Over the past few days, there’s been a major burst of outrage regarding the “NSA leaks” from a young tech named Edward Snowden, as published in The Guardian by Glenn Greenwald. The claims were that the NSA is monitoring every American, and that there’s a “secret” program called PRISM which enabled Snowden (among others) to wiretap into anyone’s communications. Along with that, that the government had “direct access” to all the major internet services servers. Aside from the fact that it was Greenwald publishing it, there were a number of things that Snowden and Greenwald were claiming that made me smell a distinct odor of fish.
A little personal background. I’ve been a computer geek for over 30 years, both professionally and as a hobby. I’ve worked on and with major data systems, as well as having been responsible for security. I’ve also had security clearances and had more than my share of security briefings. Which is why the initial story didn’t smell right to me. More than a little fishy, in fact.
Why? Let me explain some things. First and foremost, even without “national security,” no one gets the sort of complete access that Snowden claims he had. Things are compartmentalized. You may have access to some systems, but not others. I’ve been a systems administrator in a fairly large IT section, and from experience, while I had complete access to everything on my systems, I didn’t on other administrator’s systems. What access I did have was extremely limited, and everything was audited at some point. I can’t imagine NSA is any less compartmentalized.
Secondly, you have to understand the sheer volume of information that’s currently being sent around the Internet. We’re not talking a few gigabytes here and there, we’re talking millions of terabytes for the US, and tens of thousands of petabytes for the world. Any idea that the NSA is storing all that, let along monitoring it all, is ridiculous on its face. The sheer cost of doing so would be a significant part of the country’s budget, and the number of people necessary to do it would solve the unemployment problem in this country. That’s aside from the reality that the majority of that traffic amounts to “nothing of interest to the government.” The NSA doesn’t really care that you’re watching movies on Netflix, that you’re downloading porn, that you’re writing pithy blogs or commenting on them. They’re “meaningless” in overall terms, and keeping tabs on that is rather idiotic.
Well, what about the “telephony metadata” you may ask? All that is is a list of phone numbers, which numbers they called and the length. No personal information or content. Even that is a large data set to sort through, so without a key to start the search, it’s mostly just a bunch of numbers. Unless there’s a key, or some reason to track a given number, there’s not much of interest in the rest of it. They don’t care that you called the local Domino’s for delivery. What’s a “key?” It’s a set of terms or values you use to narrow your search. For example, do a Google search for “John Smith.” You’ll get 14,800,000 results. “John Smith” is a “key,” but you still have too many. So unless you know more about the particular John Smith you’re searching for, you’re going to have to page through almost 15 million results to see if you can find who the heck you were looking for.
The third point was Greenwald’s claim that the NSA had direct access to the servers of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, and others. Considering how these companies regard their customer data as “crown jewels,” a major portion of their revenue, it wasn’t something that sounded likely. Even more, they most definitely would have fought in court any such access, and the idea that it would have been “a secret” for any length of time was ridiculous. One or all of them would have made statements to the press along those lines, setting off a firestorm years ago.
Did I know that the NSA was collecting telephony data? Well, yes. As it turns out, this wasn’t “new information.” It was publicized in 2009 in the Wall Street Journal. There were even stories about it back in … 2006. So this was “nothing new” despite the assertions being made by Greenwald and his supporters. It also turned out that others, most notably Bob Cesca and Charles Johnson (LGF), were (and are) looking into it, and finding out that the claims weren’t quite what Greenwald was saying. In the interim, Snowden has been busily “leaking” information to the Chinese and others, while still attempting to portray himself as a whistleblower. There’s a difference, since he’s now busily giving secrets to foreign countries, instead of attempting to work through the press.
Then came the responses from the companies who supposedly let the NSA have direct access: They didn’t. Not Google, not Facebook, not Microsoft, or others. As it turns out they only – after their own lawyers looked them over – responded to a certain number of requests from all governmental agencies, on the order of 18-20,000 in the last 6 months. These are companies with over a billion users, so we’re not talking big percentages and we are talking about local and state police agencies, courts, the FBI, and others as part of that total.
So there was a lot about this story that didn’t add up from my experience, right from the beginning. Now, as Snowden keeps making news by spilling information to the Chinese, and tech people and the press begin to look very hard at his and Glenn Greenwald’s claims, things are falling apart. Greenwald is trying to walk back some of his earlier statements, except that he’s being caught out as a liar.
What about Snowden? Well, he’s managed to make himself look like what he is: An idiot who decided to betray his country. Not a hero, not a whistleblower, just another turncoat. It’s been obvious for years that Greenwald has a vendetta against President Obama. He must have thought he had in Snowden the best “fish story” in existence. The problem? Like most fish stories, the reality wasn’t close to the story. In fact, it’s beginning to look like Glenn was selling some rather long-dead fish. There are still many questions to be answered, including just what Glenn’s role was in Snowden’s action, and whether he instigated it. The “timeline” Greenwald has stated (although I’m sure he’ll backtrack on that) has some serious legal implications, in terms of “Did Glenn Greenwald set up Snowden’s actions?” Glenn may have more problems than just trying to defend his leaping to conclusions because he thought he finally had something on the President. And it couldn’t have happened to a better person.