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Why the Obama Administration is not the Stasi

big barryThe Obama Administration is not the Stasi. After all, the Stasi notoriously created a nation-state of informants.

Instead of pesky informants, the Obama Administration prefers the “hoovering” of all electronic data, foreign and domestic, as well as the use of drones to spy on the citizenry. (And what does a drone do in such cases? It’s one of a million surveillance cameras, only it’s in the sky instead of on the ground.)

But rest assured, Barack “The Surveiller” Obama has made the determination with regards to your privacy and these programs are well worth the intrusion into every corner of the American life. It’s a small price to pay.

(The problem isn’t that these things are illegal; the problem is that they are legal.)

Send lawyers, drones, and money. It’s for your own good.

Reeducating Nadler

Has Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) been assimilated?

Here is Nadler as of Thursday:

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, disclosed on Thursday that during a secret briefing to members of Congress, he was told that the contents of a phone call could be accessed “simply based on an analyst deciding that.”

If the NSA wants “to listen to the phone,” an analyst’s decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned. “I was rather startled,” said Nadler, an attorney and congressman who serves on the House Judiciary committee.

Here is Nadler—maybe—via his mouthpiece, today:

James Owens, a spokesman for Nadler, provided a statement on Sunday morning, a day after this article was published, saying: “I am pleased that the administration has reiterated that, as I have always believed, the NSA cannot listen to the content of Americans’ phone calls without a specific warrant.” Owens said he couldn’t comment on what assurances from the Obama administration Nadler was referring to, and said Nadler was unavailable for an interview.

So who are we to believe: Nadler, who says an analyst can serve as the decision authority on a listen-in, or the Nadler rep who toes the Administration line but contradicts his boss’s statement?

For the touchy-feely and gullible crowd, the President’s chief offers that Obama does not “feel” American’s privacy has been violated. (In related news from the annals of communism, Chairman Mao, Uncle Joe, and Pol Pot all “felt” they were exemplary leaders.)

Given the massive amount of information that can be held on a thumb drive (and that multiple thumb drives may be in play; you can get a 32 gig thumb drive for less than twenty bucks), is Glenn Greenwald just waiting for the right time to make a liar of (almost) everyone?

The surveillance state’s massive credibility problem

The surveillance state is simply not credible as the basic assertion of the watchers/gatherers appears to be this: “good” Americans are wholly surveilled while their privacy remains intact. Or, in some sort of paradox that makes sense only to the watchers and gatherers, we are monitored but free.

From the Washington Post comes the story of a leaker trying to do some damage repair:

The White House, the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the record for this article. A senior intelligence official agreed to answer questions if not identified.

So based on the above, we likely have authorized leaks from an unidentified source. What’s comes next? The unnamed source’s plea for trust, naturally. Here’s what the leaker says:

“We have rich oversight across three branches of government. I’ve got an [inspector general] here, a fairly robust legal staff here . . . and there’s the Justice Department’s national security division,” the official said. “For those things done under court jurisdiction, the courts are intrusive in my business, appropriately so, and there are two congressional committees. It’s a belts-and-suspenders-and-Velcro approach, and inside there’s rich auditing.”

This might be the sort of “rich oversight” the IRS is subject to on non-profits, along with the associated “rich auditing.” (“Rich auditing” may in fact be code for “political targeting.” And as it turns out, the IRS is the one who does the auditing, not the public. We really don’t know much regarding the true genesis of the IRS scandal except that it’s a massive oversight failure. And ironically, those at the top often hide behind claims of “privacy.”)

Next, industry wants the top cover that only government can provide (and government is happy to do so. It makes the story sound so much better.)

When the New York Times revealed the warrantless surveillance of voice calls, in December 2005, the telephone companies got nervous. One of them, unnamed in the report, approached the NSA with a request. Rather than volunteer the data, at a price, the “provider preferred to be compelled to do so by a court order,” the report said. Other companies followed suit. The surveillance court order that recast the meaning of business records “essentially gave NSA the same authority to collect bulk telephony metadata from business records that it had” under Bush’s asserted authority alone.

So there you have it: meet the new boss, same as the old boss (except the new boss has a government approved program which is the same as the old, decider-approved program).

And what about the internet?

The NSA calls Internet metadata “digital network information.” Sophisticated analysis of those records can reveal unknown associates of known terrorism suspects. Depending on the methods applied, it can also expose medical conditions, political or religious affiliations, confidential business negotiations and extramarital affairs.

What permits the former and prevents the latter is a complex set of policies that the public is not permitted to see. “You could do analyses that give you more information, but the law and procedures don’t allow that,” a senior U.S. intelligence lawyer said.

We saw how that worked in preventing the Boston Marathon terror attacks, didn’t we? So where are we? We’re all the way back to where we started, with the Administration saying “trust me, trust the law, trust my procedures.”

The agency and its advocates maintain that its protection of that data is subject to rigorous controls and oversight by Congress and courts. For the public, it comes down to a question of unverifiable trust.

“The constraints that I operate under are much more remarkable than the powers that I enjoy,” said the senior intelligence official who declined to be named.

When asked why the NSA could not release an unclassified copy of its “minimization procedures,” which are supposed to strip accidentally collected records of their identifying details, the official suggested a reporter submit a freedom-of-information request.

So the final non sequiter is that the Administration’s leaker tells the reporter he/she’s leaking to that ‘A FOIA request should be submitted.’

After all this, if you’re going to give the leak, can’t you also include information which actually enhances your position? Why fall back on asking the leak-taker to file a FOIA request (which is far from timely and would be redacted to the point of incomprehensibility)? Good grief, man, you’re already leaking!

The failure to leak on “minimization procedures” is telling. This entire story, a gigantic “trust me” tale, is just like everything else coming out of the vast surveillance state: it comes across as disinformation and narrowly ranges between dissembling and wholly non-credible.

Warrants? Warrants?! We don’t need no stinkin’ warrant!!

Remember when the President said no one was listening to your calls? Well, it seems he was pulling a Clapper.

Instead, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) is helping to unravel Obama’s disinformation campaign: (emphasis added)

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, disclosed this week that during a secret briefing to members of Congress, he was told that the contents of a phone call could be accessed “simply based on an analyst deciding that.”

If the NSA wants “to listen to the phone,” an analyst’s decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned. “I was rather startled,” said Nadler, an attorney and congressman who serves on the House Judiciary committee.

Not only does this disclosure shed more light on how the NSA’s formidable eavesdropping apparatus works domestically it also suggests the Justice Department has secretly interpreted federal surveillance law to permit thousands of low-ranking analysts to eavesdrop on phone calls.

Because the same legal standards that apply to phone calls also apply to e-mail messages, text messages, and instant messages, Nadler’s disclosure indicates the NSA analysts could also access the contents of Internet communications without going before a court and seeking approval.

The disclosure appears to confirm some of the allegations made by Edward Snowden, a former NSA infrastructure analyst who leaked classified documents to the Guardian. Snowden said in a video interview that, while not all NSA analysts had this ability, he could from Hawaii “wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president.”

On the Truth-O-Meter, it’s Snowden 42, Administration 0… at halftime.

The corruption of language… and the truth

The disconnect between what people say and the truth has arguably never been larger.

Leading the way, at the moment, is James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence. He’s the guy who said the national surveillance state was “not wittingly” collecting data on Americans. Clapper could easily have offered to answer the question truthfully in a closed hearing or to take a question for the record, both of which are done all the time with Congress, but he didn’t. Instead, he lied and it’s far more reasonable to assume that all your electronic transactions are being catalogued, correlated, and characterized by both industry and government.

Then there’s the President who falsely said Congress had been “fully briefed on these [surveillance] programs” when they hadn’t. Why would the President say such a thing? Easy: it’s a habit. He wants to 1) blame others and 2) avoid uncomfortable problems. Yes, misery loves company. The President, lacking credibility, also mechanically reoffered the standard “I welcome this debate” throwaway line as it regards the depth and breadth of the surveillance state. He welcomes no such thing.

Meanwhile, the NSA’s “industry partners” craft careful statements which imply no knowledge of government data calls while avoiding the unpleasant reality that they’re gathering all sorts of your information and are doing their very best to exploit their haul while also handing it off to the feds.

The Administration’s actions have shown they do not welcome transparency of any sort, except as it concerns crowing about victories and success stories, even when this crowing compromises national security. Mr. Obama says the global war on terror is over, even as the government’s GWOT actions continue unabated and intrusions into the lives of the citizenry expand.

And of course, White House spokesman Jay Carney is an entire case study unto himself.

Discrimination from the IRS is said to be caused by a pair of rogue agents in Cincinnati while in reality it was a big (88 people, so far; expect more), Washington DC-driven (that is, it was a top-down effort) initiative, in every way.

The Senate is working on “comprehensive immigration reform” which most Americans would rightly call amnesty. The usual suspects, both liberal and pseudo-conservative, demand Republican participation (that is, voting for amnesty) or else they say conservatives will face extinction.

Finally, the Benghazi security debacle was spontaneously caused by a YouTube video until that lie could not be sustained.

Regardless of the President’s protestations of innocence, most people know and accept that this fish rots from the head (and not from the tail). Similarly, the people of Russia, Venezuela, Syria, Cuba, Egypt, China, Turkey, et al., know of these—and even more rotten—things. Maybe that’s why sales of one particular edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four have gone up almost 10000 percent since the confirmation of the great American surveillance state.

The real lesson is simple… and sad. Americans are being deceived and mislead with malice and forethought and on a level once thought impossible, or even absurd. Why? To further an agenda of power and control. So instead of watching what they say—the “they” being the politicos and their courtiers—let’s resolve ourselves to watch what they do. And as required, to fight it.

The new McDonalds

By 1976, McDonalds had served 20 billion hamburgers. Today? More. Many more.

But McDonalds has a volume-based rival, the government’s electronic surveillance programs. As it is, the government (that is, the Obama Administration) has pulled way ahead with a billion electronic transactions per day (emphasis added).

“Right now, we have a situation where the executive branch is getting a billion records a day, and we’re told they would not query that data except pursuant to very clear standards,” he [Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.)] said. “But we don’t have courts making sure those standards are always followed.”

As the President might have said, “This surveillance state? You didn’t build that. We built it… actually, we paid to have it built. For your own good. Trust us, we’re pre-law…”

Is the NSA cure worse than the disease?

So beyond the practice of having the federal government track and characterize your calls,  watch your credit card transactions, and scrutinize everything you do on line, can we talk about the real issue at hand? That is, is the government’s cure to terrorism (and a great many other things) worse than the disease?

While our current President has decided for our benefit that a near-total loss of privacy for the ruled is a small price to pay, others—those losing their privacy—might feel quite differently.

Sadly, the decider and his handlers (since the whole thing is classified), point out they’d welcome a “conversation” about government eavesdropping except that it’s classified to begin with and therefore can’t be discussed. Ironically, expect the news on the surveillance state to now dribble out from within the Administration in a way that’s leaked to benefit their agenda. (Unless some in the media already have a large data dump on the surveillance state queued up and  ready to hit the fan.)

There’s speculation about the motives of NSA super-leaker Edward Snowden just as there’s angst, gnashing of teeth, and pretzel logic from the über partisans who are now defending the agenda and practices of the current president which are those of the previous president, writ extra large.

In the meantime, the welfare/security/surveillance-state warning light is illuminated steadily. Will the President take any meaningful action to enhance the privacy of the citizenry or will he keep things on auto-pilot as we continue down our slippery glide-slope?

All signs point towards auto-pilot; auto-pilot helps sustain the power and control agenda of the ruling class.

A post-Prism world

What sorts of things might happen given the super surveillance state revelations (FISA orders, Prism, Boundless Informant, et al)? Here’s a partial list:

  • Lawsuits.
  • More cash transactions.
  • Increased use of private encryption (which may already be futile).
  • A massive fall-off in on-line porn.
  • Unfocused pushback (with tightly focused disgust) against a government Americans clearly aren’t in control of.
  • Tech companies become the new big oil/big tobacco/big retailer/big pharma, only less trustworthy.
  • Legislative calls for on-line privacy.
  • Realization that “on-line privacy” is an oxymoron.
  • More politically targeted IRS audits.
  • Government mandates cloud-only computing. “After considering all things, I’ve decided it’s worth it for you,” Mr. Obama says.
  • The United States becomes a nation people seek refuge from.

The last item on the list (but not necessarily chronologically) is your forehead gets bar coded and you get an RFID implant. (Or in lieu of that, you have your cell phone on and with you at all times. There’s little basic difference.)

Data monster Google is scared of drones

The big chimichunga at Google, Eric Schmidt, has a fear. He’s afraid of drones. And what they might do.

See if you can tease any irony out of the following:

The influential head of Google, Eric Schmidt, has called for civilian drone technology to be regulated, warning about privacy and security concerns.

Regulated? Privacy? Security? (Begin sarcasm font) Wow, I’m sure glad Google is so concerned about me! (Close sarcasm font.)

What’s next, a public service announcement from Homeland Security telling us Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and/or the U.S. government all have the same concerns?

One grad student versus federal regulators

Those who think just a bit more government—continued ad infinitum; like government health-care—will do the trick to fix all our ills, consider the following.

Jonathan Mayer had a hunch.

A gifted computer scientist, Mayer suspected that online advertisers might be getting around browser settings that are designed to block tracking devices known as cookies. If his instinct was right, advertisers were following people as they moved from one website to another even though their browsers were configured to prevent this sort of digital shadowing. Working long hours at his office, Mayer ran a series of clever tests in which he purchased ads that acted as sniffers for the sort of unauthorized cookies he was looking for. He hit the jackpot, unearthing one of the biggest privacy scandals of the past year: Google was secretly planting cookies on a vast number of iPhone browsers. Mayer thinks millions of iPhones were targeted by Google.

This is precisely the type of privacy violation the Federal Trade Commission aims to protect consumers from, and Google, which claims the cookies were not planted in an unethical way, now reportedly faces a fine of more than $10 million. But the FTC didn’t discover the violation. Mayer is a 25-year-old student working on law and computer science degrees at Stanford University. He shoehorned his sleuthing between classes and homework, working from an office he shares in the Gates Computer Science Building with students from New Zealand and Hong Kong. He doesn’t get paid for his work and he doesn’t get much rest.

And yet what lesson—at least in part—does Mayer himself draw?

“I don’t think it’s controversial to note that they [the FTC] seem to be understaffed,” Mayer said in a phone interview between classes. “I think that’s pretty clear.”

Regarding computer security and privacy, there is no end-game. It’s an unending war. But a Goliath-like government-led solution has to be the worst choice on the menu.

Instead, we need an army of cyber-sniper Davids like Jonathan Mayer. But despite heroic market-driven efforts like AVG, avast!, and others, I don’t think that’s where we’re trending.