Snowdon (not Snowden) is the name of the tallest mountain in Wales and while by Swiss or Colorado standards it may not seem like much the weather on Snowdon is unpredictable and has taken many lives. I climbed Snowdon as a schoolboy with my class and that day on the mountain another school group was lost in a blizzard and some boys died. This is what first came to mind when I heard about National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaking documents and fleeing to Hong Kong. Like his namesake mountain, this Snowden is trouble for those who are overconfident or unwary.
I’ve written about this general topic many times over the years and doing a search here and at PBS will yield a great deal that I’d rather not have to repeat. We’ve been here before. Maybe not so much in terms of there being a whistle-blower or a traitor (your choice of terms — I’d say whistle-blower), but these surveillance programs are either old hat or logical extensions of what came before. I’m not defending them, I’m saying we shouldn’t be surprised they exist.
Today’s news was that the U.S. and UK have been snooping on the e-mails and phone conversations of foreign politicians. What news is that? Intelligence agencies have been snooping as long as there have been intelligence agencies. That’s what these agencies were created for in the first place. Just because it’s now Putin, not Khrushchev (or Obama, not Eisenhower) doesn’t change much for agencies that are supposed to be non-political. It’s just another day at the wiretap for these guys.
But it isn’t all non-political, is it? We build these capabilities and then we abuse them, sometimes shamefully. That’s not the way it is supposed to be but it’s the way it is. A huge revelation for me in this Snowden business was in his Q&A yesterday morning with the Guardian in which he explained that the information – all the information being stored – is generally available to analysts who are trusted not to read the bits they aren’t supposed to see.
Intelligence agencies and their people will inevitably break these rules because the agents and officials are human, they often have complex personal motivations to do so, and wading through all this information it’s easy to forget the rules or not see them as applying to you. Such rules are intended, after all, to keep other people out.
It’s difficult to reconcile respect for privacy in programs that are inherently designed to violate privacy. We pretend to have it both ways but that doesn’t really work.
What concerns me too is the collateral damage, fear of which you can see in companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft trying to distance themselves from this crisis. The NSA, CIA, DIA – you name the agency – doesn’t care a damn about these companies or their customers. For the agencies, maintaining data integrity is important only for internal – never external – reasons. And for this reason alone they’ll get sloppy.
Here’s the big question I don’t hear being asked: what do these NSA revelations mean for Cloud Computing?
The essence of the cloud is that our stuff is being held for us by someone else just like the kind, friendly, and ever-so-benevolent banks hold our money then refuse to loan it back to us. The rules say they’ll hold our stuff but not read it, right? Well that one is now out the window. May as well just store everything down at the NSA.
Maybe we already do.
So the recent news is bad for the cloud but it’s also bad for the intelligence agencies, themselves, because they’ve been busted. Who benefits from that? The regular military – the ones with guns and missiles – benefits, because when intelligence fails the fallback is to come out blasting.
Some generals in the Pentagon are enjoying this comeuppance immensely.
My prediction is that nothing much will come of this. No laws will be changed and probably no jobs will even be lost. If anything intelligence budgets will go up because – again like the banks – these operations are considered too big to fail.
And so we bail them out of trouble.
Snowden himself is I think the most interesting part of this because he’s a so-called Millennial. His ethics and allegiances are not those of his father or grandfather and certainly not those of the politicians and intelligence leaders he’d love to bring down. So the old rules, old threats, and old reward structures don’t work with this guy, making him even more dangerous.
I think that’s good. In fact I think it’s the system re-regulating itself. We created Edward Snowden by disappointing him so. Our leaders, representing the old culture even as they presented themselves as representing the new, gave him no morally acceptable way to be successful in his own culture. We made him do what he is doing now. And if you think that’s bullshit I suggest you think again because this guy has been very clear about his motivation.
A mighty storm is blowing on Snowden and I don’t think we’ve seen all of it yet.