We Need an NSA Beer Summit

So President Obama yesterday said that he would “welcome a debate” about the mass surveillance of the U.S. population. He actually was a little more defensive than he usually is, since this is what I thought he would do a couple of days ago:

Never mind that this sort of information can easily be used for this:

One of the biggest changes is the ability to track your physical location. I’m sorry I came in at the end of the previous talk. I heard them talk about surveying cell phones with a drone, in a wide area — this is something that is done routinely now. …I can tell you that everybody that attended an Occupy Wall Street protest, and didn’t turn their cell phone off, or put it — and sometimes even if they did — the identity of that cell phone has been logged, and everybody who was at that demonstration, whether they were arrested, not arrested, whether their photos were ID’d, whether an informant pointed them out, it’s known they were there anyway. This is routine.

I can tell you that if you go into any police station right now, the first thing they do is tell you, “Oh I’m sorry you’re not allowed to bring a cell phone in there. We’ll hold it for you.” Not a joke. And by the way it’s a legitimate investigatory technique. But cell phones are now the little snitch in your pocket. Cell phones tell me where you are, what you do, who you talk to, everbody you associate with. Cell phone tells me [sic] intimate details of your life and character, including: Were you at a demonstration? Did you attend a mosque? Did you demonstrate in front of an abortion clinic? Did you get an abortion?

At worst, Occupy was guilty of vagrancy–not exactly a clear and present danger. The arrogance and hubris displayed by the notion that this power could be used wisely is staggering. Of course it won’t. And lest you think this is a well-run, elite operation, think again (boldface mine):

There are hints of broader surveillance in the Verizon order. In addition to call records, the order demands cell phone data, like customers’ IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) number and another identifier that reveals the make and model of the phone. The mobile data is a non sequitur in that particular order, because Verizon Business Services isn’t a mobile carrier; it’s the long distance and landline business Verizon acquired as MCI in 2005.

The obvious conclusion is that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court uses the same catchall boilerplate order over and over again, just changing the company name and the date. The court that’s supposed to be protecting Americans from abusive domestic surveillance is not only failing in that duty, it’s also lazy.

Thanks to that laziness, we can fairly surmise that the orders are routine, and they are served on other carriers. Probably all of them. And probably continuously, renewed every three months for the last seven years.

That means the Administration has a database of every call to suicide prevention, every tip to a government fraud whistleblowing hotline, every call to the “find a meeting” number for every Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. And all it told us was that it uses the USA Patriot Act every now and then.

As someone who has had the privilege of working with many extremely smart people throughout his career, one of their most common failings is that they begin to believe that they know better than the rest of us. In science, and many other public arenas, there’s often the corrective of reality. But when everything is hidden, there are no correctives and the arrogance of unabrogated power builds on itself.

Admittedly, it’s almost summer and the Republicans are focused on truly trivial things (and, besides, most of them like this crap), so the administration will probably get away with it. But if there’s a weakness in the Obama administration, it has always been its certitude in its own intellect. But this time they might not be able to dodge this one. Entirely anyway.

Sounds like a good excuse for a beer summit.

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2 Responses to We Need an NSA Beer Summit

  1. dr2chase says:

    Considering what came before, it’s easy to see how the Obama crowd could think of themselves as smarter. Still not necessarily smart enough.

  2. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says:

    My Gmail and Yahoo mail accounts persistently request that I submit a cell phone number to be linked with those e-mail accounts. For my own security of course, not because it could be used to link the secret database of phone records to the secret database of e-mail and Internet usage.

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