Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Obama's (and Bush's) War On Privacy Targets The Internet

Wow...what can I say? Obama Administration seeks to "Wiretap the internet"...what's not to like about the sound of that news headline!?

Now, I've written in excruciating detail on this blog about what a total and complete disappointment President Obama has been on issues related to privacy and civil liberties. I'm not going to say that I expected his actions as President to fully match his words as a candidate (and constitutional scholar!). This is rarely EVER the case, particularly when it comes to issues related to national security, but this is getting downright ridiculous.

Sadly, what has become an ironclad, and increasingly dangerous "rule of thumb" in this country, is once a power is taken by the government (i.e. Patriot Act), or a civil liberty/constitutional protection erased, its gone...NO President, anymore anyway, once elected offers to "give" up power achieved by the President (s) before him. And boy oh boy has this remained true between the privacy eviscerating Administration of George W. Bush and that of President Barack Obama.

Now, before I get to the OUTSTANDING analysis of this leaked Administration proposal by Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald, let me first provide a bit more backdrop on it. Be it the Washington Post, New York Times or the San Jose Mercury News, the essential story is this: National security and U.S. law enforcement officials are preparing to submit a bill to Congress that would require all Internet companies to be able to tap into any online communications that they enable. While government officials say the legislation is needed because much communication among criminals and terrorists has moved online, privacy advocates called the proposal dangerous and excessive.

I want to provide a couple quotes from some of my privacy advocate friends too: Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a group that promotes the rights and interests of online consumers, said it "would give away the digital keys to our consumer data kingdom. This is too much to give away to any government, Republican or Democrat. This proposal should be fought by civil libertarians, consumers and business leaders."

The bill, which hasn't yet been released, would require companies that provide encrypted communications to be able to break into those coded signals upon receiving a legal wiretapping order,

Similarly, and thankfully, privacy advocates are challenging the claim that U.S. officials are losing their policing abilities. Let's be honest here, how can anyone in the world, with a straight face, say our government has LESS surveillance capabilities in the past, rather than MORE???

If I remember correctly, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed a succession of laws that has made it far easier for law enforcement and security officials to spy on online and other communications with or without warrants.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an online civil liberties group noted how the government "has also amassed massive databases of electronic information that it can use in investigations."

Privacy advocates are also arguing that providing a "back door" into online communications to allow government officials to spy on them would make those communications fundamentally insecure, providing a point of vulnerability that hackers could exploit. In Greece in 2005, hackers used just such a back door to eavesdrop on phone calls made by the prime minister and other officials.

"This is a bad idea," Rotenberg said. "Not just bad in the sense that it opens the door to Big Brother surveillance, but it "... puts Internet users and companies at greater risk of identity theft, corporate espionage and surreptitious spying."

James X. Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an Internet policy group, said the proposal had "huge implications" and challenged "fundamental elements of the Internet revolution" -- including its decentralized design.

"They are really asking for the authority to redesign services that take advantage of the unique, and now pervasive, architecture of the Internet," he said. "They basically want to turn back the clock and make Internet services function the way that the telephone system used to function."


Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, took issue with the move. "This proposal is a drastic anti-privacy, anti-security, anti-innovation solution in search of a problem.

He noted that in an official 2009 review of 2,400 federal, state and local law enforcement applications for wiretap orders, "encryption was encountered during one state wiretap, but did not prevent officials from obtaining the plain text of the communications."

But some additional context is needed on this I think. Consider also that a government report was just released (see my last post) detailing just how lawless the FBI's monitoring of "suspects", mostly peace activists and left wing protesters (non-violent of course), were...all under the guise of the Patriot Act and the phony "war on terror" (that pretty much justifies everything in the eyes of government now).

The spying could take the form of listening to phone calls, intercepting wireless communications, harassing photographers or infiltrating protest groups. Also discovered was the way in which agencies' are increasingly connected through various information sharing measures, making it more likely that information collected on an individual by a small police department could end up in an FBI or CIA database.

Remember, the Internet is the communication tool of choice now for political activism and organizing. Doesn't the fact that the report also noted how the FBI monitored peaceful protest groups and in some cases attempted to prevent protest activities (particularly against the war) provide us with one of the clear motives behind the Administration's plan to "wiretap the Internet"?

Or, if you don't believe that is its motive, and you believe, unlike the Bush Administration, it will be wise and judicious in its use of these monitoring capabilities, then what about the next Administration? Sorry, but I don't trust a "President Romney, Huckabee, Giuliani, or Palin" further than I can throw them.

Sadly, even though we have a Democratic President, a constitutional scholar that ran on protecting privacy no less, our expanding surveillance state has not been restrained, in fact its been accelerated.

Sometimes I'm astonished how little people on the left have come to grips with the fact that on issues ranging from indefinite detention to rendition to wiretapping to ASSASSINATION OF AMERICAN citizens to use of state secrets to defend Bush Administration civil liberties assaults (something Obama rightly criticized as a candidate) to now OPPOSING whistleblower protections (which he advocated in support of as candidate) to his embrace of all the key Patriot Act provisions he so adamantly criticized as a candidate (and recently even fought behind the scenes to ensure NO REFORMS were added that might protect civil liberties) to his support for whole body imaging machines in airports to his efforts to expand the use of National Security Letters, this President is no different, whatsoever, than Bush.

Just this past week we learned that the FBI "searched eight addresses in Minneapolis and Chicago," including the home of a well-known Palestinian American anti-war activist. The attorney for the activist believes that a recent Supreme Court case that allowed prosecution of humanitarian groups seen as aiding terrorists may be responsible for the raid. Now imagine the FBI with the power to monitor all internet advocacy and communications?

Also, JUST THIS WEEK, the Obama administration employed a "state secrets" defense to urge a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by civil liberties groups who say the targeting of a U.S. citizen for killing overseas is illegal.

With all of that, let's get to Glenn Greenwald's thoughts on this (we tend to REALLY see things similarly):

The tyrannical mentality of the UAE, Saudi and Bush DHS authorities are far from aberrational. They are perfectly representative of how the current U.S. administration thinks as well: every communication and all other human transactions must be subject to government surveillance. Nothing may be beyond the reach of official spying agencies. There must be no such thing as true privacy from government authorities.

Anyone who thinks that is hyperbole should simply read two articles today describing efforts of the Obama administration to obliterate remaining vestiges of privacy. The first is this New York Times article by Charlie Savage, which describes how the Obama administration will propose new legislation to mandate that the U.S. Government have access to all forms of communications, "including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct 'peer to peer' messaging like Skype." In other words, the U.S. Government is taking exactly the position of the UAE and the Saudis: no communications are permitted to be beyond the surveillance reach of U.S. authorities.

...

Then there is this article in The Washington Post this morning, which reports that "[t]he Obama administration wants to require U.S. banks to report all electronic money transfers into and out of the country, a dramatic expansion in efforts to counter terrorist financing and money laundering." Whereas banks are now required to report all such transactions over $10,000 or which are otherwise suspicious, "the new rule would require banks to disclose even the smallest transfers." "The proposal also calls for banks to provide annually the Social Security numbers for all wire-transfer senders and recipients." It would create a centralized database enabling the U.S. Government to monitor a vastly expanded range of financial transactions engaged in by people who are under no suspicion whatsoever of criminal activity...

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That concept -- that the U.S. Government should not be monitoring, surveilling and collecting data on individuals who are not under criminal investigation -- was once the hallmark of basic American liberty, so uncontroversial as to require no defense. But decades of effective fear-mongering over everything from Communists to drug kingpins -- and particularly the last decade of invoking the all-justifying, Scary mantra of Terrorism -- has reduced much of the American citizenry into a frightened and meek puddle of acquiescence which not only tolerates, but craves, a complete deprivation of privacy.

Needless to say, both articles this morning are suffused with quotes from government officials tossing around the standard clich├ęs about Scary Terrorists, Drug Lords, and other cartoon menaces hauled out to justify every expansion of government power and every reduction of individual privacy (that, of course, was the same rationale invoked by UAE and Saudi officials: "The UAE issued a statement explaining the decision, saying it had come because 'certain Blackberry services' allow users to avoid 'any legal accountability', raising 'judicial, social and national security concerns'.").

Leave aside the fact that endlessly increasing government surviellance is not only ineffective in detecting Terrorist plots and other crimes, but is actually counterproductive, as it swamps the Government with more data than it can possibly process and manage. What these Obama proposals illustrates is just how far we've descended in the security/liberty debate, where only the former consideration has value, while the latter has none. Whereas it was once axiomatic that the Government should not spy on citizens who have done nothing wrong, that belief is now relegated to the civil libertarian fringes.

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What makes this trend all the more pernicious is that at exactly the same time that the Government is demanding greater and greater access to what you do and say, it is hiding its own conduct behind an always-higher and more impenetrable wall of secrecy. Everything you do and say must be accessible to them; you can have no secrets from them. But everything they do -- including even criminal acts such as torture, assassinations and warrantless surveillance -- is completely off-limits to you, deemed "state secrets" that not even courts can review in order to determine their legality. This is all driven by Francis Bacon's observation that "knowledge is power": the idea is to make sure that they have full knowledge of what you do (i.e., full power over it), while you have no knowledge about what they do (i.e., no power).

For those insisting that the Government must have the technological ability to eavesdrop on any and all communications in order to stop Terrorists and criminals, what are you going to do about in-person communications? By this logic, the Government should install eavesdropping devices in all private homes and public spaces, provided they promise only to listen in when the law allows them to do so (I believe there was a book written about that once). For those insisting that the Government must have the physical ability to spy on all communications, what objections could one have to such a proposal? We've developed this child-like belief that all Bad Things can be prevented -- we can be Kept Safe from all dangers -- provided we just vest enough power in the Government to protect us all. What we lose from that mentality, however, is quite vast yet rarely counted. A central value of the Internet was that it was supposed to enable the flow of information free from the surveillance and control of governmental and other authorities.

Click here to read the rest of Greenwald's post.

Its hard for me to add much to Greenwald's points, as they're so right on. Its obviously hard to argue that privacy, as both a right and an idea, isn't literally whithering away on the vine before our very eyes.

Fear as an argument, no matter how ludicrous or exaggerated, trumps privacy these days, as least when it comes to coverage in the corporate media, or positions taken by the entire Republican Party and probably a majority of the Democrats. I find it particularly dismaying that the tables have been so turned that the onus (and derision) has been placed on those that simply believe the government, or corporate America for that matter, should not have access to everything we do, particularly when we have committed no crime. Now we must prove that whatever the latest power the government seeks to enshrine as law won't stop an attack (and if we can't prove this negative, we are endangering Americans!)or how it could specifically harm us...rather than the onus being on those seeking to circumvent our privacy and rights in the name of "national security."

As I have asked many times before on this blog, is the loss of freedom, privacy, and quality of life a worthwhile trade-off for unproven protections from a terrorist threat that is far less a concern that being struck by lightening?

This increasingly intrusive surveillance state threatens the very concept of privacy, particularly privacy as a necessary requisite for liberty, which I believe it is. With privacy comes control, with control comes at least a semblance of power. The Internet is where so much of the future of political dialogue, activism, and communication will occur...I think it would be a gross mistake to allow open access to the government...we've seen how the FBI has used such monitoring capabilities when it comes to the telephone or wireless computers.

The likelihood a terrorist like Bin Laden will destroy us is extremely low…but the likelihood that our banana republic economy will is extremely high (made only higher by the amount we spend on “defending” against a mythical “enemy”). Yet, we are being led to believe there is this grave, terrorist threat out there…and there's no amount of resources we won't spend to "fight it."

I question the very premise that the government benefits from, or certainly that we need, such an all encompassing surveillance state. Remember, our military, our CIA, our spying agencies (such as NSA) are every bit corporate as they are governmental: in some cases more so. So complete is the merger that it's the same people who switch seamlessly back and forth between governmental agencies and their private "partners". This means we have not only a vast Secret Government, but one that operates with virtually no democratic accountability and is driven not by National Security concerns but by its own always-expanding private profits.

All this begs the question: who is really benefiting from this expanding surveillance state and why? More on that in future posts...

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