About PRISM, Edward Snowden and the NSA

by Karoli on June 12, 2013 · 403 comments

prism image

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around what I think about all of the revelations about PRISM and the Verizon phone orders. Anyone who has read this blog for a long time (all two of you), knows how I reacted when Bush did it, sans warrant, and if you read me back in 2007 and 2008, my reaction was more angry, and indiscriminate about where I focused my anger.

Those were the days when we weren’t blasting out our locations with pictures and updating statuses every 30 seconds in a public venue. There was no Foursquare, Twitter was still the province of geeks and edge cases, and Facebook was that place where college kids could hang out with their classmates.

Simply put, today’s Internet leaves you numb to the thought that a) anyone gives a shit what you do and say online; and b) if they do give a shit, it’s only because they profit from it. Those days about worrying about ad cookies? Forget it. That’s just a tiny, less profitable corner of the Internet. Your internet provider knows exactly what you do online if they’re interested, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can really do about it.

Corporate vs. Government Tracking

It is one thing to know that your actions online might turn a profit for some large corporation. Likewise, it’s one thing to know that your supermarket knows who you boycott and who you don’t, what you eat and whether you’re dieting, if you have kids or your kids have moved out, how many males and females live in your house, and whether you live a green lifestyle or are a conspicuous consumer.

It is entirely another to know that you could say or do or write something that triggered a keyword that puts you right under the spotlight of the FBI or the NSA. Yes, there are warrants. Yes, those warrants are obtained via a court of law. And yes, that court basically rubber stamps requests without much in the way of questions.

There really are reasons to do it

I do believe that meta analysis of patterns and links enables attention to be focused in areas where it should be, because like many others, I also believe there really are people out there who want as many Americans dead in one strike as they can get without dropping a nuke.

Is your head spinning yet?

I’ve gone back and forth on the tension wire over this, but these things are clear:

  • National security should not be outsourced to third parties. I really have a problem with private, for-profit companies having access to my data to analyze on behalf of the government, whether it is meta or not. This is because I don’t believe private enterprise — particularly corporations like Booz Allen Hamilton — will take much care with what they have. Their primary motive is profit, not patriotism.
  • There is a history of abuse of private information by private companies with strong ties to the US government. If you’re not familiar with the HB Gary Federal, Palantir and Berico debacle of 2011, I suggest you read this. One of the targets in that debacle was Glenn Greenwald, which might explain why his theatrical story break had the ring of authenticity to it. If you’ve been targeted by the US Chamber of Commerce via companies who also do data-crunching for the NSA, you might want to expose their operations, too.
  • Privacy is an illusion. That doesn’t give the government carte-blanche to invade it, but it is absolutely an illusion. We don’t have it, we won’t have it, and we aren’t going to get it back not because the government will snatch it away, but because we will give it away to get things we want online, whether that’s email or social connections or a platform to shout from.
  • This is not partisan for me. The only thing that has saved Obama from my shrill rants is that at the executive level, there wasn’t illegal conduct. There were warrants, there were briefings, and so on. Good. That’s all good. The program itself still sucks and it’s still way too broad, but this is something ONLY Congress can fix.
  • For all the power Snowden says they have, they certainly suck at using it effectively. Think of all the things that might have been prevented with a little effective spying. No massive ammo purchases from nutbags who want to shoot up elementary schools. No surprise town hall riots over health care. No lunatics killing people with bombs at the Boston Marathon. And so on. Either you accept that at this time, they are not using this power or you accept that they absolutely must have no clue how to use it in a way that actually works. If that’s the case, then why have it in the first place?

Now is the time to push for transparency

It is these six points which push me over into the transparency camp. Big Brother might be watching me, but I damn well deserve to know that now, not when something has been manufactured out of an occasional mention of some mysterious keyword. Since whatever domestic data they have doesn’t seem to be serving domestic purposes, they should simply be barred from collecting it in the first place. That way we can actually have a rational debate about what national security is and is not, and whether or not it should involve surveillance of US citizens, and under what circumstances that surveillance should be undertaken.

That’s really the problem I have with the way this whole debate has unfolded. It began with a shrill tone (I’m looking at YOU, Arianna Huffington and your incredibly dishonest headline), and it’s just gotten more shrill over time, instead of actually calming into a reasonable debate about where the line is between protection and invasion. It’s a debate we should have NOW. Because yes, I trust the Obama administration marginally more than I trust a Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio administration to have this very same power. Since we’ve got the White House, let’s deal with it now and for the future.

Snowden made his choices, and there will be consequences, good and bad

I don’t believe Ed Snowden is a hero, but I also don’t believe he’s a demon. I think he’s an idealist who doesn’t really process consequences until it’s too late to avert them. That sucks for him, but I don’t think he’s a treasonous SOB out to bring down a president or the government as much as he is a guy who imagines himself in the superhero suit.

I also don’t think we know enough about him to make a judgement beyond that. Let a court do that. No, I don’t think he should be pardoned. I’m not a big fan of pardons unless the crime was not actually committed. He did take an oath and he did break it. So no pardon. Also no tar and feathers. Just let justice do its thing.

If any good is to come of all of this, it will be a movement toward forcing Congress to revisit the Patriot Act and FISA, and begin to loosen the chains around the black boxes. There is an alliance forming between EFF, Mozilla, and other non-profit and corporate (mostly tech) entities to push ahead to open those boxes and let some of these secrets come out into the light. I think we should do it now. Sooner is better than later. If you want to add your name to their list, visit stopwatching.us and sign the petition. The irony isn’t lost on me that I’m asking you to give your information over to an organization fighting to keep the government from having your information, but it’s an emerging effort from respected entities, and they’ll definitely keep you up to date on what’s going on.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks on other things too…

Can we please also talk about sequester repeal, gun safety, immigration reform, and all the other important things that have been the victims of constant distraction for the past six weeks? If there’s one thing that just makes me want to wail, it’s how our ADHD press can’t manage to juggle two balls at the same time, nor can Congress. Losing momentum is frustrating, not that we had a ton of it. But all these distractions take eyeballs away from the FACT that the lack of progress has a perpetrator too.

Or we can just let them repeal Obamacare a zillion more times while the rest of everything sort of goes to hell in a handbasket. Whatever the choice, let’s find a way to actually get stuff done while holding their feet to the fire on this issue, too.

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