Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.


The office of the Director of National Intelligence sent ProPublica a statement in response to yesterday’s edition of the 2013 NSA-palooza:

Anything that yesterday’s disclosures add to the ongoing public debate is outweighed by the road map they give to our adversaries about the specific techniques we are using to try to intercept their communications in our attempts to keep America and our allies safe and to provide our leaders with the information they need to make difficult and critical national security decisions.

Remember the Washington Post’s story on the bin Laden mission?

The National Security Agency also was able to penetrate guarded communications among al-Qaeda operatives by tracking calls from mobile phones identified by specific calling patterns, the document shows.

The most careful (read: dangerous) terrorists don’t use Skype. They’ve assumed that the NSA and CIA are watching electronic communications since before Snowden’s disclosures. Consider the above sentence: the NSA helped to find bin Laden by identified calling patterns, not by breaking the encryption on a Skype call.

The main question here is whether it’s worth sacrificing the privacy of any communications that pass through the United States — bank transactions, login information, email messages, text messages, etc. — in the hope that they will able to be cross-referenced and a terrorist cell will be busted. Simply, what’s the signal-to-noise ratio?

There are other questions, too. How much more must be sacrificed to an agency with little oversight which may or may not be able to put the pieces of a terrorist plot together before they hit? How many lives have been saved so far by sacrificing our privacy? How many lives have been lost despite these sacrifices? Why can’t this technology be targeted better so the vast majority of us do not have to give up our privacy?

Furthermore, if all of this has the ability to target Americans, isn’t that unconstitutional? Or, if it doesn’t target Americans, why not? Is domestic terrorism not considered a valid threat? If the Constitution protects civil liberties for Americans, are those who are not American inherently lesser people who are unworthy of the same rights?