From politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington all the way to Silicon Valley, the NSA revelations exposed by Edward Snowden have been met with massive outrage. But not everyone is so quick to attack the NSA, and today one of the most prominent voices in Silicon Valley came out in defense of some of the agency’s practices: Marc Andreessen.
Andreessen, who (disclosure) is an investor in Pando, took to Twitter following a New York Times story that stated the NSA could now access computers that weren’t even connected to the Internet. It’s a scary thought, but as I read the article I realized that unlike some of the other revelations about widespread metadata dragnets or the deliberate weakening of encryption standards, the article notes “there is no evidence that the NSA has implanted its software or used its radio frequency technology inside the United States.”
Sure, the NSA could be targeting US citizens off foreign soil, but we can’t know that for sure. And while we can argue about the finer points of international espionage, especially when it comes to heads of state like Angela Merkel, it’s the domestic spying that has caused the greatest outrage.
That’s what Marc Andreessen was reacting to, the notion that perhaps we shouldn’t criticize the NSA for surreptitiously collecting foreign intelligence because, you know, that’s what it gets billions of dollars to do (though as Adam Penenberg noted last week, it might be time to question whether those billions are worth it). “I increasingly feel like we’re all on some gigantic collective fainting couch,” Andreessen tweeted. “Oh my WORD I can’t believe that spy agencies SPY.” Indeed, much of the NSA’s surveillance strategy, along with its close ties to telecommunications companies, has been public since before anyone’d heard the name “Edward Snowden.”
He goes on: “I am saying that I have yet to see one Snowden revelation that wasn’t obvious to people who had read existing books + articles + history.”
Tell that to Charles Seife, however, who as a former mathematician for the NSA knows his fair share about the agency and its inner-workings. At Pando, he wrote that in the past two decades the NSA’s imperatives have shifted: “Twenty years ago the NSA tried to protect you from spies, not spy on you.”
Nowhere is this clearer than in the revelation that the NSA had worked to deliberately weaken encryption standards and software in the US, potentially opening up US citizens and businesses to foreign attacks. Compare that to the NSA of the 1970s which in fact worked to improve the first-ever standardized encryption protocol, DES.
Granted, US citizens aren’t the only ones who use US encryption tools, so cracking this software can still be viewed as a form of foreign counter-intelligence. But even if that’s the only intent of the NSA’s noodling with our encryption, it’s still troubling. Richard A. Clarke, former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism for the United States, told the New York Times, “Holes in encryption software would be more of a risk to us than a benefit. If we can find the vulnerability, so can others. It’s more important that we protect our power grid than that we get into China’s.”
So to counter what Andreessen says about “reading books:” With a little knowledge of the history of the NSA, and having read about the agency’s role in shaping and improving encryption standards in the 70s, the answer is yes: I was surprised by the news that the NSA had deliberately weakened encryption tools in the US.
Near the end of his stream of tweets, Andreessen puts the finishing touches on the straw man he’s built: “And finally, isn’t there a real discussion to be had that’s not flash-point ‘NSA is evil’ cartoonish like so much of the current commentary?”
Why yes, they happen all the time, on this site and elsewhere. For its part, the New York Times article that kicked off the discussion was a fairly straightforward, factual account of what was in the documents with commentary from both sides of the debate.
Andreessen’s right that we shouldn’t dismantle the NSA or ban foreign intelligence gathering as a knee-jerk reaction to the Snowden revelations. There are many prominent voices who agree with him. But by highlighting this particular story, where the spying is limited to foreign targets, and conflating that with all of the Snowden revelations, it threatens to blind us to the reality that some of these revelations are extremely troubling, whether they surprise us or not.
[NSA logo defiled by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]