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Mar 22 2014

Punch-drunk NSA

As the Snowden hits keep coming, the NSA seems to be flailing around like a punch-drunk boxer, aiming at random. For example, Dan Froomkin at The Intercept reports on the bizarre reaction by Robert Litt, general counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, when asked by top news editors to show exactly what damage had been caused by the Edward Snowden revelations.

He could not point to anything specific but said that whistleblowers are like drunk drivers and we should condemn them even if they have not actually caused any harm.

“We ban drunk driving in this country,” Litt asserted, arguing on a panel with four top news editors that not every crime has an identifiable victim.

Litt made the same argument earlier this week, at an event in Washington for Sunshine Week: ”Not every drunk driver causes a fatal accident, but we ban drunk driving because it increases the risk of accidents. In the same way, we classify information because of the risk of harm, even if no harm actually can be shown in the end from any particular disclosure.”

But Litt’s analogy did not go over well with the other members of the panel on Friday. New Yorker editor David Remnick fired back, incredulously: “Is journalism drunk driving??”

Remnick said that by Litt’s logic, any reporting on leaked material would cause damage. “Your balance is we do nothing,” he said.

According to Froomkin, Litt’s adversarial, aggressive, and even menacing tone towards the press seemed to be alienating even the top members of the establishment press that he should have been trying to court.

Earlier we had the unusual situation in which the general counsel for the NSA publicly accused the heads of the large internet tech companies of being complicit in the mass spying programs, after they had gone to great pains to claim that it was done behind their backs. The reason for the latter’s discomfort is, of course, money. Charges of complicity with the NSA have the potential to seriously damage these companies’ business model. Is it little wonder that the heads of these companies are trying to publicly distance themselves from the government’s actions?

As a result of the annoyed tech leaders publicly defending themselves by criticizing the whole spying program, president Obama had to convene a closed-door meeting at the White House to try and mend fences because when billionaires get upset, the government rushes to try and mollify them.

Leaders of high-tech companies, including Google and Facebook, descended on the White House Friday for a meeting with President Obama on the subject of privacy. The meeting itself was private. But aides say Obama wanted to hear from the CEOs about their concerns with the government’s high-tech surveillance.

High-tech CEOs are not the obvious messengers to be delivering a privacy lecture to the government. After all, they make their money by scanning customers’ emails and tracking their movements, all with the goal of serving up more targeted ads. Just a few years ago, Google’s Eric Schmidt told an interviewer, “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

But Marc Rotenberg, who directs the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says the titans of Silicon Valley have suddenly gotten religion.

“The Internet leaders who might have said a few years ago that privacy is a thing of the past, today they’re at the White House telling the president we need to find a way to protect privacy. And that’s a remarkable turn of events,” he said.

What changed, of course, is the revelation by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of just how widespread the government’s snooping has been, often with the help, knowingly or unknowingly, of those same high-tech companies.

“Mr. Snowden has done more to raise the level of public awareness about privacy issues than probably anyone else I can think of,” Rotenberg said.

The NSA has already been condemned in the court of public opinion for so many illegalities and invasions of privacy that that anger threatens to spill over onto the tech companies, which is what these CEOs fear.

“It’s really an area on which you do find common ground between conservatives and liberals. Consistently across these polls, liberals and conservatives are expressing the most concern about it whereas people in the middle of the electorate are somewhat less concerned,” [Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center] said.

Disapproval of government surveillance is strongest among people under the age of 30. While this generation shows little reluctance to document their every movement on electronic devices, Doherty says they don’t like the government looking over their shoulder.

The NSA should realize that their best strategy for rehabilitating their reputation with the general public would be to lie low and discreetly mend fences with the elites in business and the media, not publicly feuding with the very people whom they should be trying to get on their side.

Who knew that a single whistleblower could have the massive government spying system on the ropes like this?

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Marcus Ranum

    I’m sure they’re genuinely shocked that there’s any push-back. After all, they didn’t mind doing what they were doing, why would anyone mind having it done to them?

  2. 2
    One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login

    the general counsel for the NSA publicly accused the heads of the large internet tech companies of being complicit in the mass spying programs, after they had gone to great pains to claim that it was done behind their backs.

    This is correct, and I don’t think you give it proper weight when you characterize it as

    …the heads of these companies are trying to publicly distance themselves from the government’s actions…

    When the Snowden storm first broke, the heads of the big internet companies made strong explicit claims of innocence. Now,

    Rajesh De, the NSA general counsel, said all communications content and associated metadata harvested by the NSA under a 2008 surveillance law occurred with the knowledge of the companies – both for the internet collection program known as Prism and for the so-called “upstream” collection of communications moving across the internet.

    It would be hard to parse or spin this contradiction into any kind of agreement. The companies were not “distancing themselves” but making strong clear claims of not knowing. And it was technically feasible that the “upstream” data collection at the concentration points outside of, for example, Google’s servers, could have been done without corporate knowledge — so the claims by Google, Facebook, Microsoft et.al. were credible. But the flat contradiction by Mr. De set up the situation where either the NSA is lying, or every major internet company lied to the public in concert.

    What was astonishing about Mr. De’s statement was that it could not be helpful to the NSA, whether true or not. It just seems like petulance, “oh they did so know about it.” It would have been better for the NSA to have said nothing or even to have said, “yes, our incredible technology-fu is such that we could tap all of Google and Facebook in secret with Yahoo for a palate-cleanser.”

    Why? Because to be thrown under the bus in this way cannot be acceptable by those companies, whether they lied or not. Any possible future relationship between the NSA and a tech company will be poisoned by this. Those CEOs and their PR people will not forget how the NSA was so casually willing to make them look bad. Any future requests for cooperation will be viewed in this light: when the going gets tough, we know who will take the fall, and it won’t be you guys in gray suits, will it?

    Google has moved to make all Gmail transfers encrypted (HTTPS) and all the big players have begun encrypting the lines between their data centers. Angry nerds are bad enemies, and they hold grudges well.

  3. 3
    doublereed

    Once again, the NSA needs to start firing people. Incompetence of this magnitude needs to be dealt with harshly. All this dishonesty and secrecy undermines national security.

  4. 4
    Arlyn Lichthardt

    Marcus, good post except the I don’t think that the NSA should “lie low”. Fessing up, then returning to procedures that abide by the rule of law with complete transparency, i.e., let us know in no uncertain terms. Not only don’t the NSA people know how to deal with the public who pays for their very existence — until now, they never had to –, but they are clearly lazy and somewhat less than completely competent: take the haystack, then find the needle! It’s illegal and unmanageable!

  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    they are clearly lazy and somewhat less than completely competent

    At many levels. NSA used to be an IT-powerhouse back in the mid 80s (disclaimer: I worked on some projects for them, but was never cleared) Now they are a typical gov’t shop: everything is done by consultants and the govvies are pretty much able to read powerpoint presentations and that’s as far as their IT expertise goes. That’d be how Snowden was able to do what he did without anyone at NSA apparently having system logs that showed what he accessed and when and how – it sounds like the systems were apparently built by complete amateurs. … In fact a lot of it sounds just as you say: they’re throwing money at it like drunken sailors on leave. But they have no idea how it’s all going to work; it’s a bunch of redundant and competing programs and it’s gotta be pretty damn complicated even to mismanage it well.

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