Civil disobedience + free press = privacy + freedom

On a lazy Sunday reading the paper and following Ed Snowden around the world on Twitter, I came across a couple of gems…

It is my hope that the revelations of the extent of U.S. government spying on its citizens that were sparked by Snowden’s leaks lead us to really talk about it, not just repeat talking points: are we prepared to surrender so much of our privacy and our freedom without a fight?  Do we have any reason to trust the government when it say it’s only looking for bad guys and foreigners and is protecting us?  A Guardian story I came across in Jack Shafer’s Twitter feed makes the point:

At every point in this unfolding story, government ministers and officials on both sides of the Atlantic have been at pains to point out that everything that is done by the NSA and GCHQ is lawful because there is “legal oversight”. The problem is that citizens have to take their word for it because every substantive aspect of that oversight is secret. 

(snip)

The conversation between the state and the citizen has been reduced to a dialogue that the writer would have recognised. It goes like this.

State Although intrusive surveillance does infringe a few liberties, it’s necessary if you are to be protected from terrible things.

Citizen (anxiously) What terrible things?

State Can’t tell you, I’m afraid, but believe us they are truly terrible. And, by the way, surveillance has already prevented some terrible things.

Citizen Such as?

State Sorry, can’t go into details about those either.

Citizen So how do I know that this surveillance racket isn’t just bureaucratic empire building?

State You don’t need to worry about that because it’s all done under legal authority.

Citizen So how does that work?

State Regrettably, we can’t go into details because if we did so then the bad guys might get some ideas.

What it comes down to, in the end, is: “Trust us.” And the trouble with that is that in recent decades our political elites have done precious little to deserve our trust.

Need more proof?  How about the news that the Obama Administration is pushing all federal departments and agencies—not just those concerned with national security—to have employees watch their colleagues but also to “pursue unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material.”

The program could make it easier for the government to stifle the flow of unclassified and potentially vital information to the public, while creating toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations of loyal Americans, according to these current and former officials and experts. Some non-intelligence agencies already are urging employees to watch their co-workers for “indicators” that include stress, divorce and financial problems.

“It was just a matter of time before the Department of Agriculture or the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) started implementing, ‘Hey, let’s get people to snitch on their friends.’ The only thing they haven’t done here is reward it,” said Kel McClanahan, a Washington lawyer who specializes in national security law. “I’m waiting for the time when you turn in a friend and you get a $50 reward.”

I concede that there are areas of government operations where the need to protect sensitive information is legitimate, but not every area of government meets that standard.  That’s why it’s important that there are people who leak government secrets, and that we have news publications of every medium that investigate and publish that information.  The leakers don’t have to be saints for us to be thankful they are there, as Ben Smith writes in BuzzFeed today.

There is now a heated debate over the moral status of Edward Snowden — who fled Hong Kong for Moscow en route, reportedly, to Ecuador Sunday — and over whether his decision to flee almost certain conviction and imprisonment in the United States means that his actions can’t be considered “civil disobedience.” These seem like good questions for a philosophy class. They are terrible, boring, ones for reporters, and have more to do with the confusing new news environment than with the actual news.

Snowden is what used to be known as a source. And reporters don’t, and shouldn’t, spend too much time thinking about the moral status of their sources. Sources sometimes act from the best of motives — a belief that readers should know something is amiss, or a simple desire to see a good story told. They also often act from motives far more straightforwardly venal than anything than has been suggested of Snowden: They want to screw someone who is in their way professionally; they want to score an ideological point by revealing a personal misdeed; they are acting on an old grudge, and serving revenge cold; they are collecting chits with the press to be cashed in later.

(snip)

…the new media ecosystem has moved sources to the foreground. They make their cases directly on Twitter or in web videos; in Snowden’s case, he also chose to protect himself by going and staying public in a way that would never before have been fully possible. “Big news will now carve its own route to the ocean, and no one feels the need to work with the traditional power players to make it happen,” David Carr wrote recently. The fact that the public must now meet our sources, with their complex motives and personalities, is part of that deal.

Snowden’s flight is a great, classic international story. It is, as Glenn Greenwald tweeted today, a kind of global White Bronco moment. His roots in web culture; his ideology; his decision-making; these are all great stories. He’s a much more interesting figure than Mark Felt because, at least, he’s a new figure, not a familiar one.

(snip)

Snowden’s flight and its surrounding geopolitics are a good story; what he made public is a better one. I’m not sure why reporters should care all that much about his personal moral status, the meaning of the phrase “civil disobedience,” or the fate of his eternal soul. And the public who used to be known as “readers” are going to have to get used to making that distinction.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Tom The Dancing Bug has something to say on this subject:

td130607

Thanks to TDB and GoComics.com.

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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.

(snip)

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?

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

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…