It turns out, the NSA PRISM story isn’t quite the bombshell that everyone said it was. Yes, there continues to be a serious cause for concern when it comes to government spying and overreach with its counter-terrorism efforts. But the reporting from Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post has been shoddy and misleading.
We shouldn’t shrug off our weakened privacy as a merely a side effect of the digital age, either. We ought to fight to preserve as much of our privacy as possible. So if there’s any benefit to the NSA news, it’s to serve as a reminder that, yes, the government is serious about attaining information in its war on terrorism and that we should be aware of what’s going on — checking it when it gets out of control.
But with new contravening information emerging since the original stories were posted by Greenwald and the Washington Post, it’s clear that the reporting by each news outlet was filled with possibly agenda-driven speculation and key inaccuracies.
Greenwald told CNN, “It’s well past time that we have a debate about whether that’s the kind of country and world in which we want to live.”
Canonizing bad reporting as a means of inciting a debate is as bad as no debate at all. So perhaps some positive changes on domestic spying are eventually achieved, but at what cost? Greenwald, who doesn’t really care about “left and right,” isn’t concerned with anything other than his personal agenda and clearly he’s willing to do whatever it takes in pursuit of those goals. Specifics presently.
It’s a shame because there’s a way to have this debate without selling out to a misinformation campaign driven by clicks. Instead, we appear to be careening way off the empirical rails into hysterical, kneejerk acceptance of half-assed information.
Here’s how this story has played out since late Thursday.
1. Both Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post reported that NSA had attained “direct access” to servers owned by Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Apple and other big tech companies in order to attain private user information via a top secret government operation called PRISM. Initially, this appeared to be a major violation of privacy. The implication is that the government enjoyed unchecked, unrestricted access to metadata about users any time it wanted.
2. Then, naturally, heads exploded throughout the blogs and social media. Left and right alike.
3. While everyone was busily losing their shpadoinkle on Twitter and the blogs, Google, Facebook, Dropbox, Yahoo, Microsoft, Paltalk, AOL and Apple all announced in separate statements that not only were they unaware of any PRISM program, but they also confirmed that there’s no way the government had infiltrated the privately-owned servers maintained by these companies. Furthermore, Google wrote, “Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday.” Google also described how it will occasionally and voluntarily hand over user data to the government, but only after it’s been vetted and scrutinized by Google’s legal team.
4. The freakout continued.
5. Furthermore, Glenn Greenwald used the phrase “direct access,” as in unobstructed direct server access, four times in his article, most prominently in his lede, “The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.” Unless the tech companies were collectively lying, Greenwald’s use of “direct access” is inaccurate. And if it’s inaccurate, the most alarming aspect of this NSA story is untrue.
On Twitter, Greenwald defended his reporting by reiterating that NSA said within the PRISM document that there has been “collection directly from the servers of these US service providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook…” But this could mean that the data was drawn from the servers, vetted and handed over to NSA per Google’s stated process of legal vetting. And if the data was made available, it’s possible that the tech companies posted it on a server for NSA analysts to download, just as you might download a file from work or a friend via Dropbox or an FTP server. Regardless, it seems as if Greenwald’s entire story hinges on a semantic interpretation of the PRISM language. And his mistake was to leap from “collection directly from servers” to “direct access.”
6. More exploded heads anyway. Anyone relaying the new information is accused of being an Obamabot.
7. Additionally, the NSA whistleblower who provided the information to the Washington Post was quoted as saying, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.” Without direct access to the servers this would be impossible — that is, unless NSA was intercepting user data in transit. But that’s not what Greenwald reported, which was direct server access. This was the bombshell — that NSA could grab information at will — and, as of this writing, it’s inaccurate.
8. In spite of these new revelations, epidemic-level outrage continued to spread all around. Michael Moore and others applauded the anonymous whistleblower(s) who provided information to Greenwald.
9. By the end of the day Friday, Business Insider reported that the Washington Post had revised its article. The article no longer reported that the tech companies “knowingly” cooperated with PRISM. But, more importantly, the phrase “track a person’s movements and contacts over time” in the article’s lede was revised to “track foreign targets.” There’s a huge difference between the two phrases. Public outrage was almost entirely based on the idea that NSA was spying on everyone who uses those services — broad, unrestricted access to private information (as private as social media and email is). But the revision limits the scope of the operation to international communications.
As of Saturday, Greenwald, unlike the Washington Post, hadn’t corrected or revised his reporting to reflect the new information, and, in fact, Greenwald continued to defend his reporting on Twitter. (It’s worth noting how speculative Greenwald’s article was. The following line was particularly leading: “It also opens the possibility of communications made entirely within the US being collected without warrants.” There’s no indication whatsoever that the government was gathering information without warrants.)
10. Heads, sadly, continued to explode all over the place in spite of the total de-fanging of both stories.
11. Meanwhile, TechCrunch‘s Josh Constine reported on Saturday, “[T]he NSA did not have direct access or any special instant access to data or servers at the PRISM targets, but instead had to send requests to the companies for the data.”
This is vastly different from what Greenwald reported.
12. Rampant outrage all day Saturday.
13. And ultimately, other than the PRISM Power Point, the NSA’s surveillance story isn’t anything new. Some headline history via ProPublica:
Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts, New York Times, December 2005
NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls, USA Today, May 2006
The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say), Wired, March 2012
U.S. Terrorism Agency to Tap a Vast Database of Citizens, The Wall Street Journal, December 2012
But the Greenwald and Washington Post stories are somehow bombshells, taken at face value. Has our collective attention span become so ridiculously short that we’re suddenly shocked by news of NSA attaining data about Americans as a means of fighting evildoers? Has everyone been asleep for the last 12 years?
To summarize, yes, NSA routinely requests information from the tech giants. But NSA doesn’t have “direct access” to servers nor is it randomly collecting information about you personally. Yet rending of garments and general apoplexy has ruled the day, complete with predictable invective about the president being “worse than Bush” and that anyone who reported on the new information debunking the initial report was and is an Obamabot apologist.
Speaking for myself on that front, I’m not apologizing for anyone. I’m merely noting that Greenwald and the Washington Post reported inaccurate information. I’ve spent a considerable chunk of my writing career eviscerating the post-9/11 surveillance state and its accompanying trespasses against privacy and civil liberties. While I’m encouraged by the president’s vow to begin rolling back the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, winding down the endless war and its accompanying endless war powers, I’m also concerned about the continued bartering of privacy for the sake of a little more security — a through-line that began under George W. Bush and continues today.
But this prioritization of security over liberty wasn’t invented by this president. It began as the unforgivable exploitation of fear in the days after 9/11 and became entwined in the American worldview. We’ve sadly become just as accustomed to unnecessary searches and privacy intrusions as the federal government has grown accustomed to going beyond its mandate to smoke out the evildoers.
UPDATE: This post by ZDNet’s Ed Bott is a phenomenal takedown of the Washington Post‘s reporting on this story, including a side-by-side comparison of the significant changes between the Post’s initial article and what it morphed into later. Clearly the Post rushed to press with a half-assed article, subsequently inciting outrage. Then, while everyone had run off to accuse the Obama administration of being “worse than Bush” the Post altered key facts in the story. It’s a dark chapter for American journalism.