Person of the Year 2013

Edward Joseph Snowdon, our 2013 Man of the Year
Edward Joseph Snowdon

In naming Edward Snowdon the runner-up to Pope Francis in its annual Person-Man-Woman-Machine-Planet-Concept of the Year marketing gimmick, TIME magazine called him “The Dark Prophet” and explained:

“He pulled off the year’s most spectacular heist. Exiled from his country, the 30-year-old computer whiz has become the doomsayer of the information age.”

Such inanities help justify Time Warner’s decision to disassociate itself from Time Inc., the media company’s disappointingly profitable magazine division. [Disclosure: I worked for Time Inc. and might someday collect a pension from it.]

According to my dictionaries, a Prophet of Doom is:

  • “one who always expects bad things to happen” (Cambridge)
  • “someone who has a very negative view of life and thinks only bad things will happen” (MacMillan)
  • “the one friend you have who can always be counted upon to apply some ‘stink’ to a situation, “rain on your parade” or otherwise foretell what is going to go wrong! -i.e.: a ‘bummer’, mr./ms. NEGATIVITY!! (Urban Dictionary)

You get the idea. And TIME doesn’t get it. By exposing classified information about the National Security Agency’s global spying operation, Edward Snowdon revealed the existence of a pervasive government surveillance system that makes George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 seem like nonfiction. By TIME’s definition, Snowdon is the skunk at the dinner party.

NSA? Can you hear me now?
NSA? Can you hear me now?

Rather that predict doom, Snowdon says he stole and released the secret documents in the public interest. His goal was not to suggest that bad things were going to happen; he was quite obviously saying bad things have already happened, and that we should know about them and pay attention. The secret government programs he revealed have an impact on every person who uses modern information technology: You, the president of the United States, a Masai warrior in a small Kenyan village.

As a result of Snowdon’s actions, we learned about:

PRISM. Authorized by the Protect America Act, the United States government since 1997 has operated a secret program called PRISM that collects “raw information” by directly tapping into the central servers of at least nine major Internet service providers. The data collected is supposed to have at least a 51 percent probability of being of interest to issues of national security, but even the government acknowledges that information on law-abiding American citizens gets sucked up in the process, without legal justification.

The amount of data collected has been described as “one Library of Congress every 14.4 seconds.” The Library of Congress contains 22,765,967 books, and more than 150,000,000 total items. Imagine 6,000 new Libraries of Congress being created every day, and all they contain is personal information.

One of three buildings of the Library of Congress
One of three buildings of the Library of Congress

What gets collected? For starters:

A record of all your phone calls.

The contents of emails you send and receive.

Your email address and contact files.

A record of every word you type into Google or other web-search engines.

A list of every video and every song you download.

Live information including video chats, photos and text from social networks.

[According to NSA briefing documents exposed by Snowdon, Microsoft was the NSA’s first corporate partner, followed by Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple, and Dropbox. Several of these companies vehemently deny giving the NSA direct access to their servers, arguing that they provide information only after receiving lawful court orders. See: FISA]

urlFISA: When the government says the spying programs are “lawful” and “court approved,” it often means approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. FISA is a secret court, whose secret members meet in secret, and which does not allow arguments from anyone other than the government. Its ruling are secret, and anyone who receives a notice or request from FISA is sworn to secrecy and threatened with jail for even mentioning that they heard from FISA.

XKEYSCORE: Xkeyscore is the system that allows the NSA to filter and analyze the “raw” data collected under PRISM and other mass-surveillance programs. According to Edward Snowdon, it allows even low-level NSA analysts such as himself to search, read, and listen to the communications of any American without court approval or supervision. The NSA later denied that “low-level analysts” could listen to anyone’s phone calls or read anyone’s emails, saying that ability is limited to “only those personnel who require access for their assigned tasks.”

Chief of Henhouse Security
Director of Henhouse Security

BOUNDLESS INFORMANT: “Boundless Informant” is a government surveillance tool that compiles, tracks, and stores billions of pieces of “metadata” the NSA collects each month, including data collected illegally from American citizens who are not suspected of any crime. Lt. Gen. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, lied to Congress about the extent of the program, and, when revealed to be a liar, said he was speaking in the “least untruthful manner.” [Translation: I had to lie in order to tell the truth.]

Yes, lying to Congress is a felony. As punishment, President Obama ordered Lt. Gen. Clapper to establish and oversee an official Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.

FIVE YEARS, NO WARRANT: FISA, backed by Attorney General Eric Holder, approved the NSA’s policy of keeping and using information inadvertently gathered on United States citizen for five years, without a warrant. [Translation: We hoovered up your private information by accident, without a warrant, but we’re keeping it and reserve the right to analyze it for the next five years.] This appears to contradict President Obama’s assurances that the NSA does not gather or analyze information on Americans without court warrants.

167e6f27f4d8e6ff173e9a6daf5db9e4SPECIAL SOURCE OPERATIONS: A division of the NSA, Special Source Operations manages “corporate partnerships,” in which the government secretly pays millions of your tax dollars to Internet and network companies in return for them ratting out your private customer data to the surveillance programs. According to The New York Times, “AT&T has a history of working with the government. It helped facilitate the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program by allowing the NSA to install secret equipment in its phone and Internet switching facilities, according to an account by a former AT&T technician made public in a lawsuit.” A spokesman for AT&T told The Times: “We value our customers’ privacy and work hard to protect it by ensuring compliance with the law in all respects. We do not comment on questions concerning national security.”

The list goes on and on. And on and on and on. Snowdon revealed that the NSA taps the phones of world leaders, including our allies, and that it bugs dozens of embassies, including those of friendly nations.

Snowdon alerted us that the NSA deliberately tried — and may have succeeded — in introducing flaws into the software we use for online banking, to make it easier for the NSA to hack encrypted messages and criminals to hack our accounts. By compromising American Internet and phone networks, American cloud computing services, American computer and communications equipment, and American software and services companies, the NSA has profoundly jeopardized American businesses trying to compete in the global marketplace.

This is all worth knowing about, and talking about, right? This is in the public interest, without doubt. And we probably wouldn’t be talking about it were it not for Edward J. Snowdon, our Person of the Year, who is unlikely ever to be allowed back into the United States as a free man.