NSA PRISM Program: What Buying a Patio Umbrella Taught Me About Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden is an unusual fellow. He is a 29-year-old high-school dropout who did not complete community college, yet he made more than $200,000 per year working for Booz Allen Hamilton, a major defense contractor. He has been employed by the Central Intelligence Agency and as an outside contractor for the National Security Agency. He has a Top Secret security clearance. Well, probably not anymore.

He "wanted to spark a national debate" and he stole and leaked an NSA PowerPoint presentation about gathering telephone and internet records from pretty much everyone in America. He described it all in this video released by The Guardian last Sunday. Watch and see if he resembles other high-school dropouts of your acquaintance.

He called himself "Verax,” roughly translated from Latin as truth-teller. Snowden must be unusually well-read for a high-school dropout because the name Verax has been used at least twice before under similar circumstances. According to Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, who was not the lucky recipient of the information because he could not provide the assurances sought by Snowden, "I asked him early on, without reply, whether he intended to hint at the alternative fates that lay before him. Two British dissenters had used the pseudonym. Clement Walker, a 17th-century detractor of Parliament, died in the brutal confines of the Tower of London. Two centuries later, social critic Henry Dunckley adopted ‘Verax’ as his byline over weekly columns in the Manchester Examiner. He was showered with testimonials and an honorary degree."

The challenge facing government officials, politicians, spin consultants, newspaper editors, Booz Allen executives, and interest groups that depend on enraged contributors (to say nothing of clear thinkers who fit in none of those categories) is determining which of these fates should await the third Verax.

The convenient flocks of sheep that can be reliably mobilized on one side of most questions or the other have been scattered. New flocks must be assembled before reliable spinning can commence. Here are some of the potentially divisive issues and divisible groups.

The National-Security Revolving Door. According to James Clapper, director of national intelligence, "Anyone who has a security clearance knows that he or she has an obligation to protect classified information and abide by the law." Words to live by, but Clapper was a senior executive at Booz Allen Hamilton prior to taking his present position. The DNI under President George W. Bush was John McConnell who now heads Booz Allen Hamilton. In 2010, McConnell hyped the need for his company's services on an episode of 60 Minutes. Security services of the sort provided by Snowden are a material part of Booz Allen’s business.

Trusting the Government. A CBS News/New York Times poll taken between May 31 and June 4 asked a sampling of adults in the United States, "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?" Here are the results:

-Just about always 3%

-Most of the time 17%

-Only some of the time 70%

-Never (volunteered response) 8%

According to the poll, almost three times as many people invented the "never" response as chose the "just about always" suggested by the pollster. If being trusted is important to you, this might not be good news.

In addition, according to Jeremy Herb of The Hill, "More than 20,000 people have signed a petition urging President Obama to pardon the man who revealed details about two classified National Security Agency (NSA) programs.” A day or so later the figure became 53,000: “The ‘Pardon Edward Snowden’ petition calls the former NSA employee and government contractor ‘a national hero’ who deserves a full pardon.” One wonders, though, how much concern the petitioners have for their privacy if they are willingly giving their names and email addresses to the official White House “We the People” website.

Keeping Any Secrets At All. Five million people in this country have security clearances and 1.4 million of those are top-secret. Of the five million in total, one in five have been issued to private government contractors. Among those entrusted with top-secret information, one in three are in the private sector.

Unfortunately, in the world of secret keeping, anything less than a perfect record is actually not very good. Have you ever tried to get five million people to do the same thing? 1.4 million people? How about 14 people? Could secret keeping be a thing of the past?

Lefties. Those on the left of the political spectrum tend to have a higher tolerance for a "full figured" federal government. They are often responsive to the "it's for your safety" arguments made by those whose paychecks depend on making you feel safe. On the other hand, they tend to like the little guy and dislike the big bully. Knee-jerk defense of the president while they “blame it on Bush” is a non-starter. Beware an outbreak of cognitive dissonance.

Righties. Those on the right of the political spectrum often worry about the intrusiveness of the federal government especially with respect to the rights of individuals, but they also tend to favor a "full figured" defense apparatus to keep enemies at bay. Heaping scorn on Obama is a doubtful plan since W. had twice as many years to get the program as far as it is. By now, cognitive dissonance medication is no longer available at any drug counter.

Spinners. As always, it matters little to spinners whether an idea is good, only that it looks good. Or, better still, makes their client look good. That depends on how the sheep re-flock or how they can be made to re-flock. A heavy-handed approach to a sympathetic whistle-blower would look like a drone attack on a Pakistani wedding, while being more forgiving might enrage those who fear an opening of the whistle-blower floodgates. The spinners might be happier if the NSA would redirect those powerful computers away from keeping track of phone calls and dirty emails and toward answering the far more important question of which way the public-opinion wind is blowing.

Patio Umbrellas. A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a look at a few websites in search of a garden umbrella for the summer. There were too many options and we postponed the decision. Since then, every advertisement on every website we view is for patio umbrellas. Coincidence?

The patio umbrella experience has confirmed for me that there wasn't much privacy to begin with, so how can this be much worse? Since there is nothing I can do about it, I take comfort in the idea that it will be a very full figured federal government indeed if they have enough people to read about me. If, as suggested by Moore's Law, computing power doubles every two years, the prospects for internet privacy don't look very good.

There is a disquieting aspect of this analysis, however. Recently we did purchase a garden umbrella, yet the website advertisements continue. The purchase was made with a credit card, which one would have thought to be a useful signal to worldwide patio umbrella vendors to target their sales efforts elsewhere. Not so, suggesting the elaborate system may well be flawed.

Could our esteemed federal government goof up too?

Good luck to you, Mr. Snowden. I doubt the coming months and years will be kind though perhaps you will enjoy the attention you sought. Snowden expressed the "greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change." He is concerned that "this is something that is not our place to decide." He said, "It was more of a slow realization that presidents could openly lie to secure the office and then break promises without consequence."

While these are fair and important points, I still wonder who was paying for his expensive Hong Kong hotel room.