Friday 10 April 2015

SMARTS update/ Edward Snowden, the CIA versus the NSA, and some Silicon Valley billionaires. When considering the Edward Snowden story, ask yourself: who benefits

Every reporter knows they’re on a hot story when tiny fragments of it pop up in the newspapers, radio, TV, or on social media just before it’s published. Sometimes it feels as if the whole story is shooting straight up out of the raging media sea like a breaching dolphin, though no one else seems to see it.  It’s almost magical, as if the reporter has grasped hold of a narrative version of a palantir (magical ‘seeing stones’ used by Saruman and Sauron in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) while the story itself is cloaked by One Ring To Bind Them All. Remember that word palantir. It will appear again in this post. Tolkien’s palantiri (plural form of palantir) offered Middle Earth’s wizards a crystal ball-like means to see things far away, and to communicate as well, sort of like a cross between a high-flying autonomous drone with a great camera, and a 4Gphone.

This Smart Era we live in, brought to us through the use of magically smart devices, is all about putting intelligence in all its forms to use, especially the kind yanked by clever algorithms from vast heaps of supposedly private information. There are no boundaries in our Smart Era, and anonymity is anathema (except for Anonymous). We are told we can’t have privacy from government and corporate snooping because we might be hiding terrorists in our midst, and besides, only the guilty have things to hide. I suppose that’s why, when I was researching my new book, SMARTS ( which deals with all forms intelligence including the signals side of the spook business), I never thought of the Edward Snowden story as a palantir. It does illuminate and make clear some very important things about this world, but many of these facts had been exposed before. Also, everyone could see the story in the round right from the beginning because everyone who was anyone was/is reporting on it. When John Oliver flies to Russia to ask Snowden to verify-- in person-- that the NSA really can see the genital selfies we’ve uploaded to our I-phones, tablets, or sent to prospective lovers via email, then the Snowden story is something other than a palantir. But what, then?

Sometimes it feels to me like it is the best public relations campaign ever run since PR was invented in World War I. Great PR requires constant theme repetition sufficient to drown out any other messages, and the Snowden story almost reinvents that standard. It has never been allowed to fade from view over the course of almost two years, and that doesn’t happen by accident. It seems to confound rather than edify, and that is no accident either.

You may recall that it broke in The Guardian and the Washington Post (at the same time, please note, even as the new president of China happened to be visiting Obama, in California). The early stories were picked up immediately by most of the usual talking heads. At first there was a mystery to drive it: who is the leaker? But when Snowden revealed his identity on camera on The Guardian website, and ran from Hong Kong to Moscow as the State Department bayed for his blood, interest became obsession.  Who doesn’t love a chase? And a spy chase to boot?  It raised so many questions: what might it mean that Snowden delivered the goods to filmmaker Laura Poitras and The Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald (plus their minder) in a hotel near China’s border, and then ran to Moscow? Did he work for Them?  

The story kept coming back to the front page as new information became available, first with a New York Times Magazine feature, then a Vanity Fair feature, then two books, (one by The Guardian’s Luke Harding, and one much later by Glenn Greenwald ). More interest blazed up when a Pulitzer Prize was given to the Post and The Guardian, followed by the release of Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour documentary on mass surveillance. And of course there were the public debates, streamed online, with Snowden sometimes in virtual attendance, one held at the Munk School of Global Affairs at University of Toronto. The main action there was when Michael Hayden, a former director of the NSA (who looks creepily like Lavrentiy Beria, the man who once bestrode Stalin’s secret security apparatus) jousted with Glenn Greenwald. And got beat.

And that’s what happened just in North America.

The British spy folk drove the story even harder when they took their hammers into the basement of The Guardian’s UK office, and broke up the computer drives containing the Five Eyes’ secret documents which Snowden had purloined. Never mind that all the material in those drives had long since been copied and stashed in other locations around the world. The utter futility of this behavior was constantly underlined by the proliferation of new stories appearing in other countries as other  news organizations (granted access to the Snowden material by Poitras and Greenwald), discovered hot button facts about how their readers and their politicians had been spied on through their own smart devices. There were stories about how Five Eyes listened in on Angela Merkel’s private cell phone ; on Dilma Rousseff’s private cell phone ; on how Canadian spooks listened in on the energy and mines officials in Brazil. And how about the way the clever boots at Canada’s CSE traced targets’ movements  for two weeks after their one time use of Wi-Fi in a major Canadian airport?

After the British detained Greenwald’s partner as he transited through Heathrow (en route to Rio de Janeiro from Berlin carrying documents from Poitras), the story knew no bounds.

Such drama.  No one would dare to script it.

No one will be allowed to forget it either.

Though we do not know how many Five Eyes documents Snowden took from his employer, the NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, there were enough to help launch a dedicated publishing venture which will keep on pumping out stories from this archive long after the rest of the media poop out. The publishing company is called First Look Media (a business phrase referring to the offer of an exclusive look at a partner’s prospective ventures before they are shown to anyone else).  First Look Media offers an online magazine called Intercept which is led by Poitras and Greenwald. This venture has reportedly been financed by Pierre Omidyar, a Silicon Valley billionaire. Omidyar made his money by inventing eBay, the online auction site. Omidyar invested in First Look Media after he tried but failed to buy the Washington Post at about the same time the Post was preparing its Snowden stories. ( Omidyar was beaten out by Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon, a Seattle-based billionaire). The man who wrote that early, friendly New York Times Magazine story on Poitras, Greenwald , and Snowden, has also fetched up at the Intercept  as a reporter.

By the time Intercept launched, Edward Snowden had been transformed from a felon into a brand. He is our Smart Era’s maskless Zoro—ripping open the vile ways and means of  total surveillance  carried out by the powers- that-be and their corporate friends  in the name of protecting our freedoms.  As Snowden demonstrated, they can’t be protecting our freedoms from bad guys if they cannot even protect their own secrets from him. They have been using the internet, its infrastructure, and our love affair with social media and semi-magical devices to do cyber warfare and control dissent.  Gathering all the world’s information has also been the excuse to grow enormous bureaucratic empires issuing monstrous government contracts which generate mountainous bank accounts. And God Only Knows What Else.

All of this is bad. And getting this information out to everybody is utterly worthy.

Yet behind the Snowden brand and his message, questions linger. By its very nature, the story explodes our trust in government and its corporate friends and then turns on itself, like a snake swallowing its tail. How can we trust such a message if we don’t know the messenger? Who is Snowden, really?  

A back story of sorts has been ably presented by Vanity Fair, by Greenwald, and by Harding. It goes like this. As a young man without a high school diploma, never mind a university degree, Snowden learns the ins and outs of IT on his own and ends up working as an IT person for the CIA in Switzerland, supposedly because the CIA can’t find enough clever IT folk like him to manage their computer needs. There he eventually falls afoul of his boss. He leaves the CIA because he’s pushed out, but apparently is able to move on to work with his security clearance un-besmirched for NSA contractor Dell in Japan. Back in the US, he applies for a job with Booz Allen Hamilton, another giant contractor also working for the NSA. It happens to be in the process of setting up an archive of the NSA’s documents in Hawaii in case a cyber war disrupts communications.

Snowden decides he can’t stand what the Five Eyes signals conglomerate has been doing to us all, and that Americans have to know what is being done to them in their own name so they can take action. In other words, his politics drive his behavior. He is apparently a democrat. He has revealed some of his political opinions from behind a pseudonym (The True HooHah) on a forum maintained by a website called Ars Technica. His expressed views veer between a patriotic distaste of those who leak State secrets, and what may be described as a libertarian concern with the overweening power of the State. As Vanity Fair dug out, he apparently made political contributions to Ron Paul, a libertarian who has run twice for President ( whose son, Rand, has just announced his own run for same in 2016.) 

The back story makes clear that Snowden first tried to get his documents vetted and written up by Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald ignored Snowden’s email request for contact and his demand that Greenwald encrypt his computers so as to receive Snowden’s material. It is Poitras that Snowden goes to next, a woman who happens to be a friend of Greenwald’s. Poitras brings to Snowden both Greenwald, who convinces in The Guardian to publish, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman, who does the first stories for the Washington Post.

Why Greenwald? Glenn Greenwald is a progressive, meaning on the left of American politics. Yet he wrote a Salon piece in December, 2011 (see: insisting that progressives must take a closer look at Ron Paul because he was the only person campaigning for the presidency who hammered away at American state surveillance, its foreign policy of perpetual war, its war on drugs which only hurts minorities, as well as Obama’s attacks on all whistleblowers, and his murderous use of drones instead of judicial processes, etc. Greenwald was careful in this piece to say he was not endorsing Paul, just that Paul’s arguments were the same ones progressives had been making for years. He pointed out that those who blindly supported Obama were in error.  Did that make Greenwald a libertarian? No. But it made him a person with whom Libertarians—such as Snowden, or others?-- might make common cause. 

On the surface, then, the Snowden story works. Yet the more renditions I read, the more fragile and unbelievable it became. Snowden leaves his work with an excuse about being ill with epilepsy, goes through airport security carrying a lot of laptops and memory sticks,and flies unhindered to Hong Kong where he hopes to meet Poitras, Greenwald, and Barton Gellman. But Gellman, who is a freelancer yet working on the Snowden story for the Washington Post, because it’s big enough to protect Snowden’s identity, refuses to go. Why does Snowden insist on Hong Kong? Because it has a long democratic tradition, he says!!!! ( Do I need to point out that Hong Kong was first governed by one colonial power, the UK, which then handed it to China for more of same?) Snowden also tells Poitras and Greenwald , when they arrive, that he is afraid of being hauled to the US and dumped in a prison cell for the rest of his days as soon as his name becomes known. Yet he has checked into his Hong Kong hotel, which is just down the road from the American CIA station, as he tells them, under his own name, using his own credit card. An expensive hotel, too. 

Why isn’t he harboring whatever money he has squirreled away for the exile he knows is coming? He puts pillows across the door to prevent eavesdropping, and covers himself in a hood to prevent anyone from seeing his keystrokes as he works on a laptop. He makes people leave their cell phones in another room because he knows they are listening devices. Yet he insists on outing himself after the first stories appear. He makes that part of the deal. His name has to be associated with the publication of these documents, he says. Which raises these questions: did somebody put him up to this? Someone with deeper pockets and an axe to grind who must have proof that Snowden is the leaker if Snowden is to be rewarded for his services? Who would that be? He offers a lame excuse: he wants to be sure no suspicion falls on his colleagues or his family, although he must have known that as soon as his name is known, that is exactly what would happen.

And one more question waved its red flag at me after each rendition of the Snowden story. Every journalist is trained to ask, about any story hand-delivered by a source, who benefits by the telling of this tale? I could see that Greenwald, Poitras and Gellman benefited, along with their news organizations, while Snowden apparently did not. Was there anybody else I couldn’t see? Certainly the NSA and the other Five Eyes partners took it between the eyes.  The NSA and the other Five Eyes partner organizations had all seen their budgets balloon since 9/11/2001. Whose had shrunk? The CIA had suffered much slower growth, for one. And what about the corporations named in the documents, corporations which had both cooperated with Five Eyes agencies, and at the same time, apparently, been unknowingly infiltrated? These companies were named in the first story: there were nine, including PalTalk, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft,etc. They claimed they had been terribly hurt by the back door infiltration of their networks  and it had to stop.

In short: no clear answer.

Perhaps that’s why my eye stopped cold on Tuesday when I spotted a Q and A with another American Silicon Valley billionaire, Peter Thiel. He made his first fortune founding PayPal and selling it to Pierre Omidyar’s eBay, his second as the first investor in Facebook. The Q and A appeared in the Toronto Star (picked up from the Washington Post service). It focused on Thiel’s foundation which funds, among other things, the science of life extension so we—he-- can live much longer, who knows, maybe forever. This brought to mind Ray Kurzweil who insists he will be able to upload his consciousness into a machine, one day soon, and live on as a robot, forever.  Kurzweil is in charge of Google’s brain project: he wants to generate an artificial intelligence by back-engineering the human one. Kurzweil believes that computers will soon have sufficient power to overpower all our human brains combined. This coming moment is called the Singularity and Kurzweil is a founder of the Singularity University where such phenomena are discussed.  Peter Thiel has funded Singularity events which is why his name rang a bell. 

These connections just went bing in my head, the way a social network map suddenly outlines connections not noted before. So I looked Thiel up. And that’s when the Libertarian/Silicon Valley billionaire /intelligence community connections became clearer, suggesting an answer to the question, who benefits from the Snowden story.

After he sold PayPal, Thiel, a well known Libertarian who was Ron Paul’s deepest pocket, pocketed $55 million and set up a money management fund. Two years later, he set up a company called Palantir Technologies along with former PayPal engineers. That same year, he also became the first outside investor in Facebook. He is still chairman of Palantir, and still on Facebook’s board of directors.  He is also worth over $2 billion. Palantir Technologies uses algorithms, first envisioned at PayPal, which connect disparate data in separate silos, making them searchable, mappable, connectable. That’s why it’s called Palantir-- after Tolkien’s far- seeing stones. When it started up, Palantir Technologies was of no interest to the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley. Someone made an introduction to In-Q-Tel, a non profit company owned by the CIA which was created to invest in leading edge technologies to get the CIA back to the forefront of the tech revolution. Palantir was entirely bankrolled for its first three years by In -Q-Tel. Palantir is now allegedly worth about $15 billion making it the biggest private company in Silicon Valley. That’s very nice growth-- from nothing to $15 billion in 10 years. Most of its revenue still comes from contracts with the various intelligence agencies of the US and other governments, especially the CIA. It boasts that it can do what it does way, way better and cheaper than what its competitors do poorly for much, much more. Who are Palantir’s major competitors? Booz Allen Hamilton, for one.

That is the the NSA contractor from which Snowden stole so many secrets, among them that the signals intelligence community had burrowed into the deepest recesses of the world’s biggest and most important Silicon Valley social media and search companies, such as Facebook and Google.

So Palantir certainly benefits from Snowden. And possibly Facebook and Google.

Who else?

Next Week:

Part II: The Libertarian connection.

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