The NSA story is developing a little too fast for more than a periodic roundup (we did have an inflammatory story last night that the NSA was tapping phones without a warrant, but that now appears to be bogus).
The Rise and Scale of Surveillance
The AP has a story about how PRISM was developed. The number of requests for information continued to ramp up and PRISM was created to ease the process rather than have agents appear in person. So many requests were put in — more on that in a moment — that it was impossible to confirm the details. More:
But interviews with more than a dozen current and former government and technology officials and outside experts show that, while Prism has attracted the recent attention, the program actually is a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort.
Americans who disapprove of the government reading their emails have more to worry about from a different and larger NSA effort that snatches data as it passes through the fiber optic cables that make up the Internet’s backbone. That program, which has been known for years, copies Internet traffic as it enters and leaves the United States, then routes it to the NSA for analysis.
Whether by clever choice or coincidence, Prism appears to do what its name suggests. Like a triangular piece of glass, Prism takes large beams of data and helps the government find discrete, manageable strands of information.
The fact that it is productive is not surprising; documents show it is one of the major sources for what ends up in the president’s daily briefing. Prism makes sense of the cacophony of the Internet’s raw feed. It provides the government with names, addresses, conversation histories and entire archives of email inboxes.
How many requests for specific information does PRISM ask for? In the second half of last year, Facebook got 9-10,000 requests involving 19,000 users. Other companies are reporting similar levels. Defenders of the program are saying, “Well, that’s not a lot considering how many users Facebook, Google, etc., have.” Maybe. But it IS a lot when you consider how many active terrorists there are (probably in hundreds at most) and how few attacks these efforts have supposedly thwarted (a few). And that’s just six months of requests.
The defenders are also making a big deal of the NSA’s claim that they only asked for details on 300 phone numbers in 2012. But keep in mind that they collected metadata on millions and metadata is a big deal, frequently as revealing and invasive as a wiretap.
In fact, the defenders of the President are frankly spouting a lot of nonsense. They keep claiming PRISM wasn’t a big secret and Glenn Greenwald didn’t break anything new; but then they brand Snowden a traitor and claim that he’s compromised the War on Terror. They tell us this isn’t a big deal and we all assumed our electronic communications were monitored; but then they say the program is absolutely vital to success. When you break it down, they are simply scrounging around desperately for a reason to believe that Obama hasn’t betrayed everything he said in Election 2008. I expect them to continue to scramble.
Nothing to Hide
There is, however, one defense with which I have no patience for at all. The Obamaphiles are in the slow stages of realizing who exactly they elected. But the other crowd are simply ignorant subservient cattle. They are the ones running around saying that even the most invasive program should be acceptable for people with “nothing to hide.”
Moxie Marlinspike (is that her real name? Seriously? Awesome!) has a great response. After pointing out, as we have previously discussed, that the federal government has so many laws and so many obscure laws that practically everyone is a felon, she brings up a critical point:
Over the past year, there have been a number of headline-grabbing legal changes in the U.S., such as the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, as well as the legalization of same-sex marriage in a growing number of U.S. states.
As a majority of people in these states apparently favor these changes, advocates for the U.S. democratic process cite these legal victories as examples of how the system can provide real freedoms to those who engage with it through lawful means. And it’s true, the bills did pass.
What’s often overlooked, however, is that these legal victories would probably not have been possible without the ability to break the law.
The state of Minnesota, for instance, legalized same-sex marriage this year, but sodomy laws had effectively made homosexuality itself completely illegal in that state until 2001. Likewise, before the recent changes making marijuana legal for personal use in Washington and Colorado, it was obviously not legal for personal use.
Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in Minnesota, Colorado, and Washington since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass. How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same sex marriage should be permitted, if nobody had ever seen or participated in a same sex relationship?
Precisely. This applies to much of the social change that our society has undergone. Interracial marriage would still be illegal if the Lovings hadn’t broken the law and challenged it in the courts. Segregation was broken because MLK was willing to break the law and be punished for it. The progress we have made on property rights and eminent domain have occurred when citizens have been unwilling to meekly acquiesce to the wishes of their government.
No one is saying there is value to be gained in social experimentation in terrorism, obviously. But — as I have said over and over again — the question of PRISM powers being extended to drugs, prostitution, sex, marriage, taxes, etc. is not if, it’s when.
More from Don Boudreax:
1. Is your lack of concern with government snooping a result of your confidence that (a) you, your loved ones, and your friends consistently act in ways that do not violate (what you believe to be) today’s government policy; (b) government will seldom-enough err in interpreting the contents and motives of your, your loved ones’ and your friends’ activities; and (c) that today’s government policy targets and penalizes only those private activities that “ought” to be targeted and penalized by government? If so, are you also confident that government policy will never change to render those same activities of you, your loved ones, and your friends unacceptable to government tomorrow?
2. Or is your lack of concern with government snooping due instead to your confidence that you, your loved ones, and your friends will always not only wish to – but will also always successfully and in time – adjust your activities in ways that render those activities acceptable to government, regardless of the specific contents and motives of whatever government policies reign at the moment?
Exactly. These electronic records go back for many years, through many different legal regimes. A broad reach into your electronic past could uncover things that aren’t illegal now but were illegal then.
There’s another thing. Massive electronic surveillance can uncover things that, while not illegal, are embarrassing. The government and its bootlickers have often taken great delight in revealing embarrassing details about people they don’t like (such as some of the personal smears on Snowden). Anyone who has an affair, anyone who has done something they shouldn’t, anyone with porn on their computer, anyone with humiliating pictures or cringe-inducing e-mails or, um, blog posts they wish they could flush down the memory hole has “something to hide”.
“I have nothing to hide” is the attitude of a slave, not a citizen who is on equal footing with his government. “I have nothing to hide” is an indication that you don’t know what you have to hide. “I have nothing to hide” is an admission that your life is not your own.
The Man of the Hour
As for Edward Snowden, while I still appreciate the reveal of PRISM and still rail against those who call him “traitor” just because he crossed the President, I am growing less sympathetic by the minute. The latest revelation is that he revealed secret snooping on Dmitri Medvedev. While I oppose domestic surveillance, I have absolutely no problem with our government spying on other countries, particularly those as powerful as China and Russia. That is, in fact, the President’s job. Spying on other countries — even our allies — is not shameful, disgraceful, untoward, undiplomatic or wrong. It is how the world works. We should assume these countries are spying on us. Why should we not return the favor?
The attempts by Snowden and some of his allies to cast foreign surveillance as wrong reminds me of a quote from Robert Heinlein. In 1960, one of our U-2 spy planes was downed on a reconnaissance mission inside the Soviet Union. In response to those who said the U-2 flights were “shameful”, Heinlein uncorked this:
Espionage is not illegal under International Law. Neither is it immoral. The penalty for getting caught at is is very high. It usually means the spy’s neck. It is not illegal under US laws for us to attempt to spy on the USSR, nor is it illegal for them to attempt to spy on us. Nor, in either case, is it an act of war. Throughout history every country has striven to learn the military secrets of a potential enemy, and to protect its own. Spying is wise and necessary insurance against utter military disaster.
That we have been conducting photo surveillance over the Soviet Union so successfully and for four vital years is the most encouraging news of the past decade … If Mr. Eisenhower had failed to obtain by any possible means the military intelligence that the USSR gets so easily and cheaply about us, he would have been derelict in his duty.
So if you hear anyone whining about how “shameful” the U-2 flights were, take his lollipop away and spank him with it.
If Edward Snowden is revealing our espionage secrets to Russia and China — and it now appears that he is — he deserves a lot more than a spanking. He deserves to be imprisoned for espionage.
That does not, however, change the nature of PRISM or the rightness or wrongness of domestic surveillance. Just as Eisenhower had a duty to spy on the Soviet Union, Obama has a duty to spy on terrorists. But in both cases, these powers need to be tightly bound, strictly controlled and not used for other purposes. The revelation of PRISM is a big step in establishing those limits, even if the person who revealed them turns out to be a disloyal scumbag.