A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Category: Surveillance

Congress Gives Edward Snowden The Exxon Valdez Treatment

by evanmcmurry

Congress, and policy-making bodies in general, have long displayed what I call Exxon Valdez logic. Quoting myself from a few months ago:

In 1990, in response to the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress pooped the following:

The legislation included a clause that prohibits any vessel that, after March 22, 1989, has caused an oil spill of more than 1 million US gallons (3,800 m3) in any marine area, from operating in Prince William Sound.

In other words, Congress passed a bill prohibiting that exact event from occurring again—not, mind you, the wider causes of oil spills themselves. Ever since I’ve referred to this as “Exxon Valdez” logic: rather than addressing the root causes of an event you wish to prevent, you merely pass a bill prohibiting the event’s particular circumstances. It’s like wanting to avoid getting struck by lighting twice by still going out in lightning storms but changing trees.

And today:

The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee emerged from a classified briefing on Thursday about the leak of top secret surveillance programs and declared that Congress would soon consider legislation to sharply limit the access that private contractors — who operate much of the national security infrastructure — have to the nation’s most sensitive intelligence programs.

Might as well pass a bill that says “Schmos named Ed who date Hawaiian acrobats may no longer have access to classified materials.”

For what it’s worth, doesn’t seem that Snowden-types should have the clearance they do. But nobody in their right mind looks at these NSA revelations and thinks the pressing legislative priority is preventing high school dropouts from getting their grubby fingers on government materials—unless you’re Dianne Feinstein, and the only problem you see with expansive surveillance is the people being surveilled knowing about it.

Call Me When We Get To Some Real Fascism

by evanmcmurry

Guess what! The judge who thought Obamacare was the creep of fascism is the same judge who approved the expansive NSA data-mining program.

Next time a progressive wants to pass anything, they should just make some shit up about how it fights terrorism. That’s all it ever comes down to.

Josh Marshall And David Brooks Make The Exact Same Point About Edward Snowden, But Only One Of Them Is Right

by evanmcmurry

Josh Marshall and David Brooks are making the same essential point in their pieces on Edward Snowden: that regardless of the abstract moral quality of Snowden’s actions, he performed them selfishly, prioritizing his own conscience over the harm he could cause others.

It’s convincing when Marshall makes it:

At the end of the day, for all its faults, the US military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support. I’m not a bystander to it. I’m implicated in what it does and I feel I have a responsibility and a right to a say, albeit just a minuscule one, in what it does. I think a military force requires a substantial amount of secrecy to operate in any reasonable way. So when someone on the inside breaks those rules, I need to see a really, really good reason. And even then I’m not sure that means you get off scott free. It may just mean you did the right thing.

[snip] But it’s more than that. Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage – choose your verb – the US intelligence apparatus and policieis he opposes. The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point. But he’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal.

That’s smart, nuanced reasoning. We all have problems with the military and the government, but we are all, also, enmeshed with them. To jeopardize these institutions, whatever your reasons, is to view them as distinct and peripheral, not only from yourself but from everybody around you. This is not to say that leaking classified information is never justified, but it is to say that doing so automatically puts you in an antagonistic relationship with the society on whose behalf you claim to be acting. The sating of your conscience doesn’t automatically underwrite your actions.

Needless to say, David Brooks falls way short of Marshall’s take:

Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.

If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme.

[snip] But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.

This is not a danger Snowden is addressing. In fact, he is making everything worse.

For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.

Brooks, as only he can, undoes his own point. The pressures of conformity exerted by familial and social bonds are the exact forces that lead to abuses of power; people are too complacent/fearful/loyal/etc. to know wrongdoing when they see it, or act when they recognize it. Under these conditions, it really does take someone like Snowden, who is willing to sacrifice the comforts of a normal life, to point out the overreaches of the state. Who else will? A happy father of four, with mortgage payments?*

Again, Marshall and Brooks are making the same basic point about Snowden’s view of an “atomized” society, in Brooks’ formulation, falsely legitimizing his actions. Marshall’s point is incisive and generative. Brooks’s makes me want to donate to Snowden’s defense fund.

* This is to say nothing of the role giant, secretive government surveillance programs have played in fraying the ends of Brooks’s public trust. After all, we can only judge Snowden’s relation to the state because he revealed it for us.

Your Should Find Out Whether Amazon Is Cooperating With PRISM Before Downloading 1984 On Your Kindle

by evanmcmurry

Dennis Johnson, co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House, asks some intriguing questions about Amazon’s conspicuous absence from the nine internet heavies implicated in PRISM. Among them: was Amazon cooperating? If they weren’t, why not, as they’re easily as big a source of data as the other companies are, if not more so? Does the cooperation of these companies explain, say, the ability of Apple to pay zero taxes?

And perhaps most intriguingly, is this bad for business? Johnson notes that Amazon may have trouble selling cloud space to overseas companies, as any portion of the internet accessed through an American company can clearly be accessed by the American government. Would you pay for that?

The idea that Apple’s tax evasion was a reward for its cooperation in PRISM is a bit far-fetched. The amount of interagency coordination necessary to pull that off without arousing suspicion seems prohibitively immense. (On the other hand, the NSA gave Deputy Some Guy Edward Snowden access to PRISM, so who knows.)

But the amount of questions Johnson can come up with off the top of his head shows, if nothing else, the urgent need for transparency on these programs. Let us not forget that Amazon knows what you’re reading—and given that sales of 1984 have risen dramatically in the past few days, we should probably be concerned about whether they’re sharing that info.