The Latest Snowden Leak Is Devastating to NSA Defenders
The Latest Snowden Leak Is Devastating to NSA Defenders
By Conor Friedersdorf / theatlantic.com
Jul 8, 2014

The agency collected and stored intimate chats, photos, and emails belonging to innocent Americans—and secured them so poorly that reporters can now browse them at will.

Consider the latest leak sourced to Edward Snowden from the perspective of his detractors. The National Security Agency's defenders would have us believe that Snowden is a thief and a criminal at best, and perhaps a traitorous Russian spy. In their telling, the NSA carries out its mission lawfully, honorably, and without unduly compromising the privacy of innocents. For that reason, they regard Snowden's actions as a wrongheaded slur campaign premised on lies and exaggerations.

But their narrative now contradicts itself. The Washington Post's latest article drawing on Snowden's leaked cache of documents includes files "described as useless by the analysts but nonetheless retained" that "tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes. The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless."

The article goes on to describe how exactly the privacy of these innocents was violated. The NSA collected "medical records sent from one family member to another, résumés from job hunters and academic transcripts of schoolchildren. In one photo, a young girl in religious dress beams at a camera outside a mosque. Scores of pictures show infants and toddlers in bathtubs, on swings, sprawled on their backs and kissed by their mothers. In some photos, men show off their physiques. In others, women model lingerie, leaning suggestively into a webcam ..." 

Have you ever emailed a photograph of your child in the bathtub, or yourself flexing for the camera or modeling lingerie? If so, it could be your photo in the Washington Post newsroom right now, where it may or may not be secure going forward. In one case, a woman whose private communications were collected by the NSA found herself contacted by a reporter who'd read her correspondence. 

Snowden defenders see these leaked files as necessary to proving that the NSA does, in fact, massively violate the private lives of American citizens by collecting and storing content—not "just" metadata—when they communicate digitally. They'll point out that Snowden turned these files over to journalists who promised to protect the privacy of affected individuals and followed through on that oath. 

What about Snowden critics who defend the NSA? Ben Wittes questions the morality of the disclosure:

Snowden here did not leak programmatic information about government activity. He leaked many tens of thousands of personal communications of a type that, in government hands, are rightly subject to strict controls. They are subject to strict controls precisely so that the woman in lingerie, the kid beaming before a mosque, the men showing off their physiques, and the woman whose love letters have to be collected because her boyfriend is off looking to join the Taliban don’t have to pay an unnecessarily high privacy price. Yes, the Post has kept personal identifying details from the public, and that is laudable. But Snowden did not keep personal identifying details from the Post. He basically outed thousands of people—innocent and not—and left them to the tender mercies of journalists. This is itself a huge civil liberties violation.

The critique is plausible—but think of what it means.

I never thought I'd see this day: The founder of Lawfare has finally declared that a national-security-state employee perpetrated a huge civil-liberties violation! Remember this if he ever again claims that NSA critics can't point to a single serious abuse at the agency. Wittes himself now says there's been a serious abuse.

The same logic applies to Keith Alexander, James Clapper, Michael Hayden, Stewart Baker, Edward Lucas, John Schindler, and every other anti-Snowden NSA defender. So long as they insist that Snowden is a narcissistic criminal and possible traitor, they have no choice but to admit that the NSA collected and stored intimate photos, emails, and chats belonging to totally innocent Americans and safeguarded them so poorly that a ne'er-do-well could copy them onto thumb drives. 

They have no choice but to admit that the NSA was so bad at judging who could be trusted with this sensitive data that a possible traitor could take it all to China and Russia. Yet these same people continue to insist that the NSA is deserving of our trust, that Americans should keep permitting it to collect and store massive amounts of sensitive data on innocents, and that adequate safeguards are in place to protect that data. To examine the entirety of their position is to see that it is farcical.

Here's the reality.

The NSA collects and stores the full content of extremely sensitive photographs, emails, chat transcripts, and other documents belong to Americans, itself a violation of the Constitution—but even if you disagree that it's illegal, there's no disputing the fact that the NSA has been proven incapable of safeguarding that data. There is not the chance the data could leak at sometime in the future. It has already been taken and given to reporters. The necessary reform is clear. Unable to safeguard this sensitive data, the NSA shouldn't be allowed to collect and store it.


© 2014 The Atlantic Monthly Group

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

4.0 ·
1
Trending Today
"The Myth of Time" - Martin Luther King Jr.
3 min · 11,108 views today · Excerpt from MLK Jr.'s last sermon, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution". Delivered at The National Cathedral on March 31, 1968 (4 days prior to his...
Surviving Capitalist Depression
Michael Emero · 9,474 views today · We live in a toxic society filled with toxic people. Even the ones with the best hearts- including ourselves- have been raised in ignorance, with disinformation. Our examples...
Real Underground Kingdom That Has Existed for Millions of Years Went Unnoticed, Until Recently...
Kid Krunk · 9,281 views today · 28 Stunning Photos Of The World’s Largest Cave
How a Lack of Touch Is Destroying Men
Mark Green · 7,536 views today · Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 6,142 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Hans Rosling Brilliantly Explains Complexity of Population and Resource Issues Using Simple Tools
3 min · 3,022 views today · Let me show you the world, says Swedish academic Han Rosling as he demonstrates the dynamics of population growth, child mortality and carbon dioxide emissions. The challenge...
The Price of Certainty
7 min · 2,198 views today · It’s alarming to see how polarized politics have become in the United States. The wider the gulf grows, the more people seem to be certain that the other side is wrong...
How Wolves Change Rivers
4 min · 2,010 views today · When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable "trophic cascade" occurred. What is a...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,916 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 1,751 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
True Justice Should Have Compassion in It
Thich Nhat Hanh · 1,687 views today · I believe that true justice should have compassion in it. When someone does something harmful, destructive, the destruction is done not only to the person who is the victim...
How to Fire Your Boss: A Worker's Guide to Direct action
IWW · 1,248 views today · The indignity of working-for-a-living is well-known to anyone who ever has. Democracy, the great principle on which our society is supposedly founded, is thrown out the window...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,216 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 1,148 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men Of Touch
Mark Greene · 690 views today · Homophobic prohibitions against male touch are hurting straight men as well.
Meet the Earthship
7 min · 452 views today · Outside of Taos, New Mexico, you'll find a community of people living in off-grid homes made of garbage. The homes are called Earthships and were invented by Michael Reynolds...
NRA's Trump Card - Inside Trump's Era of Guns
15 min · 452 views today · Deregulating silencers, broadening concealed carry and undercutting state gun laws are just a few likely changes after the National Rifle Association supported President Trump...
Growing Huge Amounts of Food on 1/2 an Acre - Urban Abundance
5 min · 412 views today · In the small town of Oxford, Kane and Fiona Hogan have transformed their urban 1/2-acre property into abundant veggie gardens. Their business Urban Gardener aims to build...
The Importance of Empathy
3 min · 400 views today · With an increasingly polarized and divided world, we need empathy more than ever before. Too often we are talking at each other, unable to listen and jumping to entirely wrong...
Runaway Inequality Elected Trump. Here's How It Can Help Defeat Him
Les Leopold · 362 views today · One of the best forms of resistance will be our demand for a more equitable and humane economy
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
The Latest Snowden Leak Is Devastating to NSA Defenders