NSA Cheerleader Ben Wittes Takes A Written Swing At The Anti-NSA Crowd And Misses His Target Entirely
from the pro-surveillance jackassery dept
Benjamin Wittes, adjunct NSA apologist at the Brookings Institution and the most prolific blogger at Lawfare, has just unloaded a post meant to portray those opposed to the NSA as simpleminded strawmen/women who are triggered by certain letters rather than by the critically-important nuances.
Here’s the gist of it, which I can hopefully convey without copy-pasting the entirety of the short, extremely self-satisfied piece.
I was at the National Security Agency yesterday giving a Constitution Day speech and I learned details of a shocking collection program: The government is bulk collecting all traffic on Twitter. Under a program menacingly called “Bulk Data in Social Media” and abbreviated—appropriately enough—as BDSM [insert proxy self-amused snicker here], Twitter has been providing all public traffic since 2010 for a massive government database that, as of early last year, contained 170 billion tweets. The goal of this program? To “collect the story of America” and to “acquire collections that will have research value” to analysts and others.
Those of you who are not the morons Wittes makes you out to be will already know where this is headed. Wittes breathlessly adds in italics that Twitter does this voluntarily without a court order or FISA court review.
Then he drops the “bombshell.”
Why would NSA do all this?
It wouldn’t. The agency I’m talking about here is the Library of Congress.
Yes, the Library of Congress is collecting every Tweet with the blessing of Twitter itself, and has been doing so for years. It was in all the papers. Those of us opposed to the NSA’s bulk collections are supposed to stare deep inside ourselves as Wittes fumblingly twists the rhetorical knife.
So here’s the question: If you were shocked when you read the first paragraph of this post and relieved when you read that the agency doing all this collection is not NSA but the good guys over at the Library of Congress, and that the good guys are actually planning to make that data available widely, why did you have those reactions? And do those reactions make sense?
First of all, no one with any amount of sense would claim that the government can’t access or collect public messages on a public platform. That’s an expectation we live with when we use these services. But the collection of every public tweet for archival and research purposes is far different than the collection of private metadata and communications for the purposes of rooting out threats to the nation’s security. (Or fighting drug wars, etc.)
It’s called intent. Wittes should look that up. Also, he should perhaps look into the difference between public and private info if he’s got the time.
While many people use social media to lay bare certain aspects of their lives, a high percentage of them do not reveal everything, or at least not as much as “just metadata” can reveal. Many intimate details about a person’s life can be revealed by the data they “voluntarily” hand over to third parties. Cops can track people’s movements with license plate data. The NSA can peer deeply into a person’s life with bulk phone records. People don’t “volunteer” this information, but there’s no way to opt out. Vehicles travel outside on public roads. Phone connection data is collected because phone companies need to track usage for billing (and are required to do so by the federal government).
Billions of tweets are all given up voluntarily by Twitter users. Even those who regret tweets they’ve sent or accounts they made still know in the back of their mind it’s been archived somewhere. It’s public speaking on a public platform.
Which brings us to another major difference between the two: transparency.
The Library of Congress has addressed this collection program publicly a number of times. Twitter also publicly announced this partnership. If anyone wanted to avoid being part of this collection, they could simply avoid using the platform — a choice more realistic than the government’s continued assertion that travel and communication are “luxuries” in which we wlllingly exchange our rights for convenience.
What has the NSA announced? Not a goddamn thing. It’s only talking now because someone took its secret programs and spread them all over the internet. Now it has to address these issues, but even in this era of forced openness, it still deploys a tremendous amount of black ink.
I’m sure Wittes’ post garnered a few chortles from like-minded individuals (including some he heavily elbowed in the ribs), but the whole setup is disingenuous. It conveniently ignores crucial differences between the two forms of collections in hopes of portraying the anti-NSA crowd as ultimately no more complex than single-celled organisms. The good news is that those of us on this side of the divide are constantly underestimated by those whose views skew more towards Wittes’.
This sort of presumptive arrogance is what allowed a government contractor to walk out the door with thousands of classified documents from the top national security entity in the world — one with a massive budget and the best minds the government could hire. The NSA simply believed nothing of that scope would happen to No Such Agency, even with an obviously lax set of internal controls. Now it’s been burned. And yet, its apologists still think they can talk down to everyone on the other side of argument.