Monthly Archives: December 2013

My Q&A with Laura Poitras about Bill Binney

In the course of reporting my Wall Street Journal article about NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, I interviewed filmmaker Laura Poitras about her relationship with Binney and how it led to her meeting Edward Snowden. Here is a transcript of our exchange:

Q: What sparked your first interest in Bill Binney?

A: I first learned about Bill in 2011 from Jane Mayer’s New Yorker story on NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake.  The article focused on the government’s effort to prosecute Tom under the Espionage Act.  In the article, Bill went on the record for the first time in order to defend Tom.  He said something that really struck me – he wanted to apologize to the American people for helping build tools now being used to spy on them.

I got Bill’s phone number after reading the article, but it took me a few days to call him. I knew I couldn’t call a former top level NSA crypto-mathematician turned whistleblower without flipping a switch. When I finally called, Bill said something like:  “Yes, I’ll speak to you.  I’m sick and tired of my government breaking the law and harassing me.”

I imagine that conversation is sitting in a data repository somewhere.

Q: At the time that you reached out to Bill, it was difficult to substantiate the allegations he was making. What made him credible to you?

A: There was no question about Bill’s position in the NSA.  By all accounts, he was a legendary mathematician.  His eyewitness account of what happened after 9/11 is very compelling and supported by other reports.

I met Bill on the eve of Tom’s trial in 2011. Bill was eager to testify in Tom’s defense because he wanted to be placed under oath and tell the court what he knew about STELLARWIND – NSA’s post 9/11 domestic spying program.  Bill didn’t get the opportunity to testify because the government reduced the charges against Tom from espionage (and 35 years in prison), to a misdemeanor.

I think Bill is still hoping to testify under oath someday.

Q:  You published your op-doc about Binney “The Program” on August 22, 2012. What prompted you to break off the piece about Binney and publish it prior to your film being completed?

A: I decided to make “The Program” for a couple reasons:  First, Bill’s health was bad and I didn’t know how long he’d be with us.  He had taken so many risks to speak out that I felt an urgency to make public his warnings.  Second, the FISA Amendments Acts (FAA), was up for renewal in December 2012, and there was little public debate or interest about the bill and its renewal.  For these two reasons, I felt the story couldn’t wait for me to finish the longer film, so I approached the NYT to make the short op-doc.

Q:  Is it correct that Edward Snowden reached out to you because of the Binney documentary?

A: I can’t speak for Snowden’s decision-making process, but he did tell me he learned of my interest in NSA surveillance from the op-doc I made about Bill.

My Q&A with Edward Snowden about Binney and Big Data

While reporting my Wall Street Journal article about NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, I posed some questions to Edward Snowden. Here is our exchange, which was fielded by his legal counsel, Ben Wizner at the ACLU:

Q: In a June Q&A with the Guardian, you were asked about the treatment of Binney and Drake, and you replied “these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers.” Can you elaborate on what you learned from the treatment of Binney and how it has informed your actions?

Snowden: I have tremendous respect for Binney, who did everything he could according to the rules. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for highlighting how the Intelligence Community punishes reporting abuses within the system. If you stay quiet and keep your eyes forward, you’ll be taken care of, even if you lie to Congress. If you buck the system, you find armed agents in your bathroom.

Q: One of the points that Binney makes is that not only is dragnet surveillance harmful to civil liberties, but it also overwhelms the NSA analysts who have to sift through it, weakening our intelligence apparatus. Do you agree with that argument?

Snowden: I do. Mass surveillance causes us to miss events like the Boston Bombings because analysts are distracted by low-effort analysis of endless and unfocused chatter rather than the focused, targeted investigation of things like tipoffs from partners. When your working process every morning starts with poking around a haystack of 7 billion innocent lives, you’re going to miss things like that. We’re blinding our people with data we don’t need and it puts us at risk.

NSA Struggles to Make Sense of Flood of Surveillance Data

Binney photo

By Julia Angwin

LAUSANNE, Switzerland— William Binney, creator of some of the computer code used by the National Security Agency to snoop on Internet traffic around the world, delivered an unusual message here in September to an audience worried that the spy agency knows too much.

It knows so much, he said, that it can’t understand what it has.

“What they are doing is making themselves dysfunctional by taking all this data,” Mr. Binney said at a privacy conference here.

The agency is drowning in useless data, which harms its ability to conduct legitimate surveillance, claims Mr. Binney, who rose to the civilian equivalent of a general during more than 30 years at the NSA before retiring in 2001. Analysts are swamped with so much information that they can’t do their jobs effectively, and the enormous stockpile is an irresistible temptation for misuse.

Mr. Binney’s warning has gotten far less attention than legal questions raised by leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the agency’s mass collection of information around the world. Those revelations unleashed a re-examination of the spy agency’s aggressive tactics.

Read more at The Wall Street Journal and see the full privacy series.

I’m moving to ProPublica

I am excited to announce that I will be joining ProPublica in January, where I will be investigating privacy issues, technology, and the surveillance state:

ProPublica Hires Senior Reporter to Investigate Privacy Issues

New York, N.Y. – Nov. 26, 2013 – ProPublica has hired investigative journalist Julia Angwin as a senior reporter covering privacy, technology and the surveillance state. She will begin work at ProPublica in early January.

Angwin comes to ProPublica after more than a decade at the Wall Street Journal, where she covered the convergence of technology and media. In 2010, she led a team of reporters that chronicled the decline of online privacy – leading to a Gerald Loeb Award. The following year coverage generated by her privacy team was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting, an award Angwin and another team of Journal reporters won in 2003 for coverage of corporate corruption.

Angwin is the author of “Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America” and the forthcoming “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.” She earned a B.A. in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1992, and an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University in 2000.

“Julia brings with her a magnificent portfolio of work, and she will be a stellar addition to our staff,” ProPublica managing editor Robin Fields said.

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. In 2010, it was the first online news organization to win a Pulitzer Prize. In 2011, ProPublica won its second Pulitzer, the first ever awarded to a body of work that did not appear in print. ProPublica is supported primarily by philanthropy and provides the articles it produces, free of charge, both through its own website and often to leading news organizations selected with an eye toward maximizing the impact of each article. For more information, please visit www.ProPublica.org.

 

Advance Praise for Dragnet Nation

As I mentioned in my last post, my new book, Dragnet Nation, is coming out in February, and is available for pre-order now. Here’s some feedback that it’s gotten so far:

Dragnet Nation is an impressive picture of the new world of electronic surveillance—from Google to the NSA. Julia Angwin’s command of the technology is sure, her writing is clear, and her arguments are compelling. This is an authoritative account of why we should care about privacy and how we can protect ourselves.”
—Bruce Schneier, author of Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive

“In this thought-provoking, highly accessible exploration of the issues around personal data-gathering, Julia Angwin provides a startling account of how we’re all being tracked, watched, studied, and sorted. Her own (often very funny) attempts to maintain her online privacy demonstrate the ubiquity of the dragnet—and the near impossibility of evading it. I’ll never use Google in the same way again.”
—Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of Happier at Home and The Happiness Project

“Julia Angwin’s pathbreaking reporting for the Wall Street Journal about online tracking changed the privacy debate. Her new book represents another leap forward: by showing how difficult it was to protect her own privacy and vividly describing the social and personal costs, Angwin offers both a wakeup call and a thoughtful manifesto for reform. This is a meticulously documented and gripping narrative about why privacy matters and what we can do about it.”
—Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO, National Constitution Center, and author of The Unwanted Gaze and The Naked Crowd

Dragnet Nation is a fascinating, compelling, and powerful read. Many of us would simply prefer not to know how much others know about us, and yet Julia Angwin opens a door onto that dark world in a way that both raises a new set of public issues and canvasses a range of solutions. We can reclaim our privacy while still enjoying the benefits of many types of surveillance – but only if we take our heads out of the sand and read this book.”
—Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO, New America

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