I give away the ending of Isaac Asimov’s 1956 SF story entitled “The Dead Past”. If you plan to read it and don’t want the ending revealed, consider yourself warned.
I’ve made up my mind about Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency, affectionately known as the NSA.
- Edward is the good guy in all this.
- The NSA is not actually evil.
- An exhaustive and rational public debate on privacy and security is overdue.
As a bonus, I am pleasantly surprised to find Isaac Asimov correctly predicted all this, though he made the government into the good guys and us common folks into the unwitting bad guys.
Edward Snowden is the good guy
First, calling him a traitor is just plain wrong. He did not sell out his country’s interests to a foreign power: he sought to inform his own countrymen of something their own government is doing. He did not hurt anyone, he did not reveal details that would harm individual operatives, he did not divulge anyone’s private data.
It is legitimate to refuse to obey an illegal order, and it might be necessary to report criminal activities. If the whistleblower doesn’t trust official channels, he will use unofficial channels. That’s what Snowden did and breaking his confidentiality agreement with the NSA will hurt him. There is a chance that it will pay off (book royalties, speaking engagements) but there is a bigger chance that it will land him in jail for 25 years.
The NSA is not evil
Nevertheless, nothing in what I’ve read so far about what the NSA is doing has surprised me. If anything, there is more oversight than I though there was. I don’t think the oversight is sufficient or that it is effective enough, but it is not at zero and that’s a start.
The NSA and other agencies have to spend resources on obfuscating those to whom they report. That’s wrong but it’s also human nature and should be expected. And of course that is precisely why current oversight isn’t enough.
So what has the NSA been doing?
It’s been looking at metadata for every digital message going through the USA. Metadata is all about the envelope: the destination, the sender, the size and weight, when and how often the two parties exchange information. Metadata is everything about the message except the message itself. Let me emphasize that this is not trivial data. It’s important and anyone collecting such ought to be held responsible in some way about what they do with that data.
The NSA is searching through terabytes and terabytes of data for a few interesting kilobytes. Think needle in a haystack: we are NOT the needle, we are the hay and we DO want the needle found.
It’s been studying the data for patterns. Think putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Basic investigating objectives. Again not only do we want this to happen, we don’t really mind when Google or Facebook do it. If we did mind, we’d stop using Google and Facebook, right? Why should the NSA not be allowed to do what private corporations are doing all the time?
And the NSA is probably storing the data they gather, or at least I expect they are. Somewhere secret. To be taken out at need. Occasionally shared with other agencies. Like the IRS, customs, and immigration. That’s creepy and no, I do not think that is something we want.
Time to debate
The problem isn’t so much what the NSA is doing, it’s first that we don’t know what they are doing and second we know they are keeping their overseers from finding out.
We can certainly understand why the NSA doesn’t want to tell us what they know. It’s not because the government knows something that it should reveal it. I do want Revenu Quebec to have my tax records on file but I do not want them to make those records public.
I do want the police to catch criminals, and I do not want criminal suspects to read on the internet how well or how badly the investigation is going.
But I do want the police accountable. I want them to follow approved procedures and I want them to be under permanent scrutiny. Police forces are subject to oversight and they are reasonably transparent. In the end, their investigation will be on trial along with the suspect: if the police is found to have violated proper procedures, the suspect walks free. That’s a big incentive for the police to follow the law.
What the NSA does is preventive. If they work well, they never get to trial which is another reason why they need oversight. Their work needs to be scrutinized and if they cross a line, they need to be taken to task.
Isaac Asimov’s The Dead Past
Asimov got it…
Isaac Asimov has written about privacy and technology in one of his own favorite stories entitled “The Dead Past“.
The story takes place in the mid 21st century. A historian specializing in Carthage wants access to a chronoscope in order to have a look at Carthage as it was at the time of Hannibal. Chronoscopes are huge expensive machines under government control and time on them is precious. His request is turned down.
The historian and a science journalist to whom he turns for advice together find out that chronoscopes should be easy to build, and that the government has been keeping that fact secret.
Government agents confront them and we learn why the government has been suppressing chronoscope technology: when does the past start? A mere moment ago is the past. The chronoscope can look at the past, so it can look anywhere it wants as long as it is a millisecond ago.
Asimov’s chronoscope would make privacy impossible and in a chronoscope world we would find ourselves living in a fish bowl. Welcome to today’s internet.
The only thing Asimov got wrong was who cared more about privacy. In his story, it’s the government who cares about our privacy while it’s the citizens who don’t understand the harmful consequences of the device on that privacy. In this case, it is we the citizens who understand and worry about the loss of our privacy resulting from government actions.
Copyright 2013, Vincent Poirier
(Pet peeve: I’m getting sick and tired of US media, US officials, and US citizens always talking about the safety of Americans this or the values of Americans that. Guys, clue into this: we are all sharing the same living space and you are the elephant in the room. When you sneeze, we worry.)