Does the NSA Want to See You Naked? Snowden Says Maybe

Beto Barata/AFP/Getty Images

Beto Barata/AFP/Getty Images

Edward Snowden, former National Security Agency contractor, has been the prophet of a hefty load of government disclosures. He’s become both a champion for freedom from surveillance and government overstep as well as a fugitive from the U.S. after releasing major NSA documents to the global news media. A lot of what he’s opened up to the public has left many feeling naked, exposed — their privacy violated with powers they never realized their government had. At the end of last week, The Guardian — the publication that published his initial leaks — put out another interview with Snowden, and this time his discussion quite literally stripped Americans of their clothes before prying eyes.

When you’re an NSA analyst and you’re looking for raw signals intelligence, what you realize is that the majority of the communications in our databases are not the communications of targets, they’re communications of ordinary people,” said Snowden. “They’re the most deep and intense and intimate and damaging private moments of their lives, and we’re seizing [them] without any authorization.” This also means that personal data is stored, sometimes for a long time, and that material meant only for private viewing could be seen by a series of unnamed analysts shuffling through materials.

“Many of the poeple searching through the haystacks were young, enlisted guys and … 18 to 22 years old,” he explained. “In the course of their daily work, for example, an intimate nude photo of someone in a sexually compromising situation but they’re extremely attractive. So what do they do? They turn around in the chair and show a co-worker. And their co-worker says: ‘Oh, hey, that’s great. Send that to Bill down the way.’ And then Bill sends it to George, George sends it to Tom,” and so on.

Now, does the NSA actually care to see you naked? As an institution, likely not. But as Snowden only too clearly points out, organizations are made up of individuals, and individuals have flaws that tend to grow like weeds when left untamed. Basically, he made the most extreme and ideal metaphor for the NSA’s invasion of privacy — that of being stripped nude before unseen watching eyes — a reality.

Vanee Vines, spokesperson for the NSA, spoke with The New York Times on the allegation. Her response was described as saying that, “The agency has zero tolerance for willful violations of authority or professional standards, and that it would respond as appropriate to any credible allegation of misconduct.” Perhaps punishment would be appropriately dispensed if violations were discovered, but according to Snowden, such review is unlikely. “It’s never reported, nobody every knows about it, because the auditing of these systems is incredibly weak,” said Snowden.

Just how often are we talking about? “I’d say probably every two months you see something like that happen. It’s routine enough, depending on the company you keep, it could be more or less frequent. But these are seen as the fringe benefits of surveillance positions,” said Snowden. Many would probably argue that the NSA is hardly targeting random people to see what nude photos they’ve sent — but it isn’t about being targeted, it’s about being incidentally included in privacy invasions. Anyone who’s ever spent time around a hospital knows that, though nurses and doctors are meant to hold your confidence about that unusual x-ray, the staff rooms are still rife with gossip. “People talk about things that they shouldn’t have done as if it’s no big deal because nobody expects any consequences,” said Snowden. “Nobody expects to be held to account … When you’re auditing yourselves, what are the real consequences to be expected?”

Certainly, this year has been a year that highlighted poor accountability in government; from the IRS scandals to Veteran healthcare; from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the bridgegate scandal. It is for perhaps this reason that Gallup polls showed the highest level of dissatisfaction with their freedom since 2006, up to 21 percent from 9 percent. The poll also shows a considerable increase in the perception of widespread corruption in the American government. In 2006, 59 percent of U.S. residents said they thought that corruption was widespread, compared to 2013 when 79 percent said they thought so. It will be interesting to see numbers next year, now that we’re picturing NSA analysts paging through personal photos. It’s notable, however, that most countries consider corruption to be a widespread problem in government, 108 out of 129 countries show majorities saying so, according to Gallup. Even so, while the U.S. isn’t on the list of the top ten highest corruption perceiving countries, with 79 percent, it tied for 9th with Hungary when looking at only countries with freedom of the press.    

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