NSA Reporting Blowback
So there appears to be some journalistic blowback forming from the initial reporting on the PRISM program. At least a couple sources are starting to report that the story is not the scandal it was initially reported to be, and that the NSA did not have “direct access” to the servers of a handful of large tech companies. Moreover, most of the tech companies that were allegedly involved have denied knowledge of the program.
I wish I had more time to talk about these articles, but unfortunately present matters keep me from exploring the issue in more depth. What I would like to point out is three things:
1. The “scandal” involves more than simply direct access to the back door of large tech company servers. As Reuters has reported, there’s been several bombshells dropped over the past couple days regarding this program. It may very well be the case that the “direct access” story was based on a misunderstanding of some troubling language that was used in the PRISM powerpoints that got leaked. But there’s more going on here than simply direct access to tech giant servers. Even if you interpret the “direct access” language narrowly, the breadth of information that the NSA is collecting is still staggering:
Bank records, credit history, travel records, credit card records, EZPass data, GPS phone data, license-plate reader databases, Social Security and Internal Revenue Service records, facial-recognition databases at the Department of Motor Vehicles and elsewhere, even 7-Eleven surveillance videos comprise information lodes that are of equal or greater value to the national security establishment than phone and Web files. It doesn’t sound paranoid to conclude that the government has reused, or will reuse, the interpretation of the Patriot Act it presented to the secret FISA court in its phone record and Prism data requests to grab these other data troves.
Some of this stuff gets sweeped up “automatically.” Furthermore, in light of the fact that the FISA court is infamously lenient when granting wiretap warrants, was it really that much of a stretch to interpret the information described above as tantamount to “direct access” as it was described in the PRISM powerpoint? It may be fashionable in some internet circles these days to be critical of Obama, but in light of a few recent journalistic gaffes, it has also become fashionable to be a muck-raker for the mistakes of other journalists. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing: we’re all the richer for the discourse. But in this particular case, I don’t think it was a mistake to describe the PRISM program as “direct access,” particularly when (1) the power point slides that were released stated as much in black ink, and (2) the information was leaked by a high level intelligence official who was willing to risk his career and his freedom to inform the public about the scope of the program.
2. The PRISM program should not be viewed in isolation. The cat was out of the bag on this issue when a former FBI counter-terrorism agent told CNN on the air that the government could find out what the Boston Bombing suspect said to his wife in a previous cell phone conversation because the government was “capturing” it all. As the FBI agent told CNN, “[W]elcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.” The PRISM revelations are merely the latest step in a long line of privacy breaches by the federal government being perpetuated in the name of national security. It is relevant to note that the Washingon Post did not publish everything that was leaked to them. So there’s still even more going on here than the press was willing to print (see below).
3. We now know that the identity of the individual who was responsible for these leaks. He did so at extraordinary risk to himself, saying goodbye to a long-term relationship, an extremely well-paid job ($200,000 salary plus benefits), and what would have no doubt been a very comfortable retirement. He traded those things for pariah and criminal fugitive status, and for no other purpose than what he felt was a matter of national importance that the public deserved to know about. Was it news that the government is spying on us? Not really. Just as it was not “news” that American soldiers had committed atrocities overseas in Iraq when Bradley Manning leaked diplomatic cables that included a video of American helicopter gunning down civilians, it is obviously not “news” that the American Government is spying on us and has way too much surveillance authority. It appears that PRISM was simply the last straw for Snowden, who felt that the NSA simply has way too much authority over our lives. Here is the scope of that authority, according to Snowden:
The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.
I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things … I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.
Needless to say, I’m glad that the initial reports were placed under scrutiny. That scrutiny helps paint a clearer picture of what the PRISM program actually is. But I don’t think that scrutiny has made the story any less concerning. Even if we assume that WaPo and the Guardian got the initial details of the story wrong, it would be a mistake to simply sweep it under the rug. Edward Snowden didn’t kiss his very comfortable life goodbye over a shrug-worthy surveillance program. Whatever may have been said in the Power point, Snowden clearly had easy access to things that made him very uncomfortable. That’s why the story is important, and in my opinion, that’s what we should be focusing on.