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NSA whistleblower dispels popular cop-out argument

It’s a familiar argument in questions of privacy and government surveillance: “I’ve got nothing to hide, and therefore nothing to fear.” After all, what would government spooks want with the good citizens who follow the law and pay their taxes, right?

Wrong.

Revelations of the NSA’s communications monitoring abilities, which appear to have been in place since at least 9/11, have confirmed what many of us have feared: that everything we say, over almost any medium, can be used against us – and here’s the worst part: in most cases we won’t even know about it.

It reminds me of an old joke, which if memory serves me correctly was about living in Soviet Russia with the KGB: if you ever lose your keys, simply shout out a threat to kill Comrade Lenin. A KGB agent will be over shortly to help you find them.

Have things gotten this bad? Of course not; no one in the world has the resources or manpower – yet – to actively tap everything we do and say, over every communications medium. What the NSA has demonstrated, however, is that it doesn’t need to.

Instead of recording all our calls and e-mails, it catalogs the data that it can analyze – metadata, as ex-NSA-analyst Russell Tice put it – and runs all sorts of analytics to determine its character. This metadata contains information on things like the sender, the recipient, the length of call, and location data like cell-tower or IP address. Metadata doesn’t contain the actual content, because it doesn’t need to.

What the NSA does record is analyzed according to patterns it regards to be suspicious. As an example, Mr. Tice described a “hypothetical” scenario: if the NSA determines that terrorists frequently make brief phone calls, then their system might automatically flag all short calls – such as someone ordering a pizza – as worthy of further investigation.

Think about that for a minute: if your actions – not even what you actually say – fit a pre-determined list of profiles (of which you have no access to) then you are liable to be red-flagged to a place where the contents of your communications are recorded.  Of course, you  won’t know whether this happened. Neither will you know when this red flag ever amounts to anything, such as – to use Mr. Tice’s example – the addition of your name to a TSA no-fly list.

Now, let’s think about the flipside for a minute: if on the phone you and a friend discussed plans for blowing up a building, but your call didn’t fit the NSA’s terrorist profile, your call escapes government notice.

Another possibility is so-called “guilt by association”: you may not know or associate with someone the government considers suspicious, but what about your friends? Do any of them have a drug habit? Do they have a criminal record? Do they align themselves with advocacy groups of any kind? What about their friends? Yes? No? Can you truly know for sure?

Thanks to the Internet’s global nature, I have friends around the world. Some of them lived or currently live in places like Bahrain and Syria. When we chat, we talk shop, about cultural absurdities, and about our countries’ respective politics. Does that make me a terrorist?

Look at President Obama’s election campaign: Opponents used Obama’s prior association with Weather Underground member William Ayers to discredit his campaign, suggest a weakness in his patriotism, and introduce into the public mind that he carried dangerous views. How hard is it for the NSA to draw similar conclusions? How many degrees of separation do they consider worthy of their attention?

Again, we don’t know. Everything is classified for reasons that, taken at face value, appear to be good ones. Don’t give the terrorists access to our tactics, right?

The dark side of this is that innocent citizens, who may and for whatever reason be flagged as suspicious, have little-to-no recourse. Taken to extremes, in the future a red flag could ruin someone’s life. More practically, it could mean little nuisances like an extra-special baggage search here, or, more painfully, a denied passport or visa.

This is why you must be concerned, even if you have nothing to hide. Terrorists or not, the government has no business sticking its nose into the private affairs of its citizens, regardless of whether or not it can accurately tell the difference between good and evil – and given the current situation the margin of error is simply way too large. We know this, our guardians know this, and even the agencies themselves know this fact – and if Mr. Tice is to be believed then the NSA is hiding this even from the oversight that it answers to.

We should be ashamed of ourselves. We build such wonderful things: the internet, global communications, easy access to countries halfway across the globe – and yet we refuse to call the guardians of those things to task when they silently work against us.

Indeed, you’ve got nothing to hide – so what?



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Flim flam
By masher2 (blog) on 1/26/2009 12:02:00 AM , Rating: 4
quote:
Revelations of the NSA’s communications monitoring abilities
The 'revelations' so far are the word of one slightly dubious character. Could they be accurate? Quite possibly so...but the automatic assumption of wholehearted accuracy is a bit disturbing.

quote:
Taken to extremes, in the future a red flag could ruin someone’s life.
The slippery slope fallacy makes a comeback.

quote:
I have friends around the world. Some of them lived or currently live in places like Bahrain and Syria...Does that make me a terrorist?
If you talk to a terrorist, that doesn't necessary make you yourself one. But it certainly increases the chances a bit, now doesn't it?

If a mob boss is being tailed, and the police see him stop someone in the street and have a conversation with him, that person might wind up being tailed as well. That's basic common sense...and the two situations are no different.

quote:
Opponents used Obama’s prior association with Weather Underground member William Ayers to discredit his campaign,
What does this have to do with your argument? The public certainly had a right to know about Obama's association with Ayers. It also had a right to question that, given Ayers lengthy felonious past. What exactly is your quibble here?

quote:
let’s think about the flipside for a minute: if on the phone you and a friend discussed plans for blowing up a building, but your call didn’t fit the NSA’s terrorist profile, your call escapes government notice.
In the context of your other remarks, this statement is rather incongruous. You seem to be arguing that, since the government can't achieve 100% perfection, it shouldn't even try.

Brushing away all the irrelevancies, all this boils down to just one single, simple issue. Does the NSA have the legal right to monitor phone calls of US citizens and, if so, under what circumstances and to what level? Is it allowable if only "metadata" is examined, not actual phone calls? Is it allowable if part of the conversation lies outside US borders?

Those are the real questions here. Everything else here is just flim-flam.




RE: Flim flam
By masher2 (blog) on 1/26/2009 12:09:41 AM , Rating: 5
For the record, no I don't believe the federal government should have the right to such monitoring without court order and oversight. Yes, such restrictions will at some point cost US lives. Compared to the dangers of an unrestrained government, however, thats a risk I'm more than willing to take.

Once you give government any particular power, its very difficult to take it back. And that power almost always gets used in ways in wasn't intended. For instance, I recently read of a woman who, after arguing with a flight attendant over whether she could spanking her two young sons during the flight, was charged as a terrorist under the new rules for interfering with flight crews. The woman has lost custody of her children as a result, quite possibly permanently, and as condition of her conviction, is barred from flying anywhere, under any circumstances.

Did our glorious Congressmen have that use of the law in mind when they passed it? I rather think not...but its there, and increasingly being used to put ordinary citizens behind bars.


RE: Flim flam
By GaryJohnson on 1/26/2009 12:38:18 AM , Rating: 4
quote:
For instance, I recently read of a woman who, after arguing with a flight attendant over whether she could spanking her two young sons during the flight was charged as a terrorist under the new rules for interfering with flight crews.

Tamera Jo Freeman is her name if anyone wants to look that up. And depending on which article you read, either she was spanking her children or was drunkenly beating them.


RE: Flim flam
By FITCamaro on 1/26/2009 12:27:24 PM , Rating: 2
Guess I'm gonna be losing my kids when I become a parent if they misbehave on a plane. No not for drunkenly beating them.


RE: Flim flam
By homerdog on 1/26/2009 3:59:15 PM , Rating: 3
quote:
Once you give government any particular power, its very difficult to take it back. And that power almost always gets used in ways in wasn't intended.

Too true. *glares at Interstate Commerce Clause*


RE: Flim flam
By johnsonx on 1/26/2009 8:24:40 PM , Rating: 3
quote:
For instance, I recently read of a woman who, after arguing with a flight attendant over whether she could spanking her two young sons during the flight, was charged as a terrorist under the new rules for interfering with flight crews. The woman has lost custody of her children as a result, quite possibly permanently, and as condition of her conviction, is barred from flying anywhere, under any circumstances.


Every account of this story I've read says the woman was beating her kids even before she got on the flight, had already had several drinks when she boarded, had several more on the flight and continued hitting her kids. She verbally assaulted a flight attendant, and threw a can of tomato juice at her. They originally charged her with 2 counts of assault, the interferring with a flight crew charge, and probably could have gotten her for child abuse as well had they wished to.

In exchange for a guilty plea on the charge there was no question about, they let her off on the other charges that would have been more difficult to convict on, and probably carried harsher consequences. The woman got off easy. To cast this the way you have strains your credibility. She also only lost her kids temporarily, which is a bit surprising and shows the substantial leniency she received.

No doubt there have been abuses and unintended consequences of the various 'terrorist' laws, but this case certainly isn't one of them.


RE: Flim flam
By masher2 (blog) on 1/26/2009 11:24:51 PM , Rating: 3
quote:
She verbally assaulted a flight attendant
Are you seriously suggesting that Congress passed the 9/11 anti-terrorism laws to handle a drunken mother's bad language to a stewardess?


RE: Flim flam
By GaryJohnson on 1/30/2009 12:03:29 AM , Rating: 2
Are you suggesting that's not what congress intended? They did pass it and if it's not working the way they intended they could change it.


RE: Flim flam
By masher2 (blog) on 1/26/2009 11:39:15 PM , Rating: 2
If you prefer a different example, how about the federal RICO statutes, intended to give broad powers to law enforcement for indicting known mob figures.

In reality, the law has been used countless times, classing everything from the tobacco industry to abortion protestors as "organized crime". It's even been used against bookstores simply for selling copies of 'Penthouse' to the public.

Worse, RICO calls for triple damages, and can be used against people or groups who have simply "associated" with those actually accused, even if they're not guilty themselves.


RE: Flim flam
By Calin on 1/29/2009 11:29:11 AM , Rating: 2
Do you think even hitting a flight attendant is terrorism?
She should be jailed, and the drunken behaviour could be considered aggravating circumstance - but that's still not a terror act.
Also, it would have been understandable for the air line to refuse to even transport her again, but she did nothing wrong against the other air lines.

Take your priorities straight, and I hope you won't ever be considered terrorist for drunkenly assaulting (verbally or otherwise) a cop (on or off duty), a school guard, a door man to one of the big commercial buildings (like the Twin Towers were)


RE: Flim flam
By johnsonx on 1/29/2009 12:43:53 PM , Rating: 2
Everyone here is missing my point. You're all pretending as if she did nothing wrong except run afoul of an abused section of the Patriot Act. What she actually did is commit several crimes, all of which were illegal before 9/11 as well. They (the prosecutors) got her to plead guilty to the charge that carried the combination of penalties they felt appropriate, and also the one that she probably had absolutely no defense against (ie, the one that her attorney told her that the had her on, no matter what), and in return they dropped the other charges, which may have been more serious.

You can't dwell on the fact that the specific charge she actually pleaded to is one that happened to be included in the Patriot Act that was a response to 9/11. That's how plea deals work. As an example, in more minor crimes 'Disturbing the Peace' is often a catch-all they use when dropping more serious charges even though that charge may not really be supported by the evidence (ie, you broke a window trying to steal a TV, which isn't a peaceful thing to do hence it was disturbed, so you plea to that and we drop the breaking and entering, theft, etc. charges)

The 'Interferring with a Flight Crew' charge also isn't equivalent to claiming that someone is a 'terrorist'. Interferring with a flight crew is illegal for everyone, not just terrorists.

Now my attitude would be VERY different if we had stories of people who did nothing but complain about poor service being hauled away as 'terrorists'. But all we have here is a woman who got drunk, beat her kids, and assaulted a flight attendant getting of easy. A woman who can't control herself better than that should not be welcome on an aircraft any time soon, if ever again.

Finally, I do agree with masher2 about RICO. That is a much better example of the original point.


RE: Flim flam
By masher2 (blog) on 1/29/2009 4:31:17 PM , Rating: 3
quote:
You can't dwell on the fact that the specific charge she actually pleaded to is one that happened to be included in the Patriot Act ... all we have here is a woman...getting of easy.
With all due respect, you're missing the point. The woman lost her job, lost custody of her kids, perhaps permanently, is permanently barred from many occupations that don't allow felons, will have difficulty getting employed by many others, has at least temporarily lost her right to own a gun and to vote, and racked up an enormous bill for legal fees. Is that 'getting off easy'?

Worse, she didn't even attempt to go into court and tell her side of the story. Why? Because, thanks to this new law, she was facing a prison sentence of 20 years. This was used as a threat to get her to agree to the plea bargain.

All for what? Tossing a harmless can in the direction of a flight attendant? Without these new laws, the very worse she could have been charged with is misdemeanor battery...and even that would have been a stretch. But under the new aegis of "interfering with a flight crew", she's immediately guilty of a far more serious act.

Why should verbally abusing a flight attendant be a worse crime than verbally abusing anyone else? The idea was that, with this law, a terrorist act could potentially be averted-- but that's not how its being used.

quote:
Now my attitude would be VERY different if we had stories of people who did nothing but complain
You think this is the only case? There have been dozens. Here's one about a woman who did nothing but make a large number of rather bizarre, but ultimately innoculous statements -- never once assaulting anyone:

http://lincolntribune.com/modules/news/article.php...

There are plenty more, most of which follow the same general pattern. Drunk passenger becomes loud and obnoxious. Flight attendant, under their new powers, tries to flex-cuff passnger. Scuffle occurs, in which attendant claims they were pushed, shoved, struck, "lunged at", or otherwise made to feel threatened. Drunk passenger sobers up, now facing a 20-year prison term.

Do you realize this new law doesn't require an overt threat, but merely for a crew member to "feel intimidated" in some manner? Or that the federal sentencing guidelines are more stringent than many states have for non-premeditated murder? Is this really justice?


RE: Flim flam
By masher2 (blog) on 1/29/2009 4:43:01 PM , Rating: 3
Here's another case. A 65 year old business man who did nothing but complain about his seat assignment. The attendant said he cursed and "made exploding gestures" with his hands, an accusation the man denies. But of course he can't even have his day in court, because that jeopardizes his plea deal that allows him to avoid rotting in prison for the next 20 years.

http://articles.latimes.com/2002/may/24/local/me-r...


RE: Flim flam
By TomCorelis on 1/26/2009 5:13:46 AM , Rating: 5
quote:
The slippery slope fallacy makes a comeback.

Is it truly a fallacy? Provide humanity with the capability to do something and we will certainly do it, for good or for evil. We have the technology, and we know human nature. Even you admitted the substance behind this "fallacy".
quote:
The 'revelations' so far are the word of one slightly dubious character. Could they be accurate? Quite possibly so...but the automatic assumption of wholehearted accuracy is a bit disturbing.

Dubious, no doubt. Given the scarcity of any information, his prior whistleblowing history (which he appeared to be correct about), the seriousness of his allegations, and my understanding of the technology and characters in play, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Should I see compelling evidence to the contrary, then I would be happy to reconsider my arguments as such. We cannot afford for him to be even 25% right.
quote:
If you talk to a terrorist, that doesn't necessary make you yourself one. But it certainly increases the chances a bit, now doesn't it?

If a mob boss is being tailed, and the police see him stop someone in the street and have a conversation with him, that person might wind up being tailed as well. That's basic common sense...and the two situations are no different.
The difference here is that it is a detective, not a computer, making these assumptions. Presumably, said detective will investigate this before acting against the passerby. I do not see this happening with what Tice described.
quote:
Opponents used Obama’s prior association with Weather Underground member William Ayers to discredit his campaign,
It is indeed relevant. People make snap judgements based on their assessment of another person's associations. Interactions are far too nuanced, and people in general are far too dumb, to effectively judge this sort of thing. If someone is intelligent enough, or of strong enough character, then they are more than capable of resisting outside influences. The NSA model appears to work under this assumption of judgment, and this is one of the things that I object to.
quote:
In the context of your other remarks, this statement is rather incongruous. You seem to be arguing that, since the government can't achieve 100% perfection, it shouldn't even try.
Yes, that is correct. There are some things you simply don't do unless you can get it 100% right. If the government cannot provide near-100% accuracy in its computer models, then it should stick to the traditional cloaks and daggers. It is a core belief of mine that computers should never, ever be responsible for making decisions that affect peoples' livelihoods, and as you could imagine, this puts me at odds with many things nowadays...


RE: Flim flam
By rtrski on 1/26/2009 9:39:09 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
...The difference here is that it is a detective, not a computer, making these assumptions...

quote:
People make snap judgements based on their assessment of another person's associations. Interactions are far too nuanced, and people in general are far too dumb, to effectively judge this sort of thing.


Argue both sides of an argument much? In one rebuttal, you say it's bad that a computer is doing the 'tailing' (including automatic addition of side-coverage by association) vs. a human detective. In the other you argue that "people" can't understand nuance enough to make informed decisions. So....which is bad again, the automation of tracking, in which case it should be humans, or the way people will use the data, in which case it should be more automated to remove unconscious bias?

(I can't help but think of the movie "Brazil", where an insect-induced printer error sets an incorrect political 'questioning' and as a result all the other events in motion...)

And you're both on the same side here, that detailed data gathering without prior reason is wrong, you're just arguing about whether what's happening now constitutes a point in time or a trendline (and whether we know exactly where that point is based on present sources).

Personally I think it comes down to the 'expectation of privacy' and will be determined along such lines. Conversations in public have no such expectation - including conversation on cell phones in public places, since anyone could overhear you. I believe a recent court case argued that scanning hashes on a hard drive constituted the same thing as 'reading' the hard drive without a warrant, since there was a direct equivalence to certain hash patterns and certain files. Similar legal decisions seem to be swinging away from the RIAA, in that downloading by a company authorized by the RIAA for that purpose doesn't itself constitute 'distribution'. Eventually the law will catch up to current technological capability (at which time we'll all be whining about the next leapfrog).

Personally, I'm more disturbed at the spread of commercial/marketing use of personal data than governmental use. When your credit rating can be affected by how many queries there are on it by hungry merchants - and if you think opting out protects you from that 100%, you're wrong, all they have to do is be 'associated' with you by prior business to still do so - and the same rating influences heavily what you pay for so many things (including insurance), and advertising becomes more embedded, interconnected, viral, and subtle, they've got far more capacity (and resources) to abuse that power than doddering old Unka Sam. I'm not worried because I "done nothin wrong", I'm worried because an army of flacks and hidden data transfers between vendors likely can 'fool' me even if I think I'm a wary, responsible, and cynical consumer.

Sorry for the run-on sentence...in serious morning caffination mode ATM. I say let them collect their metadata. Not because "I have nothing to hide" but because the more they collect, the less useful each little bit becomes. Eventually someone's got to comb thru the flagged data, and the more that gets flagged, the more they have to tighten the filters on what they really choose to act on.


RE: Flim flam
By Master Kenobi (blog) on 1/26/2009 11:52:34 AM , Rating: 4
As someone who has first and second hand knowledge of the system your describing, as well as how the NSA works. I would say stop worrying. Those guys are on an eternal quest to suck up all forms of communication, and analyze it. Quite frankly they can't do either to any reasonable degree. You have more to worry about from your local grocery store tracking your habits than the NSA to be honest. Anyone saying otherwise is kidding themselves. If you want specifics, the system talked about in this article is called "Trailblazer" and it is still largely under development for the like 6th year running.


RE: Flim flam
By robinthakur on 1/27/2009 6:01:24 AM , Rating: 1
To paraphrase Lord Vader, "I find your faith disturbing"

You assume that these systems work so perfectly simply because they cost billions of dollars and have NSA backing and research budget attached. Yet the 9/11 attacks were not prevented because of human failures at the FBI/CIA. Despite America's air superiority, fighter jets failed to shoot down any of the attacking planes. What would have happened if it was an ICBM launched by a hostile nation?

So, in a sense I would say don't worry because the system is nowhere near sophisticated enough to work 100% (or even close to this) accuracy, but the question is, do the people with authority over how the yielded data is utilised realise the falability of the system, and most importantly do they view any mistakes made as anything more than collateral damage? They probably don't care that much that you cannot fly/get a visa. The system, if it does operate as bluntly as the source claims, would result in many more cases where people are unable to fly than currently seem to be publicised.

In the UK too, they seem to use the terrorism charges for alot of reasons, whether its expelling and arresting an elderly man from vocally disagreeing at a Labour-party convention or arresting photographers for taking pictures of buildings or children. The only people they seem not to arrest are militant animal rights groups who ironically are more like terrorists than the previous examples.

Also Kenobi, as somebody who claims to have first and second hand knowledge of the system he described, how are you allowed to even confirm its existence, let alone speak further about it?


RE: Flim flam
By Master Kenobi (blog) on 1/27/2009 2:05:45 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
how are you allowed to even confirm its existence, let alone speak further about it?

It's public knowledge what the system is, its code name "Trailblazer" and the absolute boondoggle that it is lol. Try reading the papers once in a while. "Classified" covers how the system works at every level. What the system does, or that it exists is infact public knowledge. Heres a tip, stop watching so many spy movies, that stuff is 99% bullshit, made for hollywood.

http://www.securityfocus.com/brief/121

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/ch...

http://www.govexec.com/features/0407-01/0407-01adi...

http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/press_room/2001/tra...

There, plenty of links for you to read, that contain just as much information and more as I gave you, and its all public knowledge/record. You really need to come to understand exactly what "classified" means.


RE: Flim flam
By robinthakur on 1/27/2009 6:01:26 AM , Rating: 2
To paraphrase Lord Vader, "I find your faith disturbing"

You assume that these systems work so perfectly simply because they cost billions of dollars and have NSA backing and research budget attached. Yet the 9/11 attacks were not prevented because of human failures at the FBI/CIA. Despite America's air superiority, fighter jets failed to shoot down any of the attacking planes. What would have happened if it was an ICBM launched by a hostile nation?

So, in a sense I would say don't worry because the system is nowhere near sophisticated enough to work 100% (or even close to this) accuracy, but the question is, do the people with authority over how the yielded data is utilised realise the falability of the system, and most importantly do they view any mistakes made as anything more than collateral damage? They probably don't care that much that you cannot fly/get a visa. The system, if it does operate as bluntly as the source claims, would result in many more cases where people are unable to fly than currently seem to be publicised.

In the UK too, they seem to use the terrorism charges for alot of reasons, whether its expelling and arresting an elderly man from vocally disagreeing at a Labour-party convention or arresting photographers for taking pictures of buildings or children. The only people they seem not to arrest are militant animal rights groups who ironically are more like terrorists than the previous examples.

Also Kenobi, as somebody who claims to have first and second hand knowledge of the system he described, how are you allowed to even confirm its existence, let alone speak further about it?


RE: Flim flam
By therealnickdanger on 1/27/2009 10:21:08 AM , Rating: 2
No, it's:

"I find your lack of faith disturbing".


RE: Flim flam
By onelittleindian on 1/27/2009 10:56:22 AM , Rating: 1
I guess you don't know what the word paraphrase means?


RE: Flim flam
By Etsp on 1/27/2009 8:14:49 PM , Rating: 2
I never thought it meant to summarize a statement in such a way that it completely changes the meaning, like in this case. But maybe I'm wrong.


RE: Flim flam
By Master Kenobi (blog) on 1/28/2009 7:35:32 AM , Rating: 2
Paraphrasing is to cut down on the extra useless info, but get the point across. You paraphrase a paragraph, not a sentence. Your actually correct Etsp. The original intent, and point must remain intact, otherwise its known as "misquoting".


RE: Flim flam
By FITCamaro on 1/26/2009 12:29:06 PM , Rating: 2
Glad I'm not the only one annoyed at the seeming inability to buy anything these days without giving them your name, address, phone number, and email.


Concerns vs Fear
By Reclaimer77 on 1/26/09, Rating: 0
RE: Concerns vs Fear
By Hieyeck on 1/26/2009 11:47:28 AM , Rating: 3
Yes, but at least Tom filed it under "Blog" and not "Headline News". It's an opinion, just like your opinion that this is paranoid fearmongering. A large portion of America truly does feel it's a legitimate concern. It's their OPINION that it's a legitimate concern, but they're entitled to that opinion. Opinions aren't going to change just because it becomes part of a opinion publication (aka Blog). Fearmongering is when you push your paranoid opinions as "Headline News" - see FoxNews. Ph34r 4n0nym0u5!

(Disclaimer: I'm not agreeing nor disagreeing with Tom on this. I'm just absorbing some of his opinions on this.)


La Li Lu Le Lo...
By WoWCow on 1/26/2009 9:32:28 AM , Rating: 2
Who are they?




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