NSA Cheerleader Ben Wittes Takes A Written Swing At The Anti-NSA Crowd And Misses His Target Entirely

from the pro-surveillance-jackassery dept

Benjamin Wittes, adjunct NSA apologist at the Brookings Institution and the most prolific blogger at Lawfare, has just unloaded a post meant to portray those opposed to the NSA as simpleminded strawmen/women who are triggered by certain letters rather than by the critically-important nuances.

Here’s the gist of it, which I can hopefully convey without copy-pasting the entirety of the short, extremely self-satisfied piece.

I was at the National Security Agency yesterday giving a Constitution Day speech and I learned details of a shocking collection program: The government is bulk collecting all traffic on Twitter. Under a program menacingly called “Bulk Data in Social Media” and abbreviated—appropriately enough—as BDSM [insert proxy self-amused snicker here], Twitter has been providing all public traffic since 2010 for a massive government database that, as of early last year, contained 170 billion tweets. The goal of this program? To “collect the story of America” and to “acquire collections that will have research value” to analysts and others.

Those of you who are not the morons Wittes makes you out to be will already know where this is headed. Wittes breathlessly adds in italics that Twitter does this voluntarily without a court order or FISA court review.

Then he drops the “bombshell.”

Why would NSA do all this?

It wouldn’t. The agency I’m talking about here is the Library of Congress.

Yes, the Library of Congress is collecting every Tweet with the blessing of Twitter itself, and has been doing so for years. It was in all the papers. Those of us opposed to the NSA’s bulk collections are supposed to stare deep inside ourselves as Wittes fumblingly twists the rhetorical knife.

So here’s the question: If you were shocked when you read the first paragraph of this post and relieved when you read that the agency doing all this collection is not NSA but the good guys over at the Library of Congress, and that the good guys are actually planning to make that data available widely, why did you have those reactions? And do those reactions make sense?

First of all, no one with any amount of sense would claim that the government can’t access or collect public messages on a public platform. That’s an expectation we live with when we use these services. But the collection of every public tweet for archival and research purposes is far different than the collection of private metadata and communications for the purposes of rooting out threats to the nation’s security. (Or fighting drug wars, etc.)

It’s called intent. Wittes should look that up. Also, he should perhaps look into the difference between public and private info if he’s got the time.

While many people use social media to lay bare certain aspects of their lives, a high percentage of them do not reveal everything, or at least not as much as “just metadata” can reveal. Many intimate details about a person’s life can be revealed by the data they “voluntarily” hand over to third parties. Cops can track people’s movements with license plate data. The NSA can peer deeply into a person’s life with bulk phone records. People don’t “volunteer” this information, but there’s no way to opt out. Vehicles travel outside on public roads. Phone connection data is collected because phone companies need to track usage for billing (and are required to do so by the federal government).

Billions of tweets are all given up voluntarily by Twitter users. Even those who regret tweets they’ve sent or accounts they made still know in the back of their mind it’s been archived somewhere. It’s public speaking on a public platform.

Which brings us to another major difference between the two: transparency.

The Library of Congress has addressed this collection program publicly a number of times. Twitter also publicly announced this partnership. If anyone wanted to avoid being part of this collection, they could simply avoid using the platform — a choice more realistic than the government’s continued assertion that travel and communication are “luxuries” in which we wlllingly exchange our rights for convenience.

What has the NSA announced? Not a goddamn thing. It’s only talking now because someone took its secret programs and spread them all over the internet. Now it has to address these issues, but even in this era of forced openness, it still deploys a tremendous amount of black ink.

I’m sure Wittes’ post garnered a few chortles from like-minded individuals (including some he heavily elbowed in the ribs), but the whole setup is disingenuous. It conveniently ignores crucial differences between the two forms of collections in hopes of portraying the anti-NSA crowd as ultimately no more complex than single-celled organisms. The good news is that those of us on this side of the divide are constantly underestimated by those whose views skew more towards Wittes’.

This sort of presumptive arrogance is what allowed a government contractor to walk out the door with thousands of classified documents from the top national security entity in the world — one with a massive budget and the best minds the government could hire. The NSA simply believed nothing of that scope would happen to No Such Agency, even with an obviously lax set of internal controls. Now it’s been burned. And yet, its apologists still think they can talk down to everyone on the other side of argument.

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Comments on “NSA Cheerleader Ben Wittes Takes A Written Swing At The Anti-NSA Crowd And Misses His Target Entirely”

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35 Comments
Zero says:

Raises hand..

By this “reporter” [insert appropriate term for self styled arrogant puppet here] Wittes position, the “good guys” are entitled to collect any amount of information (public & private) for some sort of story on America? Who exactly are these “good guys” and is this some sort of sleight that suggests America’s “story” is told by information illegally acquired from its people?

More importantly should we crowdfund a dog collar for this “reporter” to show his support for his benefactors?

RD says:

What an absurd comparison

Seriously, is this guy for real? Apparently, he believes his own bullshit. Lets spell this out so even this moron politician (is there any other kind?) can understand it:

The Library of Congress is not empowered to investigate or arrest or “disappear” citizens of the USA under its authority. The NSA is.

What an absurd comparison. He should resign right now just on principle, he is unfit for the job.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: What an absurd comparison

I don’t think it’s accurate to even call them the “spearhead”. Their analysis of intelligence is all a result of requests from other governmental agencies (mostly military & CIA, but also DEA, FBI, etc.) Those agencies are the spearheads. The NSA is a datasource.

“His comparison is still specious and full of deceit.”

No argument there.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 What an absurd comparison

This whole thread misses the point of the article and proves the ‘reporter’ at least partially correct :

The point here is that it doesn’t matter — the NSA can (and does) also collect all that twitter data. It’s public data that people have put on Twitter precisely so that everyone can look at it, including government agencies. Public stuff on Facebook falls under the same category, as do comments posted on Techdirt. The TLA doesn’t matter here — if the LoC was harvesting all private metadata without legal authorization or oversight, we’d be just as up in arms as when they NSA does it.

The guy does make one good point… the LoC and NSA perform a similar function; the difference is that the NSA performs that function in secret for select government agencies, whereas the LoC does it in public for all citizens of the USA (and since it’s in public and on the Internet, the rest of the world benefits too).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 What an absurd comparison

If the NSA was limited to publicly available data, then the Benjamin Wittes would have a good point, however it is now known that by application of third party doctrine, secret warrants with gag orders and etc. that the NSA gather far more data that just the publicly available data that people publish. Therefore comparing the NSA with the LOC is a false comparison, what the LOC collects is a small part of what the NSA collect.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: What an absurd comparison

while i understand you are talking about the supposed mandate given to each spook agency, etc; the problem is, they have ZERO trust or ‘goodwill’ left, such that I DO NOT BELIEVE ANY THING THEY SAY…
that would INCLUDE the idea that maybe the nsa does have their own little black bag squad, or hit squad, or whatever…

THAT is one of the fundamental problems with secret institutions which are NOT amenable to oversight of nearly any form: WHO KNOWS wtf one, a handful, a special operations group, a high-ranking bureaucrat, etc are doing within the blacked out portions of their brief…

BECAUSE it is all hush-hush, ALL KINDS of corrupt shit goes on which NO ONE will ever hear a word about, because it is ‘compartmentalized’ and the tapes DID get burned…

no, i don’t trust those bastards as far as i can thrown them…

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: What an absurd comparison

Well, yes, of course. Witness what happened with the CIA: it was originally chartered to be a central point where all intelligence from the various spy agencies was collected to ease information sharing. It was not a spy agency as such. The CIA, though, was envious and really wanted to get into the active spying game — and they did. Illegally, to start with, but it was eventually legalized.

Like you, I don’t trust any of these agencies. But I wasn’t talking about trust, I was talking about what their actual authorities currently are.

Dave Cortright says:

"All traffic" ≠ "all public traffic"

Personally I was shocked when I heard that a government agency was collecting all traffic on Twitter. Of course I know about BDSM and the gathering of the public tweetstream. But to also gather private messages, profile updates, correspondence with Twitter staff, etc. is yet another sad breach of privacy and public trust. Or did the author’s imprecise words imply a broader scope than he intended?

Anonymous Coward says:

You can use the same kind of reasoning as an argument against it just as well. For example:

“I was reading Wikipedia recently about WWII and I learned details of a shocking program. As the Nazis consolidated control over Germany, the basic Gestapo law passed by the government in 1936 gave the Gestapo carte blanche to operate without judicial review—in effect, putting it above the law. The Gestapo was specifically exempted from responsibility to administrative courts, where citizens normally could sue the state to conform to laws.

So here’s the question: If you were uncomfortable when you read this as these actions helped define who the bad guys were, wouldn’t it still be a concern today if another governmental organization, like the NSA implemented similar rules? Do those reactions make sense?”

Anonymous Coward says:

There exists a believability gap between government officials, politicians, supporters of the spying, major media and the agencies themselves. The public has been constantly lied to and the only ones that seem to have any creditability at all are those whistle blowing.

The government branches have done all they can to prevent the constitutionality question of this coming to court. They have done every thing they can to keep it all hidden and to prevent accountability from entering the picture.

I no longer believe what I hear from official channels. They have knowingly lied too many times and have been caught in those lies with no actions taken for such as Clapper and Alexander.

Anonymous Coward says:

But...but it is totally the same I'm telling ya

This guy claims that having a single brushstroke of a painting reveals the whole picture… Twitter posts alone can not be used to map out every single point in a persons life. However the data collected by the NSA can, and somewhere right now it is being used for nefarious purposes that lies outside the realm of our “protection”. Without oversight, that is as sure as a traffic accident happening somewhere this second.
But what did I expect from a guy who seems to believe that his ten braincells makes him smart.

Dismembered3po (profile) says:

Terms of Service

Let’s just put this in simple words that Witte could perhaps understand:

Twitter has a very specific legal agreement each which helpfully describes what, when, how and why Twitter will do stuff with your data. It is called a “Terms of Service” which every user must agree to when creating an account.

The only Terms of Service applicable to being a citizen of this nation is supposed to be The Constitution of the United States on America.

Only one party here is violating it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wittes’ logic could be used to justify rape.

“Your honor, I shouldn’t be facing rape charges. After all, she is not a virgin. She is known to have had sexual relations with men before. Therefore, she fully consented to having sex in advance of when I forced myself on her!”

People choose what they share on Twitter and Facebook just like they choose when and with whom they have sexual relations. No amount of sharing on Facebook or Twitter justifies the NSA collecting data unconstitutionally from private sources. Not to mention that not everyone uses Twitter or Facebook, so Wittes’ logic doesn’t even apply to everyone anyway.

Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting at all that what the NSA is doing is nearly as bad or close to the same level as rape, but I am saying that there are minor parallels in the context of consensual vs. non-consensual action taken by a third party.

JP Jones (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I would have compared it to YouTube. If I post a video of my dog playing fetch, and someone watches it, I can’t get mad later because it’s fairly obvious that it’s a public contribution. If someone ripped it off my hard drive without my knowledge, however, it’s completely different.

The funny part is everyone knows what privacy is. We learn it when we’re children and it’s an inherent human desire. We have doors on our toilet stalls and laws forbidding recording in bathrooms because people innately understand privacy.

If a store added video cameras in bathrooms “for your safety” to make sure you aren’t dying or getting blown up by terrorists making bombs in the stall, would you be OK with that?

Of course not. It’s obvious. It doesn’t matter that it’s a “public store” and “by dropping your pants in a public area” you’ve consented to being recorded on the pot. We keep trying to twist the concept around to make the point obtuse but ultimately people know what it is and when it’s been violated.

GEMont (profile) says:

Just movng on up....

“And yet, its apologists still think they can talk down to everyone on the other side of argument.”

Like I said, successfully fooling most of the people all of the time is the main criteria for promotion (and favors) for members (and friends) of the Most Transparent Administration In American History.

This man, Ben Wittes, is just trying to do his best for his family by getting ahead; doing favors for those who can make his bank account larger and his position of power more secure.

He’s just not very good at it yet.

It is after all, the American Way Today, and practice makes perfect.

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