Category: Privacy

Why I think Snowden is a Spy

Here is why I think Edward Snowden is a spy:

  1. He was a single thirty year old guy, working at a well-paid job in Hawai’i, yet he gave it all up to live in Russia. Is there any part of Russia that comes close to Hawai’i?
  2. He had multiple legal ways to bring up his concerns within the system, including his line management, his peers, several different Offices of Inspectors General (OIGs), members and staff of the Senate and House Committees on Intelligence, and the FISA court. He appears never to have tried any of these.
  3. According to the press, he stole over a million documents, when it would have taken say, a hundred, to make his point about the NSA collecting too much information on Americans. Moreover, according to the press, most of what he stole seems to be about other subjects.
  4. He was an IT guy, not subject matter expert, yet he had no trouble figuring out which documents to take. To me, this indicates that he was coached, probably by a foreign intelligence officer.
  5. He got out of the US really fast. Rapid escapes are one thing that intelligence officers of all countries plan and facilitate for the agents they recruit to spy for them.

And yet, I doubt that Snowden realizes he is a spy. I think Snowden believes that he is the altruistic, patriotic Daniel Ellsberg of his generation, which is probably the line fed to him by the case officer who recruited him. It’s so credible that even Daniel Ellsberg believes it. The global press buys it, which enables Snowden’s handlers to direct the press to various items in the giant trove of leaked information as they find convenient — for example, the revelations about the NSA spying on Europeans, which may have been intended to weaken the cohesion of NATO and ease the way for Russia to go adventuring in Crimea. A set of revelations that has nothing to do with Americans spying on Americans, I must point out.

Snowden is a beautiful recruitment and a beautiful propaganda tool. In some country, probably Russia (since that’s where Snowden ended up), an intelligence officer is the envy of his or her peers.

Finally, there are important differences between the Snowden and Ellsberg cases. Ellsberg stood his ground, and stood trial. There was no rapid escape for Ellsberg. One could also argue Ellsberg did limited harm — he did not cause America to lose the Vietnam War, he merely revealed that America was already losing it. Snowden revealed what people in the intelligence business call “sources and methods,” which get cut off when they are compromised. Which means that other countries and corporations will go on collecting information that America can no longer get.


The Geist in the Zeit

Henry Allen (2013) complains that there hasn’t been a distinctive Zeitgeist since the 1980s. To him, it’s as if “reality itself is dwindling, fading like sunstruck wallpaper.” On the contrary. Reality is being augmented. Mr. Allen is merely doing what we all do after a certain age – he is falling behind the times.

Back when the times could be characterized by serial trends in music, fashion, movies, and art, the media were controlled by gatekeepers who determined what they would bet their precious capital on presenting to the public. The result was a sort of monoculture, in which one trend followed another.

Today, digital media and the internet make production and distribution cheap. The gatekeepers have been bypassed. The market for culture, the social reality, has fragmented. Multiple genres of music, fashion, video, and art now exist side by side. The last bastions of monoculture are film and Broadway, where distribution to theaters is still limited and production is still expensive.

The phenomenon that has led to the fragmentation of social reality is also leading to its augumentation. We are about to go from carrying our social network in our mobile phone to wearing it in our accessories and clothing – Google Glass being the first of many attempts to get this right. Eventually we will wear our social network in our implants.

Even now, researchers are trying to develop brain-machine interfaces to help the blind see, the deaf hear, and amputees to control prosthetic limbs the way people control their natural limbs – with their minds. The implications for change are indeed Biblical, when wireless networking meets the mind-machine interface. People will communicate by exchanging their thoughts and mental imagery.

Social reality is going to get much richer and denser. Reality is not fading away. Mr. Allen is. And so are we and our history. When people stop using language to transmit their thoughts, only the most compelling parts of prior human knowledge, history, and literature will be transcribed into the new media.

Perhaps we shouldn’t get so worked up about so many of our contemporary problems. Most of them are destined to be forgotten.


Allen, Henry. 2013. The Disquiet of Ziggy Zeitgeist. Wall Street Journal. August 2. A 11.

Is Big Brother Watching You?

Edward Snowden, variously reported as working for he CIA, the NSA, or an NSA contractor, has stirred up the media over whether the US government is violating the US Constitution by collecting information on US citizens. Apparently, he thinks of himself as this generation’s Daniel Ellsberg. Time will tell.

What the media don’t tell is typical: a detail that might enable their audiences to decide for themselves whether Snowden is a whistleblower or a criminal. The detail in question has to do with how the government interprets the Constitution, the “rules of the road” that are briefed annually to everyone in the US Intelligence Community. These rules are spelled out in presidential Executive Order 12333 as amended in 2008.

Specifically, EO12333 enumerates what information can and cannot be collected on US persons (US citizens, legal residents, and US corporations), under what circumstances, and for how long it may be retained. If Snowden’s disclosure shows a violation of this order, then he might be a whistleblower. If not, then he has needlessly degraded the security and safety of US persons in an act of criminal and traitorous stupidity.

I say he might be a whistleblower, because there were alternate and legal pathways for him to voice his concerns: his immediate supervisor, the CIA Office of the Inspector General, or the staff of any member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence or the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Even going to the US Department of Justice OIG would have been better than first going to the media.

He has already agreed in writing that US government may seek both civil and criminal penalties against him by signing the non-disclosure agreement required to get his clearance. Maybe he regarded that document as so much boilerplate, and treated it like the End-User License Agreements that we all click on without reading. If so, it was the second worst mistake of his life so far. The worst, of course, is violating that agreement.

The bottom line, however, is that yes, your government may be watching you. So are other governments. So is big business. And big business probably does it better.

Individual Information as Property

In his recent article, The Individual as Property, Timothy Birdnow doesn’t quite go far enough. He agrees with John Locke that every individual has a right of property in his own person. Indeed, Amendment IV of the US Constitution States:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Your person is grouped together with your house, papers, and effects as things being your own. Yet governments and corporations collect your personally identifiable information (PII) all the time. Your PII is bought, sold, and traded. The only participant currently excluded from the market in your PII is you.

I think that your PII is an extension of yourself – your presence in cyberspace – and that you have the same right of property in it as you have to your presence in physical space – your person, house, papers and effects. I would like to have a Constitutional Amendment that recognizes that your personally identifiable information is an inalienable part of you, and that who ever comes into possession of  it comes into a fiduciary relationship with you. That is, the possessor of your PII must make no use of that information without your consent, and may only use it to your benefit.

Governments and corporations will claim that they can’t do business unless they own our information. But in the 1800’s many agricultural interests claimed they needed to own the people who worked their land. Americans fought a Civil War to convince them to rent the people’s time instead. America ended slavery in favor of wages, salary, or compensation – a day’s pay for a day’s work.

Now technology has extended your person into cyberspace. It is time for the law to catch up, and for government and business to develop ways to respect our right to our information – ourselves.