This has been a terrible week for the Barack Obama. Public support has been building for Bradley Manning since the beginning of his trial last week. Manning spent nearly three years in military prison awaiting his day in court after he shared classified communications with Wikileaks. This week Edward Snowden, another whistleblower, released evidence that the United States’ National Security Agency has been tracking the phone usage of US customers of Verizon, a major US phone carrier. Reactions have been swift, and highly critical of a President that vowed transparency, then signed an extension of the Patriot Act’s warrantless wiretapping, and the NDAA, which allowed for the indefinite detention of American citizens without due process.
While many Americans are split on whether Manning is a hero or a traitor, the uproar against the NSA indiscriminately tracking American citizens (who have not been suspected of a crime), is rising to a level that may endanger Barack Obama’s legacy, and his Presidency as well.
David Simon of RawStory.com believes that the tracking of American phone records is much ado about nothing. He cites a precedent from the 1980s where police recorded phone calls, but maintains that rights are not infringed when the monitoring stops short of listening to the actual calls. Maybe that was true in the 80's, but that does not hold true today. Firstly, the scale that the data can be analyzed on is orders of magnitudes greater. All telephone calls are routed through digital switches and are logged and analyzed in real time on massive supercomputers. The lines that can be drawn on pieces of paper bear no resemblance to the lines that can be drawn with semantic data, not just of phone calls, but also of data that can be related online. Google, Facebook and Microsoft (Skype) have the telephone numbers of millions of users. These phone numbers can now be related with conversations had on two social networks, email accounts, photos and videos watched and uploaded, conversations with other users, and search histories. A phone record between two numbers no longer represents an unknowable conversation. Those numbers are the keys to hundreds or thousands of posts, media, contacts and history. This is not theoretically. It was recently reported that “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple were all reported to be giving up data to the National Security Agency and the FBI“ While many have denied giving direct access to their data to the NSA, they have not denied the possibility that they have given extracts of that data for the same purposes. Snowden and Manning have highlighted the irony in the oft used government axiom, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”.
The President could see this scandal derail what’s left of his agenda, and mire the rest of his term in conflict as he attempts to defend the indefensible. But there may be a way out. The President’s term began with a pledge for transparency and a launch of sites like Data.gov, to share the information that passes through the halls of government.
This may be the last time he can credibly pivot and begin to dismantle the measures put into place with the Patriot Act, NDAA and inaction with Guantanamo, which sparked hunger strikes last month. It may not be too late for him to right the ship and return to a platform of hope, change and transparency, but it soon might be.