Point of View Columns

Somebody is Watching You

Edward Snowden had better hope that his fifteen minutes of fame are worth the next several years of anxiety that he will be experiencing. It is not clear how Mr. Snowden is a traitor or a hero for revealing what most of us already know. But whoever thought it would be a good idea for him to go from China to Russia to Cuba in his flight from prosecution and his quest for asylum might want to have their head examined.

As an employee of a National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden is one of over one million people with Top Secret clearance. The sheer number of individuals with Top Secret clearance reveals that there aren’t very many secrets left in this country or in this world, for that matter.

Ever since Mr. Snowden released the NSA files indicating this gargantuan monitoring system that encompasses everything from phone calls to e-mails, there has been a reprise of that scene from the movie “Casablanca” where the corrupt Inspector is “shocked” that there is gambling going on in a night club while simultaneously receiving his bribe. The American press, civil liberties groups and predictably the right wing of the right wing have excoriated President Obama and his Administration for the continuation of a surveillance program that began during the Bush-Cheney Administration.

But before looking at the technical, strategic and policy issues related to the Prism program it is useful to reaffirm the facts of the world in which we live today. The expectations of privacy in the 21st century are fundamentally different from one hundred years ago or even twenty years ago.

The almost universal use of the internet for communication, commerce and recreation has lulled the global public into the dreamland of expectation – expecting that use of the internet is somehow private. And that delusion has continued even though most sentient beings realize that companies ranging from Google to Amazon to McDonald’s are tracking the use of the internet for various marketing and commercial purposes.

Computer technology is such that nothing is ever deleted and nothing can ever be retracted once that “Send” button has been pushed. Despite the various encryption features related to everything from personal banking to the recording of grades, no one should be surprised that there is no such thing as ultimate, iron clad security when the internet is used. Indeed, even a computer with no connection to the internet has a memory that retains its memory until it is thrown into a cauldron of molten steel.

Given the facts that our expectations of privacy are radically different, it is curious that there is such controversy regarding the NSA tracking patterns – not content – of cell phone calls and internet communications in order to discern possible links to terrorists or terrorist activities. This surveillance program involves the oversight of billions upon billions of messages and calls with an accompanying set of algorithms that allow the NSA to pick up on suspicious links.

To date there has been no assertion that this activity been used to harass or attack political opposition to the current Administration. Further, there has been no record of warrantless review and surveillance of the content of monitored communications. There have been, however, assertions by the NSA that over fifty serious terrorist attacks have been thwarted by reason of this Prism surveillance program.

What is clear is that this surveillance program is not necessarily the first stage of “1984” played out 29 years later. What is also clear is that a war on terror against actors who don’t wear uniforms, who don’t have a flag and who don’t have a home country is not a war that can be fought via conventional means.

President Obama has called for a reassessment of the so-called war on terror and now would also be a good time to reassess the tools for fighting that war.

In the meantime, Edward Snowden might want to hire a new travel agent.

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