Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Spying Game

MELBOURNE – Thanks to Edward Snowden, I now know that the US National Security Agency is spying on me. It uses Google, Facebook, Verizon, and other Internet and communications companies to collect vast amounts of digital information, no doubt including data about my emails, cellphone calls, and credit card usage.

I am not a United States citizen, so it’s all perfectly legal. And, even if I were a US citizen, it is possible that a lot of information about me would have been swept up anyway, though it may not have been the direct target of the surveillance operation.

Should I be outraged at this intrusion on my privacy? Has the world of George Orwell’s 1984 finally arrived, three decades late? Is Big Brother watching me?

I don’t feel outraged. Based on what I know so far, I don’t really care. No one is likely to be reading my emails or listening in on my Skype calls. The volume of digital information that the NSA gathers would make that an impossible task.

Instead, computer programs mine the data for patterns of suspicious activity that intelligence analysts hope will lead them to terrorists. The process is not all that different from the data collection and analysis that many corporations use to target their ads at us more effectively, or that give us the online search results that we are most likely to want.

The question is not what information a government, or business, gathers, but what they do with it. I would be outraged if there were evidence that – for example – the US government was using the private information that it scoops up to blackmail foreign politicians into serving US interests, or if such information were leaked to newspapers in an effort to smear critics of US policies. That would be a real scandal.

If, however, nothing of that sort has happened, and if there are effective safeguards in place to ensure that it does not happen, then the remaining question is whether this huge data-gathering effort really does protect us against terrorism, and whether we are getting value for money from it. The NSA claims that communications surveillance has prevented more than 50 terrorist attacks since 2001. I don’t know how to evaluate that claim, or whether we could have prevented those attacks in other ways.

The value-for-money question is even more difficult to assess. In 2010, the Washington Post produced a major report on “Top Secret America.” After a two-year investigation involving more than a dozen journalists, the Post concluded that no one knows how much US intelligence operations cost – or even how many people American intelligence agencies employ.

At the time, the Post reported that 854,000 people held “top secret” security clearances. Now that figure is reported to be 1.4 million. (The sheer number of people does make one wonder whether misuse of personal data for blackmail or other private purposes is inevitable.)

Whatever we think of the NSA surveillance program itself, the US government has clearly overreacted to the release of information about it. It revoked Snowden’s passport, and wrote to governments asking them to reject any asylum request that he might make. Most extraordinary of all, it seems that the US was behind the apparent refusal of France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal to permit Bolivian President Evo Morales’s airplane to enter their airspace en route home from Moscow, on the grounds that Snowden might have been aboard. Morales had to land in Vienna, and Latin American leaders were furious at what they took to be an insult to their dignity.

Supporters of democracy ought to think long and hard before prosecuting people like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Snowden. If we think that democracy is a good thing, then we must believe that the public should know as much as possible about what the government it elects is doing. Snowden has said that he made the disclosures because “the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.”

He’s right about that. How can a democracy determine whether there should be government surveillance of the kind that the NSA is conducting if it has no idea that such programs exist? Indeed, Snowden’s leaks also revealed that National Intelligence Director James Clapper misled the US Congress about the NSA’s surveillance practices in his testimony at a hearing held in March by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

When the Washington Post published (along with The Guardian) the information that Snowden provided, it asked Americans whether they support or oppose the NSA’s intelligence-gathering program. Some 58% of those surveyed supported it. Yet the same poll found that only 43% supported prosecuting Snowden for disclosing the program, while 48% were opposed.

The poll also indicated 65% support for public hearings by the US Congress on the NSA surveillance program. If that happens, we will all be much better informed because of Snowden’s disclosures.

Read more from the "An Ethical Mind" Focal Point.

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    1. Commentedgeoff ward

      It is so easy and fast to dice, slice and drill through metadata.
      The information I lodged when registering with Project Syndicate gives easy access to my life history, my shopping habits, my spending patterns, my media usage, my use of trigger words, ... bomb, obama, osama ... there, we have moved from the scanning of metadata to positive surveillance of me by real shadowy people. GCHQ records are being cranked up and passed to the NSA.
      They now know I have been anti-Blair, anti-Bush, anti-US, anti-corruption, in fact anti-almost everything that the USA actually DOES (as opposed to what it's Constitution says it should do).
      I know that I am clogging up the work-loads of the millions of US citizens who are employed full-time in the US 'surveillance-game'; so be it.
      It is imperative that 'the system' knows that there are millions of ordinary Joes who say "STOP, YOU HAVE GONE TOO FAR!"
      The trouble is, the outrageous the intrusions, the more people that appear on the NSA radar, ... the more millions of US citizens are employed to scan and categorise us all. You, the tax-payers, pay for it all. Heaven forfend that the Government should waste your money - at least THAT is not against your Constitution!

    2. CommentedNIJAZ DELEUT KEMO

      Bravo professore !!!! SHAME ON YOU OBAMA !!!! For God sake do they have any brain? What they are thinking about the rest of US ?! This is the case for INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT, but, as always, U.S.A. is not a member or what... These days the story is finished. LA COMMEDIA E FINITA MY DEAR FELLOW AMERICANS. Ciao ragazzi. I do feel sorry for you, your democracy, freedom, justice, and...a lot of other very very important "things." Sincerely,

    3. CommentedStephen R. Ganns

      Fredrick Hayek, in The Constitution of Liberty, defined freedom in its purest form as: “The state in which a man (or a woman) is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another or others…” That should include explicit, implicit and rightly, potential coercion. The potential for coercion deriving from mass indiscriminate private data collection and the aggregation and storage thereof in one place by a government or any other entity leads to too much concentrated power and eventually spawns corrupt activity. The cycle has been repeated throughout history.

    4. CommentedBrent Beach

      I am quite surprised that a noted ethicist would adopt such a superficial position.

      Acquiescing to the program because you have nothing to hide is a very short-sighted rational. Would you be similarly happy with a program that killed cats just because you have no cats. (Of course cats is a placeholder for any other thing or liberty.)

      The lack of knowledge of and understanding of the uses of information massed as it has been by NSA should not blind you to the possibility that massed information can be a powerful asset.

      Google masses information and makes use of it quite effectively. Why could NSA not be massing information (now or in the future) and using it even more effectively?

      It is possible that analysis of massed anonymous information as collected by these systems could suggests trends in opinion or thought that would be more important to a central state wishing to control its people than any amount of much more personal information would be against individuals.

      If you think this is not a problem, then you don't understand the issue.

    5. CommentedTom Shillock

      For his "I don't really care" attitude towards NSA spying and for what I take to be his reason, I recommend that Peter Singer be awarded the Alfred E. Newman chair in philosophy at Princeton. An understanding of animal rights does not seem to have transferred well into human and political rights, especially an understanding of the nature of totalitarianism.

    6. CommentedEd Grimley

      Does the NSA really produce anything? Does it really make us all safer? The best they could do is share all their programs and access with as many nations (everyone) as would be interested. Then the secrecy of spying will be equalized; then everyone can feel safer and allow everyone to build trust with one another.

    7. CommentedFoppe de Haan

      Considering that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover used to hover over anyone with left-leaning interests with tooth combs in the hopes of finding dirt, it appalls me that you are so complacent. See, e.g.,
      The suggestion that we need proof of this happening, when this kind of abuse is almost certain to lead to lots of activist careers being nipped in the bud (causing you to never find out how effective they might have become in the future) is therefore at best myopic.

    8. CommentedMK Anon

      the same tool that is used to detect terrorism can also be used to detect/control/blackmail/ .. anyone opposed to the NSA. Not finding anything about it means that they are good at keeping it secret.
      As written here more than a million poeple have security privileges, and over that many years, ONE only came out in the press to say it. So given that they are extremely carefully, NSA would need tens of millions of blackmails to get one courageous man to say the truth (if they leave him alive long enough).
      And be aware that anyone is black-mailable, either discussion tax evasion, extra-marital affaires, talkin about one's boss in rude ways, ect.. Worse, given the amount of data they have, I am sure the can predict the black-malleability of everyone, then they can measure the risk they take and the benefits they can get, either by convincing foreign politician to do some stuff, to be given market for american multinationals, to get access to more secrets on other people, ect..

    9. CommentedFoppe de Haan

      How on earth can you conclude that they are overreacting, when all you 'know' is that you don't consider the currently-released information threatening enough for the US govt to react in this fashion?
      That aside, it wasn't just an 'insult to their dignity', it was also an almost-unprecedented (considering how many dictators have over the years gone to and from Switzerland and elsewhere) breach of the rules of diplomatic immunity; unless you believe that diplomats have more rights than heads of state when those heads of state are (by definition) on diplomatic missions when abroad.

    10. CommentedLeo Arouet

      No estoy de acuerdo... La recolección de datos es inaceptable desde cualquier punto de vista... Ningún país puede arrogarse ese derecho de espiar a los ciudadanos de ningún país...

    11. CommentedMichael Lynch

      I don't think anyone is outraged because they think the government will actually do something to them personally with the data that they are collecting. After all, like you said, it is only read by machines until something suspicious appears, and even then, the sheer volume of information would make it impossible to catch everything, so the majority of us have absolutely nothing to worry about.

      Instead, they are angry over the principle of the matter. They were lead to believe their phone calls, emails etc. were private matters, and now it turns out that they are not. They feel deceived by their own government who spews out notions of "freedom" to win elections, while the government itself is impeding their freedom of privacy without them even knowing!

      Surely this kind of hypocrisy and deception justifies being outraged.

    12. Commentedradek tanski

      America's reaction to the leaks just exposes that "democracy" is really only, and nothing more, than a population placation mechanism.

      Now the leaks themselves have to be placated and everything will be back to normal.

    13. Commentedhari naidu

      The Patriot Act under which NSA gets its legal OK from FISA Court is apparently a rubber stamp decision-making legal court - judges appointed by Chief Justice Roberts - to hide actually what NSAs surveillance of individual privacy.

      Today DOJ ordered FISA not to divulge its store of secret information because of their *sensitivity*.

      What the hell does that mean? What are they afraid of?

      This will end up being Obama's catastrophe legacy...and more.

    14. CommentedShane Beck

      Any electronic communication should be considered unsecure (unless heavily encrypted). But part of the Cult of Secrecy is to cover up embarassing government mistakes. The numerous attempts to assassinate Castro come to mind.....

    15. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      The 'Big Brother' State is not interested in protecting its citizens but in protecting itself and serving its masters or controlling elite. Democracy has been degraded when the State spys on the populace. We have entered on the era of the Secret Police State.