This series includes: "Lavabit Confronts 'Complicit or Close?' Levison Closes," August 9, 2013; "A Simple Matter to Drag People Along," August 6, 2013; "The Future of Surveillance and How to Stop It," August 4, 2013; "Surveillance: Differences of Degree and of Kind," July 3, 2013; "Shooting the Messenger; Should Government Be Able to Keep Its Abuses Secret?," June 11, 2013; "From Zazi to Stasi; Trusting a Government That Doesn't Trust You," June 9, 2013; "Law's Losing Race With Technology," June 7, 2013.
Yesterday being the 64th anniversary of the June 8, 1949, publication of George Orwell's novel 1984, I thought it an appropriate time to review surveillance in America.
Unless you've just returned from a vacation, during which you had the good sense to never consult a smart phone, laptop, or newspaper, you know that we've just found out more about the government's spying on our phone calls and Internet activity.
Glenn Greenwald, "NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily; Exclusive: Top Secret Court Order Requiring Verizon to Hand Over All Call Data Shows Scale of Domestic Surveillance Under Obama," The Guardian (London), June 5, 2013 (with link to text of FISA Court order). [Photo credit: multiple sources.]
Not to be outdone by The Guardian, the Washington Post soon had a story of its own to break: "The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track one target or trace a whole network of associates, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post." Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras, "Documents: U.S. Mining Data From 9 Leading Internet Firms; Companies Deny Knowledge,” Washington Post, June 6, 2013.
Note the rather stark conflict here -- one that underscores the fact that it is the major corporations as much or more than the government that should be the focus of our privacy concerns. I'm not sure anyone has the facts at this point; I don't. But my intuition is that the NSA would have had little to no reason to lie, in a highly classified document it had no reason to believe would fall into the hands of the media, that it had the ability to tap "directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies" if it didn't have that ability. On the other hand, the "nine leading U.S. Internet companies" would have had an incentive to hide from their customers the fact that they were permitting the government to peruse your electronic files and mine.
In an earlier blog essay I provided some background regarding privacy law, and reasons why I think we need a new Supreme Court interpretation of the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment, given the current governmental and corporate access to intrusive technologies not dreamed of decades ago, let alone centuries ago. "Law's Losing Race With Technology; Redefining 'Privacy,'" June 7, 2013.
Ultimately, of course, these stories were picked up and repeated by mainstream U.S. media, as U.S. officials scrambled to reassure Americans that they (members of the U.S. House and Senate) had known of this all along and always considered it a dandy way to protect us from terrorists -- carefully noting that at least this order did not include the government’s right to listen to the content of our calls. "All they were doing" was gathering the date and times our calls begin and end, the locations of the parties to the calls, and the phone numbers involved. Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt, "U.S. Is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls," New York Times, June 6, 2013, p. A16.
I don't deny these are significant distinctions. There is a difference between a corporation or government agency scanning, recording, storing, analyzing, and ultimately having a human listen to the content of your phone conversations, on the one hand, and, on the other, its focusing exclusively on tracking the phone numbers from and to which you make calls, how long you talk during each, their date and time, and the location of the parties.
But (1) both are a significant intrusion on your privacy, (2) taken alone, but especially when blended with "Big Data" collections of other personal information about you, they reveal a lot of information about you, and (3) the government has not always limited itself to this "meta data" (e.g., phone numbers and time).
Thirteen years ago, February 27, 2000, CBS 60 Minutes reported on "Echelon," a global fish net operated by the NSA that, according to those who had worked with the project and were interviewed, covered all of Planet Earth, monitoring airwaves and optic fiber, picking up everything from e-mail and faxes to cell phones and baby monitors. Today, President Obama and the Chairs of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees are assuring us that no one is listening to the content of our calls. But a former employee of Echelon said on 60 Minutes that she was shocked to find a fellow employee listening to the voice of Senator Strom Thurmond. There have been a number of other reports over the years about this, prior, and subsequent programs, such as "Total Information Awareness."
There are many potential issues with what our government is doing. (1) There is what they are doing: monitoring our phone and Internet activity. (2) There are questions regarding how they are doing it: what data is being collected, how long it is held, how it is being used (including sharing with other agencies, other governments, or even corporations), what other databases it is being merged with, how many people within the agency have access to it, the quality control processes in place to, among other things, avoid mistaken identifications of people. (3) The oversight by the judicial and legislative branches. There are reports that the FISA Court seldom, if ever, has refused the government's requests to spy on Americans and others; we are told that Congress was kept fully informed, but a number of elected officials have said they knew nothing of the program. (4) Secrecy. It was said during the Soviet era that their spies, and ours, were sufficiently well informed that each pretty well knew what the other was up to; the only people who were uninformed as a result of secrecy and classified documents were the American people. The government has expressed extreme concern about terrorists finding out about these cell phone and Internet monitoring programs. It is highly unlikely -- given terrorists' use of couriers and throw-away cell phones, that there is much in this month's papers that they did not already know.
Put aside, if you must, Benjamin Franklin's judgment that, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Benjamin_Franklin, Wikiquote.org. It may well be that the American people, once honestly and fully informed regarding how corporations and the government are collecting personal information about our activities, would support such spying programs as a fair trade for the added security they provide. But at the moment, they do not even have enough information to address the issues, let alone form an opinion which could be polled.
The government says that we have been saved from terrorist attacks as a result of their spying on us. But their proof is limited to two leaked examples because, they claim, all the others are classified. One is the case of Najibullah Zazi.
Zazi was an Afghan-American living in Denver, who drove to New York with the intention of creating an explosion in the New York City Subway. Interestingly for our purposes, he was one of those potential terrorists who became aware that he was under surveillance, was stopped and let go by police, abandoned his plans, and flew back to Denver, where he was arrested. He is currently awaiting sentencing. "Intelligence Official: Phone Records Tracking Helped Foil Subway Bomb Plot; Suicide Bomb Plot Was Halted After Suspect Realized He Was Being Tracked," CBS New York/AP, June 8, 2013.
Hard to argue with those results -- though that doesn't automatically lead to the conclusion that the massive spying on Americans is worth it. Especially is this so because we are not going to be told how many other cases there have been -- or whether any of them could not have been solved by other means, or a significantly more restricted spy apparatus.
So I have concerns about what we already know is going on. But those concerns pale by comparison with my most serious concerns. "Give a small boy a hammer and the whole world becomes a nail." Make massive data gathering and analysis and other spying technology available to corporations and governments, and the temptation to use it is almost irresistible.
It is a very small step -- one we know the government has already taken in the past -- from collections of "meta data" (information about our communications) to collections of the content of those communications. We also know that many governments over the years have not trusted their people, and have gone to great lengths to find out what they are up to in order to control them.
Has that already happened to us? Are we being asked by our government to trust it, when it has demonstrated by its actions that it doesn't trust us?
If it is not already obvious, permit me to make express that this should not be about "trust." Most of all, it should not be about the personality of whoever occupies the White House at a given time. Some Americans seemingly hate President Obama, everything he stands for and advocates, everything about him. Others are such solid supporters that they can see no flaws, and become defensive when confronted with anything other than praise of the President. Personally, I was pleased to see Obama elected, and wanted him to be successful. But when I think he's wrong, I've said so, in this blog and elsewhere, believing that to be engaged in his presidency by doing so shows more respect for him, and the office, than blind obeisance.
My concerns about the direction of our government are institutional, not personal. I do not believe President Obama seeks a totalitarian state, a military takeover, or a 1984-style total surveillance of the American people. But I definitely do think that we have the risk, not the inevitability, but the risk, that a future president might seek to exercise such power. Most of what prevents that happening is the basic decency of the individuals involved, for the potential power is there, and the temptations to use it are powerful.
From Zazi to Stasi. Following World War II, the eastern portion of Germany came under Soviet control. In 1950 this German Democratic Republic, known as "East Germany," created the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS, or Ministry for State Security, commonly known as the Stasi. "It has been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world." "Stasi," Wikipedia.org.
Stasi had, amongst other divisions (including prison camps for "political offenders"), an "'Administration 12' . . . responsible for the surveillance of mail and telephone conversations," and a "'Main Administration for Struggle Against Suspicious Persons' . . . charged with the surveillance of foreigners . . . legally traveling or residing within the country." Ibid.
Fortunately, nothing like this exists in our country. For starters, we don't have "ministries," we have "departments." We don't refer to the "state;" we use the word, "Homeland," similar to the German Vaterland, or Fatherland. Obviously, there's a big difference between a "Ministry for State Security" and a "Department of Homeland Security."
Nor do we have anything with a name like "Administration 12." If we were ever to have a "surveillance of mail and telephone conversations" by the government, we would use legitimate, legal American organizations like the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, among others. Very different from an "Administration 12."