Belmont Club

Whistleblowers and Spies

Brendan Sasso  blogging on the Hill, lists 5 unanswered questions about the NSA’s surveillance programs. He argues that while recent revelations may have given the public a glimpse into what is going on, we haven’t a clue about the actual extent to which data is being collected on the public. Sasso asks:

1. What other data is being collected under the Patriot Act?
2. How broad are the programs?
3. What’s the legal rationale?
4. Is the NSA still collecting email records?
5. Are there other programs that we don’t know about?

These are important questions. The size and composition of the groups gathering data on the public is hard to estimate. Even the scope of the “whistleblowing” is unclear. For example Ed Epstein, writing in the Wall Street Journal persuasively argues that Snowden did not act alone.

Before taking the job in Hawaii, Mr. Snowden was in contact with people who would later help arrange the publication of the material he purloined. Two of these individuals, filmmaker Laura Poitras and Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald, were on the Board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation that, among other things, funds WikiLeaks.

In January 2013, according to the Washington Post, Mr. Snowden requested that Ms. Poitras get an encryption key for Skype so that they could have a secure channel over which to communicate.

In February, he made a similar request to Mr. Greenwald, providing him with a step-by-step video on how to set up encrypted communications.

So, before Mr. Snowden proceeded with his NSA penetration in March 2013 through his Booz Allen Hamilton job, he had assistance, either wittingly or unwittingly, in arranging the secure channel of encrypted communications that he would use to facilitate the publication of classified communications intelligence.

Mr. Greenwald and Ms. Poitras also flew to Hong Kong. They were later joined by Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks representative who works closely with Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder. Mr. Snowden reportedly brought the misappropriated data to Hong Kong on four laptops and a thumb drive. He gave some of the communications intelligence to Mr. Greenwald, who had arranged to publish it in the Guardian, and Mr. Snowden arranged to have Ms. Poitras make a video of him issuing a statement that would be released on the Guardian’s website. Albert Ho, a Hong Kong lawyer, was retained to deal with Hong Kong authorities.

So who else was in it? The Chinese, Russians, Cubans, Saudis? Snowden had help. But let’s try this for a curveball: who broke into the law firm that represents State Department whistleblower Aurelia Fedenisn? Peggy Noonan has some thoughts.


We have a lot of scandals now—the IRS, NSA, Justice, Fast and Furious, the never-ending story of Benghazi. And a funny thing about the current moment: Every story about every executive agency now seems to include the words “inspector general.” It’s funny that lately they seem to be working overtime. Why would that be? We’re hearing the word “whistleblower” a lot, too.

Someone else, right? This game is bigger than we thought. Noonan notes that Daniel Ellsberg is now nostalgically yearning for the nice, open and permissive days of Richard Nixon. I wonder if “whistleblower” is the term we’re looking for? Perhaps “surveillance” is not the word to think of either.

To think about that pair of questions, let’s consider a related query posed by Jaron Lanier: “Who Owns the Future?”

Who owns the future? The answer is the guys who own the data, whether that data is classic intelligence material, intellectual property, location information, or personal profiles. The future belongs to the guys who own the data.

And we, as in “we the ordinary guys”, don’t own the data. As things worked out, we’re just the unpaid gleaners, the guys who function as unwitting slaves, sucking up data by observing things, taking pictures, making conversations, sending emails, putting their details on social media.  And the guys who own the future vacuum it up and make a ton of money out of it, and a ton of of intelligence too.

Lanier argues that as individuals we don’t own any data any more, and so paradoxically we are becoming literally poorer while a few mongo organizations become staggeringly rich and powerful.  Writers and journalists — even developers — have probably realized that their information is becoming a commodity. The guys who write, code and report don’t get much from their efforts.

All the money is in the processing and distribution.

An interviewer asked Lanier, “you depict data as the greatest cash crop ever: You don’t have to plant it, it’s easy to harvest, it’s free (at least for the time being), and it generates profits for a select few virtually out of thin air. Why would those who are making fortunes off of our data suddenly decide to pay us for it? ”

A: It’s the same thing that persuaded Henry Ford to balance his workers’ wages with the cost of his products in the last century. He understood that there are two ways to make a profit in a market economy: You can shrink the market and concentrate your wealth or grow the market and let your portion of it grow as well. If you shrink the market and concentrate wealth, which is what’s going on with Tumblr, it’s a self-limiting game; it can’t go on for too long until it breaks. That’s what happened with finance and insurance in this country and will happen with other things. But if it becomes growth, then it can go on forever. And it should go on forever because growth is not a fiction; it reflects an increased competence in the way that people can depend on each other. It’s an honest form of value creation and a better model toward wealth than shrinkage.

This has implications for freedom. Freedom, as conceived in the 17th century, was a property right. You owned yourself, not the king. You owned your labor, not the king. And because you owned your labor, nobody could buy or sell you. You were free.

Now suppose technology advanced to the stage where physical “labor” no longer meant anything, but information did. You could keep back your physical labor, but so what? What happens in a world where you can’t retain information because you put it on the network and it is spirited away? Then there’s no privacy left and damned little money either. You’ve given away the most important thing in the 21st century, data. And then organizations like Google or the NSA or China or Russia get it and use it, and public is left with squat.

In this context words like “surveillance” and “whistleblowers” do not capture the whole implication of the situation. It’s true there’s an “American side” and a “Russian side”. But in another sense, it’s us versus “them”. The most important aspect of the problem is not how much a oversight government has or who Snowden was working for. That’s important but not as vital as creating methods (like encryption) whereby the public can regain control of their data.

It’s possible that the most important questions about the future of privacy are not those before committees having oversight over the NSA, but in companies and legislative committees that are dealing with network architecture, computing platforms and encryption.

For related discussion into this problem, read my pamphlet: The War of the Words.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small

No Way In, a novel at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific

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