Where do we go from here

It’s been an amazing couple of days.  Thanks to leaks of government documents and the hard work of some reporters, we’ve learned that the government has been collecting data on our telephone calls—three billion phone calls a day—and essentially watching from inside our computers while we work on the Internet.  Government officials say this is for our own protection, that it’s a good way for them to gather information that can prevent terrorist attacks.  The programs began while George W. Bush was president, and have continued under Barack Obama.

I’ve tried to get my head wrapped around the rapid-fire revelations of the government’s massive system of spying on its citizens; not a rogue operation, but a system pursued by the administration and authorized by Congress and the special Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Courts.  I see that the stories are falling off of the front pages, but we need to fight becoming complacent about this Patriot-(Act)-ic intrusion into our privacy.

On Wednesday news broke of a secret order to Verizon forcing it to turn over metadata of all of its customers calls…we think this includes business, residential and cellular, and we think there are probably similar orders for other telephone providers, but the orders themselves are so secret that the companies can’t acknowledge if it exists.  On Thursday we learned that the government has been tapping directly into the central servers of the major Internet companies to access emails, pictures and videos, etc.  Late Thursday night government officials confirmed the program but insisted it is targeted only at people outside of the United States.  They even claimed that the programs have succeeded in stopping terrorist attacks, although that claim seems dubious.

By Friday the president himself tried to assure American citizens that these programs were for their own good and that we have nothing to fear.  He said, “It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. And what I can say is that in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity.”

Really? Well, that’s a load off of my mind; thanks for clearing that up for me, B.

I wrote earlier this week, “We cannot be such a craven and cowardly people that we’re willing to let our government spy on us constantly and record our activities and our associations in the name of protecting us from terrorist threats.  If that’s true, then not only have the terrorists already won but the American example of an open and free society is lost.  What the hell would the Founding Fathers think of us if they knew we were willing to abandon our liberty to a government that assured us it is only looking over our shoulders and listening to our phone calls for our own good?”

Only the ignorant or the naïve have ever expected total security in this world, or absolute liberty and privacy.  That’s not the world we live in.  There are crazy religious extremists who are killing innocent people out of a deluded belief that they are doing God’s will, and nothing more than common sense is needed to know that we have to take reasonable measures to protect ourselves from them.  (There are crazy religious extremists who trying to turn our country into a theocracy of their own denomination out of a deluded belief that that is God’s will, and we need to step up and stop that attack, too.)  I have no doubt that these programs have some positive effect when it comes to gathering valuable information against potential terrorists; what I object to is that these effective programs are targeted at all Americans. Jack Shafer put it well: it’s not that I object to the government pursuing terrorists and suspected terrorists…

What’s breathtaking about these two government surveillance programs that the Guardian and the Washington Post have revealed is that they’re vast collections of data about hundreds of millions of people suspected of no wrongdoing and not part of any civil action.

And, “Ultimately, it will be about the government’s pursuit of all the digital breadcrumbs we produce as necessary by-products of day-to-day life—and phone records and Web data are just a small part.

Bank records, credit history, travel records, credit card records, EZPass data, GPS phone data, license-plate reader databases, Social Security and Internal Revenue Service records, facial-recognition databases at the Department of Motor Vehicles and elsewhere, even 7-Eleven surveillance videos comprise information lodes that are of equal or greater value to the national security establishment than phone and Web files. It doesn’t sound paranoid to conclude that the government has reused, or will reuse, the interpretation of the Patriot Act that it presented to the secret FISA court in its phone record and Prism data requests to grab these other data troves.

Warning: slippery slope ahead…

UPDATE: A short time after I posted I ran across this: the NSA suggested to the Bush White House that the government needed to reconsider how it could effectively spy on people in the Digital Age, although it promised to (of course) obey the law and respect the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Well, yeah…

There are also a couple of pertinent new tweets worth a look over there on the rail, too.

Anger is an appropriate response when Big Brother goes too far‏

Some bullet-pointed thoughts while trying to digest the news that the government has apparently been logging all of my phone calls for years now…all of yours, too and reading my email and thumbing through my pictures and videos.  And yours, too.

  • It’s quite proper for some arms of our government to investigate potential threats and suspected wrongdoers, which is why we have laws that allow them to get a court’s permission to spy on certain people when they can show there’s good reason to be suspicious and have a need to gather more information.  The do not have the right, or should not have the right, to spy on the entire citizenry on general principle.  But that appears to be the wrong-headed interpretation of a portion of The Patriot Act that’s led to this secret court order: the government can track every phone call you make, you and every other American citizen, including the 99 and 44/100ths percent of us who not only aren’t guilty of any crime but who aren’t even suspected of having committed a crime nor of having been complicit in the commission of a crime, all in order to protect us from some generalized threat of a terrorist attack.  Asinine.
  • The judge who approved this order needs to have his head examined.
  • Think about the quantity of data this order would generate…on a daily basis!  What is the FBI doing with it?

Former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes, a CNN contributor, suggested one way such an order might help fight terrorism.

“If a phone number comes up being connected to someone of suspicion, then (investigators) can go back and look at all of the numbers that phone number called or was called by, how long the calls were, what location the calls were made from, that type of information,” he said on CNN’s “Starting Point.”

“It’s not that someone or some group of analysts can sit there and monitor 50 million phone calls going through the computers. But it would create the ability to go back and see if you could connect phone calls.”

  • There are plenty of people inside the government who think this domestic intelligence gathering is a good thing, and has been useful in thwarting attacks.  Even if that’s so, I’m still opposed: I’m not so naïve that I think the data will sit safe and undisturbed until the day some investigator just happens to ID a suspicious phone number and needs to find out what other numbers that number talked to.
  • We cannot be such a craven and cowardly people that we’re willing to let our government spy on us constantly and record our activities and our associations in the name of protecting us from terrorist threats.  If that’s true, then not only have the terrorists already won but the American example of an open and free society is lost.  What the hell would the Founding Fathers think of us if they knew we were willing to abandon our liberty to a government that assured us it is only looking over our shoulders and listening to our phone calls for our own good?
  • The secret court order says the order itself won’t be declassified for 25 years; the order even orders that no one who knows about the order can confirm the existence of the order.  But, we know about it because a journalist did his job.  Is there a more clear and dramatic example of the value of journalism serving a free society?

And now, evidence of PRISM, in which the government has been “tapping into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”  The companies in question “participate knowingly” in the program.  Are you OK with that, too?

The White House is clocking my phone calls—-yours, too

I am in the midst of the keyboard equivalent of verbal spluttering because I’m so damn mad at this news, so I’ll let Twitter tell you just like it told me:

That is to say, The National Security Agency secured a court order ordering Verizon to turn over—each and every day for three months—all the metadata about all the calls made by all of its customers.  You can read the court order here; you can read the story that broke the news here.

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.

The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.

Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.

(snip)

Under the Bush administration, officials in security agencies had disclosed to reporters the large-scale collection of call records data by the NSA, but this is the first time significant and top-secret documents have revealed the continuation of the practice on a massive scale under President Obama.

The unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is extremely unusual. Fisa court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.

The Guardian approached the National Security Agency, the White House and the Department of Justice for comment in advance of publication on Wednesday. All declined. The agencies were also offered the opportunity to raise specific security concerns regarding the publication of the court order.

The court order expressly bars Verizon from disclosing to the public either the existence of the FBI’s request for its customers’ records, or the court order itself.

“We decline comment,” said Ed McFadden, a Washington-based Verizon spokesman.

(snip)

It is not known whether Verizon is the only cell-phone provider to be targeted with such an order, although previous reporting has suggested the NSA has collected cell records from all major mobile networks. It is also unclear from the leaked document whether the three-month order was a one-off, or the latest in a series of similar orders.

The court order appears to explain the numerous cryptic public warnings by two US senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, about the scope of the Obama administration’s surveillance activities.

For roughly two years, the two Democrats have been stridently advising the public that the US government is relying on “secret legal interpretations” to claim surveillance powers so broad that the American public would be “stunned” to learn of the kind of domestic spying being conducted.

More Twitter…this just in the first hour after the news broke:

https://twitter.com/mattyglesias/status/342440076514582528

https://twitter.com/mattyglesias/status/342444816216518656

https://twitter.com/petersuderman/status/342445596432551938

On top of the Justice Department investigating journalists as criminals for doing their jobs and the IRS applying “special scrutiny” to tax matters of conservative political groups, this president has got some explaining to do, and fast, or he’s going to lose a big chunk of his political support not to mention his historical legacy.  I’m waiting…