The Audacity of Despair

The year is 1761 CE, in the town of Boston, on the edges of the British Empire. British law provided for the Crown to ask for a “writ of assistance,” a general search warrant that had no particular allegations of criminal activity, did not need to specify a particular individual or particular places or effects to be searched, and had no end date.   Once a writ of assistance had been issued, no subject of the king had privacy and the runaway ex-slaves, would be enslaved once more.  Not so fast, said the people of Boston and the other American colonies. They rebelled against the writs of assistance. They won. And after they agreed on a new Constitution, some among them wanted to make sure no central government could act like the king they had vanquished.  So they insisted on adding to the Constitution the Bill of Rights, including the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Now here we are, two centuries later, and the king – even one who said he would support the Bill of Rights against his predecessor’s invasion of it – is claiming it is all right to scoop up all the data about whom I am phoning, who is phoning me, where we are, and how long we talk.   Is this harmless because it does not include the actual words inside the call or email?  The New Yorker reports, “As Jameel Jaffar, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, put it, imagine if the government required every American to report to the government every night who they spoke to, or texted, for how long, and from where. People would be furious, but that’s precisely the information the N.S.A. is collecting from telecom companies. And it’s precisely why the government desperately wanted to keep the practice a secret.” Or make it more concrete: You are trying to start a political campaign for Congress in a district where some government official likes somebody else. You are testing out the waters by meeting with possible supporters, experts in street theater and radio ads and fundraising. Now the hostile official knows who you are talking to, how often, and where. Is it easier to break up your campaign? "

The above comments by Arthur Waskow, are however addressed differently in an opinion piece in the York Times by Tom Friedman, who mentions an essay by David Simon, the creator of HBO’s “The Wire” and who worked as a police reporter before the days of the Patriot Act. A video of the Simon lecture can be viewed here.  For Friedman, Simon cuts right to the core of the issue:

"You would think that the government was listening in to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and the hyperbole being tossed about,” wrote Simon. “And you would think that rather than a legal court order, which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame. The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the F.B.I. and N.S.A. are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. I know it’s big and scary that the government wants a database of all phone calls. And it’s scary that they’re paying attention to the Internet. And it’s scary that your cellphones have GPS installed. The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy, and in a manner that is unsupervised. And to that, The Guardian and those who are wailing jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of U.S. big data collection are noticeably silent. We don’t know of any actual abuse.”

We do need to be constantly on guard for abuses. But the fact is, added Simon, that for at least the last two presidencies “this kind of data collection has been a baseline logic of an American anti-terrorism effort that is effectively asked to find the needles before they are planted into haystacks, to prevent even such modest, grass-rooted conspiracies as the Boston Marathon bombing before they occur.”  To be sure, secret programs, like the virtually unregulated drone attacks, can lead to real excesses that have to be checked. But here is what is also real, Simon concluded: “Those planes really did hit those buildings. And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically motivated enemy. And, for a moment, just imagine how much bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible to find those needles in the haystacks.”   

The NYT article by Tom Friedman can be accessed here.

A Bloomberg Business Week article entitled "Spies  Like Us:  How We All Helped  Build Prism" looks at the technology that has make PRISM possible and comments  ….."When Google arrived in 1998, things started to change. Google emerged as the first major technology company to push a new wave of database, storage, and searching techniques and then allow open-source access to quite a bit of the technology. The search-engine giant needed to collect and analyze so much data that it could not afford to buy Oracle software and hardware from the big-name companies like Hewlett-Packard and IBM. Instead, it bought cheap hardware and wrote new software that ran well across hundreds of thousands of computers. Google’s work helped give birth to the Big Data era and a host of new data-analysis products".  The Bloomberg article can be accessed here.