The DQYDJ Weekender 6/15/2013

Ahh, another weekend in the Bay Area – this one with lots of open homes in my own neighborhood.  Boring?  I know – but, hey, spying on the improvements my neighbors make is fun.

Speaking of spying, let’s talk informally for a bit about the NSA’s recently revealed spying programs… and of a compliant press corps tripping over each other and carrying various forms of lubrication to grease the slippery slope!

Let’s knock down a few ridiculous arguments for the Pro-Everyone Surveillance Crowd… because it’s fun(ny) to do so!

Edward Snowden (The Most Recent Leaker) is a Narcissistic Traitor!

Probably – but it makes absolutely no difference now that this material is public.  None, whatsoever.

Ad hominem attacks don’t refute an argument, we should frown on “shooting the messenger”, and I don’t discredit my TV when I hear something I don’t like.  Yes, his leak was illegal – but play the board as it lies people!  (Can you fit more analogies into that paragraph?)

This Is an Example of an Embarrassing Millennial Generation’s Narcissism and Anti-Democratic Inclinations!!!

(You might think I’m making that one up… See here, here, and even here.)

Just what we need – more generational civil war!  My advice to non-Millennials – careful, someone has to pay off all this debt (and, you know, keep Social Security going).

Ed Snowden Is Lying

If he’s lying, why do people care so much?  Why the rush to discredit the information?

Also, believe it or not – there have been quite a few whistle-blowers on this since 9/11Some of them have even validated his claims since the leaks.  (And the others are not in their 20s – the only recent ‘leaker’ in his twenties is, of course, Bradley Manning.  Manning’s case was way different – he dumped documents without any analysis.)

Move Along, Nothing To See Here – We’ve Already Known About the NSA Spying on Us For Years!

Consider this invented scenario:  You’ve heard rumors that your spouse is cheating on you from a number of people… it’s been trickling out for the last decade.  20052006.  In 2008, your spouse stops hanging out with the friend you’re suspicious about – and makes a new friend.  You see another rumor in 2012 about the new friend.  Then, in 2013, someone comes to you with absolute proof.

Why are you mad?  I mean, you’ve heard rumors since 2005!

But It’s All Legal!

Picture of a computer

A computer never forgets! (Eww, SCSI?)

You know, this one is true… but it’s still a dodge.  I can do no better than the Daily Show here in telling you why that doesn’t matter – the fact that it is legal is probably a problem.  Secondary to that?  The rulings that made it illegal are determined in court decisions which are classified.  And the author of the law making it legal doesn’t even agree with the interpretation.

I’m sure you can think of tons of laws and practices which were eventually determined to be either immoral or overly broad.

But It’s Just Metadata!

The definition of metadata has obviously expanded over time, but even metadata as we understand it (data about data) doesn’t mean it isn’t scary.  If metadata wasn’t useful… why collect it?

Note that a recent study showed that when you include geographic information in caller data (say, the tower a cell phone is connected to?), two data points are enough to identify 50% of anonymous users, while a few more could identify a whopping 95% of users.

So, where do you draw the line?  “Oh, it’s just duration, receiver, caller and location data – not the conversation.”  “Oh, it’s just that information and the audio – they can’t see my body language!”  “Oh, it’s just that information and video, they can’t read my intentions and inner thoughts!”.  Where do you draw the line?  Do you agree with Joe Biden?

But It Helped Catch People!

I could add a “(Trust Us)” to that line – only two of the cases in which it supposedly helped were released publicly.  Those two are in doubt (one example)… mostly because other programs have taken credit for foiling the plots.

Let’s say that maybe the other cases of the dozens of foiled plots were successful.  Let’s make some questions for Bastiat then – would no other program have prevented the plots?  Any form of human intelligence?  Is a nationwide dragnet the only way to stop plots?  If we didn’t collect metadata and digital data from everyone would these plots have been successful?  If this surveillance is credited for the successes, how do we judge the failures?

They’re Just Storing Data, They Aren’t Reading or Listening Unless Necessary

Let’s say that the 51% foreign test is accurate.

In that case, fine – I can’t refute you assuming everything goes perfectly well.  Still, it would be hilarious to see someone make a legal argument after downloading, say, a leaked album that it’s okay for them to possess it because they hadn’t listened to it yet!

But We Voted For It! (Part I – Public Support for Laws)

Yes, the Patriot Act passed in October 2001.  That doesn’t mean that the public is pro-surveillance laws.  Consider recent examples – the SOPA/PIPA bills, bills which had wide bipartisan support, CISPA (which would make voluntary sharing between government and large companies legal), and the defunding of the Total Information Awareness program.

As noted in that Wikipedia article, a lot of the programs today seem to be offshoots of TIA.  Seriously, does the fact that no one knows about the programs somehow prove we think they are necessary?

There’s No Records of Complaints or Abuse!  (And/or) The Programs Haven’t Been Abused!

I mean, other than this.

The real rebuttal?  That’s not because we can guarantee they haven’t been abused.  Remember, if you read my article yesterday, laws were changed because people on the inside had issues.  A member of the FISC even resigned supposedly because of abuse.

And even people who have tried to bring legal cases can’t get a result.  Because there was no abuse?  No – because they can’t prove standing since the programs are secret!  When standing might be proved, it’s even possible for the Government to invoke state secrets to prevent trials from going forward.

Yes, state secrets are necessary.  But there is a balance – secrets should only be secret if they harm safety, not if they would be embarrassing if public.  And remember – just because cases get thrown out of court doesn’t prove there has been no abuse.

But We Voted For It! (Part II – We Voted for Representatives and They Know Everything About the Program!)

That’s not fully accurate – example one, of course, is the firestorm currently going on post-leak.  Now that Congress is learning more, we get curious quotes coming out of our representatives – “This is just the tip of the iceberg“, or “The public deserves a clear explanation” for example (the information in the briefs is classified).

And I wouldn’t yet dismiss the possibility that Congress is being kept in the dark, too.

We Can Trust The Government to Always Use This Information In Our Best Interest!

This one is pretty funny when it comes from media organs who are opposed to, say, the IRS collecting too much information, or databases of gun owners.  (You know, because those are slippery slopes which might lead to tyranny!)

Considering the internet cries “Godwin’s Law!” at any reference to Nazi data collection, such as pre-Nazi Germany’s collection of religious information in their censuses (censi?) and many argue the internment of Japanese, German, and Italian citizens during World War II was too long ago to be relevant (someone tell this guy), let’s cite just 2 recent examples (in the lives of many of you readers) where data collection was considered a bit much:

  • COINTELPRO ( 1908(?) – 1971 ) (Read the Church Committee’s entry in Wikipedia – “Too many people have been spied upon by too many Government agencies and too much information has been collected.”)
  • Domestic Surveillance Overreach (2001-2006) (Glenn Fine’s report on the spying on domestic groups and individuals – if you weren’t alive for this, please ask your parents for permission to read DQYDJ!)

And here’s (again) one directly related to the NSA!

This Data and These Abilities Will Only Be Used To Fight Terrorism!

If we’ve gotten to this argument, I must’ve won most of the arguments!

Email snooping sans- warrant:

Bank Secrecy Act (meant to catch laundering, foreign terrorism funding, and other financial crime):

Mission creep is a thing, people.  While the victims of mission creep generally never get any sympathy, do we want a society where our anti-terrorism programs and financial crime stopping laws are used to root out sexual crimes… or even sexual improprieties like in the case of Petraeus?  What about when we start using data to catch drug users?  (Not dealers – users).  How about anyone who has ever downloaded an MP3?  People who don’t pay all their sales taxes?  People who do electrical work without a permit?  People who use No. 2 heating oil in their diesel cars?  Stores that tear tags off pillows?  People who rescue injured birds, nurse them back to health, and release them days later?

Well- You Knocked Down All The Other Arguments!  Therefore I Believe People Who Care About Privacy Have Something To Hide/Are “Anti-Antiterror”/Are Unrealistic/Support Crime/Are Unpatriotic!

Right, because every time a politician names a law the title of the bill is the only intention, right?  (Warning: Canada!)

Ben Franklin comes up a lot in these arguments – “They who can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” – I’m sure you’ve heard his quotes.  Yes, he was making a political point about a proposed law in Pennsylvania.  Still, he had the idea right – society is a trade-off.  Any time we try to guarantee 100% safety, our autonomy and privacy suffers as a result.  See President Obama, or Vice President Joe Biden (both pre-Executive Branch) for a contemporary argument.

I take the President at his word – you can’t have 100% safety and 100% privacy.  However, do we as a society truly want to push the lever to 100% safety?

Setting those examples aside, let’s move down the slippery slope a bit (we start from least to most possible in 2013, if not probable):

  • Would you support a GPS tracking implant on every newborn in America?  If you don’t, are you Pro-Kidnapper?
  • Would you support cameras in every bedroom to stop domestic violence?  If you don’t are you Pro-Domestic Violence?
  • Would you support a thought reading device to figure out every person who commited a crime in the past?  If not, are you Pro-Crime?
  • Would you support a device worn by every American which allowed constant surveillance and could stop a person in his or her tracks if about to commit a crime?  If not, are you sacrificing too much safety for liberty?

And, why not?  Well – we did write an article on privacy not from the perspective of criminal acts.  Even if you try to scarecrow me and say the only reason for privacy is if you did something wrong (you know, if you believe humans don’t have any shame or something!), do you want to live in a world where every single time a law is broken it results in an arrest/conviction?

Of course not.  We’re human – we make mistakes.  Newsflash… the Government is also human!  It’s made up of our peers.  Humans make mistakes; we pass dumb laws, we overstep our authority, we hide our mistakes, we even evolve over time!  We even do things which are perfectly acceptable at the time which won’t be acceptable when we are older.  Just as I’m not perfect – you aren’t perfect, companies aren’t perfect, and Governments aren’t perfect.  That’s why entrusting too much authority in one institution (or person) is a bad idea.  Democracy just means that we fail and evolve together.  When was the last time you saw 100% agreement on an issue?

And after that passionate ‘essay’, here are the arguments I agree with: We Need to Have a Frank Discussion About Surveillance in America.  In a way, I’m glad it’s happening now – remember that the influence of terrorism in the world is on the decline.  Some of that, as people will quickly point, out is because of the very programs which are now in the public eye.  I would mostly agree with those people – some of the vast new intelligence capabilities are absolutely worth having… like, say, some information sharing between agencies.

As the French showed infamously in World War II, warfare is never about fighting the last war.  There is evil in the world –  no one doubts this (how can there be good if there is nothing to compare it against?).  America is not the primary source of world tyranny… and anyone who doubts that is troubled.  What’s at stake here is a domestic surveillance program that may never be rolled back and will always continue unhindered with little Congressional oversight.  A program that never forgets information.  A program which, ex post facto, might reveal not only illegal information… but also embarrassing or sensitive (or POLITICAL) information.  A program which falsely flags information out of context.  A program which falsely flags some information as dangerous because of bugs or human choice.  A program which we can never slow down or roll back.

And, that’s just the thing – taken in the context of today, I trust the current administration to generally do the right thing.  I trusted the Bush Administration to do the right thing.  I was rewarded… a few politically motivated things aside.  The vast majority of things done by our presidents is not in the service of politics… I believe our current politicians do want to keep us safe.

Of course, we trusted Nixon too.  Can you guarantee that the increase in Executive power will always be wielded by a trustworthy politician?

Links We Liked!

  • Our friend Nelson drops (most) of the sexual innuendos and lays down the depressing math on the Canadian housing market.
  • So, as rumored, Vladimir Putin actually did steal Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring back in 2005.  Wow, haha.  Tradecraft!
  • Visit our friend (and podcast boss) Joe’s new website – Stacking Benjamins!  Also, welcome him to a permanent spot on our rotating blogroll.
  • Also, welcome our friend MSB, the Makin’ Sense Babe – also a member of our podcast.  I know you want to listen – go here.
  • Want to get your email logged indefinitely?  Here’s a supposed list of flagged words which will single you out for surveillance!  Since blogs like pageviews, here’s my effort to get at least one more: “Steve Case put out a press-release after buying gold bullion and forced a network of supercomputers to wire-transfer the $ to e-cash”!
  • Our friend Len Penzo runs the math on phone insurance for 3 iPhones – and doesn’t like what he sees.  When we used our Samsung, a software glitch bricked it, and we were given a refurb as a package deal with insurance.  We used that insurance 2 more times.  What does that mean?  Nothing – just that I gambled and won with phone insurance – once.  I don’t have any on my Evo 4G, and it’s getting pretty old!
  • Freakonomics has the math on health premiums for motorcycle riders when a state drops mandatory helmet laws.  Mentioned?  Some of the weird consequences of dropping helmet laws.
  • Control Your Cash had a post with homework(!) and math on a house selling and meeting the fabled 100x rule.  We’d buy one of those in the Bay area – but $1.2 million houses renting for $5,000 doesn’t do it for us!
  • Late Edit: We had wanted to include one of the pieces written by our friend Derek Khanna this week – we particularly liked his editorial at National Review on NSA spying.
  • Suba at Wealth Informatics had an epic post, which makes all former references to the word ‘epic’ on this blog look overwrought.  Here’s over 60 ways to make $100 this weekend.

Links to Us!