Yesterday morning I woke up and read The New York Times piece on Edward Snowden's latest revelation about NSA methods. The report details a "secret technology that enables [the NSA] to enter and alter data in computers even if they are not connected to the Internet."
Relying on NSA documents provided by Mr. Snowden and its own interviews with officials, the Times reported that the NSA had designed USB cards and circuit boards secretly installed on computers to read their contents and transmit them via radio waves to NSA controlled computers up to eight miles away.
The utility of such a technology to a spy agency hardly needs to be explained and allows for the theft of data from offline computers that would generally be presumed highly secure from technical snooping.
The targets? The sixth paragraph of the Times's article reads:
Among the most frequent targets of the N.S.A. and its Pentagon partner, United States Cyber Command, have been units of the Chinese Army, which the United States has accused of launching regular digital probes and attacks on American industrial and military targets, usually to steal secrets or intellectual property. But the program, code-named Quantum, has also been successful in inserting software into Russian military networks and systems used by the Mexican police and drug cartels, trade institutions inside the European Union, and sometime partners against terrorism like Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan, according to officials and an N.S.A. map that indicates sites of what the agency calls “computer network exploitation.”
The paper continued: "There is no evidence that the NSA has implanted its software or used its radio frequency technology inside the United States."
I've been interested for some time in the binary thinking applied by many to Snowden, an NSA contractor who absconded to Russia with thousands of internal NSA documents and has generated a series of scoops for journalists. His supporters insist he's a whistle-blower and should be given a medal. His detractors call him a traitor and want him, at best, to spend the rest of his natural life in prison.
To me it's always seemed clear that Snowden's revelations have done two things. First, he has exposed NSA programs that improperly targeted US citizens and represent enormous government surveillance overreach in the post-9/11 era. Second, and more frequently, he has brought to light entirely legal and appropriate NSA programs aimed toward foreign intelligence targets (which is after all the NSA's remit from Congress). I often try to point out on my Twitter feed that many Snowden revelations have nothing to do with protecting the US Constitution and have the effect of helping foreign intelligence targets of the NSA. I wrote yesterday after reading the Times article:
The NSA was seeking to steal secrets from the Russian and Chinese military and spying on Mexican drug cartels. Not whistleblowing.— Dan Murphy (@bungdan) January 15, 2014
Both Russia and China, those bastions of freedom and respect for the individual, are even more in Mr. Snowden's debt today.— Dan Murphy (@bungdan) January 15, 2014
I very quickly started receiving a deluge of abuse from anonymous Twitter followers (you know, I'm a government shill, a fascist, etc...). I had an inkling that it might be thanks to Glenn Greenwald, the acerbic anti-secrecy activist who broke the original Snowden stories and has worked most closely with the former NSA employee. Sure enough, I found the following "sub-tweet" of me on his feed:
Mr. Greenwald is a very popular guy on Twitter, with about 320,000 followers. And he has earned a reputation for bullying people who don't share his views, frequently using his megaphone to launch unfair and frequently dishonest personal attacks. It will be interesting to see if he keeps this up at the $50 million news venture he's starting that's being bankrolled by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar.
I was furious that he compared me to Joe McCarthy, the mid-20th century charlatan who led an ideological witch-hunt against legions of Americans for their political beliefs. My crime? Taking what, to me at least, is the uncontroversial position that NSA disclosures about fully legal overseas intelligence operations are not a form of whistle-blowing and help US foreign intelligence targets.
While Greenwald and Snowden frequently decry abuses by the US government, the rest of the world gets a free pass – including Russia, where Snowden has temporary asylum. While the abuses of any other country don't excuse ones by the US, to set yourself up as a principled advocate for personal rights and privacy while ignoring Russia's vast surveillance state and routine suppression of what Americans consider fundamental liberties is the height of hypocrisy.
For instance in July of last year, Snowden wrote a letter of thanks to countries that have supported him. "These nations, including Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless."
There are people who think all spying is immoral and many who think it's always counterproductive, and thus view all of Snowden's releases as doing America a service.
But Greenwald, with no hint of irony, seeks to cow dissenting views with attacks on the character and integrity of people he disagrees with. He also suggested I was a "coward" for not criticizing the Times for publishing the story. I tried to patiently explain to him that it's a journalist's job to publish, and that I probably would have run the story if it had been up to me.
Greenwald is a public figure of considerable popularity. He attacks others to shut them up or to discredit them, not to engage with their ideas. Sounds like an echo of a certain junior senator from Wisconsin.