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The covert NSA agent sitting next to you

For me, the most unsettling part of the most recent Guardian article on NSA domestic surveillance came at the end, tacked on almost as an afterthought:

The project’s team “continue to work on understanding…” Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and Facebook, adding “work has predominantly been focused this quarter on Google due to new access opportunities being developed”.
To help secure an insider advantage, GCHQ also established a Humint Operations Team (HOT). Humint, short for “human intelligence” refers to information gleaned directly from sources or undercover agents.
This GCHQ team was, according to an internal document, “responsible for identifying, recruiting and running covert agents in the global telecommunications industry.”

There are covert NSA agents working at Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and Facebook.

At some point in the last five years, sometime after I heard about the AT&T fiber splitter, I made peace with the idea of a faceless analyst in a government cubicle who can monitor all of my traffic. I don’t like it, but I accepted it.

But at least there’s some distance there. The idea of an employee at Google, hired under false pretenses, living a double life, actively undermining the work of his colleagues by sabotaging their security efforts… it’s more personal.

I don’t know why this thought never occurred to me. I mean, of course there are covert agents. You don’t spend a billion dollars to siphon, decrypt and archive the world’s Internet traffic and overlook the most cost-effective form of security penetration: social engineering. No need to pick the lock when you can have your man inside open the door.

Maybe it never occurred to me because, in this country, we don’t have to worry that the guy sitting next to us is an undercover government agent, spying on his fellow citizens. That’s some Soviet Russia shit. We don’t do that.

Just like we don’t torture. We don’t assassinate our own citizens. We don’t tap everyone’s phone. We don’t have allies detain family members in order to intimidate members of the unfavorable press.

Except, now we do.