Math-Frolic Interview #15 (...not the usual fare)
"As a naturalized American, I have an immigrant's reverence for those words of our National Anthem, 'Land of the free, home of the brave.' For many of my fellow citizens born here, I fear these are just words they learned to recite in elementary school. For the fact that 56% of Americans declare that they would give away fundamental freedoms to reduce the risk of terrorist attack indicates that we may become the 'land of the enslaved, home of the scared.' " -- Dr. Keith Devlin in Huffington Post
I'm not sure there's anyone more generous with their time and energy than Keith Devlin….
Since Edward Snowden's NSA revelations (and subsequent controversy), I noticed Dr. Devlin expressing himself on the topic (as much as one can in 140 characters!) on Twitter (@ProfKeithDevlin) more than any other mathematician/scientist I follow. The passion of his opinions intrigued me and I asked if he'd do another Math-Frolic interview, but this time just on his views about this NSA controversy -- NO MATH (my prior math interview with Keith is HERE) -- I thought he deserved more time or space than available on Twitter or even Huffington Post, where he has a piece. So read up, Keith doesn't much mince his opinions!
1) The recent NSA revelations have generated a broad range of opinion across the spectrum (from outrage, to 'ho-hum, nothing new here'). Of the many math/science persons I follow on Twitter you've been among the most harshly outspoken. Can you explain a little more deeply where that sense of betrayal stems from… as a 'naturalized' citizen do you perhaps appreciate American democratic ideals even more than a lifelong born-citizen who just takes them for granted… and how much does your British background (another country with a strong democratic history) come into play? Or, is it mostly just a straightforward legal/Constitutional issue for you, unrelated to background?
Appreciating the iconic ideals of US Democracy as enshrined in the Constitution is part of my outrage at the way the US (the nation, not just the government) has allowed those ideals to slide. I certainly am under no illusions as to the many deficiencies in the US, for instance, its third-world levels of poverty and infant mortality and its medieval prison system. But those words of the Founding Fathers are one of Humanity's greatest achievements. It's surely worth remembering that the US owes its existence to the fact that those Founding Fathers were traitors. So far, everything I have seen of Edward Snowden puts him into the same camp as the Nation's founders. Certainly, his public statements and actions so far qualify him as a greater American than the current President who complicitly -- and secretly -- allowed the slide away from the founding ideals to continue.
The personal twist in my case is that, twice in my life, I've found myself as the "suspected outcast". I'll describe the first. As a young assistant professor in Germany in the 1970s, when Germany was struggling with massive student unrest and genuine internal terrorism (Bader-Meinhoff, etc.), security forces surveillance of some of my students brought me into their radar, and for a few weeks I was followed around and my mail was regularly intercepted. The fact that I was very aware of this indicated that the intention was probably to scare me as much as to find any incriminating evidence against me, and my wife and I actually regarded the whole affair with amusement. I was clearly low level, peripheral fish in their surveillance sweep, and after a few weeks they were (as far as I know) out of my life. Still, it made me realize how easy it is for a totally innocent individual to find him or herself on a government security list, simply by virtue of the people they interact with. (To this day I have no idea if any of my students were active in the political unrest of the time, or indeed if any engaged in illegal activities.)
The second time was in the UK, and contributed to my leaving my homeland for the US, but the one example I have described should be enough to indicate why I simply don't buy the frequently touted idea that "If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear." In the age of big data, just as we can easily find ourselves with a wrecked credit rating that can take years to sort out, so too we can find ourselves on a government "person of suspicion" list. In my case, I had the psychological strength to shrug it off -- albeit I did emigrate from the UK to the USA. Had I a different psychology, the ending could have been tragically different, as it was for Aaron Swartz, who was unable to sustain the inhuman persecution by US attorney Carmen Ortiz and Massachusetts assistant US attorney Stephen Heymann, who clearly viewed him as a mere pawn to advance their careers.
2) Related to the above, you actually worked for the NSA at one time in your life (contractor???). I suspect you can't say a lot about that work, but can you say, in a more general way, if that specific experience with NSA, contributes to your strong feelings? And are there any details from your own NSA experience you can tell us about which are pertinent to this ongoing story?
In the early post-9/11 era, I did work on a large, non-classified (albeit not publicized) project to improve the quality of the actionable intelligence that could be obtained from massive amounts of data. I was glad to play my small role, though when that project came to an end, I held the same view I did at the start: absent a significant HUMINT lead (human intelligence), trawling through massive amounts of data is a waste of time. There is no chance you will be able to prevent a terrorist attack. I know that a number of intelligence leaders have made statements of late that claim otherwise, but all I can say is that after working hard on the problem for five years, I reached a very different conclusion. To be sure, I do not know the computing capabilities the NSA has, but based on my understanding of the problem, without a good HUMINT lead, it won't be enough. Mathematically, the problem is known as combinatorial explosion. (With a HUMINT lead, on the other hand, you don't need to trawl the data, you just have to search for confirming evidence, starting from that one lead.)
3) Author Kurt Eichenwald wrote a book a few years ago, "500 Days," apparently divulging info similar to what Ed Snowden has revealed. Have you by any chance read this volume? He claims on Twitter (as do others) that there is nothing new in the current revelations, and that in fact some of the details, as covered by the press, are simply wrong or misleading. To those who would say, there's no real news here, and moreover, private companies (Google, Facebook etc.) snoop on individual lives FAR MORE than the Gov't., what would you say?
I've written elsewhere (Huffington Post) that the Snowden revelations were akin to Lance Armstrong's appearance on Oprah. In both cases, we learned nothing we did not already strongly suspect. But making it public knowledge, as opposed to widely believed suspicion, changes the debate. In the Armstrong case, within days, he had lost all his multi-million dollar sponsorship deals. After Snowden, the intelligence chefs could not respond to questions by saying there was no wrong doing, they had to provide actual details, in at least one case revealing a clear-cut case of perjury before Congress. Maybe heads will roll -- they should -- but maybe not. (In fairness to those involved, the nature of intelligence does put people in a difficult position with regard to being truthful. Few of us have the courage of Edward Snowden.) In any event, even ordinary citizens had a pretty good idea of what the NSA was doing, so for sure our enemies did. Statements that the Snowden revelations damaged national security are clearly absurd. The security lies in the data, not the knowledge that is exists. The only damage from the Snowden revelations is the embarrassment of people in power. (It surely cannot be international relations, except on the surface, since all the other countries harbored the same suspicions as we all did, and for sure the many countries with the technological capabilities knew for sure what we were up to!)
4) Personally, while the massive net for "metadata" concerns me, what troubles me even more (and doesn't get much coverage) is the potential for NSA individuals to target specific politicians/leaders for scrutiny and use that info for strictly partisan purposes… possessing knowledge about the personal lives of political opponents is an even greater danger to democracy than knowledge of the general citizenry. Any thoughts?
This is the real worry. Right now, we have President Obama saying "Trust me, this immense security apparatus is being used for your safety." As it happens, I am inclined to give him that trust, though in so doing I am making a leap based on no first-hand knowledge. But that's not the point. Who knows who will hold the reins in the future? It was not long ago that J Edgar Hoover was in charge of the FBI. We've had despots in positions of power before, it can happen again. When I was living and working in West Germany, I traveled occasionally to East Berlin to consult with university colleagues, and learned enough about the STASI to never want to live in a state with such a powerful and intrusive security apparatus.
5) Some people view Snowden (thus far) as a highly-intelligent, sincere, courageous, deeply-patriotic individual, and others label him narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, delusional (some have even said, why can't he be ALL of the above!). Care to say, how you would characterize him?
I already did. I think history will portray him as a twenty-first century "Founding Father", who initiated a return to the principles by which the country was founded. Assuming, that is, that we do indeed step back from the abyss. The current attempts to discredit him are as predictable as they are transparent. His personal character actually makes little difference. He did the US a great service (that's the part history will remember) by performing a heroic act, clearly at high risk to himself. Exactly the same can be said of the Founding Fathers. Acts can endure, personalities are replaced by stories.
It is clearly illegal, being against the Constitution. It's also immoral. Period.6) One of the interesting major disagreements is between those who say that the sort of massive "dragnet" surveillance that is going on is outright illegal and not authorized by Patriot Act measures, versus those who say there is NO "surveillance" but only the collection of large-scale metadata (which does not constitute surveillance), and only when a 'pattern' of interest is found in the data can the Gov't. then seek a court order to do further actual surveillance. I know you are interested in the uses of language and meaning, and clearly that is what we have here… Any comments?
We live in a democratic republic. The intelligence community do their job, and implicit in that is to collect as much information as they can. The elected government are the ones setting the limits and calling the shots. If there has been a breakdown in that line of command, it is the government that has the responsibility to put things right. If ever we were at a juncture where a president should offer real leadership, now is that time. I understand Obama would like to go down in history as another Lincoln. Now is his chance. I wonder if he has it in him.7) Do you feel very disillusioned (as some do) by the Obama presidency over the various issues of transparency/secrecy that have arisen, or are your issues more with the intelligence community than with the White House?
Since I don't know what information Snowden has, I don't see how anyone can make predictions. Whatever he has clearly already exists in multiple copies, held by different people, so it will likely eventually come out. So in practical terms, the best option for the US is to simply leave Snowden alone in Hong Kong. Public interest being as it is, "the Snowden story" will soon go away -- though I hope that real reforms result. Trying to have him extradited to the US, in contrast, will not only keep the story on the front pages for months and more likely years, but if the attempt succeeds, we will have a martyr on our hands. And martyrs are dangerous. Do we want to turn Snowden into another Nelson Mandella? How do we respond if, for instance, an imprisoned Edward Snowden is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? (Those Scandinavians have a strong sense of social justice and are not easily pressured, so that could very well happen!) Better not to go that route. There is a slew of downsides, but the only "upside" is revenge, and there is no way the US could come out with dignity and respect if we throw our immense power going after one of our own citizens so it would prove to be a hollow upside.8) Supposedly Glenn Greenwald/Guardian have several more disclosures to make from the information Snowden provided. Care to make any predictions (and I know you think that predictions, especially about the future, are difficult ;-) about what may happen over the course of say the next year? …Will Snowden be extradited and prosecuted here in the U.S.? Will the Patriot Act be revisited and revised by Congress? Will the stand politicians' take on this affair (with or against Snowden/NSA) have a major effect on the 2014 mid-term elections?….
I think that here in the US we have a choice. In 1789, a bunch of traitors to the ruling authority formulated the First and Fourth Amendments as they set the new nation on its course. Like him or hate him, Edward Snowden has put the questions of public information and personal privacy on the table once again. As a result, we have an opportunity to correct our course. Because of the Founding Fathers, we are currently able to debate this issue freely and openly. If we don't live up to those two-hundred-years ideals now, that great episode of human society (great for all its flaws, which lie in the execution, not the ideals) will have come to an end. We will be the "Land of the enslaved, home of the scared."9) And one last crystal ball inquiry… many have contended for a long while now that in the future there simply will be NO privacy… some think current young generations have ALREADY forfeited any significant concern over privacy. I truly wonder if, a century from now, "privacy" won't be just a quaint little term in historical footnotes. You and I might not wish to live in that world, but is not the near-complete loss of privacy inevitably coming? :-(
....I don't completely agree with everything Keith says here, but I surely love the man's passion... as he demonstrates in everything he takes an interest in or speaks about. And further, as someone who has experienced unwarranted governmental suspicion/surveillance elsewhere -- albeit by his admission short term and low level -- his views deserve close attention. THANKS again for taking the time to respond Dr. Devlin.
I'll close out (...for some comic relief) with this "Good Will Hunting" scene that I've already used over at Math-Frolic, and most of you have likely seen: