to spy on ordinary American citizens–not foreign terrorists.

Here’s a bit more from a 2006 article in Wired Magazine:

“Anything that comes through (an internet protocol network), we can record,” says Steve Bannerman, marketing vice president of Narus, a Mountain View, California, company. “We can reconstruct all of their e-mails along with attachments, see what web pages they clicked on, we can reconstruct their (voice over internet protocol) calls.”

Narus’ product, the Semantic Traffic Analyzer, is a software application that runs on standard IBM or Dell servers using the Linux operating system. It’s renowned within certain circles for its ability to inspect traffic in real time on high-bandwidth pipes, identifying packets of interest as they race by at up to 10 Gbps.

Internet companies can install the analyzers at every entrance and exit point of their networks, at their “cores” or centers, or both. The analyzers communicate with centralized “logic servers” running specialized applications. The combination can keep track of, analyze and record nearly every form of internet communication, whether e-mail, instant message, video streams or VOIP phone calls that cross the network.

So what did Narus do for the Egyptian government? According to Freepress (via Cannonfire)

Free Press has discovered that an American company — Boeing-owned Narus of Sunnyvale, CA — has sold Egypt “Deep Packet Inspection” (DPI) equipment that can be used to help the regime track, target and crush political dissent over the Internet and mobile phones.

Again via Joseph Cannon, the technology was described in a March 2010 article at IT World: Narus develops a scary sleuth for social media

Narus is developing a new technology that sleuths through billions of pieces of data on social networks and Internet services and connects the dots.

The new program, code-named Hone, is designed to give intelligence and law enforcement agencies a leg up on criminals who are now operating anonymously on the Internet.

The purpose of this program is to identify a specific person’s even when he or she is using different names and different social media or e-mail accounts. It can correlate all the data from different sources and figure out exactly what you’re doing on the the internet–and it can correlate the text data with voice data from phone calls.

The software’s user creates a target profile, and Hone then proceeds to link what Nucci calls “islands of information.” Hone can analyze VOIP conversations, biometrically identify someone’s voice or photograph and then associate it with different phone numbers.

“I can have a sample of your voice in English, and you can start speaking Mandarin tomorrow. It doesn’t matter; I’m going to catch you.”

At The Nation, Laura Flanders writes of what is being called the “social media sleuth”:

They call it “total visibility.” Who’s buying? Well, Egypt Telecom, the state-owned communications company. Human rights abusers Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are also clients. During Iran’s protests in 2009, dissidents were tracked, imprisoned and in some cases executed thanks to similar technology.


So while Obama administration reps call for Internet freedom to be restored in Egypt, they may simultaneously be lobbying for the companies who shut down that freedom. Your tax dollars at work promoting the sale of social media off-switches to dictators, that would be bad enough.

But do we have any reason to believe the United States has not also bought this handy tool for itself? It makes you wonder what or who he’s kidding when Robert Gibbs talks about Internet freedom. Better not talk it up too loudly, though, before someone reaches for the kill switch.

So what about that “Internet kill-switch bill” that Senators Joseph Leiberman (I-Connecticut), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Tom Carper (D-Delaware) have proposed? They claim their bill involves nothing like what the Egyptian and Iranian governments bought from Boeing/Narus. In fact the three sponsors of the bill released a statement critical of Mubarak’s actions yesterday:

“The steps the Mubarak government took last week to shut down Internet communications in Egypt were, and are, totally wrong,” said Senators Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Susan Collins of Maine, and Tom Carper of Delaware in a joint statement on Feb. 1. “His actions were clearly designed to limit internal criticisms of his government,” the senators said.

WTF?! Doesn’t their bill do the same thing to American citizens? The Senators claim their bill will prevent the President from being able to shut down internet access for Americans.

Supposedly not:

The senators claim the president actually has more power now, authorized by the Communications Act of 1934, to take action similar to what’s been done in Egypt because it allows the president to take over or shut down wire and radio communications providers in the event of a threat or war.

Calling that law “a crude sledgehammer built for another time and technology,” the senators claim their bill will ensure that power won’t be applied to the Internet because it allows the president to identify only critical control systems — i.e., telecommunications networks, the electric grid, financial systems, and the like — and order emergency measures for them against an event that might destroy or severely disrupt them.

The president also would have to notify Congress first before taking action by “the least disruptive means feasible,” and the measures he takes cannot go beyond 120 days without congressional approval, the senators said.

OK, but why do I still feel queasy about all this? I guess it’s because I know that back in 2005-06, Narus already provided the government with the ability to spy on every one of our phone calls, instant messages, social media postings, and heaven knows what else.

It’s hard not to feel hopeless when you realize how little privacy we really have left. But I’m trying to internalize what Joseph Cannon wrote about defeatist attitudes yesterday:

We also need to get past defeatism — as in: “Well, there’s nothing we can do. There’s no such thing as privacy any more.” Sorry. Not buying that. We can have our privacy back if we demand it.

Some people say: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” Only a classic “good German” would rely on that cowardly excuse. Here’s a better axiom: If the government were not doing something wrong, it would not have to worry about us.

* Total Information Awareness

14 Comments on “Total Information Awareness* is Here”

  1. dakinikat says:

    I found this yesterday and it’s got a really interesting graphic and an explanation on how The Noor Group ‘disappeared’ Egypt’s internet.

    Internet routers listen to announcements of IP address blocks, known as prefixes, originating from Autonomous Systems (ASes). By acting on these announcements, Internet routing can function without any centeralized authority. ASes are typically associated with major businesses, Internet providers, or government agencies and are free to buy Internet transit from anyone they like and route their traffic in any way they choose. Unless, of course, as in Egypt’s case, the government intrudes. In terms of ASes and prefixes, we can map out the Noor Group’s connectivity, both to its customers and its providers, as it stands today. The following diagram gives some of the details.

  2. Minkoff Minx says:

    Oh wow, BB….

    I read that post over at Joseph Cannon’s blog when it came out. Over here in Banjoville, a big lawsuit over a forum called Topix was awarded to a local man. It is nothing like what you talk about here with the internet kill switch, but it does touch on some of the things you bring up.

    Georgia man wins $404,000 in Internet libel lawsuit – Chicago Sun-Times

    They were able to track down the woman who was talking trash on the fora, and they were able to get all the different ID’s she was using. Granted it is nothing like what is going on over in Egypt.

    Great post btw.

  3. zaladonis says:

    From my point of view the other two elements are at least equally sinister as the ability to shut down Internet access. One is propaganda, which I think the Obama operation used effectively in 2008 but could become much more sophisticated. Since 2008 they’ve steadily improved their ability to target individual taste and points of emotional vulnerability; Facebook especially has been honing that, and when a few people were bothered by Goldman Sachs essentially joining in partnership with Facebook to the tune of billions of dollars and their richest clients, nobody seemed to connect those dots. For instance I’m kind of amazed there isn’t much concern over the “like” thing, which collects and organizes information about what reaches us on an emotional level. That’s a Goebbels wet dream. And the other is tracking. If the government can track dissidents and their online chains, why can’t they subvert or quietly disappear them.

    It’s not going away, folks, it’s going to become more and more sophisticated as more and more citizens worldwide become more and more emotionally dependent on it. We think this is freedom and it’s so great connecting with like-minded friends, but the truth is it’s enslaving. Lose your access for just a few days, return to what used to fill your time, bring meaning to your life, and even though you may feel cut off and out of the loop tell me you don’t feel liberated as well.

    Great piece, bb.

    • Sima says:

      Facebook. I hates it, but I’m on it, kinda. People look at you like you are insane if you don’t have an account. And yet, I don’t want to know what people are doing every frapping hour of the day, nor do I want to tell them what I am doing. So I use it to annoy people mostly. Although, they never seem to get annoyed. I must be doing it wrong.

      • zaladonis says:

        LOL –

        I use it to annoy people too!

        You’re too nice for that, though- I am very successful at really pissing off even some old dear friends. But then virtually all my friends are full scale Obamabots, though they would insist they are not. Have to say, the ones who get most annoyed are the ones I used to think were the most liberal and open minded and interested in discussing different points of view. FWIW

        Facebook is evil, or facilitates evil.

      • Sima says:

        I think I don’t piss people off because they don’t think I’m serious. Not many know I’m a flaming socialist either. Most think probably think I’m just a bit daft in a musty sort of archaeological way.

        My partner is very much a social person. I’m not so much. I tone it down because of him. Around here everyone was/is an Obot and everyone assumes you are the same, unless you work in the naval shipyard, in which case there’s a 50/50 chance that you hate liberals and think social safety nets aren’t for you and unions suck. Of course, they’ll not give up their cush job and benefits working for Unka Sam, now will they? (I really dislike right wing workers who have benefited from every liberal effort, but are too stupid to see it).

        I’ll never forget an Obot friend’s face when I pointed out, after she mocked Palin for the way she spoke, that many Americans spoke that way. It was like I’d pulled back a veil for just a second. It was quickly gone. Heh. Lost that friendship plenty quick.

    • bostonboomer says:


      It does seem that most of what we are fed these days, whether from the media or the government, is propaganda. I’m starting to understand how it must have felt to live in Soviet Russia back in the day. Thank goodness we still have the internet, but clearly the government is working as hard as possible to get control of it and prevent us from communicating freely with each other.

  4. Sima says:

    I think it was Bruce Scheiner (I’m sorry, I forgot how to spell his name correctly, I think) who pointed out that the only way we are going to be safe from intrusion, is if the watchers are watched by the watchees. That’s the only think that’ll make it a level-playing field. We can’t put the electronic genie back into the bottle. So inside of every police station, cameras that are accessible by anyone. Every police car, the same. Every stream of data, let people look at if if they like. And so on.

    • zaladonis says:

      Isn’t it interesting how much human suspiciousness and deceptiveness, and power and control, drives this electronics revolution? If it hasn’t already, I suspect those elements may outplay simple interest in communication and information.

      • Sima says:

        I wonder if the printing press did the same? I do not know the history of it enough to know. Maybe Minx can tell us.

        Long ago I decided that I wasn’t going to be a part of being controlled by any one business or entity with respect to computers. So I went to Linux and am still on it. It helps me maintain a facade of control. I’m sure I’m not really in control of my computing, someone in the government is. Or is that too tin-foily? 🙂

      • zaladonis says:

        Yes didn’t the printing press play an important role in the English Reformation, for instance? As film played a role in Nazi success. Of course several elements have to come into play along with the tool of communication, but mastering and exploiting the tool can be a game changer.

      • bostonboomer says:

        What I find so mysterious is why the government cares what I think, what I like, what I talk to people about. Yet they are outsourcing the foreign intelligence activities that used to be the government’s job. I do not believe we are being protected from terrorism–domestic or foreign. The most energy goes into spying on people who are working for peace or freedom inside the U.S.

  5. grayslady says:

    Thanks for writing on this, BB. It only remains to add that Senator Leahy is pushing for a renewal of the Patriot Act until 2013. Only this time, he says, the extension will contain more protective language of individual rights. Sorry, but I now believe every Dem member of Congress is simply a front man/woman for Obama, and Obama, as we know, has an even worse record on human rights and civil liberties than Bush. Who (besides us) would have guessed?