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Glenn Greenwald's "Nothing to Hide" Challenge is Pretty Damn Stupid

During his TED Talk presentation last week, The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald issued a challenge: If you defend the National Security Agency's surveillance activities by insisting that you have nothing to hide, then you should send all of your usernames and passwords to Glenn Greenwald, allowing him to publish anything he finds particularly juicy.
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During his TED Talk presentation last week, The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald issued a challenge: If you defend the National Security Agency's surveillance activities by insisting that you have nothing to hide, then you should send all of your usernames and passwords to Glenn Greenwald, allowing him to publish anything he finds particularly juicy. Here's the actual quote:

“Over the last 16 months, as I’ve debated this issue around the world, every single time somebody has said to me, ‘I don’t really worry about invasions of privacy because I don’t have anything to hide.’ I always say the same thing to them. I get out a pen, I write down my email address. I say, ‘Here’s my email address. What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts, not just the nice, respectable work one in your name, but all of them, because I want to be able to just troll through what it is you’re doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you’re not a bad person, if you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.’ Not a single person has taken me up on that offer.”

Yeah, I wonder why.

First of all, this is a bit of a strawman fallacy. Very few reputable people use this "I have nothing to hide" line of reasoning in defense of NSA any more because it stupidly and simplistically concedes that NSA might actually be spying on them personally without a warrant -- a concession that's both inaccurate and nearsighted.

It also draws a ludicrously false comparison. Greenwald having access to all of your personal information, with the latitude to publish whatever he wants, isn't even in the same universe as what NSA is up to.

1) NSA isn't publishing anything. Whether you support or oppose NSA's operations, the truth of the matter is -- and this is a big one -- NSA isn't publishing your personal skeletons for the amusement of the gawking public. It just isn't. Nothing in the Snowden documents has even hinted at such activities. Now, on the other hand, privacy absolutist Greenwald continues to lionize so-called "hacktivists" -- computer hackers who absolutely steal personal information and publish it, but who somehow deserve our support. I still can't wrap my head around that one.

2) No oversight. As much as Snowden and his media flacks like to deny it, there are multiple layers of oversight within and outside the intelligence community. The very fact that NSA is a government agency makes it accountable to the public. There's the FISA Court. There's also the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB). There are numerous congressional committees, including the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. There are not insignificant layers of bureaucratic oversight, including Office of Compliance, an internal auditor and an office of legal counsel. In one Snowden revelation article alone, published by The Washington Post's Barton Gellman, we learned that NSA's internal oversight nabbed and weeded out instances of individual violations at NSA, not unlike what happens at all levels of the executive bureaucracy. In the article we learned about the following:

–There was a “quadrupling of NSA’s oversight staff” in 2009 after the Obama administration came into office.

–There are “semi-annual reports to Congress” about NSA “errors and infractions.”

–The public can read abbreviated versions of these audits. “The limited portions of the reports that can be read by the public acknowledge ‘a small number of compliance incidents.'” Obviously, a full public disclosure of agency errors would reveal the nature of NSA’s top secret SIGINT operations. But this is evidence that the public can attain a limited peek at NSA’s audits anyway.

–There are “regular audits from the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and periodic reports to Congress and the surveillance court.”

–Regarding the surveillance court, Gellman’s article reveals a summary of a now infamous 86-page October 2011 decision by the FISA court, which determined that a then-brand new NSA operation was unconstitutional and must be discontinued.

That's from one article published by a hand-picked Snowden reporter. And that last part about the 86-page report is important. Strange how Greenwald and especially Snowden complain so vocally about not enough oversight while also ballyhooing an 86-page report from the (we're told) feckless FISA Court that effectively ended a questionable NSA operation. It can't be both. NSA can't be a rogue agency and confined by the rulings of FISA Court, nor can the court be a rubber-stamp body and a bulwark against overreach.

Now, where's the oversight when it comes to Greenwald? Or his hacktivist acquaintances Barrett Brown and "Weev," for that matter? Which governing bodies regulate and review what Greenwald or a hacker collective like Anonymous decides to publish? I'm not saying there should necessarily be one in Greenwald's case, other than a strong panel of editors, but when drawing a correlation between NSA surveillance and Greenwald publishing your personal information on a whim, we have no choice but to ask the oversight question.

3) NSA isn't spying on you personally. Not without an individual warrant. If that's not good enough for you -- the existence of individual warrants to target you for surveillance, then you'd better extend your angst all the way down to your local police force and the Constitution itself, which permits searches with warrants.

So that's that.

If you're still using the "I have nothing to hide" argument, you're doing it wrong. But you're probably not dumb enough to believe NSA is publishing your private information, as Greenwald seemed to suggest. If NSA was actually involved in publishing emails and Skype calls on the internet or in the news media, it's likely the few remaining "I have nothing to hide" people might think again.

The broader point here is that once again, Greenwald, who admitted to being "technically illiterate" before meeting Snowden and stumbling onto one of the biggest tech stories of the last two years, is oversimplifying and deceptively misrepresenting this story for the purposes of furthering his agenda. Just about everything he says or writes should be viewed through the prism of an activist who wants you believe something that isn't necessarily grounded in reality -- fine for an opinion writer, not fine for someone who's presenting his articles as hard news. He's cynically exploiting the public's ignorance of foreign policy, spycraft and government bureaucracy, as well as the public's inability to read beyond the first several paragraphs of an online article, to push his agenda. It's intellectually dishonest and possibly one of the most egregious chapters in the fledgling history of digital media.

And finally, for what it's worth, Daniel Serwer, the father of popular writer Adam Serwer and a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and Senior Fellow in the Center for Transatlantic Relations and a Scholar at the Middle East Institute, tweeted the following in response to Greenwald's challenge:


Adding... Published within minutes of this post, here's Lawfare on the same topic. It appears Benjamin Wittes and I are on the same wavelength.