Bill Binney believes he helped create a monster.
Sitting in the innocuous surroundings of an Olive Garden in the Baltimore suburbs, the former senior National Security Agency (NSA) official even believes he owes the whole American people an apology.
Binney, a tall, professorial man in his late 60s, led the development of a secret software code he now believes is illegally collecting huge amounts of information on his fellow citizens. For the staunch Republican, who worked for 32 years at the NSA, it is a civil liberties nightmare come true.
So Binney has started speaking out as an NSA whistleblower – an act that has earned him an armed FBI raid on his home. “What’s happening is a violation of the constitutional rights of everybody in the country. That’s pretty straightforward. I could not be associated with it,” he told the Guardian.
Binney, a career NSA employee who first volunteered for the army in the mid-1960s, has now become a high-profile thorn in the side of NSA chiefs when they deny the programme’s existence.
At a hacking conference this summer in Las Vegas, NSA director General Keith Alexander said the NSA “absolutely” did not keep files on Americans.
“Anyone who would tell you that we’re keeping files or dossiers on the American people knows that’s not true,” Alexander told an audience of computer and security experts. But Binney himself was at the same conference and publicly accused Alexander of playing a “word game”.
“Once the software takes in data, it will build profiles on everyone in that data,” he told a convention panel there.
The story Binney tells is one of extreme over-reaction by America’s national security establishment post-9/11. He recounts developing a small software system, called ThinThread, in the late 1990s at the NSA where he was the technical director of the organisation’s 6,000-strong World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group.
ThinThread correlated data from emails, phone calls, credit card payments and Internet searches and stored and mapped it in ways that could be analysed.
Binney wanted to use ThinThread to track foreign threats but it worked too well and kept catching data on Americans too.
So Binney’s team built in safeguards that encrypted that data. But, by 2000, the NSA decided to go with developing a larger scale programme called Trailblazer to be built by outside contractors (that eventually failed to make it past the design stage) and ThinThread was effectively mothballed.
Then September 11 happened. Within a few weeks, Binney says, he realised parts of ThinThread were now being used by the NSA in a massive and secret surveillance operation.
Read More: Guardian