The Latest Snowden Leak Is Devastating to NSA Defenders

The agency collected and stored intimate chats, photos, and emails belonging to innocent Americans—and secured them so poorly that reporters can now browse them at will.
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Edward Snowden's new refugee document granted by Russia is seen during a news conference on August 1, 2013. (Reuters)

Consider the latest leak sourced to Edward Snowden from the perspective of his detractors. The National Security Agency's defenders would have us believe that Snowden is a thief and a criminal at best, and perhaps a traitorous Russian spy. In their telling, the NSA carries out its mission lawfully, honorably, and without unduly compromising the privacy of innocents. For that reason, they regard Snowden's actions as a wrongheaded slur campaign premised on lies and exaggerations.

But their narrative now contradicts itself. The Washington Post's latest article drawing on Snowden's leaked cache of documents includes files "described as useless by the analysts but nonetheless retained" that "tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes. The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless."

The article goes on to describe how exactly the privacy of these innocents was violated. The NSA collected "medical records sent from one family member to another, résumés from job hunters and academic transcripts of schoolchildren. In one photo, a young girl in religious dress beams at a camera outside a mosque. Scores of pictures show infants and toddlers in bathtubs, on swings, sprawled on their backs and kissed by their mothers. In some photos, men show off their physiques. In others, women model lingerie, leaning suggestively into a webcam ..." 

Have you ever emailed a photograph of your child in the bathtub, or yourself flexing for the camera or modeling lingerie? If so, it could be your photo in the Washington Post newsroom right now, where it may or may not be secure going forward. In one case, a woman whose private communications were collected by the NSA found herself contacted by a reporter who'd read her correspondence. 

Snowden defenders see these leaked files as necessary to proving that the NSA does, in fact, massively violate the private lives of American citizens by collecting and storing content—not "just" metadata—when they communicate digitally. They'll point out that Snowden turned these files over to journalists who promised to protect the privacy of affected individuals and followed through on that oath. 

What about Snowden critics who defend the NSA? Ben Wittes questions the morality of the disclosure:

Snowden here did not leak programmatic information about government activity. He leaked many tens of thousands of personal communications of a type that, in government hands, are rightly subject to strict controls. They are subject to strict controls precisely so that the woman in lingerie, the kid beaming before a mosque, the men showing off their physiques, and the woman whose love letters have to be collected because her boyfriend is off looking to join the Taliban don’t have to pay an unnecessarily high privacy price. Yes, the Post has kept personal identifying details from the public, and that is laudable. But Snowden did not keep personal identifying details from the Post. He basically outed thousands of people—innocent and not—and left them to the tender mercies of journalists. This is itself a huge civil liberties violation.

The critique is plausible—but think of what it means.

I never thought I'd see this day: The founder of Lawfare has finally declared that a national-security-state employee perpetrated a huge civil-liberties violation! Remember this if he ever again claims that NSA critics can't point to a single serious abuse at the agency. Wittes himself now says there's been a serious abuse.

The same logic applies to Keith Alexander, James Clapper, Michael Hayden, Stewart Baker, Edward Lucas, John Schindler, and every other anti-Snowden NSA defender. So long as they insist that Snowden is a narcissistic criminal and possible traitor, they have no choice but to admit that the NSA collected and stored intimate photos, emails, and chats belonging to totally innocent Americans and safeguarded them so poorly that a ne'er-do-well could copy them onto thumb drives. 

They have no choice but to admit that the NSA was so bad at judging who could be trusted with this sensitive data that a possible traitor could take it all to China and Russia. Yet these same people continue to insist that the NSA is deserving of our trust, that Americans should keep permitting it to collect and store massive amounts of sensitive data on innocents, and that adequate safeguards are in place to protect that data. To examine the entirety of their position is to see that it is farcical.

Here's the reality.

The NSA collects and stores the full content of extremely sensitive photographs, emails, chat transcripts, and other documents belong to Americans, itself a violation of the Constitution—but even if you disagree that it's illegal, there's no disputing the fact that the NSA has been proven incapable of safeguarding that data. There is not the chance the data could leak at sometime in the future. It has already been taken and given to reporters. The necessary reform is clear. Unable to safeguard this sensitive data, the NSA shouldn't be allowed to collect and store it.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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