Larry Ellison is exceedingly rich and powerful. He is the third-most-wealthy person in the United States and runs Oracle, the database giant. And yet somehow, as he revealed during an interview on CBS Tuesday morning, he is hopelessly uninformed on the ramifications of NSA surveillance. Or, perhaps willfully uninformed. After all, the NSA is an Oracle client, which CBS didn't mention.
The first four things Ellison says about the NSA are misleading or incorrect. Host Charlie Rose asked Ellison how he "came down" on NSA surveillance.
"Well, the great thing is, we live in a democracy. If we don't like what the NSA is doing, we can get rid of the government and put in a different government."
Yes, that's true. However, that relies on the public being aware of those programs, something which was all-but-impossible prior to the revelations leaked by Edward Snowden. As we've noted previously, the confluence of secrecy and domestic surveillance by its very nature impedes the informed consent of voters. Americans who are concerned about these issues are forced, like the media, to put together what details they can.
The vast majority of Americans had no idea what the NSA was doing; the majority still doesn't. This is why we elect representatives, of course — to know those details and make the decisions. Until the Snowden leaks, they were disinclined to oppose the NSA entirely.
"Actually, we've been collecting this information for so long. Long before the NSA was collecting it. Let me tell you who was collecting it. American Express. Bank of A— VISA. All of your credit card data. All of your financial records."
This is an older version of a critique that has been rampant since the Snowden leaks. "We put everything on Facebook anyway, so who cares if the NSA is watching us?"
The answer is two-fold. The first: American Express doesn't have an army. It doesn't have police powers. Credit card companies (and Facebook) pore over an anonymized version of the data it has on you in order to help advertisers sell you things. Which we know and accept as the cost of using those services. They do not suddenly decide you're a threat and detain you at airports.
Second: The NSA is possibly looking at far more than your credit card purchases and Facebook activity — though it could be looking at those things, too.
"This whole issue of privacy is utterly fascinating to me. Who's ever heard of this information being misused by the government? In what way?"
Well, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court heard of it. In a classified ruling, the secret court that authorizes the NSA's surveillance tools determined that the agency had, on at least one occasion, violated the Fourth Amendment protections of an American citizen.
But the broader answer is: who knows? The details of what the NSA is doing are classified, obstructed. In his interview with The Times, Snowden said that journalist Laura Poitras was targeted by the NSA for her documentaries on the Iraq occupation. Does that count?
Rose then, again, asked for Ellison's view of the sureveillance.
"It's great. It's essential. By the way, President Obama thinks it's essential. It's essential if we want to minimize the kind of strikes we had in Boston."
According to the FBI, here's what it could have done to prevent the Boston attacks: nothing. The FBI, which works with the NSA, determined that there was nothing else it could have done to halt the Tsarnaev brothers on that day.
Ellison did suggest that one possibility for the NSA surveillance gave him pause. "If the government used it to do political targeting," he said. "In other words, if we stopped looking for terrorists, and started looking at people on the other side of the aisle." (Or documentary filmmakers?) And with that, the interview ends.
That information, the extent of that relationship between Ellison and the customer he was asked to criticize, should have been up-front in the CBS interview. Ellison is not a business guy with misinformed opinions on how the government tracks the internet. He's a guy that makes millions off of the government — and who answers questions about their activity exactly as they might hope.