Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Who Will Watch The Watchers? Or The Character and Consequences of Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden, America's disowned international man of anti-secrecy, recently sat down with a German news organization to discuss his life, now infamous NSA revelations, and hopes for the future.[1] According to a couple of unconfirmed sources in the blogosphere this interview is apparently slowly being taken down from various websites so I decided that I would write about it in order to examine three areas of covered in the interview: Snowden's character; the NSA's capabilities; and the consequences of his revelations.


I must begin where the mass media so often falters. They call Edward Snowden many names from traitor to turncoat, you do not get that impression from the well dressed, clean cut, articulate man who sat down for this interview. Despite regularly having threats made on his life from government officials he still speaks softly with candor and conviction.[2]

The interview started with many aspects of Snowden's personal life. For example, Snowden admits that he has always been a lover of computers and electronic technologies even from an early age, which explains his prodigious proficiency and skill. He is also asked about his former desire and attempt to become a US Army Ranger during the Iraq war.[3] This piece of information often raises eyebrows. Why would a lifelong computer geek turned human rights activist (his words, not mine) ever want to train with an elite fighting force? “Not all Special Forces are combat units”, he argued. His desire to participate was precipitated by the notion that he could become a specialist who could be dropped behind enemy lines to empower the local population with skills and resources that would "allow them to determine their own destiny." Snowden never got that change because he broke both of his legs during training and was discharged, but his skills were nevertheless noticed and recruited. He didn't want to talk directly about how he was recruited only that he was. He worked for the CIA and as a contractor for the NSA through a company called Booz Allen Hamilton.[4]

When asked for the reason he made his now famous revelations he pointed to one instance in particular when James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, blatantly lied to Congress under oath about the NSA's spying apparatus. When asked whether they collected bulk data on American citizens he simply responded "no".[5] Snowden believed (and still believes) that this lie was in direct conflict with the values of transparency and public knowledge essential to the democratic process. He felt it his moral duty given his unique technological capabilities and access to leak the extent of this lie by releasing the NSA's capabilities for the public good. Snowden used the phrase "for the public good" more times than any other phrase in this interview. His second most used phrase was (loosely) “journalistic value judgments.”

The interviewer several times asked Snowden about the extent of the NSA's surveillance from “how many German leaders had been spied on” to “whether information on German citizens was given directly to the German government by the NSA's surveillance apparatus” (blatantly illegal). Each time he was asked about the specifics of the spying apparatus Mr. Snowden—though he had the answers—differed to the integrity of those journalists to whom he had given the information. Though he is painted by a large cross section of the mass media as a power hungry attention-hog he made it very clear that his intention was not to divulge more information than journalists thought necessary or prudent. That is not the character of a megolomaniac, but a whisteblower concerned with the state of our democracy. That is the man Edward Snowden.

What continues to fascinate more than the character of Edward Snowden is the content of the revelations themselves. I could go on for days about what has thus far come to light, but for the sake of brevity I will limit myself to two salient points from this particular interview: catalysts and capabilities.


Firstly, who is involved in the global spy machine? Snowden refers to a group of five countries that are Orwellianly referred to as the "Five Eyes". These countries—US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—comprise a pack of post-WWII anglo-allied states that have agreed to cooperate and share the cost and resources of international spying with each other. All five have agreed not to target citizens in each others countries however the documents that bind them make it perfectly clear that these laws are not intended to restrict movement, but simply to maintain state sovereignty. In other words, the UK is not suposed say "OK NSA, can you keep an eye and a trace on British citizens X, Y, and Z?” They aren’t supposed to do it themselves because that would be illegal under their own laws. However, they do not restrict each other from gathering bulk data from wherever, drawing their own conclusions, and sharing that data with each other. In essence, they break each other’s laws for each other so as not to break their own laws.

So, If a collection of "allied intelligence agencies" (God, it sounds like a world war pack) can gather bulk amounts of data and share it with each other the next logical question would be: what kind of data can they gather?


Mr. Snowden several times mentions the difference between targeting individual citizens and gathering bulk data. The former he argues is much harder to justify without the specific order from a FISA court (though it does happen on a regular basis), but the latter he reveals happens en toto. A few times during the interview he points out that if you (yes, you reading this) turn on your smartphone, swipe a credit card, shop online, log into a network, check your email, receive an SMS etc. then you are leaving a digital fingerprint that the NSA (and consequently those in within the circle of trust) has the capacity and capability to record and track. They even have the ability to tag any activity that they feel is suspicious, which makes every move the person in question makes vulnerable to being tracked in real-time on an individual basis.
Through a front end search engine program called “XKeyScore” the NSA literally has the ability to track anything that any of us do that has a digital imprint.[6] It can access global communications from email addresses; networks that tagged individuals have accessed; and even build webs of associations. Due to weak security protocols built into corporate, government, and foreign servers the NSA has free reign into every piece of digital information. President Obama even alluded to this capability in his "major speech on intelligence gathering" when he asserted that though the government could gather all this data doesn't mean that they should, thereby implying that they could (!)[7]

Now, if the NSA and their partners can gather every bit of digital information what kind are they targeting? Are they sticking with political concerns or extending further? While Snowden did not want to get into the specifics, due to his commitment to journalistic considerations, he did say—albeit vaguely—that NSA spying was not limited to security concerns but also included economic espionage on behalf of US interests as well.

All this he asserted was the direct result of privatizing security functions. Keep in mind that Snowden had access to all this sensitive information as a result of his position as a contractor for the NSA (staffing the XKeyScore station) through Booz Allen. These for-profit corporations—he argues—do not have the public interest in mind, but are by definition profit-driven. Therefore, because they have the capability to do so these corporations make the argument to government agencies that there is a need to gather every piece of digital data. The consequences are such that private citizens with very little authority or supervision are given access to almost every bit of digital data for profit, not the public good.


When asked about the political consequences of his actions Snowden characterized the official response as a "circling of wagons". At first President Obama condemned Snowden's actions as the immature acts of an attention seeking misguided traitor. Since then the administration has begun to acknowledge the overreach of the NSA and has even formed a panel to investigate the legality and efficacy of the programs. Though the panel was made up of Obama's people—according to Snowden—they nevertheless have issued statements condemning the breadth of the program and offering recommendations for systematic reforms.[8] The only act they found that was even close to being worthy of consideration that had been flagged as a result of the NSA programs was an $8,500 wire transfer from a cab driver. Hardly worth a systematic dismantling of civil liberties.

"What then shall we do?" was the question inevitably asked at the end of the interview. Will the law change? One option the interviewer suggested was creating "national Internets" that could house their own data. Snowden's response was as poignant as it was cheeky: “’walled gardens’ aren't going to keep the NSA out.” Though national Internets may raise the level of sophistication of gathering the data, if the NSA wants it—they'll get it. Moving data around isn't the solution. The solution is creating international standards for securing private data, argued Snowden.

What of Edward himself? What are the long-term consequences for him? Will he stay in Russia for the rest of his life? The interviewer asked what other countries he had applied to for asylum. The list was long, but superfluous to reiterate here for no one had yet granted it to him. Snowden hoped that as time went on the US government would see that the information he had given journalists—not foreign governments—was not harmful to the national interest, and therefore he would be allowed to return home.

Currently, Snowden is charged with breaking the Espionage Act of 1917.[9] However, he was quick to point out that this law was intended to prosecute those who willing gave information over to foreign governments with the intent to undermine their own countries' national security. There was never a caveat for those would give information over to journalists for the public good. The government apparatus wants him to "face the music”, but Snowden asserts that the music would simply be a show trial for the crimes he is charged with do not guarantee a jury trial, especially considering the government’s vilification campaign. His chances at a fair trial are negligible, if not impossible, given the political ramifications of the outcome. 

The New York Times recently published an editorial exhorting the White House to end the vilification of Mr. Snowden and grant him clemency so he can come home.[10] "What is lawful is distinct from what is right-ful", Snowden claims. I think his actions speak louder than his words. His revelations have caused no harm except to expedite the shame of the policies of administrations past and present that have baselessly eroding civil liberties. That is what is heating the embers of this fire, not the actual breaking of a law. I have mentioned a few times that more than any other statement in this interview Snowden pointed out that he did what he did for the public good. Why does the NSA do what they do? For the corporate good. Now ask yourself who really deserves to be put on trial here? Given the character and intent of Mr. Snowden’s actions I stand with the New York Times: he should be granted clemency and the NSA spying apparatus should be overhauled.
History will judge the patriots from the terrorists. I for one stand with Mr. Snowden.

[1] http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=f93_1390833151#iosbQXBaBOis0w1G.99
[2] http://www.buzzfeed.com/bennyjohnson/americas-spies-want-edward-snowden-dead
[3] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/10/edward-snowden-army-special-forces
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Booz_Allen_Hamilton
[5] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2014/01/27/darrell-issa-james-clapper-lied-to-congress-about-nsa-and-should-be-fired/
[6] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/31/nsa-top-secret-program-online-data
[7] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/17/remarks-president-review-signals-intelligence
[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/19/us/politics/report-on-nsa-surveillance-tactics.html?_r=0
[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Espionage_Act_of_1917
[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/opinion/edward-snowden-whistle-blower.html

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