Please. Let’s stop focusing on the overpaid, tormented young man who last week revealed the National Security Agency’s (NSA) Power Point Plan for Total Electronic World Domination.
Let us focus instead on what America’s wiretapping agency has actually been up to, whether America’s technology giants have been complicit in an unprecedented and sweeping electronic intrusion and, most important, whether Americans think that allowing the government access to their phone calls, email, video and voice chats, photos and file transfers is the price they must pay for security in the post-9/11 world.
The issue is not whether Edward Snowden is a “traitor,” as Republican House Speaker John Boehner pronounced him last Tuesday. The issue is whether his claims are true.
Snowden, wherever he is, may have broken the law and deeply embarrassed his employer, the government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. And he will probably be made to pay for that. Standing on principle is meaningless if there is no risk attached. That is his cross to bear. However, in the greater scheme of things, the 29-year-old infrastructure analyst did the country a service.
Even President Barack Obama, while condemning the leak, seemed to acknowledge as much. “I welcome this debate,” Obama said last week. “And I think it’s healthy for our democracy.”
Obviously, you cannot have a debate if there is no issue on the table. Snowden’s leak took care of that.
He revealed to the Guardian and the Washington Post a top-secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, requiring Verizon Business Network to make all its records available to the government. He also revealed the existence of two government snooping programmes. One, called Prism, claims that tech companies have given the government unprecedented, direct access to data generated by their users.
The Prism slides, intended to train intelligence operatives, promised, “Collection directly from the servers of these US Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” That has been interpreted to mean that the NSA could obtain emails, video chats and other communications without having to make specific requests of the service providers, nor having to obtain specific court orders for each search.
When news of the Verizon order broke last week, experts noted that the NSA was simply reviewing phone records looking for patterns that might link certain numbers to terrorist threats. They gave assurances that the agency would need a court order before zeroing in on individuals by tapping phones.
However, with internet service providers, if the NSA has direct access to servers, the fear is that the agency would have broad authority to rummage through private information.
Theoretically, the government is targeting communications that flow from foreign targets through US servers. However, the Post reported, there is no way to know how many Americans have been inappropriately swept up in terror investigations by these tools.
The tech companies protested in unison. While all of them admit they provide data to the government when they are legally compelled to do so, they all said they had never heard of Prism, had never given the government unfettered access to their data and that their servers have no special “back door” for the government.
“What the ...?” was the headline on a post on Google’s corporate blog, signed by chief executive Larry Page and chief legal officer David Drummond. “We have not joined any programme that would give the US government — or any other government — direct access to our servers.” They added, “We provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law.”
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg called the reports “outrageous.” “Facebook,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “is not and has never been part of any programme to give the US or any government direct access to our servers ... When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully ... and then only provide the information if it is required by law.”
Yet the New York Times reported the other day that Google and Facebook both discussed with government officials the creation of “separate, secure portals” where the companies would deposit information for government retrieval.
There are so many unanswered questions here.
Did the person who created the slides overstate the government’s access to tech company servers? Are the tech companies slicing and dicing the language to protect themselves? If a well-meaning rogue can reveal secrets, can’t a rogue with ill intentions just as easily misuse them? Has the concept of electronic privacy become a quaint relic of less-fraught times?
Americans, who bristled at the idea that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had singled out political organisations who may have inappropriately applied for tax-free status, do not seem too worked up. A Washington Post/Pew Research Centre poll out last week found that 62 per cent of Americans said it was important for the government to investigate terror threats even if it intruded on personal privacy. Fifty-six per cent said it was OK that the NSA “has been getting secret court orders to track telephone calls of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism”. Forty-five per cent said it was OK for the government to read everyone’s emails if officials said it might prevent future terror attacks.
In a 12-minute video interview posted on the Guardian site last Sunday, Snowden said he acted on principle, fearing that the government had created an “architecture of oppression” where “even if you’re not doing anything wrong you’re being watched and recorded”.
As shocking as that is, it is even more shocking that most Americans seem to be just fine with that.