Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Public Had A Right

I'm listening to Young Snowden's ARD interview for German television that was posted at Cryptome the other day. It's kind of repetitive given the multiplicity of stories already aired and published about NSA surveillance and the Security State, but it is one of the few times that Young Snowden himself has been seen/heard from in all the HooHah.

I watched a few minutes of the video of the interview and noted with interest that it seemed to be conducted in a very luxurious Russian hotel suite or possibly in a suite of rooms in an expensive new dacha, perhaps just outside of Moscow.

Regardless of whether it's a hotel or a dacha, if that is where Young Snowden is now being housed, rather than a place selected specifically for the interview, I wouldn't agree that he has "given up" much comfort in his (likely temporary) exile. It appears, in fact, that he is living in high style -- and very expensively -- in Russia. Moscow, after all, is one of the most expensive cities on Earth. It was pointed out that when he was supposedly trapped at Sheremetyevo Airport, the cost of one of the roomettes he was believed to be occupying while there was on the order of $600 a day (given that they rent by the hour), and people were wondering then who was paying for his upkeep.

Even in Hong Kong, where stories now suggest he was for weeks or even a month, he was staying in a very luxurious hotel at considerable expense -- for someone. Initially it was said that he was paying his own freight from his savings from his employment, but if you can sort through the confusing timelines that have been aired/published, each slightly different and some rather remarkably different, you see he had a rather spotty employment record, at least "officially." How long he was actually employed in his various contracted and in house positions (with the CIA, NSA, Dell, and Booz Allen, among apparently others) is something of a mystery. His postings were apparently scattered widely -- among them Switzerland, CONUS, and eventually Hawaii -- but none of them seem to have been for very long. A few months or a year tops.

There's nothing particularly amiss with that kind of record in the Federal Service. That's how they generally hire; employment is frequently intermittent, and it may be with a contractor rather than with the government itself. One's assignment, status, employer of record and posting location can change quite suddenly. It's not unusual to stay on this irregular status for years. This practice keeps the total number of FTE Federal employees lower -- following a Congressional mandate.

As I listen to Young Snowden speaking to the German interviewer, I'm reminded, very strongly, of some of the training personnel I worked with during my time in the Federal Service. It is as if he is conducting a training session to his interlocutor, and for a moment I wonder -- was that his actual job? Was he responsible for training staff to accomplish various spytech tasks, and is that a reason why his work was fairly intermittent and his employer of record went back and forth between agencies and contractors? I have no way of knowing, of course, but from what I've seen and read (and based on my own experience), I wouldn't be surprised. It would also help explain how he manages to "know" so much and yet... not.

Knowledge is compartmentalized in government and among its many contractors. While various low-level individuals (as Snowden apparently was) may have extensive knowledge of a wide range of programs and activities, as a rule, their knowledge is incomplete. They only know what they need to know for a particular assignment. Some of what they may see or have irregular access to as part of that assignment is likely to be incomprehensible because it's not something they have been briefed or trained on. That may be a reason why Young Snowden doesn't want to be responsible for releasing information about Surveillance/Security State programs and operations -- because he cannot "know" for sure what these slides and other information actually contain. So he (supposedly) leaves it up to journalists to vet it and make sense of it -- in consultation with... government. Yes, it's important to remember, as has been repeated fairly often, that every story that has been published or aired about these programs and operations has been done in "consultation with" government agencies and officials. Exactly what that means has never been clarified, of course, nor will it be. But given the repeated references to "legal" issues and potential "legal" jeopardy that reporters and Snowden may be in if they don't tread a very fine line (notwithstanding all the charges that have already been leveled at Young Snowden, though not -- so far -- at Greenwald or any of the other reporters and publications involved)  in releasing these top secret and other elements of the Snowden Trove, it seems to me that there is an ad hoc collaboration between the government and the publications and individuals involved in the stories to, let's say, limit the damage all around.

This is quite different than the situation with the Manning Trove and WikiLeaks, though there may be a superficial resemblance. Clearly, the participants learned from the mistakes made in that one, though so far as I could tell, there was actually nothing in the Manning Trove that was actually damaging to the government. Not even the "Collateral Murder" gun camera video. What the War Logs and Cables showed was military and State Department business as usual, much of which had already been reported, some of it extensively. What was odd  to me about it was that so many people -- literally millions -- had almost unimpeded access to the full trove, just as Manning did, and the Defense Department waited months before doing anything substantive to restrict access. (State, on the other hand, acted almost immediately). To me, this was bizarre behavior. A breach of this sort, had it happened in my agency, would have been acted on and plugged within hours. I had some experience with relatively minor security breaches in my agency and know how they were handled. It was nothing like the situation with the Manning breach. Nothing at all.

With the Snowden Breach, it's not entirely clear what has and has not been done by the NSA in response. There's apparently been a series of ongoing investigations, but beyond that -- and the "consultations" which take place before airing or publication of any story about NSA programs and operations -- I don't know.

I notice, as well, that Young Snowden refuses categorically to reveal any new classified information in this interview, referring to his preference that journalists do that. This is clearly part of the legal line he must toe -- but why, exactly? According to his legal advisers, and the DoJ, he's been charged under the Espionage Act, which strictly and severely limits the defenses he can utilize.

But wait. He is a guest of the Russian Federation, and doesn't actually need legal defenses against the United States in Russia. So what's going on?

Is this a case in which he adhering to an agreement he supposedly has with the Russian Federation not to provide any information that can harm the United States while he is a guest of the RF? I don't know. None of these supposed agreements he's made have been detailed for the public.

What he has detailed, however,  and what the various news organizations that have aired and published this stuff have reinforced, is that the various national and international surveillance agencies of the global security state (let's call it what it is) have the capability to "watch you" in real time, no matter who you are, wherever you are, and whatever you are doing. This capability is frightening.

Be Afraid.

Be Very Afraid.

The Government Is Watching You!!!!!!

Except that over and over again, it's pointed out and acknowledged that the government is (probably) not watching you at all, but in fact, private commercial interests are. They're not just watching, they're tracking and recording and monetizing everything you do, all the time. That is, they're doing it if they have access to you, which they do if you are using any kind of electronic communications.

Young Snowden is intent on letting us know that the government is surveiling one's activities, but he dismisses, with an airy wave of his hand, the fact that commercial interests are the major culprits in this more and more universal surveillance regime because he claims -- wrongly -- that commercial interests don't have the power of government to execute or incarcerate you. Either he's grossly ignorant or he is deliberately deceiving (as so many who make this bogus claim are). Private interests and corporation power more and more are indistinguishable from government power. Surely Young Snowden knows that. Later in the interview, he acknowledges that private companies -- like Booz -- should not be doing the kinds of surveillance and security activities that are properly a function of government. But they do.

Just to be clear, the government maintains massive databases on every one of us; they can, should they want to, discover just about anything on just about anyone, either through their own data collection or by purchasing data from commercial interests -- or just by using the Google, for criminy sakes. We are constantly under surveillance by government and private interests, almost without exception.

There is no doubt in my mind that the public has a right  to know these things. The question is whether they have a right to do anything about it. I think they do, but that makes me a troublemaker at the very least. Doing anything about the all encompassing and pervasive surveillance we are under means fugging up and taking down whole systems, and that is something Young Snowden has repeatedly claimed he has no interest in doing. What he has said over and over is that he wants the public in the United States and abroad to have enough information about the NSA's surveillance programs and operations to make informed decisions about their appropriateness and continuation. Apparently, he assumes that an informed public has any real say in these matters. Or... maybe he's assuming something else. That, as he's said and others have pointed out, the knowledge of this surveillance is sufficient to control people's behavior.

I got this notice in my email, about the February 11, "Day We Fight Back" demonstration,  and I have to ask, "Just what do they expect to accomplish?"

Aaron Swartz lost his life in pursuit of something bigger than himself, on behalf of open access to information people need or even might need in their lives.  The Day We Fight Back is supposed to be in honor of Aaron Swartz and his work to make information a common currency not the exclusive property of a handful of institutions.

I'm all for what he was trying to do -- and his death so shamed JSTOR that most of their millions of documents are now available for the public to read online for no charge as opposed to their previous practice of charging individuals and institutions a veritable fortune for access to almost any of their document trove.

If there were some substantive reforms of -- or preferably abolition of  -- the Surveillance/Security State as a result of the Snowden Revelations, then I would be all for it. So far, I have seen little or nothing to encourage me on that front.

But I have seen some people who realize they are being "watched" curb their activities.

That's worrisome. There are many ways around the surveillance/security apparat, but they seem to be the purview of a tiny fragment of the public. How will the general public come to understand and use them? Or is that not a matter we should be concerned with?

People will do what they will do, and no surveillance regime will keep them in check forever.

UPDATE: There is now a Vimeo video of the interview. One doesn't have to download a zip file. But according to Jonathan Turley, YouTube video versions, and apparently some other video versions are being taken down. According to him it is a concerted government action. I suspect it has more to do with ARD making copyright complaints, but that would be too unconspiratorial of me... heh.

UPDATE: And sure enough, the Vimeo video of the interview is now gone. Government plot? Ohhhhh... if Turley says it is, it must be, right?

The complete interview transcript is apparently available at the German NDR site. But the embedded video doesn't work for me, and it may be blocked in the US.

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