The Bottom Line: Snowden, Secrets, Syria … and Common Sense

September 16, 2013
By Maryann Lawlor
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Some say the information age dawned as early as the early 1970s with the birth of email, while others may argue the light wasn’t realized until the early 1990s with rise of the World Wide Web. Either way, there’s no doubt that the era of information sharing is at least into its third decade with a growth rate that rivals a computer virus. Yet in a time when information travels at the speed of light, the public continues to be astonished when once-private information goes, well, public.

Examples abound. Teenagers wonder how their parents found out about an alcohol-filled party they attended. Politicians show bad judgment and marvel at how quickly their constituents know all the details. Chemical weapons kill hundreds, the victims’ pictures show up on the evening news and a country’s president acts astonished to be held accountable.

Is it really so hard to understand? The answers are pretty simple: social media, smartphones, satellites. Combine these technical capabilities with a heightened requirement for safety and common sense says that the eyes of the world are upon you … literally. Why would anyone be surprised by reports about the acts they thought were private can go viral? It also doesn’t take a Mensa IQ to know that it’s spy agencies’ jobs to spy. Why would anyone be surprised that they are using all the tools at their disposal? (Whether or not they should is another question.)

Most Gen Xers understand. Having not only learned but also expanded the power of the Internet as children and young adults, they acknowledge that privacy is a thing of the past. Many were still so young at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that they don’t know a world without constant surveillance. And for the sake of security, they not only accept it, they expect it.

But while many look with wonder on the capabilities of today’s connect-everything-to-everywhere technologies, they say they are shocked by how they are being used. The National Security Agency (NSA) collecting communications data ? How could they? The FBI using unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance over the United States? Unbelievable. Google collecting personal information? Really?

The bottom line is that the information about the NSA snooping and the intelligence community’s black budget that Edward Snowden made public weren’t really revelations, were they? Common sense says that there’s a lot more information out there than in the pre-Internet dark ages, and it’s going to be used. They may not be the largest group of computer users, but the Greatest Generation had it right: “If more than one person knows something, it is no longer a secret.” And they were right about something else, too: “Common sense isn’t all that common.”

Once you had time to digest the information that’s been “revealed” in the media during the past several months, which revelation surprised you most? Tell us in the comments section, or share your insights on the SIGNAL Facebook page.

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I was really surprised to see all of the Snowden stuff unfold for many, many (did I mention many?) reasons but the fall out has been even more head scratching. The WSJ article on how the NSA can defeat web-based encryption was the most surprising. It might help to better educate the public on general strengths of three and four letter agencies, in a historical context. Regardless of what your ultimate conclusions are about the use of tech, seeing the good with the unknown is worth a look too. It's a complex issue, but not one that is well served by making sweeping generalizations.

Education about the general strengths of the three- and four-letter agencies is definitely needed. Do you have any ideas about how to do that or who should take that on? The nitty-gritty of this issue is certainly complex, but I think the surprise the public has expressed about what's been going on is a little unbelievable in its own right. Thanks for reading the piece and for your comment!

Maryann Lawlor

Excellent article, very well written, would like see more like it.
N. Anderson

Appreciate that you took the time to read it, and glad you like it! Feel free to share it and keep looking for articles like this one in SIGNAL Connections. And I LOVE to hear comments...even if you don't agree =) ml

Maryann, you are preaching to the choir. Yes. We know this, but the public didn't and frankly still doesn't need to know. What disturbs me is our politicians that are acting surprised. I have always said that I think everyone should work for the government at some point, if only for 2 years - at the Local, State or Federal level as a military or civilian. Too often our elected officials on both sides of the aisle don't even have a clue about what they are complaining about or the impacts of things they want to eliminate or cut - let alone, give military strategic advice when they were never in the military or worked for DoD themselves.

Absolutely agree that the politicians have no right to look surprised. If they don't know what's happening, they should. If they don't WANT to know what's happening, shame on them!

Firstly, compliments on writing such a nice informative and concise article – it was a pleasure to read.

What has Snowden revealed that we did not know already? As I live nowadays in Germany I experienced a German viewpoint of the affair. If the politicians are to be believed it seems that most knew nothing about NSA or GCHQ and their activities let alone their own BND. (It's not as if information is not available on the subject in German!) One heard everything from “It is against the German Constitution and we must sue the USA” to “we should offer the hero Snowden asylum in Germany”. Fortunately it does not appear to have remained an election issue since the leaders of the major parties were, at least to some extent, aware of the activities.

The Snowden affair's has, however, wider implications in that it has provided ready fodder for those who “demand” that Big Data, for example telephone call connection data, should not be held longer than three months. Such a limitation would result in it being very difficult (if not impossible) to undertake an effective post event analysis to any great depth. I wonder if the NSU (National Socialist Underground) members could have succeeded in committing so many murders over a 10 year period if comprehensive communications data had been both retained and, of course, properly analyzed.

The problem is always who controls the stored data and how is it used. The more that is retained, the more it needs protection from unauthorized access. However, if terrorism/serious crime is to be effectively combated then information must be collected, retained for a longish period (several years) and be accessible for analysis.

Incidentally, I suspect that the people who complain most about the collection and storage of the Big Data will be the first to complain when there is an “event” and the “authorities” (whoever they be) cannot effectively investigate it due to lack of data.

Nick Grubb

Nick, that's a very good point. Too many people look at topics such as this and immediately say "How dare they!" Without thinking about the wider implications of what revelations of sensitive info really MEANS and how it is handled.

Thanks for taking the time to share!

What surprises me and also concerns me, is the knowledge more generally by this disclosure to all that this information is collected but more importantly, available. For those individuals with dastardly purposes who wish to circumvent and abolish the Constitution, some who were not aware of this collected information are now aware and scheming to gain access begins. Mind you that may not be the three and four letter agencies themselves. Rather, those who have ulterior motives, can and potentially will find ways to gain access to the information (call data, as an example), and without stricter controls, will potentially put that information to use in ways never envisioned, nor meant to be used.

There are certain realities within the classified community that are better left unknown to the general public, and to politicians who have not the need to know.

On a Constitutional note, yes, collection is feasible, but not by the US government. Whether this call data information, as an example, should be collected is a function of the service provider business model, and I believe is up to them - it is their intellectual property, and to the user/consumer of services, is a contractual issue between the SP and the consumer. The information is not the property of the US government, and thus, if criminal activity is suspected we have CALEA, and other legal means for the US government to gain access on a legal basis to the information that a SP may have available.

We live not in a new paradigm where the history and nature of mankind's past is not applicable. The history of mankind and previous kinds of governments shed light on what we don't want, and if one is inclined to believe in and understand the significance of the American revolution, and what followed, the birth of our Constitution, then some of us believe that its principles need be protected for all of the individuals of the US, for today and future generations tomorrow's.

Whether some contemporary generation is inclined to be monitored more readily than earlier generations, is not the issue at hand. The real issue is who owns the data, and by what means, legally or illegally, is the US government using to collect, gain access to, and applying the information. As I stated earlier, certain data is not the IP of the government, it is the service provider's IP, and should be controlled and managed exclusively by the IP owner, and the government needs to either pay for legal access, or use existing laws to gain access.

The other side of this is whether alternative means exist to identify the bad guys, i.e., as one example, terrorists. In my opinion, that should be our focus.

As for spying on international networks, well that is a diplomatic concern, and the tradeoffs associated with foreign entity monitoring. Not that justification is that other foreign countries do so, but almost all foreign nations monitor communications, and conduct other levels of spying on the US and others. A bit naive for those who don't know or think, otherwise - we don't live in a nice, clean world. There are those who scheme against our way of life - get used to it and keep it in mind.

I also contend we really don't know what motivates Mr. Snowden to divulge these national secrets! Certainly, some needed our attention, but others have no purpose being divulged as they will cost us, the taxpayer, greatly in ways we cannot nor can Mr. Snowden foresee.

I have to admit that the question of who owns the information never occurred to me. Thanks very much for your insightful and thought-provoking comment. "There are those who scheme against our way of life -- get used to it and keep it in mind," is the best way to say it. Unfortunately, I think many of us have to be reminded of that from time to time, and sometimes it takes an attack of some kind (physical or cyber) to wake us up to this fact of life...again. Well said, Mr. Simpson, and thanks again! ml

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