Sunday, 6 July 2014

How Glenn Greenwald scrunches the privacy debate

Since he was chosen as one of the media conduits for NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s trove of top secret documents, Glenn Greenwald has become a highly controversial figure. To some he is a hero protecting everyone’s privacy, and not just in American’s. While in others’ he is a traitor making the world a far more dangerous place in which to live.

Whatever you think of Mr Greenwald, his book represents one side of the tectonic plates shifting under modern society. These are the forces of security and privacy, and the balance therein. Free peoples of the world are going to have to decide how it is they want their governments and societies to respond to those tectonics.

His book, No Place To Hide, is the story of how Mr Greenwald came to receive Snowden’s documents, the decision to release them publicly, and the consequences of those leaks. But don’t believe everything you read, because facts really matter and Mr Greenwald’s well-known political agenda unfortunately precludes him from assessing the documents fairly.

Mr Greenwald firmly believes his understanding of the world is correct. Further, he believes everyone else who doesn’t agree with him is wrong. There is no middle ground. There’s also a frustratingly American stubbornness to cling to a theory of government written hundreds of years ago without any consideration of the advance of history. Time and again in American social and political debates, healthy conversation is collapsed when one side invokes a section of the constitution to back their stance, as if that settles the argument once and for all.

Mr Greenwald, like so many of his intellectual peers, refuses to contemplate the implications of history and the evolution of his society. Instead they clutch uselessly to the Constitution of the United States as if 1787 was within living memory. His conclusions about privacy appear to a New Zealander as inflexible, ill-defined, archaic and ultimately cherry-picked.

Mr Greenwald’s reporting on NSA spying is at times breathless and shocking, but also suspiciously lacking in context. Almost all of the documents are either internal training slides or top-level summaries of programmes. No official context is included. He describes what he thinks those documents mean, and expects the reader to believe him. The implication in every sentence is that the programmes are terrible, egregious and should be stopped immediately. He never applies critical or historical thinking as to whether such programmes were created with good intent.

Because Mr Greenwald fundamentally suspicious of anything official. It is very clear in his writings he trusts no person working for government. What he fails to understand is that in a representative government - in an American or New Zealand structure - the officials generally act in their citizen’s interest. This includes the actions of intelligence agencies.

What he discovered and Mr Snowden leaked was not a dastardly conspiracy dreamed by the dreaded Illuminati. The spying programmes were exactly what the taxpayer has implicitly agreed to fund each year to achieve: a safe society in which to live. In reality - in stark contrast to the dystopia of Greenwald and Co. - what we are seeing is the NSA and GCSB doing pretty much what they were told to do, and what most people would expect them to do.

Even if the documents outlined in Mr Greenwald’s book were delivered in an entirely factual, objective and clear manner, with no political agenda and the calmest rationality, we might still have a problem. Because reading his book feels like walking into a movie theatre late in the last reel. The reader is trying to pick the good from bad guys, protagonists from antagonists, based upon what they see in this last reel, without the context of what may have gone on before.

Perhaps there is some evolution in Mr Greenwald’s argument. A decade has passed since an entire nation, and indeed the whole western world, watched the horrific terror attacks on the eastern seaboard of the United States. Anyone who says they were not scared on 9/11 (or 12/9 in New Zealand) is experiencing a failure of memory or worse, it’s as simple as that. The policy actions across the western world following those attacks were a direct response to an unknown threat which clearly could strike at any time, without warning. The very human feeling of fear drove many government decisions, and very little has changed today.

But this is the crucial point. What the US and western intelligence agencies (including New Zealand’s GCSB) learned that day was that all their resources were not enough to stop attacks at home. The overarching problem were significant legal obstacles limiting them from seeing all the pieces of the threat puzzle.

Their immediate goal was to find and disrupt any terrorists planning more attacks in their countries. Again, this calculation included New Zealand’s government. Wellington made the same risk calculations and re-assessed their security practises to engage with the new threat. The instruction came down to take the gloves off and stop more attacks. If you remember what you felt in late 2001, you’ll know why this directive was considered non-controversial at the time.

The worst thing about the attacks early last decade was that the perpetrators were operating from inside the countries they struck. The laws preventing the collection of communications from citizens gave terrorists all the protection they needed. To prevent another attack, the eyes and ears of the intelligence agencies would need to be turned inwards as well as outwards.

The issue those agencies, and indeed their governments, faced was the rapid societal evolution advancing from the industrial age into the information age faster than the tools of government could keep up. Many intelligence gathering methods and laws were made redundant in this new world. We have been grappling with this problem ever since.

Mr Greenwald’s book shows how this dilemma is playing out behind the scenes. Our chats to our bosses or grandma now travel right alongside the plans of terrorists in underground wires. It is impossible to sift the good people from the bad in this technological reality. The only way to rectify this scenario has been for our intelligence agencies to create a haystack in order to find the needle by collecting it all. There is no other way.

Your wedding plans or your love affair with a university colleague might get caught up in this dragnet, but so too will the schemes of drug traffickers, child prostitution rings, foreign spies and terrorists. If there were a way to magically split all communication down the middle and truly achieve focused intelligence gathering, the NSA and GCSB would have found it by now. Of course, there would then be no such thing as terrorists or lawbreakers as well.

Mr Greenwald and others harbouring deep angst about government “overreach” fundamentally misunderstand the complexity of both modern communications and the cat and mouse game of national security. If the debate were as black and white, cut and dried as he claims, then the answer would be simple. It is not, and his book is not nearly as thoughtful as he wishes.

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