NSA is Wasteful and Dangerous

During a podcast on Occupy Radio, the host and a renowned security expert Bruce Schneier get to discuss the NSA practices in terms of treating citizen privacy and other related issues.

Listen to the Audio on Archive.org

– Bruce Schneier is an internationally recognized expert on cryptography and data security. He was dubbed a ‘Security Guru’ by the Economist magazine. His most recent book is ‘Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive’. Bruce’s newsletter, Cryptogram, and his blog Schneier on Security are read by over a quarter of a million people. Thank you, Bruce, for joining me on Occupy Radio.

– Hey, thanks for having me.

– My pleasure. I have been looking forward to this interview. We’ve been talking about talking for about a couple of weeks now, and you seem like the guy to educate me on what the heck is going on with NSA and Snowden, and Prism, and all of these things that seem to have just opened up before as lately. That seems to be your daily whack, right?

– I guess it is. So, basically, what Edward Snowden has done is he’s given to the press documents relating to various NSA surveillance programs. Glenn Greenwald is the reporter who has been sifting through them, and at this point we’ve seen, I don’t know, maybe a dozen documents. I’ve heard that Snowden has about a thousand, so we’ve seen very little of what’s out there.

And these are all documents that outline different surveillance programs that are targeted against Americans, non-Americans, Americans communicating with non-Americans—a lot of email, cell phone conversations, web traffic. So we’re just seeing little shadows of what’s going on.

And to the extent the press is talking about it—they’re talking about the specific programs, you mentioned Prism—that’s the name of a single database inside the NSA. How many of them are there totally? I haven’t the slightest idea. Or talking about Snowden and his personal story, flying from the US to Hong Kong, and now he’s in Moscow, we believe in the airport, him trying to get asylum, some place to land, because the US is probably rightly going to prosecute him for this.

– And we’ve made him now a man without a country. They’ve revoked his passport, now he can’t legally go anywhere, right?

– You know, I don’t know how that works. Really, I’m not following the personal story. The media loves the personal story, because it’s easy to report. It’s the guy, it’s his ex-girlfriend. Where is he? What’s he doing? How does he take a shower? Where is he going to go? Do people like him? Do people hate him? That’s very much a modern media story, it’s a story about a person.

The real story here is the US government, the National Security Agency, what’s being done in our name, or how much surveillance is going on over ordinary Americans, under what legal regime this is happening. This is actually a very complex story, and because it’s so complex, it’s not being reported on and off.

The initial leaks got a lot of press; the first few documents that Greenwald posted—I was basically getting our bets published as fast as I could write them. Now we’re seeing more documents and there’s a lot less press about them. Because in some ways it’s more of the same: ‘Oh, look, the NSA’s spying us in a different way; oh, look, here’s another document that talks about some legal mumbo-jumbo that’s related to this’. It’s a harder story, and that’s unfortunate, because what I think is really being obscured is the big picture, and that’s dangerous.

– Is it possible to sum the big picture in just a couple of catchphrases or would you and I spend the next hour just cracking the surface?

– I’d sum it by saying that after September 11th the NSA turned its extremely powerful and extremely well-funded eyeballs on America, and in every way they could, they collected data on us, data on who we’re talking to, data on where we are, data on what we’re spending money on, data on what we’re saying.

They collected it all; they put it into giant computers, even though they were prohibited by law from doing this. They did this through very tortured legal reasoning. We hear about secret rulings made by secret judges in secret courts. Just this past week we heard about a ruling by a secret judge that was so secret that she couldn’t tell the other secret judges about the secret ruling. These things feel fundamentally un-American. We don’t believe that we live in a country where secret judges make secret rulings in secret courts based on secret laws, but turns out we do.

– Is that as much a ground changer as we think it is though? Have we always been living in that world and just not been aware of it?

– I don’t think so; or, at least, not to this extent. There are those who will argue that the US has never been a democracy—I don’t believe that. I think, fundamentally, we discuss and debate programs and we make decisions based on elections, and this is not happening in this case.

You know, some of it was the initial fear after September 11th. When the attacks happened, the Bush administration cast out for somebody who was able to do this. They found that the NSA had the ability, had the computers, had the sensors, had the analysis software. So it made sense to give the job to them.

But here we are, in 2013, and these things are still going on. There have never been public debates. We hear that occasionally single members of Congress are briefed on some programs, but they can’t talk about them even to their staff. We hear about lots of different code names. And the full extent of what’s going on gets buried with different code names.

And if you have enough programs with enough secret names, there always exists a program that doesn’t do the thing that whoever is grilling you is afraid of. You should be always able to get up and say: ‘This program doesn’t do that; we’re not implying that this other program doesn’t do that’.

A couple of weeks before the Snowden documents there was someone from the NSA testifying before Congress that the NSA does not collect information on Americans. And when the documents came out, he was asked: ‘What the hell, you just lied’, and he said: ‘No-no, we use the word collect to mean look at, so, for example, if you buy a lot of books and put them in your library, you’re not collecting books, you only collect the book when you open it up and read it’. This isn’t even English, this is some other language.

And these sorts of tortured reasonings are how legal justifications happened. One of the documents that was released this past week talked about an NSA email collection program. And this turned out to be the subject of—I don’t know if you remember, in 2004 we heard about this meeting that happened in then Attorney General Ashcroft’s hospital room, where a document had to be signed. He wouldn’t sign it, but it had to do with this data collection of emails of American citizens. So the NSA lost their legal justification, so they found some other one, and it seems to be based on all these tortured reasonings. And this is something the Americans have never been able to voice an opinion on.

Categories: Audio, Text, Written Interviews

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.