Bob S. February 19, 2014 7:25 AM

Well, at least there is a debate.

I wonder if in a few years if it will be forbidden.

I have to say now, it’s not about Snowden at all. It’s about what he revealed to us and what we do about it.

Pat February 19, 2014 7:49 AM

It is rather sad that the intelligence agencies are working to tighten their control instead of realizing that the information will get out when they’re acting illegally. The current administration has been coming down harder than the previous administration on whistle blowers and the leaks seem to have amped up the rhetoric.

Edward Snowden acted as a defender of our democracy and should be hailed as a hero. I don’t think I could have done what he did, and I respect him tremendously for it.

Skeptical February 19, 2014 8:21 AM

Probably easier to distinguish initially between two questions:

(1) Was Snowden justified in leaking programs or practices that he reasonably believed to be illegal or shockingly unethical?

And that’s essentially the Whistleblower Question. Most who defend him are answering this question.

(2) Was Snowden justified in leaking programs or practices that were clearly not illegal or unethical?

And that’s essentially the Irresponsible Leaker Question. Most who attack him are answering this question.

It’s possible to answer yes to one question and no to another question, or yes to both questions or no to both questions.

All of that is a separate subject from what we should do politically, legally, and technologically in response to what we have learned from the published portions of his disclosures. In some ways, this question of “what do we now” is the more important one. However, Snowden himself is certainly an important figure in many ways, whether one considers him a traitorous fool or a heroic whistleblowers or somewhere in between. He’s a worthy topic of discussion as well.

Winter February 19, 2014 8:22 AM


But what I do want to speak to, as the nation’s senior intelligence officer, is the profound damage that his disclosures have caused and continue to cause.

This is the same James Clapper that testified under oath in a March, 2013 Senate hearing:

Senator Ron Wyden (D, OR) asked Director Clapper if “the NSA collected any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper responded “no, sir,”

This whole discussion looks a lot like the Italian Mafia calling for enforcing the “omerta”.

It does show the USA has given up on human rights all together.

Amakudari February 19, 2014 8:25 AM

So, I have served in government off and on a long time and at pretty senior levels, and the number of times that I have not persuaded the rest of the government to do things that I think it should do, even things I think it’s morally or legally compelled to do, are pretty substantial. This is the way government works. This is the way democracies work.

-Stewart Baker

Good to know that there’s nothing the NSA could do that is so immoral or illegal that he would ever tell the public. Baker probably should have led with that statement, as it’s all you really need to know about him. Bonus points for the insight into what he considers a cornerstone of democracy.

species5618 February 19, 2014 8:46 AM

There is a big grey line drawn in the moving sand, that we continue to be debated for decades.

I may be in the minority but I tend to think the NSA and Snowden are both right to a certain extent.

The criminals, terrorists and other nation states do not play by “the rules” and those “rules” will need constant review.

I suspect the only way to win a battle for greater good is to play by the similar rules to your enemy. I am not saying the same rules to similar !

With domestic (home grown) issues, and lone wolf situations, the only way to stay ahead may be to watch everything (I have deliberating not said everyone)

The rules of engagement must protect privacy, quite how that is achieved with advances in big data I do not know.

AlanS February 19, 2014 9:12 AM

@Bob S.

“I have to say now, it’s not about Snowden at all. It’s about what he revealed to us and what we do about it.”

Agreed. But some commentators want to make it about Snowden’s motivations, his moral character, or bad things he’s caused. One can certainly debate all these things, but, even if he’s guilty as charged, so what? The accusations have no bearing on the important questions relating to the legality and desirability in a democratic society of the mass surveillance that has been made evident by the release of the documents. 

For an example of the former see writings by Edward Lucas (journalist at the Economist) who talks about “Snowdenistas” and has published articles in the Telegraph, WSJ, Politico and elsewhere as well as an e-book available on Amazon (quite a campaign).

Autolykos February 19, 2014 9:13 AM

@species5618: I agree that there are legitimate tasks and uses for a secret service, even technically illegal ones. But the line that needs to be drawn and respected is between spying on enemy nations (or untrustworthy neutrals) and the increasing focus on terrorists and other criminals. The latter are a job for the police, not for secret services, and blurring the line between those two has never led to anything good. Even if it prevents the occasional crime (and there’s little proof for that), the erosion of fair trials that inevitably follows from using this information is a price not worth paying.

YeahSure February 19, 2014 10:05 AM

It is pretty clear that a country that keeps important policies totally secret from the voters is not a democracy.

Just voting for someone is not enough. You need to have the context for making a choice. And you need to have feasible candidates that represent your views. And there have to be basic rights that all exercise without regard to their social or political position. These rights have to include the government not setting up extrajudicial systems to monitor you and punish you or threaten to punish you — without recourse — for your exercise of your rights — as it does with its secret black lists and policies of harassment of opponents.

Information + Options + Basic Rights + Voting = Democracy

Nothing less.

It is ironic. Sure the government can read my email. But I can read their TOP SECRET documents. We are really at a draw that serves neither side.

Obviously the more that is concealed the less chance it will be tolerated. The more we are probed the more reason we will have to probe back. If the government wisely chose to only conceal real operational details and only surveil under constitutional warrant rather than using secrecy and surveillance to pursue a domestic political agenda, real government secrets would be safe and so would our privacy. And it would be a big step towards a real democracy.

YeahSure February 19, 2014 10:23 AM

@species5618 I suspect the only way to win a battle for greater good is to play by the similar rules to your enemy. I am not saying the same rules to similar !

Have you considered that a lot of our opponents have already been harmed by Western actions and are actually applying your maxim? These tensions have a long history and we are far from innocent in our actions.

Gandhi wrote something like: An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

And as Christ observed: we are very good at criticizing others while ignoring our own greater flaws.

I don’t understand a lot of the cultures we are in conflict with, but I do understand our culture enough to know that we are not receiving an accurate portrayal of our opponents beliefs and actions through our official channels. The powers that be treat information as a weapon. They sacrifice the truth to their goals.

Any honest appraisal finds plenty to condemn in everyone’s actions. What is the point of ramping conflict up? Our opponents have a lot less to lose than we do. Justifiably or not. Adding more violence to the mix creates more uncertainty for us. What are the chances it will improve the life of our citizens? It is a dumb policy that can only be driven by the small minority that benefits from war spending.

Skeptical February 19, 2014 10:40 AM

@ Bob S: I have to say now, it’s not about Snowden at all.

We’re not limited to thinking or talking about one thing, are we?

There are many aspects to this subject. Some are purely questions of future policy and action with respect to surveillance and security; these are clearly quite important, and surely >95% of Schneier’s posts on the subject are related to those questions.

Others are questions concerning the ethics of Snowden’s particular actions. These are interesting questions as well, even if not as important. The story itself is a fascinating one, and the answers to the ethical questions it raises would certainly be relevant for any future would-be whistleblowers.

Uh, Mike February 19, 2014 10:48 AM

@skeptical, thank you for your concise summary-to-date. I want to note that the ethical questions are important to everyone in free nations, not just whistleblowers.

tom February 19, 2014 10:53 AM

NSA has little to do with foreign military operations against desert nomads. That is just target practice. For R&D that can be re-purposed.

NSA is not rogue over-reach freelancing but rather a bureaucracy duly responding to the NSRL ‘demands’ placed on it. Since foreign lands pose little military threat, the NSRL are split between economic hegemony cheating and threats to the deep state.

Under the 1% rule, the threat comes from within. Little people wanting jobs, medicine, pensions, homes, educations. Massive domestic surveillance is required to suppress it.

Although we don’t know overall proportions in the Snowden trove, Greenwald et al have had no problems finding lots and lots of the euro-domestic surveillance variety.

Don’t be fooled — they do want the haystack. The needles are just security theater.

Uh, Mike February 19, 2014 12:17 PM

@tom, I’ll bring up another metaphor. In the wide net that catches the bad fish, good fish also get caught. Some societies, in some times and places, care about the good fish enough to let some bad fish go.

Daniel February 19, 2014 12:22 PM

First, Stewart Baker is a totalitarian hack. He has written before about how the government has the right to program people’s brains to maintain social order. (At least that was the implication I took from his statements.) The dude’s political philosophy is straight out of North Korea.

Second, in response to “Skeptical”. There is yet an third more basic question: should Snowden care? In my view Snowden’s ethical responsibility is to release all the documents and let the chips fall where they may. His “reasonable beliefs” are not relevant to anything at all. Snowden has no moral or ethical obligation to determine what is or is not “responsible” leakage. To make that determination in the first instance is arrogant. I also think it’s impossible because how can any one human being work through a million plus pages of documents and determine whether something is “illegal” or not? He’s not even a lawyer!

Hilbert February 19, 2014 12:23 PM

I believe Snowden was well aware of the fact that many of the documents would do harm if becoming public.
But what options did he have?
Not leak anything at all? See through thousands of files and risk being discovered?
In the interview with the German channel ‘ARD’ he repeatedly mentioned that he left journalists to decide which documents to publish and which ones to retain after balancing public interest and harm to the people involved.

To me, this seems the perfect way out of a dilemma.
Well played, Mr. Snowden!

Daniel February 19, 2014 12:28 PM

@uh, Mike. I recently came across this quote which I think sums up the NSA’s attitude quite well.

“La question est une invention merveilleuse et tout à fait sûre pour perdre un innocent qui a la complexion faible, et sauver un coupable qui est né robuste. Un coupable puni est un exemple pour la canaille; un innocent
condamné est l’affaire de tous les honnêtes gens”.

My French isn’t good but if I understand it correctly it says,” @Uh, Mike. ROTFLMAO.”

Mike (that's plain un-qualified Mike, not the same Mike as 'Uh, Mike' - oh dear - too many mikes) February 19, 2014 12:48 PM


I agree, Snowden is an interesting and important topic – but as you pointed out elsewhere (Squid thread I think) there are more interesting and important topics.

I guess I am therefore going off topic, but maybe I’ll get away with it in a metta kind of way.

You were asking about evidence for chilling effects of surveillance, and I’ve been thinking about that.

I wonder if this is a special case. One of those things that almost by definition is going to be very difficult to find.

It makes me think of the situation in Eastern Europe under the former Soviet-satellite governments. I’m no expert, but I think it’s fair to say that these were surveillance states which were sufficiently powerful to prevent themselves from being overthrown even though the majority of their citizens wished to overthrow them. So, did the surveillance have a chilling effect on what people said and did under those regimes? Yes – sure it did. Do we have evidence for this? Yes we do – after the event – oldsters will queue up at your door to tell you about the chilling effect it had on them.

Now – what if one of the Eastern European regimes had conducted research at the time – for international PR purposes for example. What if they’d tried to determine if their surveillance was having any kind of chilling effect on the activity/thoughts/freedoms of their people? I imagine some sort of multiple-choice questionnaire: “Is there any information about you, or your activity or any of your communications, that you wouldn’t be happy for an anonymous, professional Stasi operative to be privy to?” I can also imagine the almost unanimous response: Everyone is going to tick the box indicating “I am perfectly happy for the Stasi to monitor my every living moment if they wish, as I have, never have had, and never will have anything to hide.” Who is ever going to tick the box that says “I am sufficiently worried by the current extent of surveillance that it is affecting my behaviour”?

But, yes, that world is very different to our nominally free democracies (I don’t use ‘nominally’ here to be snarky incidentally, but I know some people argue about the question of how real our democracies are – not me though – I think they’re just fine and dandy as they are – I was just trying to avoid getting into that argument here (I say this just in case anyone with some sort of check-list is listening in – and – incidentally – if they are – I’m Buttle with a B – not Tuttle with a T; it’s bit a drafty in here actually come to think of it – I should probably check the ducts)).

What I’m thinking is that the people whose activities are genuinely being chilled – whether they live in a free democracy or an oppressive police state – are presumably the least likely to admit to being chilled. If their activity is already being chilled then we would surely expect that chill to extend to their frankness in responding to questions about whether or not they are being chilled (hope that makes sense!)

Most people are too busy with their normal lives to make the distinction between the statements “I am concerned about the potential consequences of security professionals being privy to my and other’s conversations/writings/activities” and “I have something to hide that makes me a potential danger to society”.

On a related note, consider the following outline of a recent conversation I had with a friend of mine (let’s call him Mr Straw Man):

Mr Straw Man says to me: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.”

I respond: “So there isn’t any information about you, or your activity or any of your communications, that you wouldn’t be happy for any random person living on your street to be privy to (full audio archive of your phone conversations, your bank balance and recent transactions for example)?”

Mr Straw Man: “Oh – well, OK, sure, I wouldn’t be happy about my neighbour being able to look at my bank statements…”

Me: “But you just said you don’t have anything to hide?”

Mr Straw Man: “Well, yes, I did say that, and it’s true I don’t have anything to hide… but what you’re talking about is different.”

Me: “OK. So what if I change my question: Is there any information about you, or your activity or any of your communications that you wouldn’t be happy for an anonymous, professional, competently-regulated security-services operative who wears a suit to be privy to?”

Mr Straw Man: “That would be fine by me – that’s really what I meant when I said if you don’t have anything to hide then you don’t have anything to worry about. What I should have said is that if you don’t have anything to hide from the government then you don’t have anything to worry about.”

Me: “So what if the professional security-services operative also happens to be your neighbour – presumably these people have to live somewhere?”

Mr Straw Man: “Well – I don’t think I’d mind about that too much so long as I didn’t know about it – and I wouldn’t know would I, what with it all being secret service and everything!”

Not that I’m trying to prove any particular point with this anecdote. I think it was an illuminating conversation for both of us (and by that I do not mean to be condescending to Mr Straw Man).

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons February 19, 2014 1:13 PM

@ Uh, Mike

The USA was founded by traitors. We call them revolutionaries, since they won.

No, they were “revolutionaries”…there is a difference. Modern day Brits don’t refer to King George as the patron of democratic systems, history demonstrates the tyrannical nature of un-cloistered power. The “revolutionaries” observations, by way of hindsight, were proven correct. Thomas Paine went into significant detail in documenting the trespass on subjects to the crown. Again, subjects, not citizens. No one in England confuses these terms but i am afraid your confusion is obvious. Functionally, King George was a traitor to England in forcing the colonists to revolt. Read the declaration of independence–it’s pretty complete in its damnation of the King’s actions.

If the label traitor is to be accurately applied, it must be applied to those that have violated the foundational tenets of the constitutional republic known as the United States of America. Using the basis on which Paine identified the trespass on subjects of the crown–I’ll start from the top:

Dick Cheney
George W. Bush
Donald Rumsfeld
Paul Wolfowitz
Daniel Perele
Condolisa Rice
Colin Powell
Michael Hayden
(The Chiefs of Staff and Myers)
All DoD/DoJ/DoE major department secretaries
Lockheed Martin
Boeing/SAIC Corp
Northrup Grumman
The Carlye Group

and a whole host of characters

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons February 19, 2014 1:25 PM

@ Mike

I do not mean to be condescending to Mr Straw Man

That’s funny…

Of course for Snowden–not such much.

Blah blah blahckbirds over Memphis February 19, 2014 1:27 PM

The appropriate ethical framework for discussing Snowden is established by universal consensus. Naturally, that framework will never come up in public discourse in the US hermit kingdom because it doesn’t support US state propaganda.

Snowden is a refugee and human rights defender, as defined in A/RES/53/144, adopted by consensus, and A/HRC/22/L.13, adopted by acclamation. The international community considers the status of human rights defenders sufficiently important to appoint it a special rapporteur. A/RES/53/144 Article 11 applies directly to a guy in Snowden’s job, in a profession that affects the human rights of others, such as the right to privacy, the right to seek and obtain information, the right to freedom of association, and the right to life, as in the case of Martin Luther King, al-Awlaki’s minor child, and other less notable humans that the paranoid timmies of NSA helped kill.

jones February 19, 2014 3:22 PM

@ name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons

“Functionally, King George was a traitor to England in forcing the colonists to revolt”

You’re quite right. That’s the narrow meaning Locke had in mind when analyzing rebellion: that governments create rebellion by infringing on liberty rather than preserving it. Typically, individuals don’t have the power to enact such transgressions. See, for example, section 222 in his Second Treatise on Civil Government:

Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.

@ YeahSure

“It is pretty clear that a country that keeps important policies totally secret from the voters is not a democracy. ”

That’s true, but what you outline isn’t democracy either. Democracy is direct, participatory government. What we have is a republic with representative government. The best candidate we’ve had for real democracy was the labor union movement, which is pretty much dismantled now.

Most people spend most of the best hours of their lives at work. There is nothing democratic about the typical workplace: you have to do what your boss says, and you don’t get to vote your boss out of office. You work under threat of starvation, and you don’t get to set the price of your own labor. Capitalism is an authoritarian doctrine for these reasons.

And since few people own capital — which is to say, most people earn wages rather than employ their own property in production — capitalism is an authoritarian doctrine really only meant to benefit a very small segment of society (those who own the means of production, and therefore determine how much everybody else gets of whatever there is to get).

Labor unions, initially, were not just about higher wages: they were about democracy in the most fundamental sense, about participation in basic decisions about the allocation of resources (including laborers’ time).

The direction we’re headed now — towards “privatization” of government services — is very troubling. We’ve had private government once before: it was called monarchy.

Evan February 19, 2014 3:25 PM


The criminals, terrorists and other nation states do not play by “the rules”

Yes. True.

and those “rules” will need constant review.

Also true.

But here’s the catch – if our own government doesn’t play by the “rules”, how is it any different from the criminals, terrorists, and hostile foreign powers?

Daniel February 19, 2014 5:03 PM

@uh, Mike.

The quote is from Jean de La Bruyère, a 16th century French moralist. The quote is in reference to torture and the the gist of it is that it is better for an innocent man to suffer than let a guilty man go free. Why? Because if the person is truly guilty then his suffering serves as a good example for the masses. If the man is actually innocent, well who cares because life itself is simply suffering for the morally innocent, what’s one more twist of the rack?

It’s an interesting point. In America we tend to be willing to tolerate a little bit of injustice (the guilty go free) for the sake of liberty. Bruyere is arguing that it is better to accept a loss of liberty (the innocent in prison) for the sake of better justice. At least that is how I understand the thrust of his remarks; my French is imperfect.

I do not know if there is right answer to that debate in the abstract. What I do know is–based upon my observation of their concrete behavior–that people like Clapper and Baker agree with Bruyere.

DB February 19, 2014 5:15 PM

End of privacy equals end of democracy. When our every movement and communication is spied upon, all freedom dies, all creativity dies, everything we hold dear is gone. We all become virtual prisoners in our own homes. Everything we say and do, and everywhere we go, is monitored.

There are so many ridiculous laws on the books that it’s impossible for people not to break the law, even “law abiding citizens.” Combine this with this 100% “know everything” mentality, and you make it so that ANY person can legally be hauled in if someone in power doesn’t “like” them for any reason. This breeds corruption, because that kind of God-like power in the hands of people naturally corrupts people. Therefore, the end of privacy destroys democracy and eventually gives rise to a total and complete dictatorship, more cruel than has ever existed in history. Calling it “nazi” or “stalinist” is too kind. Connect the dots, people. Look a couple chess moves ahead.

Nick P February 19, 2014 9:06 PM

@ moo

I read a few. This one was nice:

“And then he compares voluntarily buying fire insurance for himself with opting other people into secret fire insurance and sending them a blacked-out bill. Sigh. “

Chris Abbott February 20, 2014 12:37 AM

Edward Lucas is clearly a Cold War throwback/NSA-GCHQ troll. He has no idea what he’s talking about. If he truly understood the ramifications of what the “FVEYS” are doing to the people of the Western World and the security threat that they pose, hopefully he’d see the light. However, individuals like this often seem to think that’s ok. These are people to be concerned about. I guess all we can do is watch out.

Autolykos February 20, 2014 6:27 AM

@YeahSure: The need for information in elections is IMHO demonstrated pretty well in that old Chinese (or sometimes Soviet) joke:

The peasants in a Chinese village are assembled to vote. Each one is handed a sealed envelope to throw into the ballot box. One of the peasants tries to look into his envelope, and his neighbor says: “Hey, stop that, it’s a secret ballot.”

Arkh February 20, 2014 9:28 AM

@uh, Mike

Regarding the french paragraph someone poster.

Here is a quick translation (I’m french so my english is not perfect):

“The question is a marvelous invention. It is sure to condemn a feeble innocent but it can save a culprit who is strong enough.

A punished culprit is an example for miscreant; a condemned innocent is every honest people’s affair”.

The fact he uses the polite way of calling the torture (“la question” instead of “torture”) show the first phrase is sarcasm.

YeahSure February 20, 2014 9:42 AM

@Autolykos, good joke!!

@jones, Point taken. But I don’t think direct democracy is an option for a nation of any size. And it is not necessarily desirable, since total democracy offers no protections for the minority, what I call basic rights. I think my principals remain a fairly good summary of a desirable constitutional representative democracy.

And you are certainly correct about the non-democratic nature of work, but that can and should be mitigated by democratic laws that limit the power of employers. Capitalism can be an extension of human liberty, allowing people to start endeavors larger than they can do themselves, but in its current corporate form it is often parasitical and repressive.

And unions can be great, but apparently they have also been abusive too. Any center of power can be abused.

It is easier to identify undesirable government actions than to specify the ideal government. A fair government will dissatisfy everyone sometimes. But I am pretty sure we can do better than the 1984 scenario we are in now.

GregW February 21, 2014 10:19 PM

(Warning… pent-up rant ahead. Somewhat off-topic, but somewhat at the heart of whether Snowden was justified.)

Nobody is hammering home the real worst-case problem for democracy here.

The NSA, subject to the Constitution, seizes without warrant vast amounts of data on the citizenry (let’s say 90+% of what they collect in the US geographically is on the US citizenry), enough phone records and internet records and location data (GPS) to know whenever two people meet or communicate. Unless those two use extreme OpSec (which would qualify as even more grounds for suspicion! So we must collect it all so we can find where the gaps are!)

Where are the US Constitutional ideals of freedom from search and seizure of personal effects, or freedom of association?

The constitutional ideals have been stolen by lawyers in the service of politicians who want to cover their ass by making sure they collect 99% of data because it’s too hard to identify the 1% of relevant data, or by operational NSA lackeys (cf rejection of THINTHREAD) who don’t want to leave some possible operational loophole where a terrorist steals my cell phone and makes a call. Security theater.

But that’s not all.

They then turn around and provide this bulk/mass-collected data to four other countries within the FiveEyes who are not under our constitution and have no legal restriction (but hopefully share our values and presumably there are agreements on use, but they are ones that can be violated or adhered upon in complete secrecy and which can never really be adjudicated openly or justly) and they they also share this bulk collection with other countries … how many we don’t know, but they seem to with Israel who sorta share our values but seem a little more ends-justify-the-means than at least I feel completely comfortable with. (Plenty of that going around on all our sides, I freely admit). Now the Israelis would probably get a copy without our help (see Clinton’s Lewinski-era remarks about White House phone tapping for a presumably-informed view on that), so I’m not sure restricting that particular relationship is super-helpful.

But anyway… my point is this… while in general “our nation” probably can trust “that other nation” with a shared purpose as a general rule, it does NOT follow that I, as a citizen guaranteed rights, can trust that the other nation will uphold my rights.

I lost that trust the moment my government collected my internet history and list of phone calls and cell phone movements and handed them over to a third party. Or, frankly, considering how spying works, I lost that trust the moment the collection happened by my government. No subpoena, no good reason.

The US Constitution may protect a minority within their own country (it sure as heck should! That’s the point, right?!), but that respect diminishes a lot when looked at from countries overseas not party to that Constitution.

(For example, clearly the US doesn’t extend that sort of respect to foreigners overseas, right? )

No, our government must kill our rights in order to save them. Orwell would be proud.

As far as I can tell, our government has more or less given up on “defense” as a strategy. Teddy Roosevelt’s “speak softly but carry a big stick” seems like a shrewd strategy, but it runs into gross problems when merged with the secrecy-state and the accompanying lies and deception needed to really carry it out (see the gross misleading accompanying everything around Iraq WMD).

So anyway, the US government doesn’t know how to do it (defense) so they play all these games and hack all networks and kill other people to do “offense” and hope that works well enough so that they can say “we did everything we could”. But is that really the right thing to do? It’s not a strategy I’ve observed as long-term sustainable in all the human encounters I’ve been a part of in individuals or among groups… you can’t hide offensive actions for long… people aren’t stupid. 2-3 times is enemy action.

There are many signs, not just from Snowden, that the NSA has essentially given up on (computer) “Defense” (since all computers can be compromised) so they settle for “the best defense is a good offense” and get it all. And militarily, the “Department of Defense” clearly decided they couldn’t even pretend to handle the Defense angle in the wake of 9/11 so they settled to become a de facto “Department of Offense” to defend us by attacking Iraq, Afganistan, Pakistan, Iran, etc, and created a new consolidated bureaucracy (“Homeland Security”) to handle the “Defense” mandate that one would hope would be theirs (I know it’s more complicated than that, posse comitatus, FBI, etc etc; hang with me. I am not just trying to note a second Orwellian irony.)

The offensive actions are justified because they “protect our ideals and our way of life,” but since the ideals are rotting away being undercut by the very methods being used, the actions end up basically being about defending our property. Which is great but kind of hollowly materialistic in a way that every other international actor will also claim and which is not sustainable. (Not sustainable since power = will * motive * capability, and the “will” part will grow increasingly weak over time for the US public, DoD employees/contractors, and eventually even politicians when there are no patriots to stand up against this sorry mess because “someone else higher up has made the decision for me”.) And I haven’t even started dredging up the cynicism resulting from “following the money” of the military-industrial-banking-media complex.

Democracy (or being a Republic) isn’t some magic pixie dust that you sprinkle on a country and it makes it work. The bedrock is trust. And secrecy and collection of information on all the parties involved undermines that trust. It’s bothered a lot of us pre-Snowden who could sort of see what was going on, but with the full cat out of the bag, we can’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend that maybe the problem isn’t really there. It’s there. When I say “nobody is hammering home the worst-case scenario for democracy” this is what I mean. The bedrock trust in the purpose of the institution is jeapordized. And we can’t trust the Law, because the data once collected is easily handed or stolen extra-jurisdictionally. When the trust goes, there goes the democracy.

I don’t think mass collection of data is a win-win policy. I think it’s a lose-lose.

And the saddest thing is to see the alleged fixes from Obama et al, further cementing the perpetuity of such mass-collection, and the sanction of a patient/hopeful/trusting public being misused to justify even more mass-collection.

On a side-note to those asking, “does the public self-censor in light of the NSA mass-collection?” And do they do so when it comes to non-trivial policy questions facing our representatives? Absolutely! How can you do otherwise, when you don’t know where the lines are, or who your true friends and enemies are or who is watching? When the law is opaque and the leaders (Clapper, Iraq) lie/mislead? Where is the line when people are spying on you with unseen/unknown methods? To give a personal example, if I post a critique in a semi-public forum like this like the above one, will it cause me to fail some security clearance needed for some IT security job 5, 20 years in the future? Want to offer me guarantees on that? I have no idea, but I have avoided commenting before for such reasons and am certainly now counting the cost before clicking Submit. (To future clearance personnel: I love my country and keep my word as my Lord asks. Except when I tell my wife I’ll be home on time, right?)

I hope you can see through the undoubted errors and logical holes in my rant to get my actual point. I cannot take longer to make it airtight, but having participated here long enough, I suspect/hope a few of you brethren can understand/appreciate it. And perhaps take my point and make it better (or show me the error of my thoughts, or offer up a “hear, hear!”)

Clive Robinson February 22, 2014 2:37 AM

@ GregW,

First off you realise that not being out on a Friday night “drinking with your buddies” makes you atleast suspect if not “Un-American” in the eyes of some?

The question of the 5eyes goes deeper than you think for instance I’ve long known –and said on this blog– they spy on each others citizens for each other so that they can stand up and say truthfully “We do not spy on our citizens”.

But it goes deeper than that, originaly it started in WWII with Britain providing signals inteligence to the US not just on U-Boat movments but also on “suspect individuals” who happened to be or were pretending to be US Citizens or from Canada etc but in reality were belived to be working as agents of the axis powers. It came as a shock to those limited few at the senior levels of the USG who were “indoctrinated” into the intel just how little the US knew what was going on in the world.

The reason for this lack of knowledge has been WWI and it’s after effects, the US withdrew from the world stage in many respects and inwardly focused and what signals intel the US had had “withered on the vine” as politicians likewise became inwardly focused. Also was the problem of technology, prior to WWI nearly all international signals traffic was by “cable” which made gathering signals intel difficult unless you had access via the opperating organisation.

Britain realising that war with Germany was likely put in place a plan to cut six German owned and operated cables that were on the bed of the English Channel. Which at the start of hostilities was acted upon which forced the German signals onto other cables and over shiping radio services which alowed the encipherd traffic to be intercepted. These intercepts made their way to Room 40 of the “old Admiralty Buldings” in London adjacent to the First Sea Lords accomodation and the boardroom. The First Sea Lord of the time was Winston Churchill, and the set up of Room 40 was at best chaotic, consisting of various individuals “doing a bit” alongside their other duties and “poping in” from Schools and Universities during the vacations… After the war with signals traffic decreasing and Diplomatic traffic going back to cables the need for signals intercepts dropped dramaticaly and breaking of encryption went back to being a hobby.

Britain likewise droped a lot of it’s intel services and what were left appeared to many to be little more than “Clubs for Classics Graduates”. Winston Churchill again out of favour with the voters and politicians wrote books one of which laid bare much of what had been the activities of Room 40. And it was this revelation that went on to change the world of encryption. Nearly all high level communications had been by “code book” and “super encipherment” derived from simple manual ciphers. During and after the war many countries belived this system to be secure, so even though machine ciphers were available they were rarely used. The Churchill revelations however were noted by a number of people and they started to use comercial machine ciphers including the Enigma. Some nations such as France maintained their signals intercepting activities and developed ways (Metode des batons) to break the commercial –plug board less– Enigma. Being the loser of the war Germany has no Laurals to sit on and wanted to know why they lost. Churchill’s revelations told them that their ciphers were badly broken likewise due to the Spanish Civil War they found out about the weakness of the comercial Enigma and found a solution for it.

Britain and the US both being victorious had laurals to sit on and did, which is why they did not change many of their cipher systems even though they new them to be broken. Which was a bit of a disaster come the start of WWII.

Towards the end of WWII it was clear to a few in Britain that due to a lack of industrial and economic strength the only advantage Britain had in the British-US relationship was brains. Just about every scientific advantage Britain had over Germany was given away to the US with it’s industrial and economic advantage for the US to manufacture in the quantaties required. The British realised that they had to make post war intel plans whilst they still had the power to do so for two main reasons. Firstly to prevent the same problems that has occured after WWI and secondly to set an agender whilst they still had sufficient influance to do so. The result was a memorandum of understanding which became the basis of the BRUSA agreement. It only happened because their were like minded individuals in the US that realised the importance of Sig Int and were likewise not prepared to allow the same problem that had happened after WWI to happen again in the US. Thus both the NSA and GCHQ resulted like Siamese Twins joined by the BRUSA agreement.

And when entities are tied like that their ties to each other become stronger than any other and rise above even national concerns in the “group think” that develops. As Australia, Canada and New Zeland joined their Intel Agencies all “bought into” the “group think”. As a result the 5eyes agencies all see themselves as above their elected officials and the rest of their respective governments… Which as many New Zelanders have found has become a real concern with their Prime Minister having to come out and in effect admit they have no oversight in any way, along with Journalists pointing out that the agency actually has a US national running the shop…

I don’t know about the current relationships within the 5eyes but at one point the relationship was the US manufactured the technology with Britain bringing the ideas and fundemental ideas to the table, along with “boots on the ground” assets which for political emmbarisment reasons the US has withdrawn from HumInt. These days Britain still provides the “door into Europe” and “The Commonwealth” which includes the other 5eyes, Australia provides access into the Far East and Canada and New Zeland providing access to the respective poles. As such when it comes to standards and regulations you can watch the international delegations of the 5eyes working together to their agencies interests not those of their Governments or tax payers who fund them.

But what is clear is that the respective 5eyes agencies have their first loyalty to each other not their respective nations and will use any kind of influance available to them to ensure their position and independence.

Mike February 22, 2014 8:03 AM


If I too were not concerned about who might be listening-in I’d say here here.

Stepping further out I guess time will eventually pronounce – as it always does.

Maybe I’m just weird, but since the financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent policy responses and (limited) light that has been shone into the world of financial services my prior sense that our systems are trustworthy and more or less free from corruption has been completely shot. The instinctive deceptive/dismissive stance from our rulers with regard to state surveillance is just adding to my sense of distrust even more.

Societies run on trust. I’m quite skilled in some respects, well educated on paper, have a fair amount to offer society as a whole I think (maybe I’m kidding myself!) – I increasingly find myself waking up in the morning thinking – no – fu*k it – why should I bother – a world in which self-serving liars prosper, in which sociopathic characteristics are beneficial and are largely shielded even from failure, is a world in which I do not want to participate to anything other than the bare minimum required in order to have a quiet life. This is the living breathing consequence of “moral hazard” writ small – for me – personally.

I really don’t think people who are habituated to lying – particularly if they are in positions of power and responsibility – quite realise the effect it has on us instinctively-socially-responsible poor little worker proles when we actually discover that we have been deliberately deceived. The liars generally think that if it all blows over – and that they manage to retain their jobs – that this is the end of it – that they’ve got away with it, and everything will return to how it was before. This is not the case. Society takes a kick in the head each time – the damage is cumulative – us naive little children don’t forget the lies, the betrayal, we just slowly get more bitter, more sullen, less co-operative, more selfish, less trusting of everyone and anyone – and society functions less well; it becomes less productive, it invents fewer things, it becomes more dangerous, everyone tries less hard. The people who aren’t sociopaths (most of us) just say “well why the f*ck should I bother being good”, and the sociopaths are further incentivised to lie cheat and steal because, demonstrably, it works!

So – where was I (ranting… ranting…) – yes: Time will pronounce. The low trust societies will eventually wither on the vine I guess, becoming increasingly unpleasant and soul destroying places to live (even for the privileged liars who operate them) – the low trust societies will be out competed by higher trust societies – if only because people who don’t like having to be sociopathic to succeed (most of us) will just give up on trying at anything and/or gravitate to the higher trust societies. The low trust societies will become increasingly economically disadvantaged, eventually running themselves into the ground. It will all take a lot longer than it should though. It’s all a bit depressing really.

I think about Norway and Breivik. He committed a truly horrendous crime. They’ve locked him up; they’re not going to kill him. As far as I understand it they’re not plastering their cities with cameras in response. Their attitude doesn’t seem to be “this must never happen again” – instead it seems to be “part of the price of the freedoms we have in our society is the risk that this sort of thing will happen from time to time” – as I understand it they looked to see if there’s anything that went wrong with how things are organised at the moment that needed fixing – and having done that they’re essentially ‘taking it on the chin’. Maybe I’m idealising – I’m not an expert on what happened in Norway (partly because I’m slightly inhibited about reading up on what happened with Breivik on the interwebs because ‘the system’ may conclude that I’m likely to be some sort of crazed racial supremacist). The Norwegians do have lots of their own oil too though – which I guess makes it a lot easier to be groovy.

Steve February 23, 2014 9:52 AM

I’m not interested in the actions of Edward Snowden. I’m interested in the actions of Michael Hayden and James Clapper. Why do we exclusively discuss the actions of Edward Snowden to the exclusion of all other lines of inquiry?

AlanS February 23, 2014 4:49 PM


Hayden currently works for the Chertoff Group. He’s famous from believing he understands the 4th Amendment.

James Clapper is the current DNI. He’s famous for lying to the Senate Intelligence Committee in response to a question asked by Senator Wyden on March 12, 2013. In the video it doesn’t even look like he’s telling the truth and Wyden doesn’t look like he believes a word of it. Snowden provided the answer Wyden was looking for a few months later. Clapper previously worked for Booz Hamilton and is associated with a number of other contractors. The contractor community was enthusiastic about his confirmation</>.

Skeptical February 23, 2014 5:15 PM

@Daniel: Second, in response to “Skeptical”. There is yet an third more basic question: should Snowden care? In my view Snowden’s ethical responsibility is to release all the documents and let the chips fall where they may. His “reasonable beliefs” are not relevant to anything at all. Snowden has no moral or ethical obligation to determine what is or is not “responsible” leakage. To make that determination in the first instance is arrogant.

Why do you think Snowden has no ethical obligation to determine what documents should and should not be released? There’s nothing arrogant about recognizing that ethical obligation. Some information is properly classified, and the release of it could harm individuals and nations.

@Mike: What I’m thinking is that the people whose activities are genuinely being chilled – whether they live in a free democracy or an oppressive police state – are presumably the least likely to admit to being chilled. If their activity is already being chilled then we would surely expect that chill to extend to their frankness in responding to questions about whether or not they are being chilled (hope that makes sense!)

That’s certainly possible, but then there are various litigants who routinely bring lawsuits against various agencies of the US Government, and who, in order to substantiate a First Amendment claim as part of the suit, allege chilling effects.

In any event, legally one doesn’t need to demonstrate that one’s speech was completely frozen. It suffices to show that a person of ordinary firmness would be deterred from her exercise of free expression by the action/policy/law in question. But the question I tried to raise is a little different, which I’ll try to describe more clearly.

Some of the arguments against the metadata program are premised on how the existence of such a program could alter our behavior across society. And I’m left wondering how would that behavior be altered, and how could we empirically study whether that’s actually happening?

In the case of, say, the Soviet Union under Stalin (and for some time after!), we could actually look for lots of things as evidence, and find them.

@Hilbert: In the interview with the German channel ‘ARD’ he repeatedly mentioned that he left journalists to decide which documents to publish and which ones to retain after balancing public interest and harm to the people involved. To me, this seems the perfect way out of a dilemma.

What? Simply by releasing these documents to journalists, you reduce the security of the operations, plans, etc., contained in the documents. The leak occurs the instant you release the documents to journalists. You can’t abdicate moral responsibility for the leak by handing off classified documents to journalists and then telling them to decide. This isn’t “Who Wants to be a Millionaire Leaker” and there is no phoning a friend for the answers. If you’re going to deliberately break the law by releasing classified material to journalists anywhere, much less around the world, then you have an inescapable moral responsibility to know that the material reveals wrongdoing that requires its release and to take steps as far as possible to mitigate or prevent the unnecessary release of classified information. If you don’t know the answer, then you don’t break the law and leak classified information.

And this is where much of what Snowden did fails any reasonable test of justified civil disobedience. Regardless of what one thinks about certain documents, he certainly also stole many documents that reveal no wrongdoing, and that are extraordinarily sensitive, and then he released these documents to various journalists and organizations. It is a breach of faith and trust that shocks the conscience, and his apparent continued refusal to mitigate the harm of that breach only compounds the evil.

Let me put this in more vivid terms. Leaving aside every controversial program, I did not trust the security of various operations used to keep military forces safer and render their success more likely, nor the names and faces of intelligence officers and employees, nor any of a thousand other things likely contained in Snowden’s documents, to the security practices, training, and judgment of journalists and activists around the world. Every member of the military and intelligence agencies trusts and depends that crucial information will be handled securely and carefully, and that everyone will do his duty. It is the same faith a pilot has in the diligence of the ground crew, as the squad on the ground has in the pilot providing close air support. He had no right to imperil so much, and there can be no ethically justifying reason for his actions with respect to that information.

And nothing short of actual coercion by Russian intelligence agencies could excuse his continuing refusal to disclose to the US what he took, and to mitigate the harm caused by having these documents in the open (or on the brink).

I do give him credit for sparking the public discussion concerning certain programs, but matters unrelated to those programs were not necessary to steal and not necessary to expose, and it is highly likely that immense harm has already resulted (and yes officials do cry out such things whenever anything is leaked, but it’s difficult for me to see how the unnecessary parts of these leaks could not result in great harm).

Mike February 24, 2014 6:39 AM


You say: Some of the arguments against the metadata program are premised on how the existence of such a program could alter our behavior across society. And I’m left wondering how would that behavior be altered […]

OK – well I think at least part of the suggested behavioural impact is as follows:

Anyone who wants to communicate with someone who they suspect may be going to do a bad thing or is already involved in a bad thing is likely to be inhibited from directly emailing or phoning that person, or emailing or phoning people who are one-person removed from that person. Journalists/academics trying to write-about/study crime/criminals/terrorists, people who may be seeking to engage such people in conversation/communication in an attempt to dissuade them from their existing or potential activities. The same would apply to communication/engagement with someone who you know isn’t actually doing anything bad but may be suspected of doing something bad by some brain-dead algorithm and/or apparatchik – white-hats, ‘benign’ (e.g. environmental?) political activists, controversial artist/writers/thinkers. I think most people would assume that under a system of blanket metta-data collection they’d just be automatically branded with ‘guilt’ by association with such people by the aforementioned brain-dead algorithms and/or apparatchiks and that would expose them to the risk of some kind of hassle in the future (and actually not having a record of the content of the communications could even make that worse!)

I think it is really important to understand the low opinion most of the population has for people who work for/in government. There is no expectation of competence – quite the opposite.

I don’t think the argument is that this is going to stop people engaging with those on the ‘periphery of normality’ – it’s just that they would likely engage less – be less inclined to bother. Maybe there are people who think that would be a good thing – anything that incentivises the bulk of normal law-abiding conventional-thinking society to further isolate themselves from those on the periphery may be considered by many as something that can surely only be healthy and socially positive. Not me though. Anyhow, I certainly concede that the extent to which knowledge of a given blanket metta-data programme may do harm/good to a society as a whole, in the short or long term, is going to be very difficult to measure!

From a personal point of view though, I have a little anecdote: This Christmas I was visiting my mother (75 years old). She worked in engineering/industry and as far as I know she’d had to sign up to keeping secrets at one time or another. Here in the UK we have a message from the Queen broadcast on Christmas day, but one of our TV channels also broadcasts an ‘alternative Christmas message’ – usually from a vaguely anti-establishment or otherwise radical figure – and this year they’d got Snowden to do it. I only found out about the Snowden broadcast the next day and I suggested it would be interesting to watch it on the TV catch-up service over the internet – but my mother (who I think was genuinely intrigued to hear what he had to say) said something like – “Oh – I’m not sure we should do that – they know what you’re watching over the internet don’t they”. Now, I’m not saying she has any privileged knowledge about surveillance, and she’s shown no paranoia with regard to any of the recent news – if anything she’s on the ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide’ team! So I was a bit shocked. We did watch it in the end (it wasn’t great, he ended up sounding a bit deranged – maybe all part of some cunning dis-crediting plan!).

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