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Edward Who? The Snowden Affair Ends with a Whimper

“Do not send to those who tout secure drops, Tor, crypto-comms – these are traceable, diagrammable via basic net transmission tech.”

Cryptome

It’s been more than six years since Edward Snowden went public. After all the breathless headlines, Hollywood movies, book deals, Pulitzer prizes, and glossy primetime biopics. What, pray tell, has come of it? For the average American – bupkis. In fact, mass surveillance is actually growing by leaps and bounds. Such that those who wish to salvage the remnants of their individual privacy will be forced to make some tough choices in the years ahead.

Ed Snowden, holed up in Russia, has faded into history. At the forefront of the Snowden disclosures, the news outlet known as The Intercept has officially shuttered its archives. They made their moulah and moved on. And what of the considerable streak of confidential sources who’ve been thrown in the pokey? The editors aren’t talking much about how that happened. In fact they seem more interested in selling people email servers in a box. Hey, is this web page supposed to be an advertisement or an article? In the era of social media it can be hard to tell the difference.

History offers a glimpse behind the curtain. During the early days of the Cold War it was common practice for the political leaders in the Soviet Union to purge the KGB every so often. Because over time Russian spymasters accrued enough political dirt and power that they threatened to take over. With the ascendance of Vladimir Putin one might argue that the rebranded KGB finally succeeded.

In a similar manner, American intelligence escaped the Snowden revelations largely unscathed. That, dear reader, ought to tell you something. Sure there was lots of grandstanding and feigned outrage. Sure CEOs made bold statements of renunciation (ahem, after being caught in bed with spies). Keeping the kayfabe alive, as Jesse Ventura might say. Rest assured, claims Apple CEO Tim Cook, your iPhone would never ever spy on you. Yeah, and the relationship between Silicon Valley and government spies is completely adversarial, they can’t stand each other. Just like the blood feud Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan back in the late 1980s. Uh-huh, just like that. A total
farce which the media enables because that’s what they’re paid to do.

But ultimately what matters is concrete institutional change. And there’s been zero of that, as in nada. Because genuine privacy threatens advertising revenue, quarterly returns, and spy power. And the elites want to keep the money train chugging along. Perhaps it no surprise then that the legislative response to Snowden was so watered down that one former spy chief publicly lampooned it. Let’s hear three cheers for state capture.

You can almost hear Otis Pike weeping in his grave.

Most advocates prefer to end their op-eds on a hopeful note. But sometimes hope is just a lightweight form of denial. The kind of “hope” that keeps Silicon Valley in business. Though it’s painful to concede, the spies at Fort Meade hit the nail on the head: we’re mostly zombies who pay for our own surveillance. Please go back and re-read the previous sentence. Short of a massive political upheaval things aren’t going to change. Which means that, for the immediate future, the really big changes will have to take place on a personal level.

And so we arrive at the “tough choices” mentioned at the beginning. Members of the establishment often whine about discussing tradecraft because they believe that doing so might aid and abet terrorists. But the truth is that the channel of useful information is actually flowing in the opposite direction. From wanted fugitives to the public.

The kernel of an approach can be found out in the field. Where poor security is fatal. Hunted by the world’s most formidable military, the head of ISIS is still alive thanks to solid operations security, also known as OPSEC. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is definitely a leader who appreciates OPSEC. According to the New York Times, “he eschews all electronic devices, which could identify his location, and probably communicates through a series of couriers.” The key to staying vertical, then, is the process surrounding the couriers. How they’re compartmented, screened, and arranged to create a resilient communication network. No doubt al-Baghdadi is aware that a flawed courier scheme was a significant factor in the downfall of Osama bin Laden.

Edward Snowden likes to promote strong cryptography. Leaving people with the notion that staying under the radar is a matter of leveraging a technical quick fix. But recent history shows that trusting your life to an allegedly secure communication platform is an act of faith. And not an advisable one, especially when state sponsored operators enter the picture. Achieving higher levels of security requires a disciplined process which is anything but a quick fix and which often entails giving up technology. Even cartel bosses learn this lesson: security technology fails. Both my design and by accident. Spies win either way.