“United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost” - Martin Smith (2014)


United States of Secrets comprises two linked, but separate, documentary films produced for the US Public Broadcasting Service’s Frontline program and aired in May 2014.  I have earlier reviewed the first installment, Michael Kirk’s United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program; and the present article reviews the subsequent and shorter film, United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost, which was produced and written by Martin Smith.  Although it can help to have seen Part One, the Part Two under discussion here can stand on its own.

The subject matter in both films revolves around the concerns that were aroused when top-secret documents of the US National Security Agency (NSA) were leaked in 2013 revealing the extent of the agency’s massive surveillance of its own citizenry.  The agent behind these links, of course, was Edward Snowden, and there have been several films made that have covered the story from that angle, including Citizenfour (2014), directed by Laura Poitras, and Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden (2015), directed by John Goetz and Poul-Erik Heilbuth.  United States of Secrets, though, is not about Snowden; it is about what Snowden revealed: the increasingly perilous state of privacy in our modern world. 

In many ways that is where our focus and concerns should lie, and that’s what Snowden wanted, too.  He didn’t want himself or his fugitive status to overshadow the real issue: the nature and extent of the NSA’s surveillance.  So United States of Secrets examines
  • in Part One: how two US Presidential administrations (those of George W. Bush and Barack Obama) both (a) authorized massive NSA surveillance and (b) strenuously bullied whistle-blowers and hid the surveillance activities from public scrutiny, and
  • in Part Two: just what it is that the NSA is doing and how does it work [1].
In fact when it comes down to it, Part Two is really about the most important stuff.  Even though there may be technical complications difficult for the ordinary viewer to at first understand in connection with this side of the story, there are important implications about the NSA’s activities that directly affect even the most mundane circumstances of everyone.  So we all need to learn about this material in Part Two and make public decisions about it.  Unfortunately, Part Two doesn’t grab the viewer like the other mentioned NSA surveillance films, and that is primarily due to its lack of a gripping narrative.

All presentations, whether in public or via the media, need to be cast in terms of a narrative(s).  It is in terms of narratives that we best remember the ideas and arguments.  That is why religions almost always present their moral and spiritual messages in terms of memorable narratives.  And political messages are also often understood in terms of narratives – in the US, for example, people usually think of their guiding governmental principles in terms of the narratives about the Founding Fathers. 

In connection with the particular issues at hand  – government surveillance and the loss of privacy – there are some human narratives that have been leveraged in the other films:
  • The Edward Snowden Story.  How a lone operative managed to convey top-secret documents to international journalists and then get away from a massive governmental pursuit.  This is the story of Citizenfour and Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden.
  • Stories about Governmental Whistle-blowers.  The accounts of frustrated professionals inside the US government – Diane Roark, William Binney, Thomas Drake, Thomas Tamm, and Jake Goldsmith – provide the narrative traction for United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program.
However, in United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost there are no analogous accounts that can provide that kind of narrative backbone.  For that, we probably need something like what George Orwell did in his 1984.  It is true that there are brief personal narratives about  Mark Klein and Nick Merrill (see below), but the technical details are what are important  in those cases, and those are not intrinsic to the mini-narratives presented.

Nevertheless, Part Two does cover a number of important aspects of NSA surveillance that came to light as a result of Edward Snowden’s disclosures.

1.  PRISM
After a brief background overview about Edward Snowden’s disclosures of US government surveillance overreach to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in June 2013, the focus moves to one of the first items that was published – an article about the PRISM surveillance program that appeared in the Washington Post.  PRISM collects massive amounts of user data (both metadata and content) from at least 9 major Internet companies (including Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, Paltalk,  Youtube, AOL, Skype, and Apple) [2].  The news caused an immediate uproar, and President Obama quickly appointed a panel to investigate the legality of this and similar programs.

Interestingly, many of the disclosed companies issued statements angrily rejecting the idea that they would turn over user data to the NSA.  Evidently they were denying the truth. 

When Snowden in Hong Kong watched Obama on TV denying the extent of PRISM’s surveillance, he realized the President’s were a total misrepresentation, and he decided to come out and reveal his identity.  Snowden immediately had to go underground, and soon managed to head out on a jet that would stop over (and where he would be stranded) in Moscow.

2.  MUSCULAR
The next topic of interest is MUSCULAR, the NSA code name for a program to secretly extract data from fiber-optic cables that provided private data links inside the operations of Yahoo and Google. Google was shocked at the news; they thought they had been leasing secure data lines (but why wasn’t Google bothering to encrypt its internal data transfers? – at least now they know better).

MUSCULAR is a joint program run by the NSA and The UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ – Britain’s equivalent of the NSA).  Unlike the PRISM program, MUSCULAR surveillance does not require a warrant, not even the rather dodgy warrants afforded by FISA courts.

In connection with this kind of massive data collection, the film discusses how a technician at  AT&T in San Francisco discovered that the NSA was splitting off and spying on all data that passed through their San Francisco node.  Fearful for his own job security, the technician, Mark Klein, remained silent for a couple of years, but went public when he read a New York Times  article about unauthorized NSA surveillance in 2005.

But the big Telcos seemed oblivious to public concerns.  The film shows AT&T chairman Edward Whitacre, Jr., obstinately refusing to answer questions posed to him at a Congressional hearing and only repeating over and over that his company does not break the law.

3.  National Security Letters
Then the coverage moves to National Security Letters (NSL), which are administrative subpoenas usually issued by the FBI to a company demanding that they turn over vast amounts of sensitive data.  These NSLs usually include a gag order that prevents the recipient from even disclosing to anyone that they had received a NSL.  These letters are not court orders and are not reviewed by any court.  They are simply demands made by any FBI office, and they cannot be challenged or even disclosed. 

Naturally there have been doubts raised concerning the Constitutionality of NSLs, but the recipients have usually been so intimidated by the gag orders that such letters never came before public attention.  In 2004, alone, we are informed that 56,000 NSLs were issued.  Finally the CEO of an Internet company, Nick Merrill, filed a lawsuit in 2004 about the gag order of a NSL that he received.  After a lengthy legal process, an appeals court ruled that the NSL was unconstitutional, and the FBI withdrew the letter.  Even so, the litigation proceeded slowly, and it was only last week that Merrill was legally allowed to reveal the contents of the NSL he had received more than a decade earlier [3].

4.  The Internet Companies’ Own Surveillance

Finally we come to the important topic of the for-profit surveillance activities that the Internet companies are doing on their own.  This is surveillance on a vast scale, because Internet companies like Facebook and Google can collect so much information about you in two ways:
  • Metadata.  By means of metadata, they can track where you go and all the transactions you undertake.
  • Content.  By combining the collected metadata with message, voice, and visual content, they can track your intentions and come to conclusions about the narratives in which you are engaged.
This is accomplished by making statistical correlations with all the content and metadata they have collected from hundreds of millions other people. 

It is natural for the NSA to ask: if those companies can do that for profit, why can’t we do the same thing to save lives?  In fact the NSA has gone ahead and piggybacked off the Internet companies’ surveillance by looking at cookies that are deposited on everyone’s computers when they browse the Web [4].
 
In the end we are left wondering what should be done. In the other films about NSA surveillance mentioned above, the viewer is informed of government lawbreaking, particularly in the panicked period just after 911.  But under the Presidency of Barack Obama, the “Lawyer-in-Chief”, efforts have been made to ensure that what the government is doing is technically legal.  But the same old intrusive, privacy-diminishing activities have been ongoing nonetheless.  Nothing has changed under Obama except attendance to the legal niceties [5,6].  There is still the basic problem of privacy and how to preserve it. 

It is not just that we have more questions than answers; we don’t even know enough to ask the right questions.  As The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman says at the film’s close,
“We can’t hold our government accountable, because we truly don’t know what it is doing.”
★★★

Notes:
  1. Corey Adwar, “Briefing: Here's The Most Surprising Revelation From An Eye-Opening Documentary On NSA Spying”, Business Insider, Australia, (16 May 2014).
  2.  “PRISM (surveillance program)”, Wikipedia. (accessed 2 Decebmer 2015).
  3. "Following Major First Amendment Victory, National Security Letter Recipient Nicholas Merrill Able to Reveal Previously Undisclosed Scope of FBI Warrantees Surveillance Tool"Information Society Project, Yale University, (30 November 2015).
  4. Ashkan Soltani, Andrea Peterson, and Barton Gellman, “NSA uses Google Cookies to Pinpoint Targets for Hacking”, The Washington Post, (10 December 2013).
  5. Charlie Savage, “Barack Obama, Lawyer-in-Chief”, Politico Magazine, (9 November 2015).
  6. Glenn Greenwald, “TRANSCRIPT: Interview with Charlie Savage on Obama's War on Terror Legacy”, The Intercept_, (11 November 2015).

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