Why Saying 'We Knew This' Or 'Everybody Spies' In Response To NSA Revelations Is Wrong

from the we-didn't-know,-and-it's-not-the-same dept

Two of the most common responses from people (often in the press) who want to minimize the importance and the impact of the Snowden revelations about NSA surveillance are that (1) “there’s nothing new” or “people knew this already” and (2) “everyone spies on everyone — what’s the big deal?” The latter one got some new life recently after it was revealed that Brazil had spied on US diplomats in the past. As you may remember, Brazil has been acting outraged in response to the revelations of US spying on Brazilians and Brazilian companies. However, both responses are simply not accurate.

Zeynep Tufekci recently wrote a great piece over at Medium, in which she debunks these weak excuses, by pointing out that (1) while some people claim to have known, tons of people didn’t — and that’s what’s important and (2) the scale here is well beyond what was done in the past.

To start with, it does not matter much whether knowledgeable people should have guessed the scale of NSA spying or not. That is probably the least relevant question one can ask about all this. It relies on an old and outdated understanding of a world that is simply no more.

Repeating the mantra “this is nothing new, all governments spy” may make the mostly DC-insider chorus who cling to it ever more tightly with each new leak feel better, and entrench their self-image as insiders. There are certainly psychological and financial rewards to acting and feeling like insiders. But it does nothing to change the fact that this chorus has completely missed the point of the tectonic shifts affecting them, and all governance: They aren’t the only insiders anymore.

The “nothing new here” people aren’t fully correct, even in the technical details. It’s true: spying by governments, including on their own citizens and on other governments, be they enemies, allies or frenenemies, is not new. It’s even expected. However, the scale of the spying, enabled by the shift to digital infrastructure, is certainly novel.

As we discussed recently, the real “danger” of these leaks is that the US government can’t get away with its hypocritical positions so easily any more, because the public (especially the non-US public) is demanding a response. And that makes a huge difference.

Furthermore, she points out, the most amazing thing in all of this is that the NSA appears to have no plan at all in place for how to deal with this situation. It’s as if they just assumed that everything they did would remain secret. Basically, Tufekci points out, the NSA relied on the idea that some “insiders” might know about this, but the great unwashed “outsiders” would never know.

But that’s changed. In a big way — and that matters, because the “context collapse” can have massive implications:

Context collapse is everywhere. It’s not just teenagers on Facebook whose ordinary adolescent boundary-testing actions are viewed by finger-wagging adults; it’s not just a variety of institutions that have found their internal communications meant for friendly eyes are exposed to the world; it’s not just academics whose scholarly studies are being dug up by various constituencies as fodder for outrage. It’s everywhere.

The outsiders are peeking in and moving in, and they are here to stay. If, as an institution, keeping your balance relies on outsiders staying outside while you talk in jargon and acronyms with your fellow insiders, it’s time to look for a safety net and a harness. A fall is coming, sooner or later. In this world, “this is what we have always done” is not going to cut it.

Meanwhile, there’s a related article over at The Atlantic by James Fallows, in which he publishes an email from a Defense Department insider, which hopefully should put to rest the idea that everyone knew about this and that there’s nothing “shocking” in the revelations. This is from an actual insider who argues the exact opposite, even as he supports many of the general actions:

I obviously can’t be quoted by name on this … and indeed, since this email is being read (Hi guys!), I can probably get fired just for sending it, but let me just stress how shocking these NSA revelations are.

Look, I’m not a shrinking violet. I work for DoD. I support much of the war on terror. Some of these assholes out there just need killing. And gathering info on them that allows us to schwhack them is okay with me.

But there is law. And my view is that you have two choices. Either you change the law openly, publicly, or if that is impossible and you consider violating the law imperative, then you make a claim of “exceptional illegality.”

But, that insider notes, the stunning thing about the NSA revelations aren’t that they exceeded what most people believed the law is, but that it was an everyday thing rather than an “exceptional” case:

But the thing about the NSA revelations is that this isn’t exceptional illegality. It is routine, somehow justified by legal opinions written by John Yoo-style hacks.

And worse, it is so routine that 29 y/o contractors have access to it.

The situation is stunning in many ways. To claim that “there’s nothing new” or that “everyone spies” is to miss almost everything that’s important about these revelations and the impact they are already having.

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Comments on “Why Saying 'We Knew This' Or 'Everybody Spies' In Response To NSA Revelations Is Wrong”

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out_of_the_blue says:

Hey, kids, anybody awake knew this long ago!

How Google paved the way for NSA’s intercepts – just as The Register predicted 9 YEARS AGO
Gmail redefined searching and reading… just like we said it would


Also, Apple — which ran the “1984” commercial — turns out to be Big Brother:

Fury as OS X Mavericks users FORCED to sync contact books with iCloud


Thanks for at last a piece where I can reasonably and relevantly wedge those in, Mike. You’re just not giving me much opportunity for substance of late.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Hey, kids, anybody awake knew this long ago!

The register predicted that 9 years ago?

Good heavens! They must be extra special smart to come up with that.

Or maybe, since they are always outraged at everything that is popular (because, you know, tabloid) they just come up with lots of random predictions and eventually got one right.

What they don’t tell you is the mind boggling amount of predictions that they get hilariously wrong.

Anonymous Coward says:

I Repeat-

C’mon people. This is all just political theater. Every leader in every country has been spying on every other leader of every other country since before recorded history. It’s SOP. The problem here is that they are now getting their noses rubbed in it in public and can no longer claim ignorance. Eventually, a few heads will roll, probably the old guys that were going to retire anyway, then it will be back to business as usual. Meanwhile, the retirees will land softly with the aid of lucrative jobs or large “golden parachutes”, and they will be happy and the public will be happy because “something was done about it”. BAH!

9Blu (profile) says:

Re: I Repeat-

Yes they have, and we expect it. It’s part of the game. However, the stuff we are hearing about today is the same kind of stuff we heard horror stories about from the Russia and East Germany decades ago. It’s one thing to spy on other nations, it’s quite another to spy on your own citizens en massse and to the startling degree that we (US and UK) are today. Did we really win the cold war to turn into our enemy?

Anonymous Coward says:

That “e-mail” from an “insider” who “can’t be quoted by name” is very enlightening.


Seriously, you’re gonna trust that with no verification whatsoever? Haven’t you learned anything from this whole mess?

Also, I note that there’s no link to the actual article (unless it is hidden somewhere in the other linked articles), which just compounds the “hum…” effect.

TasMot (profile) says:

It's the NSA's job to spy on the rest of the world...

It’s what we pay them to do and the rest of the world know this. Governments have always spied on each other. What’s new in these revelations is that they are now spying on every communication on the rest of the world and on every US citizen that uses a phone or the Internet. The NSA and the CIA were supposed to be watching the rest of the world. Not everything every US citizen does. If anything, that is the job of the FBI and there is a warrant process for that, not just a suck it all up and get the warrant later.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It's the NSA's job to spy on the rest of the world...

And if they would have just stuck to their mandate, none of the leaks would have ever happened and if they did happen the US public would probably have bought a “We’re just doing what we were tasked with doing.” response regardless of how outraged the rest of the world may be about it.

Nobody important says:

Re: It's the NSA's job to spy on the rest of the world...

Hi! Hello?

Did you read the article or did you just repeat the same old tirade you always use to appear patriotic yet smart to your [colleagues|friends|the void]?

In-group and out-group. Us and them. You’re buying into the notion that there really is an “us” and a “them”, and you’re pissed that you got excluded from the in-group and your friends spied on you, they should have been spying on the ruskies and the chinks dammit!

How about this: as a human being, it would be like totally awesome and stuff if we all shared the same exact rights? Rights like privacy, innocent until proven otherwise and in general the right to be and be left, as long as nobody else gets hurt. Rights like not having to be spied upon by a foreign power.

You should not be so fast to dismiss the concerns of the rest of the world over this, sitting in a crumbling empire – sooner or later, chances are you or your kin will be on the receiving end of a privacy violation (the moral kind), in a place where your Constitution never could have applied.

The only reason this worked* so fucking well for NSA is that currently, the corporations and equipment needed are on US soil or in the US sphere of influence. How’s your World going to look 50 years hence when that’s no longer the case, and some asshat is saying the exact same thing to your grandchildren, written in fucking Mandarin?

We’re all descendants of Kings you know. Individually we had fuck all to do with that, so the notion of being proud of your heritage is, in a sense, completely bogus. So is patriotism, nationalism and isolationism. The “us” vs “them” is an entirely made up concept we would be better off without.

* here I use the word “worked” in the sense that they managed to tap the data, not utilize it for anything worthwhile – that still remains to be seen if that ever happened.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It's the NSA's job to spy on the rest of the world...

The CIA was never tasked with foreign surveillance. It was tasked with compiling the data collected by the 2 other intelligence agencies, the FBI (domestic surveillance) and the NSA (foreign surveillance). A literal Central Intelligence Agency. IF any agency should be tasked with monitoring terrorist threats it is not the NSA since the CIA would have data on both domestic and foreign targets of interest and it would fit within their assigned tasks.

Anon says:

Th Real problem

The biggest issue with all this is not just the spying, but the STORAGE. Every mundane piece of work, every bulletin board comment, every email may be stored for future reference in some facility in DC or Idaho. When they want to dig into your behaviour, if you hit the government’s radar for some strange reason, it’s not what you ARE doing, but everything you EVER did that is open for scrutiny. They don’t need a warrant to look at your email or phone records, your tweets or google searches, they already have them.

If they’re not allowed to look at these things without reasonable cause and a warrant, why would they be allowed to collect and catalog them?

Anonymous Coward says:

Generics versus details

True, “everybody” “knew” that “the NSA spies on everyone”. As in, those with an interest in network security believed that the NSA had some magic ways to spy on anyone they wanted.

What is different now is that we have the details. It is one thing to guess that “the NSA probably has a sniffer within Google”. It is another completely different thing to have concrete documentation that yes, the NSA does have a sniffer within Google, complete with a packet capture sample!

Knowing the specifics allow for a directed response. As a recent example shows, Google ramped up their encryption of their internal networking links. They were already working on it, because they guessed that someone might be looking. Having the confirmation increased the priority of completing that project as soon as possible. Many other security initiatives around the world are being driven by the specific revelations of the NSA’s bad behavior.

There is also the matter of scope. Everyone knew the NSA “could” spy on anyone, but believing they spied on everyone all the time would brand one as a tinfoil-hat wearing lunatic. Nowadays, it is confirmed that they did spy on everyone all the time.

And this completely changes the threat model for everyone. In the past, most threat models would put a “NSA-level” opponent as outside their scope. Nowadays, a threat model worth of its name has to consider a “NSA-level” adversary.

Anonymous Coward says:


The primary value in conservatism is oon protecting what you have got. Change has to be slow and gradual and there needs to be very good reasons to change what has worked for years. It often implies a very high level of inherent trust in established authorities. Distrust is something you have to earn and not something people should have inherently.

This article makes trust into something to be earned.
“All government spies!” is an established reality and thus requires an inherent trust in the government being able to control the spying from going too far.
Keeping outsiders out is the only rational conservative way of dealing with the situation barring a complicated, slow and gradual modernisation of NSAs techniques.

Conservativism in its original form has worked amazingly as a rule of thumb when you lack information about a specific subject. In a world where you end up having the oppossite problem of too much information and a high degree of details in regulation, it is losing a lot of its appeal. The future is not for workers rights parties or conservativism in its true form. It is a fight between nationalism vs open society and statism vs anarcho capitalism.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Anti-"conservatism"

While I agree with you in principle as a real conservative, the only reason we’ve got the fights between nationalism vs open society and statism vs anarcho capitalism is because we moderates have utterly failed to maintain control of our government and the gears and levers of power.

Result: a huge mess as an assortment of hard-right loons battled it out to own the country, tarring everyone who won’t pick one of their sides with the commie brush.

It’s time the moderates began to prove that “Moderate” does not mean “Pussy.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Ah look at how Americans react.

“Look, I’m not a shrinking violet.”
I’m okay with some criminality, especially of the violent kind.

“I work for DoD.”
So, be sure, I really do support violent criminality.

“I support much of the war on terror.”
I’m as much as coward as most americans.

“Some of these assholes out there just need killing.”
See, I’m fine with murder, it helps keep my fear in the background, sorta.

“And gathering info on them that allows us to schwhack them..”
Schwack, seems to be the combination of violence and sexuality that everyone associates with US military since Abu Ghraib and that is of course okay with him.

So, see, he is a full blooded moronic American, quite happy with criminality, murder and the sexualisation of violence.

But he still has a problem with all this spying because..?

“But there is law.”
There is, both domestic and international, both of which the US routinely breaks.

But he is an American so it doesn’t come down to the law is the law it’s more nuanced than that.
” And my view is that you have two choices.”
Right ‘cos, laws can be bad, fundamentally beyond law there is right and wrong, so that’s where he’s going to go… right?

“Either you change the law openly, publicly..”
Umm, okay, well that is how things are supposed to happen if laws need changing in a democracy, what other option is there?

“or if that is impossible and you consider violating the law imperative, then you make a claim of “exceptional illegality.””

Ah, I forgot, he’s an American, so if you want to do something illegal and immoral, you either change the law, or break the law but tell the lawmakers to go f*ck themselves don’t hide it.

American moronicity 101

US never failing to sink to new depths since …. whenever.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yes we have morons here. Here’s a news flash for you. They are everywhere, not just in America. Your argument is weakened by your over broad generalizations. You forget, the public here are outraged too. Our government is not who we are. Also, would you not know about all of this if it were not for an AMERICANS that made not only the abuses against Americans public but also those in other countries? So why do you still paint the entire country with a broad stroke brush?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I just quoted the criminally minded cretin who is supposedly on the other side of the argument and pointed out how ludicrous it was. Just as with the US major political parties, all serving the same interests but believed by many in America to be on vastly different sides.

Yes there are morons everywhere, but only in the US are the lauded, applauded, raised to the highest political offices of the land and firmly in the majority.

In other countries the village idiot never gets to run the country, even for a day, US had GW Bush as president for 8 years.

Sorry AC, whether you like it or not, US has reputation for stupidity, viciousness and cowardice and it has well earned all three.

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Yeah, everybody spies... However...

Some countries take the spying way too far. Like the NSA doing, well, everything the Snowden Documents have revealed that the agency’s done so far. Or the French’s reputation for making industrial espionage practically an unwritten part of their economic policy since back in the Cold War.

Brazil’s spying on foreign dilplomats from a decade ago sounds pretty SOP as far as surveillance/spying is concerned, imo, when compared to the absurd “COLLECT ALL TEH DATA!!1!” approach done by the NSA.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Yeah, everybody spies... However...

More abstractly — the “everybody does it” argument is obviously false: not everyone has the capabilities of the US or the NSA. Furthermore, the “everybody wants to do it, so that makes it okay if we do it” argument is functionally indistinguishable from a “might makes right” morality. And a shitty moral case will not help US long-term interests.

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