According to The Guardian, which first reported the story June 5, Verizon is under a court order to turn over on an “ongoing, daily basis,” information such as “the numbers of both parties on a call . . . location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls,” and more. However, no subscriber’s personal information or contents of a call are covered by the order.
Shortly after the story broke, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former NSA contractor, came forward as the informant. Time Magazine quotes Snowden as saying, “The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.” He has since been charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person. Snowden may currently be in Moscow and is rumored to be heading to Ecuador to seek political asylum there.
Because the information that Verizon turns over is considered metadata and not communications, the NSA needs no warrant to access it. Even so, by putting together enough metadata, one can fairly easily put together a profile of who is calling whom, for how long, and from where. While no actual content is turned over to the NSA, the breadth of this program—code named PRISM—should frighten any American because the information is handed over wholesale; no probable cause or suspicion of wrongdoing needed. And, boom. The NSA is keeping tabs on you.
To me, the program is sweeping and over broad. But it’s not entirely surprising. Many have commented on U.S. efforts in the post-9/11 era to track terrorists. Thomas Drake, a former NSA official, said, “None of it [the NSA program] surprises me. What you’re seeing here is simply the continuation of what was done in absolute secrecy after 9/11. Those programs were put in place and simply expanded.”
Expanded, indeed. Expanded to the point where Drake and two other former NSA officials before Snowden believed the program was turning on its own citizens, past the point of being constitutional. After Snowden came forward, three former NSA officials essentially said, as USA Today reported, “We told you so.” Drake, William Binney, and J. Kirk Wiebe, former NSA officials-turned-whistleblowers, designed and managed data collection systems at NSA. All three tried to get the government to admit and change what they saw as its illegal activity. They did not succeed. None of the three presently work for the NSA.
Yet Snowden is perhaps a different kind of whistleblower. He was not an NSA employee, but a contractor. Time Magazine featured on its June 24 cover three “hacktivists” it labeled “The Informers”: Snowden, Bradley Manning, and the late Aaron Swartz. All three, in their 20s, challenged the government or its laws in various ways, all three striving to make information freely available and in the public domain, subject to the public’s opinion. In 2010, Manning, a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, sent 720,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks. Time Magazine quotes him as saying, “I want people to see the truth, because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” At his pretrial hearing, Manning said he leaked the information to “spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy.” Swartz was an outspoken proponent of free and open information. As a 26-year-old research fellow, he allegedly used his access to JSTOR, a database of academic articles, to download millions of articles, possibly intending to release them without charge to the public. He was charged with multiple felonies related to hacking. He committed suicide in January 2013. After his death, the charges were dropped.
There are those who believe that Snowden is one of these “hacktivists,” exposing unlawful government activity and placing the debate over that activity and the policies that may support it in the public domain. As Time Magazine says,
[T]his new breed of radical technophiles believes that transparency and personal privacy are the foundations of a free society. Secrecy and surveillance, therefore, are the gateways to tyranny. And in the face of tyranny, the leakers believe rebellion is noble.
To these people, Snowden has performed a valuable service.
There are others, like Secretary of State John Kerry, who believe Snowden is a traitor who should be caught and fully prosecuted. Some debate whether he has compromised national security. But it’s hard for me to believe that knowing that the NSA is collecting cell phone metadata on American civilians is really something that would actually surprise anyone, most especially those in other countries gathering intelligence on the United States. It’s disappointing to me as a citizen, and Orwellian, reminiscent of the classic 1984, but not surprising.
But since Snowden wanted a debate on the policies, maybe even including his own participation, we should begin.