Hidden consequences of Snowden’s revelations

There is more than a little hypocrisy to the outcry that the government, through the National Security Agency (NSA), is systematically destroying Americans’ right to privacy. Edward Snowden’s revelations have been stripped of their social, technological and historical context.

Unless you’ve camped in the Alaskan wilderness for two decades, you know — or should — that millions upon millions of Americans have consciously and, probably in most cases, eagerly surrendered much of their privacy by embracing the Internet and social media.

People do not open Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts because they wish to shroud their lives in secrecy. They do not use online dating services or post videos on YouTube because they cherish their anonymity. The Internet is a vehicle for self-promotion, personal advertising and the pursuit of celebrity.

The Pew Research Center’s surveys confirm that these behaviors are now entirely mainstream. In 2013, 85 percent of Americans used the Internet. Of these, almost three-quarters (73 percent) belonged to social media sites (the biggest: Facebook). Almost one-fifth of adult Internet users have posted personal videos, many hoping, says Pew, that “their creations go viral.” Among people “single and looking” for mates, nearly two-fifths (38 percent) used online dating.

If Americans think their privacy is dangerously diminished, there are remedies. They can turn off their PCs, toss their smartphones and smash their tablets. Somehow, this seems unlikely, even though another Pew survey finds that “86 percent of adult Internet users have taken steps … to avoid surveillance by other people or organizations.”

To these conscious sacrifices of privacy must be added murkier, collateral losses that are orchestrated by the world’s Googles, Facebooks, service providers and “data brokers,” writes Alice Marwick of Fordham University in the New York Review of Books. They scan users’ digital decisions (sites visited, products and services purchased, habits and hobbies favored) to create databases, often merged with other socio-economic information. These target advertising, improve political appeals — U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign excelled at this — and influence hiring decisions, as Don Peck notes in the Atlantic.

The NSA’s damage to privacy is dwarfed by the impact of market activity. The sensationalism surrounding Snowden’s revelations obscures this. Case in point: The disclosure that U.S. telephone calls are open to NSA monitoring. Suddenly Big Brother looms. In our mind’s eye, we see the NSA’s computers scouring our every phone call. We’re exposed to constant snooping and the possibility that the government will misuse the information it finds.

The reality is far more limited. The NSA is governed by legal restrictions. It does not examine the full database. It searches individual numbers only after it has determined there’s a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a number might be linked to terrorist groups. In 2012, there were 288 of these findings.

After one is made, the NSA can retrieve three items about the number: the dates of calls made and received for five years; the other phones’ numbers; and the calls’ length. The NSA is not entitled to listen to conversations, but it can order similar searches on the other numbers involved. Thousands of calls are caught in the dragnet, but the total is puny compared with the untold billions of annual calls.

Whether these searches are effective in fighting terrorism is disputed. The NSA says they’re valuable. A panel of experts appointed by Obama concluded that the monitoring “was not essential to preventing attacks.”

But more important for civil liberties and privacy, the panel found that present practices don’t approach past abuses. During the Vietnam War, the panel noted, the CIA investigated 300,000 anti-war critics. The government also sought to “expose, disrupt, and neutralize their efforts to affect public opinion.”

By all means, let’s debate the NSA. Some policies seem suspect, spying on the heads of friendly governments topping the list. It’s also important to recognize that government can coerce and punish in ways that private markets cannot. The potential for abuse is greater. But let’s also keep the debate in perspective.

In a digitized world, spying must be digitized. Then there’s cyberwarfare. Our electronic systems remain vulnerable, as the recent theft of data from millions of credit and debit cards at Target demonstrates. Government and the private sector need to collaborate more closely to protect vital systems. But these “efforts are as good as dead for the foreseeable future,” says Dmitri Alperovitch of CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm. The NSA controversy has “significantly damaged the trust between the private sector and government.” This may be the Snowden affair’s most insidious (and overlooked) consequence.

Vilifying the NSA — letting Snowden dictate the terms of debate — promotes bad history and bad policy. It’s bad history, because the most powerful assaults on privacy have originated in markets. It’s bad policy, because weakening the NSA leaves the United States more exposed to cyberattacks.

© 2014 Washington Post Writers Group

  • midnightbrewer

    This article has some misinformation that needs to be clarified.

    1) The NSA is governed by the FISA court and the Senate Intelligence Committee, two bodies which have repeatedly shown their willingness to rubber-stamp any request the NSA has made, regardless of the scope of the infringement their activities will cause.

    2) NSA agents are allowed to self-determine if a particular individual’s data is worthy of surveillance. They do not need to seek the approval of a supervisor ahead of time.

    3) The data the NSA is allowed to take from phone calls, called “metadata”, is more than enough to build up a profile on an individual’s activities. If I know who you call and how often, I can not only keep track of you, I can tell you a lot about your buying habits, personal medical issues, and much more.

    4) There is no proof that spying “must be digitized”, nor has it done anything to slow down several domestic terrorist attacks that have occurred over the last year alone (a couple of school shootings and a marathon bombing come to mind). The NSA itself has recently downgraded the number of enemy actions successfully foiled through their activities from 54 to 1, with the qualifier that in the last action they were only “laterally involved”, meaning probably not.

    5) It’s not just phone calls. The NSA is also guilty of wire-tapping Google’s own internal fiber optic network, figuring out how to turn on laptop cameras without triggering the indicator light, and hacking the iPhone operating system to further their data collection.

    6) And finally, as this newspaper itself has already reported, pressure from the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) was instrumental in the creation and passage of Japan’s new secrecy law. The law has effectively killed investigative journalism in this country.

    Politicians and bureaucrats now have carte blanch in determining what constitutes a state secret, and any attempt to divulge or discover information about such secrets carries a heavy prison sentence (10 years for the leaker and 5 years for the person asking questions). Want to protest against the government? The new law now allows you to be classified as a terrorist. Too noisy in the comments section of a popular publication? The government can decide it’s in the best interest of “public harmony” to start spying on you just in case you become a problem later.

    Why the (uncredited) author of this piece feels that foreign dignitaries deserve more privacy than I do is baffling. We are all citizens; we should not allow some to be more equal than others. Why I should put the rights of others as defined in the United States Constitution ahead of my own – especially when those others are not even US citizens – is baffling to me.

  • philobiblos

    The US Founding Fathers, perhaps the most insightful commentators on the balance between personal freedoms and government authority, in fact suggested that the citizen should always be mindful of actions by the latter that limit the former. Thus that “[t]he NSA controversy has ‘significantly damaged the trust between the private sector and government,'” is something to be welcomed, and it is something for which we can thank Snowden. Freedoms guaranteed by a constitution (such as that of the US) can only be maintained if we are alert and opposed to the kinds of actions and policies that aim to limit it. It is the Constitution that legitimates government actions, not the other way around…

  • Giving your info to Facebook or Google is different. People willingly give that information and those companies are for profit. The government on the other hand has the power to ruin lives and blackmail.

    In a democracy there needs to be transparency, not secret governments, behind secret doors, making secret laws, in secret courts with secret judges, who claim anyone that stands in their way to be a terrorist or treasonous traitor. That’s scary and reason for concern.

    I understand the government wants to protect the country but they must work within the law. It seems what they’re doing is unconstitutional and certainly not in the spirit of the law. That in itself should be enough to end the program as it is now or force some serious changes to protect everyone’s privacy.