Baseless Finger Pointing

You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before. — Rahm Emanuel

Emanuel laid bare for us the way in which people descend like vultures on tragedies in order to push their personal agendas. Soon after the attacks in Paris hit the headlines people were descending on the crisis. Most were using it call for the dead of Muslims, even before any details of who perpetrated the attacker were known. But some used the crisis to call for the head of Edward Snowden:

In the years since Snowden revealed the vast surveillance and spying done by Western governments, strong encryption has become an increasingly popular way for people to shield their Internet activity from prying eyes. Encryption is used by everyone from e-commerce websites and human rights activists to American soldiers and Islamist terrorists.

It’s the latter group’s adoption of strong encryption in particular that has attracted so much fiery rhetoric.

Fox News hosts Greg Gutfeld and Dana Perino, George W. Bush’s former press secretary, took to Twitter to directly blame and even curse at Snowden.

How did Snowden’s act of leaking slides from National Security Agency (NSA) presentations allow the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to thwart surveillance to successfully pull off the attacks in Paris? It didn’t. Those who think it did are making to incorrect assumptions.

First, they are assuming a massive surveillance apparatus would have thwarted these attacks. Even before the Snowden leaks the NSA’s surveillance programs failed to thwart a single terrorist attack. How could this be? Easy. Massive untargeted surveillance isn’t an effective means of discovering planned future events. When you collect everything you end up with far more noise than signal. In fact the amount of noise is so large it drowns out the signal. The only thing pervasive surveillance is useful for is gathering evidence post facto when you have a target.

Second, they are assuming ISIS is the Middle Eastern version of the three percenters, which is to say they are assuming ISIS is an uncoordinated ragtag group. This is a notion everybody needs to get over. ISIS didn’t rise to prominence through luck. It rose to prominence by waging a successful war against rival nations. Waging that war required military tactics, equipment, and coordination that is only possible with a lot of very capable people working together. People need to stop looking at ISIS as a loose terrorist group and acknowledge it as a fully fledged nation state. And it didn’t become a nation state by letting its enemies read its communications. It became a nation state by utilize effective means of concealing communications. That requires experts, which isn’t something somebody can become by reading the slides Snowden leaked.

Mass surveillance was useless before Snowden leaked the NSA’s dirty laundry so there are no grounds to claim it would have thwarted these attacks had Snowden not blown the whistle.