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The NSA has revealed that one of its terrorist identification programs is named Skynet, possibly as a marketing stunt for Terminator: Genisys. (Seriously, what is with that title? Did your spellchecker say “I’ll be back” and never return?)
In the Terminator films, Skynet is a “synthetic intelligence” that becomes self-aware and rebels against its masters in the name of world safety, by killing all humans. In our world, according to documents leaked to The Intercept by Edward Snowden, Skynet is a “cloud analytics program that analyses call records to gather metadata”. In English, this means it detects and records the whereabouts and durations of phone calls, which the NSA uses to determine the travel and communication habits of people suspected to be terrorists or having ties to terrorist organisations.
For instance, Skynet records data on citizens within Pakistan from their cellphone records, and the compiled metadata from the NSA when those movements matched the activities of known Al Qaeda couriers. The movements Skynet tracks include recording arrival times, travel patterns and the frequency with which SIM cards and handsets are swapped or discarded to avoid detection.
Metadata-collecting programs like Skynet have been extremely beneficial to the War on Terror and the Obama administration, though the extent of their success has not been fully declassified. Recently, Skynet flagged Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, a Islamabad-based journalist working for Al Jazeera. Zaidan has conducted numerous interviews with terrorists in the region, including Osama bin Laden himself.
Because of these ties, Zaidan was suspected of being a terrorist himself. Zaidan has denied any claims to connections with terrorists beyond a purely journalistic enterprise, saying, “for us to be able to inform the world, we have to be able to freely contact relevant figures in the public discourse, speak with people on the ground, and gather critical information. Any hint of government surveillance that hinders this process is a violation of press freedom and harms the public’s right to know.”
Edward Snowden’s leak of documents revealing the extent to which the NSA can spy on citizens, both within the US and abroad, has started a conversation on government surveillance and the fundamental right to privacy.
In a recent AMA on Reddit, Edward Snowden responded that the best thing to do to help get people on the side of the issue is to correct any misinformation about surveillance programs.
“Supporters of mass surveillance say it keeps us safe,” wrote Snowden. “The problem is that that’s an allegation, not a fact, and there’s no evidence at all to support the claim.”
“In fact, a White House review with unrestricted access to classified information found that not only is mass surveillance illegal, it has never made a concrete difference in even one terrorism investigation.”
From the side of those in power, it’s a matter of how national security must keep in step with the rapid advance of technology. After the Obama administration attempted to persuade Silicon Valley companies to put “backdoors” in their security programmes and encryptions, ensuring that the government had access to their servers at all times, a group of Silicon Valley company heads and bipartisan lawmakers put together the Secure Data Act, which intends to make this practice illegal. An ongoing criticism with the incumbent US administration is that it seems to be against robust data security, but President Obama believes it is justified.
“If we get into a situation in which the technologies do not allow us at all to track somebody that we’re confident is a terrorist, that’s a problem.”