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SANS Security Trend Line

The "Spy On Us to Protect Us"/"How Dare You Spy on Us" Pendulum Swings On

1602: Galileo discovers the properties of the pendulum, particularly that the period of the pendulum is approximately independent of the amplitude or width of the swing. If all friction and drag were removed, once put in motion a pendulum would swing forever.

<<Let's flash forward a few years, even though all kinds of interesting pendulum-related research happened over the intervening centuries>>

1938: The US House Committee on Un-American Activities is formed to investigate individuals and organizations suspected of subversive activities in support of communism. Activities accelerated after the end of World War II as the US and the Soviet Union began what was to be a decades-long escalation of spying on each other as part of the "Cold War."

1967: (I can't resist) The Newton's Cradle "Executive Toy" based on the principle of the pendulum is first sold by Harrods of London.

1969: After years of uncovering many spies, but also producing many "false positives" in the form of blacklists, bad publicity and protests caused the Committee to be renamed the "Internal Security Committee." National law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI and IRS, and intelligence agencies such as NSA and the CIA, continue to perform domestic investigations and surveillance of suspected "subversives."

1972: The Watergate scandal exposes Nixon's use of US national law enforcement agencies to investigate political opponents and US citizens. This causes much fallout:

  • The US passed its first Privacy Act in 1974, setting rules around federal agencies' use and dissemination of personally identifiable information about US citizens.
  • President Nixon was forced to resign in 1974.
  • The Internal Security Committee was disbanded in 1975.
  • The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was enacted in 1978, drastically limiting the ability of intelligence agencies to do any surveillance of domestic communications.

September, 2001: Terrorists operating inside the US fly planes into the World Trade Center in NY and the Pentagon in Northern Virginia, and another plane crashes in Pennsylvania, killing 2,996 people. Later investigations showed that the Privacy Act and FISA restrictions caused huge blind spots in the US ability to detect the activities of terrorists operating in the US.

October, 2001: The Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 Act (USA PATRIOT) is passed, greatly expanding US intelligence agencies' ability to perform domestic surveillance related to terrorism. Over the next 10 years, a periods of no successful domestic terrorism against the US, the PATRIOT act is tinkered with (both expanding some abilities, restricting others) but is renewed several times by Presidents Bush and Obama.

April, 2013: Explosive devices are detonated at the Boson Marathon by two domestic terrorists, killing 3 people and injuring 264 others. In the weeks following the killing of one perpetrator and the capture of the other, it comes to light that Russian intelligence agencies had informed the FBI of suspicious telephone conversations it had monitored involving one of the bombers. Concern begins to build in the US about the FBI's inability to "connect the dots" and prevent the incident.

May, 2013: NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaks classified information detailing the extent of NSA's monitoring of US citizen phone calls and Internet activities as part of monitoring potential terrorist activities.

June, 2013: Washington Post/ABC poll shows 2/3 of Americans support congressional hearings into the domestic surveillance programs.

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