Sunday, June 23, 2013

How Edward Snowden Woke Up America, Got the Left and Right to Agree, Screwed the NSA, And the Irony of It All

Are we all following the narrative of Edward Snowden, super-techie and former CIA computer security wizard?  Depending on who you talk to, he's either a modern day Danial Ellsberg or worse than Benedict Arnold.  Nobody is luke warm, but necessity is making for some very strange bedfellows.  Both liberal Democrats and conservative, small government Libertarians are, ironically, united in their support of Snowden. Geeks and Techi-types  who understand what the rest of us don't are also on the Snowden bandwagon. The majority of rank and file Americans either reflexively revile him as a tattletale or buy the party line that he is a spy and a traitor. One way or another,I think we have all heard of him by now.

Personally, I can't take my eyes off my twitter feed and the TV screen as the action heats up today, even though with  the post election deadlock in Washington, I have sworn off politics, particularly political blogging, as too depressing.  But, this is just too much. It is a fascinating situation worthy of Dan Brown or John Le Carre.  I have to say a few words. There are so many ironies here that I hardly know where to start and I certainly don't know what is going on.

When Edward Snowden made his initial revelations to Glenn Greenwald via The Guardian earlier this month, I was interested but I only really started listening once the reactions started.   On the internet, sentiment among my fellow Democrats was basically pro Snowden. He wasn't peddling miltary secrets to foreign governments.  He was sounding a warning to the world about the scope of American government surveillance out of a sense of moral indignation. He was a GenY activist and collegial idealist trying to improve the world in the time honored American tradition of civil disobedience.   An equally vocal group(including much of the media following what I believe now were government talking points) felt he was a self important petty bureaucrat crying wolf, betraying the country and possessing ulterior motives for making classified information public, not to mention  breaking the law. On the playground of life, nobody likes a tattletale, especially not those being tattled on.

By last week Snowden had gone to ground in Hong Kong  and all the TV talking heads had their marching orders. They were in rare form.   General Alexander, head of the NSA and President Obama and a bunch of others assured us all that nobody was reading our email or listening to our phone calls. They were only collecting something called " metadata" in order to protect us. They patted us on the head and told us not to worry. The metadata they had collected had saved us from 50 terrorist attacks, they said.  Privacy was valued and could not be violated without a court order.

I'm usually not much of a Fox News fan, being liberal and all, but the video below which offers a lot of comment on General Alexander's testimony was quite interesting. Even Fox found the General evasive about what the NSA could and could not do.  At last, an issue both right and left wingers can unite on.

Imagine how shocked I was when I found out  about the scope and the very real dangers of government surveillance. There was no mistake.  The powers that be had lied. First I saw a video of a roundtable done by USA today featuring three former NSA employees who have been trying for years to go through channels to blow the whistle on the agency's  un-constitutional activities. These are highly trained computer scientists, not low level people.William Binney worked for NSA for  30 years,eventually becoming the technical director of the of the world geopolitical and military analysis and reporting group. He was pressured to retire in 2001, but he never stopped talking and trying to get somebody to pay attention.

All three men support Edward Snowden and say he was able to do what they wanted to do. i.e. let the American people and the world know just how much secret government spying is going on.  Please watch the video.  It shook my tree and I hope it makes you ask some questions as well.

Next  I read an article in The Guardian by James Naughton that explained it all to a non technical, liberal arts major,like me.   He explained why "metadata" was not innocuous.  Indeed, it is how you or I could end up on a "no fly" list or indeed even a secret kill list by mistake and never know about it.  It is the stuff that databases are made of.  It is about patterns and mathematics not people. And this is how the government can go back and assemble anything it wants about you anytime.  Here's a quote: Please follow the link above to read the entire article. It is very enlightening.
... Of course there's no content involved, for the simple reason that content is a pain in the butt from the point of view of modern surveillance. First, you have to listen to the damned recordings, and that requires people (because even today, computers are not great at understanding everyday conversation) and time. And although Senator Feinstein let slip that the FBI already employs 10,000 people "doing intelligence on counter-terrorism", even that Stasi-scale mob isn't a match for the torrent of voice recordings that Verizon and co could cough up daily for the spooks.
So in this business at least, content isn't king. It's the metadata – the call logs showing who called whom, from which location and for how long – that you want. Why? Because that's the stuff that is machine-readable, and therefore searchable.

Then came today and a whole new raft of Sunday talk shows.  Edward Snowden left HongKong in the spotlight. He sure knows how to take advantage of a slow news day.  He hopped a plane for Moscow while Hong Kong authorities did the Pontius Pilate thing and washed their hands of the whole affair via a CYA press release.The release went viral on the internet as it gave Washington a very polite, diplomatic middle finger salute.

 Then came the bombshell. Snowden was headed for Moscow.  You could hear them screaming in Washington. As I write he is bedded down in the airport in Moscow, ready to leave for Ecuador in the morning.  Let's see what happens.  He also , I am told, has four laptops full of official secrets in his possession. He's a valuable commodity.  Uneasy lies the head etc. etc. I bet there is a whole lot of scrambling going on in the Kremlin.

Now here is another irony. Snowden, the champion of freedom and government transparency, is being aided by Moscow to get to Ecuador. Let's see, the freedom fighter has been helped by two totalitarian, communist countries, China and Russia, and is going to Ecuador, countries not exactly noted for their positive human rights policies or their open governments. How ironic is that?  You just can't make this stuff up.

Meanwhile, President Obama' s approval rating is tanking. Left, right and center are all displeased with him.  Libertarian Senator Rand Paul is hailing Snowden as a hero and criticizing Obama. New York Senator Chuck Schumer thinks Snowden is a traitor and is furious at Obama.This issue could really be a tipping point for the administration.  Welcome to your second term, Mr. Obama.  Enjoy the ride.

Me?  I think that attempting to corral and control internet transparency is futile. In the long run it just won't work. The old paradigm is over. It's the 21st century. I'm not sure what I think of Edward Snowden, but I know that he has started a conversation that needs to be had, not just in the United States, but all over the world.  I think charging him with espionage is ridiculous. He's not selling secrets to foreign governments.  He's telling the world what it needs to know. Something for which he is likely to suffer greatly in the end.   I know it won't happen, but I think we should  just say thank you and deal with it.


Anomaly100 said...

I don't trust him. Trust has to be earned and thus far, his world tour has garnered little respect from me.

Unknown said...

We'll see, Anom. He may have been unwise, but I don't see him as a spy and the charge of espionage is overkill IMHO. He's not spying or selling secrets to foreign powers. He is revealing classified info to the world,to let us all know just how far the government is going. He's a whistleblower not a spy. The force with which he is being demonized by the media is surprising. I think he has opened up a world wide discussion that needs to be had about personal privacy. This is much bigger than America.

Anomaly100 said...

Roberta, We don't know that he hasn't given information to the Chinese and/or Russians. Right now he looks dubious.

He is not a whistleblower. The 'breaking' story which Greenwald bloviated on the news, broke in 2006 so I suspect there are other motivating factors in his release of regurgitated information.