Thursday, October 24, 2013

Where are the limits on government surveillance, intelligence gathering, and individual privacy? Voters need to get involved ... by gimleteye

The war on terror has proven a vast opportunity for entrepreneurs, technology consultants, and government agencies to use the unlimited power of computing in the pursuit of finding needles in the haystack.

No politician on either side of the aisle wants to cut back on government surveillance and give room for the single instance where blame could be attributed by not going the extra mile to stop a terrorist attack on American soil. No agency bureaucrat wants to be on duty when an incident occurs that might have been prevented if only more money and resources had been spent on making links.

But making these links, as government and subcontractors have been doing for many years, destroyed the privacy of US citizens. Absent clear instructions by voters -- through candidates elected to Congress and the White House -- who will "dial back" the national security state?

It should not come as a surprise that intelligence agencies do lie about the scope and scale of its efforts, to Congress and perhaps, even, to the White House. The concentration of information on citizens and power of surveillance agencies has created a cartel, a leviathan, an octopus.

Recent revelations have deeply upset our allies, who we spy on -- not just as a routine course of business but with the avid intent of prying electronically with the same impunity as our drones over the skies of Western Pakistan. At home, revelations confirm that the TSA screening procedure for air travelers has expanded to include databases giving this agency -- sardonically called by irritated passengers "Thousands Standing Around" -- the power of Staasi: the former intelligence agency that overshadowed East German citizens for generations of the Cold War.

This is not to assert that the TSA is exercising Staasi-like powers, but American voters need to acknowledge the inevitable abuse of power through massive data mining.

We need to reclaim wisdom from warfare that is "asymmetrical" in its fundamental nature: men wielding box cutters and aggrieved teenagers making bombs.

For all the trillions we spent and are spending to hold our enemies at bay, society and lives remain at risk for "black swan" events. For all our advantage in the realm of electronic surveillance, there is no assurance our advantage is permanent. To the contrary, allies and adversaries are constantly at work to match or trump our technological advantages. Moreover, with nearly one million Americans in possession of a national security clearance, it is inevitable that breaches deemed to be national security violations -- like Edward Snowdon's -- will occur in the future.

It is horrifying to think that nations of the world will coalesce around repression and suppression of individual rights that begin with privacy. So what are we to do? Chase our demons like crazed dogs chasing their own tails?

The answers begin with education. We can start by educating future American voters. There has been conversation -- though still under the "radar" -- about reintroducing mandatory civics in the elementary school curriculum. Despite partisan acrimony, there really is very little difference between Democrats and Republicans on the history and importance of liberty and freedom and how our system of government is intended to protect those values, including privacy.

Now in my late 50's, I still recall the boredom of enduring civics class as a grade schooler. But I never forgot those civics lessons (frequently summoned, by the way, on this blog.) We didn't have computers or consumer electronics then, but incorporating issues of privacy and freedom from surveillance and abuse of personal information would be a very good start in a new civics curriculum.

Congress ought to highlight -- through its hearing processes -- the best and brightest for how to quarantine access to sensitive personal information. Experts in groups like the Electronics Frontier Foundation have been at work, for many years on these concerns. Congress needs help from groups like EFF to formulate new policies to contain surveillance; policies that are not only wise but strictly enforced.

It is a critical point: policing the intelligence community and limiting invasions of personal privacy beyond the scope of the law by government employees must be an enforced federal criminal offense. Whistle-blowers ought to be incentived, not abused. Along this line, Time Magazine ought to make Edward Snowdon its "Man of The Year". Snowdon's disclosures of the breadth of the national security apparatus -- in his words, designed to prevent the release of information that would put Americans at jeopardy -- set in motion this world-wide discussion.

Given the likelihood of abuse, government has a choice: either ratchet up the surveillance of its own employees and increase the compartmentalization of data mining and analysis, or, make sure that abusers face stiff prison sentences.

Whatever mix of incentives or penalties, the national security state needs to be dialed back. Most importantly, we need voters and candidates for public office to be courageous on this issue vital to our democratic freedoms.

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