I’ve been enjoying, or perhaps more accurately cringing, at the tech media coverage of the whole NSA non-scandal. It really shows just how insular, hive-minded, and stubborn this little segment of the media is. The broader mainstream media, of course, moved on from the story quickly.
Here’s a rough timeline of the coverage:
June 6th: Glenn Greenwald reveals a horribly-designed PowerPoint slide about PRISM, an NSA data collection initiative, saying “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.” And “The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.”
Almost immediately after: The CEO of every company involved flat out denies these allegations, as well as ever having heard of PRISM. Either all of them are lying (a big risk for a CEO of a publicly traded company, especially since he’d be more or less guaranteed to be screwed by a whistle-blower) or Greenwald simply misinterpreted the slides. Or they’re bogus, or just inaccurate.
June 7th until today: The media keeps writing articles about how awful it is that the NSA is collecting all of our private data. Here’s a great example of such shitty journalism from today’s WaPo blog: “Last week, leaks revealed that the Web sites most people use every day are sharing users’ private information with the government.”
No, they didn’t. But I suppose “last week everyone mistakenly came to the conclusion for 15 minutes before we were promptly corrected…” doesn’t make for interesting reading, so let’s just go with the sensational headline.
We know two things now. One, that Google, et al. occasionally give data to the government when it comes to them through proper channels (which we already knew), and that that data goes into some software called PRISM, which we didn’t but is essentially irrelevant. We all know it went into some software somewhere, right? It’s 2013, nobody expected it to end up hand written on paper and stuffed into boxes. The name is meaningless.
The conspiracy theorists are out in force too. My favorite refrain is “The CEOs are just lying so they don’t end up like Joseph Nacchio.” Nacchio, for those who don’t know, was the CEO and chairman of Qwest who is now serving a prison sentence for insider trading. According to Nacchio it’s all a setup for refusing to turn data over to the NSA. Apparently they got the SEC to bring charges, a jury of 12 civilians to convict him, and a judge to sentence him. That, or he was guilty of insider trading. Certainly if someone sentenced to prison says it was a government setup, it’s worth repeating on tech blogs.
Weeks like this make you wonder, why do people who are seemingly intelligent, and so pride themselves on being so, act so stupidly sometimes? Why does hacker news have to have 15 of its 20 links full of stories outraged about something we know is probably not even happening for the following week and or two? I follow segments of the financial media as well, nothing like this ever happens there. Nobody would blatantly ignore the truth for this long when writing for the business pages.
I really just don’t know. Maybe we’re all sensitive to data collection. Maybe we’ve all read too much Orwell and genuinely worry about the government as if it’s some nameless faceless blob vying for control over us, rather than an organization of fellow citizens who, while far from perfect, really are just trying to make the country a better place for us.
Because if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that the people at the NSA are patriots too. They’re not evil. They’re trying to do a very tough job, which is helping to keep our country safe. We might not like how they’re doing it, or think the tradeoff is worth it, and that’s a discussion we should have. It’s hard to have when there’s so much secrecy involved, but we do have some control over it since it’s overseen entirely by elected officials.
But either way the discussion should be without hysteria. We shouldn’t simply assume everyone involved is lying and stick with our original interpretation of the facts, even when they were refuted almost within minutes.