A Big Day for Snowden: Two New and Misleading Revelations About Government Spying

It’s been a big day for Edward Snowden. Not only did The Guardian, in cooperation with The New York Times and Pro Publica, publish details about how the National Security Agency and the British GCHQ uses data from “leaky” apps like Angry Birds, but a separate story for NBC News and co-authored by Glenn Greenwald revealed how the GCHQ could monitor YouTube and social media.

But, naturally, the buried details make these revelations far less outrage-worthy.

Let’s start with this one: “NSA and GCHQ target ‘leaky’ phone apps like Angry Birds to scoop user data.” The headline says “user data” instead of the more accurate “data from terrorist targets” for one possible and very specific reason: to mislead people into believing NSA is spying on them personally. We’ve been following this deceptive headline practice since June when all of this began.

Then the bulletpoints below the headline include the line: “Details can include age, location and sexual orientation.” Again, this makes it appear as if NSA is collecting highly detailed information about everyone who uses these apps, but there’s no evidence of anything like that going on.

Dig down to paragraph 18 and you’ll find this:

The documents do not make it clear how much of the information that can be taken from apps is routinely collected, stored or searched, nor how many users may be affected. The NSA says it does not target Americans and its capabilities are deployed only against “valid foreign intelligence targets”.

So just because this information is available via the apps doesn’t mean NSA is collecting it. If it is, there’s no confirmation of it in the article.

Next up, Greenwald and NBC News reported that the GCHQ is watching YouTube and reading Facebook. The hyperbolic headline: “Snowden docs reveal British spies snooped on YouTube and Facebook.” Specifically, the GCHQ examined (past tense) what videos are popular and where, geographically, viewers are watching them.

Once again, however, if you read a little further within the article, the revelation unravels into nothingness.

First of all, it was pilot program that was demonstrated once.

Secondly, if you read way, way down to paragraph 17, you’ll find that the GCHQ used a “commercially available analytic software called Splunk” to analyse the data. And, more importantly:

The presentation showed that analysts could determine which videos were popular among residents of specific cities, but did not provide information on individual social media users.

So this revelation wasn’t a case of the GCHQ or anything else spying on individual targets or innocent U.S. persons or whomever.

Neither revelation presents any evidence whatsoever that Americans are being illegally and individually targeted. So the question needs to be asked again: why, if there’s no evidence of these operations being used unlawfully against the general public, are these articles in the public interest?

Exposing the methods by which NSA or the GCHQ gathers intelligence on terrorist targets obviously tells us what the government is going, sure, but it also tells the targets of these operations that they’d better be more careful, thus rendering the operations impotent. Put another way: exposing national security secrets like these only manages to shut down the operations. Likewise, there’s nothing here that suggests these programs wouldn’t have been effective in thwarting terrorism and therefore unnecessary, even if they had remained secret.

We also have to ask why mitigating details are buried almost every time? Back in June, Farhad Manjoo wrote a fascinating and troubling post for Slate that showed how online readers hardly ever read through an entire article. Most readers, in fact, only read half, while many readers don’t even bother to scroll. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this phenomenon is being exploited to the benefit of inciting outrage and paranoia, and thus clicks.

By the way, on the Slate page there’s a side-bar headline that reads: “NSA Could Be Watching You Play Angry Birds.”