March 9, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, March 9, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
WikiLeaks, smart devices, and the CIA: New release of hacking documents compromises American security
This week, Americans were alerted to the shocking truth that even as we are watching TV, our TV might be watching back. This came as the result of the latest WikiLeaks release, and this time as the New York Times headline said,
“Documents Said to Reveal Hacking Secrets of C.I.A”Show Full Transcript
The subhead of the front page story in Wednesday’s edition of the paper said this,
“WikiLeaks Exposes Tools Agency May Have Used on Smart Phones and TVs”
An entire team of reporters for the New York Times tells us,
“In what appears to be the largest leak of C.I.A documents in history, WikiLeaks released on Tuesday thousands of pages describing sophisticated software tools and techniques used by the agency to break into smartphones, computers and even Internet-connected televisions. The documents amount to a detailed, highly technical catalog of tools. They include instructions for compromising a wide range of common computer tools for use in spying: the online calling service Skype; Wi-Fi networks; documents in PDF format; and even commercial antivirus programs of the kind used by millions of people to protect their computers.”
There’s a certain irony, of course, in those last words. We’re talking about the hacking of a computer system that is supposed to prevent hacking, and all of this undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America. This really is a big story. Sometimes this kind of story emerges, and it’s hard to tell us it’s really of a significant magnitude. By any dimension, this one is.
First of all, it’s important because we’re talking about the CIA, one of most important intelligence gathering agencies of the United States government and a key player in the War on Terror. The CIA has the responsibility, particularly when it comes to the international context, to gather information that is used in order to prevent attacks on the United States and also to gather information that can be useful to the United States in terms of its global conflicts and, furthermore, its international relations. We’re talking about a hacking of the CIA’s major computer system and the revelation of the actual mechanisms that the CIA, we are now told, has been using to spy, particularly on the instruments of the modern digital age: smart phones, smart televisions connected to the Internet, and some of the most popular software programs and digital platforms of our modern age.
As the reporters for the Times said,
“In one revelation that may especially trouble the tech world if confirmed, WikiLeaks said that the C.I.A. and allied intelligence services have managed to compromise both Apple and Android smartphones, allowing their officers to bypass the encryption on popular services such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram. According to WikiLeaks, government hackers can penetrate smartphones and collect ‘audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.’”
We’ve been looking at headlines, big headlines, concerning WikiLeaks now for a matter of years, and one of the most interesting aspects of this from a Christian worldview perspective is how the posture of various parties driven by various worldviews in this country has changed with the unfolding WikiLeaks story.
When the WikiLeaks story first broke and WikiLeaks as an organization, a nefarious and nebulous organization, began to dump vast amounts of information, documentation that it had gathered in terms of governments, there were many in terms of the libertarian movement and many on the philosophical and political left who celebrated what was basically a clear subversion of governmental authority. There was the claim that our government and other governments as well have taken on the role of big brother and have abused the rights and privileges, including the assumed privacy, of citizens of this country. Figures like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden became something of a new series of poster children for the libertarians and the left.
All that began to change a bit when just about everyone across the political spectrum, at least the responsible political spectrum, began to realize that WikiLeaks was doing real damage to our national security. But on the left everything really began to change when it was discovered that WikiLeaks was behind the release of another set of thousands and thousands of documents, this time documents that were deeply damaging to the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton. For the left, one the most ominous aspects of that development was the fact that it appears to be an attack on the left by the left, that is on the so-called mainstream left represented by Hillary Clinton by the more radical left.
There has always been a trade-off between security and privacy, and that has become especially acute in the digital age. It’s probably true that the vast majority of Americans are frankly relieved to know that the intelligence agencies of the United States of America are actively seeking to break whatever codes are necessary to break any encryption that might be necessary in order to protect us in terms of the War on Terror. Let’s remind ourselves that much of that war has actually been fought in the digital dimension. As national security people will make very clear, it’s a lot safer for Americans to have that warfare fought in the digital realm rather than on our own shores.
But perhaps one of the most interesting things that happened with the release this time by WikiLeaks is that it penetrated the assumption, the rather naïve assumption, that just about anything that happens online can stay private. A side story in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times had the quite realistic headline,
“How Worried Should You Be About Your Phone, Computer or TV?”
After all, the documents that were released this week indicate that the intelligence agencies have developed the ability to turn so-called smart televisions on the viewers, actually collecting data rather than merely serving as a medium for entertainment. When it comes to smart phones, it’s hard to believe that anyone realistically could anticipate that that smart phone is going to remain private, that somehow it isn’t going to be accessible, especially to those who have the digital power of the investigative and intelligence agencies of the United States of America. Now even as there is security in terms of knowing that our government is at work trying to catch those who are the enemies of this nation on the digital realm, there are very real privacy concerns.
Clearly a government that could collect this kind of information could misuse it. But when you look at the hierarchy of concerns, it’s likely that most Americans are more concerned about national security than about at least what might be a hypothetical case of the invasion of privacy. Just to make the matter very clear, there are over 300 million Americans. There are well over hundreds of millions of smart phones and other digital devices in this country, and thus if every one of them is actually recording conversations and for that matter relaying data, it’s clear that intelligence agencies, even the biggest intelligence agency in the world, could not spend its time listening to conversation between aunt Sally and nephew George.
Another dimension of this story was made very clear in an editorial yesterday in the Wall Street Journal. The editors wrote,
“Tuesday’s WikiLeaks dump of a major chunk of what it claims is the CIA’s ‘hacking arsenal’ ought to be an eye-opener for anyone still laboring under the delusion that WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange or former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden are not out to weaken the United States. This leak of CIA documents appears to disclose for America’s enemies a key advantage against the asymmetric threats of this new century: better technology that provides better intelligence.”
This editorial statement is important because it makes clear what’s at stake. Many Americans are instantly concerned about their television or their smart phone. What they should be most concerned about is the weakening of America’s security and the potential opening of a new vulnerability, a vulnerability that was made possible, advertised to the world by the dumping of all these documents by WikiLeaks and its allies. What the editors of the Wall Street Journal understand is that America and thus its citizens have very real enemies. It’s up to Americans to decide which they fear more: their own government or those who have declared themselves the mortal enemies of this nation and all that is stands for.
Finally on this issue, let’s remind ourselves of why we call these technologies smart. It’s because they are in their own way gathering and demonstrating at least a technological intelligence. It actually makes no sense to brag to your neighbors about your smart TV and then be surprised when it turns out that it’s even smarter than you understood.
Inflection point? Violent protests at Middlebury College and the state of higher education in America
Next, it is of vital importance that we observe what’s going on on America’s college and university campuses, and that’s especially true of the most elite of these campuses. In the first sense, what happens there will not stay there. We’re talking about the incubation of the next generation of adults in American history. But there is also, we understand, an inordinate influence that is invested in these institutions, and we also understand the trajectory of higher education in America: left, left, and further left. But what we have been noting in recent years is a repressive intolerance that increasingly marks the American college and university campus.
All this came to a head in recent days with the planned appearance of Charles Murray, a social scientist to the American Enterprise Institute at Middlebury College in Vermont. Students on that Vermont campus not only prevented Charles Murray from speaking at the planned event in one of the colleges auditoriums, but they also eventually sent a respected professor to the hospital with an injury, even as that professor had simply been trying to help Charles Murray to get out of the facility. Once again, we’re looking at a story that looms larger with every passing day. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, two professors at the college, Jay Parini, and Keegan Callanan, wrote,
“On Thursday roughly 100 of our 2,500 students prevented a controversial visiting speaker, Charles Murray, from communicating with his audience on the campus of Middlebury College. Mr. Murray was silenced by loud chants and foot-stomping; the commotion lasted nearly half an hour before college officials moved him to a private room to deliver his address into a camera. But even the simulcast to the auditorium was silenced by more protests and multiple fire alarms. As Mr. Murray was leaving, a group of as-yet-unidentified assailants mobbed him and seriously injured one of our faculty colleagues. In view of these unacceptable acts, we have produced a document stating core principles that seem to us unassailable in the context of higher education within a free society.”
Now we’ll look in just a moment to those principles that these two professors articulated, and these two professors represent what we might call the very best of the liberal educational tradition. They actually believe that the college or university campus is to be a place where ideas are heard and then considered, debated, and discussed. That is becoming a lost liberal ideal. The repressive intolerance that was preached in the 1960s is actually becoming quite a reality in the year 2017. We’ve seen the signs coming. But as we look at the story, we come to understand it becomes a microcosm of what’s going on in elite higher education. Bernard Goldberg, writing about it, said this,
“The cupcakes have struck again. This time it was at Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school in rural Vermont, where hundreds of cupcakes (also known as snowflakes) disrupted a speech by the conservative scholar Charles Murray. The cupcakes say he’s a bigot so they wouldn’t let him talk. They chanted, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray, go away.” I think they threw in the “anti-gay” part because they needed something to rhyme with ‘go away.’”
Charles Murray, let’s just point out, has not been known for taking any position that could be recognized as anti-gay. I think Bernard Goldberg’s right. They simply needed the poetry, but for that matter, they really don’t care about reality. It’s almost certain that none of these protesting students had actually read anything that Charles Murray had written. As a matter of fact, many of them absolutely rejected even the responsibility to understand his ideas before they would reject them. What’s even more concerning is that many faculty, not only at Middlebury College, but elsewhere joined in the affirmation of the rightness of shutting down a conversation before it even happened. We’ve seen this as it has occurred in headlines coming from the University of California at Berkeley in recent months. That was the very campus where in the 1960s the free speech movement was begun, but the free speech movement has now devolved into the anti-free speech movement. And what we’re noticing is a nearly Stalinist approach undertaken by many in the educational, the academic establishment.
The reason why Bernard Goldberg calls them “cupcakes” is because we’re talking about an incredibly pampered generation of students. He says they’re not only cupcakes, they’re also known, and he’s right about this, as “snowflakes.” They seem to fear that they’re simply going to melt if they ever hear anything with which they might disagree. They might well disagree with Charles Murray if they read his books and understood his arguments. Back in the 1990s, Murray and a co-author were at the center of controversy over their book, The Bell Curve, when they were accused of racism. That kind of accusation should always be taken seriously. But when we say it should be taken seriously, that means we should actually look at the argument and see if it is truly racist and if so, argue against it. That’s not what the students did.
Furthermore, Charles Murray in the years since has been one of the most interesting and one of most influential conservative intellectuals, especially important for his book, Coming Apart, publish several years ago in which he offered one of the most accurate diagnoses of what’s happening in the breakdown of American culture: family by family, marriage by marriage, community by community. Goldberg cites another intellectual, Myron Magnet. He is a scholar who taught at Middlebury in the 1970s. As Goldberg writes upon hearing what happened to Charles Murray, he wrote about his experience at the college.
“‘I remember two salient traits of the majority of students in those days. One was their extraordinary intellectual laziness and lack of curiosity, especially infuriating because so many were such intelligent kids. The other was their immense privilege. Shiny new BMWs filled the student parking lot, each fitted with racks holding the most technologically advanced skis for whizzing down the slopes. There were battered Volvos, too. They belonged to us teachers.’”
He went on to say,
“Since the rest of the collegiate world, hostile to any new or challenging idea, has adopted the anti-intellectualism that characterized the Middlebury I knew, it’s hard to imagine that much has changed in the Green Mountain Shangri-La in that particular.”
There are clearly some remaining sane at Middlebury College, including the two professors who wrote the article for the Wall Street Journal, Jay Parini and Keegan Callanan, but also at least to this point, the president of the college Laurie Patton, who issued a very clear apology to Charles Murray and appears, at least we can hope, to want to do something in response to the embarrassment that befell her college.
I noted a couple of other interesting observations in terms of the news coverage of this event. One is people said this was just a minority of students at Middlebury College. Well, that almost goes by definition, but the numbers provided in news reports are actually shocking, 100 students out of 2500 in the student body—just to be clear, that means 1 out of every 25 students on the college campus in one protest shutting down one speaker. That’s actually a rather significant percentage of the student body involved in this protest.
Second, just as we saw in the incident at the University of California at Berkeley, at least some authorities quickly claimed these weren’t really students. They were actually activists who came on the campus. Now there are a couple of problems with that. The first problems is that almost all of these colleges restrict access in such a way that they do know who’s a student and who is not. But then remember our conversation about the smart technology in the digital age. It turns out there are plenty of video cameras on that campus, and they provide a good deal of documentary evidence about the students who actually were involved in the protest. The big question being raised by many is whether these students at this elite college, the cupcakes Bernard Goldberg writes about, will be held to account for their actions.
Third, remember that a respected member of the faculty at Middlebury College, Allison Stanger, was actually injured by the protestors simply trying to escort Charles Murray off the campus. The professor, it turned out, had not even indicated any agreement with Charles Murray in terms of his proposals. But she had agreed when requested by students to serve as a moderator for the event. For that she was repaid with disrespect, the pulling of her hair, and injury to her neck that left her at the hospital with a neck brace the next day. Professor Stanger was obviously very concerned about this. She wrote,
“I want you to know what it feels like to look out at a sea of students yelling obscenities at other members of my beloved community. There were students and faculty who wanted to hear the exchange but were unable to do so, either because of the screaming and chanting and chair pounding in the room, or because their seats were occupied by those who refused to listen and they were stranded outside the doors.”
She went on to say,
“I saw some of my faculty colleagues who had publicly acknowledged that they had not read anything Dr. Murray had written join the effort to shut down the lecture. All of this was deeply unsettling to me. What alarmed me most, however, was what I saw in student eyes from up on that stage. Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me. Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. It was clear to me that they had effectively dehumanized me. They couldn’t look me in the eye, because if they had, they would have seen another human being. There is a lot to be angry about in America today, but nothing good ever comes from demonizing our brothers and sisters.”
We also have to note that there are those amongst professors in America’s colleges and universities in increasing number who are arguing that it was the students who were right in terms of their behavior and conduct in shutting down the discussion. They are learning from those who are teaching them.
John Patrick Leary, writing at the website Inside Higher Education, spoke as a professor in another institution about what he observed of the story at Middlebury College. He suggested for instance that perhaps the attack on the professor was misunderstood or overblown. He said this,
“A group of Middlebury students argued that the chaotic atmosphere Stanger describes was aggravated by belligerent campus security, and their statement suggested that her injury may have simply been an accident. ‘Protesters did not escalate violence and had no plan of violent physical confrontation,’ the statement read. ‘We do not know of any students who hurt Professor Stanger; however, we deeply regret that she was injured during the event.’”
The storyline, the defenses, or explanations coming from students, both on and off the campus of Middlebury College, and for many of their faculty defenders seems to come down to this: “We didn’t do it. Well, maybe we did do it, but we didn’t mean it. Well, we actually did do it, and we actually did mean it.”
The stance taken by those on the academic left increasingly shuts down all conversation. They do not believe that conservative ideas have any place in the marketplace of discussion on the major American college or university campus. The kind of free exchange of ideas that was the ideal of American liberal education is disappearing. Left in its place is something that would be more recognizable in the Bolshevik revolution back in 1917. It’s eerily haunting to consider that it’s just exactly 100 years later that we’re looking at the threshold of the same kind of movement. But this time not in Russia, but on the American college and university campus.
Charles Murray, reflecting on the shutdown of his appearance at Middlebury College, wrote this,
“That’s why the penalties imposed on the protesters need to be many and severe if last Thursday is not to become an inflection point. But let’s be realistic: The pressure to refrain from suspending and expelling large numbers of students will be intense. Parents will bombard the administration with explanations of why their little darlings are special people whose hearts were in the right place. Faculty and media on the left will urge that no one inside the lecture hall be penalized because shouting down awful people like me is morally appropriate. The administration has to recognize that severe sanctions will make the college less attractive to many prospective applicants.”
He went on, of course, but I think the most interesting part of his statement is his phrase “inflection point.”
He’s arguing that what happened to him and to Professor Stanger at Middlebury College last week could well in retrospect be understood to be an inflection point, in other words, a point from which there is basically no return. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the hostility towards conservative ideas and the Christian worldview in particular on many college and university campuses, especially amongst the most academically elite institutions. Was last week at Middlebury College indeed the inflection point? There’s actually good evidence to believe that inflection point had been reached considerably before Charles Murray was shut down at Middlebury College. If so, it will mean the final breath of what was a proud academic tradition on the campuses of the United States of America.
One final note, I have published conversations in the Thinking in Public series with both Charles Murray and Myron Magnet. They can be found along with other resources at AlbertMohler.com.