One catch for most people in dealing with the two major stories of the government’s sweeping capturing of telephone records and internet activity is trying to understand its significance. If you are like me and not particularly tech-savvy, the question we cannot really answer is what were they actually doing and how bad it was. We have seen many supporters of the national security state trying to pooh-pooh the revelations as no big deal and some may be persuaded by those arguments.
In the case of the phone records, the government says that they were collecting only the metadata, all the information about the message itself, apart from its actual contents. This seems to have reassured some people who think that as long as the contents of the message are not being listened to, the invasion of privacy is not that great. But Jane Mayer, the New Yorker‘s excellent reporter on national security issues, says that metadata reveals incredible amounts of information, far more than we think, that makes the actual conversations almost superfluous.
And I just want to say, on this question of metadata, which means just the outside of the calls, who you call, for how long, I interviewed someone named Susan Landau(ph) this week, who is an engineer with Sun Microsystems, or she used to be. And she’s an expert in this area of privacy and computers. And she says, people don’t understand metadata is incredibly invasive and revealing.
You don’t need to know the content if you can look at everybody who someone has called. You can figure out a pattern. They can tell if they called their doctor. You can see if there’s a corporate takeover. You can see if there are opponents of the government meeting someplace.
In the case of the government obtaining a ‘back door’ into the servers of the major internet companies (and I am pretty sure that the companies left that door unlocked, despite their denials), some people may be tempted to shrug and say that this kind of snooping goes on all the time with private companies and that there is nothing new here. So what’s the big deal with the government knowing as much about us as Google? Isn’t the age of privacy dead and those who are outraged by these new revelations simply romantics yearning for a bygone age that won’t return?
Hence this sentence at the bottom of the orginal story on the tapping into internet servers on the motive of the person who leaked information was quite revealing.
Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.
If jaded intelligence types can feel ‘horror’ at what the government is capable of now doing, that is not a good sign. Barton Gellman, one of the reporters, says in a fascinating interview that his whistleblowing source expects to be revealed and punished and is braced to face the harsh consequences but thinks it was worth it, because he is acting out of conscience. Of course such people are the ones the government seeks to punish most severely. Gellman also describes how the internet companies are using weasel language to avoid being seen as complicit with the government.
Incidentally the other person reporting this story with Gellman for the Washington Post is documentarian Laura Poitras who as I have written before has been repeatedly harassed by the DHS and has to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the government from prying into her affairs, to the extent that she says she now feels safer working in other countries rather than the land of the free.