The biggest news is, of course, the ongoing hemorrhage of secrets from the Puzzle Palace… or the National Security Agency (NSA), as now the heads of at least six allied governments are standing in line to give Uncle Sam — or President Obama — a smack or two for peeping and snooping on email and phone traffic, sometimes even deep within the sanctums of government.
It is all just too much, too fast, for me to blare out a quick screed of impressions and I-told-you-so’s. Though a few one-sentence snarks might be in order while I put my more temperate remarks together. For example:
1) In The Transparent Society I warned that any elite, whether a top agency or company or cabal of the rich, would have to be loony in this coming age of light, to entrust secrets to any but as narrow a group of co-workers or henchmen as possible. I said as much at the CIA and DTRA and DHS and ODNI and many other alphabetical realms (though never at the NSA: does it show?)
2) Edward Snowden has been more effective than any fifty Julian Assanges. Why Snowden, a low level worker, had access to so many potentially damaging reports, is beyond me. But it reveals a level of trusting naivete among NSA officials that could be viewed as (actually) rather charming in its innocence… no, that’s not the word. Let’s just reiterate naiveté on the part of men and women who are supposed to be hard-as-diamond realists. Assuming something triple devious is not afoot (and my author brain spins: but you should forget this), then it means our Puzzle Warriors fell for a Twenty-First Century failure mode called the “henchman effect.”
3) How is the world of pundits and politicians responding to all this? The best news survey I’ve seen — done with very lively multi-media and great info-graphics — has been prepared by the Guardian. Do drop by and look-watch-probe this site… then also know this. Not one of the politicians and so on who talk about restricting NSA access to information is telling you the truth — that it won’t happen. It cannot happen. The increasing power to surveil is intrinsic, propelled with the ponderous momentum of Moore’s Law. All posturing aside, if the NSA is restricted, these powers will simply flow to some other, darker and harder to supervise corner.
It has happened before, countless times, but one example serves. Did you ever hear of Total Information Awareness, or TIA? If you haven’t, look it up. If you dimly recall, then shame on you and all other pundits for not mentioning it, till now. Way back around 2003, DARPA honcho Admiral John Poindexter was smacked down by the entire political caste for talking about doing exactly the sort of things we now see from the NSA. In ensuing outrage, his programs were dissolved, banished… only to pop back up again, as in a game of Whack-a-Mole, an inevitable outcome that not one statesman or scholar or pundit discusses, amid all the posturing and righteous dudgeon.
No. Please. Leave it all at NSA, where it leaked! Where they were so generally open that they let low level contractors see top secret power points. Then bring into play the dozens of potential actions and reforms that would enable us to supervise, sousveill, and make sure these powers are used by folks who accept — deeply and wholly — the second word in public servant.
4) See page 206 of The Transparent Society (published 1998). Yes, that is where – in a creepy “Twilight zone” moment – I seemed to predict the events of 9/11 in detail and then the following Patriot Act: “What might happened if bombers actually succeeded in toppling both towers of New York’s World Trade Center, killing tens of thousands. Or imagine that nuclear or bio-plague terrorists someday devastate a city. Now picture the public reaction if the FBI ever managed to show real (or exaggerated) evidence that they were impeded in preventing the disaster by an inability to tap coded transmissions sent by the conspirators. They would follow this proof with a petition for new powers, to prevent the same thing from happening again.”
The question is, will all of this finally have the effect of unravelling the worst parts of that awful piece of Bush Era legislation? I’ll have more to say about this later. But suffice it to say that while I hate many parts the Patriot Act, I probably disagree with many of my civil libertarian friends over which exact parts are worst, and what reforms should be made.
I infuriate those sincere paladins of freedom by shrugging over how much the government can see. Not one thing they ever do will discomfit the oncoming age of surveillance more than an iota, here and there. As I just said… but it bears endless repetitions until someone out there gets it … if we forbid surveillance in one realm — as we did with “Total Information Awareness” then top, state of the art surveillance will whack-a-mole somewhere else.
No, you and I should care far more what elites can do with what they see and know. What they DO is something we can verify, perhaps even control. I don’t care about blinding them. (It will never happen, anyway.) I want to restore our power to supervise our civil servants. I want the watchers to be watched.
We should never have needed Edward Snowden. Nor do I consider him to be as pure as driven snow. But this conversation was overdue. And that makes him worth any number of Julian Assanges.
== a light aside ==
Big Bang Theory producer Chuck Lorre adds quick-glimpsed vanity cards at the end of his shows. This one – on transparency – makes a strong argument that it should help to bring a golden age of accountability and then better human behavior. “The end result? Universal honesty, initially as a result of the duress of surveillance, will become the norm.” In fact, I don’t quite go that far in The Transparent Society. But if we handle the transition carefully and don’t let this be a top-down dominance thing, then yes… openness could save us and help us choose to be better.
Finally, here are a few reasons to think twice before using LinkedIn’s new product App “Intro.”