big brother and data leaks

Here’s another view on the government-monitoring-our-phone-numbers program. The most useful bit:

Why does the NSA need to collect all that data? One former national security official explained it to me this way: If you want to connect the dots and stop the next attack, you need to have a “field of dots.” That is what the NSA is collecting. But it doesn’t dip into that field unless it comes up with a new “dot” — for example, a new terrorist phone number found on a cellphone captured in a raid. It will then plug that new “dot” into the “field of dots” to find out which dots are connected to the new number. If you are not communicating with that terrorist, your dot is not touched. But the NSA needs to have the entire field of dots so it can unravel the network connected to that terrorist.

This doesn’t mean it’s a cost-effective or useful program, just means that there might be some justification for it, it might be legal, and since the content of calls isn’t monitored (as of time of writing), it might not be as much of a privacy issue as the media portrays. Lots of “mights” in there, I admit. And heaven save you if, somehow, a terrorist accidentally dials your number, meaning you suddenly find yourself “connected” to said person and on some watch list.

In other news, I’m still trying to figure out if Edward Snowden is a traitor, or a hero. Of course I’m referring to the guy holed up in Hong Kong (as of time of writing) who leaked sensitive information regarding the US’s furtive surveillance program. In his favor, he gave up a well-paid job for reasons that appear entirely altruistic:  to let the entire country (and world, for that matter) know about a surveillance program that he personally and morally disagrees with. Working against him: what he did goes against various laws, and regardless of his motivations, federal officials are left with no choice but to prosecute him (of course, many probably want to prosecute him, but even if they didn’t…).

My point here isn’t that Snowden was right or wrong to do what he did. I have mixed feelings on the program, and I have no clue what the short-term, much less long-term, ramifications of the program will be. In the best case, this will force agencies to be accountable and to not “take things too far” (ala “Enemy of the State”-style surveillance and tactics). In the worst case, terrorist organizations will realize that the US is aggressively engaged in “dot connecting” and will shift tactics accordingly. (Of course, maybe the bad guys will realize we’re connecting the dots and that will reduce their desire to use any technology at all, a tactical win for the good guys. But I dunno if that’s a likely outcome.)

What fascinates me most is that there are people who are brave enough to do this sort of thing. As I’m not personally brave at all, I literally find myself in awe. How many critics of Snowden would themselves be brave enough to do what Snowden did, provided that it was congruent with their value system? Probably not many.

This is reminiscent of former Ambassador Joe Wilson and ex-CIA officer Valerie Plame, who went through a multi-year ordeal when Joe Wilson went public with his (non-classified) inside view on a publicized claim by the Bush administration. Joe Wilson’s article in the NY Times stated that he did not discover evidence that anyone or any institution in Niger sold Saddam Hussein uranium, contrary to the US’s stance on the matter, notwithstanding that Wilson was sent to Niger to investigate that very possibility. Given the very public denunciation of both Joe Wilson and his wife and the illicit and outrageous exposure of Plame as a CIA employee, it’s amazing that anyone is brave enough to stand up for what they believe in. After all, they both found their lives turned upside down, socially, financially, and emotionally.

That’s the difference between cowards–most people–and the intrepid. The brave have a higher breaking point; they care less about what people think than what they themselves think; they act in accordance to those beliefs, as opposed to just acting in accordance to what earns them their pay check. Not all “brave” people do things that I agree with, but I’m grateful that the world has them, and perhaps more of us should be brave enough to defend them when the powerful turn against them.

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