The surveillance business model — and did the New York Times mean to say that Snowden ‘plundered’ or ‘got the best of’ the National Security Agency?

Drawing attention to the ‘surveillance business model’ is a little lonely, for writers with any grasp of technology, in the artificially-manufactured Snowden hullabaloo - photograph by MIL22

Pointing to the ‘surveillance business model’ is a little lonely, for writers with any grasp of technology, in the artificially-manufactured Snowden hullabaloo
– photograph by MIL22

A few spectators have begun to see why nonstop commercial spying is easily as threatening as state surveillance and, conceivably, worse. Marzia Faggin — whose talent for witty graphical compression is in her painting, ‘Willy Bonkers,’ gracing our last post — has jokingly raised a Kafka-esque possibility for the ‘surveillance business model’ resembling the grimmest consequences of our monitoring by government spooks. In an email exchange, she said,

I research things for my artwork that I often worry might bring the police to my door. I don’t just feel the unsettling lack of privacy online either! I’ve become mindful about what I buy while grocery shopping, lest I get dropped by insurance for buying too much junk food.

That might seem ludicrous unless you happened to read the suggestion of Bernard Stewart, an editor at the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, a few days ago: ‘Can we – and should we – make laws against cancer?’ He explained:

Some cancers cannot be identified with particular carcinogens, but still involve personal choice, like the multitude of minor everyday decisions we all make around food, exercise and lifestyle that can add up to obesity and poor fitness.

As the hue-and-cry about soaring health and medical costs grows louder, who would absolutely rule out a future collaboration between the health insurance and food-vending businesses?

Though the Stewart piece appeared on The Guardian site, both that newspaper and The New York Times keep harping on about what Edward Snowden did or didn’t do, paying merely token attention to commercial surveillance. The contrast between two headlines in the NYT last Sunday helped to create the most bizarre newspaper story we have read for a very long time. On the front page, directly beneath the masthead, the story was titled ‘Cheap Software Helped Snowden Plunder Secrets’. On page 4, where it continued, the headline read, ‘Snowden Used a Low-Cost Tool to Best the N.S.A.’ .

It was indeed a fascinating account of how Snowden had driven the software equivalent of a gigantic moving van into the centralised data store of the National Security Agency and automated the theft of vital treasures, to save him having to schlep them himself, one at a time. But there is quite a difference between ‘plunder’ – commonly used in combination with ‘pillage’ and ‘rape’, in records of especially brutal wars – and ‘get the best of’, defined by the Free Online Dictionary as ‘overcome, usually through no fault or weakness of the person that is overcome. “Heart disease can get the best of us”.’

There appears to have been an argument between the copy editors (sub-editors in the UK) on the NYT about whether Snowden more closely resembled a lawless marauding barbarian, in the way he went about getting the information he leaked, or was just a bit sly, like plaque building up in arteries. … But no, having mostly written about him as a hero, it was too much to expect the NYT to be objective.

The newspaper’s true sentiments were obvious from asking readers to wait until the twenty-sixth of twenty-nine paragraphs devoted to this story to say:

But that leaves open the question of how Mr. Snowden chose the search terms to obtain his trove of documents, and why, according to James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, they yielded a disproportionately large number of documents detailing American military movements, preparations and abilities around the world.

In his statement, Mr. Snowden denied any deliberate effort to gain access to any military information. “They rely on a baseless premise, which is that I was after military information,” Mr. Snowden said.

The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, told lawmakers last week that Mr. Snowden’s disclosures could tip off adversaries to American military tactics and operations, and force the Pentagon to spend vast sums to safeguard against that.

Snowden’s promoters and defenders keep mentioning the billion-dollar budgets of branches of the military financing the monitoring his leaks outline. But since those billions are sanctioned by American tax-payers for their protection, should that accusation about the theft of military secrets — by Clapper, the country’s highest-ranking official in charge of security, no less – have only been tacked on to the end of the piece, like an afterthought?

For good or bad reasons, the spooks have refused to supply details of why the 58,000 documents Snowden stole from them were ‘mission-critical’. But should that mean that the NYT effectively decides that they were not?

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