Calhoun's Cannons for June 11th.
Another foolish young man has donned the mantle of Hero of the Republic. And, like Bradley Manning before him, Snowden will pay a fearful price for absconding with and disclosing classified information he gained while working for three months as a $200,000-dollar-a-month infrastructure analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton, a NSA defense contractor.
Snowden popped up in Hong Kong for a TV interview that generated a couple of key questions: How does a three-month employee get access to secret documents that, if disclosed, would pose a "huge grave danger . . .to our intelligence capabilities?" And, if one of Snowden's statements was true, how did a three-month, low-level employee have the "authorities" to tap anyone's phone and email? And, most importantly, is the nature of modern surveillance such that the old model of "need to know" no longer works?
I suspect that the top-secret can of beans that Snowden's waltzed away with hints at what an impossible game we're now playing in our Brave New CyberWorld. He was a low-level "infrastructure" analyst," a "systems" administrator and telecommunication "systems" officer.
Systems. Infrastructure. Networks. Links. Platforms. Spiderwebs. Tapestries. Nothing discreet, no firewall, no mushroomy low-level drones toiling away in the dark, operating with scraps of paper on a "need to know" basis. Now, even low-level, sub-contractor worker-drones need to know whole systems just to do their low-level jobs. And that's where it gets interesting. As geeky hackers the world over can tell you, it doesn't take a PhD to bring a system down once you understand the system. And if you're spying on everyone in the country, you may have set up a very large system, but it's still a system. And somebody has to run it.
So who will watch all those somebodies? And if the system starts to run amok, heading into a civil liberties nightmare, as Edward Snowden claims, who can set it right? The private contractor running the system whose paycheck depends on asking no questions, making no waves? A rubber-stamp FISA court that apparently has yet to turn down any warrants brought to it? A dysfunctional Congress more interested in scoring political points than thwarting terrorists while safeguarding Constitutional rights in an era of Perpetual War?
Or should we depend on The Media? They covered this story some time ago but recently went on the warpath only when one of their own was threatened for printing classified disclosures. Or perhaps, we'll have to depend on whistleblowers who abscond with top secret documents and just hope that their document dumps won't actually end up helping terrorists and harming us?
Or maybe we will have to rely on The Public. But nowadays, The Public is The Facebook Generation. For that Public, it's not a violation of privacy when they type the word "headache" into Google Search and instantly a Tylenol ad pops up on their email page. That's not snooping, that's not spying, that's, well, a useful "service." Ditto the Affinity Card Era, the Credit Card Era, when Ralphs and Amazon knows everything you buy, and Costco sends specific customers an email alert on a product recall three months after its purchase. So, what then is "spying," and what is "privacy?"
The Snowden kerfluffle may finally goad our useless Congress into revisiting the Patriot Act, perhaps even rewriting and strengthening Whistle Blower protections so Watchers have a safe way to watch and report on even outsourced, private contractors. Maybe this issue will also prompt even The Facebook Generation into having a "dialogue" about balancing safety and privacy, in a nation rightly described as operating in "a paranoid style," even when it's not engaged in Perpetual War.