Sequel to SOPA could see NSA spy on journalists, media pirates

By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, April 5, 2012 12:12 EDT
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A government agent aims a gun at a laptop computer. Photo: Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.
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If you download and distribute copyrighted material on the Internet, or share any information that governments or corporations find inconvenient, you could soon be labeled a threat to national security in the United States.

That’s the aim of a bill in Congress called the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which some have labeled in recent weeks as a type of sequel to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a highly controversial series of proposals that were utterly destroyed by an online mass work-stoppage protest earlier this year.

CISPA, however, is nothing like SOPA, despite its recent association in the media. While SOPA included provisions that would have essentially broken the Internet by allowing the U.S. to delete domains from a central registry system, CISPA does nothing of the sort, and aims more at “cyber threat intelligence” gathering than censorship and piracy prevention.

The bill presents itself as a simple enhancement of America’s cyber-security that would amend the National Security Act to include “cyber threat intelligence” gathering. To those ends, it would tear down the firewall between private corporate networks and the National Security Agency [NSA], enabling corporations to share data with the world’s most sophisticated spy apparatus.

And if that weren’t troubling enough for privacy and civil liberties advocates, a little noticed passage in the bill defines “cyber threat intelligence” as: “[Information] in the possession of an element of the intelligence community directly pertaining to a vulnerability of, or threat to, a system or network of a government or private entity, including information pertaining to the protection of a system or network from: (1) efforts to degrade, disrupt, or destroy such system or network; or (2) theft or misappropriation of private or government information, intellectual property, or personally identifiable information” (emphasis added).

It’s the last bit about “private or government information” and “intellectual property” that’s got activists worried. Even the lose-knit “Anonymous” movement began issuing warnigns acout CISPA this month, telling its fans and members that the bill “creates a vast hole in privacy law” and “allows for the government to interpret the law in such a number of degrees that any online communication could be suspect, and thus unknowingly monitored.”

Under foreseeable interpretations, the bill would empower the NSA to spy on the whole world in search of individuals engaging in distribution of protected media, like Internet streams of television channels or peer-to-peer networks sharing multimedia files. More ominously, CISPA could even see the NSA wiretapping publications like The New York Times, The Guardian and Wikileaks in the likely event that they obtain classified, secret or otherwise inconvenient information on governments or corporations.

While the bill is openly supported by companies like AT&T, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Facebook, Boeing and Intel, ACLU legislative counsel Michelle Richardson cautioned last month that it is not something to be taken up lightly.

“[CISPA] will encourage companies to share personal and private data with the government, and then, with very little oversight, allow the information to be used in a number of different ways,” she warned during a debate at The Heritage Foundation.

“If you put the government in the middle of an information sharing scheme, it is absolutely critical that you clarify that it must be run by a civilian agency,” Richardson added. “One of our biggest criticisms of the Rogers bill is that they either explicitly say information should go to the National Security Agency and Cyber Command, or they’re otherwise silent and allow companies to choose where they want to send information, including to these different military facilities.”

She added that the bill would also break a longstanding tradition of keeping the NSA separate from domestic intelligence activities, which it is prohibited from engaging in.

Of course, that’s not stopping the NSA from setting to work on a new “Manhattan Project” of sorts: Wired author and reporter James Bamford recently revealed that several of his covert sources inside the agency believe they are building a “Big Brother” machine in Utah that can syphon up all the world’s electronic communications and filter them on the fly for threat-related information.

The NSA has formally denied that allegation amid questioning by Congress, but it’s not just Bamford’s sources making those claims. Prior reporting by MSNBCThe New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times and other publications have carried similar allegations by other NSA insiders, which the agency always denies in court by claiming state secrets.

Despite the immense concern about CISPA, it has very little chance of clearing Congress before the 2012 elections, although it has already gathered 106 House co-sponsors from both parties — the vast majority of which are Republicans.

[Ed. note: Raw Story management chose to participate in the anti-SOPA protest.]

Photo: Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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