A reader writes:
Okay, I really don’t understand. Mike Bloomberg wants to regulate smoking and guns and soft drinks and you rail about how “the man just despises freedom.” Yet when the NSA is revealed to be invading communications records on a massive scale and says “trust us, we’re not actually listening to the content,” you’re content to stand by and yawn. Answer me this: Which is the more basic, existential threat to individual liberty: the right to smoke cancer sticks and buy a Big Gulp whenever and wherever, or the right to have some semblance of privacy when communicating with other people? A quick skim of the Constitution makes it pretty clear which of those would have attracted the interest of its authors.
More interesting to me than the much-publicized phone-metadata aspect of PRISM is the way it allows the NSA virtually unlimited access to anything you have done on the Internet. Gizmodo’s explanation of the program is terrifying:
When the NSA monitors phone records, it reportedly only collects the metadata therein. That includes to and from whom the calls were made, where the calls came from, and other generalized info. Importantly, as far as we know, the actual content of the calls was off-limits.
By contrast, PRISM apparently allows full access not just to the fact that an email or chat was sent, but also the contents of those emails and chats. According to the Washington Post’s source, they can “literally watch you as you type.” They could be doing it right now.
In any context other than this, a backdoor into your computer that allowed someone else to view this kind of data would be considered a computer virus, and the person doing it would most likely be a hacker interested in stealing your identity. The government regularly sends people to lengthy prison sentences for doing that. In the wake of the IRS scandal, which we are told was the work of a few rogue government employees, who’s to say that a few “overzealous” NSA employees aren’t reading things they’re not supposed to read?
Yes, today they tell us the content isn’t being viewed, but the key factor is that it CAN be viewed. At any time. And we wouldn’t know.
It seems foolhardy that we are supposed to just let that possibility sit out there and pray we don’t end up with another Nixon Administration willing to turn the nation’s intelligence apparatus against its own citizens for political gain.
I voted for President Obama, and I worked for his campaign. I had hoped that he would reverse the Bush Administration’s record on pushing the envelope towards much more government intrusion into private communications. I had hoped President Obama would realize that the government declaring its own citizens to be legitimate targets of incredibly broad surveillance power is one of the hallmarks of a banana republic. To see the president not only defend these programs, but viciously assail the people who have brought it out into the open for a little disinfecting sunlight, makes me incredibly sad. “Openness and transparency” has become a cover for the administration that is completely okay with giving itself the power to literally read my email with not the slightest fig leaf of due process of law.
If you still think Mike Bloomberg is the biggest threat to freedom around, you need help.
As I understand it – and one of the good things about the leak is that it helps us understand all this better – the feds would have to go to a FISA court to pursue any specific content of an email. Another reader:
Handing over custody of this information BEFORE anyone is suspected of being up to no good? How could you possibly believe it’s not been abused, Andrew? Wake up! Based on our history, we should assume there is a 100% chance some lackey with access to this database had some fun and made a map of some famous person’s whereabouts for no reason other than that he could. Then he found out some leading man in Hollywood frequents a gay club and chuckled. Of course he only told his fellow co-workers who also have clearance, so no harm no foul right? This is what happens in bureaucracies. And by definition the opportunity for abuse holds doubly so for a secret program.
So we leave this kind of information to private entities alone? As long as you’re clear about what you’re doing and will not complain about the government next time a Tsarnaev sets off a bomb, fine. Another lays out other scenarios:
The NSA data that was collected is basically a discrimination and blackmail nuclear bomb waiting to go off. With it you could determine if a closeted gay politician secretly called a gay lover or visited a gay porn website. You could determine if a judge or politician was having an affair by scrutinizing their credit card purchases and phone calls (with GPS coordinates). You could determine if a rival businessman was talking with competitors, giving you a business advantage. You could blackmail government employees in a way that makes the Valerie Plame affair look like child’s play. And you could track political enemies and determine the composition and funding of all opposing PACs. The DOJ could mine data to start criminal investigations even though people were under no suspicion of a crime.
The data is all there, which is why the NSA wanted it for terrorism first. Will it stop there? News reports indicate that it is being shared with the UK. But since there is now the infrastructure in most major technology companies to spy on their users, could this data somehow make its way to organized crime or China? If so, then the entire US political system could be blackmailed (the nuclear bomb that I mentioned).
This is not a joke. You need to take this seriously and ignore the half-assed responses by Obama.
Another sends the above video:
I’ve been reading your blog since 2003. This is the first email I have ever felt I needed to send to you. When you broke off from the Daily Beast and added a subscription service I joined on day one. But I believe your friendship with President Obama is clouding your judgment on the NSA whistleblower case.
You have yet to point out how disingenuous it is of the president to come forward after the fact to say he now welcomes this debate on privacy. Yet hasn’t his administration has done everything in its power to keep this information from the public? His prosecution of more whistleblowers than all other administrations combined is a pretty clear indication he doesn’t want transparency or accountability within the national security state. That in and of itself is a pretty damning story.
At the very least you could write about how this is a campaign promise broken by the president. The leak of NSA documents detailing an all encompassing database that organically builds profiles on every individual foreign and domestic is a fascinating story regardless of what side you come down on. I suspect you keep saying you are “not surprised” and “underwhelmed” so that you can ignore this story as much as possible as it develops. I really hope I am wrong.
The size and scope of the security state should be of real concern. This is not the first topic I have disagreed with you on but I will say it is the first time I have ever seen you handle something disingenuously. Never would you have given Bush so much rope.
Edward Snowden just threw his life away so that this information could be made public. It deserves a fair hearing. I think Obama 2007 would agree. And that to me is what it comes down to, Obama ran on transparency and on limiting these powers. That he changed his mind once he got into office isn’t the problem. The problem is that he kept that change of heart from the public. He violated our trust whem he continued to promote his administration as one championing transparency, accountability and the rule of law.
I did give Bush the same amount of rope – although obviously these technologies have accelerated and intensified since then. And I do believe that this program should be debated. But no, I don’t think it’s somehow a grotesque betrayal that a president actually has to weigh the balance between national security and non-surveillance and is not always completely on the side of non-surveillance. Sometimes you begin to think that the critics have no idea what it is to take charge of and shift a massive security bureaucracy toward a calmer, saner place after the over-reach after 9/11. I think I have some idea. You can’t just wipe the slate clean. It takes time. Some programs endure; others rightly wither. And of all the things Obama inherited from Bush in the national security infrastructure, analyzing haystacks for needles seems to me one of the least objectionable.
But as I said, I can live without it. I just think those who want it gone need to address the potential trade-off in security it might entail – and argue that it’s worth it.