Glenn Greenwald broke a story about surveillance, data mining, and the National Security Agency, and he’s sincere about presenting the whistle blower who facilitated his scoop as a good guy.
Three weeks ago, Snowden made final preparations that resulted in last week’s series of blockbuster news stories. At the NSA office in Hawaii where he was working, he copied the last set of documents he intended to disclose.
He then advised his NSA supervisor that he needed to be away from work for “a couple of weeks” in order to receive treatment for epilepsy, a condition he learned he suffers from after a series of seizures last year.
As he packed his bags, he told his girlfriend that he had to be away for a few weeks, though he said he was vague about the reason. “That is not an uncommon occurrence for someone who has spent the last decade working in the intelligence world.”
On May 20, he boarded a flight to Hong Kong, where he has remained ever since. He chose the city because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”, and because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that both could and would resist the dictates of the US government.
In the three weeks since he arrived, he has been ensconced in a hotel room. “I’ve left the room maybe a total of three times during my entire stay,” he said. It is a plush hotel and, what with eating meals in his room too, he has run up big bills.
He is deeply worried about being spied on. He lines the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping. He puts a large red hood over his head and laptop when entering his passwords to prevent any hidden cameras from detecting them.
Though that may sound like paranoia to some, Snowden has good reason for such fears. He worked in the US intelligence world for almost a decade. He knows that the biggest and most secretive surveillance organisation in America, the NSA, along with the most powerful government on the planet, is looking for him.
Since the disclosures began to emerge, he has watched television and monitored the internet, hearing all the threats and vows of prosecution emanating from Washington.
And he knows only too well the sophisticated technology available to them and how easy it will be for them to find him. The NSA police and other law enforcement officers have twice visited his home in Hawaii and already contacted his girlfriend, though he believes that may have been prompted by his absence from work, and not because of suspicions of any connection to the leaks.
“All my options are bad,” he said. The US could begin extradition proceedings against him, a potentially problematic, lengthy and unpredictable course for Washington. Or the Chinese government might whisk him away for questioning, viewing him as a useful source of information. Or he might end up being grabbed and bundled into a plane bound for US territory.
“Yes, I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads. Any of their agents or assets,” he said.
“We have got a CIA station just up the road – the consulate here in Hong Kong – and I am sure they are going to be busy for the next week. And that is a concern I will live with for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be.”
Having watched the Obama administration prosecute whistleblowers at a historically unprecedented rate, he fully expects the US government to attempt to use all its weight to punish him. “I am not afraid,” he said calmly, “because this is the choice I’ve made.”
He predicts the government will launch an investigation and “say I have broken the Espionage Act and helped our enemies, but that can be used against anyone who points out how massive and invasive the system has become”.
The only time he became emotional during the many hours of interviews was when he pondered the impact his choices would have on his family, many of whom work for the US government. “The only thing I fear is the harmful effects on my family, who I won’t be able to help any more. That’s what keeps me up at night,” he said, his eyes welling up with tears.
Henry Blodget, though, argues that “…the tech companies are just providing the government with standard electronic delivery of requested data.” Hart Williams “lampoons” Greenwald – and that’s about the nicest thing I can call his argument. Arizona’s senator, John McCain expressed his inner nostalgic crank, when he asked us rebel scum to recall “…if this was September 12, 2001, we might not be having the argument that we’re having today.” McCain went on to rule out comprehensive Congressional oversight, because the Intelligence committees in both chambers were adequate to the job. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper finds Snowdon’s allegations “absurd”, and accuses Greenwald of “rushing” his scoop into print. Michigan’s representative, Mike Rogers, a member of the House Intelligence committee conveniently and self-importantly claimed Greenwald “…doesn’t have a clue how this thing works…Nether did the person who released just enough information to literally be dangerous.” None of this invective is convincing, because, in addition to insulting the legitimate concern these revelations raise, these defenses fail to acknowledge that the programs don’t work, and that there are alternatives.
Rachel Levinson-Waldman argues that “…This kind of dragnet-style data capture simply doesn’t keep us safe.”
First, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are increasingly drowning in data; the more that comes in, the harder it is to stay afloat. Most recently, the failure of the intelligence community to intercept the 2009 “underwear bomber” was blamed in large part on a surfeit of information: according to an official White House review, a significant amount of critical information was “embedded in a large volume of other data.” Similarly, the independent investigation of the alleged shootings by U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood concluded that the “crushing volume” of information was one of the factors that hampered the FBI’s analysis before the attack.
Multiple security officials have echoed this assessment. As one veteran CIA agent told The Washington Post in 2010, “The problem is that the system is clogged with information. Most of it isn’t of interest, but people are afraid not to put it in.” A former Department of Homeland Security official told a Senate subcommittee that there was “a lot of data clogging the system with no value.” Even former Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that “we’ve built tremendous capability, but do we have more than we need?” And the NSA itself was brought to a grinding halt before 9/11 by the “torrent of data” pouring into the system, leaving the agency “brain-dead” for half a week and “[unable] to process information,” as its then-director Gen. Michael Hayden publicly acknowledged.
National security hawks say there’s a simple answer to this glut: data mining. The NSA has apparently described its computer systems as having the ability to “manipulate and analyze huge volumes of data at mind-boggling speeds.” Could those systems pore through this information trove to come up with unassailable patterns of terrorist activity? The Department of Defense and security experts have concluded that the answer is no: There is simply no known way to effectively anticipate terrorist threats.
Credit card companies are held up as the data-mining paradigm. But the companies’ success in detecting fraud is due to factors that don’t exist in the counterterrorism context: the massive volume of transactions, the high rate of fraud, the existence of identifiable patterns (for instance, if a thief tests a stolen card at a gas station to check if it works, and then immediately purchases more expensive items), and the relatively low cost of a false positive: a call to the card’s owner and, at worst, premature closure of a legitimate account.
By contrast, there have been a relatively small number of attempted or successful terrorist attacks, which means that there are no reliable “signatures” to use for pattern modeling. Even in the highly improbable and undesirable circumstance that the number of attacks rises significantly, they are unlikely to share enough characteristics to create reliable patterns.
Moreover, the surveillance programs that have been disclosed pull in a huge range of data: phone records, emails, Web searches, credit card transactions, documents, live chats. And that’s just what we know so far. Not only does this information raise First Amendment concerns where it “accidentally” includes Americans’ communications, purchases, and more, but the variety greatly complicates the data-mining process. The Wall Street Journal has editorialized that this large sample size is simply a necessary byproduct of the mechanics of data mining, allowing the NSA to “sweep broadly to learn what is normal and refine the deviations.” But as the libertarian Cato Institute has argued, not only is such a system “offensive to traditional American freedom,” it can be evaded if the terrorists “act as normally as possible.”
And when the government gets it wrong—which it will—the consequences are far-reaching. A person falsely suspected of involvement in a terrorist scheme will become the target of long-term scrutiny by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. She may be placed on a watchlist or even a no-fly list, restricting her freedom to travel and ensuring that her movements will be monitored by the government. Her family and friends may become targets as well.
Furthermore, Jack Balkin has already offered an alternative scheme of “democratic surveillance”.
What do authoritarian surveillance states do? They act as “information gluttons and information misers.” As gluttons, they take in as much information as possible. More is always better, indiscriminate access is better than targeted responses, and there’s a general presumption that they’ll have access to whatever they want, at any time.
But authoritarian surveillance states also act as misers, preventing any information about themselves from being released. Their actions and the information they gather are kept secret from both the public and the rest of government.
Even though the paper is from 2008, this description of an authoritarian surveillance state fits perfectly with recent revelations about the Obama administration. The information that the National Security Agency has been seeking, from phone metadata to server access, is about as expansive as one could imagine. Meanwhile, the administration’s war on whistleblowers, which received public attention after revelations about the surveillance of AP reporters, shows a lack of interest in measures of transparency and accountability.
What would a democratic surveillance state look like? Balkin argues that these states would be “information gourmets and information philanthropists.” A democratic surveillance state would limit the data it collects to the bare minimum. Meanwhile, maximum transparency and accountability across branches would be emphasized. Congress and the public would need to be far more involved.
A democratic surveillance state would also place an emphasis on destroying the data that the government collects. Amnesia used to be the first line of defense against surveillance. People just forgot things with time, giving citizens a line of defense against intrusion. In the age of digital technology, however, amnesia no longer exists, so it needs to be mandated by law.
A democratic surveillance state would also require public accountability for the proper conduct of private companies that deal and sell in private information. It’s easy for people to be cynical about not being able to control their privacy when it comes to the government when they also feel powerless against private agents as well.
Having a “democratic surveillance” state sounds like an oxymoron, like having a cuddly hand grenade. Perhaps it would be better to just dismantle the surveillance state entirely and be done with it. And indeed removing the laws associated with the Global War on Terror would do much to remove the authoritarian elements of this state.
That’s the thing: what is the best way to combat terrorism? No one is asking if this data mining program is the best way to combat terrorism. We are told just to accept that on faith, from those who presumably know more than we do. In every situation people assume every player has a stake, so why don’t we ask now, what is the administration’s stake. Why does Congress seem intent on not revealing to its constituents what it knows? Why aren’t the courts doing more? Why does everyone else have an interest, but the overwhelming majority? Our government has committed atrocities and blunders in our name repeatedly throughout this nation’s tenure. We can never assume it isn’t doing so again.