“I'd like to apologize to the schizophrenic rambling half naked homeless guy outside Wendy’s. Turns out you were right about the government.” – An observant man from Twitter named, Ben, commenting very effectively on the events of June 6th, 2013.
Do you remember the end of “The Dark Knight” when Lucius Fox tells Bruce Wayne when he taps into everyone’s cell phone in Gotham so that Batman and that Bat-Sonar-Computer of his can see everything that is going on in the city and he tells Bruce, “No one should have that much power.” – When Batman saves the day he gives Lucius the choice to keep the tech or to blow it all up – trusting Lucius to do the right thing whatever that may be?
“No one should have that much power.”
Lucius does the right thing and after the Joker is vanquished he destroys the computer. Within the scope of the story he saves Bruce by doing so, as well. Bruce knows that he would use the technology for what he would truly believe is a good cause but he also knows his own heart and, even with the best of intentions, how corruptible a human heart can be. Bruce, in the end, does the very best he can do by handing the decision over to the only man he knew he could trust – the true hero of the story, Lucius Fox. In the world of fiction it all made sense the good guys won, the bad lost and the credits rolled. The specter of absolute power corrupting absolutely is averted and Bruce can keep fighting bad guys without becoming one in the sequel.
(END SPOILERS – by the way, see “The Dark Knight” already, will ya?)
In reality we find that proactive security and governmental monitoring just a bit too tempting. On June 6th, 2013, the story broke that the United States government is collecting vast amounts of information from private communications. It appears that it may be too idealistic to simply expect the government – ANY government to do the right thing on the issue of rights, security, & decency online is simply an idyllic model. So why would Bruce Wayne, the Batman, build such a machine in the first place? Alfred sums it up best when he says that, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Who knew that The Dark Knight would be so prophetic? Maybe Christopher Nolan?
That is why. The world is a dangerous place filled with people who only want to lie, kill & destroy and with a healthy combination of vigilance and fear we boldly step into a brave new era. A world where surveillance on citizens of the United States is done in the name of safety and of security – power and control; a surveillance society. Yes it is a, “different world” but the roots of our surveillance society go back further than we think. In the article, “Privacy in Retreat, a Timeline”, NPR’s, Charles Mahtesian traces privacy’s decline back to the invention of, “the cookie” back in 1994. It includes other greatest hits to personal freedoms and writes such as 2002’s, “Total Information Awareness” and 2005’s, “Warrantless Surveillance”. You can watch the forward motion of this right here: http://www.npr.org/2013/06/11/190721205/privacy-in-retreat-a-timeline?sc=tw&cc=share. In another article from NPR, “Privacy Past & Present: A Saga of American Ambivalence”, the writers under the subheading Privacy Past & Present have this quote from, “…Neil Richards, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
‘If you want to talk about privacy, what would be less private than having a platoon of Redcoats living in your house, eating your food, listening to your conversations?" Richards asks. "... In the Constitution itself — the quartering of soldiers, the execution of general warrants — all have to do with the privacy of the home, the privacy of papers.
"And though the Constitution doesn't use the word 'privacy,' the separation of individuals and their information and their homes and their persons from the state is a theme that runs throughout the Bill of Rights.’”
The entire article can be found right here: http://www.npr.org/2013/06/16/192369272/privacy-past-and-present-a-saga-of-american-ambivalence?ft=1&f=1001.
I have discussed privacy issues before – on this very blog on various occasions and have had people tell me in no uncertain terms, “To think the government is looking at YOU is the height of narcissism. You’re not that important.” While I may have a few healthy narcissistic tendencies, however, it is now a very well established fact that the NSA and the FBI think differently on the subject. We are being monitored and that is a fact. All of the sudden, my tinfoil collection doesn’t look so strange. This “brave new world” which we find ourselves in did not just materialize out of thin air. This is a systemic condition; it does not start or end with the executive branch. None of this happens without the Legislative or the Judiciary branches of the United States government being aware of the widespread surveillance of the general populous in some capacity.
In the Reuters article, “Reports on Surveillance of Americans Fuel Debate Over Privacy, Security”, Diane Feinstein (Democratic Senator from California who heads the Senate Intelligence committee) is quoted as saying, “It’s called protecting America.” Benjamin Franklin (Founding Father) is quoted as saying, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Mark Hosenball & John Whitesides article can be found here: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/07/us-usa-wiretaps-verizon-idUSBRE95502920130607.
Ben was like a Yoda that you would actually want to spend time with.
A CNET article by Declan McCullagh, “NSA spying flap extends to contents of U.S. phone calls”, states that, “National Security Agency discloses in secret Capitol Hill briefing that thousands of analysts can listen to domestic phone calls. That authorization appears to extend to e-mail and text messages too.” The article quotes Mr. Kurt Opsahl. “’…There are serious ‘constitutional problems’’ with this approach, said Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has litigated warrantless wiretapping cases. ‘It epitomizes the problem of secret laws.’” Mr. McCullagh touches on the “NUCLEON” program where the NSA can take the spoken words from a phone call, convert it to text, and stores it all in a database. The article can be found right here: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-57589495-38/nsa-spying-flap-extends-to-contents-of-u.s-phone-calls/?ttag=fbwc.
Due to recent events there has been a spike in sales of a precautionary tale from George Orwell, entitled, “1984”. “As literary political fiction and dystopian science-fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic novel in content, plot, and style. Many of its terms and concepts, such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, and memory hole, have entered everyday use since its publication in 1949. Moreover, Nineteen Eighty-Four popularized the adjective Orwellian, which describes official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation of the past by a totalitarian or authoritarian state.” – Oxford Companion to English Literature, Sixth Edition. University of Oxford Press: 2000. p. 726. It is enjoying a resurgence in sales and is more relevant now than it ever has been. See: “Orwell’s 1984 flying up the Amazon charts” right here: http://cir.ca/story/sales-of-1984-surge.
As the meme says, “It’s not supposed to be an instruction manual.”
The Guardian’s, Eric Limer wrote, “Meet Boundless Informant: the NSA Tool That Watches the Entire Planet”. The Guardian published in the United Kingdom. As the opening paragraph states, “First there was PRISM—the network that’s collecting real-time data on people everywhere—and now The Guardian has turned up “Boundless Informant” which is indexing surveillance and espionage metadata from the ENTIRE WORLD.” You can read all about it right here: http://htl.li/lR9sz.
So who is watching you? Information has been used as currency for quite some time now. Governments & corporations use it to sell ideologies, as well as, manufactured items to us all the time. Slate’s Amy Webb published an article entitled, “Who’s Watching You? Not Just the NSA”. In the article Ms. Webb explores the price that we pay when we choose to use new emerging technologies and participate in Social Media. “The reality is that we all live in clouds of deeply personal data, and we carry that information everywhere we go and in nearly everything we do. Stop for a moment, and think about all of the services you use and the conveniences you enjoy. Do you really think that Verizon is the only company divulging your information? Or that the NSA is the only organization doing the monitoring?” This article underlines an important factor that so many people ignore on a routine basis – actions & words mean things. We pay the price for using our tech with information and when it’s out there – it’s out there. “…There are serious social and legal repercussions when we allow a government or any organization unfettered, ubiquitous access to personal information. There are also serious repercussions when citizens don’t stop to think about the personal data they’re sharing, with whom and for what purpose. You may not be able to stop sharing that data, but you certainly can know what it is that you’re broadcasting.” You can find Amy Webb’s full article right here: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/06/nsa_verizon_surveillance_you_re_sharing_your_private_data_all_the_time.html. Click on the newly discovered Verizon commercial at the bottom of the article too. Unfortunately, there is a lot of truth in humor.
Micah Lee’s article on the Electronic Frontier Foundation website goes into further depth as to how we are being followed. Who picks up our electronic breadcrumbs when are on the web? Or, more to the point, what happens when our information is farmed out to a third party data aggregator to anyone guess where? “…by loading third party resources from servers controlled by major providers like Facebook, Google, and others, are sending information about their visitors to companies subject to US government data requests. While these news companies themselves could directly receive requests for this data, the fact that they voluntarily send this data to the same small, centralized group of third parties makes these third parties convenient and attractive targets to collect visitor information from vast swaths of the web. Once a website sends data to a third party, it no longer has the power to stand up for its users against unconstitutional government requests for that data.” How it happens and why it matters can be found right here: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/06/third-party-resources-nsa-leaks. Again, this is nothing new – it is the price for participation and has been since the invention of the cookie in 2004. Pay and play, it’s as simple as that. If you want to reap the benefits of Social Media or using directions on your cell phone you must exchange information.
What of Social Media of Facebook, Google, & Microsoft – how do they stand on this issue? As per CBS news, “General Counsel Ted Ullyot said in a statement Friday that Facebook is only allowed to talk about total numbers, but is lobbying to reveal more, and the permission received is still unprecedented.
Following the guidelines, Ullyot says Facebook received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests from government entities in the last six months of 2012, on subjects from missing children to terrorist threats.
"With more than 1.1 billion monthly active users worldwide," said Ullyot, "this means that a tiny fraction of one percent of our user accounts were the subject of any kind of U.S. state, local, or federal U.S. government request (including criminal and national security-related requests) in the past six months. We hope this helps put into perspective the numbers involved, and lays to rest some of the hyperbolic and false assertions in some recent press accounts about the frequency and scope of the data requests that we receive."
In a rare alliance, Facebook, Google and Microsoft Corp. are pressuring the Obama administration to loosen their legal gag on government surveillance orders.” See: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-205_162-57589463/facebook-around-10k-requests-for-info-from-govt-in-last-6-months/ for full story. Information is Social Media’s bread and butter. These companies had to come forward in hopes that they would be viewed as being more transparent and that, as it says in the article, hoping that the Obama administration, “loosens their legal gag on government surveillance orders.” They cannot afford to be lumped into any surveillance plot. It’s just bad for business.
So, whatever happened to doing the right thing?
A whistleblower as defined by Wikipedia (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whistleblower) is, “…a person who exposes misconduct, alleged dishonest or illegal activity occurring in an organization. The alleged misconduct may be classified in many ways; for example, a violation of a law, rule, regulation and/or a direct threat to public interest, such as fraud, health and safety violations, and corruption. Whistleblowers may make their allegations internally (for example, to other people within the accused organization) or externally (to regulators, law enforcement agencies, to the media or to groups concerned with the issues).” What of the whistleblower – the often lone voice in the wilderness who stands up and does something? The individual who is brave enough to do the right thing?
Before the election are the promises to, “strengthen whistleblower laws” and are cited as, “Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government”.
After the election and the advent of Julian Assange & WikiLeaks, of Bradley Manning, and now Edward Snowden one can only conclude that we are being lied to on a sweeping - epic scale and on a routine basis. The truth gets lost in the struggle to maintain power. It is with profound sadness that I write those words. “Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.” How quaint. The shame of it is I bought it – hook, line, & sinker. I had “HOPE”. It turns out truth and transparency are only words used to placate voters like me and things are not the same as it always was but with the endless march forward of technology and our innate ability to serve the darker angels of our own natures, things are much worse and there is no end in sight. Our technology has outpaced our ethics. We need to do better. It’s that simple.
Where is Lucius Fox when we need him?
Personal freedom. Liberty. America used to be known for these and, in some quarters, we still are. Among our Rights as citizens is the First Amendment – the right to freedom of speech. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those words are found in our Declaration of Independence. I have to believe that they still mean something. In 2006 we were ranked 8th in personal freedoms (see; http://www.stateofworldliberty.org/index.html). In 2013 (as per very similar data collection. See; http://patrickrhamey.com/saturday-research/2013/6/9/2013-state-of-world-liberty-index) The United States is not even in the top ten.
Let that sink in a bit.
We are not in the top ten.
Hong Kong is listed as third. Perhaps this may have had some bearing on why Edward Snowden chose this as his initial base of operations? I don’t know. I do know; however, that the United States Department of Justice has now filed paperwork charging him with espionage (see: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/22/us-usa-security-snowden-charges-idUSBRE95K18220130622). So much for all that “whistleblower protection” pre-election talk.
I firmly believe that this the issue that will define the Obama Administration in the history books. It cuts to the core of American ideology and speaks to our rights and our liberties. The surveillance state which we live in did not just materialize into existence overnight; it was only brought into the light under this administration. It is systemic and it could never have happened without all three branches of our government being aware or it to some degree. Now we are aware of it too. As twenty-first century American citizens do we remain ambivalent and distracted waiting for the next wave of surveillance tools to be implemented (I’m looking at you, Drone fleet)? What can we do? I think it is a healthy practice to encourage transparency. Further, I believe it sends the wrong message to United States citizens and to the rest of the world when we persecute a whistleblower. I think it essential that we stand up for those who stood up for us - those who say, “This is wrong & it bad for others”. Whistleblower protection is not only something that should put into policy but it should be lauded as a high watermark of a civilized society. Doing the right thing to those who are trying to do the right thing speaks volumes about our ethics as a people and as a nation.
Now that the inconvenient truth of the surveillance program is public knowledge politicians are starting to speak about it. They must. It cannot be avoided. These are dangerous times (in several ways) and there must be a “balance” between defense & dystopia. In the Politico, article entitled, “Nancy Pelosi Booed, Heckled at Netroots Nation 2013”, by Emily Schultheis (Emily Schultheis’ article is here: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/nancy-pelosi-booed-netroots-nation-2013-93193.html#.UcZ48iyO_Oo.twitter) we find Nancy Pelosi being booed and heckled when she used the word, “balance” trying to justify the warrantless surveillance of millions of American citizens during a speech. One man yelled, “It’s not a balance. It’s not constitutional! No secret laws!” As this man was ushered out of the hall by security a voice in the crowd said, “And that is what a police state looks like.”
My fear is that the voice in the crowd may be onto something.
We can do better.