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.