By Jack Shafer
(Reuters) - Leaks to the press, like hillside rain tugged seaward by gravity, gather momentum only if the flow is steadily replenished.
After a major leak to the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald resulted in a scoop Wednesday about the National Security Agency's harvesting of phone records, reporters instantly mined their back pages for leads and rang up their sources to amplify and extend his story, and went looking for leakers of their own. In other words, the press pack prayed for rain.
But before that scoop had run its course, Greenwald (and Ewen MacAskill) went to press with another revelation about the NSA's Prism program, which collects email, chat, VOIP conversations, file transfers, photos, videos and more from Web users. A similar Washington Post piece by Barton Gellman and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras beat the Guardian duo by a few minutes, a downpour in a very short time. The Guardian-Post overlap was so pronounced that it's likely the two publications were nurtured by the same source, identified in the Post as "a career intelligence officer."
Friday afternoon, Greenwald and MacAskill dropped another bombshell about Obama's cyberattack plans in the Guardian. These aren't leaks. This is a flood.
Faster than you can say evaporation-condensation-precipitation, I expect this week's exposés to produce additional investigations that will produce more leaks and further scoops about our digital records. This will now fuel new cycles of reporting, leaks and scoops — and another, and another — as new sources are cultivated and reportorial scraps gathering mold in journalists' notebooks gain new relevance and help break stories.
Greenwald's storm will continue to rage because, I suspect, the story won't be limited to just phone records or Web data. Ultimately, it will be about the government's pursuit of all the digital breadcrumbs we produce as necessary byproducts of day-to-day life — and phone records and Web data are just a small part.
Bank records, credit history, travel records, credit card records, EZPass data, GPS phone data, license-plate reader databases, Social Security and Internal Revenue Service records, facial-recognition databases at the Department of Motor Vehicles and elsewhere, even 7-Eleven surveillance videos comprise information lodes that are of equal or greater value to the national security establishment than phone and Web files. It doesn't sound paranoid to conclude that the government has reused, or will reuse, the interpretation of the Patriot Act it presented to the secret FISA court in its phone record and Prism data requests to grab these other data troves.
Lest I sound like a Fourth Amendment hysteric, I understand there's nothing automatically sacrosanct about any of the digital trails we leave behind. Lawful subpoenas can liberate all sorts records about you, electronic or otherwise.
What's breathtaking about these two government surveillance programs that the Guardian and the Washington Post have revealed is that they're vast collections of data about hundreds of millions of people suspected of no wrongdoing and not part of any civil action. Defending the phone-record cull, National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper explained this week that smaller sets of information aren't very useful in screening for and identifying "terrorism-related communications," hence all must collected.
Besides, as the government and its supporters insist, phone-record metadata does not include the names of individuals or organizations connected to the phone numbers (and government eavesdropping isn't part of the operation).
I won't belabor the point made better in scores of venues this week about how massive phone-record sets can be manipulated to produce revelatory information about individuals. Not even a saint could resist the siren call to combine data sets and use them in impermissible ways for "the good of the people."
Even before governments start to combine data, it knows too much about you. Once it gets started, it can know practically everything worth knowing. A former NSA employee captured the grand scheme succinctly last year when he told Wired magazine, "We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state."
Daniel J. Solove, who has been beavering away at privacy issues for some time, addresses what he calls the "exclusion" problem posed by the government's massing of personal data.
"Many government national-security measures involve maintaining a huge database of information that individuals cannot access. Indeed, because they involve national security, the very existence of these programs is often kept secret. This kind of information processing, which blocks subjects' knowledge and involvement, is a kind of due-process problem. It is a structural problem, involving the way people are treated by government institutions and creating a power imbalance between people and the government. To what extent should government officials have such a significant power over citizens? This issue isn't about what information people want to hide but about the power and the structure of government."
Journalists love nothing more than to learn and share secrets, which, with the Guardian and the Washington Post as our guides, appear to be in ample supply.
If anything, journalists are fully vested in maintaining their constitutional rights to ask questions, associate freely, and speak and write their minds. If journalists react strongly to government intrusions — even well-meaning intrusions intended to protect us from acts of terrorism — it's because we're too intimate with the misuse of power and regard most government secrets as measures designed to displace freedom in favor of security.
Or as a character in David Hare's film "Page Eight" put it disparagingly, "We can't be free because we have to be safe."
The only thing that beats leakers is a long, hard freeze. In my experience, fire beats ice every time.
(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)