Nov 21, 2019
Edward Snowden Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because by understanding the past, we’re able to be prepared for the innovations of the future! Todays episode is about Edward Snowden, who leaked a trove of NSA documents that supposedly proved the NSA was storing and potentially weaponizing a lot of personal communications of US and foreign citizens. Now, before I tell an abridged version of his story I should say that I was conflicted about whether to do this episode. But I see the documents Edward Snowden released as a turning point in privacy. Before Snowden, there was talk of digital privacy at DefCon, in the ranks of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and of course amongst those who made hats of tin foil. But sometimes those tin foil mad hatters are right. Today, you see that word “Privacy” in sessions from developers at Apple, Google, Microsoft, and many other companies that host our data. It’s front and center in sales and marketing. Many of those organizations claim they didn’t know customer data was being captured. And we as a community have no reason not to trust them. But this is not a podcast about politics. For some, what Snowden did is an act of espionage. For others it’s considered politically motivated. But many blame the leaker as a means of not addressing the information leaked. Things I’ve heard people say about what he did include: * He was just a disgruntled contractor * He was working for the Russians all along * This is the problem with Millenials * Espionage should be punishable by death * Wikileaks rapist * He gave Democratic server data to Trump * This is why we shouldn’t allow trans people in the military * He is a hero These responses confuse a few different events. Which is understandable given the rapid rip and replace of these stories by the modern news cycle. Let’s run through a quick review of some otherwise disconnected events. Chelsea Manning, then Bradley Manning, enlisted in 2007 and then leaked classified documents to Wikileaks in 2010. These documents included airstrike footage, diplomatic cables, documents about Guantanamo Bay detainees, and much more. Some of which possibly put lives in danger. Manning served seven years before having her sentence commuted by then US president, Barak Obama. She was not pardoned. Wikileaks.org is an active web site started in 2006 by Julian Assange. The site began as a community-driven wiki - but quickly ended up moving into more of a centralized distribution model, given some of the material that has been posted over the years. Assange has been in and out of courts throughout his adult life, first for hacking at a young age and then pushing the boundaries of freedom of speech, freedom of press, and the rights to the security of information owned by sovereign nations. I’m sure he was right in some of those actions and wrong in others. Wikileaks has been used as a tool for conservatives, liberals, various governments, and the intelligence communities of the US, Russia, and to get bosses or competitors for a promotion fired in the private sector. But hosting the truth knows no master. When those leaked documents help your cause it’s a great freedom of speech. When they hurt your cause then it must be true that Assange and his acolytes are tools of a foreign power or worse, straight up spies. Any of it could be true. But again sometimes the truth can hurt -even if there are a few altered documents in a trove of mostly unaltered documents as has been alleged to be true of the hacked emails of John Podesta, the Democratic National Committee chair during the 2016 elections. Again, these aren’t in any way political views, just facts. Because the Chelsea Manning trials were going on around the same time that Snowden went public, I do find these people and their stories can get all mixed up. Assange was all over the news as well. And I don’t want to scope creep the episode. This episode is about what Edward Snowden did. And what he did was to leak NSA documents to journalists in 2013. These documents went into great detail about an unprecendented level of foreign and domestic data capture under the auspices of what he considered overreach by the intelligence community. Just because it is an unprecedented level doesn’t make it right or wrong, just more than the previous precedent. Just because he considered it an overreach doesn’t mean I do. It also doesn’t mean that that much snooping into our personal lives, without probable cause, wasn’t an overreach. And this is a bi-partisan issue. The overreach arguably began in ernest under Bush, based on research done while Clinton was in office and was then expanded under Obama. And of course, complained about by Trump while he actively sought to expand the programs. They were all complicit. How did Snowden end up with these documents? His father had served in the intelligence community. As with many of us, he became enamored with computers at a young age and turned his hobby into a career early in life. Snowden was working as a web developer when the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 hit. A lot of us were pretty devastated by those events but he wanted to do his patriotic duty and enlisted. Only problem is that he broke his legs during basic training. According to his autobiography it happened when he landed awkwardly while trying to avoid jumping on a snake. He then began life as a contractor in the intelligence community, which was exploding in the wake of 911. As with many, he hopped around into different roles finally joining the NSA for a bit, serving in Geneva before returning home to the DC area to resume life as a contractor. Contractors usually make more than staff in the intelligence community. Snowden would go on to build backup systems that would be used for even more overreach. He then took a step down to be a Sharepoint admin in Hawaii. Because Hawaii. And because he had started suffering from pretty bad epileptic seizures, an ailment he inherited from his mom. The people that do your IT have an unprecedented amount of information at their fingerprints. The backup admin can take almost everything anyone would want to know about your company home with them one day. You know, because it’s Tuesday. In fact, we often defined that as an actual business process they were supposed to follow in the days before the cloud. We called them offsite backups. Sharepoint is a Microsoft product that allows you to share files, resources from other Microsoft products, news, and most anything digital with others. Snowden was a Sharepoint admin and boy did he share. Snowden took some time off from the NSA in 2013 and flew to Hong Kong where he met with Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill. He leaked a trove of documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post. The documents kept flowing to Der Spiegel and The New York Times. He was charged on violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and after going into hiding in Hong Kong tried to escape to Ecuador. But during a layover in Moscow he discovered his passport had been cancelled and he’s been living there ever since. He has been offered asylum in a few countries but because there are no direct flights there from Moscow. Think about this: just over half of Americans had a cell phone on September 11th, 2001. And practically none had we now consider smart phones. In fact, only 35% had them in 2011. Today, nearly all Americans have a cell phone with 80 percent having a smart phone. Those devices create a lot of data. There’s the GPS coordinates, the emails sent and received, the Facebook messages to our friends, the events we say we’re going to, the recipes about the food we’re going to cook, the type of content we like to assume, our financial records. Even our photos. Once upon a time, and it was not very long ago at all, you had to break into someones house to go through all that. Not any more. During the time since 911 we also moved a lot of data to the cloud. You know how your email lives on a server hosted by Google, Apple, Microsoft, or some other company. That’s the cloud. You know how your documents live on Google, Dropbox or Box instead of on a small business server or large storage area network these days? That’s the cloud. It’s easy. It’s cheaper. And you don’t have to have a Snowden in every company in the world to host them yourself. The other thing that has changed between 2001 and 2013 was the actual law. The USA Patriot Act expanded the ability for the US to investigate the September 11th terror attacks and other incidents of terror. Suddenly people could be detained indefinitely, law enforcement could search records and homes without a court order. It was supposed to be temporary. It was renewed in 2005 under Bush and then extended in 2011 under Obama. It continued in 2015 but under Section 215 the NSA was told to stop collecting everyone’s phone data. But phone companies will keep the data and provide it to the NSA upon request, so samesies. But they still called it the Freedom act. FISC, or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was established in 1978 with the passing of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. These hearings are ex partei given that they are about intelligence matters. The Patriot Act expanded those. The Freedom Act retained much of that language and the Trump Administration is likely to request these be made permanent. Since we all know what’s happening, I guess our values have changed. Over the centuries, technology has constantly forced us to rethink our values, consciously or not. Can you imagine how your thinking might have changed going from a society where people didn’t read to one where they did at the advent of the printing press? Just think of how email and instant messaging changed what we value. The laws, based on the ethics and the values are slow to respond to technology. Laws are meant to be deliberate and so deliberated over. When Trump, Biden, Bernie, or the next president or presidential hopefuls ask about the history of investigating them. The answer is probably that the government started when you got your first cell phone. Or your first email address. Do you value keeping that information private? I’ve never cared all that much. I guess the rest of the country doesn’t either, as we haven’t taken steps to change it. But I might care about my civil liberties some day in the future. Think about that come December 15th. We can undo anything. If we care to. Because our civil liberties are just one aspect of liberty. And no matter who is in office or what they’re trying to accomplish, you still have values and on a case by case basis, you don’t have to sacrifice or erode those due to partisan bickering, or with each transition of power and each cult of personality that rises, you will slowly see them disappear. So thank you for tuning in to yet another episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re so lucky to have you. Have a great day!