Sunday, June 9, 2013

George Orwell is Laughing At Us

I used to joke about wanting to see my FBI file.

This was said in the vain hope that I actually had one.

There was a part of me that felt it would be kind of a curmudgeon's badge of honor to have one, but I wasn't quite sure I had been enough of a pain in the ass to merit one.

Turns out its not so special.

Turns out, we all have one.

Turns out all you need to do to merit being under surveillance in the United States is to be born in the United States, have an inalienable right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, and then have that right summarily ignored under some nebulously defined threat which will never go away.

Oh yeah, and own a phone or use a computer.

So first, thanks to The Guardian, a British newspaper whose financial foundations are shaky at best, we learn that the National Security Agency, which is charged with keeping an eye on foreign developments, has been collecting the phone records of millions of Verizon customers on a daily basis.

(Here's the court order that makes it all legal.)

The Verizon order was made under the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) as amended by the Patriot Act of 2001, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, The Guardian reports.

The Guardian also reported that:
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.
Sadly,  I think they overestimate the American public's sensitivity to this issue.

Me? I'm just stunned that two elected officials in Washington actually seem concerned about this.

Although, maybe when the public realizes the Obama administration considers them no more worthy of Constitutional protections then journalists, THAT will make them mad.

I mean come on. Journalists? Those guys are awful!

Then comes the news from The Washington Post that our friends at the NSA and FBI are also "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 foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post."

Like a bad spy novel, the Post reports the program is "code-named PRISM" and operates by:
"Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”
London’s Guardian newspaper reported Friday that GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, also has been secretly gathering intelligence from the same internet companies through an operation set up by the NSA.
All of this collection of "meta-data" is done by merely taking the information we gleefully allow private companies to collect on us all the time in exchange for convenience, so the government asking for information that already exists all seems kind of normal.

It shouldn't.

It should worry the hell out of us.

For those of us who think the Constitution is only about guns and free speech, permit a refresher on the Fourth Amendment:
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
No doubt the legal argument here is that the government is only taking what we have freely given to giant corporations.

It does not, however, make me feel secure in my papers or effects," and it appears the only "probable cause" or "affirmation," the government has offered in seizing this information is: "some of you might be terrorists."

I call it this the Jeff Foxworthy (of "You might be a red neck" fame) rationale.

We can spy on everyone because, well, some of you might be  a terrorist, if not now, then maybe some day.

This kind of "perpetual crisis" not only provides job security for everyone in the security business, it also means they will ever stop collecting this information and potentially using it against us for reasons that have very little to do with terrorism.

So if you don't have a file with the good old FBI, then maybe you've got one with the NSA, or maybe the CIA or even some agency so secret we're not even allowed to know it exists.

(Please note here that these are NEWSPAPERS no one buys anymore undertaking these investigations. No major network would have the balls to confront the government like this. Keeping those in power accountable is the job of a free press and, these stories indicate, we are still, sometimes, up to the job.

On my desk at work, I have a quote from Winston Churchill taped to my computer: "A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize."

So when newspapers finally go away, so too will another avenue to find out what the hell our government is doing. But hey, at least we'll always know when Lindsay Fucking Lohan goes back to rehab again! End of rant.) 

It was inevitable I suppose.

Since the Internet, technology has raced forward at a pace far exceeding our ability to understand its full implications or recognize its downsides, much less muster the collective political will to do something about it.

Needless to say, the security agencies immediately recognized the opportunities and capitalized upon the inability of the political arm to adapt our laws to recognize that communication in an envelope should enjoy the same protections as communication in a virtual envelope.

They might need a court order to open your physical mail, but apparently all it takes is one to open EVERYONE's e-mail, or Internet searches, or Google searches of Skype conversations.

Once the law catches up to those practices, if ever, the government, our government, will already have stockpiled millions of pieces of data on its citizens for use as they see fit in the never-ending "war on terror."

(Seriously, how does one win a "war on terror." When a child gets terrified on a roller coaster, who do we declare war on? The child? The roller coaster?)

And once they have this information, how realistic is it that a law would be passed making them stop or give it back, particularly given that the law, process for enforcing it and contents of the searches are all secret?

These intrusions into our privacy began under President Bush's administration, but it is President Obama who has chosen to continue them and, in some ways, that makes him more guilty in my eyes.

Because, unlike Bush, Obama promised to stop these practices and has, instead, expanded them.

Combine these outrages with a drone program that kills American citizens without trial and one begins to consider that perhaps its not the Second Amendment we need to worry about this president undermining -- it's all the others.

These are supposed to be our founding principles. If we abandon them for convenience or because we're scared or under attack, how sacred can we really be said to consider them?

The fact that Ben Franklin's quote about "those who would sacrifice liberty in exchange for security deserve neither" is so overused its become trite, does not make it any less true.

Why should be we worried about this?

Pretty simple really and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald puts it simply:

"No healthy democracy can endure when the most consequential acts of those in power remain secret and unaccountable."

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