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Where oversight and accountability have failed, Snowden’s leaks have opened up a vital public debate on our rights and privacy

Let’s be absolutely clear about the news that the NSA collects massive amounts of information on US citizens – from emails, to telephone calls, to videos, under the Prism program and other Fisa court orders: this story has nothing to do with Edward Snowden. As interesting as his flight to Hong Kong might be, the pole-dancing girlfriend, and interviews from undisclosed locations, his fate is just a sideshow to the essential issues of national security versus constitutional guarantees of privacy, which his disclosures have surfaced in sharp relief.

Snowden will be hunted relentlessly and, when finally found, with glee, brought back to the US in handcuffs and severely punished. (If Private Bradley Manning‘s obscene conditions while incarcerated are any indication, it won’t be pleasant for Snowden either, even while awaiting trial.) Snowden has already been the object of scorn and derision from the Washington establishment and mainstream media, but, once again, the focus is misplaced on the transiently shiny object. The relevant issue should be: what exactly is the US government doing in the people’s name to “keep us safe” from terrorists?

Prism and other NSA data-mining programs might indeed be very effective in hunting and capturing actual terrorists, but we don’t have enough information as a society to make that decision. Despite laudable efforts led by Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall to bring this to the public’s attention that were continually thwarted by the administration because everything about this program was deemed “too secret”, Congress could not even exercise its oversight responsibilities. The intelligence community and their friends on the Hill do not have a right to interpret our rights absent such a discussion.

NSA Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah

The shock and surprise that Snowden exposed these secrets is hard to understand when over 1.4 million Americans hold “top secret” security clearances. When that many have access to sensitive information, is it really so difficult to envision a leak?

We are now dealing with a vast intelligence-industrial complex that is largely unaccountable to its citizens. This alarming, unchecked growth of the intelligence sector and the increasingly heavy reliance on subcontractors to carry out core intelligence tasks – now estimated to account for approximately 60% of the intelligence budget – have intensified since the 9/11 attacks and what was, arguably, our regrettable over-reaction to them.

The roots of this trend go back at least as far as the Reagan era, when the political right became obsessed with limiting government and denigrating those who worked for the public sector. It began a wave of privatization – because everything was held to be more “cost-efficient” when done by the private sector – and that only deepened with the political polarization following the election of 2000. As it turns out, the promises of cheaper, more efficient services were hollow, but inertia carried the day.

Today, the intelligence sector is so immense that no one person can manage, or even comprehend, its reach. When an operation in the field goes south, who would we prefer to try and correct the damage: a government employee whose loyalty belongs to his country (despite a modest salary), or the subcontractor who wants to ensure that his much fatter paycheck keeps coming?

Early polls of Americans about their privacy concerns that the government might be collecting metadata from phone calls and emails indicates that there is little alarm; there appears to be, in fact, an acceptance of or resignation to these practices. To date, there is no proof that the government has used this information to pursue and harass US citizens based on their political views. There are no J Edgar Hoover-like “enemy lists” … yet. But it is not so difficult to envision a scenario where any of us has a link, via a friend of a friend, to someone on the terrorist watchlist. What then? You may have no idea who this person is, but a supercomputer in Fort Meade (or, soon, at the Utah Data Center near Salt Lake City) will have made this connection. And then you could have some explaining to do to an over-zealous prosecutor.

On this spying business, officials from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to self-important senators are, in effect, telling Americans not to worry: it’s not that big a deal, and “trust us” because they’re keeping US citizens safe. This position must be turned on its head and opened up to a genuine discussion about the necessary, dynamic tension between security and privacy. As it now stands, these programs are ripe for abuse unless we establish ground rules and barriers between authentic national security interests and potential political chicanery.

The irony of former Vice-President Dick Cheney wringing his hands over the release of classified information is hard to watch. Cheney calls Snowden a traitor. Snowden may not be a hero, but the fact is that we owe him a debt of gratitude for finally bringing this question into the public square for the robust discussion it deserves.


It’s the ultimate machine of what’s become our Paranoid State. Clive Irving on the Orwellian mass-surveillance data center rising in the Utah desert.

Remember the Stasi, the secret police who operated in East Germany when it was a communist state? When the Berlin Wall came down, East Germans discovered they had been living in a society so rotted by paranoia that at least one in three of its adult citizens were spying on the other two.

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In the case of East Germany, this ended up producing warehouses stuffed with bulging files containing the minutely observed details of the everyday, humdrum lives of millions. The product was both banal and, in its range and results, terrifying (a world caught beautifully in the film The Lives of Others).

In the case of the U.S., the apotheosis of the same mind-set lies in a sprawling complex at Camp Williams, Utah, due to start operating this fall. Billions of dollars have gone into creating this cyberintelligence facility for the National Security Agency.

There’s no official explanation of the Utah Data Center’s real mission, except that it’s the largest of a network of data farms including sites in Colorado, Georgia, and Maryland. But it’s obviously been built to vastly increase the agency’s capacity to suck in, digest, analyze, and store whatever the intelligence community decides to collect. As of this week, we know a lot more about the kind of data that includes.

Of course, the U.S. is still far from being the police state that East Germany was. But I do think we need to better understand how this technological juggernaut works, what its scope really is—and particularly we need to appreciate how our political acceptance of this scale of surveillance is shaping the kind of society we are.

The national-security industrial complex is now of the size, power, and influence of the military-industrial complex of the Cold War, which President Eisenhower first defined and warned of. As then, this complex uses the national interest as a reason for having to operate in secrecy, and invokes patriotism—literally in the PATRIOT Act—to create a political consensus.

Nineteen terrorists with minimal technology—box cutters—have enabled the counterterrorism industry to enjoy unbounded reach. White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest used the familiar argument to defend the newly disclosed surveillance: it was, he said, “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terror activities, particularly people located inside the United States.”

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Where is it absolutely essential to violate privacy and where not?

That’s actually a simplification. Surveillance has two fundamental purposes: to track the known and discover the unknown. It’s hard to comprehend the science involved. How, for example, do you cull billions of bytes of data a second in a way that discriminates between the useless and the essential? Only one thing is for sure, and that is that the policy driving the velocity of the NSA’s ever-expanding sweeps is first to make those sweeps as global and indiscriminate as possible and then to apply algorithms able to instantly see the significant from the insignificant. If only it were that simple.

It is patently easy to defend the resources devoted to intelligence gathering by saying that many attacks have been thwarted, without saying what and where they were. Neither the Boston Marathon atrocity nor the London assassination of a British soldier were detected in advance, even though intelligence services in both countries had the perpetrators on their radar.

There is a certain kind of intellectual depravity in trying to have us accept that all surveillance is good for us. Politicians of both parties who now say there is nothing new in what has been revealed, that this was all authorized and kosher, are captives of this depravity, because they don’t really know any more than we do where to draw the line. Where is it absolutely essential to violate privacy and where not?

This is made even worse by the cover of enormous technical complexity. At least the Stasi’s low-tech methods could be seen for what they were, part of a cumbersome and gross bureaucratic machine, essentially human in its systems, allowing culpability to be clearly assigned.

In our case there is the Dark Star factor, like the Utah operation, working on robotic principles, not dependent on putting bugs in chandeliers, leaving no fingerprints, and capable of awesome penetration. We have the ultimate machine of the Paranoid State, an Orwellian apparatus that intoxicates its operators with its efficiency, enthrals its masters with its omniscience, and emasculates its political overseers with its promise of efficacy.

By Clive Irving