A recurring theme in the Snowden saga has been the debunking of the most spectacular claims, with metronomic regularity. The NSA has direct access to Google, Facebook, and Yahoo servers! Uhm, no. The NSA has spied on French and Spanish and Dutch citizens! Uhm, no: the French and Spanish and Dutch intelligence services collected data and shared it with the NSA. And on and on. Many claims have disintegrated within 24 hours. Several others survived a whole two or three days before imploding! But nonetheless, every new revelation is treated uncritically by a fawning press, as if Ed has brought down Powerpoints from a burning bush.
Given this record, any good Bayesian would discount each new allegation, and the haircut would increase every time one of these allegations proves to be overblown (which happens to be every time an allegation is made). The most recent “bombshell”-that the NSA is somehow accessing the cloud storage of Google*, etc.-is a case in point. I would give good odds that this story too will prove to be all hat, no cattle. (It’s based on a doodle from Post-It note, for crying out loud.)
One of the more enduring claims-meaning that it lasted more than a week-is that the US eavesdropped on Angela Merkel’s cellphone. Look at that article. 7 pages when printed out, with a cast of thousands given bylines (including the noted “journalist” Jacob Appelbaum). There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of articles written since repeating the “US spied on Merkel claim.” With nary a soul pushing back.
Well, at least there was one soul. CNN’s (will miracles never cease?) Becky Anderson called total bullshit on Holger Stark, one of the authors of the article and the primary German bag man for the Snowden material.
Note how Anderson utterly demolishes him. He repeats the claim that the NSA was “monitoring” Merkel’s cellphone. Then Anderson swoops in: “What you don’t report is what information the spy agency was gathering. Were her conversations for example recorded, or was this the gathering of what we’ve come to know as metadata?”
Stark: “We’ve been shy on commenting on those points because we just can’t know that for sure.”
Seriously? Shy? Are you kidding me? Shy? Seven pages in Der Spiegel screaming “NSA spied on Merkel” is shy? You “don’t know for sure”? Funny. I hadn’t noticed. Y’all seemed pretty damned sure.
More Stark: “The only thing we know for sure is that this entry shows her as an active target.” Then he goes on to say that she is the target of a special unit that collects everything. Then he admits “we don’t know that for sure [what has been collected] and we only want to report on things that are confirmed.”
Really? She’s on a list. That’s all Stark knows. The rest is pure speculation with zero documentary support. Do know for sure. Don’t know for sure. Whatever. Only report on things that are confirmed: again, that’s news to me.
And speaking of documents. The most spectacular conclusions that Greenwald, Poitras, Gelman, Stark, etc., have drawn from these documents are not supported by the documents themselves. But are the documents even authentic? If they aren’t, even the shrunken allegations are not supportable.
What measures have the gang taken to establish the validity and provenance of the documents? Most are Power Point presentations. Who’s to say Ed didn’t create them, or embellish them? (Trivial to add a slide or two.) Would it be possible to prove the authenticity of these documents so that they could be admitted as evidence as a trial? If not, why not?
It seems that everything is taken on faith. My motto in this instance would be: don’t trust, and verify. But the motto of the gang appears to be: these documents are too good to check because they support our agenda!
Watch the rest of the interview. Anderson just owns Stark, who attempts to weasel his way out of his repeated overstatements. She almost gives me some hope for journalism and journalists. Would that more of that craven set follow her example.
*Google’s Eric Schmidt expressed outrage at the claim that the NSA had penetrated the cloud, or intercepted data en route to the cloud. Spare me. I mean, seriously, people. I know Google reads my email. I know it. How do I know it? The banner ads that creepily echo subjects of my email. I write an email including a discussion of Russia, and up pops a banner advertisement for Russian dating services I write an email mentioning the stock market, and up pops an ad for stock brokerages.
Google obviously doesn’t give a rat’s rump about my privacy, or yours. Indeed, our information is its livelihood. And I know that the NSA couldn’t care less about my email, unless my metadata intersected with that of bomb makers from the Tribal Territories of Pakistan, or Yemen, or Somalia.
So don’t worry about the NSA having access to information you communicate via Google. Worry about Google having information you communicate via Google.