Two Stories About Privacy: A Journalist and a Quisling

There is lots of talk, these days, about privacy: about cyber surveillance; about intrusive government; about whether we can feel secure on the telephone and on line. Amid all the noise, it is sometimes hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. But one story that definitely deserves our attention is the hacking of CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson’s home and work computers. This is precisely the kind of totalitarian scenario that people wring their hands over: Attkisson had reported on several stories that were unfavorable to the Obama administration, including Fast and Furious, the “Green Energy” scandals, and Benghazi. We know for sure that someone illegally accessed her computers. The only question is, Who? The obvious answer is, the Obama administration or one of its surrogates. But to be fair, there are other possibilities.

Which is what makes Ms. Attkisson’s interview with Bill O’Reilly so intriguing:

O’REILLY: So what were you working on that might have interested somebody to try to intrude on your computer? What were you working on?

ATTKISSON: Well you know the first thing I thought some time ago were my personal accounts, my finances, my passwords and so on. But nobody has intruded upon my finances although they had access to that material. So nobody stole my identity or got into my bank accounts which they could have. So I assume the reason they were in the CBS computer was something related to what I was working on.

O’REILLY: Which was what? What big stories were you working on?

ATTKISSON: Well, at the time I was doing Fast and Furious of course, some green energy debacle sort of stimulus spending stories, and then later on the Benghazi story. …

O’REILLY: And so all your counsel is saying don’t say anything. Do you have the same counsel that the Attorney General has and that Mueller has? No, it’s a joke. Bad joke. Sorry. So all of your counsel is saying don’t accuse anybody right now.

ATTKISSON: Well, they’re just telling us what we can say more than anything right now which is, you know, which you basically heard that there has been an intrusion of the computer. This is not phishing. This is not malware. This is not an ordinary as someone asked me old boyfriend trying to look through my files.

O’REILLY: Okay, this is big?

ATTKISSON: Yeah.

O’REILLY: And, but in order to go after somebody, you’ve got to have a suspicion, and I assume you have a suspicion. You don’t have to tell me. I don’t want to get your lawyers mad but I assume you have a suspicion.

ATTKISSON: Well, I think I know, but I, I’m just not prepared to go into that. So, we’re continuing our investigation. There are multi-faceted, you know, looks at what to do next.

“I think I know.” Those words must strike fear into the hearts of the Obama administration. Is it possible to trace back an electronic trail and determine who has illegally accessed your computer? I would have doubted it, but Attkisson’s comment suggests that CBS’s technical consultants–Attkisson obviously couldn’t do this herself–may have accomplished that feat. If the Obama administration or one of its many proxies did, indeed, illegally access a reporter’s computers to spy on her and determine what stories she was developing, who her sources were, and so on, it is the ultimate privacy nightmare. It would make Watergate look like a parking ticket. Of course, we are not there yet. Stay tuned, as they say.

So that is the most legitimate privacy/cyber security story now in the news. At the other extreme, we have the increasingly sordid saga of Edward Snowden. If you want a good read on Snowden’s character, check with his ex-girlfriend. The questions about Snowden are becoming more insistent: given his absurdly brief term with Booz Allen–three months!–did he really have access to the information he claims? Did he join Booz Allen specifically for the purpose of disclosing secrets, as he has? And where do his loyalties lie? Not to the United States, obviously.

Max Boot sums up the Snowden case very well. Pardon me for quoting at length, but it is well worth reading in its entirety:

Notwithstanding his egregious violations of the security classifications that protect our most important secrets, Snowden had initially won some public sympathy, at least among libertarians of both the left and the right, for exposing U.S. government programs that, he claimed, spy on Americans.

In reality the programs he disclosed are focused primarily on foreigners and operate under strict safeguards to avoid violations of Americans’ privacy. But never mind–at least to the casual observer Snowden may have come across initially as a simply a concerned citizen, a whistleblower who had the country’s best interests at heart. Certainly that was how he tried to present himself.

That pretense has not survived Snowden’s second round of revelations, which is focused not on how the NSA spies on Americans but how it spies on foreigners abroad–which is precisely what it is supposed to do.

First the renegade NSA contractor provided the South China Morning Post with details about how the NSA monitors Internet activity in China. The Hong Kong-based newspaper reported: “The detailed records – which cannot be independently verified – show specific dates and the IP addresses of computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland hacked by the National Security Agency over a four-year period. They also include information indicating whether an attack on a computer was ongoing or had been completed, along with an amount of additional operational information.”

This is the kind of sensitive, operational detail that can only aid the Chinese secret police in protecting Chinese computer networks from American hacking–which is designed, in no small part, one suspects, to keep an eye on how the Chinese are penetrating U.S. computer networks. Note that Snowden revealed nothing about extensive Chinese attempts to penetrate American computers or to limit its own citizens’ access to the Internet with suffocating censorship.

Now, the Guardian has published two more stories based on information provided by Snowden detailing how the NSA, working hand-in-glove with its British partner, GCHQ, intercepted communications from diplomats attending G20 summits in London in 2009–and specifically their success in accessing communications from then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.

Such intercepts are standard operating procedure among all of the major intelligence services of the world; there is no doubt that Russia, China, and even friendly states such as France and Israel try to intercept communications among American leaders, and we return the favor. There is nothing scandalous here.

But Snowden’s revelations could well tip off the Russians or others to holes in their electronic security and thereby make such operations harder in the future. Snowden’s leaks also provide propaganda points for Beijing and Moscow–two illiberal regimes that operate two of the biggest Internet hacking operations in the world. Now they can deflect attention away from their own activities and paint the U.S. as the bad guy when, in fact, Internet operations in the U.S. are among the freest in the world.

These are not the actions of a whistleblower concerned about American liberties. They are the actions of a traitor–now, quite possibly, a defector to China–who is trying to do as much harm as he can to American national security.

So not all privacy concerns are equal. If the government is assembling a data base of metadata about telephone calls, so that it can draw connections between known terrorists overseas and people embedded within the United States, that is one thing–an issue worth discussing, perhaps, but hardly an invasion of your privacy or mine, and nothing new: the Supreme Court held decades ago that the federal government can access telephone companies’ records without a search warrant because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in such third-party data. But hacking into a reporter’s computer at work or, even more sensationally, at home, because that reporter is not consistently toeing the administration’s line, is exactly the sort of abuse that privacy experts have fretted about for decades.

So let’s keep our eyes on the ball as the Obama administration’s many scandals unfold in the weeks to come. NSA access to phone metadata? Not a scandal. Political hacks hacking into a reporter’s computers because she dares to question the administration’s line? Definitely a scandal.

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