There is a depressing new article over at The Guardian today by James Ball, Julian Borger, and Glenn Greenwald, US and UK Spy Agencies Defeat Privacy and Security on the Internet. It contains more revelations from the Edward Snowden files. I’ll be writing about it more, but basically it means that the NSA can break most forms of encryption, but they don’t even have to do that because they work with high tech companies to put weaknesses in products. I assume these weaknesses are things like back doors where the NSA and other spying agencies can just reach in and grab the data as easily as if they had the user’s password.
I already know what the reaction is going to be to all of this. The government will claim that this information should never have been leaked and that it puts American (UK, whatever) lives at risk. The high tech companies will claim that certainly they have never worked with the NSA—at least not when they weren’t forced to by law. And the media will claim that there is nothing new in this report. They will all be lying for their own selfish reasons.
None of this information ever puts lives at risk because to a very large extent: it can’t. The vast majority of documents are classified because they embarrass the government. The purpose is not to keep them away from our enemies but to keep them away from us. We see this again and again. Declassified documents from decades ago always turn out to be the most pathetic things that never should have been classified in the first place. And one of the good things that Clinton did while president was open things up a bit and declassify a lot of documents. When Bush came into office, the administration immediately started reclassifying documents. That shows how foolish the whole thing is.
I know the high tech mindset very well. And it is true that small young companies really do have high ideals. Most of them are also fairly anarchic in their thinking and don’t like the idea of government spying. It is all part of the internet mindset. But after these little startups become real companies, everything changes. Then they only care about such ideals as a branding issue. There are lots of economic reasons for these companies to play nice with the NSA and other questionable parts of the government. So of course they are providing the keys to all their customers’ data. And they don’t care about this at all—as long as their customers never find out.
The media obsession with claiming that none of this information is new is particularly interesting. It depends upon a kind of urbane cynicism that just assumes that the government is doing all kinds of bad stuff. So: of course the government is spying on all of us; only a rube thought anything else! There are two problems with this. First, there is a difference between suspecting and knowing. Second, by that logic, we don’t need journalists at all. Why do we hold up Woodward and Bernstein as heroes? After all, many people suspected that Nixon was up to no good. All they did was tell us that politicians are corrupt. Big deal!
So expect all of these very predictable reactions. But don’t buy them for a minute. The government, business community, and media are not our friends. They are doing everything they can to keep us in the weak, poor, and blind.