Why None of the NSA’s Ideas Are Worth Spreading

by Will Potter on March 27, 2014

in Surveillance

RichardLedgettNSADeputyDirectorTEDMashable asked me to respond to the NSA’s address at TED 2014.

What’s the National Security Agency’s idea worth spreading?

TED’s Chris Anderson put the trademark question to NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett on Thursday during an interview at the Vancouver conference. Ledgett’s answer: “Learn the facts.”

In true TED style, that’s a surprising, thought-provoking statement. The problem is that it’s not the NSA’s idea at all. It’s the idea of their enemy number one: whistleblower Edward Snowden.

If it were up to the NSA, we wouldn’t know any facts at all about their operations. We wouldn’t even know what questions to ask.

The only reason we know about PRISM — and how every user of the Internet is beingwatched, and how the NSA is monitoring world leaders, and how porn habits were monitored to discredit “radicals,” (and on, and on) — is because Snowden leaked NSA documents.

We have no idea of the scope of the NSA’s operations, but what we do know was only possible because of a whistleblower.

It was surreal to sit at TED listening to Ledgett say “this is a really important conversation” to 1,200 attendees with a straight face, because the one and only reason the NSA had this rare public discussion at all today was — you guessed it —Edward Snowden.

Yesterday, Snowden risked his safety and freedom by speaking to TED attendees from an undisclosed location, via robotic display. His appearance surprised everyone — including, Ledgett said, the NSA: He awkwardly joked: “Kudos to you guys on that.”

Overnight, Snowden’s interview had already racked up 300,000 views, and the NSA, which had previously not bothered to respond to TED’s invitation, had to engage the discussion.

TED’s Chris Anderson attempted to use the rare opportunity to get some actual facts and data out of Ledgett, to no avail. At one point Anderson asked about the NSA’s claims that Snowden’s leaks have put American lives at risk. Ledgett dodged it, and Anderson asked again.

“The capabilities [of the NSA] are applied in very discreet and measured and controlled ways,” Ledgett responded. “As adversaries see that and recognize, ‘Hey, I might be vulnerable to that,’ they move away from that.” 
It was an ambiguous, empty, non-answer.

As was with the rest of Ledgett’s commentary: all rhetoric, no facts. A better way to describe the NSA’s “idea worth spreading” might be:

  • Trust us and stop worrying: If you aren’t doing anything wrong, Ledgett said, “you’re not of interest to us.” What he ignored is that the NSA is vacuuming up information, and storing it indefinitely, so that it may be used against you later.
  • We don’t know what we need, so we need it all: Ledgett said he didn’t know what NSA surveillance was important, because it’s all pieces of a bigger puzzle. The reality is that the NSA isn’t working with a mosaic or a puzzle. What the NSA is really advocating is the collection of millions of pieces from different, undefined puzzles in the hopes that sometime, someday, the government will be working on a puzzle and one of those pieces will fit.
  • A website called badguys.com “would be awesome,” Ledgett said, and a big help catching bad guys.

What’s refreshing, though, is that none of the NSA’s ideas seem to be spreading at TED. This is my first TED conference. I’m here as a TED Fellow, and I was unsure how Snowden’s comments — and my own talk about how the FBI labels protesters as “eco-terrorists” — would be received.

It’s one thing to take to the TED stage and talk about curing disease or a cool new app. But Snowden? Addressing a bunch of CEOs and tech elite who have paid at least $7,500 to attend? How would they respond?

The crowd here has been supportive of Snowden’s whistleblowing. When Anderson asked the crowd whether Snowden’s actions were “fundamentally heroic,” more than half raised their hands. After Snowden spoke, lines formed to take selfies with his robot.

Ledgett was applauded at the end of the interview, and a few TEDsters attempted a standing ovation. But I asked several of those who stood, and they told me it was for the discussion forum TED created, rather than Ledgett’s comments. Regardless of how they feel about the specifics of what he did, and how he did it, almost everyone seems to appreciate that it has created a vibrant, overdue debate.

Perhaps the best indication of this atmosphere came just moments before Ledgett took the stage. Ed Yong, a science writer, spoke about research on parasitic behavior, and asked the audience: “Are there dark sinister parasites who are influencing our behavior without us knowing about it?”

“Besides the NSA?”

Will Potter is a TED Fellow and the author of Green Is the New Red. Follow him on Twitter@will_potter.

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