We have surely all been following the news story revolving around Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and contract worker for the National Security Agency, who leaked classified details to The Guardian and The Washington Post about the government’s clandestine electronic surveillance program known by the acronym PRISM. (PRISM stands for Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management.) As far as anyone knows with any actual certainty, PRISM is not used intentionally to gather information on any American citizen or on any individual present in the United States, but merely to listen in on foreign internet traffic that is routed through or saved on U.S. servers. This appears to be completely legal activity: section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 2008 specifically permits the gathering of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. citizens located outside the United States. So if that’s what the NSA has been doing, there appears to be nothing specifically illegal about it. Nor, in my opinion, should there be. Our country has been targeted repeatedly by terrorists, some of them members of sophisticated international operations like the 9/11 perpetrators and others of them apparently amateurs like the Boston Marathon bombers. (The last word on that incident, of course, remains to be written.) But even the brothers who set the bombs in Boston were acting on their own, they still managed to do great damage at the cost of innocent human lives. They, of course, would have been beyond the reach of PRISM according to the section of FISA cited above. But which of us can possibly not be pleased to think of our government exerting itself maximally to make us safe and to protect ourselves and our families from threats that originate beyond our borders but which nevertheless have the capacity to wreak havoc in the homeland.
I have very little sympathy for people who disclose secrets they are sworn to keep, and particularly when their actions could conceivably make our government less able to keep us safe from harm. So for me the sole question of interest is whether the government is obeying its own rules. Indeed, that is the only real question on the table as far as I am concerned. The president has said unequivocally that the government is indeed doing so. Discovering him to be dissembling would be a blow to his prestige and reputation from which I doubt he could or would recover. But there is no evidence, as far as I can see, of that being the case.
Of course, if it turns out—as so many out there in the blogosphere seem to fear—that the government is actually using its vast information-gathering abilities to spy on U.S. citizens and to muck through their—our!—e-mail and voice mail and phone calls and text messages and hard drives and Dropbox folders and Skydrive folders and iCloud folders to see what they might conceivably find of interest, then that will be another issue entirely. As noted, the president addressed this issue specifically last Friday in a news conference and unequivocally told us to trust him that the very last thing the NSA has the time to do or any interest in doing would be to listen into citizens’ phone calls for no reason. That sounds reasonable to me—and, believe me, I would only pity the NSA drone assigned to read my e-mail or, unless he or she is planning in the near future to open up a Jewish Nursery School, to listen into my voice mail messages—and yet it is also unnerving to think that the government apparently has free access, or some sort of access, to the data banks of companies like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. Of course, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which requires that the search of any citizen’s home or possessions must be judicially sanctioned in advance with the issue of a warrant and supported by probable cause does not apply to foreigners, only to American citizens. There is, therefore, no problem…if the government is obeying its own rules. In the meantime, all we can do is hope the president was being honest and frank when he assured us that we have nothing to worry about. (On the other hand, what else was he going to say? But let’s not go there until the path in that direction is paved with actual facts.)
And then there is the side issue of the NSA facility apparently being built in Utah.
When the prophet of old imagined a day when “the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the seabed,” he was clearly waxing poetic. The sea, when you stand on the shore and look out, not only seems endless and immense but also appears to have the quality of spreading out to cover whatever space is allotted to it by geography and geology. And so did the prophet imagine a messianic age in which the infinite knowledge of God would spread out in every direction to cover the entire territory of the earth and thus make all its inhabitants, regardless of nationality or ethnicity, into faithful and wise servants of the Almighty. That much seems clear, but going further and asking how much divine knowledge exactly it was that Isaiah imagined covering the earth’s landmass seems ridiculous. It’s a metaphor, a poetic idea, a symbol…and, as such, meaningful in terms of the truth to which it alludes without being precisely, literally, or measurably correct. Can knowledge even be quantified in any meaningful way? There is, after all, a specific amount of water in the world’s oceans. (The best estimate I could find on-line was 362 million trillion gallons, which is a lot of water.) So maybe there actually is a certain amount of knowledge as well!
If you are old enough to remember back to the 1980s, then you will recall the average home computer having had a hard drive with a capacity of twenty megabytes. Just a decade later, in the mid-1990s, the average home computer had about four times that much memory. Hold that thought, and let’s start over at the beginning. In computer talk, a bit is a single binary digit, a zero or a one. A string of eight bits makes up one byte, the unit capable of representing a single letter or punctuation mark. 1000 bytes makes up a kilobyte, which was once an important measure, but the computer I am using to write this has one terabyte of memory, which is the equivalent of more than one trillion bytes or more than eight trillion bits. (I haven’t mentioned gigabytes, but a gigabyte is merely one thousand megabytes, thus one one-thousandth of a terabyte.) I know these are big numbers, but stick with me as we transcend the numbers that regular people such as ourselves can install on our machines at home and move into a different realm entirely. One thousand terabytes is called a petabyte. One thousand petabytes is called an exabtye. And one thousand exabytes is called a zettabtye. A zettabyte is therefore equal to a number of bytes equal to 10 to the 21st power. (Think of a one followed by twenty-one zeroes.)
Now the combined storage space of every computer hard drive in the world in 2006 was estimated in a report issued by the International Data Corporation, a market research firm specializing in information technology, at 161 exabytes or about three million times the information contained in all books ever written. That same report, written under the direction of John F. Gantz, projected that by 2010 the total of information stored on the world’s computers would increase about six-fold to about 988 exabytes, which would be not even equal to a single zettabyte. (To review, a zettabyte is the equivalent of one thousand exabytes.) Are you still with me?
Last April, Fox News reported that the National Security Agency was building a data center south of Salt Lake City that would conceivably be able to contain five zettabytes of information, or more than five times the information contained on every computer in the world in 2010 if the IDC report was correct. Does that give pause for thought? It does to me! (Just to hone the imagine, you would have to stack 62 billion iPhones one on top of the other—which pile of telephones would reach up past the orbit of the moon—to achieve storage equal to one single zettabyte. And Fox News reported that the facility in Utah will be able to manage five times that much data.) So while the current furor about the government gathering information on citizens by listening into uncountable telephone conversations sounds far-fetched, citizens need to realize that, supposing the Fox report was correct, the NSA is already at work creating a facility that has the capacity to contain all the data on every computer and every smart phone in the world. Could a government bound by the Fourth Amendment ever actually have unfettered access to the machines and hard drives of American citizens without there being a discernible probable cause to suspect wrongdoing? At the risk of sounding naïve, it certainly doesn’t sound plausible to me. But, and this I also admit, we really are relying on the integrity of the government…and not on the notion that it would simply not be possible to invade and seize the full contents of every home computer and smart phone in the country.
And so that is where I left off worrying about Edward Snowden’s revelations of the last week. Clearly, wars in the future will be fought just as violently in the cloud as on the ground. Being prepared to face what are probably inevitably cyber-attacks against our citizens only makes good sense. Betraying government secrets one is sworn to keep because one has unilaterally decided to betray one’s own commitment to secrecy is a crime and should be punished as such. (Nobility of motive could, perhaps, be taken into account when it comes to sentencing the offender. And Edward Snowden does not appear to stand to realize any personal gain with the revelations he made last week. If anything, actually, just the contrary is the case since he could conceivably end up spending the rest of his life in jail.) But Americans also need to be aware that the data they store privately is finite and could—all of it—conceivably be stored in a single facility. That we are protected against such an egregious invasion of our privacy by the Fourth Amendment is comforting…but that should not lull us into assuming our rights will never be trampled simply because they haven’t been—at least not on the kind of massive scale now possible—in the past. Forewarned is forearmed! And, although I hesitate to be choshed bi-kh’sheirim, I also don’t see what harm it could cause for us all to take a moment this week to write to the president and to our representatives in Congress to remind them that we do not wish to become obliged to choose between safety and privacy, and that it is the job of our elected officials both to protect our country from outside attack and to protect its citizens from any unwarranted erosion of their civil rights.