Friday, January 24, 2014

Privacy vs. Security, a Noisy Question.

A noisy question. Surveillance, resources, privacy, and asking the wrong things

Better shovel some more on there if we ever want to find that needle.

A quote you will see many times, especially if you live part of you life on the Internet and CERTAINLY if you discuss technology, surveillance, or politics online is this:

"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."
- Benjamin Franklin, 1775.

It is often shortened or paraphrased as such:

"Those who give up liberty for safety, deserve neither"
- Some guy on Facebook, all the time.

This quote implies there is some kind of trade off between one's Liberty and one's safety, as if increasing the communications, people, and property open to searches and seizures will make us more safe. This mindset is ingrained even more today than in Franklin's time - as recent revelations regarding the NSA and other agencies have made clear. The same conceptualization is made today, one of a "balance" between protecting our private affairs on one side and preventing terrorist attacks on the other. The White House spokesmen speaks speaks in such terms and even the Libertarian/Republican CATO institute discusses the issue in the same way.

The problem is that this conceptualization is, at least relevant to the programs recently brought to light, entirely wrong.

If you are asking the question "How much privacy am I willing to lose to mass surveillance in order to gain security from terrorist attacks?" or if you are asking "How many more terrorist attacks am I willing to allow to happen to our nation to prevent our government from engaging in mass surveillance?" you are wrong either way. These questions are "noisy" - they only serve to distract us from what we SHOULD be asking.

These questions imply that if we surrender our privacy then we automatically gain safety or at least a framework that could make us more safe. The evidence - as far as we know it at this time - leads us to believe the opposite. From the Civil Liberties Oversight Board Report:

"Based on the information provided to the Board, we have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation"
-The Final Report of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. (underline mine)
-Go read the Whole Thing

This implies that the safety gained from this sacrifice of our privacy for this particular program was Zero. That significantly changes the equation about how much privacy should be sacrificed because zero times any amount is still zero. Despite all the shows about NCIS super-hackers or Ex-CIA agents with A.I. best buddies... the number of real world plots that were stopped with this nonsense seems to be Zero.

Sorry I spent so much money on this cool spy scope
Sorry I watched you all this time without y'alls permission
Sorry I didn't catch any bad guys doing this stuff. My bad.

And, in a world of limited resources, every Law Enforcement or National Security penny spent on the Program to Observe Ominously but Prevent Few if Any Real Terrorists is one less dollar spent on resources that HAVE been proven to catch real terrorist and prevent actual attacks. Or... funds could be spent elsewhere on things we are desperately behind on (Education, Infrastructure) or could even not need to be spent at all to ease burdens on taxpayers or reduce debt.

A less noisy question would be "Has this program been necessary to stopping even one terrorist attack in the last several years?", which - if answered by the same rubric as the way the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board interprets it, is "No." Earlier claims had been made that 54 terror attacks were stopped by mass surveillance, but that started to seem fishy as those making the claim had little, if any, evidence to back up that claim.

That question only began to demand an answer after the Snowden leaks. And, sadly, we are all worse off for in not being asked long ago. We were all under the spell of "Losing Security vs. Losing Privacy" when the reality was "Losing NOTHING vs. Losing Privacy", which is a much easier choice. I was as guilty as the rest of us for assuming that if THAT much money and THAT many resources had unfettered access to ALL of communications of EVERYONE, they would surely catch a real terrorist now and then.

A friend of mine once joked a few years back that the various contractors that supplied "Intelligence" and "Analysis" to the Department of Defence and various other Three Letter Agencies were - first and foremost - a giant government welfare program to ensure 0% unemployment for former spooks and some types of us ex-military folks, and that if they occasionally found actionable intelligence or genuine insight that was just icing on the cake. He was joking, but now we can see how much closer to the truth he was than he thought.

Isn't preventing this all worth it?
(Tom Tomorrow made this joke months ago.)

Questions can be "noisy". They can generate as much, or more, disinformation than information. They do this by implying statements in the way that they are asked. A famous example would be "Have you stopped beating your wife, yet?" which implies a history of spousal abuse. Another "noisy" question that has been asked is "How long would it take country X to have nuclear weapons?", again, this question implies the existence of a program well on its way to producing a nuclear weapon - when in truth ANY industrialized nation could produce nuclear weapons in a few years time. The United States developed the first Atomic Bomb - a concept not even proven possible at the time - in less than four years, using technology from more than sixty years ago.

The noisiest questions completely shut out the questions tuned in to the signals we should be listening for. Questions about how much value you place on security and on privacy are mostly opinion - anyone can chime in with their opinion, values, or analysis at any time. We can ask that question and divide into our Hippie and Fascist camps and yell at each other all day long without one second of research. The other question: "Did any of this crap accomplish anything other than making a few contractors super rich and wasting our agents' damned time?" required specific knowledge that only a few were allowed to have and which they were prohibited by law (classified) from being able to share with the general public. The noisy question was the easier to get answers to.

For what it is worth, the report itself discussed the fallacy of "Privacy vs. Security" and how its implications muddied the waters of our discussions about mass surviellance. Also, for the record, I am not opposed to surveillance as an activity... targeted surveillance has caught criminals and stopped horrible plots many times in our history, it is just the "lets spy on EVERYONE" method has a ZERO in the win column.

On an unrelated note, did you know that 70% of the Intelligence Budget is spent hiring private contracting firms, and that those firms have put MILLIONS of dollars in the PACs of the Congressmen specifically tasked with overseeing those very firms? It's true! . Hey those ugly black-and-white with red text attack ads aren't going to pay for themselves! One of those on the Senate Intelligence Committee was Saxby Chambliss, and he used his sweet security contractor money to fund an attack ad against his opponent Max Cleland, who lost several limbs serving in Vietnam if that stuff is important to you.

Attacking the patriotism of that disabled Vietnam Veteran was worth every penny.

And, for what it's worth, for the last five months some folks from Anonymous have been on the case of promoting just how much of a money game the mass surveillance apparatus is. They've been putting together videos detailing how leaders on the take misbehave, such as Senator (and former House Member) Chambliss explicitly misinforming TV audiences about the capabilities of the NSA programs while serving on their oversight committee AND taking hundreds of thousands in contributions from the very firms making millions on his watch. I've talked before about the legalized bribery nature of money in American politics and the Senator from Georgia does a great job of illustrating this at its most blatant:

Someone is making a fortune selling Guy Fawkes masks

My takeaway from this is going to be:
#1) Ask the right questions
#2) Think about the implied assumptions of the questions we all ask each other.
#3) Never underestimate the power of cash and secrecy to hide waste.

It will be good to see how this discussion takes place. Will the same people that want Edward Snowden tried and imprisoned for his crimes demand the same of those running programs also determined to be crimes? Will people still accept the "Privacy vs. Security" dichotomy without questioning its assumptions? Will Anonymous members ever change up their style beyond basing it on a movie from 2005 (that was based on a comic book from 1982)? Time will tell. At the very least, let's not let "Privacy vs. Security" slide into our conversations without questioning it.

Monday, January 20, 2014


The King James Bible, Exodus 20:16
"Thou Shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor"

Social media exists. It exists so pervasively that still having a two-word label for it feels overly cumbersome, like hearing someone say they just received an "Electronic Mail" or that their phone has "Short Message Service" features. Like it or not, it is here to stay and touches our lives more days than not.

An idea that I have an almost cultish devotion to is that our lives are enriched when we either increase "signal" and learn new truths, or when we fend off falsehoods and reduce the "noise" in our daily communications. This ratio of knowledge to bullshit defines much of our ability to function as adults and to improve our lives, our communities, and the lives of those around us. If you have more than three people in your Facebook feed you might see where this is going.

If you have grandparents who are somehow still angry that some teens wore baggy pants several years ago, then you are familiar with these Memes.

I am using the above as an example. It implies that during the evacuation operations in Benghazi, while the Consulate in that town was being overrun, that US Navy Seals requested additional military assets of some kind and that those assets were denied specifically because of executive decisions, perhaps involving the personal demands of the President of the United States. The further implications is that the President is somehow engaged in covert cooperation with Islamic Militants in Libya, if not throughout the world, and that he chose to protect those individuals over the lives of Americans.

This is, of course, a verifiable 100% falsehood, silly, and an indicator of a weakness either in the intellect or integrity of every individual who has ever made this assertion. Some versions of this lie are more elaborate than others. Here is one - from TheDailySheeple that goes on to allege General Carter Ham was arrested for mobilizing Special Operations Forces in violation of a stand-down order (Of course this never happened).

These lies - and I am focusing more on the right wing falsehoods at this moment - are truly multi-media. The highest level of involvement comes from agitation and statements by those in authority such as Senator Darrel Issa of California or Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. These individuals don't handle the most blatant of falsehoods, they merely abuse their authority to imply there are scandals to be found and continue to keep poking a prodding and maintaining a rationale for this issue to be discussed by the next level.

The Next Level

The next level is, of course, the Right Wing News collectives. This includes Fox News and other News Corporation outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, openly conservative media such as National Review, and talk radio programming such as Rush Limbaugh and the many Fox Hosts who also have radio broadcasts. These "journalists" will take this to the next level and ask leading questions and make unsourced assertions, but generally try to steer clear of the explicitly stating the conclusions they wish their viewers to come to. That brings us to the final level...

Sadly, it's not this awesome

The final level is a network of online groups who utilize everyday folks to spread the most blatant parts of these lies by way of social media. These groups are usually funded by way of a fraudulent filing as 501(c) status with the IRS and claim they exist as being "educational" when in reality they are 100% political in their orientation and only want the 501(c) status for a tax write-off and so their donors can remain secret. So, FYI, your tax dollars are subsidizing this nonsense.

Examples of such groups include Special Operations Speaks, which is funded by the donors behind the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" and which exists to promote falsehoods aimed at our President, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and any other non-Republican who they wish to debase. Another is True The Vote which is funded by a handful of wealthy Republicans from the Houston area and exists to spread the falsehood that pervasive voter fraud exists and onerous Voter Restriction laws are needed to combat it in ways that just happen to impact Democratic Voters (Working Class, Students, Minorities) more than Republicans. Another is GlobalClimateScam which exists to spread the falsehood that there is an international conspiracy involving thousands of scientists to invent and promote notions of climate change. They are maintainted by "The Minnesota Majority" another 501(c) with secret donors who are racist as all hell, and who also have maintained sites such as the old and the more recent more focus-group sounding

Old website banner with racist stereotypes from 2012....
So F'ing Diverse it BLOWS YOUR MIND!
We even have a lady in a wheelchair now!

These sites ALL have "Like Us On Facebook!" and "Share" links and newsfeeds where they generate and share Memes and articles that all have the purpose of promoting one or more of the falsehoods that they are paid to promote (The existence of pervasive voter fraud, the idea the Climate Change is a "scam", the idea the our President or leadership in collaborating with Al Qaeda, and so on). The spread of these lies is finally facilitated by social media users who are too ignorant, trusting, apathetic or filled with emotion regarding some issue to perform even the most basic checks for the truth of what they are sharing. Without these facilitators, the liars would have a harder time promoting and deceiving millions with their blatant lies. These groups succeed by using the trust you have earned with the people you know to inject lies into their minds.

It's 2014, so he has a Facebook account now.

My current issue with this - the constant bombardment of lies, half-truths, lies, manipulations, and more lies aimed at your friends, associates and loved ones day in and day out for as long as they stay in contact with you - is that most of the people doing this profess to be Christian...and Christians are not supposed to lie. It's in the 10 Commandments,"Thou shalt not bear false witness" (Exodus 20:16) and repeated again and again throughout scripture. (Leviticus 19:11, Proverbs 14:5, Proverbs 19:5, Proverbs 19:9 and so on all the way up to Revelations 21:8 "...all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.")

"Why did I have to click SHARE?"

Even without the religious implications, both from a Judeo-Christian standpoint and from other faiths, being party to a constant stream of lies is a failing by just about any moral standard... and it is done to us (or by us) every time we check our Facebook feeds and is facilitated by people who should know better.

If we didn't share lies without checking them out, or if we didn't just roll our eyes and think "Oh, Grandma!" when hateful lies were given a platform, then these groups would not be as successful changing mass behavior or influencing public policy. We would have a better national dialogue if it were not polluted by these interest-serving lies that infect our collective consciousness. What does it say when the highest praise one of the groups can receive for their efforts is that they have "gone viral"? The metaphor for disinformation is infectious disease. It spreads from cell to cell and weakens or kills the host. It is a truly harmful "noise" that blocks the "signals" we need to be focusing on.

So, the action step I have taken so very long to come around to is this: Every time someone who should know better posts/forwards/shares a blatant falsehood, don't just let it slide. Either debunk it (and point to where) or just tag it as such. I like #BearFalseWitness, as most of the carriers of viral disinformation I am friends with are professed Christians. I have given old folks here a hard time, but one of the most prolific promoters of viral bullshit on my F-list is barely an adult - it happens with all kinds and all ages. While the right-wing disinformation machine is the most streamlined and prolific, other groups promote their share of falsehoods too. We can, and should, do better.

I am going to leave you with a link to a recent bit from The Onion that related and made me laugh. The premise is what if one of these disinformation groups "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" was exactly what their name implied - a group seeking truth? Satire is best when it uses absurdity to point out falsehoods we have just learned to live with:

It's 2014. Please, let us take an extra few seconds and decide to promote fewer lies this year.