Big Ears, Little Ears: One article, three layers of blown secrecy, and how Edward Snowden proves my point

Well, I haven’t had much time to write here for quite a while, but the Edward Snowden affair – and more specifically this piece in the Guardian – were such a terrific display of the Digital Water concept and “a world awash in data” that I couldn’t resist, despite my current schedule.  This story is kind of a delicious “triple play” on the concept.

I suppose before I dive in I should probably comment on using the word “delicious” in this context since I know there is an awful lot of outrage and shock on all sides of this debate.  Some are appalled by Snowden’s revelations, i.e. the supposed extent of the NSA’s electronic eavesdropping on everyone and everything including American citizens.  Others are appalled by Snowden’s actions and consider it nothing short of capital treason.  Those two viewpoints need not even be fundamentally in conflict – I’m sure there are folks out there who are both appalled by the NSA’s supposed activities and would like to see Snowden executed for treason.

I confess that, on the first point – the extent of the data collection and the agency’s capabilities – I myself am relatively unfazed. I’ve been in the Open Source Intelligence business for almost 15 years.  Given the shock many people express at what I could find out about them with nothing but a laptop at a Starbucks, I just can’t be wowed by what must be possible for a huge entity with a mania for secrecy, almost no oversight and an 11-digit budget.  The Echelon, or “Big Ear” controversy of the late 1990s(!) outed many of these supposed capabilities, and anyone who has even flipped through a James Bamford book would probably be slightly less bewildered at the ability (though perhaps not at the willingness) of NSA to do the things alleged. Anyway, wherever you stand on the particulars of the Snowden case, this article in the Guardian (which originally broke the story in an earlier piece) illustrates exactly the kind of world I have been trying to noodle over with this blog.  Here’s the “can’t anybody keep a secret any more?!” meme hat trick for this one little Web page.  Ready….

1. The NSA – The most obvious.  If you take him at his word, “The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards… The extent of their capabilities is horrifying.”  While we can argue the legal and moral issues, as a technological matter, this hardly should be a shocker given that we live in a world where your department store can tell when you’re pregnant (even if your parents can’t yet).   So – Level 1: John Q. Public can’t really keep a secret in the digital world.  Almost anything you say, send or type outside a locked, airtight room can be captured, analyzed and recorded if someone deems you interesting enough. 

2. Edward Snowden – So the NSA is, by its very nature, ultra-secretive, institutionally paranoid and famously tight lipped (Jim Bamford’s books notwithstanding). Yet every organization is made up of people, and like any group of the NSA’s estimated 40,000 employees, they will hold a diversity of views.  Now by all accounts to date, Snowden was a patriotic, smart kid who joined the Army Reserve and worked for the CIA.  He obviously had been scrutinized, checked out and picked apart.  You don’t get to play inside The Puzzle Palace if you’re an anti-government radical.  Yet what Snowden saw working as an NSA contractor motivated him to leak, speak, and flee the country.  Level 2?  For all the supposedly terrifying ability to spy that Snowden witnessed, one insider with a moral objection meant they couldn’t keep their secrets secret either.

3. The guys at the airport – My absolute favorite (and why I found this page so delicious).  So in this sometimes-bizarre corner of the world here inside the DC beltway, it is not at all uncommon for lots of people with plastic ID badges on lanyards to be overheard talking about the sorts of things that, in most of the country, would seem at home only in a Tom Clancy novel.  You can walk through certain shopping mall food courts at lunch  and hear phrases like “I’m cleared up the wazoo – TS-SCI with lifestyle poly plus some special stuff” or “sure, anybody can read a license plate from outer space, but we can do it at night!”.

Like cars in Lansing or Dearborn, surveillance and Intelligence and secret-squirrel military programs are just kind of the local business, and this is a factory town.  A lot of people here take this stuff veeeery seriously.  So it is not entirely remarkable when the guys at the bottom of the page opine that Snowden, that dirty, rotten, no-good treasonous so-and-so ought to be “disappeared”.  The part I love so much was the extreme low-tech surveillance system that outed their conversation.  They said it out loud and in public, and a “Little Ear” (you know, the biological one attached to the guy sitting across from them) in the airport captured it.  He then used a few hundred bucks worth of smartphone to record part of the conversation and Tweeted about it to the whole world.

So-   Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?   Apparently any employee with a conscience or every jackass with a cell phone.  I think that’s probably reassuring, but I have to think some more about it.  The world really is full of dangerous people who hate us.  Meanwhile – my own personal take on the Snowden thing?  (I’m speaking technologically here, I leave the constitutional and legal questions for others to debate.)  IF you matter enough to someone, there are no secrets.  Most of us just enjoy security through obscurity.  The only reason our privacy is safe for most of us is we’re utterly uninteresting.  You may not like it, but information and technology are inextricably linked.  The capability to do what NSA does can’t be uninvented.  We can do it… so can other countries. We can only decide as a society whether we can strike the appropriate balance between protecting ourselves from those without and those within.

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