Steven Levy recently wrote an article for Wired.com entitled ‘How The NSA Almost Killed The Internet‘. It’s a great read and offers some fascinating insights into the nature of the perverse and uneasy relationship that has developed between the NSA (America’s National Security Agency) and the biggest IT and Internet companies over the last few years.
Here I offer my thoughts on a few parts of the article that particularly caught my attention.
There are others who argue that we may regret even modest constraints on the NSA. Former Microsoft research head Nathan Myhrvold recently wrote a hair-raising treatise arguing that, considering the threat of terrorists with biology degrees who could wipe out a good portion of humanity, tough surveillance measures might not be so bad. Myhrvold calls out the tech companies for hypocrisy. They argue that the NSA should stop exploiting information in the name of national security, he says, but they are more than happy to do the same thing in pursuit of their bottom lines. “The cost is going to be lower efficiency in finding terrorist plots—and that cost means blood,” he says.
Mr Myhrvold’s argument that tech companies are hypocrites is erroneous because it is founded on the premise that the relationship between tech companies and its customers is the same as the relationship between citizens and the NSA. This is patently false. Firstly, every individual who enters into an economic exchange with a tech company does so voluntarily. Furthermore, the tech company states whether it will collect information about the individual, what kind of information it will collect and how it will use it. For example, every person who signs up for Google’s email service is told what information Google currently collects about its customers, how it uses it and how it stores it. It also tells its new customers that what information it collects and how it uses it may change in the future. Google has certainly done this over the years, but evidently the vast majority of its customers don’t find that objectionable enough to stop using its services. Secondly, and just as importantly, every customer of a tech company is free to end the relationship or contract at any time. Every single person who uses free Google services like Gmail can stop doing so at any given moment with no need to notify Google, and can request that Google deletes all the information it has collected about them. Every person or organisation that uses paid Google products and services can stop doing so in accordance with the terms of the contract they entered into.
The ‘relationship’ between US citizens (and indeed citizens of other nations) and the NSA could not be more different. Firstly, until recently when Edward Snowden told the world what the NSA was up to, the millions (billions?) of people it collects information about had no idea they even had a ‘relationship’ with this agency. Hardly anyone knew the NSA existed and those that did had little clue as to the scale of the operation and the scope of its activities. Not a single person ever signed up for the NSA’s ‘services’ because they were never asked if they wanted to and if they had been would obviously have declined to have all their electronic and mobile communications recorded and stored on a giant database to be accessed by a bunch of people whenever they see fit. Even if some people had wanted this to be done to them they certainly wouldn’t have signed something to that effect knowing that they could never request to have their data deleted, that their data could be used for anything, and knowing that the contract had no expiry date or escape clause.
Following this falsely premised argument Mr Myhrvold’s goes on to assert that many people will die unless the NSA is allowed to act as it pleases. He’s quickly moved from attacking the integrity of those who oppose the NSA to attacking their morality. We can re-state his argument as: bad things will happen if the NSA can’t do what it wants. Therefore if you oppose it, then you are a bad person. No one can know whether terrorist attacks will happen and people die should the NSA be pressured or financially forced into scaling back or shutting down its operations, but even if the consequences were bad that wouldn’t retrospectively make immoral all those who opposed the NSA. Nor would it make them responsible for such consequences. Those responsible are and will continue to be politicians. Terrorist attacks, such as ones Mr Myhrvold is arguing the NSA protects us from, are patently the direct consequence of previous and continuing US and/or UK government aggressions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. We know they are because suicide bombings by Islamic fundamentalists in the US and the UK were unheard of before these nations invaded and generally trod all over the middle east, and because those responsible for organising attacks such as 9/11 have explicitly stated their reasons for doing so.
Mr Myhrvold’s moral argument from consequence in defense of the NSA is irrational, false and cannot be taken seriously. It’s ridiculously hypocritical for a man to be so concerned about “blood” being spilt when he advocates giving even more power to an institution that has already killed something close to a million innocent people in the middle east. Clearly he believes we should only value the lives of people born in a particular geographic area, which as an ethical stance could not be more nonsensical.
In a white paper last summer, the Obama administration argued that collecting the details of everyone’s phone behavior is justified, because the program is about “forward-looking prevention of the loss of life, including potentially on a catastrophic scale.”
Of course, no one does hypocrisy like a politician, and no one does killing like Obama. He’s the world’s best serial killer and surely the envy of all others. He gets paid to do what he loves and he’s so good he can even do it when he’s asleep. His drones kill innocent people in Pakistan and Yemen 24/7. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the CIA has conducted 378 strikes in the program’s 10-year history. Of those, 326 are classified as “Obama strikes.” The total number of people killed by drones is estimated at 2,528 to 3,648. Civilian casualties are estimated at 416 to 948, with 168 to 200 of those being children. As many as another 1,545 are estimated to have been injured in those strikes.
Obama’s not ashamed to brag about his almost unlimited power to snuff-out human life either. According to the book ‘Double Down: Game Change 2012’ Obama bragged to aids in connection with the CIA’s drone program that “he is really good at killing people”. In light of these facts it becomes clear that Obama in only interested in preventing the catastrophic loss of the lives of people who can vote for him. For as long as he believes that killing people in far away lands, innocent or ‘guilty’, with cold robotic efficiency helps him achieve this objective, then he will continue to snuff out human life as if it were worthless.
But even if the spy programs are viewed as justified, and whether they are tempered or not, we’re still left with the most sickening aspect of the Snowden revelations: The vast troves of information gathered from our digital activities will forever be seen as potential fodder for government intelligence agencies. A lot of people became inured to worries about Little Brother—private companies—knowing what we bought, where we were, what we were saying, and what we were searching for. Now it turns out that Big Brother can access that data too. It could not have been otherwise. The wealth of data we share on our computers, phones, and tablets is irresistible to a government determined to prevent the next disaster, even if the effort stretches laws beyond the comprehension of those who voted for them. And even if it turns the US into the number one adversary of American tech companies and their privacy-seeking customers.
It’s not surprising that Little Brother must obey Big Brother. After all, the latter is heavily armed. Whilst some people have reservations about Little Brother and resent the fact that they must have a relationship with it in order to use services like Google and facebook, its fundamental purpose is to serve and it cannot force people to do anything they don’t want to. Little Brother exists because society, for the time being at least, doesn’t want to pay to use social networks or to search the Internet. Little Brother is not evil, but it could be and seemingly already has been, to some degree at least, co-opted for evil ends by Big Brother (i.e. the NSA).
What’s worrying but probably not surprising is that the NSA’s evolving power and its vast database of information is attracting government agencies from other nations like hyenas to a fresh kill. It’s become apparent in recent weeks (thanks to leaks by Edward Snowden) that GCHQ, the UK Government Communication Headquarters has been using data collected by the NSA for its own ends. How long GCHQ has been working with the NSA is anyone’s guess, but it would be a brave man to bet against it being anything less than several years. And who knows how many other governments around the world are using the NSA’s data. This process of mutually beneficial co-operation and information-sharing between government agencies might be a natural way for Big Brother to grow beyond national borders and exert real control over vast swaths of humanity.
As Albert Einstein knew only too well, scientific advancement and technology are tools that can be used for good and evil by men. The advent of the Internet Age has accelerated human progress in countless ways, but it’s also made Big Brother, which until now has only ever been a figment of George Orwell’s imagination, a possibility. Whether the Internet continues to be the tool of our dreams or becomes the stuff of our nightmares could depend on the continued growth of the liberty movement in the coming decades.