Monday, 9 December 2013

NSA on the defensive

Two incidents today point up the severe beating the National Security Administration (NSA) has taken with the Snowden revelations. The momentum for change is growing fast, and the next question is, Will it be cosmetic or real?

Today’s big news is that eight Internet giants, AOL, Apple, Facebok, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo—anybody feel left out?—slammed the Obama Administration over the runaway surveillance it is practicing on users of their services. Did they suddenly get Fourth Amendment religion? Hardly. Their profit statements on overseas account are bleeding like crazy.

This was predictable. When the Chinese, Brazilians and anyone else with a minimum of cybertech capability starts thinking about jettisoning the big U.S. firms to protect their own political and commercial data, it was only a matter of time before the threatened Silicon Valley got into gear. However, the drama of a joint statement from all the big players—who normally would be trying to slash each others’ throats—is impressive.
Principle number 4 of the Internet companies’ statement is particularly telling:

The ability of data to flow or be accessed across borders is essential to a robust 21st century global economy. Governments should permit the transfer of data and should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country. Governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.

When Angela Merkel finds out the CIA can learn what she’s saying on her private cellphone or Brazil’s state petroleum company can’t be sure its proprietary data is safe on its São Paulo computers, you know some shit has got to fly. Access to the entire world is central to the long-term business plans of the big tech players. But as potential customers realized buying software from Oracle or using Google tools for internal communication meant inviting their commercial rivals to take up residence in their board rooms or cabinet meetings, new orders dried up.

But as least as damaging potentially for the NSA is the unsurprising news that morale among its own staff is miserable. Goody! People who have been faceless and hidden for decades suddenly have to answer unpleasant questions at dinner parties about why they’re vacuuming up all our business and storing it in Utah. A Washington Post story cites the usual anonymous sources thus:

“The news questions the integrity of the NSA workforce,” he said. “It’s become very public and very personal. Literally, neighbors are asking people, ‘Why are you spying on Grandma?’ And we aren’t. People are feeling bad, beaten down.”
Marcy Wheeler cites at Empty Wheel an internal memo sent by the NSA bosses to their employees trying to deny the reports and further burying themselves in falsehoods.

Some media outlets have sensationalized the leaks to the press in a way that has called into question our motives and wrongly cast doubt on the integrity and commitment of the extraordinary people who work here at NSA/CAA — your loved one(s). It has been discouraging to see how our Agency frequently has been portrayed in the news as more of a rogue element than a national treasure.

However, we are human and, because the environment of law and technology within which we operate is so complex and dynamic, mistakes sometimes do occur. That’s where the unique aspect of our culture comes into play. We self-report those mistakes, analyze them, and take action to correct the root causes.
Ha ha, I’m laughing now! Does anyone with a pulse really believe that without the Snowden disclosures the NSA would be carefully trying to clean up these oh-so-unfortunate errors?

Wheeler comments:
Of course, the phone dragnet problems were not a mistake at all. . . . Not only had the NSA twice been caught programmatically conducting illegal wiretapping of Americans in America, after which it started stealing data from American companies overseas to conduct the same wiretapping with no oversight. That overseas collection includes the collection of cell location. Once collected, NSA can search for US person information in it — including content – with no reasonable articulable suspicion. In addition, NSA had also been systematically weakening US cybersecurity in its zeal to support spying and cyberattacks overseas.

The plaintive letters from beleaguered bosses to their discredited employees are getting more pathetic, but Wheeler points out that many NSA staffers may not have had any idea of what was going on around them, given the compartmentalization of the work they do.

Most of the NSA’s employees have not been read into many of these programs. . . . so much more of these disclosures have made the news, including the Washington Post, for NSA employees to be learning some of this for the first time. . . . That raises the distinct possibility that NSA morale is low not because the President hasn’t given them a pep talk, but because they’re uncomfortable working for an Agency that violates its own claimed rules so often. Most of the men and women at NSA have been led to believe they don’t spy on their fellow citizens. Those claims are crumbling.
As the Vietnam war illustrated, when people start questioning and criticizing their own family members for their role in immoral behavior, the jig is up. Stay tuned for the sound of the latest popping bubble as the blank check of gazillions of dollars these spy outfits have been scooping up, along with our data, to create the American Stasi, gets the scissors.

No comments: