Fear and Loathing and the NSA

In the couple of months since the flood of revelations about National Security Agency internet snooping was unleashed by Edward Snowden, we have seen a great deal of knee jerk reactions on all sides punctuated by an occasional burst of sanity. We have seen some genuinely frightening things, such as the NSA is collecting metadata on every phone call in the U.S. and the hints that the government is trying to get the master keys from services that offer encrypted email. We have even seen the odd moment of black comedy, such as the announcement by The Guardian that UK officials, in some strange bit of kabuki, had forced the staff to smash hard drives containing one of many copies of material obtained by Snowden.

But we have reached the point where some people are beginning to suffer what I can only call NSA derangement. The best example to date was a post by founder Pamela Jones that she was shutting down a blog called Groklaw because of NSA snooping. She wrote:

And the simple truth is, no matter how good the motives might be for collecting and screening everything we say to one another, and no matter how “clean” we all are ourselves from the standpoint of the screeners, I don’t know how to function in such an atmosphere. I don’t know how to do Groklaw like this.

Groklaw did yeoman service for years covering every detail of the epic litigation in which a relatively obscure software company called SCO tried to claim that it owned the UNIX operating system and was entitled to vast damages from IBM, Novell, and countless others. After SCO lost on nearly all its claims and went through bankruptcy and liquidation, the lawsuits linger with a sort of half-life and, until today, Groklaw lingered with them (Jones actually announced she was killing Groklaw in 2011, but it refused to die.) But Groklaw is of no more interest to the NSA than is, say, Tech.pinions. To think otherwise is a bit megalomaniacal.

But the fact that someone as knowledgable about the law and technology as Jones (who does, it should be noted, have a somewhat conspiratorial frame of mind, especially where Microsoft is concerned) goes this far off the deep end is an indication of the impact of the NSA story. She’s hardly the only one. Keith Devlin, an eminent Stanford mathematician, has been filling my Twitter feed with over-the-top political posts, including the claim that the U.S. has become East Germany, a state that not only spied on its citizen’s in far more offensive ways than anything we have heard about in the U.S., but regularly murdered them:


On an even odder note, he suggested that he might face prosecution if a terrorist enrolled in his Coursera “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking” course, since knowledge of math might allw them to become codebreakers (or something):


When really smart people start talking like this, it is time for everyone to stop and take a deep breath. I am horrified by what we have learned about the extent of government spying on its own citizens and I am disgusted by knee-jerk defenses from the likes of Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Representative Peter King (R-NY) that it’s all OK because it is just protecting us from terrorists. Some perspective is desperately needed.

At one level, what the government (NSA is convenient shorthand, but it is much broader than that) is doing has caused some fundamental changes in thinking about the relationship between citizens and a democratic government. But unless you deal in leaks of classified information (an important unless, but one beyond the scope of this article), the effect of knowing what you now know on your daily life is minimal to non-existent. For example, I have been preaching for 20 years that email should not be regarded as secure or even private. The fact that the NSA might snoop on it changes very little–and nothing that has come to light shows that the government routinely reads domestic email. I don’t like the government collecting my call data, but it’s not going to change my behavior.

What we need right now is a lot less hysteria and a lot more pressure for a serious political debate on striking a new balance between legitimate investigative needs and the need for privacy and freedom from intrusion, and moves the needle a long way back toward privacy and transparency. Although the leadership of Congress is generally standing behind government spy programs, there is broad support for change among the congressional rank and file of both parties.  This could be a rare moment when it is actually possible to get something done, but only if we focus on what is real and what is important, and avoid sinking into wild charges and paranoia.