Author Claims We've Learned Enough From The Snowden Docs And The Rest Should Be Destroyed

from the huh? dept

Just recently Thomas Rid, the author of a new book entitled Cyber War Will Not Take Place, was on the Surprisingly Free podcast, and had a very interesting discussion about the fact that the whole concept of “cyberwar” is incredibly overhyped (as we’ve also discussed in the past many times). At best, it’s often really about espionage, not war, and (on the good side) unlike war, the likelihood of serious physical harm and deaths is much more limited when it comes to technological attacks. I highly recommend listening to the podcast, because Rid does a nice job laying out his thesis, much of which I agree with.

However, I was then somewhat surprised to see him over at Slate arguing that the rest of the documents Ed Snowden leaked should be destroyed. Unlike some others, he’s not arguing that the leak was evil and that Snowden was a traitor. Instead, the argument is somewhat more nuanced. He basically argues that a lot of good things have already come out of the leaks that have been published, but he’s unsure of the marginal benefit of additional leaks, while much more worried about potential harm from continued leaks. I think this argument is wrong, but it does provide an interesting thought experiment.

Rid does point to the good things the leaks have done, namely: (1) kicking off a long-overdue debate on these issues, (2) informing the public about digital security issues that they’ve ignored for ages and (3) convincing many tech companies to take security much more seriously. We all agree those are three good things that have come out of the leaks. However, it appears that Rid isn’t sure that future leaks will do much more than existing leaks to further any of those points. Of course, I’d argue that part of the problem is he leaves out the fourth important point: putting into motion events that hopefully will lead to more limited surveillance, less abuse of the surveillance infrastructure and much more respect for things like the 4th Amendment and basic privacy rights. And it seems pretty clear that continued leaks do help to drive that forward.

However, Rid seems to see limited upside to further leaks, and also significant downsides to existing leaks, which he thinks could get worse with more. I think he’s wrong on the downsides, but let’s go through them:

One is that intelligence capabilities are damaged. There is no doubt that signal intelligence agencies are an essential tool necessary for international statecraft as well as for maintaining the domestic constitutional order. Revealing capabilities and tactics often means they become worthless as a result. Measuring such tactical costs is hard, but the damage is significant.

This is overblown. Yes, intelligence and espionage are always going to be a part of the way things work, but that has never meant that we should make it easy. In fact, the likelihood of abuse is so high that we’ve always tried to make this very, very difficult. There are reasons that the 4th Amendment has requirements for things like probable cause, warrants (i.e., oversight by a third party) and reasonable and limited searches.

This means, secondly, that militants, violent extremists, and adversaries—think the Syrian regime—are already racketing up their communication security. In the future it will be harder to detect and foil terrorist attacks. In the future it will be harder to say if some regime possesses or used a specific weapon system. In the future it will be harder to unveil wealth-draining cyberespionage. This is very serious.

The history of signals intelligence is littered with the cat and mouse game of finding new ways to hide messages, followed by someone cracking them, and people moving on to other methods. Arguing there’s some awful damage from this is an unsupportable statement. Out of what’s been leaked so far, much had already been suspected by many — meaning that the major terrorists and foreign enemies almost certainly were already using methods to try to avoid such systems. There is little evidence to suggest the damage is really that significant.

Meanwhile, thirdly, authoritarian states get a confidence boost. “Washington ate the dirt this time,” wrote China’s Global Times, an outlet sometimes called the Fox News of China. The U.S. administration “has long been trying to play innocent victim of cyberattacks” but now turned out to be “the biggest villain,” said Xinhua, the state-run news agency. This argument, of course, is hypocrisy. The National Security Agency is not spying in order to round up Obama’s political opposition, and Government Communications Headquarters is not listening to Internet traffic to help London’s banks—both of which stand in sharp contrast to China’s own practices. Nevertheless, Snowden’s revelations make it easier for the world’s authoritarian regimes to crush dissent at home.

I agree with the impact here, but it’s not the fault of the Snowden leaks. This is the fault of the US (and others) being overaggressive in its surveillance activities. The way to avoid losing the moral high ground is to, you know, stay on the moral high ground. It’s fairly ridiculous to argue that Snowden’s leaks are to blame here. It’s the NSA’s actions that are to blame.

A fourth result: Internet governance is creaking. Diminishing America and Britain’s diplomatic and moral standing is threatening the multistakeholder approach, so far a guarantor for a free and open Internet. A patchwork of smaller, sovereign “Internets” is becoming more and more likely. As a result, the Internet could now become more authoritarian, not less.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, American and British Internet and telecommunication companies are under economic pressure, set to lose disgruntled customers at home and large contracts abroad. This last damage multiplies all previous ones.

Ditto my comment above. This is blaming the messenger. The problem here is not the leaks, but rather the actions of the NSA in going overboard with surveillance. Rid tries to cut off this argument with the following:

Some may retort that it was the NSA and its allies who created this damage in the first place, not Snowden and his allies. But this argument is problematic: Spy agencies spy, all of them. Suggesting that all secrecy is bad is plainly naive. Instead there is a moral case to be made for open democracies to have the most capable intelligence agencies, operating lawfully with robust oversight mechanisms. No liberal mind can want the NSA to sit in Beijing or Moscow.

But that’s not responding to the actual argument. While I’m sure some are arguing against any and all espionage, most of us are not. We’re arguing against overly broad surveillance, often for no legitimate reason, with little oversight and no actual threat to deal with. We’re not saying that “all secrecy is bad,” but rather that there has been massive overreach here, and little benefit. That seems worth discussing, and the Snowden documents keep revealing just how bad that overreach really is. Rid is responding to a strawman here, rather than the actual argument most people are making.

As Julian Sanchez notes, Rid seems to be basing the entire article a belief that is unsupported: that terrorism is a threat to democracy, when the reality is that it’s authoritarianism and surveillance that are the real threats to democracy. Yes, terrorism can do tremendous damage, but it’s difficult to believe that terrorism alone harms the democratic process. A surveillance state is simply antithetical to democracy. Rid seems to not understand that, which is too bad, given his recognition of how much the claims about “cyberwar” are overhyped.

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Comments on “Author Claims We've Learned Enough From The Snowden Docs And The Rest Should Be Destroyed”

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kenichi tanaka (profile) says:

This “author” must be some kind of nut job. He’s justifying that all documents should be destroyed because we have learned enough? UH! Someone needs to tell this “author” that as long as the abuse is “ongoing” that these documents should continue to be released.

Until the respective governments stop the abuse with spying on the public, spying on the people, then we haven’t really learned enough because the whole point of releasing these documents is to get the government to stop their abusive behavior.

Anonymous Coward says:

On the contrary

All the documents should be published. In full, with no redactions. They’re the property of the people of the United States, and we have every right to see every word on every page.

Yes, this will embarrass people. Yes, this will do damage. Yes, this might even get people killed. Too bad: we deserve the truth AT ALL COSTS.

Rid is an asshole who is afraid of the truth. He should be blacklisted for life and shunned by everyone.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: On the contrary

i second that emotion…
said so a while back…

further, this bullshit ‘oh noes, someone will reveal spookkraft practices and we will all be as helpless as a snag-hooked mullet flopping on the dock…’

a ‘traitor’ can reveal that we are splitting transoceanic communications pipelines when they come ashore at the pullstation; BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN SHIT…

what? al qaeda is going to go into ATT’s Switch Station X and set up their own ‘secret’ splitter room ? ? ?

what? iran is going to strong-arm google into giving them a backdoor too ? ? ?

what? you’re going to stop using the phone, inertnet, fax, etc ? ? ?

no, as per usual, the REAL reasons these kind of things don’t make it to the light of day, is to keep it hidden from THE AMERIKAN PEOPLE, not the ‘bad guys’…

no, you can absolutely KNOW -as anyone in high positions of gummint/etc would- that someone/anyone could be a mole, spy, agent provocateur, blackmailer, extortionist, seducer, swallow, etc; but there are STILL plenty of people who get recruited to turn traitor…

hell, WE are probably doing most of it…

it DOESN’T matter if you ‘know’ about that common tactic to recruit/blackmail agents/double-agents: IT STILL WORKS…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Anonymous Coward says:

Deletion makes no sense

If a document reveals something new about illegal or abusive behavior by the NSA, it needs to be published and therefore should not be destroyed. If a document reveals nothing new, there is no harm in publishing it and need not be destroyed. As for the rest, it seems to me journalists have done a pretty good job of minimizing damage to national security.

Anonymous Coward says:

We've learned enough Science, so we should get rid of the rest of the scientists

His logic could be applied to just about anything, like scientists developing new technology.

“Sure we’ve gotten a lot of benefit from scientists inventing new things, but only bad things are going to happen if we let scientists continue to study science. Any new benefits from science will be too marginal because everything good has already been invented. So we need to get rid of all the scientists and their research and development for the good of mankind”.

cosmicwonderful (profile) says:

Rid writes,

There is no doubt that signal intelligence agencies are an essential tool necessary for . . . maintaining the domestic constitutional order.

Rid tellingly doesn’t define “domestic constitutional order.” Yet the constitutionality of current NSA programs ostensibly intended to maintain domestic order is precisely what Snowden’s leaks have revealed — and continue to reveal — to be in question.

GMacGuffin (profile) says:

... and so nobody forgets about it

Another very good reason the leaks need to keep coming is that if they stop, the short-memory public starts to forget and the short-sighted Congress may stop feeling like something has to be done.

This stuff is still making mainstream news months later … because of new leaks. By all means, please keep dribbling this info out for as long as possible, Mr. Greenwald et al.

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Re: ... and so nobody forgets about it

Agreed. Remember, midterm elections are next year in the United States, which means the entire US House of Reps are up for re-election. The more that this stuff (and more importantly, that yes, what the NSA’s doing is BAD, and it DOES affect your life whether you think so or not) is burned into the minds of the American public, the better chance there will be that the next round of politicians (least in the House) will actually care about Americans’ privacy when we send them off to DC.

‘Course, this is assuming that challengers who win aren’t just using the whole NSA scandal simply as cannon fodder against their political opponents and then fall in line with the rest of the incumbents once they show up.

Being realistic sucks ass sometimes.

But as the Zen Master says, “We’ll see.”

Another bad argument from techdirt today says:

I am arguing for eliminating spying powers

Techdirt keeps talking about how we need to reign in the NSA and surveillance state with better oversight but that spying is good and necessary. This argument is naive and any plans based off of it are doomed to fail.

What conceivable regulatory mechanism could exist that grants the NSA the secrecy it says it “needs” but still provide meaningful democratic oversight? We have tried courts and committees and both have failed miserably at reinging in the NSA as well as functioning as a voice of the people. The courts and commitees can’t tell us what they are regulating so we can’t provide feedback about whether we agree. Even if they could somehow give us enough information to have informed consent about the NSA’s activities how would these entities know the NSA isn’t lying to them? As I understand it the NSA is supposed to be the smartest most well funded guys in the crypto world. What meaningful outside expertise could the courts and committees use to counter that that also wouldn’t lead to significant leaks?

Some security state extremists will say that spying is so necessary that we will just have to put up with the broken system otherwise China and Russia and Terrorists will get us. They say that if China does it we have to too. This is also a bad argument and is based on no data. Russia was regarded by many in the security communities to be better at espionage than the US. They had better compartmenalization, and were able to maintain secrets more effectively because they had less meaninful oversight. None of that really mattered in the grand scheme though because our syystems of government and society were simply more effective and generating money and opportunity. We were able to outspend them and even though they knew more about us than we knew about them they couldn’t copy our systems abilities with out giving up their own identity.

It is really kind of ironic that a site that seems to love open source, and no IP would feel that the security state is necessary.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: I am arguing for eliminating spying powers

“It is really kind of ironic that a site that seems to love open source, and no IP would feel that the security state is necessary.”

It’s ironic that someone who claims to read this site thinks that “no IP” is something that the site has ever promoted as a desirable idea. Dismantling and modernisation of the legacy systems, and removal of draconian and unworkable methods to try and “enforce” it while being effective in absolutely nothing, perhaps, but not the removal of the system entirely.

Another bad argument from someone “concerned” with the site I see. Perhaps someone can address the actual ideas in the articles for once, but this isn’t that response. No matter, you see more concerned with telling people what they should think rather than actually discussing ideas, so good day.

out_of_the_blue says:

That's a pretty explicit "limited hangout"!

My opinion and bet — gainsay if you wish but you don’t know either — is there’s not very much left in this “leak”.

Even those doing the revealing claim that they’re being careful to examine every item and weigh it by some notion of “damage” to national security. — Who weighed such with the Pentagon Papers? — What are those gatekeepers concealing? Who appointed them to withhold perhaps the very items that’d tip the public and cause Congress to act? Inquiring minds want to know ALL to weigh it ourselves, not just “trust” anyone. Trust never pans out; only the FULL TRUTH does.

Baldaur Regis (profile) says:

Mr. Rid states:

The National Security Agency is not spying in order to round up Obama’s political opposition, and Government Communications Headquarters is not listening to Internet traffic to help London’s bank…

How does he know? Hell, we just learned that the NSA is handing raw intelligence to a foreign country. Is he naive, or is he just in denial that the US is engaging in amoral behavior?

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m still curious how anyone (other than the NSA) could argue that destroying the remaining leaked documents is a good idea.

The leaked documents are proof of what the NSA is doing. The NSA doesn’t appear to know exactly what is/isn’t leaked, so that puts some proper power/oversight into the public’s hands. The pure number of times the leaks have been disclosed to the public purely to discredit the NSA’s current stance (and allow the public proper oversight) would in my opinion outweigh any of the damage Thomas Rid has argued this country would suffer.

If the documents force the NSA to stop lying and attacking the public, then we shouldn’t even consider destroying them. I’m sorry, but the checks and balances we had before those documents obviously weren’t good enough, why should we throw them away now?

Anonymous Coward says:

He left out another upside

Of course, I’d argue that part of the problem is he leaves out the fourth important point: putting into motion events that hopefully will lead to more limited surveillance, less abuse of the surveillance infrastructure and much more respect for things like the 4th Amendment and basic privacy rights.

Aside from that, there’s another upside to the leaks continuing. The leaks so far already demonstrate that the NSA has been systematically and continually lying about what they’re up to. They’ve lied to the American people, they’ve lied to Congress, they’ve lied to FISA, and they may have been lying to the President. When the leaks reveal some of their lies, their response is to lie more.

I’ve honestly lost count of how many times Clapper’s said something in response to the leaks, and then had his response revealed to be untruthful, days or weeks later, by another leak. In a brief skim of the TechDirt archives, I’ve counted eight.

If the Snowden leaks just stopped, I can tell you what would happen next. The NSA would release a bunch of misleading and/or factually untrue responses, defending their efforts so far. Everybody would suspect the NSA was lying again, but nobody would be able to prove it. As long as the leaks continue, the NSA can never lie with the certainty that they won’t get caught. The ongoing leaks don’t keep the NSA honest (or at least, they haven’t so far), but they do help uncover most of the bullshit that the NSA keeps spewing out.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t believe cyber threats are over-hyped. Most of us have ‘smart meters’ on our houses from the electric company. These smart meters have cellular modems in them, and the electric company can remotely shut off the electricity by sending a signal to them from a cellular tower.

Imagine if a weakness is found in the encryption standard these smart meters use. Such as a weakness engineered by NIST…

What if foreign national hackers exploit this weakness, and send out a signal to brick millions of smart meters right before launching an attack.

Then of course there’s Stuxnet. Hacking into industrial Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) and sabotaging Iran’s nuclear enrichment centrifuges.

Most newer cars are equipped with GPS devices that allow law enforcement to remotely kill a stolen car’s engine. Imagine a foreign nation positioning a few of their satellites over the United States, and remotely disabling half the cars in America.

What about a foreign national exploiting backdoors built into every router and switch on America’s internet backbone network, thanks to Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). There goes cellphone towers, the internet, intelligence, the stock market, and the whole nine yards.

I admit, some of these events sound far fetched. All of them are probably entirely possible and will only get worse in the future.

That being said. I totally disagree with Thomas Rid on everything else he says. He’s walking around blind with the ‘terrorist’ wool pulled over his eyes. Telling us we should ‘trust’ the government to be our guide dog.

I love his statement about spying being necessary to maintain “domestic constitutional order”. That’s laughable, because the domestic spy programs are unconstitutional, in and of them-self. Ha!

I guess what he really means is totalitarian oppression through unconstitutional spying. Mr. Rid is living in a black and white dream word. Where the American Government can ‘do no evil’ and are the good guys who incapable of corruption.

Sadly, the vast majority of people live in a completely different reality from Mr. Rid’s black and white dream world. He just wants the leaks to stop because they’re bursting his bubble, and he’s shamelessly blaming Snowden for it.

The leaks must continue until meaningful change happens, or we run out of things to leak.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

exactly, on numerous levels:

1. the amount of ‘bad will’ and enmity generated from people all over the globe… (JUST LIKE we are GUARANTEEING MANY future generations of RIGHTEOUS ‘terrorists’ among those we are droning to death, now…)

2. as you refer to, the numerous backdoors, vulnerabilities, and hacks THEY have inserted into the wild… (analogous to an evil monsanto contaminating the WHOLE corn/etc genome with THEIR ’roundup ready’ crap…)

3. they are destroying the very foundation of the inertnet: trust…
it isn’t tubes and wires and bits and such that really are what makes up the inertnet; its trust…
the NSA and all the rest of the alphabet spooks have shown they are not worthy of trust…

remember: ANY secret institution WILL become corrupted…
it is simply a fact of the universe, no more avoidable than gravity…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

What if foreign national hackers exploit this weakness, and send out a signal to brick millions of smart meters right before launching an attack.

Then of course there’s Stuxnet. Hacking into industrial Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) and sabotaging Iran’s nuclear enrichment centrifuges.

Most newer cars are equipped with GPS devices that allow law enforcement to remotely kill a stolen car’s engine. Imagine a foreign nation positioning a few of their satellites over the United States, and remotely disabling half the cars in America.

There’s a B movie out now which depicts exactly this scenario. It’s title is either Invasion Day or Dragon Day.

Mike Brown (profile) says:

We've Learned Enough?

“We’ve Learned Enough?” Yes, if you define “enough” by Clapper’s dictionary. Something tells me that statement, like so many of Clapper’s, won’t stand up to scrutiny. So far the leaks seem very deliberately timed to expose abuses of the Constitution without creating an international panic. My guess is, the process of bringing all the dirt to light is just getting started.

No one other than Ed Snowden and his trusted inner circle has any idea how much dirt he got his hands on. And that’s what’s making the news so interesting lately–the NSA has no idea either, so the minute they try to put a positive spin on the latest rumor, out comes another leak to debunk it.

The chaos we’re seeing in Washington right now is all well and good, but I predict it will pick up steam the closer we get to Election Day.

Anonymous Coward says:

If the leaks stopped, so would calls from Congress for investigation and reform. We’ve seen time and time again that if they think it’s even slightly possible that something will eventually blow over, they’ll ignore it and go back to bickering about what toppings they should get on their pizzas. It takes widespread effort on the level of the anti-SOPA/PIPA campaign to make them actually do their jobs.

SexiScience (profile) says:

What Thomas Rid (and most people) don’t seem to get is that if it weren’t for Snowden, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Barrett Brown, and other brave souls/orgs, we’d all still be like roofied, date-raped victims who are targeted nightly but wake up every morning with no memory of their violation. The Next Web website just published “?Build, Grow, Monetize?: Facebook?s Zuckerberg on the mission to connect the next 5 billion people.” He’s focusing on “things that matter” like “taking on a roadmap to help build out the knowledge economy.” Knowledge economy?! Does anyone think he means the economic benefit of anything other than FB? Does anyone think the NSA really cares about civil rights? The cyber war has been going on for a long time, and whether the goal is to divest users of their money or privacy, we’re all just puny bits of cannon fodder to them. If even that.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

Keep 'em ignorant

It’s funny how everyone who wants to destroy or eliminate the leaked information seems to be associated with the government (of any country) or thinks we’ve had enough of that embarrassing stuff called ‘information’ from sources that are not state sanctioned/approved.

What, you were depending on the government to let you know they’re spying on you?

Governments do not like to be exposed for their dirty little tactics or operations against their own citizens. It makes them look stupid and overreaching, as well as paranoid.

Keep the pressure on enough people long enough, we might even get reform, which is never a bad thing.

Ellie (profile) says:

Decisions about document release isn't up to us

Unless circumstances have changed, Glenn Greenwald had all 30,000 to 50,000 of Snowden’s documents. Glenn Greenwald is in Brazil, and not likely to be delivering the remaining documents to the NSA in Washington D.C. nor the NSA’s Utah data center.

Whether the documents are destroyed or not isn’t up to anyone but Greenwald. The Guardian is his employer, but I’m sure another newspaper would be happy to work with him, if The Guardian weren’t.

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