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Public protest, legal reform and widespread use of tools that shield Web traffic from spying are the only ways to fight privacy-crushing surveillance by the National Security Agency, a prominent author told Utahns on Friday.
Despite revelations by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden on the depth and scope of government intrusion into phone records, Internet usage, email, financial data and other personal information, Congress will not lead the way on toughening scrutiny of the U.S. military's spy agency, NSA observer and investigative reporter James Bamford said.
''It really has to come from the grass roots to the local legislators and then to Washington for them to see the anger,'' Bamford told an audience at the University of Utah. ''It's not going to be top down. It's got to be bottom up.''
A new wave of young Internet users the so-called ''Facebook generation'' will be going up against the NSA ''at the height of its power,'' Bamford and others said. And it needs to take seriously the dire threats posed by unchecked U.S. prying into personal data.
''This is going to require structural change and a fair amount of political will on the part of people,'' the U.'s Chief Information Officer Eric Denna said. ''This generation of students has an opportunity to continually raise the issues of transparency and accountability.''
Exploiting fear • Sixty years after it was created, NSA today exploits fear of terrorism, the ubiquity of technology and American dominance of global networks to collect unprecedented volumes of information on average U.S. citizens and foreigners, Bamford and others noted in their panel discussion on the ethics and potential use of so-called ''big data.''
At least some of that data is to be stored and analyzed at the NSA's Utah Data Center, a new top-secret $1.5 billion facility in Bluffdale.
''In terms of data collection, at the NSA, everything is possible,'' Bamford told about 100 U. students and faculty members. With little opposition so far, the agency has interpreted provisions of the U.S. Patriot Act and rulings by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to apply widely. ''Everybody in the country is a potential suspect,'' the author said, ''and therefore they can collect everybody's business records, and they've implied that to mean your telephone records.''
Surveillance programs extend ''beyond our imagination,'' Bamford said, into Google search patterns and usage of online games and porn sites, as well as ever-wider interlinking circles of social connections between average Americans. ''Again,'' Bamford said, ''all these things are not really regulated, except in secret.''
Fighting terrorism • NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander told Congress on Wednesday that programs for collecting phone call records known as metadata are essential to thwarting potential terrorist attacks. ''There is no other way that we know of to connect the dots,'' Alexander told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Yet Bamford said the NSA has ''a dismal record'' in using what it collects against terrorists, noting the agency failed to halt the first attack on the World Trade Center, bombings of the USS Cole and two African embassies, the spectacular attacks on 9/11 and the Boston marathon bombing.
''The problem is, they're collecting way too much data to be useful,'' Bamford said.
Pete Ashdown, founder and president of Xmission, Utah's first Internet service provider, warned that few people understand the myriad ways they surrender privacy when using Internet services, such as social media, shopping sites and even basics like email and Web surfing.
''It is tremendously hard to be anonymous on the Internet,'' Ashdown said. And while millions sign user agreements for sites such as iTunes or Hotmail, he noted, few actually read them.
''To give your consent, you need to have an understanding of what you're consenting to,'' Ashdown said. ''You almost need a computer-science degree to understand what you're sending out over the Internet.''Those vulnerabilities are made worse, Ashdown said, by complicity by many U.S. technology companies in NSA surveillance.
Ashdown and Bamford both urged wider use of personal encryption software programs like PGP and the anonymous Web browser Tor to digitally cloak Web usage from prying. And although some of Snowden's NSA document leaks indicate some encryption may have built-in weakness known as ''back doors,'' intentionally written in by government spies, it remains the most feasible option for blocking surveillance.
''Encryption is the way to go,'' Bamford said. ''The more people that use it, the harder it is for NSA to get at it.''