NSA vs Silicon Valley: Can’t Win? Change the Subject!

May 3, 2014–So, what the whistleblower said was all true. In fact, the whistleblower hardly said anything. He let the documents do the talking. The National Security Agency is intercepting anyone they want and collecting the metadata on everyone. The additional documents, legal rulings, that had to be released to “prove” that this dragnet eavesdropping had any juridical basis at all only showed that the denizens of Fort Meade had indeed sought to create a framework for doing precisely what the Snowden documents said.

The diplomatic costs have come home to roost. German-American talks on a spy treaty have collapsed. Our side blames the Germans and makes it out to be somehow off-color that another nation should demand that what American spies do on German soil cannot be illegal under German law. The Word is we don’t make deals like that even with our closest allies. The more insinuating text is that what spies do is basically illegal anyway. Why care?

Ukraine is one reason. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Washington this week, her talks with President Barack Obama shadowed at every turn by the NSA eavesdropping scandal. Barack needs Merkel now–he needs her to stand with him on Russian encroachments on the Ukraine, an issue on which Germany can be a major player. But Merkel is still licking political wounds inflicted upon her by the NSA scandal. Obama was conspicuously smiling at their joint appearances but underneath the president must be acutely aware of how Fort Meade’s antics have hurt his larger projects.

The NSA started off by insisting it was not collecting data on anyone nor was it eavesdropping. Then it claimed it was “only” dealing in metadata. Then it was only aiming at legitimate intelligence targets, and not Americans. After revelation that our friend Merkel’s phones were bugged, the line went that everybody spies on their allies. As the evidence of massive NSA interception mounted the spooks squirmed on the hook of public disaster. All that interception (phone calls, emails, cloud memory holdings, game moves, web search data) might just send them into oblivion.

President Obama didn’t want that any more than Fort Meade. Back in January he moved on some reforms–not enough, but a start. The problem remains that the spooks still need a way to reframe the issue so they are not at the center of the cross-hairs. It appears that both Mr. Obama and the NSA  are on the verge of creating that narrative.

It was around the New Year when you began to hear–first in Op-Eds by spy-world figures like the former CIA officer John McLaughlin–that the NSA is only doing the same sort of data-mining and cookie reading the corporations engage in. Their point that the privacy issue is bigger than NSA spying is actually well taken. I’ll buy that too. So did Obama. He ordered up a study of web privacy issues and got the first results right around when Chancellor Merkel came to town.

But the White House and Fort Meade should be careful what they wish for. Yes, there should be much more stringent privacy controls on what Silicon Valley can read out on ordinary people. As a matter of fact, Angela Merkel’s country is one where some of those more stringent controls already exist, and those privacy standards are one reason the NSA spying has been so damaging over there. Your phone should not be an NSA target for the same reasons as Merkel’s.

What the spooks would like to come out of this is for citizens to say–for reasons of convenience–that Silicon Valley data-mining is OK and that, if it is, the NSA spying is fine too. But there are both qualitative and quantitative differences in these observations. Silicon Valley cannot target a drone on you or throw you in jail. It collects your data in hopes of winning your (and your friends’) dollars. The NSA eavesdropping is purposeful. It traces your connections in hopes of linking you and your friends, and if at some “hop” there happens to be a bad guy in the chain, woe to you all. What the NSA really doesn’t want is for privacy advocates to say that Silicon Valley and NSA spying are both wrong. Of course, that’s what is actually true. Everyone needs “Merkel rules.”

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