The Switchboard: NSA can’t keep up with America’s switch to cellphones, officials say


Edward Snowden photographed in Moscow, Russia December, 2013. (Photo by Barton Gellman for The Washington Post)

Published every weekday, the Switchboard highlights five tech policy stories you need to read.

Snowden used low-cost tool to best N.S.A. "Using “web crawler” software designed to search, index and back up a website, Mr. Snowden 'scraped data out of our systems' while he went about his day job, according to a senior intelligence official," report Ravid E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt at the New York Times. "Moreover, Mr. Snowden succeeded nearly three years after the WikiLeaks disclosures, in which military and State Department files, of far less sensitivity, were taken using similar techniques," they note, referencing the conviction of Chelsea Manning, then known as Pf.c Bradley Manning for turning over military and state department documents to Wikileaks in 2010. Outdated security internal practices at the Hawaii bases where Snowden worked also reportedly contributed to Snowden's success at collecting and exfiltrating information.

NSA is collecting less than 30 percent of U.S. call data, officials say. Ellen Nakashima at the Washington Post reports that the NSA is collecting less than 30 percent of U.S. call records due to the agency's inability to keep up with consumer's switch to cellphones, according to current and former officials. "The disclosure contradicts popular perceptions that the government is sweeping up virtually all domestic phone data. It is also likely to raise questions about the efficacy of a program that is premised on its breadth and depth, on collecting as close to a complete universe of data as possible in order to make sure that clues aren’t missed in counter­terrorism investigations."

The Supreme Court probably won’t take on net neutrality. Here’s why. "Appealing the latest decision would be a high-risk, high-reward strategy," explains The Switch's Brian Fung, discussing the FCC's options for challenging the rejection of its net neutrality rules by D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Fung writes that experts think the Supreme Court would likely either sustain the D.C. Circuit's decision or decline to take the case. "But in the worst-case scenario for the FCC," he says, "the Supreme Court could restrict the agency's regulatory power even further."

Bitcoin takes a dive as Mt. Gox, a major exchange, suspends withdrawals. "Bitcoin’s value declined sharply Friday," reports Zack Miners for PC World, "just as Mt. Gox, an online exchange for buying and selling the digital currency, announced that it was temporarily suspending withdrawals." Mt. Gox has hit other hiccups in the past -- including a temporary shutdown last November, and the service was suspended following trading price swings, according to Miners.

The Justice Department used this law to pursue Aaron Swartz. Now it’s open to reforming it." Ever since federal prosecutors used a controversial anti-hacking law to go after Internet activist Aaron Swartz, civil liberties advocates have been pressing for Congress to narrow the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act," writes Brian Fung for The Switch. And now "in congressional testimony this week, the agency said it would support modifying the CFAA in ways that would make it harder for the government to prosecute Americans who commit relatively minor infractions online." However, this appears to be an "incremental shift" and it's unclear how far DOJ is willing to go on reforms according to Fung.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Brian Fung · February 9