Meet Ed Snowden, and other notes from a remarkable week in privacy and espionage‏

As they used to say on every Top 40 rock ‘n’ roll station ever, the hits just keep on comin’:

After a stunning one-two punch of secret spying revelations last week, one thing that I hadn’t really counted on happened right away: a voluntary and fairly proud confession from the guy who says he turned over the secret documents to the reporters.  Meet Ed Snowden, and read the Washington Post reporter’s sidebar describing what it was like to communicate with Snowden, who knew that he had turned himself into a marked man.

Last week someone (I forget who) noted, possibly on Twitter, the irony that we as a nation feel confident in farming out our National Security Agency work to companies like Snowden’s employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, which didn’t know that he was gathering up documents and talking to reporters, but the job of groping us in airports is so critical that only a government employee will do.  Oh, by the way, in a classic horse/barn door kinda thing, Booz Allen finally got around to firing Snowden

I also expected this sooner: the ACLU is suing the government alleging violation of its rights of free speech, association, and privacy:

As an organization that advocates for and litigates to defend the civil liberties of society’s most vulnerable, the staff at the ACLU naturally use the phone—a lot—to talk about sensitive and confidential topics with clients, legislators, whistleblowers, and ACLU members. And since the ACLU is a VBNS [Verizon] customer, we were immediately confronted with the harmful impact that such broad surveillance would have on our legal and advocacy work. So we’re acting quickly to get into court to challenge the government’s abuse of Section 215.

One of the most fun things here has been that the secret court orders forcing telephone and Internet companies to turn over information are so secret that the companies aren’t even allowed to discuss the orders, and the news has made it look like the companies have been happily cooperating with the feds in violating their customers’ privacy.  For anyone who still thinks there is no presumption of privacy anymore, consider this: Google is asking government permission to spill the beans and tell its customers what it has done, in order to “to ease public concerns about the privacy and security of users’ data.”

Google’s inability to disclose “the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests” fuels speculation that the company has given the U.S. government free access to all its users’ data. That speculation, [Google chief legal officer David] Drummond wrote, is “simply untrue.”

What about our national leaders, the men and women to whom we look for guidance and wisdom on such occasions…what do they have to say about this whole invasion of privacy/government spying on Americans thing?  Fortunately, some have been right on top of things, speaking out in favor of a national discussion about the proper balance of safety versus privacy; some have taken some time to think things over before coming to a conclusion about Snowden, and most are waiting for the polls to come in.

OK then, here’s the first poll: Americans tell the Pew Center that they’re pretty much OK with their government spying on them

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post…finds no indications that last week’s revelations of the government’s collection of phone records and internet data have altered fundamental public views about the tradeoff between investigating possible terrorism and protecting personal privacy.

Currently 62% say it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy. Just 34% say it is more important for the government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.

Not everyone thinks that, though, me included.  But I’ve already had my say this past week; I recommend taking a look at Emily Bazelon’s thoughts on government abuse of power

The government has admitted to unconstitutional NSA spying before—last year. The existence of these newly reported databases should be worrisome because once the information is collected, it is so much easier for the government to misuse it. The more data mining, the more it becomes routine and the more tempting to come up with more uses for it. If you trust President Obama and his people not to go too far, what about the next president, or the one after that? We have now had a Republican and a Democrat administration sign up for a broad expansion of warrantless wiretapping and other surveillance, and bipartisan support in Congress for the tradeoffs we have struck. And yes, there is more to the current revelations than we know—in particular, the rationale for the FISA court’s long-standing order for the phone data, and the rationale for PRISM. Let’s concede that a terrorist attack somewhere has probably been prevented as a result of these efforts. So how do we ever go back?

We probably don’t. And someday, the abuses will begin, in all likelihood long before we know about them. I’m not usually moved by slippery slope arguments. But this one looks so very easy to slide down.

…and Charles Cooke’s consideration of a simple historical lesson on personal privacy in a free society:

The adult truth, as ever, is that being free means accepting the negative consequences of being free. I daresay that if cameras were installed in every one of the Republic’s private bedrooms and monitored around the clock by well-meaning sentinels, then the rates of both domestic violence and spousal murder would decrease dramatically. But a free people must instinctively reject such measures as a profound threat to their liberty and, in doing so, accept the risks of unregulated home life. Alas, the story of the last century is the tale of a gradually diminishing tolerance for risk. “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. In almost all areas, our modern calculation is quite the opposite.


The Fourth Amendment exists now for precisely the same reason that it existed in 1791: to ensure that, in the absence of extremely compelling situations, Americans are not subject to casual government scrutiny. Its authors understood that knowledge is power, and that, as there is no justification for the state to have too much power over you, there is also no justification for the state to have too much knowledge about you

I hope that as this story continues in the months to come, people will give it the serious thought that it deserves.  For those having a tough time getting a handle on what all the furor is about, try this as a starting place: would you feel the same way you do now about the actions of the U.S. government if the last president were still in the White House?

It’s the right thing to do…and now we have data!

Today’s the day we can celebrate the first anniversary of the demise of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that pushed 13,000 homosexual soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines out of the armed forces of our country and forced untold thousands of others to lie about their sexual orientation in order to continue to serve.  How has the republic fared?

You’ll recall that some opponents of the repeal warned of dire consequences should we choose to stop discriminating against homosexuals who wanted to serve their country; well OK, let’s assess the fallout now, a year removed from the heat of the moment.  Nathaniel Frank today in Slate:

During the debate over “don’t ask, don’t tell”—which ended one year ago this week—Sen. John McCain insisted that ending the gay ban would do “great damage” to the military, and the commandant of the Marine Corps said it could “cost Marines’ lives.” One think-tanker agreed that we’d be taking “a risk with our lives, property and freedom.” Another declared breathlessly that, “ultimately all of civilian life will be affected.” Then there was the dire prediction that one-quarter of the military, or 500,000 troops, might quit in protest.


A new UCLA study, which I co-authored with other academics including military professors from all four U.S. military service academies, has assessed whether ending the gay ban has indeed harmed the armed forces. It hasn’t. Our conclusion is that ending the policy “has had no negative impact on overall military readiness or its component parts: unit cohesion, recruitment, retention, assaults, harassment or morale.”


But we found we could go beyond that: We can also report that after the military ended the gay ban, the institution itself improved, and not just for gay people but for the overall force. Lifting the ban, we found, improved the ability of the military to do its job by removing needless barriers to peer bonding, effective leadership and discipline.

Surprised?  I’m not.  I did then and do now have confidence in the Pentagon’s ability to carry out its orders; I did then and do now have faith that most American men and women, in and out of the armed forces, believe in the American values of equality, fairness and tolerance; I did then and do now believe that the remaining barriers of prejudice are best overcome by exposure to the unknown.

And I believe that ending policies and practices that discriminate against homosexuals will have the same effect in other areas of life as it’s had for the military, because I believe most American men and women, despite the teachings of some religions to the contrary, know in their hearts that it’s the right thing to do.

Mark your civil rights calendar: the gay marriage issue could get to the Supreme Court before the end of the current term.

Is that a mouse in your pocket? No, just a bug in your phone

The public service department here at HIPRB directs your attention to this story about the man who discovered software on Blackberrys, Nokias and Android-powered smartphones (but not iPhones) that he claims is logging nearly everything youT26PayPhoneL do on your phone, and sending off a report. The maker of the software, Carrier IQ, denies anything nefarious, says it is just diagnostic software to help its customers “deliver high quality products and services,” and at least one security consultant agrees.

I haven’t thrown my lot in with those who see conspiracies in everything (and you know who you are),  and I’m not so naive that I don’t think that there are people already getting unauthorized access to one or another of the digital footprints each of us leaves as we go about our business. But that doesn’t mean that when presented a credible argument that our privacy is being violated we should just shrug our shoulders and hope for the best.  Tim Worstall at Forbes makes the point:

But to be honest I think the part that worries me the most is, well, how hard is it to hack into this? To access that information if you’re not in fact the network? If it is possible to access this information (and I’d be absolutely astonished if it were not) then this means that absolutely every smartphone running it is vulnerable, to put it mildly, to data theft.

For yes, if you online bank from your phone then the application will be logging that data, pins, ID codes and all.

That’s really not something you want, is it? An application sitting on your phone that records all of these things specifically and exactly so as to broadcast them to someone else?

Here’s the link to Trevor Eckhart’s YouTube video showing what he found and how it works. Then think for yourself.

UPDATE Dec. 1: But wait, there’s more: Al Franken demands answers, and it’s learned that the suspect software is on more phones than was first believed–including iPhones, so stop gloating, Appleheads.

Photo from

Take your seats, please, the curtain’s going up for the Big Finish

Since we last checked in with our heroes: Speaker Boehner, faced with his own proposal going down to defeat in the chamber he (ostensibly) leads, capitulated—he added a balanced budget provision to his plan for lowering government spending, reducing debt and raising the federal debt ceiling, to placate enough members to get the bill passed.  It worked; and as expected, and warned, the Senate rejected the plan; now Majority Leader Reid is trying to persuade Senate Republicans to let his plan come to a vote. [UPDATE 3:03 pm: The House rejected Reid’s plan before the Senate had a chance to vote on it.]

The Wall Street Journal editorial page wants Republicans to accept a plan now, and claim a victory, even if it’s one that doesn’t solve all the nation’s economic problems once and for ever.  (Why didn’t I think of that?)  An economy struggling to recover from recession doesn’t need the government to suddenly stop making some of its payments—and you can take comfort in knowing, there is a plan for who gets paid first in the event the debt ceiling is not raised by the deadline next Tuesday…the bureaucratic imperative prevails.

I still choose to believe that Congress may bring us to the edge of default but reason will prevail and the debt ceiling will be raised to prevent a default…that puts me in the company of an American conservative icon:


Thanks to David Horsey, and Hearst Newspapers…click the cartoon to read Horsey’s commentary:

If it were not for their powerful recklessness, I would simply get a good laugh out of the alarmists on the right who see socialism in any tilt toward moderation in our politics.


To ensure that his country does not follow Greece into a bottomless hole of debt, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has implemented a budget balancing formula of three-to-one – that is, three parts spending cuts to one part revenue increases. These austerity measures have, not surprisingly, provoked rioting among leftists and students. Nobody in Europe would be silly enough to call this socialism.

Yet, when President Barack Obama proposes the same formula to rein in the debt in the United States, a mental riot goes off in the heads of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, the House Republican Caucus, the Tea Party and all the others who are somehow convinced Obama wants to turn America into Sweden.

Consumed by their fear of phantom socialists, these folks see politics in stark, black-and-white terms. If you are not with ’em, you’re agin’ ’em  and even the most staunch conservative risks charges of treason if he shows a willingness to bargain with the other side.


Like ultra-conservatives of past decades, today’s reactionaries have scared themselves silly by demonizing their opponents: every liberal hates America, every Democrat is a socialist, every moderate is a dupe, every compromise is a pact with the devil. What is new is that this mindset now dominates the majority caucus in the United States House of Representatives. And because of that, there very well could be no deal to raise the debt ceiling, unless the president and the Senate choose to grant the militants everything they want.


…to confuse the centrist economic policies of Barack Obama with socialism is as absurd as calling a conservative like Tom Coburn a RINO – Republican In Name Only. As clean cut, moral and upstanding as my fellow citizens on the right may be, I have to say they have become unhinged from economic and political reality and, in their delusion, they are about to take us all over a cliff.

In a Newsweek interview, Tom Coburn, a guy I disagree with about most things, summed it up frightening well:

“We’ve never been in this territory before. I mean, if we handle this wrong, we’re near the end of our republic as we know it.”

A tour de farce plays on!

Step by step, inch by inch, the passionless play proceeds: the House speaker proposes a new combination budget-cutting and debt ceiling-raising plan, then stands back when independent analysis shows it won’t generate the savings he promised, before the Congressional Budget Office gives good grades to the Senate majority leader’s plan (which saves little more than the speaker’s proposal).  Democrats are offering more than anyone would have expected, while some Republicans are revolting against their leadership for even thinking about going along with them, for not demanding more and more.  Who will be standing when the music stops next?

While I still expect that sanity will prevail and an agreement will be reached to prevent a crisis, nobody in Washington is doing anything about anything else and we look like a bunch of doofuses to the rest of the world as our nation moves closer to default.  So what, you ask—what the hell happens to you and me if they don’t raise the debt ceiling?

Q: Won’t refusing to raise the debt limit cut the deficit?

A. No.

Q: Do you mean that Congress can pass a budget that requires borrowing, and then argue later about whether to approve that borrowing?

A. That’s right.

Q. So, what happens to government spending if the debt limit is not raised? Will the United States default?

A. The United States will not have enough money to pay all of its bills… The possibilities range from “prioritizing” some payments and paying them first to paying bills in the order in which they were received.

The Bipartisan Policy Center analysis notes that if the government were to choose to pay the interest on its debt, Social Security benefits, Medicaid and Medicare payments, defense contractors and unemployment benefits, it could not have enough left to pay for the salaries of federal workers and members of the military, Pell grants for college, highway construction or tax refunds, among other things.

It doesn’t stop there: a default means some combination of government bondholders don’t get paid, government contractors and vendors don’t get paid, government employees don’t get paid, government benefits recipients don’t get paid, and people who don’t get paid have less money to spend so the economy slows down; government creditors demand higher interest rates on future loans and that leads to higher interest rates for we consumers on credit cards and mortgages; cities and states don’t get federal program payments and their own cash flow problems become worse.  Just the threat of default is starting to make the markets nervous.

Our country’s government spends way more than it takes in, and that needs to be corrected.  But as hard as it seems right now to make the choices that will lead to a stronger economy in the long term—and this isn’t going to be all fixed in your first six months in Washington, Mr. and Mrs. first-term Congressmember—it will only be harder if all the problems caused by a default are dumped on top of the ones we already face.  And even if there’s no default, the political playacting that both parties are consumed with right now may make financial markets skittish enough about the future that the credit rating of our country’s debt might be lowered anyway, leading to higher interest rates, etc., etc.

I’ve said this before: first, Congress needs to live up to its responsibility to prevent this totally preventable problem of potential default, then it and the administration can turn full focus on the screwed up federal budget mess that threatens our long-term financial health and security.  By the way, there’s a special tactical unit now on its way to the Capitol to help with that.

Places, please, for the big finish!