We’ve all seen the headlines or heard on the radio of the vast monitoring program that the CIA and NSA have been using to mine data on U.S. citizens as well as on people around the world. The media is, of course, sensationalizing this information and I think some people are getting a skewed idea of what is really happening. Is this a massive conspiracy? Did Edward Snowden commit treason? Or is he a valid whistle-blower? These are all questions that bring on debate. Here is my take on the situation.
First, I want to say that when it comes to the NSA, large-scale data mining on U.S. citizens is nothing new. In fact, back in 2006 they admitted to having a massive database of Americans’ phone calls (http://yahoo.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-05-10-nsa_x.htm) and even had set contracts with three of the major carriers to do so. Around this same time, Wired magazine published an article about a whistle-blower who saw a “secret room” tapped into the fiber backbones at AT&T. (http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2006/04/70619). The courts sealed that investigation from the public. At the time, and under scrutiny, Bush declared that these phone calls were only recorded if one end of the call was international. If you look even further back, this started in 1975, when it was revealed that the agency along with the CIA had been doing this for over 20 years, and without warrants. A few years later in 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was passed to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens. This mandated a secret court of 11 individuals to handle these requests according to the law when surveillance was used on U.S. citizens.
So lets all take a step back a little because the NSA and CIA data mining isn’t a new concept. But what has definitely evolved since then is HOW we communicate. The sheer amount of email and internet communication has almost tripled since 2006. Back then there were around 1 billion people using the internet for communication around the world. Fast forward to now and there is almost 3 billion (2.75 billion as per http://www.w3.org/). Factor in SMS messaging, video chat, voice over IP, and other forms of communication that traverse internet backbones and you have an unprecedented amount of data being passed on a daily basis. The NSA has had to evolve due to this growth, and it is evident in their building of the Utah Data Center (http://www.npr.org/2013/06/10/190160772/amid-data-controversy-nsa-builds-its-biggest-data-farm). While the actual data capacity and processing power of this data center is classified, it has been estimated to have the capability to store 100 years worth of worldwide communication, or around 5 zettabytes. To all you non-techies, 1 zettabyte is about the same amount of data that would fit on 250 billion DVDs.
So with this in mind, I bring some debatable points.
1. Data mining can be effective, but what about privacy? As much as we may not want to admit, data mining can work. Even Edward Snowden admitted to this in a sense, in that he thought the program can work, but that the American people should know or have a choice in the matter. In a world where the sheer amount of communication data is so massive, the only approach can be to gather as much data possible, and then when needed, pull the data that is suspect. The speed of internet communication is too fast to be able to do “on-the-spot” choices of where and when to initiate surveillance. I suspect that most times the communications they are looking for are ones they have already recorded and they are then able to pull the data in retrospect when it is part of an investigation. This really is the ONLY approach to data mining that works. The downside to this, and the debatable point is whether it’s right for them to keep the data on regular citizens like you and me. It’s also debatable from a personal privacy standpoint since the secrecy of the program prevents the public from knowing the details of how, when, and by whom it can be accessed. If the data is there, but never seen or accessed unless a FISA court agrees on it, what harm is it really doing to our privacy? While I’m a Libertarian and support full liberty under the constitution, we don’t really have enough information to judge on whether this seriously infringes on the 4th amendment. We also have to remember that these same people approving these programs know that they themselves are being monitored. Would they have issues with this program if they felt it violated their own and their family’s privacy?
2. Terrorists conceal their communications. It’s debatable that most terrorists are susceptible to this eavesdropping. I would take a guess and say that most terrorist organizations use encryption and methods of communication that are less susceptible to interception, while ordinary citizens who have nothing to hide would be most of what is mined. I really doubt the Taliban would discuss their operations over Gmail. With that said, we also really don’t know the capabilities of the NSA. The computing power and technology that they have is said to be way ahead of the times, so tasks like breaking large certificate keys and encryption could be easier for them than we know. We really don’t know their methods, but if I had to take a guess, I think for them to invest a massive amount of funds into intercepting world communication, they can probably use what they find, despite encryption and other methods of concealment.
3. What about false positives? This is a debate that has been going on for some time. The classic example is someone getting added to the “no-fly list” or having their assets frozen by DHS because they used a particular set of words during a harmless exchange over the internet. At another site, I saw an example in a comment by another user where he mentioned a 70-year-old man sending an email to his granddaughter about her birthday party while using a few combinations of words out of context that may have fallen into the NSA’s “filter”. If the government wants to mine all of our data, then I do agree that their methods need to be accurate. The NSA has not revealed any false positive percentages and the way Prism works is classified, so in a sense, we are trusting them to get it right. No system can be perfect, and privacy advocates claim that this could lead to false charges, associations, ties, or accusations.
4. Who owns your data? You? Your ISP? Google? These lines tend to be fuzzy these days. Technically, many people and organizations probably own your data, especially if you use services that are “in the cloud”. Every time you use a service you accept a “terms of service” agreement which usually has some really broad wording in it. Whether it’s marketing, demographics, or other reasons, you can be sure that many companies are using your data if they have it. They could also technically “own” it unless they have explicitly agreed on privacy terms that state otherwise. A general analogy could be made and compared to someone taking a video of people walking around in the public street. They record the faces of everyone walking by, but they still own the video, and can do with it what they choose. Could the same be said for the NSA tapping fiber optics? In a sense, they would not even be looking at the “video” unless it’s needed and approved by FISA court (according to them at least). As for the tech giants, they claim they have no knowledge or agreement with the NSA or even know what Prism is (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/07/prism-tech-giants-shock-nsa-data-mining). From The Guardian:
An Apple spokesman said: “We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers and any agency requesting customer data must get a court order,” he said.
To me, the question on whether the tech giants are involved is kind of a moot point, since it appears that the way the NSA is receiving this data is beyond any agreement or understanding of the companies who house it. It most likely is captured in transit or using other classified methods. It could also be said that if there was a secret partnership between the NSA and these companies, then a gag order or other NDA would have to be in place.
6. Is Edward Snowden a criminal? I really think the courts should decide this. While he violated terms of employment and agreements of confidentiality, and possibly risked national security, I think it’s debatable and should be proven how he in-fact endangered national security. I think he certainly has the potential to cause a national security issue, but from what has been revealed so far, it seems as if he has mainly just revealed that the system has potential for abuse, and is so vast that he felt the American public should know about it. Did he reveal something that we didn’t want terrorists to know, or is it more of something that we didn’t want the American public to know? These two reasons are different, but both could lead to problems with the program’s effectiveness. I don’t really feel like he should be classified the same as Bradley Manning, since he was very selective with what he revealed. This one should be left up to a jury.