Enough with the Privatization of Security

Snowden at SXSW
Snowden at SXSW

Little Rock  Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, appeared via video-conference to an applauding audience in Austin at the South by South West conference among the Technorati to argue for better protection of privacy data.  He was lobbying for improved encryption programs and reportedly Google, Yahoo and others are on the job already.  Snowden’s hope, reportedly, was either to get more protection or to make it more expensive for the government to spy.  

            Frankly, I don’t find much comfort there.  When it comes to spying, as Snowden surely knows personally, money is no object.  What we must have is more accountability, and that cannot be accomplished by private means.

            And speaking of private means and expenses, it just can’t be a good idea to subcontract the holding of all of this so-called metadata through a 3rd party vendor, pushing accountability even farther away!

            President Obama in floating this notion out, even as a potential proposal, seems to be going to the tried and true option used by all presidents for the last 60 years according to a book I read recently, Shadow Elite:  How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government and the Free Market, by Janine Wedel.  She is a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia which is not exactly known as a hotbed of flaming radicals, but Professor Wedel argues convincingly that when politicians, both presidents and Congressmen, have worried about public accountability, political fallout, and conflict avoidance, the preferred option has been to shift the burden – usually at a high price – to private enterprises as contractors, whipping boys, and enablers.  Needless to say all of this makes scrutiny and any level of democratic accountability virtually impossible, and that seems to be the handoff strategy for this metadata hot potato.

            I was heartened to read that Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School and Carrie Cordero, a former attorney with the Justice Department’s national security division also came down hard against subcontracting surveillance information to private sources in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.  They sum up their argument by saying that privatization…

“…would dilute accountability, introduce potential security risks and create new pressure to continue the program regardless of its privacy implications or the national security value.”

            The last point is worth noting because it is also one that Professor Wedel makes repeatedly as well.  Private contractors are all about business, not policy, so it is in their interest to keep the program going, and therefore the dollars flowing, right or wrong, for as long as possible.

            This is a bad idea.  The President needs to force accountability, not practice a metadata shuffle step.

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Continuing Relevance of Wikileaks, Assange, and Snowden

JulianAssangeCypherpunksNew Orleans  Contrary to many published stories, the reports of Wikileaks’ death and demise seem exaggerated, and despite the tedium the mainstream media has developed for Julian Assange and his antics, suddenly he seems relevant again, and Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, seems, surprisingly, to have ignited exactly the kind of high level national and international privacy and spying debate that he had hoped to inspire with his info dump.   How did this come to pass?

            Recently I read Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by some of the team of Guardian newspaper reports about the run-up to the multi-media publication of the original Iraq and Afghanistan documents from Bradley Manning via Wikileaks.  They are not uncritical, but give a semi-objective look at the process and Assange’s motivations and philosophy.  It was helpful to be reminded of the international awards Assange and Wikileaks had won before they kicked the US hornet’s nest for their work on transparency.  There were perhaps too many lurid details on Assange’s Swedish legal problems and sexual accusations, though it was a helpful education on how crimes are defined differently by different nations.  The other book I’ve gone through is Cypherpunks which is a conversation between Assange and some of his hacker colleagues from around the world.  In one great line he calls cellphones “a tracking device that also makes calls,” which recent information seems to confirm.  Reading this book before the Snowden revelations, I would have thought some of their concerns were perhaps true, but overblown, but now they might seem modest compared to what has emerged.  As a footnote it was also fascinating to find that Assange was learning from his buddies information that they had gotten by reading the Wall Street Journal, which he had not realized about the attacks against Wikileaks.  These guys don’t know everything of course and how could they, so why are we surprised that geeks with sometimes less than proficient social skills can also be naïve and left footed on political and organizational matters.

            But, just as Assange gets bottled up indefinitely in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, here comes this Snowden fellow with all of his NSA spying information, and here’s the irony, Wikileaks is back in the mix, because acting as a source for dumps of information from leakers was precisely the reason why Wikileaks was created and the cause it was designed to serve.  Furthermore in a world adverse to conflict, these dudes have proven that they can handle the heat. Say what you may about Assange, he may be running in some stunt for a political position in Australia, but he’s not running for prom queen.   He can carry weight. 

            And, Snowden despite the hue and cry and endless debate that we could all have on tactics and strategy and what makes him tick, had a story to tell that would categorically not have been told without him taking the risk and pushing it out to the world, and, arguably he could not have done so without the battle-tested skills of Wikileaks.

            A story in the Journal tries to use the report of a 2-hour encrypted skype-like call between Snowden and his father to cast aspersions on the motivations of blogger Glenn Greenwald who also facilitated this affair and the fundraising by Wikileaks in support of the Snowden work.   Who knows, but I would be careful about being herded anywhere on this.  Wikileaks’ Sarah Harrison flew with Snowden out of Hong Kong to Moscow and hung with him for 5-weeks in the transit zone in real life not in some Tom Hanks movie, and that shows some organizational commitment no matter how haphazard the organization, and no doubt cost some big time cash as they facilitate Snowden’s asylum, so unless pops is willing and able to pay the whole bill, Snowden, Assange, and Wikileaks seem to be taking some heat for performing a service in a very small niche that turns out to be vital in modern life and politics for citizens trying to live in the new globalism of nation states specializing in secrecy by any means possible.

 

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