The NSA Doesn’t Deserve the Benefit of the Doubt

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader’s Digest, The...

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Keith Alexander has bad timing. Yesterday, the NSA director and four-star general addressed the Black Hat cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas, hoping to defend the NSA’s surveillance programs to a roomful of hackers.

According to Forbes, about a half-hour into Alexander’s talk, a 30-year-old security consultant named Jon McCoy interrupted him.

“Freedom!” shouted McCoy.

“Exactly,” said Alexander. “We stand for freedom.”

“Bullshit!” McCoy shouted.

“Not bad,” Alexander said. “But I think what you’re saying is that in these cases, what’s the distinction, where’s the discussion and what tools do we have to stop this.”

“No,” shouted McCoy. “I’m saying I don’t trust you!”

It is an increasingly common sentiment.

The same day Alexander was on the charm offensive in Las Vegas, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald published yet another blockbuster story on the National Security Agency’s surveillance, this time describing the details of a program called XKeyscore that, Greenwald writes, “allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.”

According to training materials dated 2008 and published by the Guardian, the program captures “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet.” Analysts can search for information by name. They can search by telephone number. They can search for anyone who has ever Googled the name of a terrorist organization or, for that matter, the address of a local Pizza Hut. The NSA describes the program as its “widest reaching” system. The US government is not just sifting through call logs and metadata, it’s hoovering up massive amounts of web-browsing history—web-chats, Facebook messages, search histories.

When it comes to surveillance, it’s tempting to adopt a pose of knowing cynicism. We’ve been too conditioned by spy movies and conspiracy theories to feel more than mildly discomfited. Of course the U.S. government—if not Mark Zuckerberg and the CEOs of all your favourite brands—are surreptitiously tracking your journeys through cyberspace.Obviously your entire Internet history is a few keystrokes away from being perused by shadowy government figures.

To see that confirmed in all its banal reality, however, is something different. The documents leaked by Snowden are printed with the cheesy pop-up fonts and PowerPoint clip-art that, we now know, is the official aesthetic of government surveillance training manuals. They take the trainee through the quotidian process of gathering personal information, step-by-step.

Before monitoring emails, for example, analysts are required to prove that a target is foreign. This turns out to mean nothing more than clicking on the kind of drop-down menu you’d use to renew your driver’s license or buy a pair of shoes and choosing any number of preset justifications to determine a target’s “foreignness factor” (a rich new addition to the lexicon). Options include: “The person has stated that he is located outside the US”; “Phone number is registered in a country other than the U.S.”; or, merely, “In direct contact w/tgt overseas, no info to show proposed tgt in U.S.”

When Edward Snowden first emerged, back in June, he said in a video interview with the Guardian that he could have to just about anyone’s personal information with just a click of his mouse. “I, sitting at my desk,” said Snowden, could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.”

At the time, officials vehemently denied it. “He’s lying,” said Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee. “It’s impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do.” The XKeyscore training manual seems to prove otherwise.

The lies have accumulated. When asked if the NSA collects any type of data on millions of Americans, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper replied, “No sir … not wittingly.” We now know this too was a lie, and a witting one.

In response to the latest news story, then, the NSA has insisted that they are only using the powerful program against foreign threats. “NSA’s activities are focused and specifically deployed against—and only against—legitimate foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements that our leaders need for information necessary to protect our nation and its interests,” the agency told the Guardian.

In Las Vegas yesterday, the NSA director argued the same thing. “We get all these allegations of what [NSA staff] could be doing,” Alexander said. “But when people check what the NSA is doing, they’ve found zero times that’s happened. And that’s no bullshit. Those are the facts.”

They argue that just because the NSA is technically capable of sifting through everything you do on the Internet doesn’t mean that they’re actually doing it. They’re asking the public to give them the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, at this point, when it comes to trust, more and more people are inclined to take the view of the heckler.

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