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September 30, 2014

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NSA leak reveals deeper problem

Please. Let’s stop focusing on the overpaid, tormented young man who revealed the National Security Administration’s Power Point Plan for Total Electronic World Domination.

Let’s focus instead on what our nation’s wiretapping agency has actually been up to, whether America’s technology giants have been complicit in an unprecedented and sweeping electronic intrusion and, most important, whether we think allowing the government access to our phone calls, email, video and voice chats, photos and file transfers is the price we must pay for security in the post-9/11 world.

The issue is not whether Edward Snowden is a “traitor,” as Republican House Speaker John Boehner pronounced him last week. The issue is whether Snowden’s claims are true.

Snowden, wherever he is, may have broken the law and deeply embarrassed his employer, the government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. And he will probably be made to pay for that. Standing on principle is meaningless if there is no risk attached. That’s his cross to bear.

But in the greater scheme of things, the 29-year-old infrastructure analyst did the country a service.

Even President Barack Obama, while condemning the leak, seemed to acknowledge as much. “I welcome this debate,” Obama said last week. “And I think it’s healthy for our democracy.”

Obviously, you can’t have a debate if there is no issue on the table. Snowden’s leak took care of that.

He revealed to the Guardian and The Washington Post a top-secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, requiring Verizon Business Network to make all its records available to the government. He also revealed the existence of two government snooping programs. One, called PRISM, claims that tech companies have given the government unprecedented, direct access to data generated by their users.

The PRISM slides, intended to train intelligence operatives, promised, “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” That has been interpreted to mean that the NSA could obtain emails, video chats and other communications without having to make specific requests of the service providers, nor having to obtain specific court orders for each search.

When news of the Verizon order broke last week, experts noted that the NSA was simply reviewing phone records looking for patterns that might link certain numbers to terrorist threats. They gave assurances that the agency would need a court order before zeroing in on individuals by tapping phones.

But with Internet service providers, if the NSA has direct access to servers, the fear is that the agency would have broad authority to rummage through private information.

Theoretically, the government is targeting communications that flow from foreign targets through U.S. servers. However, the Post reported, there is no way to know how many Americans have been inappropriately swept up in terrorism investigations by these tools.

The tech companies protested in unison. While all of them admit they provide data to the government when they are legally compelled to do so, they all said they’d never heard of PRISM, had never given the government unfettered access to their data and that their servers have no special “back door” for the government.

“What the ...?” was the headline on a post on Google’s corporate blog, signed by CEO Larry Page and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond. “We have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government — or any other government — direct access to our servers.” They added, “We provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law.”

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg called the reports “outrageous.” “Facebook,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “is not and has never been part of any program to give the U.S. or any government direct access to our servers. ... When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully ... and then only provide the information if it is required by law.”

Yet The New York Times reported that Google and Facebook both discussed with government officials the creation of “separate, secure portals” where the companies would deposit information for government retrieval.

There are so many unanswered questions here.

Did the person who created the slides overstate the government’s access to tech company servers? Are the companies slicing and dicing the language to protect themselves? If a well-meaning rogue can reveal secrets, can’t a rogue with ill intentions just as easily misuse them? Has the concept of electronic privacy become a quaint relic of less-fraught times?

Americans, who bristled at the idea that the IRS had singled out political organizations who may have inappropriately applied for tax-free status, don’t seem too worked up. A Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll out this week found that 62 percent of Americans say it’s important for the government to investigate terrorist threats even if it intrudes on personal privacy. Fifty-six percent say it’s OK that the NSA “has been getting secret court orders to track telephone calls of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.” Forty-five percent say it’s OK for the government to read everyone’s emails if officials say it might prevent attacks.

In a 12-minute video interview posted on the Guardian site on Sunday, Snowden said he acted on principle, fearing that the government had created an “architecture of oppression” where “even if you’re not doing anything wrong you’re being watched and recorded.”

As shocking as that is, it’s even more shocking that most Americans seem to be just fine with that.

Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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