US Army blocks access to The Guardian's coverage of NSA surveillance

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Access denied. Image courtesy of ShutterstockThe US Army has been blocking access to the The Guardian's ongoing coverage of data surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) ever since the publication broke the story in early June.

The Monterey County Herald, in California, reported on Thursday that the Army has confirmed that it's censoring coverage of the topic throughout the entire Army.

The newspaper quoted a spokesman for the Army Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM), who said that the Army is filtering "some access to press coverage and online content about the NSA leaks."

The spokesman said that it's routine for the Department of Defense (DoD) to take preventative "network hygiene" measures to mitigate unauthorized disclosures of classified information:

"We make every effort to balance the need to preserve information access with operational security. However, there are strict policies and directives in place regarding protecting and handling classified information."

Local army employees told The Herald that they could access the US site but were blocked from articles that redirected to the British site.

The Herald's sources said that their local information assurance security officer sent an email to employees early Thursday saying that The Guardian's website was blocked by Army Cyber Command "in order to prevent an unauthorized disclosure of classified information."

He further said that employees who might actually download classified information, as The Guardian has published, would trigger "labor intensive" work, such as wiping or destroying their hard drives.

Military or DoD employees who download the classified documents could face disciplinary action if found to have knowingly downloaded the material on an unclassified computer.

The Guardian has published top-secret documents about the NSA's monitoring of Verizon customers' phone records in the so-called PRISM surveillance project, as well as top-secret documents describing procedures used by the NSA to target its surveillance.

The Army spokesman told The Herald that his department relies on automated filters that restrict access, based on concerns about content or malware threats.

The department would not, however, block content "from the American public in general," he said, given that to do so would violate "our highest-held principle of upholding and defending the Constitution and respecting civil liberties and privacy."

(It's interesting that this is even brought up as a choice; I wonder how extensive the DoD's ability is to block US citizens' access to news content?)

For its part, Ars Technica users let the publication know via forums that merely viewing reproduced images of the classified documents can get a DoD employee in hot water with the military's strict clearance rules.

As a result, much to its credit, Ars up and changed how it handles such images on its home page:

Since that came to our attention, Ars does not use images of top-secret documents on the front page of our website so that military employees without clearance can read the news with the reasonable assumption that they won't come across still-classified documents unless they click on an article about the leaks.

...which made me curious to find out whether Naked Security might get military personnel in trouble with the way we cover such news, which I would imagine is of great interest to that demographic in particular.

Classified. Image courtesy of ShutterstockNaked Security's home page format doesn't accommodate room for classified-document reproduction, so military and DoD staffers can see headlines and summaries pertaining to ongoing coverage of surveillance and leaked documents.

More importantly, Naked Security does *not* post images of classified documents within our articles or on our site. But when addressing such 'leak' events, our articles may contain clearly-labelled links to third-party articles that may show such documents.

So again, reading Naked Security's articles shouldn't get you in trouble. Mind the links that go off the Naked Security reservation, though, since that could make you run afoul of military rules.

If I'm wrong and you've seen coverage that includes such images, please let us know in the comments below.

Ars is working to keep you informed without getting you in trouble, and we'd like to follow suit.

Images of access denied and classified key courtesy of Shutterstock.

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15 Responses to US Army blocks access to The Guardian's coverage of NSA surveillance

  1. Cheef · 833 days ago

    Unauthorised disclosure prevention, but only if they are at work ? Gedouttahere!!!

    • Unauthorized disclosure prevention if they are at work on an unclassified computer. This actually makes sense, although it doesn't seem to at first blush. Document classifications are designed to compartmentalize information disclosure, to prevent accidental movement of private information. As a result, different people/hardware are cleared for different levels of document security. The system is designed to prevent sensitive information from leaking *out* -- but doesn't really distinguish between this and stuff that has already leaked and is seeping back in.

      This is more about preventing the computers from having access to documents classified at a higher level than they should have access to than it is preventing the individuals from finding out about it (they can do that either at home or from a properly secured and classified computer).

  2. Machin Shin · 833 days ago

    So... is it just me that finds this painfully ironic? Our government actually wants to shove its head in the sand and pretend a publicly published document is still "classified".

    They try so hard they actually block it from their networks..... This behavior reminds me of something actually..... You know, like a 2 year old that thinks if they cover their eyes with their hands it means you cant see them...

    It is really a very depressing day when the reality hits you that your country is ran by people with the mental capacity of 2 year olds..

    • JohnMWhite · 833 days ago

      That's likely inaccurate: two year olds have been known to demonstrate compassion.

  3. sh4rkbyt3 · 833 days ago

    Hahahaha brilliant. You mean they violate the Constitution with their actions (along with Congressional approval, which is in direct violation of the same) and now SUDDENLY they're (U.S. Army Intel) worried about following "just a god damn piece of paper" to quote George W. Bush, and the general publics right to access such information? Wicked!

    • Steve · 832 days ago

      Do you belong to the "it must be true, I read it on the web!" class? Pity.

      According to (hardly a right-wing hangout!), that's a pure BS story. In fact, they published this bit that they received from the guy who created the original story:
      Update, Feb. 21, 2011: The author of the Capitol Hill Blue story has now withdrawn it. Doug Thompson messaged us to say:

      Doug Thompson: This is to let you know that the piece on Bush and the Constitution has been changed and reads:

      "This article was based on sources that we thought, at the time, were reliable. We have since discovered reasons to doubt their veracity. For that reason, this article has been removed from our database."

      I no longer stand behind that article or its conclusions and have said so in answers to several recent queries. In addition, I have asked that it be removed from a documentary film.

      Thompson elaborated on what led him to retract his story in an item posted on his website Jan. 1, 2011.

      I can accept the fact that people can be gullible. What I don't get is why, after blindly accepting BS as fact, they just pass it on without even questioning it... as long as it supports their point of view.

  4. This is ridiculous. All citizens have a right to read the news. The level of observation and the attempts to control access to information must stop.

    • Brian · 833 days ago

      Ah, but militay personel aren't really citizens. They are government property instead.

  5. Guest · 833 days ago

    It's the same way with WikiLeaks. I believe there's even a memo or two that prohibit members from even browsing the site from home or on personal devices. I doubt there's any sort of enforcement/detection mechanism aside from relying on people to do as their told, which in the military is probably a mostly safe bet.

  6. MikeP_UK · 833 days ago

    So, the rest of the world can know all about the documents and even read them, but the US military and DoD cannot read their own documents! Even though they are all in the public domain. Strange world we live in.

  7. grumpy · 833 days ago

    this item is not about controlling access to the press. it is about "touching" classified material with government computers, including the upstream servers. as a member of the military, i could read anything i wanted, on my own computer, my own isp. think about that, maybe learn something about digital forensics, and stop whining.
    RATHER: look at the line "(It's interesting that this is even brought up as a choice; I wonder how extensive the DoD's ability is to block US citizens' access to news content?)" and raise your voices - not about whether they have, or need, that capability, but about them having the capability and citizens don't know it.

  8. Randy · 833 days ago

    "It's interesting that this is even brought up as a choice; I wonder how extensive the DoD's ability is to block US citizens' access to news content?"
    China, Syria and Iran have no problem doing it. Of course they use either massive blackouts or limited filtering but I'm sure our government is able to do anything in between those extremes. Sometimes I think they leave many sites up and running just so they can track who is interested in such news.

  9. Redleg · 833 days ago

    The US Military runs two separate networks. One very secure, for the internal use with classified information and one non-secure for every day use. Any system through which classified information passes is from then on considered a classified system.

    There is no policy to differentiate "classified" from within and "classified" from outside the network. Classified is classified. Think of the "classified" docs as black water. If that gets into your clean water reservoir, you can't just remove the black water and call it good. You have to dump the entire system, flush it, and refill it with clean water.

    To save the user from a ton of inconvenience at having their machine and everything on it scrubbed and the IT staff from having to deal with all that mess, it is much more logical and efficient just to block access to the material from the non-secure network.

    People can go home and read the "classified" documents there.

  10. USAFvet · 832 days ago

    I served in the USAF. We served to defend the constitution and to uphold the freedom of the people.. which includes the right to NOT be censored.
    Funny how communist Russia opened up and become more democratic while the United States has started this crap.
    No joking.. but my family and I are looking to "escape" the United States. God help this place!

  11. Andrew · 511 days ago

    what happened to the voice of the press? where is the freedom of speech and the right to report news. I guess the USA has lost the plot.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.