Monday, July 7, 2014

Glorious Fifth

South Fayetteville, PA.
Was that the grand finale of the Snowden fireworks display that showed up in the Washington Post on Saturday (instead of the Intercept, which went silent three weeks ago), with the unacceptable part, the naming of victims, removed?
“As with a fireworks show, you want to save your best for last,” Greenwald told GQ magazine. “The last one is the one where the sky is all covered in spectacular multicoloured hues.” (Real Clear Politics)

(Never seen a hue with more than one color myself, how does that work?)

If so, I'm pretty sure it's not changing many minds one way or the other, although it really does a bit for me, in an odd way and kind of in both directions. It's some of the most intelligible writing I've seen out of the shop, for one thing (under Barton Gellman's byline with various assistants), and the documents sound relatively real, in contrast to all the PowerPoint slides and interdepartmental memos we've seen so far, marketing and turf, and they seem to show at least to my mind that the NSA may be a good deal more competent than I've imagined them to be, which would have a good side and a bad side.

The bad side would be that they really can do quite a lot of that shit they claim they can do, searching digital messages by keywords from the message content, live-monitoring chats, découpaging information from different media into a single narrative, at the behest of their customers at CIA and FBI, and while I continue to think NSA tends to follow its rules pretty scrupulously (letter, not spirit, natch), the customers don't, so it is potentially very invasive.

The good side is that they're apparently a lot more efficient. Gellman says,
Nine of 10 account holders found in a large cache of intercepted conversations, which former NSA contractor Edward Snowden provided in full to The Post, were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else.
I have no idea whether the sample of stuff the Washington Post has is in any sense representative of anything, but it could be, and if that's the case then one out of ten is the intended target, comparing to about one out of two and a half million, which was the going number in dudebro circles, when we were being told that's where the "three hops" from the original target would inevitably get us. They're using their hops far more precisely than that, as I've been suggesting they should, and getting a much better return on the effort, maybe even surveilling some actual "terrorists".

They're also far better at minimizing than I would have thought:
NSA analysts masked, or “minimized,” more than 65,000 such references to protect Americans’ privacy, but The Post found nearly 900 additional e-mail addresses, unmasked in the files, that could be strongly linked to U.S. citizens or U.S.residents.
That's a minimization failure rate of about 1.3%, which by government standards ought to be regarded as a bit better than perfect. It is so incredible to me that I can imagine the NSA leaking it to Snowden on purpose to make themselves look good.

Moreover one of the minimization failures was the unhappy young woman who makes up the sentimental bulk of the story, whose doomed love affair with a Taliban recruit is spelled out in the documents like an 18th-century epistolary romance. NSA could easily argue that they needed to keep monitoring her for communications from the ex-boyfriend and shouldn't have minimized her at all. For all we know, all 900 cases are like that.

That's a pretty remarkable story, by the way. The characters are appealing, even though one of them is about to join the Taliban, and the moral ambiguity is very John Le Carré. At the same time as you're moved it's making you squirm, because it really is an awful invasion of privacy. Not that I'd go as far as old Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs and call the Snowden appropriations a

Massive Civil Liberties Violation

because that's just propaganda language, and I know if I were working for the Post I'd want to publish it too.

As ever, I think the NSA surveillance is (1) probably unnecessary and would be better dropped,  (2) not as harmful to the public as feared, and (3) a very unfortunate distraction from the very serious abuses of the Border Patrol, ICE, FBI, and CIA Ops division, making the dudebros at their keyboards feel like upscale victims while overwhelmingly poor people of color suffer real physical invasions of privacy and unlawful arrest and detention and sometimes torture; and stupidly focusing rage on President Obama, who is (perhaps not very effectively) trying to make things somewhat better.


No comments:

Post a Comment