Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Or you could just stop lying already

I like how Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald waited between the time Snowden said he could read everybody’s emails from his desk until all the outraged denials and tut-tuttings were out there before releasing the documents proving it.

Where have we seen this before?

When the Soviet Union shot down a U-2 spy plane in 1960, they similarly let the US lie about its spy plane program, even giving Eisenhower one more chance to come clean, then produced the pilot, Francis Gary Powers. It was more of a shock back then to many people that the US government lies so much.

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  1. Marc Ambinder has written quite cogently about XKeyscore - even before Snowden/Greenwald's "scoop" - you should check some of that out. While many of Greenwald's scoops have been legitimately newsworthy, this one merits the scare-quotes, as well as a less-than-healthy mound of salt. This particular interface is merely a back-end database tool, aggregating data from many others. There is truly no there there. Unfortunately, GG does himself, and the much-needed debate, no favors by overhyping and under-providing. Even on this story, buried down deep, tenth paragraph or so, he declares the system, while potentially ripe for it, is NOT being abused at current, at least there's no evidence it is. Many things are ripe for abuse but, given legal boundaries put in place, aren't. He's done this before as well, most notably when he began his reporting by dismissively referring to some mythical, unknowable minimization procedures before releasing the detailed minimization regulations over a month later. There was simply no need to wait that long, the debate would have only been helped by starting out on more informed, fact-based footing. It didn't. In any case, let's drop the manichean, false dichotomy. GG and the NSA can both occasionally be right and wrong, sometimes even simultaneously.

  2. If there's no evidence of abuse, that might be because 1) no one in government wants to look for it, 2) it's classified and hasn't leaked, 3) it's so easy for NSA personnel to do what Snowden said he could do. When top-secret, largely unaccountable government agencies create the capability to spy on American citizens and everyone else in the world, it's not unreasonable to assume that it will be used.

    Personally, I'd trust legal boundaries precisely as far as I could throw them, if they were physical things that I could actually throw. Greenwald himself wrote a whole book last year about legal impunity for the powerful.

    Greenwald's timing of his data-dumps has concerned me too. I suggested in the post that this may have been a gotcha strategy, which is fine for an activist but less so for a journalist. That said, some of the timing may be down to the Guardian.

    I know he did some talk shows today, but didn't catch them.

  3. I’ve read Greenwald’s books in the past, and Libery and Justice for Some was definitely quite powerful. As a matter of fact, I’ve followed Greenwald’s blogging for a number of years, first at Salon and now with the Guardian. So, I will never engage in any ad hominem attacks on the man, which, unfortunately, have been all-too-common since the whole ordeal began. Nevertheless, I must call it like I see it: He has made numerous missteps throughout the past couple of months - this one is a misstep - and these missteps detract from the much-needed debate on surveillance.

    To return to the XKeyscore slides posted to the Guardian, they have a date of classification at the bottom right. As this date is from 2007, before the most recent updates in law, I remain sceptical of their applicability at current. -- As an aside, have you read Marc Ambinder’s Deep State? If not, you should. It did, in fact, speak of XKeyscore prior to this “scoop.”

    I am interested in exploring your whole modified Field of Dreams “if they build it, they will abuse it” position quickly. Technically, what is the difference between a system to scoop of foreign communications, say, over the internet, and one to scoop up domestic communications? This is an especially relevant question as a significant portion of the internet traffic worldwide transits infrastructure within the United States at some point in time. How would one build a system to, say, listen in on the Syrian Islamic Front’s Google+ chats, without the same system, ultimately, being technically capable of listening to my Google+ chat with my brother abroad? It would seem that your position simply cannot survive in the real world. The police are technically capable, i.e. they have the training and skills, to stop and frisk urban youth in New York. This does not bother me. However, when this is abused, in the Stop and Frisk program disproportionately targeting minorities, I am outraged. Yet, even here, none of us - I am assuming you, too, oppose Stop and Frisk, correct me if I am wrong - demand the police handover their technical capabilities. And this is just one of many examples I could cite.

    Further, if the system has been around for half a decade - since at least 2007, given the date on the slides - and there is no evidence of abuse, could this, in addition to the possibilities you mentioned, not also simply be because the legal constraints are working? I know, absence of evidence is no evidence of absence. But, saying a system is ripe for abuse, yet conceding, as GG himself does, that there is no evidence of abuse, could simply mean the oversight he has been breathlessly calling for has worked, at least this once.

    Ultimately, however, this whole discussion is absurd with regards to XKeyscore, as GG’s reporting on the system so clearly missed its point. It is not a collection tool itself; it does absolutely no collection. Therefore, this whole discussion has no point. And this is one my primary complaints.

  4. From the beginning, those of us inside, who want the debate, have been disgusted with GG’s inability to properly vet his information, as any self-respecting journalist should these days, read: Dan Rather’s controversy. The hyperbole and gross exaggeration filling GG’s reporting do nothing to help further a cause I feel very passionately about. They only serve to inflame his base. Why bury ten paragraphs down that what we are speaking of is simply a technical capability? Yes, Tea Party, the government technically could try to come take all your guns away....but....yeah. Simply retaining one, possibly adversarial, former NSA senior analyst or manager could have cut down on this, leaving us with only the most important of kernals. Why the various disclosures of foreign intelligence operations, targeting, well, foreigners? How does this serve the cause of protecting the Fourth Amendment? Why did you dismissively refer to minimization, implying it’s nothing more than a fig leaf, while retaining the very documents on minimization procedures? - Documents, I might add, many journalists and reporters, including Ambinder, have been demanding to see for years. - This seems a transparent attempt to skew the debate in his favor. As a law school graduate, GG must be familiar with the age-old adage ‘he who frames the debate wins.’ And this is precisely my problem with much of his reporting: It is delivered as an attorney, with him building and arguing a case, not as a journalist passively reporting facts.

  5. I'd like to digress to something more old-school: the confirmation Friday that the government has the Post Office photographing every single piece of mail in the US. I'm still waiting to hear when this started, because it would seem to require the participation of an awful lot of people, and I'd like to know how long that sort of operation can remain secret. That seems relevant to our discussion of whether abuse can go on without you, me or even Glenn Greenwald having "evidence of abuse."

    I didn't see the XKeyscore article as being about collection, but about supporting Snowden's claim that he could read Obama's email at his desk.

    Haven't read Ambinder -- I was actually under the impression that it wasn't that good a book.

    Greenwald is indeed a better lawyer-blogger than he is a journalist. I can't speak to his understanding of the technical aspects of data collection; hell, I can't even get my Twitter app in the right-hand column to display properly in Firefox.

  6. Well, personally, I'd rather stay on the topic at hand than digress.

    Snowden's claim, i.e. that he could read the President's emails, is a claim about collection capabilities. XKeyscore is not about collection. The system, itself, does no collection whatsoever. Therefore, Snowden's claim is in no way vindicated by claims concerning XKeyscore.

    Again, XKeyscore aggregates results across different collection platforms. A return to discussions of Pinwale, PRISM, or the broad FISA Verizon opinion would return us to the realm of collection. Whether they vindicate Snowden's claims would be up for, what I'm sure would be, healthy debate.

    (By the way, the fact that the NSA charged someone in 2009 for accessing former President Clinton's emails via Pinwale vindicates the claim that it is technically possible, with us then needing to return to the legal constraints issues I raised before. It is technically possible for someone to target an ex-girlfriend or cheating-wife, however, legal constraints militate against it.)

    With all these insinuations about nefarious hypotheticals, how about this one: Snowden, as passionately libertarian as they come, works as an IT employee, happens to see data on systems he never actually uses himself, misunderstands their actual capabilities, making it a classic case of confirmation bias.