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.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.