Once again, as he did with the Bradley Manning saga, Glenn Greenwald has sensationalized and distorted a complicated story, doing the best he can to glue the very worst possible interpretations onto important facts in order to further is now-routine Libertarian attacks on Obama—and most institutions of legitimate government. I assume his new monetization scheme he introduced the day before he broke the story has benefited from all the noise he's created. But now the rest of the media, and all of us, have to sort out the relevant facts, something Glenn is rarely very interested in because they clutter up his angry stick-it-to-the-man (or at least Obama) libertarian narratives.
To be sure, violations of our privacy can be a threat to our democratic principles and ideals. But as recent events have demonstrated, so too can terrorism. The balancing act we must do will be discussed for generations to come (if we last that long). I think it's essential that we discuss them fairly, and demand that our journalists do too.
Because most of my friends and readers don't have the time to parse all this stuff, I am going to present here some simple descriptions of what PRISM, and related NSA snooping projects actually do, without all the agenda-hawking hyperbole being baked into so many accounts. None of these programs are some wholesale sweep of private data and communications that Greenwald and others have tried to suggest. I will update this page as more or better pieces become available. My personal thoughts on Greenwald and this drama appear at the end.
Overviews if PRISM
According to a more precise description contained in a classified NSA inspector general’s report, also obtained by The Post, PRISM allows “collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,” rather than directly to company servers. The companies cannot see the queries that are sent from the NSA to the systems installed on their premises, according to sources familiar with the PRISM process.
Crucial aspects about the mechanisms of data transfer remain publicly unknown. Several industry officials told The Post that the system pushes requested data from company servers to classified computers at FBI facilities at Quantico. The information is then shared with the NSA or other authorized intelligence agencies.
According to slides describing the mechanics of the system, PRISM works as follows: NSA employees engage the system by typing queries from their desks. For queries involving stored communications, the queries pass first through the FBI’s electronic communications surveillance unit, which reviews the search terms to ensure there are no U.S. citizens named as targets.
That unit then sends the query to the FBI’s data intercept technology unit, which connects to equipment at the Internet company and passes the results to the NSA.
The system is most often used for e-mails, but it handles chat, video, images, documents and other files as well.
“The server is controlled by the FBI,” an official with one of the companies said. “We do not offer a download feature from our server.”
Another industry official said, “No one wants the bureau logging into the company server.”
Obviously this is still a little fuzzy, but the picture that's developing is substantially different from the initial reporting. If tech companies have agreed only to build more secure ways of passing along data in response to individual FISA warrants, that explains why they've never heard of PRISM and why they deny being part of any program that allowed the government direct access to their data.
Technically speaking, this also makes a lot more sense. The process described by the Times sounds quite plausible, in contrast to the "direct access" story. Further reporting might clear this up even more, for example by explaining just how automated this system is and when human intervention is necessary.
Through a PRISM darkly: Tracking the ongoing NSA surveillance story
I'm a huge fan of tech journalist, Mathew Ingram. But while I very much disagree with some of his takes on this story and feel he's far too trusting of Greenwald (something others have learned not to do), he's very good at presenting the more ominous side of the story without some of Greenwald's dishonest and distorting reporting. So in the interests of presenting some balance, I include his summation of some of the technical reporting he's seen. Keep in mind, this was early on, and many new facts are coming to light daily which sap some of the "big brother" hyperbole and drama from this story as he's written about it here.
This story is moving so quickly that it is hard to keep a handle on all of the developments, not to mention trying to follow the denials and non-denials from those who are allegedly involved, and the threads that tie this particular story to the long and sordid history of the U.S. government’s surveillance of its own citizens. So we thought it would be useful to try and collect what we know so far in a single post, which will be updated as often as possible with new information.
Note: Ingram is a Canadian, so as a targeted "foreigner" in the NSA's crosshair, I feel he can and should be rightfully concerned about just how far these NSA programs can go. I personally feel most of these fears are grossly exaggerated, but I respect anyone's right to have and report on them as they see fit.
Critical Overviews of Recent NSA Revelations
It turns out, the NSA PRISM story isn’t quite the bombshell that everyone said it was. Yes, there continues to be a serious cause for concern when it comes to government spying and overreach with its counter-terrorism efforts. But the reporting from Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post has been shoddy and misleading.
In other words, is this about domestic surveillance or foreign surveillance? You could argue that either way, the government colluding with phone or Internet companies to sweep up “metadata” is hellafied creepy either way. But in the interests of accuracy, the reports should get the law right.
Views and Commentary
Is it just me or does the entire news media – as well as all the agitators and self-righteous bloviators on both sides of the aisle – not understand even the rudiments of electronic intercepts and the manner in which law enforcement actually uses such intercepts? It would seem so.
The day before he started blogging about "leaked" information from the NSA, he announced that his Guardian-based blog would now allow "reader support." I'll reserve further comment on that amusing coincidence for another post.
Suffice it to say that Glenn is the PT Barnum of libertarian bloggers, and credit must be given to his flair for exciting people enough to throw money at him for distorting very important stories; stories which he may have legitimately broken, for legitimate reasons, before demagoguing right out of them any and all fairness, rationality, and respect for disagreements about what the material facts might mean. As usual, rather than go do the hard work of reporting themselves, most of the mainstream media will just suck up Greenwald's reporting and use it to sell papers.
By the time anyone realizes many of the facts were completely distorted, the popular memes and misconceptions are already out there, and nearly impossible to get back. By then, Karl Rove and the conservative noise machine have been able to recast the anger they generate into weapons they can deploy against democrats and progressives. Lee Fang's new book goes into how this works.
The result is one more huge and noisy distraction from the larger problem we all face: how to recast a global political system that is completely dysfunctional, and unable to correct the imbalances created by global capitalism run amok. None of us are comfortable knowing corporations or government have such unfettered access to our communications. But I am far more uncomfortable with the lack of focus by progressives who claim they wish to address that crisis. They are thrilled by these hyperbolic fireworks that people like Greenwald are so good at igniting, without understand that such stories just misinform, distract, and dispirit the very voters we need to fix all these pressing problems while we still have a habitable planet to host them.
- How the NSA Analyzes All That Data
- What is data mining, aka "Big Data."
- How Big Data Is Changing the Whole Equation for Business
- The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right (by Lee Fang)