It was not a good show for the NSA at the Chaos Communication Congress this week in Hamburg, Germany.
Before John Applebaum got a chance to take the stage and divulge secrets about the TAO program, Glenn Greenwald was greeted with roaring applause when he showed the audience in attendance that the NSA and GCHQ are “very concerned” with the fact that they can’t gain access to passenger data while they are in mid-flight.
To achieve a Wi-Fi signal from 30,000 feet in the air, each plane uses a single satellite link that isn’t easily obtained or hacked into from base stations from miles below where the pilot is sitting, so the NSA has been forced to get a little more creative with their reasoning and really pound away on the exact terms of the Fourth Amendment to obtain the information they want.
See, if you assume terrorists are on planes using cell phones and communicating on their laptops, that then calls into question the efficacy of other agencies such as the TSA and DHS, who are paid to prevent that sort of thing from happening in the first place.
I can imagine this would be very irritating for the two agencies, who thus far have gotten used to nothing less than complete and utter dominance over every digital platform that currently exists on the web. Because of strict FCC guidelines controlling the way in which phones transfer and receive data over the air, the NSA would not be able to effectively install a man-in-the-middle without someone on the review board noticing the situation had gone stray.
On top of the technological restrictions, the NSA also faces very dicey regulatory ground when dealing with international flights, as some planes can pass through several different countries before touching down in an approved country or fellow member of the Nine Eyes spying cooperative.
Whatever the actual reason is that’s keeping them out, you can rest assured knowing that all your information is protected while flying on a plane. So whether you need to check in on encrypted email or make a phone call to Angela Merkel, in this case, the sky is truly the limit.