Civil Liberties Through the PRISM of Greenwald and Snowden

Reading much of the commentary about the NSA revelations, what I’ve noticed is that arguing about Edward Snowden’s and Glenn Greenwald’s character has become a proxy, as well as a replacement, for discussing what the NSA is doing. It’s bizarre that some seem to be SHOCKED! that Snowden, a mercenary spook, might have an unfamiliar acquaintance with parts of the truth. Whocouldathunkit? And, yes, Greenwald can be a jackass: his sudden discovery after 2001 of the perfidy of conservatives, among other things (until 2000 he had never even bothered to vote), reeks of the overzealousness of the convert (which is unfair to many converts).

That said, this description of what we should be talking about (i.e., not Greenwald or Snowden as individuals) should be front and center (boldface mine):

I have a simple thought-experiment concerning the NSA incursion into our privacy, and it includes their own justification as I have come to hear it these past few days.

Clapper and others are quick to point out they collect data and store it; that it is metadata and free of content contained within the actual emails or phone calls the metadata represents. It was likened to having a lot of books classified by the Dewey decimal system, parked on a library shelf, but none of the books open or read.

This creates a harmless image of what the NSA has but it doesn’t address how it is collected at all. So here is the image I sketch:

Imagine you and everyone in your circle of family and friends has a minder assigned. The minder’s job is to follow-you around, taking notes about who you spoke to, when you spoke to them, or phoned, or emailed at your computer. The minder has to stand away from you far enough not to overhear anything you say, but he absolutely must be allowed to take his notes at all hours of the day or night. Furthermore, the minder has to send his notebooks to the Library of Congress–but to a secret eyes-only archive reserved for special curators. Neither you nor anyone you have contacted are not allowed to see the notes. Ever. If the day should come you are accused of a crime—whether it’s misdemeanor or felony, whether criminal or civil crime— the special archives can be consulted by a secret tribunal to assess whether anything in the minder’s notes is relevant to the accusation at hand.

I ask anyone to tell me that having a minder taking notes is satisfactory “if I don’t have anything to hide”. And what’s more, your file at the secret vault in my imaginary Library of Congress will never stop growing. I will be a datapoint in that library connected to countless others long, long after I die.

Very few would call this an appropriate trade-off. Yet that, to a large extent, is precisely what the NSA* is doing. If they’re not there yet technologically, they would like to be. If you’re not a professional pants-shitter like Thomas Friedman, this is something that should concern you.

It’s also worth noting that we’re lucky Snowden seems to be an altruist of sorts: how many private contractors are either divulging this information for money or else using this information for their own purposes, such as blackmail? (or front-running the markets. Or corporate propaganda campaigns.)

This is absolutely not about Greenwald or Snowden, but the intelligence agencies and their private agents–and what is being done in our name.

*It’s worth noting that the U.S. has sixteen different intelligence agencies. Very few seem to be asking what the other agencies are doing domestically. Seems a good way for the NSA to technically deny it’s doing something wrong (when it might be helping a sister agency do something wrong instead).

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5 Responses to Civil Liberties Through the PRISM of Greenwald and Snowden

  1. “Imagine you and everyone in your circle of family and friends has a minder assigned.”

    I don’t have to imagine this. Some of my Florida friends had a designated FBI “counter-terrorist” officer who showed up to all of their public events, even innocuous ones like concerts.

    • Oh, and a large part of the attention paid to Snowden’s and Greenwald’s character is motivated by concern that they’re misrepresenting the programs in question for the sake of generating sensational headlines. If they were *just* assholes, that’s one thing, but their particular brand of self-aggrandizement lends itself readily to manipulating facts.

      (Snowden thinks its scandalous that the NSA spies on… the Russian and Chinese governments! In that context, can we trust his definition of what is scandalous surveillance? Is he describing the system accurately, or is his apparent belief that *all* surveillance is inherently evil causing him to report the details in a way that fits his agenda?)

      • Joe Miller says:

        “If they were *just* assholes, that’s one thing, but their particular brand of self-aggrandizement lends itself readily to manipulating facts.”

        The same could be said for the bulk of government officials currently in office, not to mention all of the high ranking members of said security organizations. It thus seems that those who level such criticisms are hoisting themselves by their own petards.

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