Category Archives: News

“No Such Agency” Those were the days!

The NSA leak is the most interesting news I’ve seen in years.  We might as well be watching The Bourne saga play out in front of us.  And unlike almost all media sensations, this one is centered on a hugely important issue that can and must be decided by the public.

There are lots of polarizing issues the circulate through the news cycle, but frankly I tire of most of them. I know where I stand on guns, abortion, gay rights, etc… and these things will move and evolve over time, but they’ve been out in the open for a long time and usually boil down to what one person thinks others should be able to do. The NSA issue is different. This is me deciding what I think another third party should be able to do to you. Furthermore, the central party—the NSA—may well be the most secretive, mysterious department in the US government. Number of employees: Classified.   Annual Budget: Classified.  Fascinating stuff.

Probably the most intriguing/scary part of the story as I write this is the contents of the “other” slides in the 41-page presentation that was leaked by Edward Snowden. (The slides that would have graciously been declassified in 2036.)  We’ve only seen 7 pages so far.  He claims that he didn’t want to recklessly release information and put people in danger, yet two news organizations are refusing to run any more of the material (so far). On the other hand, the WikiLeaks people are champing at the bit to get at and release it. (see Wired article).  What’s in there???  Here are some wild guesses (of the more salacious variety):

  • Descriptions of much more than “metadata” being routinely collected in the US.
  • Statements divulging access that would be geopolitically destabilizing (e.g. the NSA has wired Putin’s office (or Merkel’s office!), or the Chinese military).
  • Anything dealing with markets, banking, currency, trade.
  • Finally, the most far out but potentially damaging one: the Internet company leaders who are denying any knowledge of the PRISM program… well, they’re telling the truth. The Feds are actually going after lower level employees and getting them to flip and provide the desired access.

I’m most certainly not a conspiracy nut and rarely think about this stuff, but when reputable news outlets have 30 pages of source material that are too hot to handle, my imagination starts to run wild.

After 9/11, there was a lot of talk about how we were more vulnerable since our human intelligence in the Middle East was weak. After the Iraq invasion, a lot was said about the WMD intelligence failure.  Everyone thought that better intelligence gathering and dissemination were a priority.  It was certainly a safe political position to take.  Who is going to get booed off the stump for demanding better intelligence about our potential enemies? And so we start to hear news reports that often would make mention of “chatter” and whether intelligence was “actionable”.  What did we think that chatter was?  I can image the NSA analysts reading the news now and saying: you wanted better foreign intelligence, you gave us billions of dollars, we got better intelligence and there hasn’t been an attack like 9/11 since.  But, um, a whole lot of domestic intelligence got necessarily swept up at the same time.

What will the political responses to this be?  To my conservative, small government, strong defense friend I ask: are you really up in arms at the prospect of government taking your large magazines, or telling you that you have to buy health insurance, but OK with them simultaneous spying on you?  Do you trust them to use all that information wisely, ethically? To my liberal friend who is crying that civil liberties such as privacy must trump all else I ask: if the NSA comes out an says, “Fine… but here is a list of attacks that have been thwarted thanks to this intelligence”. Will you tolerate an increase in successful attacks against the US? Will you tolerate possible military escalation?

As I said at the opening, this is a fascinating and important story. When the intelligence agencies of the US were formed, who could imagine the depth and breadth of connectedness that the world has achieved?  They’ve obviously used the technological advancements and behavior changes to their advantage.  People are handing them terabytes of information everything second.  It’s time for the US to really ask itself: given the way people live their lives today, what is an appropriate level of privacy?  This NSA leak story tees up that question.  I can only hope that the press really runs with it, really digs in, and that the American people don’t demand a return to the typical news fluff.  The conversation needs to take place.

Aaron Swartz

The news of Aaron Swartz’s suicide reached me at about 12:30am, as the story was shooting to the top of Hacker News. I was stunned.

I don’t know Aaron, but I’ve known of him for some time. I independently stumbled across his blog and one of his projects, It was some time later that I realized it was the same guy. I got curious and started reading about him. At this point I became a follower, in the simplest sense. I was simply amazed at how much the kid had managed to accomplish, and how insightful his writing was. I was blown away when he’d publish his year-end review of books that he’d read. But it wasn’t just a “wow, this kid is a genius” reaction.  It was seeing a highly capable person tear into all manner of activity and push the limits. And it was motivating.

Now he’s dead. The circumstances are still unclear, but it’s hard not to think that the Federal case against him was unrelated. If you’re interested, you can read all about that story, as well and the hundreds of opinions that have been written on whether what was being done to Aaron was right.

For me, I’m just sad. Steve Jobs used the phrase, “make a dent in the universe”, which was an apt description of what Aaron was doing. Now that is stopped, far short of what might have been accomplished.

I had one correspondence with Aaron.  Just over three years ago I wrote him a thank you note, saying how much I appreciated the software he’d written and shared with the world. I got a response:

Date: Thu, 8 Jan 2009 00:49:07 -0500
To: [email protected]
From: "Aaron Swartz" <[email protected]> 

Thanks. It's really nice to hear feedback like this!