Friday, May 2, 2014

Response to Sir David Omand

David Omand is a former director of the UK's GCHQ—British equivalent to the U.S.'s NSA—and the other day he wrote an opinion piece that was published in Prospect Magazine, about the debate that arose via the leaks by Edward Snowden of massive amounts of data from the NSA.

Basically: Omand argues that people are exaggerating, wrongly implying that we're in some sort of Orweillian total-surveillance state, when nothing of the sort is actually true, and that this exaggeration hurts the reasonable debate we should be having, the "reasonable debate" we should be having amounting to, if I'm reading it right—"Shut up with the questions about surveillance already!" (Please read the piece if you're interested in the subject.)

Little ol' me left a comment there, but it has not, for some reason, been published. (Update, May 3: it has now been published.)  So I am posting it here, with a few rewrites and additions. For what it's worth.

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David Omand ignores some fundamental truths. (This is coming from an American perspective, and is mostly about the NSA, but, as Omand speaks to both the GCHQ and the NSA, I think this applies.)

1. BROKEN OVERSIGHT: Omand acknowledges the need for vigorous oversight – “not least from the intrusion into privacy that it can involve” – but doesn’t speak at all to the fact that Edward Snowden’s leaks, as well as subsequent releases since, have shown that oversight is broken in significant ways, as the NSA simply lied to its main overseer, the FISA court, on numerous occasions, and/or lied to, simply didn’t tell, or hamstrung intelligence committees about what it was doing.

2. HISTORY OF DOMESTIC SURVEILLANCE: Omand says there is no “monitoring scandal to uncover,” and acts as if even bringing the subject up is preposterous. This ignores that this exact agency, the NSA has a very ugly history of spying on its own citizens (pdf), a history uncovered in the 1970s that constitutes a “monitoring scandal” of epic proportions. And let’s not pretend the 1960s and 1970s were the Dark Ages. It wasn’t that long ago. And let’s also not pretend that the fixes that came from that ugly and illegal activity being uncovered prevent any chance of it happening again. This is eactly what today’s broken oversight is about.

3. SURVEILLANCE ABILITIES: The ability to carry out domestic surveillance has grown enormously since just the 1970s – and they were able to do a hell of a job of it then. (Bringing up the mind-reading thing – too silly for a response. Tell it to the Church Committee.)

Put just these three things together – the present broken or just very damaged state of oversight, the history of very ugly domestic spying activity, and the ability to carry out even more widespread and deeper surveillance today – and Omand’s mocking/scolding of people for bringing up the subject of mass surveillance, or a monitoring scandal, comes off a little like someone saying, “Oh come on – Nixon wouldn’t do that! Stop with the conspiracy theories!” – in mid-1973 or so. (Given that it’s David Omand, former directore of the GCHQ – it comes off as a bit more than that.)

P.S. We haven't heard the last of NSA/GCHQ scandals, so it may still be early for Omand to make this call in the first place. (And please do read the pdf - it's fascinating stuff.)

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