Category Archives: The Surveillance State

Libertarianism And Privacy In The Data Age

The world is changing. It’s happening rapidly. And it’s freaking people out.

Libertarians are concerned that constant surveillance, like that which helped identify the Boston bombers, is an infringement on our privacy. This can be true whether the cameras are public or private, as it’s not hard to justify a subpoena for a company’s tape after a terrorist attack. Couple this with facial recognition software, and eventually tracking people in a public place will be a matter of computing power, not of investigative work. Automotive “black boxes” and licence plate readers (on regular streets and toll roads) offer tremendous opportunities for vehicle tracking, notwithstanding my colleague Doug Mataconis’ concerns about the data we’ll be giving up if we move to driverless cars. It cuts both ways, too, as the government is quickly forced to deal with the oversight of 300 million people with video cameras in their pocket at all times.

And none of this even begins to scratch the surface of the personal tracking device nearly all of us carry — the smartphone. Even when we’re not deliberately “checking in” to a place on Google+ or Facebook, we’re in contact with cell towers, WiFi access points, while our phone can track our location down to a few meters via GPS.

The premise for a dystopian novel writes itself, my friends, and we’re all lining up like lemmings at the edge of the cliff. The question amongst many paranoid libertarians is simple: how do we roll it back?

As a technology fellow myself with a basic understanding of economics, I’m sorry to report that the question is obsolete.

Technology marches forward with little concern for how we want to use it. Data storage capacity (my field) continues to explode, although barely keeping up with the amount of data people want to store. Computing power is still tracking Moore’s law, and now even low-end, low power [and low-cost] processors abound in devices that would have been analog a decade ago (or didn’t exist). And as efficiency, size, and battery technology improves, these technologies become ever-more portable and thus ever-more prevalent.

You’re not sticking this genie back in the bottle. It simply won’t happen. And you know what? I’m here to tell you that perhaps that’s not a bad thing!

I want us to be able to catch the bad guys. There’s the old adage that “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”, and to an extent that’ actually true. If you don’t want to do the time, don’t do the crime. If someone commits a public bombing, or robs a bank, or kills/maims/rapes someone, I think actually having the tools to track down and catch that person is actually a good thing. It’s not catching criminals that’s the problem here…

…it’s that too many things are crimes.

You see, libertarians can’t roll back the clock on the surveillance/data age. That’s driven by society. But we *can* try to influence something far more important — the scope of what that data is relevant to.

Undoubtedly, we all do things today that are illegal. Usually multiple times before we’ve made it into the office. For some people, those things are as innocuous as not buckling your seat belt, jaywalking, or speeding. However, often those activities are certain things that are much more strongly disfavored by government despite being victimless activities — smoking a little pot, or paying for sex, or playing a little unlicensed poker with friends (or strangers). These are events that normally the government is not aware of, but even if your a target of or an innocent accessory to another investigation, the government can make your life hell if they catch you doing. And with this much data flying around, they can pretty well prove just about anything regarding what you’re doing if they try hard enough. All you need to do is to piss off the wrong petty bureaucrat, and they can work to destroy your life.

The goal is, and always should be, making it harder for the government to harass citizens over victimless crimes. And this can be done whether we have a surveillance state to catch the real criminals or not. The only difference is that when you don’t have a powerful surveillance apparatus (public OR private), fighting for libertarianism doesn’t matter all that much. When you DO have a powerful surveillance apparatus, fighting for libertarianism is absolutely critical.

We live in the surveillance/tracking/data age. That’s not going to change. And the very technologies which enable all the surveillance, tracking, and data collection are the same technologies that are being used daily to make our lives richer, easier, and more convenient. That’s a significant benefit to use personally and to society. It’s up to us to make sure that the unnecessary costs to our freedoms are as minimal as possible.

The Best Defense Against Terrorism

Terrorism

The specter of terrorism, especially on the American homeland is very frightening. These fears are especially acute in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack such as the bombing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday.

More recently and prior to this latest attack, however; according to a recent Gallup poll, terrorism received 0% when asked about America’s greatest problem. Sen. Mitch McConnell said in response to the mathon bombing: “I think it’s safe to say that, for many, the complacency that prevailed prior to September 11th has returned. And so we are newly reminded that serious threats to our way of life remain.

Is Sen. McConnell right? Have Americans become complacent to these “serious threats”? Are Americans to blame for failing to be vigilant? Should we demand the federal government “do something” more to protect us?

Since 9/11, Americans have surrendered liberty for the appearance of security. The USA PATRIOT Act and the Department of Homeland Security have been in place for more than a decade. The former has given government agents the ability to write their own search warrants (i.e. National Security Letters), the ability to monitor bank accounts and library records of unsuspecting individuals among other privacy invasions. The latter created the TSA which gave airline passengers the choice between a thorough groping or a virtual strip search among other indignities. There was also the “no fly list” which contained the names of individuals who could not fly under any circumstances. President Bush launched two undeclared wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (two battlefronts in the “war on terror” we were told) projected to cost somewhere between $4-6 trillion when all is said and done.

President Obama, far from being “weak” on terrorism as many of his critics suggest, broke his promise of closing Guantanamo Bay, renewed the Patriot Act, expanded the use of drones with a “kill list” which includes American citizens, and signed the NDAA which gives government agents the ability to kidnap American citizens and take them to Guantanamo Bay and detain them indefinitely. Osama bin Laden was also killed on Obama’s watch.

Yet with all of these policies being used to wage war on a common noun, somehow, two individuals managed to plant a bomb near the finish line of the Boston Marathon which killed three people and injured many more. What other liberties are we, the people supposed to surrender to make sure this “never happens again.”?

The truth of the matter is we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that any government policy can deliver such a promise no matter how many of our liberties we surrender. The government could take away all the guns, place all of our names in a database, implant RFID chips into our foreheads, track our every movement, go to war with three more countries, and certain individuals would still find a way to defeat these measures and commit acts of terrorism.

As discouraging as this may seem, there is one thing each and every one of us can do to defend ourselves against terrorism without sacrificing any liberty whatsoever (actually, re-claiming more of our lost liberties is part of the solution). But before this one thing can be revealed, we must first have a clear understanding of why some people resort to terrorism and how terrorism is supposed to work.

The “why” is simply that some people use the tactic in hopes of achieving (usually) a political end. These are usually people who do not believe they can accomplish their political aims peacefully through the normal political processes. The “how” is by engendering fear in carrying out attacks on unsuspecting people. The terrorists main goal is not necessarily to kill as many people as possible as it is to create so much fear that their enemies react emotionally as opposed to rationally.

Because the terrorist’s main goal is for each of us to live in fear that any moment we might be next, the answer is simply to not be afraid, stop acting out of fear, and stop allowing our leaders to legislate out of fear. This is the strategy Downsize D.C. has adopted and once I properly understood their reasoning, I have adopted this approach:

Here’s what it means to not be afraid, here’s what it means to fight a real war on terror, and here’s what it means to win that war, instantly . . .

  • It means that you do not participate in the public hysteria when terrorists attack, but instead react proportionally, placing the terrorist act in its proper place in the vast scheme of crimes, accidents, disease, natural disaster, and generic tragedy that is man’s lot on earth.

  • It means that you do not permit the politicians to feel terror on your behalf. It means that you discourage them from fomenting and exploiting hysteria to expand their own power at the expense of traditional American principles.

  • It means that you view terrorism as a matter for international police work, under the rule of law, and not a justification for bloated government programs, reckless wars, or the shredding of the Bill of Rights.

  • It means that you recruit others to adopt your war winning strategy of not being afraid.

Downsize D.C. also encourages Americans to write their legislators and include the following statement:

“I am not afraid of terrorism, and I want you to stop being afraid on my behalf. Please start scaling back the official government war on terror. Please replace it with a smaller, more focused anti-terrorist police effort in keeping with the rule of law. Please stop overreacting. I understand that it will not be possible to stop all terrorist acts. I accept that. I am not afraid.”

I think I would also add that we should stop treating these terrorists as if they are some larger than life super villain (Was it really necessary to shut down the entire town of Watertown, cancel sporting events, and stop trains from running for one person?). If and when the perpetrator is captured, he shouldn’t be treated any different than any other person accused of murder. If our government does anything well it’s putting people in cages.

For those who read this and are still afraid of being a victim of terrorism, let me offer a little bit of perspective. You are 17,600 times more likely to die from heart disease and 12,571 times more likely to die of cancer than a terrorist attack (so rather than worry about terrorism, pay attention to your health). You are also 1,048 times more likely to die in an auto accident than a terrorist attack (so pay attention to your driving and hang up that cell phone!). You are 8 times more likely to be killed by a cop or be electrocuted than be killed in a terrorist attack (so don’t fly your kite near power lines near a police station).

When was the last time you heard a politician point these things out?

The reason you haven’t is because politicians also benefit from fear. Think about it: what chance would the Patriot Act, NDAA, FISA, CISPA, gun control legislation, war, and laws named after dead children have of passing without the ability to scare the bejesus out of the general public? Fear is truly the health of the state.

Maybe the fact that most Americans have become “complacent” is a good thing!

“That’s a Violation of My Privacy!”


In Little Canada, MN the police are trying to argue that Andrew Henderson violated HIPPA (federal healthcare privacy law) when he recorded a police interaction with a third party which required an ambulance. His camera was confiscated, the file was deleted (according to Henderson), and is being charged with “disorderly conduct” and “obstruction of the legal process.” How filming the police from 30 feet away qualifies for either charge is beyond me.

Hat Tips: The Agitator (for the comic strip) and The Drudge Report (for the Little Canda story).

In the U.S. State Department’s De-listing of MEK as a Terrorist Group, the “War on Terror” Loses All Meaning*

“In this world, there are good causes and bad causes, and we may disagree on where that line is drawn. Yet, there is no such thing as a good terrorist. No national aspiration, no remembered wrong can ever justify the deliberate murder of the innocent. Any government that rejects this principle, trying to pick and choose its terrorist friends, will know the consequences.” -President George W. Bush speech to the U.N. General Assembly on November 10, 2001

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists”- a refrain we have heard from many American presidents and American politicians over the years. But anyone who has taken even a cursory look at history knows that this is a lie. Not only does our government negotiate with terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism, the uncomfortable truth is that the U.S. itself is a state sponsor of terrorist groups when the group in question uses its tactics against enemies of the U.S. or her allies.

The latest example is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement that Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (a.k.a. MEK) will be de-listed as a “foreign terrorist organization.” MEK has been on the list since 1997. For those who are not familiar with MEK, this organization was once aligned with Saddam Hussein** and allegedly responsible for killing at least six Americans in the 1970’s along with a failed kidnapping attempt of U.S. Ambassador to Iran Douglas MacArthur II in 1971 and a failed assassination attempt of USAF Brig Gen Harold Price in 1972.

Lest there be any partisans on the Right trying to accuse the Obama administration giving in to terrorism, its worth pointing out that the campaign to de-list MEK has been a bipartisan effort. Rudy Giuliani, Tom Ridge, Fran Townsend, Michael Mukasey, Andrew Card of the Right have joined MEK advocates of the Left such as Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, Bill Richardson, and Ed Rendell. Many of these advocates have been paid to speak out on MEK’s behalf; a crime of “material support” of terrorism under normal circumstances but apparently A-OK if done by prominent politicians.

So what exactly has MEK done to ingratiate itself to the State Department to be de-listed as a foreign terrorist organization? Has MEK ceased its terrorist activities or paid restitution (to the extent it could be paid) to its victims? According to Glenn Greenwald, its quite the opposite:

What makes this effort all the more extraordinary are the reports that MEK has actually intensified its terrorist and other military activities over the last couple of years. In February, NBC News reported, citing US officials, that “deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists are being carried out by [MEK]” as it is “financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service”. While the MEK denies involvement, the Iranian government has echoed these US officials in insisting that the group was responsible for those assassinations. NBC also cited “unconfirmed reports in the Israeli press and elsewhere that Israel and the MEK were involved in a Nov. 12 explosion that destroyed the Iranian missile research and development site at Bin Kaneh, 30 miles outside Tehran”.

In April, the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh reported that the US itself has for years provided extensive training to MEK operatives, on US soil (in other words, the US government provided exactly the “material support” for a designated terror group which the law criminalizes). Hersh cited numerous officials for the claim that “some American-supported covert operations continue in Iran today.” The MEK’s prime goal is the removal of Iran’s government.

Despite these reports that the MEK has been engaged in terrorism and other military aggression against Iran – or, more accurately: likely because of them – it was announced on Friday the US State Department will remove MEK from its list of terrorist organizations. This event is completely unsurprising. In May, I noted the emergence of reports that the State Department would do so imminently.

Greenwald goes on to point out five lessons we should learn from MEK’s de-listing: 1. There is a separate justice system in the US for Muslim Americans, 2. the US government is not opposed to terrorism when its beneficial, 3.“terrorism” is a meaningless (and often manipulated) term, 4. legalized influence-peddling within both parties is what drives DC, and 5. there is aggression between the US and Iran, but it’s generally not from Iran. It’s quite a scathing indictment of what the U.S. government’s stated policy is regarding terrorism and what its actual policy is.

Over at Popehat, Ken writes his thoughts about MEK’s de-listing. Ken recalls how as a young lawyer, he was on a prosecution team responsible for prosecuting someone who had ties with MEK. By Ken’s account, there was “no doubt” that this person was guilty of running an immigration fraud ring as the evidence against him was “overwhelming.” Ken points out that this occurred before 9/11 and “Bob’s” sentence wasn’t any worse because of his involvement with MEK, though the prosecution team worked very hard was very proud of connecting “Bob” to the terrorist organization.

Needless to say, Ken isn’t very pleased with MEK’s de-listing either and for some very good reasons:

The six people the MEK killed in the 1970s are still dead. They were dead when the State Department designated the MEK as a foreign terrorist organization and they have been dead all the years since and they won’t get any less dead when the State Department removes the MEK from its FTO list. The MEK is the organization that once allied with Saddam Hussein; that historical fact hasn’t changed, although its political significance has. No — what has changed is the MEK’s political power and influence and the attitude of our government towards it.

[…]

The United States government, under two opposed increasingly indistinguishable political parties, asserts the right to kill anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror. It asserts the right to detain anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror, and to do so based on undisclosed facts applied to undisclosed standards in undisclosed locations under undisclosed conditions for however long it wants, all without judicial review. It asserts the right to be free of lawsuits or other judicial proceedings that might reveal its secrets in the War on Terror. It asserts that the people it kills in drone strikes are either probably enemy combatants in the War on Terror or acceptable collateral damage. It asserts that increasing surveillance of Americans, increasing interception of Americans’ communications, and increasingly intrusive security measures are all required by the War on Terror.

But the War on Terror, unlike other wars, will last as long as the government says it will. And, as the MEK episode illustrates, the scope of the War on Terror -the very identity of the Terror we fight — is a subjective matter in the discretion of the government. The compelling need the government cites to do whatever it wants is itself defined by the government.

Glenn Greenwald and Ken are both right on what the de-listing of MEK should tell us about the so-called war on terror. Our government is not serious about fighting terrorism, it condones it even as we surrender our liberties at home. This is especially true if the target of the terrorism is Iran or another “state sponsor of terrorism” we are all supposed to be afraid of and eventually be at war with.

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Recovered from the Memory Hole: Rep. Paul Ryan Urges Congress to Pass TARP

Mitt Romney has selected Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate with great fanfare among conservatives. Paul Ryan, someone with some fiscal sanity on a major political ticket who can offer an alternative to President Obama and his big government, big spending ways.

Well, not so fast. Not too long after the news of Ryan being selected as Romney’s running mate hit the wires, this little gem was recovered from the memory hole:

Well, maybe this is an anomaly. I wish it were. In addition to supporting TARP, Ryan supported the auto bailout, Medicare Part D, and voted against repealing Davis-Bacon. Ryan is also a war hawk and his record on civil liberties isn’t any better. Extending the Patriot Act, supporting the indefinite detention of American citizens provisions of the NDAA, and voting to create the Department of Homeland Security are but a few examples.

To put it another way, Paul Ryan is no Ron Paul, or even Rand Paul for that matter.

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