Herewith a couple of links to help get our minds around this revelation from Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been tracking call metadata and likely a ton of other stuff.
First,Curt Monash is a Big Data consultant who also thinks clearly about what's called in the industry "privacy." He provides an excellent summary of what we know from a technical standpoint. And also this, for those late to the party: "With one major exception, the news has just confirmed what was already thought or known."
That is not speaking as a professional paranoid, by the way. Those of us who do this for a living have lived in the shadow of TIA since before 2001. (Note of interest: tia is Spanish for Aunt. Perhaps we should be talking about "Auntie" looking over our shoulders.) Most people would be outraged to discover just what we can learn about them, for a small fee or with the right skills. (It doesn't even take talent anymore.) Whether they should be outraged or not is a question we need to explore: We made fun of people a couple of years ago for thinking the Census was a danger to liberty, and we consistently make fun of people for suspecting there's more to the dumping of heavy metals in the municipal water supply than just dental health. I'm sure there were people who thought the publication and mass distribution of phone books was also an unwarranted invasion of privacy. And maybe there's something to that.
But let's have a grown-up conversation about this, which involves more than worrying about the government prying into my secrets. Because when all is said and done, the NSA asked for the data from Verizon because of the investigation into the Boston marathon bombing, and got it for a limited time. They are, legally, required to delete the data. But the legal entity Verizon has this data and much much more and can, with limited legal sanction (and even then the sanction would be minor and come only after years of costly wrangling), give it to whoever the hell they want whenever they want without telling me or any other customer, on virtually any pretense, at any price they want, which price - it could be for free - is largely opaque to any of us. And moreover there's a larger number of people inside Verizon with access to this data than there are at the NSA.
So yeah: beware the Tuttle/Buttle scenario, whether it happens at the government or a telco.
Second,John Thune (R-Clueless) says most of Congress didn't know the NSA programs were so broad. So that's good news for Snowden, the whistleblower. I look forward to broad bipartisan support for Congress giving him a medal.
Third,This blog came to be because of Charles Pierce, and also Billmon, who wrote Whiskey Bar until he got tired of the five-thousand word essay. I try to write like Pierce but often end up looking like Billmon, and maybe someday I'll get halfway to either.
Billmon microblogs on Twitter. He pointed this out this morning:
Ex #NSA director: Snowden leak terrible because ““It puts American companies at risk internationally..” thebea.st/190tlxQSo just keep that in mind: someone on the team is going to take a hit here, and its not Snowden or your privacy. We rarely think of the real victims of whistleblowing, which is the people just following orders.
— billmon (@billmon1) June 10, 2013
Inside the Beltway even people as smart as Josh Marshall are now concerned with whether you'd want to have a beer with Snowden. Also that its one thing for the crushing weight of the American military to come down on non-citizens, but on citizens? Why, that's something no Roman can accept.
I find this a fascinating development. Pierce makes some comment about how melodramatic Snowden is when he talks about the possibility the CIA might hire the Triads to kill him, which is all the more reason to go public. There's a lot of inside-baseball about how ego-driven this all is for Glenn Greenwald and Snowden, how they seem to believe they're in a spy novel, how much Greenwald whines.
Gosh I guess they're just not as spiffy as Dan Ellsberg. Although I suspect that other things being equal many of these same people would also feel the need to tweet out something they got on deep background about how Ellsberg was a mentally-ill megalomaniac.
And not to put to fine a point on it, but the last two guys to run afoul of the national security state in the US, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, have not exactly been arguing it out with Rachel Maddow live from their beachfront condos. Manning has been in solitary confinement for more than three years now. Assange has taken refuge in a corner of the Ecuadoran embassy because suddenly every country in the OECD is concerned about allegations he committed date rape with two women at the same time.
So if no one knows who Snowden is, he can be killed and everyone makes fun of Greenwald forever because its just like that time Geraldo opened Al Capone's safe. But now he just risks being thrown into prison incommunicado and without trial forever while the CIA tries out various truth serums on him. Yeah, don't be melodramatic Ed.
There's a case to be made for people who commit acts of civil disobedience being prepared and conscious of the fact that they need to suffer the consequences. I believe that something Ghandi, King and Thoreau all make clear. But do we need to kick the civil disobedients too? I can understand the Bull Connors or the Robert Muellers going after these people with the full force of the law, but the rest of us too?
If you want to kick in for Snowden's sure-to-be-enormous legal bills, you can do so here.
Update:There's a lot of back-and-forth about the idea that the NSA is reading email or listening to phone calls. They may or may not be doing either of those things at any given time, but the content of your communications typically have both fourth and first amendment protections.
What they are doing, and happily, is looking at the metadata, which does not have content. Metadata is not protected. Maybe it should be, maybe it could never be. Kieran Healy has an explanation of how this works, using for example one Paul Revere, as suspicious a fellow, if Kieran is to be believed, as there is.
Remember that scene at the beginning of the Godfather, where the FBI is taking photos of the license plates of the cars parked outside the Corleone estate during Connie's wedding? Those license plates and the houses they came from and the fact that they're at the Don's daughter's wedding are metadata. The FBI isn't allowed to plant a listening device inside the wedding without probable cause. They are, however, allowed to track the metadata without having your permission or the permission of your legal representatives.