The NSA/PRISM spying scandal that broke late last week has been so awash in sensationalism and intrigue it’s been more than a tad difficult separate fact from fiction.
So here’s what we do know:
A couple months ago, the United States National Security Agency ordered the phone company Verizon (and several of its competitors, it’s widely assumed), to hand over all records of all its customers’ phone calls, every day, until July 19. Verizon had no choice but to comply; the NSA had an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the institution of the US government with the power to authorize any act of invasive surveillance conducted in the name of national security.
The info Verizon’s been turning over is said to be basically the same as what we see on our phone bills — a complete chronology of the numbers each customer is calling, plus how often, how long, and from where. The government doesn’t get access to any actual conversations or names, which is why some call this kind of stuff “meta-data” — information that almost tells you something useful, but requires a lot of detective work to get there. This is controversy number one.
Controversy number two is the so-called PRISM program. Very few hard facts are known about it, but according to a leaked government slide show, the NSA also has some sort of scheme in place to obtain user data — photos and videos and posts and messages and whatnot — from the servers of all our favorite websites, including Facebook, Gmail, and Skype. Unlike the Verizon thing, which captures the phone records of everyone in the country, PRISM spying is supposed to only monitor the accounts of suspicious non-Americans. Or at the very least Americans conversing with a suspicious foreigner.
But all the companies in question deny they’re actually cooperating with PRISM, and as Alex Fitzpatrick noted on Mashable, what we do or don’t know about the thing is “seemingly changing by the hour.”
The details of both programs were exposed by a young CIA contract worker named Edward Snowden, who leaked a bunch of top secret NSA documents to Glen Greenwald, who is this far-left American dissident type character who lives in exile in Brazil and writes for the British newspaper The Guardian. Glenn Greenwald feels a lot of his pre-existing opinions about the sinister motives of the American government have been confirmed by Snowden’s leaks. And certainly lots of folks on social media and talk radio and cable chat shows seem to agree.
Snowden himself seems like a fairly unimpressive guy. The New Yorker‘s Jeff Toobin, for instance, calls him “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” For all his self-proclaimed virtue as a heroic whistle-blower, after all, nothing about either the phone snooping or PRISM program he revealed seems to be illegal.
Under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the executive branch has pretty sweeping powers to snoop away as they please, providing they can get clearance from the Foreign Intelligence Court (which doesn’t seem hard). Congress has repeatedly voted to either authorize or reauthorize these powers with bipartisan approval, and most people who have been paying attention to such things over the last couple of years (including, one would hope, CIA employees) would be aware that for good or ill, the pro-spying arguments have consistently won the day. Even now, public support for phone snooping as anti-terrorism measure sits at around 56%.
What Snowden did, therefore, was simply attempt to sabotage two government programs from the inside because, as Toobin put it, they “failed to meet his own standards of propriety.” But whatever. Snowden will go to jail and the surveillance propriety “debate,” in the words of the President, is now back on.
During the most heated moments of the Obamacare battle I remember having a conversation with a friend who was quite incredulous — as numerous Canadians then were — that so many Americans were apparently willing to sacrifice the practical good of heavily subsidized, universally accessible health care in favor of the abstract principle of “small government.”
Canadians receive the bulk of their health insurance from massive state-run bureaucracies, and attend hospitals run by government appointees. All of my personal health information — my medical conditions, past operations, prescriptions, and whatnot — are thus in the hands of “the government,” in some form or another. I assume there are privacy regulations declaring how such data should be handled, but who knows. At some point, the people of Canada calculated that sacrificing our right to conceal some of our most intimate personal information from the scrutiny of the state was a fair trade for the sort of public good that a government-run health care monopoly supposedly provides.
All laws encroach on our personal liberty in some way, that’s why they’re laws. The question poised by the NSA regime is the same well-worn question Americans have been fretting over endlessly since 9-11 itself: is the threat of terrorism severe enough to justify the encroachments on constitutional rights demanded by the domestic security establishment? Even when said encroachments are more bothersome in theory than day-to-day practice?
If you’re a guy like Glen Greenwald (and, one assumes, Edward Snowden) who basically thinks the threat of terrorism is an elaborate fiction cooked up by the American ruling class to suppress domestic dissent and provide cover for wars of imperialism abroad, then the answer is obviously no. If you fear Islamists under every bed, then the answer’s probably yes. If you’re a normal person, you’re probably somewhat conflicted and can probably see both sides, which is probably why this issue is shaping to be one that doesn’t divide the public with any consistent ideological or partisan logic.
So where do you stand?