The NSA Killed the Radio Star and American High Tech
While I don’t pretend to be a technical expert, it seems clear to me that one of the major pieces of collateral damage regarding the NSA spying scandal is the savaging that the American technology industry has taken:
What began as a public relations predicament for America’s technology companies has evolved into a moral and business crisis that threatens the foundation of their businesses, which rests on consumers and companies trusting them with their digital lives.
Though they initially denied it, it became apparent that companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others essentially rolled over and played dead in the face of Justice Department and NSA directives that they essentially unlock their data for inspection. Later it became clear that the government didn’t really need these data dumps, it could invade the company servers and sift through data at will:
The industry has learned that it knew of only a fraction of the spying, and it is grappling with the risks of being viewed as an enabler of surveillance of foreigners and American citizens.
Now these same companies are telling us that they’ll regain our trust by encrypting their data so that it can’t be hacked by NSA snoops. Such encryption is not going to be an effective tool if the NSA retains the same privileges it’s had to subpoena any data at any time for any person it wishes. In such cases, the only thing standing in the way of wholesale exposure of virtually every secret is a toothless FISA court which never questions a subpoena or prevents any spying.
The only benefit to encryption is that it will make it harder for the NSA to collect the reams of data which it sifts through in order to decide which individuals’ records it wants to subpoena. But given the creativity and ingenuity of NSA spooks, you can be sure they’ll discover a way to circumvent even this obstacle.
There is a certain attraction for the average NSA hacker to get everything they can; to open all possible doors; to pry into every possibly nook and cranny. That’s what spooks do. You can’t blame them for that:
The N.S.A. seems to be listening everywhere in the world, gathering every stray electron that might add, however minutely, to the United States government’s knowledge of the world. To some Americans, that may be a comfort. To others, and to people overseas, that may suggest an agency out of control.
…Today’s N.S.A. is the Amazon of intelligence agencies, as different from the 1950s agency as that online behemoth is from a mom-and-pop bookstore. It sucks the contents from fiber-optic cables, sits on telephone switches and Internet hubs, digitally burglarizes laptops and plants bugs on smartphones around the globe.
…The focus on counterterrorism is a misleadingly narrow sales pitch for an agency with an almost unlimited agenda. Its scale and aggressiveness are breathtaking.
You can blame the executive branch and legislators who were supposed to exercise oversight and, with a few exceptions like Marc Udall and Ron Wyden, abdicated their constitutional responsibility. 9/11 made them all go soft in the head.
Does outrageous overstatement and moral hypocrisy like this coming from the NSA not call into question just about every statement they make publicly? Is this not an agency whose self-image has surged into the megalomaniacal, crying out to be reined in?
“Sigint professionals must hold the moral high ground, even as terrorists or dictators seek to exploit our freedoms,” the plan declares. “Some of our adversaries will say or do anything to advance their cause; we will not.”
It doesn’t console me in any way to hear James Clapper or any number of NSA diehards calling the outrage hypocritical because “they all do it.” First, it doesn’t matter whether “they all do it.” Should we, is the proper question. Second, even if “they” do it, they don’t do it at nearly the scale we do. We’re the richest, most powerful nation in the world and the NSA has a $30-billion annual budget and 35,000 employees. Nobody does it better, as the lyrics of the song go. Our ambition and capabilities dwarf those of everyone else on the planet.
Now even Rep. James Sensenbrenner, one of the chief architects of that foul piece of legislation called the USA Patriot Act, seems to have second thoughts. He’s gone so far as to call the actions of the NSA “criminal.” But is it too late? Once the NSA let the horse out of the barn, how will the U.S. technology industry get it back in?
These companies, the backbone of the U.S. economy, have shown themselves to be at the beck and call of the government. The trust we customers placed in them to protect our security has been savaged. Does anyone believe anything Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Ballmer, Larry Page or Sergey Brin say on this subject? Frankly, I think they can’t regain that trust no matter what they do.
The NSA has torn a hole in the high tech industry big enough to drive a super computer or Mack truck through. Countries like Brazil and others are already developing competing systems that will not be subject to the intrusive scrutiny of the NSA. Will any American want to maintain telecommunications accounts with U.S. companies?
If we lose the edge we’ve had in such technological development over the past 60 years, we will lose a huge sector of U.S. commercial innovation. We will hurt our economy, lose jobs, and slow the pace of development in our own country. In a strange and ironic way, NSA spying may ultimately hurt the U.S. and our national security.
An equally damaged victim of NSA spying has been our formerly warm relations with allies like Berlin, France, German, Mexico and Brazil. One must ask: was the benefit of whatever was learned by hacking the phones of their leaders worth the years of damage and mistrust that will ensue from this mess? Further, one has to marvel at the hubris of U.S. spymasters who believed that their massive House of Spies would never be exposed. As a result of Edward Snowden’s revelations the House of Spies has become a House of Cards.
In addition to all the nations with whom we’ve had tense of even hostile nations over the last decade or so, now we have to add allies who have lost trust in us.
I am delighted to learn that attitudes in the international community toward Snowden are gradually changing. With every new insult to the national pride of these countries with further NSA spying charges, more people find Snowden’s work admirable. German legislators met with him over the past few days to determine whether he can travel to German to testify before the Bundestag about the hacking of Prime Minister Merkel’s cell phone. If they find a way to bring him to Germany, I fear the cat will be out of the bag. As long as the U.S. could confine him to countries like China or Russia, with whom we have tense or hostile relations, Obama could dismiss Snowden as a crank. But once he begins spilling his guts before national legislatures of U.S. allies, he becomes a technological Robin Hood.
8 thoughts on “The NSA Killed the Radio Star and American High Tech – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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I’ve read this piece several times and I still cannot figure out who the radio star referenced in the title is. Pardon my ignorance, but can anyone clarify? Is that meant to be Snowden? If so, I have never seen that nickname used before for him.
The title refers to the Buggles song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’
I very much doubt that.
Thanks for clarifying. I like using that song title for some reason. Probably because it deals with one form of technology overwhelming another.
The administration is in love with technology and isn’t the first administration to have that love, GWB and friends were convinced anything could be done in Iraq. Tech always appears to offer a neat and clean way to slice through otherwise difficult situations and the U.S. having a tech edge makes its use irresistable. Right now the darling of technophiles is the drone, where the president can have his way on the other side of the world without asking the leave of anyone or any government.
But its use in the last few days illustrates the difficulty. The latest target, now dead, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was about to be involved in peace talks with envoys sent by the Pakistani government after much time spent making the arrangements. Apparently without consultation, the CIA struck, quite likely due to the fact that the target had been involved with the killing of CIA personnel in Afghanistan a while back. He’s was in the crosshairs, a very wanted man, so take him out. Pakistan, however, is understandably outraged at the violation of sovereignty. A quick high tech fix turns into a diplomatic nightmare. So it is with NSA – if it can be done technically, do it regardless and keep it dark. Every American becomes a victim of those acting as protectors of America as a whole. But the cat is out of the bag.
Thank you, thank you, thank you Edward Snowden. We should make room for your likeness at Mount Rushmore.
Exposing the Echelon program in the 1990s, Europe was aware of the large scale of US snooping for economic and political reasons. With new technology and 911 aftermath, the “terror” component made the Patriot Act possible and the unlimited extension of NSA spying at will on the Internet worldwide. NSA got full cooperation through the FISA court to demand secrecy and extension into the judicial system. US Congress wittingly took themselves out of the equation for any sort of oversight.
The western intelligence communities have indeed cooperated fully beyond what their political leaders knew. The NIE are briefings to the extent the DIA and CIA want the executive branch involved. I belief the intelligence community and White House are not aligned in foreign policy. This has become visible in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan drone strikes, attempt to start peace talks with the Taliban, the Qatar echec and the assassination of Mehsud this past week.
The secret service of nations cooperating in the Five Eyes: Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand and the US will never break this bond. All political statements will be hypocritical [lies].
Then there is the full cooperation of Israel with the NSA spy program at all levels. Israel gets unfettered data from the NSA for which IDF’s Unit 8200 delivered the software programs. In the development of the new NSA spy center in Utah, the Israelis play a major role as was revealed by Wired a few years ago. Because of loyalty to Israel, the German intelligence unit BND and the Dutch MIVD will never break the relationship with the NSA. The Dutch have even contracted their domestic phone taps to Israel’s Verint with proprietary ownership of data.
The only promising development for change would come from Brazil, Mexico and India, the independent third world states.
This is for Mr. Silverstein:
Turns out, the NSA data center in Utah keeps electrically arcing, and bits of it explode randomly.
“And here we see the power of that private sector efficiency in action: government by contract works well as a business model by transferring capital from the state to corporations with unmistakable effectiveness. But that’s the only thing it does well.” – Chris Bray, from the article
I was wondering why USA does the computer work for ObamaCare so badly, but is credited with doing the NSA spying so well. Is it possible that BIG GOVERNMENT can do what it sets out to do, after all, or do the corporations (who provide the PRIVATISED computing) just RAKE IN THE CASH BUT NOT DO THE JOB?
And should this make us all feel safer or what?