13 June 2013

Was it something I said?

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley questioning NSA head. (AP)
Spies will be spies. Traditionally we expect spies to have a fairly loose relationship with laws. We generally forgive them if they're effective and ours, and assume that they're focusing their unorthodox methods on somebody else's secrets. We may not approve of spying but we probably understand that it's something most governments do ... and lie about. In any case, we rarely expect to fall under our own spies' scrutiny.

In the case of the U.S. National Security Agency and its apparent ability to vacuum the entire planet for any exchange of electrons it wants, we're moving in terms of scale and coverage way beyond any traditional understanding of national intelligence. Really, what is there to distinguish between the ability to intercept any electronic signal from the next logical leap--intercepting any kind of communication at all, even whispers, even pillow talk--except purely technical limitations?

Glenn Greenwald is primarily outraged by the government's cloak of secrecy and consequent lack of accountability, as it learns more and more about its supposed owners--the citizens--while in turn they know less and less about the government. On the other hand, David Simon asks whether any competent government faced with real dangers of terror should pretend that the world of digital data simply doesn't exist? Why then did our legislators pass laws that actually make the NSA's actions legal, whether we now like it or not?

I think Greenwald and Simon both make valuable points. I'm less worried that any of my communications are of sufficient consequence to draw a spy's attention than I am to the vindictive response of the government when someone reveals its unsupervised overreach, or to put it another way, makes the unintended consequences of the Patriot Act far more obvious than it was when war fever was sweeping over a timid Congress.

David Simon, who has watched detectives at work for a long time, understands that the real reason for data collection is that wrongdoers will not convict themselves willingly, and in fact in the USA they are constitutionally protected from being forced to do so. The evidence to expose and convict them will be clues they leave behind unwittingly--whether it is inconsistencies in ledger books, microscopic bits of physical residue, witnesses they weren't aware of ... or conversations with co-conspirators that they didn't know were being recorded. However, of all the evidence that could be collected (or fabricated, for that matter), the government is entitled only to collect and filter that which it can access at the scene of a crime or with a warrant within its own jurisdiction.

But what if the pool of data from which vital evidence might be recovered is so vast and fragmented and uncontainable by political boundaries that obtaining individual warrants (for example, on specific phone numbers or specific e-mail addresses) is completely impractical? What if the clues to future dangers that might strike within our borders are being generated beyond them? What if we the people ourselves willingly provide clues every day when we engage in any form of electronic commerce? It's not surprising that governments charged with staying ahead of organized crime, whether economic or political, try to collect electronic data and correlate it with known patterns of criminal behavior.

What puzzles me is why this must be kept secret. We'd love to honor government departments that work effectively, truly respect the laws of the land, and spend our tax money well. As Simon writes, "Frankly, I’m a bit amazed that the NSA and FBI have their **** together enough to be consistently doing what they should be doing with the vast big-data stream of electronic communication." Do these agencies really think that foreign spies don't know they're being watched? Or do the agencies simply want the convenience of cutting corners without being held accountable for their behavior or their gigantic budgets?

The main protection that you and I have from the NSA is the sheer volume of data. My phone calls and e-mail are at a subatomic scale in the scheme of things, besides being utterly boring to any sane spy. But as citizen of a land that proclaims the supremacy of due process, I would like to know that if I accidentally trigger a search by some infelicitous combination of words (or a satirical text--this really happened to a member of my family!), or some rogue staffer with a private agenda, that I have the right to a full defense and to face my accuser.

One more thing. I'm a minister, and sometimes people write to me in great distress, or even under the pressure of mental illness. One of my correspondents is convinced that they are pursued by government agents who have implanted transducers in their body--who knows what sort of NSA filter they might conceivably trip with their terrifying fantasies? They should be able to trust that their writing is treated with the same presumption of privacy that their face-to-face speech would be given. Where does such a presumption fit in the world of total information awareness? Similarly, when I am in grief or shock or depression and reach out for help, I deserve similar privacy. There's no perfect safety in this world, but if the NSA makes a mistake, there should be a quick and undefensive remedy.

Once again, it's also important to refresh our understanding of what "safety" and "security" really  mean. Respect for due process may result in a very tiny increase in the likelihood of a terrorist attack. But is total prevention of terrorism, if that were even possible, worth giving up the more dynamic, more worthwhile security of living in a democracy?

(Part two is here.)

Edward Snowden and "too much secrecy"

Sandy Hook survivors: "We know the price of inaction."

An invitation from the Guardian: "Who are the Christians in Britain Today?"

In case you think serious mistakes are impossible in a democracy, read this.

How the ambassador came to be my "friend": "21st Century Tradecraft in Moscow." (By the way, so far I think he's done pretty well.)

Eric Muhr's experiment in prayer.

More blues from Moscow. "Give Me Back My Wig."


Eric Muhr said...

Love that I got a link in this post. Also love reading your thoughts from afar, thought that often hit quite close to home. Thank you!

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for your kind words. I would love to be at a "breath prayer" worship meeting with you and your students.

Bill Samuel said...

"In case you think serious mistakes are impossible in a democracy, read this." This is not about a democracy. It's about the U.S., which is a corporatocracy.