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.

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Comments on “The NSA Has No Solution For The Real 'Snowden Problem' And It's Only Going To Get Worse”

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49 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

Again it reminds me of a few discussions I had with different people on my age range (20-30) and younger. We don’t care about having the latest brand stuff. We want functional things that blend with our lives. We don’t need huge, expensive homes. We want a decent place to live. We don’t need cars, we need a decent way to move around. We want decent health care, education , public transportation and a justice system that works for everyone. We want what’s good for everybody so we will also benefit from it. A lot of what we want is being denied by bad laws and corrupt governments. And who is in charge of these governments right now?

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m 44 and you’ve describe me – although I like having a car.

I’m fifty-nine and it describes me, and I resent age being brought into it at all. Wrong is wrong. I don’t care what “generation” people who believe that come from, and you’re very wrong in attempting to link this in any way to any specific “generation.” A lot too many people are just forgiving these days saying, “That’s just how the world is.” It is, if you’re too lazy to fix what’s obviously broken.

Zewe says:

Re: Re: Re: @Ninja

Or I could just continue playing the hand I’m dealt the best I can while at the same time striving for equality for all. Believe it or not, one does not have to limit oneself exclusively to either being successful in society or to doing nothing but bitching about how hard it is to be so. I know it’s a lot of work, but if you put your mind to it, you too can make a life of general comfort for yourself in this unfair world without compromising any of your ideals aside from those that mandate you refuse to meaningfully participate until all the world begins to adhere to the rest of them.
Really!

out_of_the_blue says:

SIDEWAYS, as usual. Definitely not right, not exactly wrong.

First, in sub-head is this typical younger generation howler that SO WELL illustrates the decline of communication: “it’s-called-reaping-what-you’ve-sewed,-mofos” — which is mis-spelled: (“sown”), making it vague whether the person gets the allusion let alone the moral lesson, and tosses in gratuitous vulgarity. But, being typical, we can only pass over it with an eye roll, hoping it’s just ornament.

Now, Snowden as “the leading edge of a generational shift in thinking” is just flatly wrong: on the surface, he’s far more of a throwback to the 1960’s when people stood up for abstract principles even at high personal cost. That’s quite rare these days.

It’s no credit to younger people that so many believe whatever lies the gov’t puts out as pretext for wars: “existential threat”, “WMD”, “mushroom clouds”, and that enough of them went willingly to go murder people in foreign lands, and did it with unrivaled savagery, making torture and killing for sport routine.

WELL, I’m not going to convince you that you aren’t the bravest and most moral generation ever, not after the years spent in computer-assisted fantasies — nor will I succeed in claiming was much better previously, not least because morality is constant struggle — so I’ll just demur without elaboration.

But at least don’t believe that a generation of rootless nihilists are going to revolutionize the world for the better; civilization takes disciplined work, not easy anarachy.

DCX2 says:

Re: SIDEWAYS, as usual. Definitely not right, not exactly wrong.

Kudos for pointing out the sub-head.

I do take issue with the whole “so many young people believe whatever lies the gov’t says”, though. As a young person, with other young people for friends…let me tell you that by and large we do not trust the government. In general, we hate the idea of war, because (as mentioned above) we identify with the crowd.

Finally, yes, rootless nihilists will make the world better. Civilization is easily exploited for things like mass surveillance. Rootless nihilists will refuse to participate in these things, weakening the structure. Less worse is better.

I_am_so_smrt (profile) says:

Re: SIDEWAYS, as usual. Definitely not right, not exactly wrong.

I agree that it’s NOT generational. As someone raised in the 60’s, it’s disappointing to see so many young people without a sense of self-empowerment. Also, as someone who spent their career in a tech-company, meritocracy always trumps loyalty and that’s a good thing. You want loyalty, get yourself a good border-collie.

Moz says:

Re: Re: SIDEWAYS, as usual. Definitely not right, not exactly wrong.

How do you know how any of them voted? And I suppose they were all forced to enlist in the service (army/navy/etc)?

Just because things don’t/aren’t work(ing) out the way you want, doesn’t mean it’s the same case for everyone else.

The world is full of nuance and subtext. All these calls for the NSA to be defunded and etc.

Step back, try to see things from a fresh vantage point, from another persons view. It might change the way you see things, even if it doesn’t change your actual position.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: SIDEWAYS, as usual. Definitely not right, not exactly wrong.

THIS, thank you for pointing it out.

Boomers always want to blame the young’ins for the fault of their generation. Even this comment section is filled with damage control of the generation that once thought of themselves as the greatest

So now their children are trapped under a mountain, unable to escape, and their only words of wisdom is “Well why are you trapped under that mountain!?”

Anonymous Coward says:

Never trust pensions

“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.”

Most employers give healthcare benefits nowadays so it’s not much of a bargaining chip unless you have some really good gold plated plan.

And as for pensions, I’m 27, and I would NEVER trust pensions from the public or private sector. Look at the horrors in both ends in recent years.

1) In the public sector, for decades people worked for local/state/federal government for less then they’d make elsewhere with the promise of a more secure retirement. But then the legislatures often skipped paying into the pension system they were supposed to, year after year, rather then cutting back spending elsewhere or raising taxes.

That’s caused the modern day unfunded pension problems you especially hear about in education, etc. Eventually, a large number of those employees are going to get screwed.

2) In the private sector on the other hand, look at Twinkies before they went bankrupt. They had a pension system. In the last years before they went bankrupt they told a bunch of their employees that they’d give all but like 3 cents an hour or whatever of their wages to their pensions instead to boost the payout later.

But now, with them bankrupt, it was discovered that Twinkies not only DID NOT invest that raise money in the pensions, they looted the employees pensions in their final months to keep themselves afloat a bit longer. Worse yet, because of how the law is written, and because of the employee money contributed to the pension technically never passed through the employees hands in the first place before supposedly being invested, the employees have no legal standing to sue Twinkies or their ex-managers for theft of their wages. Plus, even if they could sue, it’s not likely they’d get much of anything with Twinkies going bankrupt.

Oh, and jail time for the people who stole money from pensions? Nope. No criminal charges once so ever were filed against anyone at Twinkies!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Never trust pensions

That’s “Hostess Brands”, not Twinkies, which is only one of the many brand names Hostess called their different snack cakes. In fact, the specific company that did what you’re talking about used to be called Hostess Brands but is now referred to as “Old HB”; it went into bankruptcy and sold its assets to a couple of shell companies that then formed the new, improved, with-100%-less-union-activity-style “Hostess Brands, LLC”. The new company restarted the production of the crap they sell last June, and are spending a ton of money on PR. But not on employees’ salaries.

The shelf-life of Twinkies has been almost doubled so god only knows what’s in them now.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Kudos

An excellent exposition. I’m a bit too old to be Gen X, and yet I remember arguments with my mother on this very topic. hers was a time when you got a job for life. That has never been true for my generation, and I look at people who expect such a thing as foolish.

We are on our own, and our successes and failures are a matter of our own making. This is both a blessing (FREEDOM!) and a curse (FREEDOM!). And it’s an utterly alien concept to the generations that came before me.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Kudos

Being on your own isn’t necessarily freedom. It can leave you vulnerable to the kind of people who would rather see you employed in an underpaid job in a buyer’s market than begging in the street. Then blame you for the situation you’re in ? the one they created for you.

What earlier generations understood as freedom was not having to choose between letting a loved one die or selling the house to pay for medical fees.

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Doesn't take Einstein...

This is also why the supposed “proper steps” whistleblowers are supposed to follow are completely useless. Systemic problems are rarely solvable by insiders

…To figure that this is damn near always true and that the “proper steps” are more about PR (“See we’re looking out for our propert- uh, workers.”) than anything ever intended to be effective.
Or maybe it does take Einstein…

PRMan (profile) says:

Maybe that's why my bosses never liked me...

“(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.”

I’m sorry. I’m not corrupt and I refuse to live like this. I believe in truth and facts being the quickest way to solve the real problem. Bosses that have agreed with this philosophy have loved me and I have made/saved them millions.

Anonymous Coward says:

When I first started working after graduating from school, I have a very idealistic view of the world. You work hard, and you get rewarded fairly for your hard work.

The world and the coperate life quickly taught me a lesson to “put me on the right path”.

Before, I laugh *at* Dilbert because “that ridiculos” so it’s funny.

Now, I laugh *with* Dilbert because it’s too realistic that it’s funny.

I think the older generation have a fairly hard time to understand why we have such a disdain for coperate life (or humanity). They can’t understand why “young kids these days are so sarcastic”.

Well, it’s not that we abandoned the world, but the world abandoned us. We can’t help ourself to be pessimistic about our career, our life. The company structures have changed greatly and a moraless entity is not going to “take care” of it’s “resources”. It will only attain to “maximize” that resource. In fact, if not for the some remaining humanity controlling companies, we would probably all work in a tiny cubical with toilets under our seat and nutrients plugged into our veins (what’s that deja vu I am getting…?)

Anyway, just some rant…
———————————
PS. I like my current work, and I like my co-workers, but I am so tired listening to someone I have never seen and just a voice over the phone during “annual meetings” talks about profit, stock performance, and *employee engagement* (LOL)

Anonymous Coward says:

I saw this happen in the workforce. That there was a fundamental shift in workers attitudes directly caused by ‘the corporation’ raiding everything it dream up to be accepted by the workers.

I come from that job for life generation. But the job parameters changed. The dollar became far more important than the worker. There was a very real, unstated, expectation between the employer and the employee. As a worker you gave loyalty, no matter what, as a condition of employment. The employer violated that rule when it became viewed that labor was a cost of business just like buying parts, or equipment. It was cheaper to buy and install equipment, even if it cost 5 times what they would pay a worker, over the long term.

There is a cost to that mentality, which is exactly what this article is about. The worker was shown, loyalty no longer had a value and the worker got that message, loud and strong. The unstated remained unstated but the work force then saw that the dollar was their value too. Suddenly work dynamics started changing into no security equals no loyalty.

Our trashed economy is almost a direct result of this change in employment dynamics. Every time one of the CEOs wants a raise, it became lets fire some workers. In the present direction within 10 to 20 years, I expect more than 50% of the present population will not have a job. That unemployment will be the rule not the exception. No one will have a pension, no one will have a retirement beyond what safety net is provided through social services, unless one works as a government employee.

The days of expecting the worker to keep the employers secrets is over with that. We see the results of this coming in the pipes. Manning, Snowden, even Assanage, are all products of the results of these methods.

windjammer (profile) says:

generational shifts

I’m an old geezer now but have noticed how few young people in North America still buy into 20th century thinking. They’ve been raised and educated on an awareness of global dynamics and the real terror of ecological overshoot, so then they question the fundamental premises and assumptions of economic growth, civilization’s impacts on planetary systems, and how military empires operate in the dark, even more than we did when we were young.

Then along came 9/11 and an intelligence network that pretended to be caught completely unprepared and unawares. The clown in the White House put on an embarrassing performance that still got too much applause. Scepticism about “the official story” and went off the scale, and because of the obvious fabrication of lies and cover-ups by the Bush administration and it’s secretive intelligence agencies, trust in how government deals with the truth has completely disappeared.

Young people know this whole overblown panopticon surveillance state is pretty much based on a fabricated mythology that has dominated western culture since 9/11, wrapped up in patriotic flag-waving, the posturing of people in black suits, the end-game rush for dwindling resources, and a persistent if ignorant American exceptionalism.

Throw in the most blatant intergenerational inequities ever seen as the global economic ponzi scheme also enters the end game, and we have a lot of angry youth that question all authority. So if you don’t buy into the myths of progress, you wont tolerate the means to perpetuate it. And if you don’t like the direction things are going in your society, you are probably going to try and change course, in whatever little way you can.

The whistleblowing has barely begun.

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