NSA whistleblower comes forward

Whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, helpfully superimposed on Hong Kong by the internet

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, helpfully superimposed on Hong Kong by the internet

At his request, The Guardian has reported the identity of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed last week that, among other surveillance activities, the US government keeps phone logs of millions of Verizon customers. It also logs customers of AT&T, Sprint and Nextel, and collects “metadata” from Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL and YouTube. As soon as a MetroPCS user successfully completes a call, the NSA will write that down, too. It’s kind of disturbing, but what is perhaps most disturbing is that, now that its secret domestic surveillance program has been revealed, the executive branch has no intention of shutting it down. In the context, Snowden’s decision to out himself is very interesting.

As of this writing, Snowden is in either a ski mask with the eyes sewn shut or Hong Kong. He chose that island protectorate because it enjoys strong protections for the press and a healthy tradition of political dissent, but defers to Beijing in its foreign policy. If there is one country willing to defy the US government but not willing to dissolve your body in acid to get your cell phone—ahem, Russia—it’s China.

Snowden does not want to be extradited. Why, then, did he reveal his own identity? Given his situation, two reasons seem plausible:

  1. He believes the NSA will figure out it was him anyway.
  2. He does not want to be killed.

Item (1) seems a little farfetched. In order to determine which NSA employee leaked information to The Guardian, the US government would need to survey the phone records, emails and credit card histories of virtually every American—oh. Okay, they can do that. As of this writing, the same people who thought the Sacajawea dollar would catch like wildfire know everyone you call, email, or give money to, plus many of your favorite cat videos. Still, Snowden is surely a little paranoid about the being killed part, right? For example, he said this:

Yes, I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads. Any of their agents or assets.

I want to believe that the Triads are after me as much as anyone else does, but it’s still kind of a dog whistle for insanity. The CIA isn’t in the habit of kidnapping and torturing people, and even when they do, it’s never an innocent—oh. Okay, so American intelligence services do kidnap and torture people, and they do log all the phone calls and email communications of virtually everyone in the United States. But they wouldn’t do it in a way that’s, you know, bad. Would they?

That’s the big question at the heart of all this, of course. By making himself a public figure who is publicly in Hong Kong, Snowden has made it difficult for the US government to secretly kill him. The executive branch has to either let him go or publicly extradite and punish him—something they will have a hard time doing if this massive, secret surveillance program really isn’t supposed to be a big deal.

The eerie genius of the Obama administration’s response to this leak thus far lies in its nonchalance. Even though PRISM and phone records collections were top secret, the executive branch has met their exposure with bored exasperation. It’s really not a big deal, according to the President. Yet it is a big deal, both for its Constitutional implications and for the glaring problem that it was actively kept secret from the American people.

You can pretend that your secret wasn’t a big deal by acting like it wasn’t a big deal that it was exposed. But killing the person who exposed it kind of gives the lie to your nonchalance. By making himself a known figure, Snowden has forced the American government to either make good on its spin by letting him go, or to show its hand by punishing the American who told the other Americans they were being spied upon.

It’s a smart move, in addition to being an incredibly brave one. I still can’t get my mind around the President’s apparent confidence in the assurance that the secret domestic spying program is for our own good. That shouldn’t settle the issue, and I can’t decide which terrifies me more: that Obama thinks it will, or that he might be right. Both the responsible anti-terrorist surveillance program and the repressive secret police tell you they’re doing it with your best interests at heart. But maybe only one of them kills the guy who told you they existed in the first place.


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  1. I think you also ignore option 3 – that he couldn’t stand to see the story get so big while he got no credit.

    I think it’s a probably good thing that he leaked this story. I think it’s a problem that the government is doing all this. I also think that there are any number of steps that he should have taken first (the DoD traditionally has a hotline you can call if you are having moral quandaries about a job you are doing for them) and his gut instinct to immediately go public tells you there is probably a self-aggrandizing streak to his actions.

    To go on a slight tangent, I think the whole situation gets even murkier when you realize that as fucked up as this data mining is, it is legal under the PATRIOT Act, so he leaked confidential information of a legal program, which absolutely tipped the US’s hand to the world. I don’t want the data mining to continue, but maybe the problem is the PATRIOT Act, and not the use of the provisions in the PATRIOT Act. When the SAT permits the use of calculators that can solve SAT math problems, it’s not the student’s fault when he uses his calculator. We should get Congress to outlaw this behavior, not get mad at the government that uses the power its citizenry foolishly gave it.

    Lastly, dude, when you have a serious problem with governmental monitoring, maybe don’t move to China.

  2. To clarify what I mean- the NSA’s mission is to protect the nation through monitoring data transmissions. When Congress passes a law that makes it way easier for the NSA to perform its mission, of course its gonna take advantage of it and I’m not sure I blame it. I remember a comment on this blog that I think was by Mothership or Mike B. (although I can’t swear to it) that it’s fine that a corporation’s sole goal is to make money for its investors but that is the exact reason a corporation should not be treated as a person in the eyes of the law. I think that logic applies here too. I don’t mind the NSA taking advantage of this opportunity. I think it’s awful that they were given the opportunity.

  3. Malcolm Gladwell’s next book should be Dread: What Fukishima and the NSA have to teach us about risk perception.

    The main theme will be the way people consistently get risks wrong, for instance, fantasizing about planes crashing or terrorism while blithely driving their cars on roads where other human-operated vehicles are driving. The point will be emphasized by Slovic’s research (http://www.uns.ethz.ch/edu/teach/0.pdf) which demonstrates that even college students get it wrong.

    It will be explained that the source of these deeply-seeded perceptions has to do with the ability to imagine something bad (dread). High school students are required to read Hiroshima, and many sci-fi stories involve radiation monsters. Radiation is a constant feature in post-apocalyptic fiction as well. A brief literature review of major American thought will highlight the constant warnings against tyranny, big government, and other evils, arguing that the ability to imagine these things happening at high resolution is crucial to mis-percieving risks related to centralized power and centralized information. The less some outcome can be imagined in detail the less risky it is; not true, but how the brain functions.

    The other factor contributing to these imagined evil outcomes is the unknown, or the lack of control people experience regarding tyranny or radiation. Whereas the causes of cancer are unknown, people will willingly and happily eat food they know increases their cholesteral. Similarly, people are ignorant of the way they routinely share information about their lives (even though it should be visible as fuck since Facebook). They, somehow, don’t know that a big centralized database is tracking every single transaction they make with a credit card, even though they casually, and without dread, discuss their credit scores. Where does that number come from? Who cares, NSA is getting data on who I called, which previously only Verizon had, and either way I’m powerless. The point will be made that people who consistently follow through on this fear of centralized information and power and choose not to participate in it are effectively crazies, like cabin-dwelling Ted Kaczynski. Everyone else expousing a fear but still using a credit card and cell phone is probably a hypocrite.

    The argument will be made that in order to progress as a society, risk perceptions need to be increasingly accurate; this is easily seen by going to bumfuck Kazakzstan where people toss salt over their shoulder to ward off evil spirits and ride their scooters without helmets. The conclusion will summarize the way Americans find it routinely sensible to warn each other of the grave dangers posed by big brother, even though it activates a fear-memory response which diminishes the ability to accurately percieve risk. It will be suggested that perhaps differentiating between big brother and data-enabled policy will be increasingly useful in the future, since data is not, like, going away.

    Unless there is a huge nuclear event which erases modern society, which is a sucker’s bet.

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