The NSA surveillance scandal explained

For those who have heard some of what’s been going on but got a bit lost in the storm of media coverage, I thought I’d do a nice quick(ish) summary.

What happened?

The Guardian and Washington Post broke a story last week about the extent to which the US National Security Agency spies on people. This is the US equivalent of GCHQ – a spy agency specialising in digital communication. The reports basically said that the NSA had been saving huge quantities of data in partnership with companies including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Skype (not Twitter, oddly enough). They have also been recording phone call information from the large US carrier Verizon.

The targets of such digital surveillance have been mostly foreign to the US, although the system they use only has a 51 per cent confidence measure, which means that pretty much anyone could be on the list. Other governments have also been implicated, including the UK.

What does the NSA know about you?

Potentially quite a lot. All the information you give to those partner companies is fair game. But, contrary to many reports, it does not seem that NSA analysts have access to anyone’s data on a whim (neither would anyone be able to look through the billions of messages sent every day). The exact process is not apparent, but it seems that some previous evidence is necessary for the authority to be given to dig into your digital life. Of course, that could lead to a lot of false leads.

Here is a list of the companies who signed up to the NSA program, code-named PRISM:

Who is the whistleblower?

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old IT whiz-kid who worked for the CIA and then a private contractor. He lived in Hawaii and earned about $200,000 a year before throwing the whole lot away and going to the press. He fled to Hong Kong, which may or may not send him back to the US. The US authorities, obviously, want him back.

Snowden’s motivation appears to be a belief in freedom of expression and the right of the public to know that they are being watched. “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions,” he said, but “I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.”

Here he is:

Should you care?

Absolutely. There’s been a lot of funny netizen reaction to this. The hashtag #CallstheNSAknowsabout has some great stuff on it. But the debate about whether governments should have the power to spy on their citizens is an important one, and you should care even if you don’t have things to hide. Abused, a system like that could allow a ruling party to snoop on the opposition and reveal embarrassing details about them at crucial times (including stuff like who had an affair with whom, which tips elections but has nothing to do with politics in my opinion). It could also be used to repress freedom of speech…or catch terrorists plotting to blow up the Tube.

You need to make your own mind up on this one. For what it’s worth, here’s what I think (and it’s not the conventional view).

  • The first point is that we don’t actually know how effective the NSA’s spying programme is. This bothers me, because I would be willing to surrender freedoms in exchange for not getting blown up. However, everything I read and hear about President Obama is that he is an honourable man who makes decisions based on evidence (whether or not you agree with his politics). He renewed the PRISM programme when George Bush’s original designs came to an end, and to an extent I trust his judgement.
  • I can see that having almost immediate access to a suspected terrorist’s emails, phone logs and location would be important. I would imagine that the NSA used that kind of information to help identify and track the two young men who bombed the Boston marathon recently. I would be quite happy for my information to be stored on a secure server somewhere as long as it was only accessed with prior evidence. But I would want a judge or some other oversight to ensure that the power was not abused.
  • Final point: we give most of this information out anyway. Your Facebook profile, your YouTube videos, etc. It’s not just governments we should mistrust (and mistrust is healthy, sometimes). Google, for instance, could tip the results of elections by manipulating search results.

Bottom line: this is a good debate, but avoid the knee-jerk reaction.


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