Oh, my goodness, what interesting times we’re living in. Where to start? One thing for sure, we are certainly living in a different America than the one i grew up in back when i was a kid in West Texas in the forties and fifties and was being taught to love my country for its resolute defense of the citizenry. From sea to shining sea and all that.
What’s different? Well, how ’bout day-before-yesterday’s revelation that the Defense Department has refused to tell the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations who we are now at war with. Wait a minute. I was taught that the Constitution reserved the power to declare war to Congress, and it still says that. However, on numerous occasions presidents have sidestepped this clause and declared war unilaterally, but the War Powers Resolution passed over Nixon’s veto in 1973 defined much more precisely presidential and congressional powers with regard to war. What this resolution does not do, however, is give the Defense Department the power to wage war while refusing to tell Congress who we’re waging war against, which frankly sounds much more like our military has staged a quiet coup and taken over the government.
On the other hand, a coup isn’t really necessary since Congress has itself been responsible for many of the most egregious attacks on our liberties, witness the Patriot Act. Since Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance of American citizens, there has been some talk about putting some limitations on its powers and the scope of its surveillance. So the House last Thursday passed, with no sense of irony, the “USA Freedom Act” that would ostensibly put limits on the NSA but in fact is so watered down that it actually gives the NSA even more power to monitor us all. A military coup isn’t necessary if Congress is willing to voluntarily turn over all power to our military and our intelligence agencies.
And speaking of the NSA, the revelations of the extent to which Americans are spied on continue almost daily, and they get worse and worse. The most recent bombshell is the publication four days ago of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, in which he tells the story of his relationship with Edward Snowden and how he first broke the news about the NSA. I picked it up yesterday at Folio Books on 24th Street and will start devouring it tonight.
But finally, the tastiest news about the NSA is that a group of six bright young folks at CERN got together, did a little brainstorming, and came up with ProtonMail, which is described in glowing terms in a recent Forbes article as an entirely new approach to email encryption that “the NSA can’t access”. Oh please. If i were not so trusting, i’d suspect that the NSA paid Forbes to publish that article to give folks the impression that they could just sign up for ProtonMail, and all their secrets would be forever safe from the NSA.
But now, a disclaimer: I am neither a cryptographer nor an Internet expert, so what i’m about to say is just the opinion of an amateur with an interest in cryptography and the NSA.
That said, from what i’ve read, ProtonMail is hardly a new approach since end-to-end encryption (EE2E) has been around for decades in products like Pretty Good Privacy. The problem with PGP is that you have to be both slightly more patient and slightly smarter than average to use it, and many people have expressed shock at discovering that only half of us are dumber than average….or less patient. As an illustration of this, remember that when Snowden first contacted Greenwald and wanted him to install PGP so they could email privately about an explosive story, Greenwald wasn’t willing to go to the trouble. Perhaps ProtonMail will be easier to use.
A second problem with the Forbes story is that the NSA is already accessing all your email correspondence, and your using ProtonMail or any other encryption system is not going to change this. What EE2E does do is make it very tedious for NSA to decrypt your email that they’ve collected. That’s all. They will still be able to decrypt it, but they just hate being inconvenienced by having to expend the time and effort.
A third problem with the article is that all the encryption in the world is not going to improve your privacy if your computer has been compromised by the installation of an NSA “back door” program. At this point, we know that some computers are compromised, but we have no idea what percentage of our computers have back doors. My friend and first reader CK (and i am not turning him in to the NSA because we’re so brazen that we don’t encrypt our email and ain’t tryin’ to hide nuthin’) suggested that i add an explanatory note to this point. He wrote: “once the NSA (or anyone else) gets access to your computer (okay, ever since they got access…) the encryption is immaterial because the (NSA etc) can read your mail keystroke by keystroke as you write it. And if you are using encryption, they will.”
Still, if millions of us installed ProtonMail and used it properly, life would become much more difficult for the NSA, so i would not be a bit surprised to see a willing Congress pass legislation declaring possession of it illegal. In fact, i rather suspect that America’s foremost apologist for the NSA, Senator Diane Feinstein, AKA Big Sister, is drafting such legislation even as i write.
And that said, as CK pointed out, until millions of us who have nothing to hide suddenly start encrypting our email out of principal, those who do it are waving a fuscia flag at the NSA signaling that they think they have something to hide and thus become Persons of Suspicion.
Meanwhile, here’s a recent candid photo of the NSA on a morning run down Polk Street: