“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Saturday, June 15, 2013


Certainly, this post will stray from my topic space as I've done in the past. I feel compelled to opine on the NSA leaks saga (purposely not calling it the Edward Snowden saga for reasons that will be apparent).

In my life I've been a tin foil hat arch right wing reactionary, a socialist, a strident atheist, a Christian (as I believe today), a doctrinaire libertarian, and many others. But one thing in my belief system and philosophy that has never wavered is my staunch belief in a right to privacy. The Fourth Amendment ostensibly assures us of our right to be "secure in our persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures...."

This right has been continuously eroded by Congress, by the Courts, and by the Executive branch. In my opinion, far and away the most egregious violation is the odious "USA Patriot Act of 2001." In causing the Congress to pass, the President to sign, and the people to accept this blatant violation of the founding principles of our Country, Al Queda and Bin Laden in fact have won. The nation we were no longer exists.

Now, of course, the ability to infiltrate into every private area of all of our lives should the mood strike has been the heartfelt desire of anyone involved in law enforcement, no matter how tangentially, from time immemorial. But it wasn't to have happened here.

Now, along comes Edward Snowden. I'm completely disinterested in who he is, what his motivation was, where he went to school (or didn't), or anything else about him personally. My forlorn hope is that his revelations will cause a backlash against the encroaching "security at any cost" rationale behind the actual "we need the power because we want it" motivation of our security nation overseers and the actions they've undertaken to accomplish this goal.

Sadly, the propaganda machine, from right to left, has succeeded in making the debate (such as it is) about Snowden. Is he a traitor? A whistleblower? A Chinese spy? A frustrated loser? A narcissist with a martyr complex?

I don't care. The fact is that those who have promulgated and supported the activities revealed by Snowden are the real traitors here, and that will be lost in the debate about Snowden.


Michael Tobis said...

I think public metadata is public metadata and a perfectly clear and unambigous place to draw the privacy boundary.

Further because the capitalist ethic has capitalism functioning just up to the limits set by law, I expect no less from government. The Patriot Act was perhaps ill-advised, and makes me as nervous as the next guy, but the government appears to be acting within its limits as defined in that legislation. Consequently its behavior should surprise nobody.

But I go further. I suggest that, to the extent that the limits of government surveillance are at the line distinguishing data and metadata, or payload vs carrier info, that seems to me a reasonable to draw the privacy boundary.

My reasoning is that the other device besides our IT that most of us rely most heavily on, comparably to IT, depends on a public network facility, something analogous to the information superhighway but carrying persons and property rather than signs and symbols. Call it the matter superhighway system...

Our right to us the public system on which we drive our cars is predicated on us identifying the ownership of the vehicle, and having the implicit and verifiable permission of the owner of that vehicle. We do this by affixing an identifying tag on the vehicle. It is expected that the vehicles passing any point on the highway may in principle be recorded by the authority maintaining order and decorum on the public highway. That is, your license plate is your metadata.

Barring a warrant, the government has no right to know what is happening in that car without probably cause. But the government can reasonably monitor the location of the vehicle ad lib to preserve public order. This facilitates the lawful finding of the vehicle and its position in the event that the vehicle is especially interesting. Typically there is no point to listening to most conversation, because most conversation is utterly mundane and much of it is stupid.

"Now what I hear from the right is, that's fine but the government is abusive of power and can't be trusted with the information. They might want to spy on me in particular because I have said things they don't like."

And what passes for the left in this country is shockingly in accord:

"That's fine but the government has been and probably again will be abusive of power and can't be trusted with the information. They might want to spy on me in particular because I have said things they don't like."

Perhaps we ought to contract these management of these highway safety and security services out to private industry?

See the thing is, I cannot imagine why people, especially people on the left, are so much more comfortable with the government having this information rather than quasi-monopolies like Google and Facebook.

I say this even though I attest a considerable confidence in the good intentions of the folk at Google and Facebook nowadays. We could hardly have nicer monopolists.

But corporations have been and probably again will be abusive of power and can't be trusted with the information without public oversight. They might well have a thousand ways to betray me in particular because I have said (or have been alleged to say) things they don't like.

The real question is, if monopoly capital has all your information, is that somehow more reassuring than if the public sector does?

Michael Tobis said...

Poor editing. Please elide one of those "further"s in paras 2 & 3. Also "use" for "us" in the first instance in para 5. Apologies,

Rob Ryan said...

I'm, frankly, not at all comfortable with the extent to which Google has access to myriad components of my personal life and don't trust them at all. Facebook even less so. I accept certain aspects of Google's intrusiveness (they know what ads to push by the content of my Gmail for example) because I recognize that they need to make a profit. I still don't like it.

But Google and Facebook can't take my freedom or my property, ruin my reputation, extract money from my job and my accounts, send armed people into my home or place of business, etc. and so the level of concern about anything the government does, is able to do, or wants to do is dramatically higher. If needed, a litany of examples of innocent people undergoing such abuse can be provided.

I agree that it's likely that the NSA surveillance and the USA PATRIOT act don't run afoul of the law (the Patriot act by definition, of course) or the Constitution as it's currently interpreted by the Courts. But therein lies the rub. It's my belief that the black robed wisepersons are dramatically over the line in the liberal interpretation of the allowance of the constitution for government intrusion into our lives.

As to the vehicle analogy, I'm not comfortable with the ability of the "powers that be" to, even in principle, record the passing of my car. There's a move afoot in several states (and in Congress) to tax vehicles by miles driven because of the dwindling gasoline tax revenues caused by higher mileage vehicles. The proposals include, in some cases, GPS logging of miles. I vehemently oppose such a process for obvious reasons. I will concede that I don't power down my iPhone when I travel and that I can be tracked by that method should the {sw}black helicopters{/sw} so desire.

Finally, I'm not comforted by the "it's only metadata" idea. A spectacular amount of information about any individual can be inferred by combining metadata from a variety of sources.

Michael Tobis said...

"A spectacular amount of information about any individual can be inferred by combining metadata from a variety of sources."

This may be so but I am having trouble dreaming up a scenario of abuse of government in which the party abusing power has more capacity to mess with me with my metadata than without.

Anyway, we have organized ourselves in such a way that certain services are done in the private sector. I am entirely indifferent about whether this happens; as long as the services are actually delivered I don't care at all how they are organized.

I have seen this argument before:

"But Google and Facebook can't take my freedom or my property, ruin my reputation, extract money from my job and my accounts, send armed people into my home or place of business, etc. "

I just don't buy it.

I am not at all sanguine about the possibility of corporate abuse of power vs government power.

Government, especially in a sprawling democracy like America, is hard because government is constrained by innumerable interests.

It's not as if the government can all that easily shrug and throw you in jail. (Well, unless like Mr. Manning, you're in uniform when you tick them off.)

The idea that there have never been abuses of power by corporations or private interests comparable to those by governments is pretty baffling to me.

Rob Ryan said...

Certainly there have been massive abuses of corporate power of the type I fear from the government (loss of liberty, property, etc.). But, imho, the trend over time has been less of that as laws have changes vs. the opposite trend in government.

And we're talking about a government that "renders," executes (assassinates) Americans in drone strikes without benefit of trial, criminalizes financial contributions to organizations (Wikileaks) arbitrarily classified as terrorist, etc. At federal, state, and local levels governments abuse forfeiture laws. Government is hard but abuse of civil authority isn't. I submit Richard Jewell. And have a look at Three Felonies A Day. I'm just not interested in having the government who, whether you agree or not, can take a disliking to me, concoct something that puts me in a bad light, find a prosecutor who offers three years if I confess and uncounted $ and decades in prison if I go to trial and am convicted. No, sorry, I DO have something to hide. Warrentless wiretapping is equivalent to the tappee being a suspect because he/she exists.

I'm too sleepy to think of a great example of something the government could do to me based on metadata that would be impossible without, but it's clear to me that the metadata would make it dramatically easier. And I knowingly commit no crimes.