NSA spying, Snowden revelations and the Internet

This New York Times video from the USA says about itself:

N.S.A. Spying: Why Does It Matter?

29 Nov 2013

A short film explores whether ordinary Americans should be concerned about online surveillance.

Read the story here.

From weekly The Observer in Britain:

Why the NSA has landed us all in another nice mess

The Snowden revelations may not end internet surveillance, but they will certainly cause radical changes

John Naughton

Sunday 1 December 2013

Fans of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy will fondly remember Oliver’s complaint to Stanley: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” In a future remake, Hardy will be played by Barack Obama, suitably enhanced with a toothbrush moustache, while Keith Alexander, currently head of the NSA, will star as Laurel. The scene in which this particular bit of dialogue occurs is the Oval Office, which for the purposes of the scene is littered with flip charts summarising the various unintended consequences of the NSA‘s recent activities, as relayed by Edward Snowden.

One chart, supplied by the Department of Commerce, lists the collateral damage inflicted by the revelations on major US internet companies. Until the Snowden story broke last June, it was a racing certainty that they would dominate the world market for cloud computing services. Maybe they still will, but the odds have lengthened.

Another chart comes from the State Department and contains a long list of woes. It starts with how the NSA’s activities have comprehensively undermined US foreign policy in relation to the internet. Quotations from Hillary Clinton‘s lofty speech of 21 January 2010 about internet freedom will be highlighted, but now annotated with exclamation marks.

For example, this passage: “Governments and citizens must have confidence that the networks at the core of their national security and economic prosperity are safe and resilient. Now this is about more than petty hackers who deface websites. Our ability to bank online, use electronic commerce, and safeguard billions of dollars in intellectual property are all at stake if we cannot rely on the security of our information networks.”

These are the same networks where the encryption used to protect online financial transactions has been compromised by the NSA‘s back doors.

Then there’s the bit of US foreign policy that aimed to ensure governance of the internet stayed with organisations that are heavily influenced, if not controlled by, the US government.

Again, there will be an annotated excerpt from Clinton’s celebrated speech: “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognise that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it.”

The ideal of a single, global internet – one network under God and Uncle Sam – was already under threat as China, Russia, India and other major powers rushed into cyberspace. Now the Balkanisation of the net has become another racing certainty because no major government (except perhaps our benighted administration) will any longer accept that the internet is safe in American hands.

For me, the most interesting flip chart in the hypothetical scene will be one provided by the president’s council of advisers on science and technology. It summarises the response of the internet engineering community to the NSA‘s attempt to “commandeer” the net. The charts will include reports of the most recent meeting of the internet engineering task force in Vancouver at which the consensus was that all web communications should be encrypted by default; the decision by Google and other major internet companies to implement an encryption system known as “perfect forward secrecy“; and the emergence of new, heavily encrypted email services.

Because of the resources allocated to the NSA, and the “legal” umbrella under which it operates, these developments will not in themselves end online surveillance, but they will make the effortless superiority that oozes from the Snowden documents look like boasts from a golden age. The spooks are going to find themselves wading through a lot of electronic treacle.

Given their technical virtuosity, many of them will relish this new technical challenge. But before we wade too deep into that mire, we need to stand back. The “mess” that the NSA (and our own dear GCHQ) has landed us in is a symptom of a major failure of our political systems. All democracies are impaled on the horns of the same dilemma: they need openness, because the consent of the governed requires that people know what is being done in their name; but sometimes openness undermines the efficacy of the secret (and perhaps necessary) things that are done in their name. The choice is then between sacrificing accountability or sacrificing secrecy.

What we have learned recently is the extent to which our rulers dodged that choice: they lifted the veil just a bit to give a semblance of accountability. What Snowden has shown us is that it was just a semblance. We urgently need something better and if we don’t get it then we could be, as one spook put it, “a keystroke away from totalitarianism”. And that would be a different kind of mess altogether.

22 thoughts on “NSA spying, Snowden revelations and the Internet

  1. What we need is a world where the need for secrecy is kept to a minimum. The Problem is that governments (esp USA etc) seem to think they need to know everything. It’s like entering your best friends house and photographing everything, opening ever cupboard, reading diaries, and copying all the information, just in case they turn on you and you wanna stop them or embarrass them. maybe they know something useful that you could make money out of( a new lawn mowing device etc.
    All of this spying could almost be legitimate if it was truly chasing terrorists only, but it is obviously being used to gain political advantage, even with allies and non aggressors, It is most likely being use to steal technological secrets too, and again not just from “the enemy”, though I suspect the USA actually considers everyone and enemy even it’s allies, a better term may be “friendly enemy” or “gullible friends”.
    The USA is obviously using it to maintain and expand it’s dominance in all areas, which include technology, politics, military, commercial.


  2. It also seem quite plausible that the USA is and has been creating conflicts around the world to justify it’s presence, military infiltration, huge black budgets, resource control, etc. I am sure many of us sighed with relief(briefly) when the cold war ended with Russia, but now it seems they are creating a new one in asia with China, in an effort to limit China’s influence and of course maintain and repair it’s own. What we need is to curtail our (not just US)governments efforts in these less than ethical and morally deplete policies of spying and military interference. We cannot have a better world while we wage war continually, while we suppress the weak, while our governments behave like children ( but everyone does it/ a childs excuse). Where we go depends on the road and direction we take, unfortunately we are not on the road to a peaceful world with privacy and freedom. We are on a road lined with soldiers, armed with guns and sniffer dogs, black vans in the outside lane picking up individuals at random to see if they are sneaking a piece of cheesecake by.


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