Since the former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures began showing up in The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the political debate over the American surveillance state has been stuck in the 20th century.
The public has feared a secretive, all-seeing eye, a vast bureaucracy that could peer into our online lives and track the numbers our smartphones dialed. Privacy as we knew it was dead. The era of Big Brother was here.
President Barack Obama responded to the Snowden leaks by commissioning a blue-ribbon panel that concluded that the way the National Security Agency did business often trampled on legitimate civil liberties concerns. The government did not need to store our metadata or the numbers, times and dates of our phone calls.
It turns out, though, that the questions prompted by Snowden were only part of the story. A recent expose from the New York Times tells a very different, and more frightening, tale. In this case the proper analogy is not Big Brother, but an outbreak. A shadowy network of hackers, known as the shadow brokers, stole the NSA’s toolbox of cyber weapons it had used to peer into the computers of our adversaries. This network then offered subscribers the fruits of powerful cyber weapons that the U.S. government was never supposed to even acknowledge. The virus is no longer confined to the lab. It’s out in the wild.
And while the cyber weapons appear to be dated from 2013, the extent of the damage is still being assessed. The Times reports that the NSA still hasn’t found the culprits. NSA cyber warriors are subjected to polygraphs, and morale at the agency is low. Was there a mole? Was there a hack? The world’s greatest surveillance organization still doesn’t know.
Aside from puncturing the aura of the NSA as an all-seeing eye, the Times story also shows that today the greatest threat to our privacy is not an organization with a monopoly of surveillance power, but rather the disaggregation of surveillance power. It is not the citizen vs. the state. Rather it is a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all. Today, foreign governments and private hackers can use the same tools we all feared the U.S. government would use.
It’s enough to make you wish for a simpler time when the greatest threat to our privacy came from our own government.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.