Thursday, June 13, 2013

Big Brother and the Data Holding Company

I just can't for the life of me work up any shock or outrage over the latest disclosures over PRISM and the NSA. I think we all had a reason to assume that this was being done since shortly after 9/11. And actually this 2006 report in USAToday pretty much confirmed it already. Obviously, the scope of the program has grown since then. But I have a problem with the government collecting more information to help "connect the dots." As Jeremy Bash, chief of staff to former C.I.A. director Leon Panetta put it. "If you’re looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack." Or perhaps a whole barn full of haystacks.

There is always some potential for lower-level abuse in any data-mining endeavor or at any large government agency or corporation, for that matter. We've just spent four weeks talking about lower-rung employees at the IRS giving a little more attention to conservative-sounding political groups seeking tax-exempt status. And similarly your credit card number may get poached when you purchase things on-line. Several times a year a bank or another company ends up having to apologize for a security breach that results in thousands of credit card numbers being publicized. It's the electronic, on-demand world we live in and most people just shrug and assume the risks with everyone else.

But just as you wouldn't close down banks, the internet, or any government agency because of some minor abuses or privacy violations, neither should you shutdown the N.S.A. programs over the "potential" for abuse.

So it's extremely important that there be dogged oversight and transparency to provide some public assurance. Will Saletan of Slate made some great points in regards to this earlier in the week. However, since the information is classified, the public will have no choice but to trust that Congress will provide the necessary oversight. And that is hopefully what the Edward Snowden revelations facilitate.

The most surprising revelation for me from this entire story is that so many (roughly 500K) contractors have security clearances to access top secret information. Now of course there's access and there's "access", but still even if the real number is 100K, it's a little worrisome. Our government contracting out over 30% of this type of work is another issue for another day. Do we really want so many civilian contractors working with such sensitive data? In this instance it's about time to revisit the old Republican canard about the private sector always being better, more efficient, etc, than the public sector. That may not be the case when it comes to defense and intelligence. And when the private companies have mostly sweet no-bid deals with the government, then it leads to the same inefficiency we harp on about Big Government.

I'm generally pretty liberal on most issues. Crime (both the prevention of and prosecution of) and counter-terrorism are areas where I'm pretty authoritarian. I don't really support Stop-and-Frisk because it has proven to be ineffective. But if it worked, I'd be on board. Perhaps, due to living in several different neighborhoods in a big city like Philadelphia with more than its share of violent crime, these issues are never just abstract philosophical civil liberties debates for me. It's a real thing I need to think about literally every time I walk down a city street. People who grew up in similar environs have much more practical, real-world takes on gun-control as well. It's tough selling the libertarian "virtues" of less gun regulation and drug decriminalization in neighborhoods like, say, North Philly, which have been ravaged by guns and drugs, as opposed to, say, rural enclaves in central PA.

So my perspective on this issue is that crime or fear of crime eventually curtails liberty. So a reasonable sacrifice of a little privacy to help reduce or prevent crime and terrorism is the foundation that allows us to achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Michael Grunwald sums up this point of view in Time more eloquently here.

Most of the extreme slippery-slope arguments against any law tend to be presented in absence of more legitimate points that address here-and-now particulars. "This may make sense now or may prevent x, but in 40 years y could happen!" should not be taken seriously as an argument. The same lazy argument could be used against any law that's on the books.

The government won't be taking your guns if background-check laws are enacted. And the government will not be viewing your cell phone call logs unless you call someone, who called someone, who called someone, who called a suspected terrorist at some point in the last five years. It's a high-tech version of police detectives dropping by your house to "ask you a few questions" about a particular case if they believed you might be tangentially connected to one of the suspects.

Rightly or wrongly, the executive branch and the intelligence agencies are held accountable for any potential terrorist attack. The natural human response then is for people in those positions to do everything legally and technologically possible to prevent terrorist attacks. And the same "cover your ass" incentives line up politically for those people to keep their jobs, as it should be in a responsive, functioning democracy. It would be unrealistic for us to expect our leaders to not use every technological advantage at their disposal to prevent crime/terrorism and keep tabs on our enemies. The surveillance state will continue to get bigger, not smaller. This is the path our country has been on since the beginning of the Cold War and there's no turning back.

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