Edward Snowden. (Courtesy: Guardiannews.com)
There’s really nothing “meta” about metadata. Even without knowing the content of a conversation, knowing whom someone is calling, for how long and how often conveys an enormous amount of information, as former National Security Agency official and whistleblower Thomas Drake and former Department of Justice attorney and whistleblower Jesselyn Radack reminded me and a roomful of others over the weekend. To know whom a journalist is in touch with is to know who their sources are, and a brutally efficient way to kill whatever network of confidential contacts a journalist has built up. (Would you dish the dirt to a reporter you know is being monitored?) The notion that we ought to be grateful because the government is “only” collecting our telecommunications metadata is creepy, dystopian and grovellingly servile. The perfectly reasonable desire to keep the government out of your e-mail and phone records does not make you a “privacy purist” or God forbid, a “libertarian.”
Thanks to The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and 29-year-old whistleblower Edward Snowden, we know that the government has been collecting our telecommunications metadata in enormous data dragnets. We also know that the government has developed backdoor access to e-mail and other intenet communications through arrangements with Google, Microsoft, Facebook and other Silicon Valley corporations.
Snowden revealed his identity yesterday afternoon; it had been the subject of fervid speculation since Greenwald began breaking stories about the data trawling last week. (Steve Clemons, the impeccably Establishment foreign policy journalist and think-tanker, overheard four national security professionals loudly and repeatedly proposing that both Snowden and “the journalist” be “taken out”.) Snowden is not a government man, not exactly anyway: he worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, an enormous and enormously profitable corporation that has gobbled up $1.3 billion in intelligence-related government contracts in the past fiscal year, from digital intelligence gathering to questing after the much-sought-after but spurious link between Al Qaeda and South American narcotraffickers. A common theme in the reactions to Snowden’s whistleblowing is outrage and resentment that a 29-year-old with a GED instead of a high-school diploma is making $200,000 a year off government contracts. In today’s grim economy, one of the few bright spots is the boom field of counterterrorism and intelligence consulting, highly paid jobs that don’t seem to require much in the way of skills, experience or expertise.
Did the leak require all kinds of digital derring-do and expertise? Probably not; the ACLU’s Christopher Soghoian has noted that Snowden probably used the same surveillance-proofing software, Tor, that the United States developed for dissidents in China and Iran. For the time being, Snowden is in Hong Kong where American authorities cannot get at him—at least not today. (According to The New York Times, the Hong Kong government will most likely be very happy to comply with an extradition request from Washington, which is surely being drafted right now.)