Opinion

Jack Shafer

The information singularity is coming!

Jack Shafer
Dec 19, 2013 22:36 UTC

“Data! Data! Data!” Sherlock Holmes cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.”

The sleuth’s insatiable hunger for petabytes of data presaged that of the National Security Agency’s by a little less than seven decades. Like the NSA, Holmes took a pointillistic view of the truth. Find as many facts as possible, he held, view them from as many angles as possible, turn them inside out or set them aside until you collect more facts, and then, like pouring iron into a mold, cast your most durable image of reality. “It’s an old maxim of mine that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” as Holmes stated in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet.”

The age of Snowden has made well-known NSA’s demanding data desires. So, too, have we gotten a glimpse of how the agency’s information foundry works, that place where mathematicians massage the metadata of phone records and Web traffic with powerful relational database software to strip away the impossible in pursuit of the “truth.” Whether you believe the collection and analysis of your personal data is trivial or intolerable, the age of Snowden has alerted us all to the coming of the information singularity, where near perfect portraits and detailed biographies of us all can be assembled if enough computer power is thrown at a big enough data set.

“Records that once would have revealed a few scattered tiles of information about a person now reveal an entire mosaic — a vibrant and constantly updating picture of a person’s life,” U.S. District Judge Richard Leon wrote in his Klayman v Obama (pdf) opinion earlier this week, ruling the NSA’s bulk collection of phone data likely unlawful.

Judge Leon picked his mosaic metaphor shrewdly, knowing that the NSA and other agencies that handle classified information, such as the CIA and FBI, are not principled foes of the mosaic metaphor. Far from it. When it suits their purposes — which is often — federal agencies rely on the regulatory power of “mosaic theory” to knock down freedom of information requests from the press and others for seemingly innocuous material. The Code of Federal Regulations states this power succinctly. Agencies can, in some instances, classify compilations of unclassified government information because taken together and analyzed, the end product can be used to pierce the veil of what has been classified. Likewise, the government frequently rejects FOIA requests because it fears that declassified information can be combined with public domain information to reveal classified information. “[T]he ‘mosaic’ approach,” the code states, is “the concept that apparently harmless pieces of information, when assembled together could reveal a damaging picture.”

Plotting the Snowden plea bargain

Jack Shafer
Dec 16, 2013 21:32 UTC

CBS News gave the National Security Agency an early Christmas present on Sunday—a segment on “60 Minutes.” The title of the segment, “NSA Speaks Out on Snowden, Spying,” telegraphed the network’s generosity. After taking beatings in the press and in Congress, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander reached out to “invite” (which is how CBS News put it) the program to receive the NSA’s version of the Snowden affair. “What they got was a chance to make their case,” said correspondent John Miller.

The segment contained the usual NSA evasions and elisions (see the blog work of Jesselyn Radack for examples), so besides the novelty of network cameras recording images inside the puzzle palace, the only non-trivial moments of the broadcast came when Rick Ledgett, head of the NSA task force in charge of Snowden damage assessment, gave a positive response to Miller’s question of what he thought of the idea of acceding to Edward Snowden’s request for amnesty.

“What would your thought on making a deal be?” asked Miller. Ledgett responded:

Yes, we spy on allies. Want to make something of it?

Jack Shafer
Oct 28, 2013 21:59 UTC

If not yet the consensus opinion, by tomorrow morning most everyone with a keyboard and a connection to the Internet who isn’t also a head of state will concede that the ally-on-ally spying by the United States — revealed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to Der Spiegel — won’t matter much in the long run.

This is not to say German Chancellor Angela Merkel has no right to be personally ticked off about the U.S. snooping on her phone calls since 2002. She does. This morning, the Wall Street Journal reported that upwards of 35 world leaders were spied on by the U.S. They have a right to be ticked off, too, but the protests are largely contrived. As Max Boot and David Gewirtz wrote in Commentary‘s blog and ZDNet, respectively, nations have traditionally spied on allies both putative and stalwart. One excellent reason to spy on an ally, Gewirtz notes, is to confirm that the ally is really an ally. Allies sometimes become adversaries, so shifting signs must be monitored. Likewise, allies may be allies, but they always have their disagreements. What better way to prevent unpleasant surprises from an ally than by monitoring him? Boot quotes Lord Palmerston, the 19th century British foreign minister and prime minister, on this score: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Other reasons to spy on allies: It keeps them honest, or if not honest, it at least puts them on notice that their lies might get found out. Spying gives countries a diplomatic leg up on allies, as well as an edge in things military. The downside — well, there is really no downside unless receiving the stink eye from an ally for a couple of weeks qualifies as a downside. And so it has been for a long time, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan wrote in 2004. In 2009 Britain’s Telegraph reported that spy agencies from 20 countries, including France and Germany, had sought to steal Britain’s secrets. Earlier this year, the Guardian disclosed that British spooks eavesdropped on the G20 dignitaries when they convened in London in 2009, dispensing a little what-goes-around-comes-around to their allies. Apprehended spies may suffer, as has the American Jonathan Pollard, who pleaded guilty to spying for Israel in 1987 and is serving a life sentence in prison. But the spymasters don’t, so don’t expect them to stop any time soon.

What was James Rosen thinking?

Jack Shafer
May 20, 2013 22:33 UTC

Just open your Twitter feed and listen to the Washington press corps howl about the Obama administration’s latest intrusion into their business.

From the mainstream we hear the grousing of Washington Post National Political Editor Steven Ginsberg, Washington reporter John Solomon and the Associated Press’s Matt Apuzzo. From the partisan corners come the protests of the Daily Caller’s Tucker Carlson, the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza, Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume, the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald and the chronically underemployed Keith Olbermann. All deplore, in vociferous terms, the excesses of a Department of Justice leak investigation that has criminalized the reporting of Fox News Channel’s James Rosen.

While I join this chorus of rage, I also wonder how much of Rosen’s trouble is of his own making. Did Rosen get caught and get his source in trouble because he practiced poor journalistic tradecraft?

The spy who was undone by his email

Jack Shafer
Jan 27, 2012 23:43 UTC

Everybody has an email disaster story to share: Accidentally cc:ing to your colleagues X-rated correspondence with your lover; prematurely forwarding to your staff the bad news about impending layoffs; using the wrong list to send letters of acceptance to college applicants who have been rejected. But in the grand constellation of email goofs, who can beat the blunders of former CIA officer John Kiriakou? If the criminal complaint filed against him this week in U.S. District Court in Alexandria is accurate, he could spend 30 years in prison for his email transgressions.

Drawing on correspondence obtained via search warrants served on two email accounts associated with Kiriakou, the government has charged him with illegally giving up the identity of a covert officer, disclosing classified secrets and lying to the CIA.

The emails, from which the complaint quotes, are less a smoking gun pointing to wrongdoing than they are Kiriakou’s suicide note. How could a CIA officer who worked at the agency from 1990 to 2004 handling dicey, undercover overseas assignments, including the 2002 capture of Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, have been so cavalier as to discuss the name of a covert officer with a journalist in email? Furthermore, how could the journalists — who go unnamed in the complaint — have been so reckless as to use an insecure medium to converse with a spook about classified material?

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