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Forget Snowden: What have we learned about the NSA?

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How a classic cock-up helped Snowden avoid extradition thus far

Despite the apparent resources of the NSA, Snowden was able to leave Hong Kong on a flight to Russia. The documents cancelling his passport issued by the US got his middle name wrong and the Chinese authorities were able to legitimately say they had no reason to hold him.

Since his arrival he's presumed somewhere in the transit section of the airport he arrived at, which leaves him in diplomatic limbo as his passport has now been successfully cancelled. And there he is staying for the time being, trying to find a country that will take him and resist diplomatic pressure to keep him off US soil.

Following this latest incarceration we've had a string of exclusive stories that haven't been officially confirmed as coming from Snowden, but nevertheless bear all the hallmarks of material he could have provided. But we don’t know because there has been no official investigation into the veracity of the claims.

President Obama has said that the whole thing was no big deal and is a matter for the law courts. The damage has been done and the leaks would stir a "healthy debate" in the security community on the issues of both the privacy of US citizens and the efficiency, or lack thereof, in the intelligence agency's vetting procedures.

As for Snowden, the US president (and former president of the Harvard Law Review) said that the extradition process was "not exceptional," but he could understand why it made a good story. He wouldn’t "be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker," he said.

As it turns out he didn’t need to. Six days later the jet of Bolivian president Evo Morales was denied access to the airspace of France, Spain, and Portugal, and was forced to land in Vienna after a rumor that Snowden was on board. After a visual inspection the plane was allowed to leave.

One wonders if the Bolivian government had tried to force Air Force One carrying President Obama down for inspection on similar pretexts during a visit to South America it would have been seen as "no big deal," by the US military.

Theater of the absurd

These Snowden shenanigans make for great copy and are very distracting, but at some point we're going to have to deal with the issue of how far we are willing to let government agencies monitor our online life and under what circumstances.

Preliminary legal suits and formal objections have been filed and a blizzard of Freedom of Information requests are going out over the issues Snowden has highlighted. But they are running into the traditional Kafkaesque conundrum: The laws under discussion are secret, therefore we cannot discuss them.

Meanwhile the Snowden carnival rattles on, with pundits earnestly debating whether or not he is a traitor, endless speculation about which country will offer him asylum, and endless little snippets about his past and associates that might be used to divine an insight into his character.

Personally I couldn't care less if he likes to relax at the end of the day in a bath of mint-scented jelly balancing a beach ball on his head while listening to the collected albums of David Hasselhoff played backwards (a considerable improvement some might say.) What matters is the veracity of what he's saying.

Some kind of independent investigation into what exactly is going on, in the form of a repeat of the post-Watergate Church Committee hearings and at a higher international level, is needed. This isn’t just about the US, there's a lot more people on the planet and we are all affected by this.

In 1948 the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a child born in that year would be 65 today; the retirement age of many 'socialist' states. The grandchildren of that generation are going to need similar principles that protect the individual from the increasing ability to map put someone's life online and off.

But this is also a national security issue. For the first time the DEFCON hacking conference is banning government officials because of "recent events." The very people needed to defend the US against hacking attacks are now spurning the government because of its actions.

The NSA has some very talented people on the payroll, but some of the smartest minds in the business are never going to join. Dan Kaminsky looks highly uncomfortable in a suit and there's no chance Moxie Marlinspike is going to go corporate and help the government do what it wants.

A lot of the best people in the security industry take privacy very seriously, because they know what the stakes are. If the US government really wants to bolster its hacking defenses it needs these people on board and they're not going to do so if the government behaves like a bandit and smears or incarcerates those with whom it is annoyed.

Whether it be for human rights or national security, this situation needs to be resolved. Digital rights need the same debate as human ones. Our society needs to decide where it draws the line between privacy and politics, and it needs to do so in a calm and measured way.

So forget about Snowden as a character and "Follow the money," as Deep Throat put it. Anything else is a distraction. ®

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