Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Trusting the Government to Do the Right Thing

“If [the Ministries] seem unreasonably perverse, recall that in the present-day United States, few have any problem with a war-making apparatus named "the Department of Defense,' any more than we have saying "Department of Justice" with a straight face, despite well-documented abuses of human  and constitutional rights by its most formidable arm, the FBI. Our nominally free news media are required to present "balanced" coverage, in which every "truth" is immediately neutered by an equal and opposite one. Every day public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia and outright lying, all of which is benevolently termed "spin," as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry-go-round. We know better than what they tell us, yet hope otherwise. We believe and doubt at the same time--it seems a condition of political thought in a modern superstate to be permanently of at least two minds on most issues. Needless to say, this is of inestimable use to those in power who wish to remain there, preferably forever.”
- Thomas Pynchon, from the Introduction to George Orwell’s 1984, p. xii-xiii
As Pynchon warns me against, I'm of two minds regarding the recent revelations about the government's collection of its citizens' electronic communications. One one hand, as soon as the Patriot Act was passed in the furor after 9/11, it was blatantly obvious that our government would collect - and eventually abuse - this type of information. And this lack of a basic assumption of privacy leaves a bad taste in my mouth - it feels like our government assumes the worst about its citizens. On the other hand, i'm sympathetic to the argument that scanning communications metadata is a relatively easy way to effectively combat terrorism. David Simon makes perhaps the best defense of this effort:
Privacy is in decline around the world, largely because technology and big data have matured to the point where it is easy to create a net that monitors many daily interactions. Sometimes the data is valuable for commerce — witness those Facebook ads for Italian shoes that my wife must endure — and sometimes for law enforcement and national security. But be honest, most of us are grudging participants in this dynamic. We want the cell phones. We like the internet. We don’t want to sit in the slow lane at the Harbor Tunnel toll plaza.
The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. And it forever will, to a greater and greater extent. And therefore, the present-day question can’t seriously be this: Should law enforcement in the legitimate pursuit of criminal activity pretend that such data does not exist. The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is unsupervised.
But the supervision is is the rub. Congress has told us that both the Version data collection and the PRISM program (background here) are being sufficiently monitored for abuses (although even some of them may have been kept in the dark), but forgive me if the words of a collection of hypocritical money-grubbing politicians doesn't exactly comfort me. (And yes, i'm aware that we elected these politicians. Doesn't make me feel any better.) In a nutshell, the governmental argument for the continued collection of all of this information is a "trust us, we're using it to make you safe, and nothing else". Tell that to me when a future politician who feels he's above the law - a Nixon or Dick Cheney - gets a hold of PRISM.

To put this in perspective, put aside PRISM for a moment and read this post on TPM on just how powerful communications metadata can be: 
...modern phone records have the capacity to record your location down to the square meter. These modern data are essentially a thorough record of the daily activities of almost all of us — where we are, and who we interact with. (See this article for a beautiful, chilling, but totally standard example of down-to-the-meter data records:
Scary stuff. And the cat is already out of the bag - as Simon sez, we're not going to stop using the internet or our cell phones, so all of this information is already out there. But to me there's a difference between a private company collecting this data vs. the government. To begin with, we make a conscious decision to give a private company our data when we use their services - we don't have that option with the government. More importantly, the worst result I could imagine from a corporation's misuse of this information would be a compromised credit card, which the government could potentially compile secret files that could follow you the rest of your life - or spark your arrest. Don't think it can happen? Just look at how many of our citizens we put behind bars!

So I'm thinking about our society's trade off between liberty and protection, which currently feels like ol' Ben Franklin called it: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." We've really debated our anti-terrorist actions, because this is the first time we've even begun to see exactly how our government sees fit to protect us. It's entirely possible that once we know all about PRISM and the FISA court and all of the other NSA anti-terrorism data collection efforts, we'll see that there are sufficient protections and actively decide to continue them. However, knowing what we know about the potential damage caused by malign or even incompetent governmental employees, I'm wary. Still, I'm looking forward to learning more, and holding Obama to his claim that he wants to have the debate.

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