As I See It: Looking Through the PRISM
June 17, 2013 Victor Rozek
Christoph Meili was a security guard who worked the night shift at the Union Bank of Switzerland. One night while making his rounds, he discovered that the management of UBS was doing naughty, naughty things in the dark. There’s no pretty way to put this: they were working overtime to cheat the families of dead people. But not just people who died in the normal scheme of things. Oh, no. These people happened to be Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis. UBS probably didn’t want to disturb their descendants by digging up all those painful memories, so they kindly decided to shred old deposit records and keep the cash for themselves.
Meili wasn’t a terribly well-educated man, but it didn’t take him long to figure out that stealing from the families of Holocaust victims wasn’t kosher. So he took a couple of ledgers home, reflected awhile, and passed them on to a Jewish organization he thought might be interested in the bank’s afterhours business practices. And boy, were they. When the story went public there was scandal and anger aplenty. Much of it, however, was directed at Meili. He and his family received death threats and Swiss authorities moved to arrest him for violating banking secrecy laws. A bewildered Meili fled. He sought and was given political asylum in the U.S.
As whistleblowers inevitably discover, telling the truth will not make you universally popular. One man’s hero is another’s traitor. Just ask Bradley Manning.
The same patriotic debate is now raging over the latest whistleblower, a former government contractor who, unlike Meili, fully understands his world is about to implode. Before his identity was revealed, he told his media contact that he expects to be extradited and arrested, but justified his actions saying he could no longer “live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”
What Edward Snowden revealed couldn’t have come as a galloping surprise to anyone paying attention to the relentless creep of our surveillance state. Nonetheless, authorities were apoplectic over The Washington Post‘s revelations that the National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, including “Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.” There, at their leisure, they extract “audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs. . . .”
It was a bad week for secrets. Four days earlier, a British newspaper The Guardian reported that Verizon handed the surveillance community call data for millions of Americans.
Internet service providers, of course, vehemently deny complicity, and the government would have preferred to deny that the program, dubbed PRISM, even exists. But The Post uncovered an enabling document issued by the super-secret, hush, hush, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA). It showed that the court, with few restrictions, pretty much gave the spooks carte blanche to spy on whomever they chose.
Perhaps the biggest revelation simply confirmed what everybody already suspected: domestic data gathering had been going on for a long time. Following the disclosure of George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless domestic surveillance program, an obliging Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, “which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S. intelligence collection.” Congress also gave the Justice Department secret authority to compel reluctant companies “to comply.” Companies, however, were allowed to appeal court orders. Some did. Six years ago, Microsoft was the first collaborator to jump on board. Apple resisted for five years. Twitter is still resisting.
Supposedly, this massive data collection effort is aimed at “foreign communications traffic, which often flows through U.S. servers. . . ” not at Americans per se. But history shows that the definition of “terrorist” is a fluid thing. Environmentalists, social activists, and even peace activists have all been tarred with that broad brush. And we know how threatening those peace activists can be.
Nonetheless, James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, was in a tizzy insisting that “the unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans.” Presumably because terrorists would otherwise never suspect that their calls and Internet communications are being monitored. Guess that cat’s out of the bag.
It’s hard not to see Clapper’s outrage as being disingenuous. Secret courts like FISA are, at best, a head fake to legality. Only one side ever presents its case, and decisions are rendered covertly. The very notion of secrecy seems perfunctory since there are a ridiculous 4.9 million people who have clearance for “confidential and secret” documents: just the NSA and 5 million of its closest friends. If, as Clapper claims, PRISM is “entirely legal” why does it have to be entirely secret? The answer is not that potential terrorists would be alerted, but that the American people might become outraged.
Internet service providers understand the financial repercussions of user backlash, and they quickly issued denials. “Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data,” said a straight-faced company spokesman. Microsoft was equally adamant: “We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don’t participate in it.” Yahoo! chimed in: “Yahoo! takes users’ privacy very seriously,” the company said. “We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network.”
The question of “direct access” may be both the source of confusion and deniability. A classified report obtained by The Post shows that NSA collection managers were allowed to send “content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations.” In other words, they accessed alternate systems where, presumably, the company moved the desired data. A modest distinction. The reality is that if you have five clients, you have to care about their privacy. But if you have clients numbering in the hundreds of millions, you care more about maintaining the illusion of privacy.
So someone is lying to us. I’m shocked, shocked, I tell you. It could be the secretive agency (acting in our best interest, of course); or, our good friends the corporations. Or both. Hard to know who might be obfuscating because neither of these groups have ever been known to lie to us before. It appears that the only verifiable truth being spoken is by Edward Snowden and he’s going to be punished for it.
“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” Snowden said in a recent interview. He fears that computer technology is being used to create what he calls “turn-key tyranny.” When asked why he chose to make PRISM public, he simply replied “I oppose. . . omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance. . . .” That’s one interpretation. President Obama called the program a “modest encroachment on privacy.”
Reporters who broke the story are concerned that accountability reporting will become nearly impossible if all modes of communication are constantly monitored. But that’s an intended byproduct of the surveillance state: like privacy, the illusion of liberty becomes more important than liberty itself.
Edward Snowden joins the ranks of Daniel Ellsberg, Joseph Wilson, Julian Assange, and others who dared pull back the curtain on secrecy, challenging powerful forces in the process. When last seen, Snowden was in Hong Kong, where he announced that he would consider asylum in any nation that still values privacy. Perhaps if he was a banker stealing money from Holocaust survivors, he’d be welcome in Switzerland.