We haven’t checked back in on developments in the NSA mass surveillance story in several months, and while fewer new revelations have come to light, plenty has been happening (for our last edition, see “Keeping Up with the Snoops 4: When the Going Gets Weird…,” 13 March 2014).
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the first published leaks about NSA mass surveillance, and a number of organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google, Twitter, Dropbox, Amnesty International, and the ACLU banded together for Reset the Net, a campaign to promote privacy tools to thwart mass surveillance. Reset the Net offers “privacy packs” — listings of privacy apps — for many platforms, including Mac OS X and iOS. The tools include ChatSecure, Cryptocat, and Adium for encrypted chats, and Tor for encrypted Web browsing. However, be wary that using Tor might cause you to be blacklisted from some media streaming sites (see “Why I Was Banned from WATCH ABC and Hulu,” 13 March 2014).
If, even after reading all of these “Keeping Up with the Snoops” columns, you’re having trouble wrapping your head around the entire situation, I recommend journalist Glenn Greenwald’s “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.” The book starts as a spy thriller, documenting his account of meeting Snowden in Hong Kong and how they navigated publishing the initial documents in The Guardian. Then, Greenwald summarizes the NSA’s covert surveillance programs, explains why he thinks they’re harmful (and makes a strong case that the government is indeed using them for economic gain), and in the final chapter, lambasts the mainstream media for not doing a better job of being a check on government power.
Around the same time that Greenwald’s book was published, Edward Snowden sat down with NBC’s Brian Williams for an interview about his motives and beliefs. NBC has posted the 40-minute interview on its Web site, in six parts.
Unsurprisingly, the interview sparked another clash between Snowden and the NSA. In it, Snowden claimed that he brought up his concerns about mass surveillance with NSA leadership several times before leaking classified documents. In response, the NSA released an email message from Snowden, dated 8 April 2013, asking if executive orders have the same legal footing as legislation, which the NSA claims proves that he was not raising concerns. Snowden responded that the NSA isn’t releasing everything, and that many of his complaints were made in person. We may never know the whole story of Snowden’s actions inside the NSA.
Meanwhile, Snowden has found a new life in exile as a robot, traveling the world for public appearances, thanks to telepresence robots like the $16,000 Beam Pro. In some ways, the future is even stranger than we imagined.
If you just want to catch up on the NSA revelations, the EFF has posted “65 Things We Know About NSA Surveillance That We Didn’t Know a Year Ago,” which neatly lists the revelations, with links to the original sources. WNYC has a similar list outlining what we now know the NSA can do, accompanied by a pair of interviews with Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris.
Although irrelevant in the debate over government mass surveillance, Snowden’s character is often debated between those opposed to and those in favor of the NSA’s programs. On that front, the new director of the NSA said, rather surprisingly, that Snowden is “probably not” a foreign spy. Another surprise defender of Snowden is former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who said at the Southland conference:
He clearly violated the law (so) you can’t say OK what he did is all right. It is not.
But what he revealed in the course of violating important laws included violations of the Constitution that were way more serious than the crimes he committed. In the course of violating important laws he also provided an important service because we did need to know how far this has gone.
This is a threat to the heart of democracy. Democracy is among other things a state of mind. If any of us are put in a position where we have to self-censor, and think twice about what we write in an email, or what we click on for fear that somebody reading a record of this may misunderstand why we looked up some disease or something, some young people who might otherwise get help with a medical condition, might think oh my gosh if I put down a search for bipolar illness I will be stigmatized if my online file is hacked or accessed by my employer. That kills democracy.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, at least in part, when it declared in United States vs. Davis that it is unconstitutional for law enforcement agencies to track a person’s location without a warrant — a ruling that could influence future cases involving warrantless metadata collection. And in case you’re curious as to what can be learned from you via metadata, NPR reporter Steve Henn volunteered to be tracked with an Internet router called the Pwn Plug for a little over a week. From the information leaked from his iPhone, his monitors could deduce his identity and even the sources he was talking to for a story. (Thanks to reader John Burt for pointing out NPR’s experiment to us.)
But do most people even care? Motherboard’s Jason Koebler points to resistance from the White House and watered-down legislation from Congress, and argues that the American people are apathetic about mass surveillance. “Now, a year out, Snowden is a cheerleader, not a whistleblower. He’s a well-spoken, persistent one, but it very well may turn out that Americans, as a whole, feel like they have better things to worry about than their privacy. So far, a year later, the USS Status Quo — with the majority of America and its elected officials aboard — is barreling forward, full steam ahead,” Koebler argues.
Regardless of what most people think, the tech industry is far from apathetic. Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and other tech CEOs have written an open letter to the U.S. Senate, asking for a stronger version of the USA Freedom Act, which seeks to “rein in the dragnet collection of data by the National Security Agency (NSA) and other government agencies, increase transparency of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), provide businesses the ability to release information regarding FISA requests, and create an independent constitutional advocate to argue cases before the FISC.” One version has passed the House of Representatives, but it contains loopholes that would still allow the mass collection of phone records.
Of course, these mass surveillance revelations stand to hurt the tech world more than any other field. That the NSA intercepted Cisco routers to install monitoring devices harms international trust in American technology, and philosophical objections aside, that affects the bottom line.
Speaking of technology, it appears that the NSA has problems of its own with storing and tracking collected information. In the long-running court case, Jewel vs. NSA, the NSA has been ignoring court orders to retain evidence. After Judge Jeffrey S. White issued an emergency restraining order to stop the NSA from destroying files, the NSA countered that retaining the evidence posed “complex technical and operational issues.” The judge later revoked the restraining order, pending further information.
The pace of surveillance-related news may have slowed down, but it’s clear that the ripples from Snowden’s actions won’t be fading away any time soon. And that’s a good thing, since it helps keep the conversations going. There may be no easy answers, but with discussion, we stand a better chance of arriving at the hard answers.