After a few days of ebb and flow, the source of the NSA leak has come forward. From a hotel in Hong Kong, one Edward Snowden, CIA ret., gave an interview to Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. Like a scene from the second Bourne movie. He doesn’t want to live in a society where the government is spying on everyone, all the time, without them knowing or consenting. Naturally fur will fly in the US media analysis of this, if the recent tarring of Bradley Manning is anything to go by.
The development of this story over the past three days has been quite something. Shocks, astonishment, wavering and more shocks before the other boot finally dropped with the release of the interview video. So much has happened today that I’m still trying to piece it all together. Who knew what, and when? More importantly, how will this play out.
June 6th, the Washington Post publishes a story claiming that the NSA has direct access to the data on servers of the nine largest internet companies. Names like Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and AOL. (Are they still
producing coasters around?) Using a system called PRISM the US agency can access whatever it likes, when it likes. Even from users of the services in other countries.
The same day, the Guardian posts the story about telecoms provider Verizon.
The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.
The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.
Users of the internet, phones and anyone even vaguely concerned with the legality of tapping was stunned. These claims, if true, mean the US government has a rubber stamp for any request for interception of phone calls. And access to everything on the internet, virtually. Everything sent publicly or privately. Everything sent through those companies or stored with their cloud services. By anyone, regardless of whether they’re US citizens or not.
June 7th The Guardian posts an article about the NSA’s surveillance abilities. Their source is apparently the same as that of the Washington Post.
The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.
The leak itself was incredible enough. For it to come on the day when everyone was condemning Bradley Manning in preparation for his trial, which begins tomorrow, was icing on the cake. That it happened a day after yet another mass shooting which the invasive surveillance failed to prevent was tragic.
What was originally acquired by the Washington Post and or The Guardian was a 41 slide powerpoint presentation. The slides were supposedly for training people to use the system and claimed “collection directly from the servers” of major US service providers. Curiously, the poor quality of the slides was seen as evidence of their not being genuine.
Executives of the companies involved seemed to be just as surprised as the users. Larry Page, CEO of Google, published a What the… entry on the Google blog.
You may be aware of press reports alleging that Internet companies have joined a secret U.S. government program called PRISM to give the National Security Agency direct access to our servers. As Google’s CEO and Chief Legal Officer, we wanted you to have the facts.
First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday.
Page makes another couple of points, which as at the time of writing, are still on that site and unaltered. Mark Zuckerberg released a fairly similar statement. The similarity prompted some of the commentariat to wonder if this was scripted and if anything could be read into that. It also prompted one wag to produce the PRISM denial generator.
The Washington Post story was later edited to remove important details, including the assertion that the companies knew of and willingly participated in the program. This quiet editing without acknowledgement was noticed and a few people thought then that the whole thing was bogus. ZDNet’s Ed Bott considered that the real story, at that stage, was the lack of fact checking and poor journalism involved. That article has a close look at the redaction of the original Washington Post story, which is still unexplained. It’s also been edited in the past day or two, since The Guardian became more prominent in the leak story.
June 8, William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, denied the claims that the UK government had been involved.
He [Hague] said reports that the UK’s eavesdropping centre had circumvented the law to gather data on British citizens were “nonsense.”
But he refused to confirm or deny claims GCHQ has had access to the Prism programme, which the US has used since 2010 to access the systems of nine of the world’s top internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and Skype.
In Australia Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Ludlam took the opportunity to get some press. Apparently taking his cue from last weeks The Hollowmen episode, Turnbull made a statement saying he thought Australians would be troubled by this and he had “raised the matter with the US Government’s representatives in Australia and sought clarification”. Turnbull is quite correct that the use of cloud services and other online applications exposes Australians to illegal electronic eavesdropping. Ludlam, to his credit, went further and put some hard questions to the government here. “Australians use these services to the point of ubiquity. Does the Australian Government believe it is appropriate that the US intelligence agencies appear to be engaged in warrantless realtime surveillance of the entire online population? Does the Australian intelligence community have access to this material? And is this the reason the Attorney Generals Department have been so insistent that Australian ISPs institute a two-year data retention regime?”
Ludlam mentioned Bradley Manning and George Orwell in his statement and he’s not exaggerating. This kind of warrantless surveillance is the kind of thing the Stasi were engaged in, in East Germany during the cold war. A massive accumulation of data to the point where there wasn’t a way to sift through it all. If you’re an Aussie, pop over to that Delimiter article and have a read. The list of questions Ludlam has raised and the analysis there are pertinent. Now that the video has been released and dissection of the whole situation has begun, these questions become more and more important. Who has access to Australians’ (or anyone else for that matter) privately stored info and why?
Even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has weighed in about corporations and governments trying to take control of what was intended to be a free and open way for human beings to communicate, without ownership. This freedom has been gradually challenged and eroded over time, by both corporations and government agencies. This current leak, though, exposes the way the technology of the internet and digital telecommunications has been turned on the citizens. We’ll get to that a bit more in a minute.
The Washington Post story appears to have been updated now and includes a video interview with Barton Gellman addressing the accusations that they didn’t do their homework.
June 9. Now the video is out. Edward Snowden has gone on record. It’s not a hoax. Dear gods, Richard Stallman has been right all along.
The Guardian’s article which introduced us to Snowden has the video and a transcript.
Okay, so now we can put a face to the source. Edward talks about his reasons for doing what he’s done and what he expects to come of it, at least for him. “Nothing good.” The guy’s only 29. He now has a lifetime ahead of him trying to evade the clutches of the US government. And the Brits, probably. Having seen what’s happened to Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Aaron Swartz and now Deric Lostutter, Snowden knew perfectly well what would be in store. And he did it anyway. I’m just absolutely stunned by the spine on this guy. It’s incredible. I have enormous respect for his bravery and the stand that he’s taken in the face of this global power. What he’s done has shown the US, again, that they can’t keep breaking the law and get away with it. They can’t rely on citizens and employees to collude in the bullshit any longer.
This isn’t about the reading of things we’ve shared online, like Logging in from my favourite cafe Burnt Grounds. It’s not the selfies you’ve put all over all your social media acounts, knowing that once they’re up there, they’ll be free for anyone to take and meme to buggery. This is all the documents and images and videos on every cloud or storage site, regardless of the privacy settings you’ve chosen. This is interception of the sxts you sent your partner while they’re in a boring sales meeting and you’ve both deleted but they’re still on the servers somewhere. It’s taking the dunny door off. It’s a global creepshot.
One thing that’s brilliant is the timing of it. While the government argues on the one hand that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. That the collection of data is about protecting citizens and national security. At the same time Bradley Manning is on trial for releasing, among other things, the Collateral Murder video. Actually, while we’re at it, let’s have another look at that. Let’s have a look at some of what Manning is accused of releasing. The reason why he’s been held in horrific conditions, in solitary confinement, for more than two years.
The families of the two Reuters photographers murdered in that video had been trying to find out what happened that day. For years they’d been petitioning the US government and military. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for their friends and family to view that video. After all that time and all those denials and bullshit stories, to actually see what happened. To hear the commentary of the flight crew and shooters. It must have been heart breaking.
Young Manning sees this. He sees evidence all around him of the war crimes his government is committing repeatedly. He knows that people condemn other nations and other people for acts like this. He knows that officers who stand trial after the fact do not get pardoned for saying they were only taking orders. I am in agreement with Matt Taibbi. Any remotely decent person was obliged to come forward.
Now Snowden has too. Because this is not about protecting national security. This is about protecting citizens from abuses of national security. It’s about not allowing corporate profit motive to trump the law or the citizens’ influence in their own governance.
The second thing about this that has impressed me is Snowden’s nouse in choosing to go to Hong Kong. It’s only days since the Chinese Premier was in the US for talks. There’s been a history of discussion in the US press and by some military spokes orcs about the potential problem of Chinese hackers and what might be done about that. Of course, most of that is hot air designed to put the wind up the public. It might help the prosecutors try to justify the sentences being given to those convicted of cracking.
Now we get to watch over the coming few days. To see what China’s move will be. The leadership in Hong Kong probably doesn’t appreciate being put in a position between China and the US, but there’s a different style of leadership and quite a bit more freedom there. The anniversary of Tianamin Square is celebrated openly. An extradition would have to be approved by both Hong Kong and China, and they have no reason to cave to US demands. The Chinese government has declined to open their currency and stock exchange as fully as other nations that are now in thrall to the global banking cartels. The Chinese position here is fairly strong, it seems. They can take their time deciding what to do. Considering all that drone bombing that’s been going on in Pakistan, which is not so far from Chinese borders, and that the Chinese Premier’s wife has an iPhone that was used during their visit to the US, one would imagine China would find this news fascinating. Friendship with the US is a euphemism anyway, as any nation that’s had goods or produce dumped on them under the mantel of “Free Trade Agreements” knows. How much is that Marine base in Darwin costing us, by the way?
Whether the Chinese and Hong Kong governments choose to hand over Snowden or not, what they do and why will send out some big ripples in global politics.
Aside from those political considerations, however, is the issue of surveillance, security and privacy. As it happens I’ve just finished re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Everyone remembers the constant scrutiny poor Winston and the others came under. The constant invasion and control of the lives of Party members. We use the term “Big Brother” frequently. What’s worth considering, after more than a decade of the war on terror, is Orwell’s observation that constant warfare is necessary. It helps control the population by providing an enemy and an excuse. As well it absorbs the production that would otherwise help raise people’s standards of living to the point where they could educate themselves and start agitating for better representation and more progressive society. Or simply get out of debt and off the hamster wheel.
It is the citizens of a nation that are supposed to elect government and be represented by it. Over the past few decades we’ve seen the erosion of protections for the human beings in the country and ever increasing sell outs to corporate interests. The global economy is propped up by arms trades and the military industrial complex. The US economy certainly is. Billions of dollars are being spent on arms and personnel every year. And really, who in their right mind is going to try and invade the US? The only trouble Anglo and European nations are copping now is because of the constant pulling of tigers’ tails in the Middle East and North Africa. You know, maybe if we stopped interfering with other nations to their detriment and traded fairly we wouldn’t have so many people trying to seek asylum from those nations or retaliating with violence to the violence we’ve done them.
No. National security my arse. This is all about whether human community is centred on human beings or serving corporations. Anyone who has had their eyes open is well aware of the high cost, both human and financial, of the war on terror and the war on drugs. It’s patently obvious that these wars are not fought to be won but to create ongoing problems that lazy politicians can use to get re-elected. As the crucifixion of Edward Snowden now proceeds the issue of power and ownership must be kept firmly in focus. This gathering of information is being done covertly. Not only without warrants, but without the knowledge or consent of those supposedly being governed and protected by this program. It’s not in the citizens’ interest.
All this gathering of information did not prevent the mass shooting in Aurora by a man who ordered guns, ammunition and riot gear over the net. It didn’t even stop the two brothers who’d been flagged by the Russians as a problem but were allowed to carry on until all of Boston was in lockdown. It hasn’t stopped the trafficking of thousands of human beings in slavery throughout the US and other countries. It didn’t stop the insurgents attack on Kabul airport yesterday.
As Snowden said himself,
We managed to survive greater threats in our history than a few disorganised groups and rogue States without resorting to these sorts of programs. It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose omniescent, automatic mass surveillance. That seems to me a greater threat to the institutions of free society than missed intelligence reports, and unworthy of the costs.”
Let me also add a quote from another discussion about information gathering that happened on Reddit.
I live in a country generally assumed to be a dictatorship. One of the Arab spring countries. I have lived through curfews and have seen the outcomes of the sort of surveillance now being revealed in the US. People here talking about curfews aren’t realizing what that actually FEELS like. It isn’t about having to go inside, and the practicality of that. It’s about creating the feeling that everyone, everything is watching. A few points:
1) the purpose of this surveillance from the governments point of view is to control enemies of the state. Not terrorists. People who are coalescing around ideas that would destabilize the status quo. These could be religious ideas. These could be groups like anon who are too good with tech for the governments liking. It makes it very easy to know who these people are. It also makes it very simple to control these people.
Lets say you are a college student and you get in with some people who want to stop farming practices that hurt animals. So you make a plan and go to protest these practices. You get there, and wow, the protest is huge. You never expected this, you were just goofing off. Well now everyone who was there is suspect. Even though you technically had the right to protest, you’re now considered a dangerous person.
With this tech in place, the government doesn’t have to put you in jail. They can do something more sinister. They can just email you a sexy picture you took with a girlfriend. Or they can email you a note saying that they can prove your dad is cheating on his taxes. Or they can threaten to get your dad fired. All you have to do, the email says, is help them catch your friends in the group. You have to report back every week, or you dad might lose his job. So you do. You turn in your friends and even though they try to keep meetings off grid, you’re reporting on them to protect your dad.
There’s a bit more to that comment and the discussion that ensued, but that’s from the horses mouth, so to speak. A human being talking about the lives and experiences of human beings living with this intrustion and the exploitation thereof. I’m out of energy to try to keep cracking wise about all this now. Our government is supposed to answer to us and represent us. If not, it’s not a democracy. You can call it what you like, but it’s not a democracy.