There’s really nothing “meta” about metadata. Even without knowing the content of a conversation, knowing whom someone is calling, for how long and how often conveys an enormous amount of information, as former National Security Agency official and whistleblower Thomas Drake and former Department of Justice attorney and whistleblower Jesselyn Radack reminded me and a roomful of others over the weekend. To know whom a journalist is in touch with is to know who their sources are, and a brutally efficient way to kill whatever network of confidential contacts a journalist has built up. (Would you dish the dirt to a reporter you know is being monitored?) The notion that we ought to be grateful because the government is “only” collecting our telecommunications metadata is creepy, dystopian and grovellingly servile. The perfectly reasonable desire to keep the government out of your e-mail and phone records does not make you a “privacy purist” or God forbid, a “libertarian.”
Thanks to The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and 29-year-old whistleblower Edward Snowden, we know that the government has been collecting our telecommunications metadata in enormous data dragnets. We also know that the government has developed backdoor access to e-mail and other intenet communications through arrangements with Google, Microsoft, Facebook and other Silicon Valley corporations.
Snowden revealed his identity yesterday afternoon; it had been the subject of fervid speculation since Greenwald began breaking stories about the data trawling last week. (Steve Clemons, the impeccably Establishment foreign policy journalist and think-tanker, overheard four national security professionals loudly and repeatedly proposing that both Snowden and “the journalist” be “taken out”.) Snowden is not a government man, not exactly anyway: he worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, an enormous and enormously profitable corporation that has gobbled up $1.3 billion in intelligence-related government contracts in the past fiscal year, from digital intelligence gathering to questing after the much-sought-after but spurious link between Al Qaeda and South American narcotraffickers. A common theme in the reactions to Snowden’s whistleblowing is outrage and resentment that a 29-year-old with a GED instead of a high-school diploma is making $200,000 a year off government contracts. In today’s grim economy, one of the few bright spots is the boom field of counterterrorism and intelligence consulting, highly paid jobs that don’t seem to require much in the way of skills, experience or expertise.
Did the leak require all kinds of digital derring-do and expertise? Probably not; the ACLU’s Christopher Soghoian has noted that Snowden probably used the same surveillance-proofing software, Tor, that the United States developed for dissidents in China and Iran. For the time being, Snowden is in Hong Kong where American authorities cannot get at him—at least not today. (According to The New York Times, the Hong Kong government will most likely be very happy to comply with an extradition request from Washington, which is surely being drafted right now.)
The news about government snooping has raised old questions about mass digital surveillance by the state. Not surprisingly, Senator Dianne Feinstein sees nothing wrong with the programs, and assures us that they have already been instrumental in foiling terrorist plots—it’s just that she’s not at liberty to tell us how exactly, because that information is secret. Marcy Wheeler however at her Empty Wheel blog has subjected these official claims to searching scrutiny and finds there is no evidence that the newly revealed surveillance techniques had anything to do with the apprehension of Najibullah Zazi’s plot to bomb the New York subway. It’s not clear if many of the elected officials involved understand the technology or what it means.
But some critics among elected officials are speaking out. Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have long hinted darkly about the abuse of digital surveillance authorized by the Patriot Act, and they are joined by the libertarian-conservative Senator Ron Paul who has bashed the program as “unconstitutional.” This has opened up an entertaining civil war over civil liberties within the GOP, pitting Paul against big-government hawks like Lindsey Graham. (Free medical advice to progressives and liberals: you will not catch the clap by making common cause with Ron and Rand Paul on this issue, try it and see.)
Will more Democrats push back against this Stasi-like encroachment of the surveillance state? Some clearly will not: MSNBC mainstay Joy Reid whinged earlier today via Twitter that “purist libertarians don’t believe the government is entitled to any secrets. If I’m a covert CIA operative, say, in China, should I worry?” (Her compassion for CIA agents in China is presumably linked to Snowden’s gesturing in a video interview to the location of the American consulate in Hong Kong, not exactly a secret to anyone there.)
Are the surveillance programs legal? Attorneys Ben Wizner and Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU have both addressed this with their usual good sense—and so has The New Republic’s John Judis, looking back at the way he was surveilled and harassed (his friends and family too) because of his antiwar and left-wing political views in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Note to lawyers and wanna-be lawyers: that the program may be in conformity with the law is of course no guarantee that it is not a nightmare; the history of the United States is full of abominations that were permitted by legal statute.
Where is Obama? The great compromiser has told the country we cannot expect either “total security or total privacy.” But is the humble expectation that the government is not spying on our phone calls or e-mail an insolent, utopian demand for “total privacy”? Not in the least, but many Democratic voters, who seem to care deeply about civil liberties when a Republican administration is in charge, seem adequately soothed. The enemy is not just the Lindsey Grahams and the Dianne Feinsteins, it’s the apathy and internalization of Stasi values that has been growing like a mold throughout the nation. Read the twitter feed @_nothingToHide and prepare to weep for what remains of our freedom.