4:32 a.m. June 13, 2013

The Ear of the Storm

Former tech contractor to the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden, dropped a bombshell this week by exposing, via Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald, details of a massive US government snooping program called PRISM.

Depending on who you listen to, PRISM is either the end of our freedom, an invaluable resource for fighting America's enemies, or the thing we've been seeing on every TV crime show for the past ten years.

Snowden gave up his well-remunerated job, possibly his freedom and certainly his ability to live in the US, by splashing details about America's giant electronic ear, which it turns out is also used on US citizens (this, not the spying on Johnny Foreigner, seems to be the main objection for the American public, meaning your entire country is, at heart, constitutionalist. Alex Jones will be pleased).

For those of you without access to so-called "open source intelligence" (in the business we call it "news"), let's quickly recap. The NSA, via secret court sessions, collects user data from hip internet giants including Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. Also involved were AOL (gotta spy on those old folks), Skype and Paltalk. (For my money, the existence of "Paltalk" was the most shocking of Snowden's revelations, although it's likely we'll never truly know what it does or who uses it.)

So basically, PRISM is a massive sigint program. Sigint – signals intelligence – is one of the oldest forms of spying in the modern world. Sorry James Bond fans, but spying isn't all dinner jackets under your wetsuit and seducing sexy laydeeez. In fact, an awful lot of it is sitting in dimly lit rooms listening to bores prattle on in the hope they fess-up some juicy gossip. I could tell you how I know this, but then I'd… have to admit that I've watched documentaries.

What's novel here is the sheer scale and the fact that it is apparently untargeted. Or perhaps not, but we shall come to that in due course.

Critics are lining up to take sides, which is what critics do.

David Simon, former god of television, has slipped from hero to zero on the basis that he's not terribly bothered by the fuss over PRISM. In fact, Simon says, back in the good old days when he was a penniless reporter before he shoe-leathered his way to HBO, the police routinely used 'raw' information prior to obtaining court-ordered wiretaps.

"Having labored as a police reporter in the days before the Patriot Act, I can assure all there has always been a stage before the wiretap, a preliminary process involving the capture, retention and analysis of raw data. It has been so for decades now in this country. The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the FBI and NSA are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. But the legal and moral principles? Same old stuff."

New York Times columnist David Brooks opened up his copy of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM) and pronounced on both Snowden (he's an antisocial nerd, basically) and society at large (it's full of lonely people).

"Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments."

Brooks makes some interesting points about individuation and social fragmentation, but these could easily have been made without the amateur psychiatrist schtick. Moreover, his critique of libertarianism might be welcome if it wasn't a transparent attempt to shore up support for the expansion of state power. For all I know Brooks is entirely sincere. As far as I can tell, Brooks represents the conservative wing of communitarian politics, and given that I've spent the last ten years of my life telling people that communitarianism is not the 'left,' I'm quite happy to see a conservative come out as, well, conservative. The sooner the left realizes that the state is not a progressive force held back by the dead hand of corporations, but in fact a giant conglomeration of competing interests, the better. Nonetheless, Brooks’ argument ultimately falls flat because he is so transparently carrying water for the establishment.

As a journalist I find it pretty hard to swallow sentiments like those expressed in The Los Angeles Times: "The real scandal here is that The Guardian and Washington Post are compromising our national security by telling our enemies about our intelligence-gathering capabilities." Really? Well, tough luck. That's what newspapers do: report news.

British Labour party supporter Dan Hodges’ comments in The Daily Telegraph at least have the virtue of honesty: fighting terrorists requires mass surveillance programs, he says. It's not an argument I much care for, but it's consistent.

"Until this week we hadn’t heard of Prism, the ultra-sophisticated computer system that allows the US government to monitor online communications across the globe. But frankly, why the hell should we have heard of it? That’s the whole point of covert surveillance. The clue is in the name."

On the other side of the digital ideological divide, Snowden has been hailed as a visionary truth-teller, a virtual seer for our day who saw the beast and alerted us to its presence. The New Yorker's John Cassidy says he's a hero, as does Douglas Rushkoff. On and on it goes, on both sides, neither of which have access to any more information about Snowden than was contained in his single video interview with the Guardian or can be gleaned from -- quelle irony -- a Google search.

Psychologizing the actions of a leaker based on scant information is itself a marker of our narcissistic culture where the personal is political. Greenwald's preening, on the other hand, is a longstanding tradition. He is also given to hyperbole like a bee is given to honey. In 2012, for instance, Greenwald wrote a story for Salon in which he claimed that the US "long ago" crossed the bridge into the abyss of tyranny. That's one hell of a claim.

Milking their blogger's scoop for all it's worth, The Guardian is already crowdsourcing Greenwald's hagiography, inviting readers to complete a survey explaining just how much they weally, weally wuv Glenn.

But let's not hang a journalist for sensationalizing a story. And just because Glenn Greenwald said something doesn't mean it's untrue. It just means it's likely to be riddled by sophistry and exaggeration. As holes begin to appear in Greenwald's reporting, and they already have, the problem is that they will be used to undermine the wider truth. Blogger Mark Jaquith was one of the first to point out the problems with Greenwald's description of the NSA having "direct and unilateral access" to the servers of Google, Facebook et al as opposed to those companies simply building a secure drop box for complying with lawful data requests...

"[There is a] difference between companies voluntarily giving the government direct and unilateral access to arbitrary customer data and companies merely complying with the law in a technically efficient way that doesn’t change the nature of the data received by the government. If Greenwald and MacAskill have documents or detailed statements from Snowden that provide illumination on this point, they should share this information. Because as it stands now, the only way their story is true is if all the companies involved are lying, and the NSA is lying, and Senators Feinstein and Rogers are lying, and the President is lying, and the New York Times’ sources are lying. Everyone but Greenwald’s source would have to be lying. This certainly isn’t impossible. Much more likely in my estimation is that Greenwald’s use of ‘direct’ and ‘unilateral’ was technically imprecise or the result of exaggerations from his source."

Millions more gallons of ink will be spilled before we get anywhere close to a definitive answer on the "hero or traitor?" question that every pundit is wrestling with. Meantime on both sides of the Atlantic, pollsters tell us that most Americans and Europeans are responding to the whole story with a giant "so what?"

In truth, the PRISM revelations are what Donald Rumsfeld might have called an unknown known: something we simply pretend we don't know.

Firstly, anyone who bothers to read newspapers – or history books – will know about ECHELON, a massive US-sponsored sigint program. PRISM, from what we know, simply moves ECHELON into the Google era. It's ECHELON 2.0. Anyone who has ever watched an episode of “Spooks” (that's “MI:5” to American viewers) will have cheered as the good spies casually tap into phone records in order to prevent a terrorist attack with just seconds to spare. Convincing those same viewers to be outraged that real-life spies do roughly the same thing, albeit apparently with more oversight, is a nonstarter.

And anyway, it's not like most Internet users bother to hide who they're communicating with. Today's narcissistic culture positively encourages us to bare all in public, online and off. Confessing our deepest thoughts, darkest emotions and tawdry personal tragedies is not only what passes for journalism these days, it's also what passes for light entertainment on TV and something to do on Facebook when we're bored at work. That doesn't make it OK for the government to collect and sort this information, but it'd be a hell of a lot harder for them to do it if we all just shut up a bit.