“The Attorney General hereby is delegated the power to approve the use for intelligence purposes, within the United States or against a United States person abroad, of any technique for which a warrant would be required.”—
The implications of such a decision would be profound. Web and mobile companies will live or die not on the merits of their technology and design, but on the deals they can strike with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and others who could otherwise ‘shakedown’ startups and established companies in every sector, requiring payment for reliable service.
This doesn’t bode well. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.
“This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labour to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school, or church, or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.”—Walt Whitman, preface to Leaves of Grass
There are those who, in good faith, believe that we should leave the balance between civil liberty and security entirely to our elected leaders, and to those they place in positions of executive responsibility. Again, we do not agree. The American system, as we understand it, is premised on the idea — championed by such men as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — that government run amok poses the greatest potential threat to the people’s liberty, and that an informed citizenry is the necessary check on this threat. The sort of work ProPublica does — watchdog journalism — is a key element in helping the public play this role.
American history is replete with examples of the dangers of unchecked power operating in secret. Richard Nixon, for instance, was twice elected president of this country. He tried to subvert law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies for political purposes, and was more than willing to violate laws in the process. Such a person could come to power again. We need a system that can withstand such challenges. That system requires public knowledge of the power the government possesses. Today’s story is a step in that direction.
ProPublica, writing on why they—along with The New York Times and The Guardian—ignored the requests of US intelligence officials and published a story about the NSA’s successful efforts to install backdoors in major Internet encryption technologies that protect a wide collection of activites, including “global commerce and banking systems,” ”sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records,” and “e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world.”
The story is light on specific details, apparently to protect in some measure US intelligence efforts, but one technology specifically mentioned is SSL, the encryption protecting nearly all “private” communications on the Internet.
The effort relies on installing backdoors (akin to secret master keys that unlock encryption for the NSA) in major security systems, undermining the perception of privacy and security inherent in many online activities.
I’d go into more specifics, but again, the stories are fairly general. But that’s the gist for a general audience.
Bravo to the news organizations who decided to publish these stories and inform the debate we so badly need.
Trent Reznor is a busy man. In 2009, after four years of nonstop touring with the band that made him rich and famous, he decided to call it quits. Nine Inch Nails was retired that year, with no indication it would ever return. Reznor had spent the last decade releasing album after album, getting sober after years of drug and alcohol abuse that culminated in a heroin overdose, and playing shows for an inhuman amount of time. He seemed exhausted. It might have been the end.
Today, though, the front pages of magazines like Spin and Pitchfork are dedicated to news of a new Nine Inch Nails album.
In the years following NIN’s “Wave Goodbye” tour, Trent Reznor kept busy. He married and had two children. He and his partner in crime, Atticus Ross, entered the film scoring business at the behest of director David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en). They scored the critically-acclaimed The Social Network—and won an Oscar in the process—and rejoined Fincher to provide the backdrop for his striking The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo reboot. Ross and Reznor joined longtime partner Rob Sheridan and Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig to form How To Destroy Angels, a dark electronic band that produced twoEPs and an LP in the last few years. In May 2013, Reznor revealed that he’d been at work on a new Nine Inch Nails album for a year, and that it would be released on Columbia Records in the fall.
“The day [Obama] was elected really felt like: ‘I can’t believe that just happened.’ Jump ahead a few years and … I know one person can’t change everything and it’s the system that’s broken, but the [Edward] Snowden shit that we’re finding out about now, is this a surprise to anybody? But no one will do anything about it. We just had banks rip us off, bankrupt the country. Who went to jail for that? Who’s accountable for that? Whatever changed about that? Nothing. [Year Zero] has come true. And nobody’s doing anything about it, nobody cares. Some people speak up, but only when convenient. Complaining about it on social media isn’t gonna change anything.”—Trent Reznor
“Yet the vitriol and closed-mindedness of the Web response to [Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s] Rolling Stone cover, before anyone had the chance to read the article itself, is an example of two of the ugly public outcomes of terrorism: hostility toward free expression, and to the collection and examination of factual evidence; and a kind of culture-wide self-censorship encouraged by tragedy, in which certain responses are deemed correct and anything else is dismissed as tasteless or out of bounds. The victims of the Boston Marathon bombing deserve our attention, and will continue to teach us about perseverance and the best parts of our common nature. But the dark stories of the bombing need to be told, too. And we need to hear them.”—Ian Crouch, The Inconvenient Image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
I’m not trying to be a fear monger, and I’m not trying to depress anyone, and I’m certainly not trying to trash on a country that gave me the environment I needed to gain everything I have in life.
But I do feel like saying something.
When I was in elementary school, part of the education I received involved learning about America. We were taught about the founders, about the framework of American representative democracy, about Brown v. Board, about How a Bill Becomes a Law. In high school, things became more intricate. AP American History teaches you a lot about the country. We learned about slavery and civil rights, about the Constitution and how it interacts with its Amendments, about women’s suffrage and the temperance movements, about religious revivals and the often brutal relocation of Native Americans.
What I garnered from this experience was an appreciation—in no small measure—for the country I grew up in. I am, much to the disapproval of some of my friends and neighbors, the kind of person who doesn’t really comprehend patriotism or nationalism. I see little reason to take pride in accomplishments and people I had nothing to do with. But I do feel a great admiration for the nation I grew up in.
To me, the Constitution of the United States of America, my comprehension of which I admit is limited to a layman’s interpretation, is perhaps the best framework for government ever written down. It is, of course, riddled with oversights from a social standpoint, owing largely to the inclinations of the people who wrote and influenced it, but it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive plans for a nation ever conceived, much less put into practice.
This list of the American government’s abilities, of course, would be nothing without the corresponding list of its inabilities, the Bill of Rights and all the amendments—barring the 18th—that followed. This list of restrictions on the powers of government, which endow every American citizen with a list of rights seen as “unalienable,” ensures that the government may never, even in good meaning, commit injustice against a person it is designed to serve. This is perhaps the noblest principle of American self-government.
Recently, the government’s adherence to this document has been called into question. As citizens shifted from writing letters to email for correspondence, the legal protections guaranteed for physical mail—i.e. that the government would require a warrant based on probable cause to read any of a person’s mail, no matter the situation—have not been carried over to email. The correspondence contained has not been altered; only the medium has, but the rules are somehow completely different. All the government must do to read emails is ask the provider to hand them over—as if allowing a particular company to deliver our correspondence (much like a postal service) somehow constitutes sacrificing all claims to the privacy of what is sent, simply because the company we use is not the Postal Service. In the 12 years since September 11, 2001, the country has sacrificed personal privacy massively in order to protect itself from attacks like the one that took place on 9/11. We have seen the passage of the USA PATRIOT ACT, which gave agencies dealing with national security massively expanded powers of surveillance over both foreigners and American citizens alike. We witnessed wide news coverage of warrantless wiretapping of Americans’ phone lines under the Bush Administration in 2005. Privacy-conscious organizations like the EFF called attention to the surveillance of electronic non-telephone communications also revealed in the mid-2000s. Stories like that of the AT&T employee who found a secret room where backbone Internet traffic was being duplicated—ironically enough, using a prism—and being sent to the NSA were typical of that post-9/11 period.
Despite all of these things, barely anyone noticed. Liberals jumped on the opportunity to bash Bush on warrantless wiretapping, but few even mentioned the non-telephone surveillance uncovered at the same time. A few articles sprung up every time a former employee leaked information about electronic surveillance, but no national attention was given to it. A Wired Magazine cover story in 2012 revealed that the NSA was building a massive data center in Utah to store the electronic records it was collecting and planned to collect. The data to be stored in the facility included all of the Internet traffic passing through the United States, acquired through forcing the hand of every ISP in the country in much the same way they had compelled the telephone providers to allow wiretapping: if you’re going to enable people to communicate, you’re going to allow us to listen. The former employee quoted in the article described the program as unconstitutional, going on to describe how the NSA proceeded with plans for the project even after being told by Congress to stop a similar project in 2003—by the representatives of the very people they are supposed to protect, if you’d like to think of it that way. Here is the full description offered by the Wired article:
Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.
Even this outrageous breach of Americans’ privacy provoked little response across the country. People simply didn’t care. They never have. Privacy is not a sexy issue. It isn’t partisan, it isn’t simple, and it it has no immediate impact on the lives of the people it affects. But, if the great dreamers of Big Brother fantasies like Orwell and Huxley or the real-world examples of surveillance states like Soviet Russia, North Korea, or China are to be considered, privacy is the one issue that everyone should care about. It is important precisely because it affects everyone, and when it is abused, it can destroy everything great about a people.
The last few months are the exception to the rule, and I found them encouraging. The leaks provided by Edward Snowden revealing NSA surveillance of Americans’ phone records and some of the Internet activities of ambiguously “foreign” people sparked outrage across the country. The Guardian and The Washington Post covered the leaks admirably, and major news organizations expressed their distaste for the programs, whether in the form of The New York Times’ scathing editorial board op-ed or Fox News’ framing of the situation as another of Tsar Obama’s perceived abuses of power. To me, someone who identifies as fairly liberal, both extremes of coverage of Snowden’s leaks are good. At least someone is paying attention now.
But where were these hour-long segments of cable news broadcasts in 2006 when the first major instances of NSA internet surveillance were released, or in 2012 when Wired revealed the Utah Data Center. What Snowden leaked (so far) boils down to two things: first, a watered-down version of telephone surveillance that pales in comparison to Bush’s post-9/11 programs, and second, a minor program through which major Internet companies simply made it more convenient for the NSA to get at the data we already knew they were collecting. These things are tiny invasions of privacy compared to the secret rooms in ISP hubs or the collection of massive amounts of American internet traffic. Why is the country paying attention to stories about surveillance on a scale far smaller than what we already knew was happening? Is it simply an opportune time for people to care about this story? Is the country already so frustrated by things like the IRS and AP scandals that they feel justified in condemning Obama’s administration for just one more injustice? Do they care simply because there’s finally a fugitive’s face to attach to the story? In all honesty, I saw more coverage about “Who is Edward Snowden?” and debates about whether he was right in leaking the information than about the actual contents of the leak. I don’t hold Snowden up to be a god, and I don’t know enough about him to judge his actions or character, but in his letter to the Ecuadorean president, he is right in saying:
The Government of the United States of America has built the world’s largest system of surveillance. This global system affects every human life touched by technology; recording, analyzing, and passing secret judgment over each member of the international public. It is a grave violation of our universal human rights when a political system perpetuates automatic, pervasive, and unwarranted spying against innocent people.
Now, you might be asking why I care so much about this. The reason is that to me, privacy is the single most important issue this country will face this century. Let me explain.
When the founders were drafting the Bill of Rights, it’s quite clear that they wanted to ensure the people had the power to overthrow the government if it began to resemble the opressive regime they had just finished doing away with. The way they did this was the 2nd Amendment, the right to bear arms. At the time, the right to own a firearm guaranteed that the citizens of the country would be equipped with the same type of weaponry as the government itself, so it would have a fighting chance if the country once more came to revolution. Owning weapons was a way for the people to ensure that the government could be held accountable for its actions, because there was always an option for the people, if so inclined, to take that government out of power—or at least have a threat credible enough to convince the government to change its ways.
The founders rose in revolution on issues like taxation without representation, closing the port of Boston, and the mandatory quartering of troops in the homes of colonists. Today, we have parallels to two of those things: First, the government has the power to shut down online businesses almost at will—agencies like ICE do it all the time to file-sharing sites where some of the users happen to share music and movies in violation of copyright law. American businesses (in this decade, websites are businesses) can now be shut down because of the actions customers take when they visit. Second, Congress retains the ability to force any adult male of reasonable age into military service, beyond asking them to spare a room in their home for a soldier, they can force an American citize to become a soldier. If the founders were angry about these things, imagine what they would think of King George’s men reading all of their personal correspondence.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating an overthrow of the American government. Despite its faults, privacy included, I still believe it to be the most viable and admirable government in existence today. But that doesn’t mean it is completely without fault.
Right now, the only area of life in which the people stand on equal footing with their government is in communcations. It remains possible, at least for now, for a person to sheild their communications from prying eyes using strong encryption techniques. This fact is extremely troubling for intelligence and national security agencies. A large portion of these agencies’ efforts in the last few decades has been in removing encryption from the equation. In 1976, the Arms Export Control Act outlawed the export of high-grade encryption technology from the United States. In the 1990s, the FBI led the charge in the so-called “Crypto Wars,” a lengthy legislative battle in which a push was made to make encryption—which I remind you is a form of mathematics—illegal. They wanted to make it a federal crime to obscure any kind of message in a way that the government would be unable to decipher. After that failed, they made sure that any kind of widely available encryption system had a backdoor installed, so that any encryption tool made available by a company would be sufficient to hide one’s messages from a neighbor, but not from the government—they would always have access to the original content. Anyone who attempts to create a secure, backdoor-free system these days faces investigation by law enforcement agencies. A notable example is Nadim Kobeissi, Canadian developer of Cryptocat, a secure, encrypted chat platform that promises fully encrypted communication safe from the eyes of government and third parties alike. According to one article, he has been interrogated four times by law enforcement agencies due to the nature of his work. In this decade, much of the efforts of law enforcement agencies are dedicated to code-breaking. Even the Utah Data Center is in on it:
The mammoth Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is also critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”
For people like me, the 2nd Amendment isn’t as relevant now as it once was. The letter of the law is the right of the citizenry to own firearms, but the spirit of the law is to give the people a way of resisting their government or at least a threat of resistance credible enough to keep the government in the service of the people. To me and many others, even millions of Americans with guns will never overthrow the modern US Military. So, for me, the right to own a gun is less important now than it was in 1789, and the lives saved in handgun deaths accompanying their restriction would outweigh the now nonexistent power the right was supposed to grant the people.
The one area where people can still elude the power of government is in communications. By being able to communicate, share ideas, plan protests, or even organize resistance in a way that the government can’t track or prevent, the citizens of this country retain that strength that the founders meant to endow in the 2nd Amendment. You might be saying that even with a way to communicate outside the view of government, that doesn’t give the people strength enough to overthrow the government. My point is that they don’t have to. All they need is a way of associating, communicating, organizing, planning, and speaking openly that forces their elected and unelected officials to respect the wishes of the people due to the threat of resistance that capability offers.
Preserving this way of holding officials accountable is to me the most important responsibility we now have. Without it, nothing else matters. Government cannot function without a respect for the people, and that respect has only ever been real when it was rooted in fear. The environmental, social, economic, and foreign policy goals we need to accomplish cannot come about in a corrupted system where government is virtually unaccountable. The most clear way I can see to roll back this corruption is to prevent the eroding of privacy for security’s sake, especially in the safest period in the history of this country. America is great; let’s not allow that to change.
“DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”—Justice Anthony Kennedy, United States v. Windsor
David Brooks, a political commentator whose analyses of Washington I generally find to be sensible, just wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times explaining why understanding how the brain works will never explain human behavior.
At the highbrow end, there are scholars and theorists that some have called the “nothing buttists.” Human beings are nothing but neurons, they assert. Once we understand the brain well enough, we will be able to understand behavior. We will see the chain of physical causations that determine actions. We will see that many behaviors like addiction are nothing more than brain diseases. We will see that people don’t really possess free will; their actions are caused by material processes emerging directly out of nature. Neuroscience will replace psychology and other fields as the way to understand action.
These two forms of extremism are refuted by the same reality. The brain is not the mind.
I would normally say that one can’t expect a non-scientist to actually understand and be able to appropriately apply science, But here, something more must be said. The thought process Brooks uses in this article is basically this: the brain is way too complicated for us to fully understand, and even if we could, there are so many problems with applying current neuroscience that therefore neuroscience will never be able to explain behavior.
First of all, the argument that “because a currently massively incomplete field of science can’t adequately explain every facet of human behavior right now, it will never be able to” speaks to a massive failure to comprehend science.
Second, Brooks’ conclusion is based a common logical fallacy that argues that because science can’t explain something we experience, therefore something supernatural must be causing it. It’s the thought process that leads to mysticism, superstition, and religion’s “God of the Gaps" argument.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that if science doesn’t explain something we see in the natural world, assuming it’s caused by something science can never explain is the worst conclusion to draw.
I’ll wrap up with what my own mother had to say about this—it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read:
I’m not sure why David Brooks, who has some good political instincts, would write about something that he has no expertise in. Isn’t the purpose of science to learn? Isn’t the purpose of a neuroscientist to learn as much about the brain as possible? If 100 years from now we learn that the mind—that is, thought, love, anger, etc, are nothing but specific inter-connected neural pathways, so what?
That would be like telling scientists centuries ago not to explore the laws of physics because it would upset our notion of God’s creation of man in the garden of Eden.
You learn what you learn. That seems to be the only purpose of science. If truth and beauty and love are real, they will still be real, no matter what you discover.
“The irony of people like Dick Cheney or Karl Rove whining and bemoaning the fact of the leak of intelligence — given my history and certainly Dick Cheney’s intimate involvement with the betrayal of my CIA identity — is really something…”—Valerie Plame (via azspot)
It’s only treason if it exposes something they want to be a secret.
“But Sigur Rós always had the frame for heavy metal muscle—let’s not forget this is a band who makes 10-minute songs with elfin vocals from a guy who wears a fringed jacket and plays his guitar with a cello bow.”—Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen reviews Sigur Rós’s Kveikur
The New York Times’ Claire Cain Miller just exposed the truth behind the NSA’s surveillance operations with web service providers like Google, Facebook, and Skype. The article paints a grim picture of high-tech industry not only complying with government demands, but helping to find more efficient methods of spying.
Each of the nine companies said it had no knowledge of a government program providing officials with access to its servers, and drew a bright line between giving the government wholesale access to its servers to collect user data and giving them specific data in response to individual court orders. Each said it did not provide the government with full, indiscriminate access to its servers.
The companies said they do, however, comply with individual court orders, including under FISA. The negotiations, and the technical systems for sharing data with the government, fit in that category because they involve access to data under individual FISA requests. And in some cases, the data is transmitted to the government electronically, using a company’s servers.
“The U.S. government does not have direct access or a ‘back door’ to the information stored in our data centers,” Google’s chief executive, Larry Page, and its chief legal officer, David Drummond, said in a statement on Friday. “We provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law.”
Statements from Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple, AOL and Paltalk made the same distinction.
But instead of adding a back door to their servers, the companies were essentially asked to erect a locked mailbox and give the government the key, people briefed on the negotiations said. Facebook, for instance, built such a system for requesting and sharing the information, they said.
The data shared in these ways, the people said, is shared after company lawyers have reviewed the FISA request according to company practice. It is not sent automatically or in bulk, and the government does not have full access to company servers. Instead, they said, it is a more secure and efficient way to hand over the data.
“You can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”—Obama’s remarks on the NSA phone scandal could have been written by George Orwell.