A sorites paradox begs the question of whether, if one grain of sand is not a heap, do two make a heap? And, if not two grains, do three? In The Snowden Files, Luke Harding, a journalist for The Guardian, arrives at similar questions of how much surveillance serves the need for security and when the term “whistleblower” yields to “traitor.”
Snowden’s heap of disclosures provides strong evidentiary support for the falsity of the choice between privacy and security, because most of this material has nothing to do with protecting the public. Instead, the programs reveal a specific goal of the U.S. and UK to “control the Internet”, as well as other communications. As to the distinction between whistleblower and traitor, Harding leaves the question open for readers to answer for themselves.
Harding begins with a positive portrait of Edward Snowden as the son of a Coast Guard officer who, disillusioned by his parents’ divorce, failed to finish high school. His early interest in computers allows him to develop independently, both intellectually and politically. Harding digs into Snowden’s online history to detail the evolution of Snowden’s passionately libertarian concept of patriotism. Harding quotes e-mails in which Snowden decries the disingenuousness of George Bush, Leon Panetta and Barack Obama with equal fervor and expresses loathing for government surveillance even before he began his intelligence career.
Prompted by the Iraq war, Snowden enlisted in the Army but washed out after breaking both legs during infantry training. Having completed a GED at a community college, Snowden then grew into the prototypical self-taught overachieving hacker.
Snowden’s meteoric rise in the U.S. intelligence community began shortly after leaving the military. He began as a security technician at a covert NSA facility in Maryland and quickly found that his experience and ability could carry him farther than formal credentials. He landed a job with the CIA, which sent him to Geneva in 2007. In 2009 he left the CIA and joined the NSA to work in Japan, where between 2009 and 2012 he learned of the scope of NSA surveillance activities.
In 2012, Snowden left Japan to work in Hawaii at the NSA’s regional cryptological center on Oahu. Harding describes this as an idyllic existence, in which Snowden received a high salary, lived in a comfortable home with a beautiful dancer girlfriend and was given access to the NSA’s most sensitive information, specifically on U.S. spying on China. Snowden’s political passions nevertheless endured. Harding notes that Snowden contributed $250 to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign and soon after began to develop his plan to acquire information stored on NSA networks.
Harding does not dwell on Snowden’s data collection methods, except to intimate that Snowden made extensive use of his authorization to use a thumb drive, a privilege granted to only a few high-level network administrators. This presents a sad irony that Harding only puts forth rather than analyzes: that the U.S. and British governments, while going to unprecedented lengths to enable themselves to intercept information transfers, never addressed the most basic security step—access control and audit capabilities—within their own organizations. There are numerous ways to prevent such access, or to at least establish a trail of what information was acquired. Nevertheless, it appears neither government can assess with certainty what Snowden obtained and in what form he may still have it.
The assembled catalogue of programs, in contrast with the drips and drabs of media revelations that elicit shock that yields to resignation within the same daily news cycle, gives real value to this book. Consider a few that come through the story in rapid fire succession: PRISM, in which telecoms and Internet corporations collaborated with the NSA; STELLAR WIND, the first known NSA attempt to intercept telephone conversations, metadata and Internet communications including e-mails and web searches; BOUNDLESS INFORMANT, a map of NSA collections of worldwide metadata; TEMPORA, a cooperative effort by the U.S. and UK to intercept wholesale the transmissions across transatlantic fiber-optic cables; numerous programs with the FBI that intercept U.S. voice, video, call records and cable transmissions, and the list goes on.
This makes even more striking the single most sadly comic event, as hapless British government officials go to The Guardian offices and physically destroy computer hardware to prevent further disclosures, even after being told of the electronic distribution of the information.
The story of how journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras meticulously protect Snowden and the information he provides carries enough drama to be read as entertaining but implausible fiction. As they disseminate the materials for publication and navigate the legal and ethical issues they face, Harding is able to sustain suspense that rivals any spy thriller.
Eric Jones is an attorney for a California state agency. He has been handling privacy matters for most of the past five years.
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