Rare is the day that Edward Snowden’s decision to leave the United States and provide a massive archive of information regarding US signals intelligence to a handful of journalists, chiefly Glenn Greenwald, doesn’t enter my thoughts or conversation. We are at a swinging pendulum point in which we are left to wonder how much intelligence is needed for security and how the capacity to collect intelligence from cyberspace might be abused. That said, I refuse to be surprised and horrified by the reality that data provided by Facebook’s 1.23 billion users may be swept up in intelligence collection, by everyone from intelligence agencies to marketing firms. It’s simply not that hard to do. Nonetheless there is a debate between two sets of voices that I label “change it” and “get real.” Let’s consider their points.
Following the Snowden leaks, a “change it” chorus of displeasure emerged regarding the National Security Agency’s activity, both inside and outside the United States. Angela Merkel has been a particularly harsh critic of the NSA’s activities, allegedly declaring to President Obama, “This is like the Stasi,” after hearing that her personal cell phone was monitored. Although some decry Merkel for being naïve, she is also the first chancellor of the reunited Germany to be raised in the former East. As an ally of the United States, Merkel believes Germany’s leaders to be exempt from the US surveillance dragnet.
Those upset by the Snowden revelations have formulated a thesis on what they believe is necessary to address the behavior of the US government and the NSA. This set of voices retains relevance due to the continuing release of stories based upon the massive number of documents purloined by Snowden before his travel to Hong Kong and Moscow.
Most critics of the NSA’s activities ask for them to stop. But beyond that, there are those who ask whether the way in which the Internet is governed should be called into question, which is not at all a bad thing, but rather a possible sign that cyberspace is growing up. For nearly a decade, critics of the current Internet governance model, managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) of Marina del Rey California, have pushed for an alternative governance mechanism. My colleague Moshe Vardi, editor of the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery stated in December, “We can no longer trust the US government to be the ‘Internet hegemon.’” He may have a point, but not so argues ICANN.
A member of the ICANN board of directors, George Sadowsky, offered the following response to the Internet hegemony argument:
Vardi’s repetition of spurious and incorrect claims, often made for political reasons by other countries, gives credence to ignorance while illustrating the extent to which a knee-jerk reaction generated by Edward Snowden’s recent disclosures concerning the National Security Agency’s surveillance of personal communications worldwide has been unthinkingly adopted by otherwise presumably sensible individuals.
Sadowsky’s tone, in stating how wrong my otherwise ostensibly sensible colleague must be, is exactly the sort that reminds me to revisit the Hegelian Dialectics some consider a useful path to understanding argument. His refutation of Vardi’s claims is simple—that he is wrong and has fallen victim to a visceral reaction that is short sighted.
Beyond Internet governance, there remains an important discussion on just how much intelligence activity should be undertaken by democratic governments in cyberspace. Nuanced was John Schindler’s initial take on the Snowden revelations, back in June 2013.
The historical truth, of course, is that states have been performing espionage as long as there have been anything like states; it’s not called the Second Oldest Profession for nothing. States have regarded espionage—running and catching spies, intercepting other states’ messages while protecting your own—as core state business for millennia, long before anybody thought states should provide education, pensions, health care, or even police. Espionage is not going away anytime soon.
This exemplifies an important (and to me, more valid) “get real” counter-argument. But Schindler also cites NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, a gifted mathematician who resigned in protest over domestic collection. So even among this “get real” set, there is still a very real concern over the potential for overreach and violation of civil liberties in intelligence activities in cyberspace. The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies made important points here.
Some of those items were directly addressed in President Obama’s speech regarding the intelligence community at the US Department of Justice, others weren’t. Essentially, the President asserted that he would continue to collect widely from cyberspace, but promised more oversight. As a leader preoccupied with the issue of almost any terror event being his potential political undoing (see Benghazi), there is no room to give up capability, whatever the privacy and civil liberties concern.
Ultimately, it is upon the citizens of democratic societies whose governments engage in cyberspace intelligence to push for more oversight and change. Furthermore, any policy fix is trumped by the reality that it is most likely the best option to enable more technological innovation in protection of privacy and liberty on the Internet. There is likely no satisfying top down fix for the post-Snowden world, but there may well be many bottom-up efforts that can achieve measurable results.
About Chris Bronk
Chris Bronk is a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.