Edward Snowden is a despicable traitor, but he did raise more public awareness of surveillance activities as a traitor than all the Libertarians harping about PRISM combined. I’ve talked with a few people in the cyber community who lamented that the quality of intelligence has suffered since the Snowden backlash started cutting into operations due to increased Judicial/Congressional oversight.
To put it into perspective, former NSA director Michael Hayden went on record saying, “We kill people based on metadata.”
So what is metadata? It’s all the stuff you put on an envelope. It is your source phone number and the number you called. It is your home IP address and computer MAC address (or the MAC address of your public facing router) and every website, internet service, and how long you maintained those connections. In short, it’s everything but the letter in the envelope.
The reason why metadata is important is that it directly describes a link between two thinks. Your phone number and someone else’s phone number. Your internet activity and a website. That website and hundreds of others. Your internet services and others using the same service at the same time. All those lines meet up, and cross, and show interesting patterns and connections. And there is plenty of software out there that can take that data and process it so that it does show all those interesting connections between you and the rest of the world. Probably the most famous right now is Palantir. I have no idea what the NSA actually uses, but I’m quite sure the functionality is similar even if the controls are different and the granularity of results is different.
Now short of going dark there isn’t much you can do to not produce metadata (right now every time the blog post auto-saves I create another metadata point with wordpress.com). So the question becomes, with all this data, why haven’t we won the war on terror?
Because at the end of the day, on a planet with over six billion people, there are so many “interesting” connections in all that metadata that it is like looking for a needle in a field of haystacks spread across ten farms. Bad guys are actually really, really rare compared to normal people. This is why the three letter agencies are all about getting as much data as they possibly can and storing it for as long as they can, because once they do get a solid lead then they can go back and look for the connections from that solid starting point. So even though the goal is to stop bad guys before they do bad (looking for those interesting data points) but it ends up being a post event analysis tool in reality.
So the question that we as citizens need to ask is this, do we fear the potential ramifications of terrorists are worth the complete cataloging of our digital lives? Or would we rather have our privacy and leave the counter terror activities up to police agencies instead of intelligence agencies? More fundamentally the question becomes, do we want our government to have a pre-crime agency or not?
I know the costs of terrorism and I know the costs of a surveillance state. I’ll take the risks of terrorism any day, but that is my personal choice and we live in a democracy. I wish we still lived in a Republic, but I don’t think we kept it very well.