Privacy in America

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence: “No, sir.”

Apparently he forgot to finish the sentence: “No, sir, we don’t collect ‘any type of data at all’, we’re very selective. We only collect just one specific type of data–well, maybe two types, three tops.”

Look, why are we getting so much coverage of who and where Snowden is, and so little coverage of why and how and what the NSA is doing? Other than allegations that the info is fabricated–and so far there have been none–the leaker is irrelevant.

Or, if we’re gonna talk about the leaker, maybe we should talk about why we feel it is better to have millions of private contractors trusted with are deepest secrets, rather than have government employees do the work. If it’s important that we have the best intelligence analysts and programmers and whatnot working to keep us safe, how about we try paying competitive wages to attract the best analysts and programmers so they don’t all end up in the private sector?

…and On the Gripping Hand

This whole NSA spying situation raises a bunch of conflicting responses in me. 

First of all, there’s the ridiculous politicization of this. The NSA is mostly a non-partisan civil service organization, and I’m sure a lot of the people in it predate the current administration. Whether or not the particular decisions to do this predate this administration, they are justified by laws passed by an all-GOP Congress and presidency. So there’s plenty of blame to go around. 

Then there’re the Senators and Representatives saying they never realized the Patriot Act could be used this way. Bullshit. Or idiocy. Senator Feingold and Representative Kucinich both recognized this outcome before it was even passed. I know Kucinich spoke about it at the time, and I suspect Feingold did. And even if someone in Congress hadn’t, there’ve been plenty of people outside of Congress warning that this was the obvious, even inevitable, outcome of the Patriot Act and related legislation since before any of it was passed. So there is no excuse from anyone in Congress to pretend they’re somehow surprised or offended that it’s going on–particularly if they were in Congress in 2001. 

But at the same time, I can’t figure out whether I should be more worried about this than about Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Visa, MasterCard, Verizon, AT&T, and whoever else is watching our every move. More offended? Yes, because I expect better of the government–I expect corporations to pull this sort of stunt whenever there is insufficient oversight. But should I be more worried? After all, I can at least vote these policies away, in theory. I mean, not directly, but I can vote against those who implemented these policies, or who currently support them. I have no oversight of corporations.

And I’m certainly disappointed and frustrated. When government operates as intended, it fulfills the needs of the people. When corporations operate as intended, they make money. So businesses that invade customer privacy aren’t terribly surprising, particularly given customer attitudes (more on that in a minute)–in many cases, that’s a natural outgrowth of fulfilling their purpose as profit engines. But when government does this, it has clearly strayed from it’s purpose. 

Of course, back to the 2nd point, this is not a new thing. At a minimum, excessive government invasion of privacy has been going on since the Patriot Act made everything legal, because terrorism! And businesses have, likewise, been doing this for as long as it’s been technically possible. When they even give an explanation for what they’re doing it’s generally because discount. (Or, in the case of Google and sometimes Apple and Facebook and others, it’s because awesome–as in, “look at this awesome thing you can do, and all you have to do is give us your whole life so we can connect the dots”.) 

So I can’t help but think of the XKCD comic: 

Too Little, Too Late?

Some of us have been arguing that we should be worrying about privacy since the popularizing of the internet (loosely corresponding with the dawn of the Web in ’93). I’ve personally tried to persuade everyone I know to install PGP for their email and use it for as long as it or GPG has been free. And the response is almost always “it’s too hard” or “it doesn’t matter”–and usually the latter. 

So I ask of those complaining about the current NSA surveillance: Have you been minimizing your exposure to big corporate entities? Do you use a grocery discount card? Are you using GPG/PGP? And if not, why is it so much worse for the NSA to know all about you than for your ISP? Personally, I’m much more worried about my ISP–if they were to cut me off, I’d have no recourse. If the government does something wrong, there are courts and legislators and police and appeals and voting. 

Why hasn’t anyone been up in arms before now? The Patriot Act has been public knowledge for over a decade, and the fact that it enabled the government to do this has been known just as long, and had significant publicity leading up to its renewal a few years ago. 

Is Privacy Valued?

My theory: people don’t actually value their privacy. That’s part of why we’re not seeing more of an uproar than we are. But it’s also why even those who are in an uproar for the most part still use social media and send unencrypted email. What drives this is dislike of government, or dislike of tyranny. 

And, let’s be clear, a government spying on its citizens without just cause is tyrannical. It’s one thing to use new technology to increase the reach of government in order to more evenly enforce laws against those who are actually breaking them. That’s why I have no problem with red-light cameras or automated speeding cameras, and think the argument that they’re “unfair” is ridiculous. If anything, they’re much fairer than the human system: the speeding camera has a threshold and tickets every person who goes too fast, not just those who look a certain way, and not just the 1% (or whatever fraction) that the cops can pull over. But that’s very different from a license plate reader which records every car that goes by a point, and stores that info. Most of the people being recorded did nothing wrong. And, on topic, even more intrusive and even less justified is recording (even just the metadata of) every communication of people who aren’t even suspected of doing something dangerous or illegal. 

Those Who Would Surrender Freedom For Safety Will End Up With Neither

So, on to my final point: while this program needs to stop, so do most of the other things we put in place after the 9/11/01 attacks. This isn’t different in kind, only in degree, from things like forbidding toothpaste on a plane or using backscatter x-ray scanners. In all cases, these measures do little or nothing to improve our safety, but they are successfully turning us into a people that no longer recognize the difference between freedom and tyranny. 

Aside: perhaps the best example of security theater I’ve yet to see: in the Portland airport (and I presume therefore all airports that use TSA), those over 70 no longer need to remove their shoes or coat when going through security. Which only makes sense if either those over 70 can’t be terrorists (which is ridiculous–if anything, I’d think someone who is quite old might be more easily persuaded to sacrifice themselves for a cause, having already lived a good, long life), or if coats and shoes aren’t in fact a security risk. 

So I have hope that this latest government intrusion will finally get people caring, and maybe we’ll finally see some of the unreasonable powers we let the government grant itself in the last dozen years undone. Maybe this is the last straw, and it undoes not only itself but a few other things, and in this way some good comes of it. 

What You Can Do

In the meantime, if you don’t like the government having this much information, do something about it!

  • Install GPG and use it. Not just for your “special” or “secret” emails, but for most or all of your emails. It works best when everything is encrypted. 
  • Install Tor and run it. A bridge, at the minimum, an exit node if you can. Or install it in the cloud.
  • Only use chat clients that implement Off-the-Record, and turn it on by default. 
  • Subscribe to a VPN service, and routinely run your traffic through it. Yes, it’ll slow down your web browsing. 
  • And, of course, tell your representatives and vote based on this. And don’t be fooled by Republicans using this excuse to bash the Democrats–there is no evidence that most Republicans would do anything differently. Remember, they voted these laws into place in the first place. 

And then start worrying about corporate intrusions, too. Even if you’re ok with the businesses having your info, remember that if they don’t have your info they can’t give it to the government.

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