Government eavesdropping hubbub

Since the NSA leaks a few weeks ago, government eavesdropping has been in the news daily. I've been talking with people about this quite a bit, but haven't posted anything to date. Today I'm summarizing a few things that I feel are important into a single post.

First, on the leaks themselves. Snowden broke the law in releasing classified information. However, he hasn't done anything that will fundamentally endanger anyone. He should be treated as a whistleblower, not as US enemy number 1.

Next, about the government programs. The question really comes down to whether these programs should be tolerated in the first place.

It's clear that "national security" is being used as a blanket of fear to ease us into greater and greater surveillance, and that the public is generally mislead on the extent of this invasion:

Thanks to the Guardian’s scoop, we now know definitively just how misleading these numbers are. You see, while the feds are required to disclose the number of orders they apply for and receive (almost always the same number, by the way), they aren’t required to say how many people are targeted in each order. So a single order issued to Verizon Business Solutions in April covered metadata for every phone call made by every customer. That’s from one order out of what will probably be about 200 reported in next year’s numbers.

We're also ramping up offensive capabilities against governments and organizations:

All of this mapping of vulnerabilities and keeping them secret for offensive use makes the Internet less secure, and these pretargeted, ready-to-unleash cyberweapons are destabilizing forces on international relationships. Rooting around other countries' networks, analyzing vulnerabilities, creating back doors, and leaving logic bombs could easily be construed as acts of war. And all it takes is one overachieving national leader for this all to tumble into actual war.

In 3 Questions About NSA Surveillance, the authors ask the following important questions:

  1. Why were the programs secret?
  2. What have the programs accomplished?
  3. How much do the programs cost?

I believe all of these questions are relevant, but most important is the first one. The secrecy of these programs accomplished nothing with respect to catching terrorists; it only served to avoid the kind of oversight that would likely curtail them. If the programs are not effective, they should be stopped; if they are, their secrecy still doesn't increase their effectiveness. They should not be classified.

In Why ‘I Have Nothing to Hide’ Is the Wrong Way to Think About Surveillance, the authors point out that:

  • We Won’t Always Know When We Have Something To Hide: you are very likely breaking laws you don't even know about, and that could be used against you in unexpected ways in the future.

  • We Should Have Something To Hide: the ability to break the law has been instrumental in achieving sweeping social change (think gay marriage); groups being unable to participate in social forums in an anonymous manner prevents the betterment of society in crucial ways.

But they are just collecting metadata, right? You should still care:

Context yields insights into who we are and the implicit, hidden relationships between us. A complete set of all the calling records for an entire country is therefore a record not just of how the phone is used, but, coupled with powerful software, of our importance to each other, our interests, values, and the various roles we play.

We need to understand the programs in order to decide whether we as a people think they are moral, ethical, and allowable. And we can't do that if their very existence is secretly hidden under the blanket claim of "national security". We need public discourse, not secret courts giving secret organizations permission to perform secret acts against secret targets.


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