In Snowden’s Privacy Fight, the Spies Are Likely to Win

My Comments: I just can’t seem to get worked up about the probablility that my privacy is being invaded by the government. Yes, I do have interactions with people and places that need to remain private, but none of them to my knowledge have anything to do with national security. So the fact that they are out there in cyber space somewhere, being rejected as irrelevant leaves me with no heartburn.

I want to echo the comments of George Barnett who last Monday had a great commentary in the Gainesville Sun. I know George personally and generally agree with much of what he says, especially since he says it so well.

I do understand why there is concern about the government entering areas of our lives where they have no business being. But I think commercial enterprise is probably already there, and their motives are less pure, and not necessarily intended to be in my best interst. So I’m prepared to live with whatever the NSA is doing, and good luck to them.

By Gideon Rachman | The Financial Times | June 10, 2013

Most people accept there are legitimate reasons for states to monitor cyber space.

Edward Snowden makes a good first impression. In his interview on YouTube, he comes across as a thoughtful boy-next-door type. Unlike Julian Assange, the twitchy narcissist behind WikiLeaks, Mr Snowden looks like somebody you would be quite happy to see date your daughter.
First impressions matter because – unless you are a hardline libertarian or a cold-blooded securocrat – Mr Snowden’s exposure of the cyber snooping of the US government will leave you feeling ambivalent. Nobody likes the idea of their emails and internet activity sitting on some giant supercomputer in Maryland or Cheltenham. On the other hand, most people accept that there are legitimate security reasons for governments to monitor what is going on in cyber space.

By temperament, I am on the complacent end of the spectrum when it comes to privacy. I know people who genuinely worry about the number of times they will be caught on closed-circuit television cameras as they wander around London. I cannot say it bothers me. Similarly, while I do not like the idea of all my email being liable to inspection by the American or British governments, it still feels like a fairly abstract concern.

This is not because I am a “law-abiding citizen” with “nothing to fear”, to use the official formulation. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any recent acts of lawbreaking on my part. But I would like to believe that I have a zone of privacy that extends considerably beyond anything that might be deemed outright criminal.

The reason that I remain relatively relaxed about the thought that somebody could read my emails and scan my Google searches is not because I have “nothing to hide”. It is because, so far, I have never seen or felt any real-world consequences from this theoretical vulnerability. Nor has anyone I know. And nor can I think of any prominent news story in which the snooper state has ensnared or blackmailed some innocent party.

Of course, it could happen. And, if it began to happen, then I – like many other people – would be swiftly jolted out of my complacency. By then, we are sometimes warned, “it will be too late” – whatever that means. But there is a limit to the amount of pre-emptive panicking I am prepared to do.

By contrast, I have recently become much more concerned about my personal cyber security. In the past six weeks, my private email account has been hacked – apparently by somebody in Jordan. My credit card has been hijacked online. And the Financial Times website was also hacked. I have no idea who exactly is behind all these nefarious acts. But I am pretty confident that it is neither the US nor the British government.

I suspect my increasing awareness of cyber security is fairly typical. It used to be the kind of thing that only bothered tiresome people in the IT department. Now all those injunctions to keep changing my password feel more justified.

Why is any of this relevant to the Snowden case? Because internet crime bears out the official argument that cyber space is an increasingly perilous zone. Alongside all the people “liking” cat videos and friending each other on Facebook, distinctly unfriendly criminal networks and terrorists also operate in cyber space. It is the legitimate business of the state to try to keep tabs on the dark side of the internet.

Indeed, while much of the post-Snowden commentary has focused on the security services’ efforts to track terrorists on the internet, the most dangerous threats of the future may not resemble the terrorist spectaculars of the past. Security types, in both the public and private sectors, are increasingly worried about our societies’ utter dependence on a functioning computer network. They worry about the havoc that could be wreaked if a virus were introduced that prevented a major bank from reconciling its books. Or about the chaos that could be caused if the computer systems that run our power systems or traffic lights were disabled. These attacks would come from cyber space – and they might not be the work of a state.

If and when such a cyber assault occurs, the focus of public concern would switch very rapidly. Suddenly, people would not be worrying about security-service intrusion into the private domain. They would be demanding to know why the government had not been able to anticipate and blunt a cyber assault of this nature.

This does not mean I think the questions that the softly spoken Mr Snowden raised are illegitimate. He is right that there should be more public discussion of where to draw the line in cyber snooping. When he says, “these things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody … hired by the government,” I am inclined to agree.

The difference is that I suspect a better-informed public debate could end up in a different place from where Mr Snowden hopes. He says his biggest fear is that – despite all the information he has revealed – the cyber situation will remain unchanged. I suspect that is exactly what will happen. Unless and until somebody can show that security agencies are not only gathering mountains of information but are also actively abusing it, I think this is a debate that western governments can win.