Bloomberg has published an article detailing the techniques intelligence experts will likely use to try to track down the people who beheaded American journalist James Foley.
- Analysis of the English accent of the voice on the video, which the consensus seems to have pinpointed to “East London”
- Review and cross-referencing of British citizens who have traveled to the Middle East (the UK government believes 400-500 UK citizens have fought in Syria and Iraq)
- Interviews with people in British communities who might be able to identify the voice in the video
- The weather conditions, scenery, and angle of the shadows in the video, which might help pinpoint time and location
- The physical characteristics of the murderer in the video (made more difficult because the hood covers almost all of his face, including his eyebrows, and his distance from the camera may limit analysis of his eyes)
- Sources in Syria and Iraq
- Analysing voice patterns by comparing them to previously recorded voices of ISIS leaders
- Analysis of digital “meta-data” that might shed light on the location at which the video was uploaded, as well as any devices that might have processed it
The Bloomberg article is fascinating As I was reading it, three things occurred to me:
- I hope the US succeeds in tracking down Foley’s killers
- Bloomberg’s article might be an effective primer for ISIS members and other terrorists on modern intelligence techniques
- I wonder if Edward Snowden’s leaks have helped ISIS
The second observation raises an issue that most journalists have to wrestle with: The possibility that your work will hurt the forces of good or help the forces of bad or have other undesirable side effects. If you’re going to be a journalist, you have to accept this. Specifically, you have to believe that the benefit of investigating and revealing truth outweighs the negative consequences, and you have to make decisions about what and when to publish as well as you can under those circumstances. In this case, the Bloomberg article doesn’t reveal much more than you would learn from a modern intelligence drama like “Homeland,” so the risk of revealing any real insights to terrorists probably isn’t great.
But I wonder whether the same can be said for all the information that Edward Snowden has revealed. And I also wonder whether the recent reminders of some of the threats the U.S. national security techniques were built to minimize will change how some Americans feel about him and what he did.
Last year, when Snowden stole and made public many classified intelligence documents that revealed the scope of modern spying techniques, he was hailed in some corners as a hero and patriot. Many Americans were understandably startled when they learned the extent to which digital communications and movements were being stored and monitored and analysed (I certainly was). And with more than a decade having passed since 9/11, the horror of that attack had largely been forgotten, as had the logic behind the laws and investment behind what Snowden dubbed the NSA’s “spying machine.” So the revelations seemed disturbing.
Snowden and his champions argued that the risks that our national security officials cited to justify the development of these techniques had always been overblown. They also contended that, in any event, privacy was more important.
In the atmosphere at the time, many people seemed to agree.
Over the past year, however, global tensions have once again heated up. Russia, which is now harboring Snowden, is acting more and more like the Cold War Soviet Union of old. Rebels in the Ukraine just blew a civilian airliner out of the sky. And a new terrorist threat, which by most accounts seems far more organised, dangerous, and powerful than any the West has yet faced, has seized control of a huge amount of territory in the Middle East and is now explicitly targeting Americans.
Meanwhile, in the year since Snowden went public, NSA officials have repeatedly said that — by revealing the NSA’s secrets to the whole world (including ISIS) — Snowden has weakened the NSA’s ability to do its job. Snowden’s champions have dismissed these claims as pathetic fear-mongering, but it’s easy to see how they might also be true.
I know that merely asking the question of whether Snowden’s leaks have helped ISIS will likely trigger angry responses from his champions, so let me say that I have no agenda here. I am ambivalent about Snowden. On the one hand, I think it’s positive that our government officials have been reminded that their actions can and will be scrutinized. On the other hand, I hate the idea that America’s ability to defend itself and its citizens and control the spread of a group like ISIS has in any way been compromised.
I should also add that, as I said at the time Snowden went public, I am personally willing to trade off some amount of privacy — within the checks and balances of the US legal system — for some additional security. (See: “I’m OK With The NSA Collecting My Data“) I understand that others — Snowden, for example — have different priorities.
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