It’s good to be the king, but it’s better to be a billionaire

Via Marcus Ranum, I read this report about Mark Zuckerberg writing on his Facebook page that he had called president Obama to complain about the way that the NSA’s activities have harmed the internet and thus companies like his.

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg says he has complained directly to President Obama that he’s “confused and frustrated” by reports of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on the Internet.

“The US government should be the champion for the internet, not a threat. They need to be much more transparent about what they’re doing, or otherwise people will believe the worst,” wrote Zuckerberg.

After noting that he’d called the commander in chief personally to express these opinions, the social media billionaire added that he’s not optimistic he’ll get quick action.

So what made Zuckerberg get into such a snit that he called up the president of the US and apparently give him an earful the way that only a billionaire can? Apparently it was the story in The Intercept by Ryan Gallagher and Glenn Greenwald that said that the NSA impersonated Facebook servers in order to implant malware in the computers of people, an act that threatens Facebook’s very business model since it claims to guard its customers’ privacy.

While ordinary people cannot get the president on the phone, a billionaire can not only speak to him, he can get action too, unlike mere reporters. Ryan Gallagher has a follow-up article in which he says that while the NSA refused to even respond to their queries before they published their article, following Zuckerberg’s complaint, the NSA suddenly issued a statement ‘denying’ the charges.

As Gallagher says:

In response, the NSA has attempted to quell the backlash by putting out a public statement dismissing what it called “inaccurate” media reports. The agency denied that it was “impersonating U.S. social media or other websites” and said that it had not “infected millions of computers around the world with malware.” The statement follows a trend that has repeatedly been seen in the aftermath of major disclosures from documents turned over by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, in which the NSA or one of its implicated allies issues a carefully worded non-denial denial that on the face of it seems to refute an allegation but on closer inspection does not refute it at all.

But as is the case in this post-Snowden world, the reporters had actual documentation proving that these ‘denials’ were the usual government attempts designed to deceive. Gallagher then reproduces actual NSA documents that say that the NSA actually did do what they now deny doing.

It is difficult to square the NSA secretly saying that it “pretends to be the Facebook server” while publicly claiming that it “does not use its technical capabilities to impersonate U.S. company websites.” Is the agency making a devious and unstated distinction in its denial between “websites” and “servers”? Was it deliberate that the agency used the present tense “does not” in its denial as opposed to the past tense “did not”? Has the Facebook QUANTUMHAND technique been shut down since our report? Either way, the language used in the NSA’s public statement seems highly misleading – which is why several tech writers have rightly treated it with skepticism.

The same is true of the NSA’s denial that it has not “infected millions of computers around the world with malware” as part of its hacking efforts. Our report never actually accused the NSA of having achieved that milestone. Again, we reported exactly what the NSA’s own documents say: that the NSA is working to “aggressively scale” its computer hacking missions and has built a system called TURBINE that it explicitly states will “allow the current implant network to scale to large size (millions of implants).” Only a decade ago, the number of implants deployed by the NSA was in the hundreds, according to the Snowden files. But the agency now reportedly manages a network of between 85,000 and 100,000 implants in computers systems worldwide – and, if TURBINE’s capabilities and the NSA’s own documents are anything to go by, it is intent on substantially increasing those numbers.

It used to be the case that when the press, based on its sources, accused the government of some wrongdoing, they would deny all accusations and all that reporters could say in response was that they stood by their story. We would have essentially a standoff. One of the biggest consequences in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations is that we now have solid proof in the form of actual internal documents of how the government brazenly lies by saying things that seem to imply one thing while actually doing the opposite.

The government does not seem to have cottoned on to the fact that non-denial denials don’t work anymore, at least as far as its global spying network is concerned. They should try telling the truth for a change.

I wonder how many irate phone calls from tech sector billionaires it will take for president Obama to realize that this culture of spying and lying has to change.


  1. colnago80 says

    The big question is whether Zuckerberg is a major Democratic contributor. If he isn’t, he is probably correct that his complaint will not be treated seriously. If he is, he may expect to get at least some lip service and possibly even some action. Money talks and bullshit walks.

  2. doublereed says

    The NSA needs to start firing people until they stop lying like this. The only way this is going to change is by putting people’s heads on pikes, metaphorically speaking.

    The NSA needs to be trustworthy. If it’s not trustworthy, then it may as well not exist. This kind of lying undermines it’s whole existence and threatens national security.

  3. says

    I just think it’s funny when the US’ agents abroad talk about “democracy” when the US is obviously a corporate oligarchy. Now that Zuckerberg is a billionaire he’s not just a kid who built a website – he’s apparently a policy-maker and influencer. In the same way that someone who does a good job on “dancing with the whatever” has an important and useful opinion about vaccine safety. It’s just incredibly stupid – except for the parts that are disgustingly corrupt.

  4. invivoMark says

    When Zuckerberg is telling you that you need to be more transparent and more careful with people’s privacy, you’ve gone WAY too far!

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