The NSA Has No Solution For The Real 'Snowden Problem' And It's Only Going To Get Worse
from the it's-called-reaping-what-you've-sewed,-mofos dept
The NSA still has no idea what Snowden took or what leak is going to be revealed next. It also seemingly has no contingency plan for the sort of situation any forward-thinking intelligence agency should realize is a distinct possibility.
It has made some moves, all mostly involving the closing of system barn doors, including end-to-end audits and the constantly hovering threat to eliminate 90% of its sysadmin staff. But no matter what methods and safeguards it implements, it’s not going to eliminate the problem. As much as the revelations to date are only the “tip of the iceberg,” Snowden himself is only the leading edge of a generational shift in thinking — one that doesn’t bode well for government entities that value their secrecy.
Charlie Stross provides some background on a generational shift in attitude towards loyalty and the long-held “company man” ideal, one that was fostered by previous generations and their “one job for life” outlook.
Generation X’s parents expected a job for life, but with few exceptions Gen Xers never had that — they’re used to nomadic employment, hire-and-fire, right-to-work laws, the whole nine yards of organized-labour deracination. Gen Y’s parents are Gen X. Gen Y has never thought of jobs as permanent things. Gen Y will stare at you blankly if you talk about loyalty to their employer; the old feudal arrangement (“we’ll give you a job for life and look after you as long as you look out for the Organization”) is something their grandparents maybe ranted about, but it’s about as real as the divine right of kings. Employers are alien hive-mind colony intelligences who will fuck you over for the bottom line on the quarterly balance sheet. They’ll give you a laptop and tell you to hot-desk or work at home so that they can save money on office floorspace and furniture. They’ll dangle the offer of a permanent job over your head but keep you on a zero-hours contract for as long as is convenient. This is the world they grew up in: this is the world that defines their expectations.
Snowden was never an NSA “employee” in the any true sense of the word. He was a contractor and yet the keys to the system were handed over to someone essentially on the outside. Snowden, unlike actual government employees, had no guarantees. He said he was making good money, but it wasn’t permanent. When the renewal date rolled around, he may have been left with nothing but a job reference. The government buys loyalty with pension plans and decent health care, but being “set for life” is no longer the reality, not even in an arena recognized for its lifelong employment of underachievers and middle managers.
What happens if you’re still trying to sell loyalty in a buyer’s market? Bruce Schneier follows up on Stross’ post.
Sure, it is possible to build a career in the classified world of government contracting, but there are no guarantees. Younger people grew up knowing this: there are no employment guarantees anywhere. They see it in their friends. They see it all around them.
Many will also believe in openness, especially the hacker types the NSA needs to recruit. They believe that information wants to be free, and that security comes from public knowledge and debate. Yes, there are important reasons why some intelligence secrets need to be secret, and the NSA culture reinforces secrecy daily. But this is a crowd that is used to radical openness. They have been writing about themselves on the internet for years. They have said very personal things on Twitter; they have had embarrassing photographs of themselves posted on Facebook. They have been dumped by a lover in public. They have overshared in the most compromising ways — and they have got through it. It is a tougher sell convincing this crowd that government secrecy trumps the public’s right to know.
This generation will more readily identify with the “crowd,” despite its inherent lack of truly personal relationships. People have actively “stuck it to The Man” for years, but now it’s the default, rather than limited to a small group of gutsy outliers.
The people who live very public lives as adjuncts of The Internet aren’t easily swayed by boardroom talk or mandates delivered from corner offices. They’re not nearly as naive as some pundits, especially those beholden to institutions of the past, have tried to portray them. They cling to a moral code, but it’s a code nearly unrecognizable to anyone who entered the job market 40 years ago. This Time poll result, as pointed out by Peter Ludlow at the New York Times, shows the gap between not only this generation and generations past, but the difference between so-called “new media” and the aging journalistic institutions.
In broad terms, commentators in the mainstream and corporate media have tended to assume that all of these actors needed to be brought to justice, while independent players on the Internet and elsewhere have been much more supportive. Tellingly, a recent Time magazine cover story has pointed out a marked generational difference in how people view these matters: 70 percent of those age 18 to 34 sampled in a poll said they believed that Snowden “did a good thing” in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.
This generation will be much less susceptible to the “banality of evil” that asks for nearly-blind loyalty. There are no more “company men” — the kind that later justify malfeasance by explaining they were “just following instructions.” (Ludlow excusably Godwinises his own post, quoting Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” in which the phrase “banality of evil” was conceived to explain how the right working atmosphere can result in horrific transgressions — all compartmentalized by ordinary people performing their roles as cogs in the machinery.)
The ideal “company man” followed the “fundamental rules of corporate life,” according to Robert Jackall’s book, “Moral Mazes.”
(1) You never go around your boss. (2) You tell your boss what he wants to hear, even when your boss claims that he wants dissenting views. (3) If your boss wants something dropped, you drop it. (4) You are sensitive to your boss’s wishes so that you anticipate what he wants; you don’t force him, in other words, to act as a boss. (5) Your job is not to report something that your boss does not want reported, but rather to cover it up. You do your job and you keep your mouth shut.
Those who break out of these confines are punished for their independent actions. Whistleblowing has always been received badly, both by the entity being exposed, and by others who still adhere to the above rules. This is also why the supposed “proper steps” whistleblowers are supposed to follow are completely useless. Systemic problems are rarely solvable by insiders, especially those higher up who have “bought in.” Going outside is the only realistic choice.
The former United States ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, argued that Snowden “thinks he’s smarter and has a higher morality than the rest of us … that he can see clearer than other 299, 999, 999 of us, and therefore he can do what he wants. I say that is the worst form of treason.”
For the leaker and whistleblower the answer to Bolton is that there can be no expectation that the system will act morally of its own accord. Systems are optimized for their own survival and preventing the system from doing evil may well require breaking with organizational niceties, protocols or laws. It requires stepping outside of one’s assigned organizational role. The chief executive is not in a better position to recognize systemic evil than is a middle level manager or, for that matter, an IT contractor. Recognizing systemic evil does not require rank or intelligence, just honesty of vision.
Schneier says whistleblowing is the “civil disobedience of the information age.” Stross is even more blunt, calling whistleblowing the natural progression of a new generation whose future has been sabotaged by generations who lived in an era when getting hired meant having a job for life and whose loyalty, right or wrong, was rewarded with pension plans and a functioning Social Security system. But those niceties have vanished and those stuck with the broken system and the bill of goods aren’t happy.
[S]lighted or bruised employees who lack instinctive loyalty because the culture they come from has spent generations systematically destroying social hierarchies and undermining their sense of belonging are much more likely to start thinking the unthinkable.
So, who are these agencies going to turn to when hiring in order to prevent dozens of future Snowdens? Hiring from the human race is already problematic, given the inherent propensity of the average person to abuse granted power. The future certainly isn’t promising. If nothing else, the agencies should embrace transparency simply because they realistically no longer have an option. The long run of opacity is over and no one’s buying the justifications for secrecy, abuse and overreach, least of all those in search of a job.