BBC’s Edward Snowden was not really that

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I watched BBC Panorama documentary with and about Snowden yesterday. Actually, I watched it twice as I was disappointed the first time round. I wanted to find out why.

I feel that the whole Snowden discussion is about balance, balance between needs and benefits and cost (financial, privacy, human) – if we forget for a moment that Edward Snowden signed something similar to the UK Official Secrets Act for which many died. I should also say I am in no way a big fan of governments as they are too often hiding their actions behind phrases and cliches.

Well, my initial impression was that the right questions were not asked. Panorama tried to cover a lot of ground and it didn’t work. What did I actually learn?

At the very beginning, the presenter uses vague statements about relationship between GCHQ and NSA to belittle GCHQ’s role. I don’t know why as there may be many reasons but I don’t like the style, not sure BBC tried to properly explore this issue.

The deputy director of FBI says “… The damage is … to our ability to protect”. That is certainly a correct but also unquantifiable statement. There should have been a follow-up question. Damage to spy on terrorists or governments or citizens of other countries? What actually happened as a result? It has been long enough now to name instances when Snowden’s “betrayal” led to difficulties.

On the other hand, Snowden claims that NSA & co are bad because they can do bad things and if they do we will not know. Hmm, isn’t it exactly the thinking we are trying to fight against? Guilt judged and sentenced on the basis of words and thoughts? I, just like many others would have to be found guilty of whatever because I can do bad things. I just decided not to use our knowledge to hack banks or anybody else, but it doesn’t mean I couldn’t do that!

There were a couple of questions – “how do you think terrorists view Snowden?”. Frankly, one can answer whatever one wants to make a statement one wants. It is biased because there was no question like what do you think US citizens, EU citizens, private companies, … think about him. Using the word “terrorists” creates a clearly negative context…

NSA former head – “… he betrayed us people because he betrayed our agencies”. That is such a gross extrapolation. What authority has an NSA head to talk on behalf of the whole nation? Are NSA interests really the same as of the nation? I wonder, but the way the eavesdropping has been implemented suggests that NSA itself thought that was not the case.

The next segment was a lot about Facebook – or that was an impression it created. But the government side never mentioned Facebook but talked about “companies” that did not want to cooperate. The problem was that BBC interleaved it with a Facebook guy so it felt as if both sides were talking about Facebook.

This was actually the worst part, really – Facebook blamed for not spotting “terrorists”. When we know that NSA monitored Facebook and they didn’t spot it either. Now, whose business is it to analyse data traffic and identify criminal behaviour? Who has huge budgets and bright minds that do it full-time?

Next was a comparison of Facebook with banks. I know a bit about banks and this was a very cheap attack that should have been followed by more questions. There are very precise definitions of what banks should report and do – KYC (know your customer) procedures are part of that. These are miles away from sifting through terabytes of data to search for …. What exactly?

Overall – we got here a big company to point our fingers at and I don’t believe it was fair. There was no question asking – right, so how do you engage with these big companies? How do you help them? Do you offer to them technology they could use to help you? I don’t like the way Facebook myself because of how it handles personal data but that is a different topic and my point is that the government side got here an easy ride.

That is it, my observations. Having watched it twice, I still think Panorama could and should have done better job. What bothers me is the use of the collected information. The chance of mis-classification and random events flagged as intentional actions… Dependency on what people say – and we say a lot, without having context of what has been said. Cases where authorities jumped to conclusions without getting any information from real world. But nothing from that was mentioned.

So what did I actually learn? Snowden is a hero of terrorists, Facebook doesn’t care, NSA owns our mobile phones and GCHQ is financed by the US government. Is it really what BBC wants us to remember?

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Dan Cvrcek

Founder and CEO of Enigma Bridge, engineer, entrepreneur, cryptography SME, security architect, and professor.