17 January 2014

A last note, for the NSA

I haven't figured out exactly why this isn't a bigger deal with some people. I suppose most people haven't followed surveillance and security state behavior to see what states tend to do with these powers (hint: it isn't to find and arrest "terrorists", or even spies). And I think it very likely most people see the hassles as minor inconveniences at best when trying to travel or wondering about the privacy of their communications and online behavior. Indeed, many people routinely point to Facebook or Google's habits of gathering information on users as a sacrifice of privacy we've already made in this arena that somehow excuses the behavior of government and amends the Constitution accordingly to surrender the need for specific and individualized warrants for seizure of communications and communication data.

But aside from the questionable legal status of the Smith v Maryland ruling taken to its farthest possible legal interpretation to apply to millions of people instead of a particularized subject of a criminal investigation and from one person's phone records to dozens of other forms of communication, the most pernicious and possibly the dumbest defence of the NSA debate that routinely appears is this one: "I have nothing to hide".

To the people still using this argument, I have two words. Fuck. You.

I'm not making that up out of hatred, but anger and frustration that this persists. So don't take it personal in immediate fact. You might just not know any better. I might come to hate you later anyway. But this is not a good start.

The reason I treat this so harshly requires a bit of explanation.

What this actually says is three things:
First, that "I am a privileged white educated person of modest means. I have nothing to fear from police invading my home. It is even possible I violate no major laws, that I am aware of, that anyone could take issue with my behavior in the first place." Perhaps even that your marriage or family life is stable and solid (and that you also would have nothing to hide from a spouse or children that would not attract government sanction). That is all to the good. Congratulations that you are an upstanding citizen of uprighteous attitudes. You may indeed have nothing to fear from suspicious inquiries made by government officials. Good for you. That does not entitle you to say stupid things without angering people who recognize the limitations of that privileged status.

Consider talking to a stranger, and then having to disclose any or all of the following:
a) your income
b) your job
c) your religious affiliation
d) donations to causes of interest to you
e) associates outside of work
f) who you email and text, in order to validate those associates

Now consider you're a Muslim, and not a Christian. Since most Americans are the latter. Or consider that you have Arabic or Indian features and are trying to get on an airplane. Or consider that you are black, poor, and living in public housing. And that this stranger works for the government. And takes this information without your permission. And then try to tell me that you don't have anything to fear from the government's suspicion of you. Regardless of whether you have done anything wrong or criminally possible, your life will be lived under a microscope, your mundane actions questioned, and loyalty or intentions doubted. It will be possible with relative ease to find something which appears questionable to routine analysis; a charity that somewhere, somehow backs a terrorist group in a far-flung country that has a political or religious agenda that has nothing to do with Americans or the person donating to it, an associate who writes radical political treatises in his spare time or who demonstrates at anti-war rallies and the like, an email to an old high school or college friend who has some sketchy legal habits now, any of which can then be spun out of proportion and control by malicious agencies to invade your privacy further and further, to seek of the content of your emails, the contacts for donation, the political content of religious sermons where you were in attendance, and so on. And most of this is occurring without your knowledge,consent, or notice via warrant.

This is way beyond having to take your shoes off to get on airplane. Much of that is information many of us might rightly regard as private. Some of it is turned over to portions of the government for tax purposes, but not for criminal purposes. Others of it are turned over to private businesses, or our employers and associates obviously have access to some of this by the nature of being trusted colleagues (or merely by being present). The NSA collects a portion of this information itself, and collaborates with other agencies who have access to other portions of it. NYPD follows around Muslims by the thousands, so too to a lesser extent does the FBI. The TSA and various border guards or immigration forces don't just hassle white grandmothers and 6 year old children, despite claims of randomness and fairness.

It's not unusual for such people as I've described not merely to be detained and searched at the airport, but to have their homes entered and searched by police (sometimes at gunpoint with pets killed and families threatened), their possessions confiscated, their religious congregations identified and followed, and so on. Consider that hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been detained without trial for years by our government merely under suspicion of such intentions, without proof or conviction. Many of whom were declared innocent, sometimes even by a trial, and still held for additional years. Some of these people were not merely "detained" and imprisoned but tortured or even killed. Others abroad have been killed by the thousands under similarly sketchy logic that they were insurgents or terrorists drawn from limited and often inaccurate information. It seems unlikely that these actions would not create reasonable fears and suspicions in the minds of people who are then targeted by that same government for investigation and are socially cast with suspicion and doubt of their peaceful and civil intentions.

And this is merely dealing with the variety of information that is likely, at least eventually, not placing someone in a criminal enterprise or as a terrorist mastermind.

Second. Consider now that someone comes into office with much less noble motives as "counterterrorism", in some foolhardy quest to keep the country absolutely secure. This is not a far-fetched probability launched by a tin-foil hatted person. Vast quantities of the FBI's use of PATRIOT act powers, in particular with NSLs, are for anti-drug purposes, often only tenuously or rhetorically tied to terrorism. The Church commission, J. Hoover, and Richard Nixon, are all within the living memory of many Americans. In case it is not known, this was a time when the intelligence organs of the state were often pointed at political rivals, at anti-war or civil rights demonstrators, at people who said or wrote vaguely socialist sounding things, and on and on. The surveillance powers of the state if given full license to operate on such grounds have only grown larger and broader since that time. At this point, you might indeed now have something to hide. Laws can change. Behavior which was once considered criminal (say, sodomy), is considered legally acceptable now, as we are also seeing with particular drugs. This is a good thing. But the switch does not have to ratchet only in this one direction of permissiveness. It is not beyond the pale that something acceptable now could be punished some years from now in our near future, or already is up for debate as a punishable offense. It is even likely that many people could be unaware of this chance given the vast scope of legal sanctions already available to police, prosecutors, and security state empowered agencies and the general public's inability to memorize thousands of legal codes that could impact their lives. Our ignorance of such changes would offer little comfort or protection.

It is telling that apparently one of the more convincing arguments for people when discussing these police powers is whether or not they trust the President elected to head the branch supervising these agencies most directly. Ask a Republican, and they trusted Bush but don't trust Obama. Ask a Democrat (including apparently Obama who has acted as though he hadn't considered this himself), and they trust Obama but do or did not trust Bush. This suggests that people do fear that they will be powers used improperly or against "the wrong people", in some sense of the term, but that they have favored people they'd prefer to use them against (for example "gun nuts" or "tea party types" for the left, and, basically, "brown people" and hippies, for the right).

That last part worries me a great deal. I'm not sure there are people who "should" be favored for such use, but if there are any, they are usually foreign-sourced or tied threats for which the powers and capabilities of the NSA pre 9-11 seem quite adequate to at least identify. There are further problems with the intelligence community at that point in giving warning of immediate danger or communicating subjects of investigation, but those are not resolved by allowing massive surveillance powers or requiring people to take off shoes and jackets to board an airplane in a long and tedious line (that to me represents what should look like a great target to attack by any terrorist, what with the hundreds of people standing around. We should be grateful nobody decided to do so until this year). If we had evidence these powers were necessary for this one explicit purpose, we should have heard of it by now. Reviews of the program keep coming up with flimsy supports at best, if any at all materialize. Meanwhile the attacks we could have prevented, up to and including 9-11 itself, seem to have plenty of evidence available through routine means.

Which brings me to the third problem with this idea that it's okay if you have nothing to hide for someone to root around in your stuff.

If there's nothing to see, why exactly is the NSA looking for it from you in the first place? Wouldn't it be better served looking at people who are identified as probable threats? What probable cause do they have to look at you? Why are they gathering all of this information, when at best it serves no purpose and at worst it is actively harmful by providing piles of data that have to be sifted through once in a while to get to actual problems they could find without having the extra hay on the stack. To me it isn't just the offensive and potentially illegal intrusion of my privacy, without a proper warrant investigating me in particular for some reason, that is a problem here. It is the waste of time and taxpayer dollars doing something useless and ineffective and by declaring it in the name of terrorism, excluding it from public debate of its effectiveness and necessity. It just continues unabated. This is costing us billions of dollars per year in raw terms. Billions more are wasted in the additional security checks and clearances that delay travelers or push them to use less safe and efficient travel like driving their car (and thus increasing traffic delays and fatalities).

We should demand results, not meekly submit to the probability that someone will decide to check up on us once in a while to assure that we do indeed still have nothing to hide while having no discernible impact on terrorism and state security in general.

So yeah. Fuck you. Go fuck yourself with that kind of privileged nonsense. I'm tired of that bullshit. Don't use it. Don't tell me that. Don't tell yourself that. Do yourself a favor and look outside your own world once in a while and you'll understand that this is the worst form of defence of such activities and is patently offensive to the vast majority of people who we will use it against but who are not like you in some small and measurable way and therefore not worthy of the same protective force field of laws and guarantees of privacy and autonomy. It's not personal, but it's tired and stupid and deserves it. Grow up and look around once in a while.
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