Español On Monday, former NSA contractor, CIA employee, and provider of secrets, Edward Snowden spoke at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas. In case you missed it and are now scratching your head wondering how this was possible for a man still effectively in a state of exile, Snowden joined the interactive technology conference via Google Hangout through a secured connection and several proxies.
Joined by Chris Soghoian, principal technologist and a senior policy analyst with the ACLU, and moderated by his attorney, Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, the event was billed as “A Virtual Conversation with Edward Snowden.” It focused primarily on the role of technology and the “tech community” in understanding and combating the sort of mass surveillance currently being carried out by the NSA.
What struck me most about this conversation was the idea that technology itself can be the answer to the problems created or — at the very least greatly “enhanced” — by the technological advances in the spy game.
Initially, the idea may seem exciting, perhaps even exhilarating to techies of the world: that many of the tools built by “the machine” can be used in like fashion to “rage against it.” Yet, upon deeper reflection, this idea, along with the faith in the inherent “goodness” of the national security apparatus — an opinion Snowden explicitly makes clear by expressing “spying must continue” — is not only contradictory, but also profoundly disturbing.
Solutions through technology is an idea that Snowden has repeatedly expressed, including in written testimony recently provided to the European Parliament. Snowden writes, “The good news is that there are solutions. The weakness of mass surveillance is that it can be made much more expensive through changes in technical standards.”
The argument goes that until an adequate political solution can be met, better security and encryption is the only achievable solution to the problem of electronic domestic surveillance. He argues that encryption is something everyone on the internet ought to be thinking about, from tech companies (like Google, Facebook, or Yahoo), to the developer community, and the average user online.
“End to end encryption,” Snowden says, “makes mass surveillance impossible at the network level. The result is a more constitutional, more carefully overseeing sort of intelligence gathering model or law enforcement model.”
To be clear, he is arguing that technology needs to make it more difficult for governments to spy on the public, and this in turn, will create a more constitutional and just society. We’ll come back to this later.
To his credit, toward the end of the presentation Snowden does “bottom line” it for the crowd, by saying, “data should not be collected without people’s knowledge and consent.” However, this is overshadowed by the way he downplays the role and responsibility of private entities involved in spying and data-mining.
When asked if he agrees that it is “less bad if big corporations get access to our information instead of the government,” Snowden gave his usual response. “Governments around the world … can literally kill you; they can jail you; they can surveil you. Companies can surveil you to sell you products, to sell your information to other companies. That can be bad, but you have legal recourse. First off, it is typically a voluntary contract.” This is an indisputably accurate, yet incomplete, observation.
It is true that when Google or Facebook spy on you, they do so based on your consent, having checked the box marked “Terms of Service” that no one actually reads. However, it is a mistake to dismiss corporate spying as simply “companies trying to sell you products,” particularly when the CIA invests so heavily in technology firms, including Google.
This is especially true when one considers the shadowy world of private intelligence, data management companies, and their simultaneously autonomous and symbiotic relationship with the national security state. The work of Project PM and its founder Barrett Brown — a journalist who has now been in jail for over a year on politically motivated charges — has been essential in understanding how these private firms fit into the picture.
Brown’s work helped uncover “Team Themis,” a consortium of firms made up of HBGary, Palantir, Berico, and Endgame Systems, hired by Bank of America and the US Chamber of Commerce to engage in a disinformation campaign against Wikileaks.
Jeremy Hammond’s epic hack of the private intelligence company Strategic Forecasting Inc. (Stratfor) also led to the discovery of attempts to infiltrate and neutralize Occupy Wall Street groups, at the behest of the US Department of Homeland Security.
For these and many more reasons, the role of private companies involved in the domestic surveillance racket is anything but innocuous.
Nothing to Hide
When Edward Snowden says that we should not tell large companies that they cannot collect our data, but rather “should only collect the data and hold it for as long as necessary for the operation of the business,” this is an idea that needs to be fundamentally challenged.
The very concept of individual privacy has seen a dramatic shift in the last few decades, a direct result of advances in technology and the rise of the social media age. While I do not advocate for Neo-Luddism, and myself enjoy the comforts technology affords, a thorough reexamination of current privacy norms, online or in real life, is desperately needed before the very meaning of the word “privacy” is irreversibly altered.
Snowden has consistently argued that “encryption works” and that everyone should learn and begin to use the technology in order to “make it harder” for the government to spy on us, and thus live in a “more constitutional” and free society.
While I agree that is prudent practice, in general, to employ encryption tools while “surfing the web” and guard against any unwanted intrusion — be it a state entity, malicious hacker, or a company “trying to sell products” — to suggest this act creates a more open and free society is problematic — if not entirely backward.
These actions, and more importantly the thoughts behind these actions, encourage a sort of “cat and mouse” game with the feds. By playing into this, it further encourages the very system that creates the conditions by which domestic surveillance flourishes. The sort of world in which one must constantly cover one’s tracks on the internet to avoid government surveillance is the sort of dystopic science fiction that we ought not to make into a reality, least of all glamorize as a noble endeavor.
Furthermore, it perpetuates the mythos of freedom fighting crypto-anarchists, but stops short of challenging the larger myth itself — the idea that the national security apparatus is a necessary evil. It isn’t.
Sympathy for the Devil
I worked for the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency. The National Security Agency. The Defense Intelligence Agency. I love my country, and I believe that spying serves a vital purpose and must continue.
– Edward Snowden, written testimony to the European Parliament
Edward Snowden does not question the national security state, its purpose, or its motives, per se. He questions their tactics. He deems them ineffective. He believes policy makers and the heads of intelligence agencies, like the NSA, are inadvertently making our security systems less secure, and by extension our country less safe, because they have adopted a foolhardy method of data collection.
While Snowden has expressed the opinion that bulk data collection is wrong, his emphasis has consistently been that it is wrong in a strategic or tactical sense. In other words, his suggestion is that the NSA and CIA, and their many thousands of employees, do not need to stop spying on the public, they need to get better at it.
While I agree that law enforcement needs to limit their searches to specific people with each search based on its own individualized suspicion, it is utterly naive to believe the CIA or NSA would ever abide by these same standards.
By his own admission, Edward Snowden is “sympathetic” to the idea that surveillance programs and black budget agencies that lurk in the shadows serve the public interest and keep people safe. Never mind the fact that both the NSA and CIA were originally chartered to conduct foreign intelligence gathering and were never meant to police the domestic population — a fact long since brushed away as anachronistic, along with the idea of “constitutional government.”
Sympathy for the surveillance and security state from Snowden should not cause much surprise, given the man willingly worked for spy agencies for several years and was paid handsomely for his trouble. This is only unusual to the extent that it conflicts with the narrative of Snowden as a “maverick” who “infiltrated” Booz Allen Hamilton, accepting a position as an NSA contractor only as a ploy to unearth its secrets to the world. Judging by his statements regarding the role of intelligence agencies within the national security state, this seems highly unlikely.
However, the national security state does not depend on our sympathies to thrive — it needs only our fear, and an ever-present enemy to fight.
The FBI has been known, incontrovertibly and without much controversy, to finance, equip, and plan terror attacks only to thwart them themselves as a way to justify their anti-terror programs — a story that even Glenn Greenwald reported on while working for Salon, pre-Snowden. Is it then really that hard to believe that the NSA would purposely create “backdoors” in our communication systems to justify their offensive cyber operations, intelligence, and counter-intelligence activity?
Edward Snowden could hardly contain his laughter as he described the way the United States has set the standard for network security worldwide, and yet leaves gaping holes in security — big “backdoors” for anyone to “walk into.”
“America has more to lose than everyone else [in cyber attacks],” says Snowden. “When you are the one country in the world that has a sort of a vault that is more full than anyone else’s, it doesn’t make sense to attack all day [while] you never defend your own full vault. It makes even less sense [laughter] when you’ve developed the standards for vaults worldwide to have a big backdoor for anyone to walk into.”
Of course, this only makes sense, if you consider the possibility that — to use a popular quasi-techie phrase — these security holes are “a feature, not a bug.”
In other words, they are potentially designed in this way intentionally, and with a specific purpose in mind. You simply cannot justify a gigantic defense and security apparatus without needing something to defend — without having vulnerabilities that require the specialized skills of secret agents involved in ultra-secretive programs.
As Ben Wizner put it, “If the NSA is willing to take these steps that actually weaken security, that spread vulnerabilities that make it in some sense easier not just for us to do surveillance, but for others to attack, they must think there is an awfully good reason for doing that.”
They must have awfully “good” reasons indeed, and yet not one of them noble — their jobs, livelihoods, patriotism, ideology, worship of the state, and the military-industrial cryptocracy.
Randolph Bourne brilliantly encapsulated the inexorable truth many years ago in a few short words, “War is the health of the state.” The faces, personalities, weapons, and tactics may have changed since World War I, but the truth is invariable. It would do us well to better understand this, and better understand what feeds this machine — then smash it into a million little pieces.
EspañolIn a futile attempt to counter the bad publicity generated by the wave of protests in the country, the Embassy of Venezuela in Washington has issued a statement trying to sell the idea that there are many prominent personalities supporting Maduro's regime. Apparently, they had to enable an area on their website to publish the myriad of solidarity statements they receive daily. Why, one wonders, does a self-proclaimed "anti-Yankee" regime all of sudden care so much what the rest of the world thinks of them, US Americans in particular? Why do they need foreigners to legitimize what they can achieve via their own citizens? If there is one lesson that Maduro learned from Chávez, it is the importance of advertising 21st Century Socialism. The deceased president knew well how to market the "Bolivarian Revolution" and sell the idea of demagoguery and populism as "a reflection of the people's vindication," perpetuation in power as "the continuation of the project," and authoritarianism as "defending the homeland against fascist groups." All these slogans were not propagated overnight; that took time, hard work, and above all, lots of money. However, sometimes not so much effort is needed to sell socialism. There are always those who live in a bubble of economic development and see socialism as the equivalence of helping the poor, Che as a symbol of rebellion, and Marx as that man with a beard who spoke of class struggle. They never realize that socialism literally means what Churchill described as "the equal sharing of misery." Celebrities like supermodel Naomi Campbell, whose fortune is close to US$46 million, have come to Caracas to see the socialist experiment up close and show explicit support for its developer. Campbell, who had the opportunity to interview Chávez, left delighted with what she saw. In their conversation, the late president insisted: "We have not a single political prisoner. We have not killed anyone. We have banned the political imprisonment of people … We respect human rights here. I don't think there is any country in the world with more freedom of speech than Venezuela." Campbell obviously didn't pass by the Helicoide building to visit Iván Simonovis, who has been a political prisoner for 10 years, or all those who have been imprisoned without due process as "guaranteed" by the Constitution, only because they represent an opposition that could involve a threat to the regime's stability. Danny Glover, another actor almost retired from the world of cinema, has repeatedly visited the socialist "paradise," only to return to his comfortable life in the United States. On his last visit, Glover called people to respect the Maduro administration amid all the protests, because he had been chosen through a "democratic, transparent, and fair process that Venezuela has been perfecting for over a decade." Does it not look a little suspicious to Glover that the same "democratic" and "transparent" process that has been refined by the Chavista regime has kept them in power for 15 years? Doesn't Glover wonder why people protest so much if everything is good under socialism? Celebrities like these did not meet the other half of the country; if anything, they might have taken two steps outside the hotel where they stayed and the government-run tours they enjoyed. These personalities come out to support socialism from the comforts of the cradle of capitalism, the one so much criticized by the Venezuelan government. They see from afar the wonders of living in a "socialist" country to which they wouldn't even think of moving into. However, the publicity that Michael Moore, Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, Glover, and Campbell can offer this regime no longer matters; the mask has fallen. The recent protests in Venezuela have meant a high dose of bad publicity for Maduro, and no celebrity visit can hide this. The Venezuelan community and foreign media have managed to report on the repression and economic collapse the country is going through, showing a reality that is strikingly different from the picture painted by these socialism-loving artists. How can you give any credence to the opinion of someone whose fortune has been achieved through the wonders of capitalism but then comes to Venezuela — a country with no economic or political freedom — to give lessons on socialism? These are people who have no idea what it is to queue for hours to get milk or flour; they don't know what it means to be victims of crime and to discover that the same police that supposedly are the "guarantors of security" are the ones behind it all — let alone do they live under the uncertainty of not knowing if their private property will be stripped from them the next day. What would Naomi do, for example, if her beach house were invaded and permanently occupied by squatters, with the encouragement of her very own government? The luxurious visits themselves are contradictory, and they have lost any effect on the legitimacy the regime seeks to achieve. Maduro will need, besides a few lessons in economics, much more than a good picture to convince the rest of the world that people live under democracy in Venezuela. Translated by PanAm Post staff