Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Gene Hackman was right!

Well, not Gene Hackman the person, but Gene Hackman the actor, portraying the former NSA agent living in a compound (you can't really call it a house) that is "off the grid," because the NSA has the ability to find, in real time and almost immediately, any telephone it wants to find, based on what is being said on that telephone at the time it is in use.

This story isn't quite that bad, but you'd almost think it was.  What the NSA is doing is collecting phone records and "data mining" those records for information that might tip them off to, say, the next Boston bombers.  Is this a gross violation of privacy?  Or simply a search for a needle in a haystack?

Seriously, what are the odds the government is going to find my phone records (I don't use Verizon, but maybe my calls show up on these records anyway?  I must admit I have no idea how the phone system works anymore, or who collects what data on which phone calls) interesting enough to look at who I call (actually, I hardly call anyone.  I'm not so much a Luddite as that I really don't like telephones very much.  My friends will tell you I hardly ever call them.  Sometimes I think I should save myself the expense of telephones....)  Odds shouldn't enter into it, but I'm wondering what right to privacy I expect in my use of a telephone?  I have a right to privacy in what I say, but in whom I speak to?  If I want to keep that private, I'll limit myself to old-fashioned snail mail.

Undoubtedly the NSA could get a court order to search my mail, but that would require a very specific order and a huge implementation of manpower, just to look at whom my letters were addressed to.  Granted the unofficial Administration response to this court order is not encouraging:

The administration official said, "On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls."
But does another order allow that?  This is the question that disturbs.

In the Gene Hackman movie, the NSA was listening to phone calls in real time, although "listening" is almost a metaphor:  computers were "listening" to phone calls and doing speech recognition which is, so far as I know, still far beyond the ability of computers to accomplish.  Based on the words any NSA official was looking for, the phone could be located in time for the NSA to dispatch officers to the scene of the phone call almost before the call was finished.  Great stuff for a suspense film; completely ridiculous in reality.

So this issue raises 4th amendment issues, but the question is still the question faced by the AP in its outrage (now apparently subsumed by the James Rosen case):  what right to privacy do I have in phone records I don't generate and don't maintain?

So far as I know, the only record of my letter to someone, is the letter itself.  USPS doesn't generate a separate record of who I mailed what to.  Indeed, UPS is more likely to do that, so I can track delivery either to the destination, or from the shipper.  The convenience of electronic communications is also the danger:  records that are generated automatically by others by my use of their systems, are not records I have any control over.

On the one hand, I want to be shocked, outraged, and appalled.  On the other, I want to know just what "privacy" means.  The very convenience of modern communications technology is what makes this "data mining" both possible, and convenient.  If I never used a phone (except to speak to family, which is about all I do) and confined my long distance communications to letters (which I don't, anymore.  Then again, I barely e-mail, either), it would take a massive effort by the government to find out what I was up to.

I think I'm still entitled to an expectation of privacy in what I say to whom, by whatever medium (unless I publish it for public consumption, as on this blog); but I don't see how I'm entitled to privacy in the records generated by my paying to use a more convenient and rapid system.

And then, of course, there's the fact that e-mails are so easily repeatable (making the privacy interest in them somewhat dubious.  Haven't we all learned not to put into an e-mail something you wouldn't want to see on a billboard?).  Modern communications are not just convenient for me, you see.

This doesn't make me like the PATRIOT ACT, under which auspices this is supposedly authorized, anymore than I did before.  But I'm not sure I don't have some responsibility to realize that what is convenient for me, is convenient for government, too.  Also.  As well.

Anyway.....*

*Stuart Taylor just pointed out (on Diane Rehm's show) that Congress amended FISA in 2008 (?) precisely to allow this kind of court order to be issued.  So, more as less as Charlie Pierce said, the fault is with us; not with creepy Cheneyesque government officials, or even a gross overreach by this President, or a bizarre misinterpretation by the courts.    We gave the government the tools to do this; why are we surprised that they are doing it? 

Adding:  or, as someone who wrote into TPM put it:

 I’ve worked for AT&T for close to 15 years now, spending most of my time in the network engineering side of the house. Call records on our network can be pulled for many, many months in the past. Getting these call records is probably one of the first things they did in the investigation so they probably weren’t part of this later NSA request.

Whenever something like this comes to light, the collective freak-out seems after the fact. Law enforcement already has access to every telecommunications switch through the CALEA program and the DCSNet. These things are real, I know for a fact that no new telecommunications switch is turned on until these things are in place and working.

“Privacy” is a thing of the past as far as electronic communications go - the only “protection” we have is the sheer volume of stuff flying around, but every year that protection gets less and less as computers get better at sifting through everything (and they’re really already “good enough” they just don’t have the horsepower to keep up in real time).  

6 Comments:

Blogger alberich said...

Certainly electronic communications increase the ability of centralized governments to invade privacy, but sometimes when these subjects come up in discussing the downsides of the "global village", I start thinking of actual villages and how "everything old is new again". While certainly there was, in the old days, an ability to go someplace new and start over again without people being able to know your past by googling you, how much privacy did you really have in the villages of yore?

12:38 PM  
Blogger alberich said...

Certainly electronic communications increase the ability of centralized governments to invade privacy, but sometimes when these subjects come up in discussing the downsides of the "global village", I start thinking of actual villages and how "everything old is new again". While certainly there was, in the old days, an ability to go someplace new and start over again without people being able to know your past by googling you, how much privacy did you really have in the villages of yore?

12:38 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

When I pastored a church as a student, I walked into the only store in town (a town of 150) a day or two after we've moved into the parsonage. The woman at the counter was very polite, but said to me "You must be the new pastor."

She read the expression on my face, smiled, and said: "Small town."

1:55 PM  
Blogger Wormwood's Doxy said...

computers were "listening" to phone calls and doing speech recognition which is, so far as I know, still far beyond the ability of computers to accomplish.

And yet, just a few minutes ago, I got an automatic text transcript of a message left for me over Google Voice. It wasn't perfectly transcribed--but it was completely understandable.

There is no such thing as a secure communication any more. And with the advent of Google Glass (and similar products), "they" will start adding facial recognition as a key part of computer surveillance, and you won't be able to leave your house if you don't want to be photographed against your will and have your photos put into an unimaginably gigantic database.

We sold our privacy for the "benefit" of never being out of contact with anyone in our lives--ever--and for the opportunity to use "free" websites that ALSO ensure we are constantly interacting and providing more and more and more data that can be used to control us.

I'll go put on my tinfoil hat now....

3:39 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

And yet, just a few minutes ago, I got an automatic text transcript of a message left for me over Google Voice. It wasn't perfectly transcribed--but it was completely understandable.

Now if they can just get Siri to work as smoothly as it does on the commercials.

Or the Bluetooth in my wife's new car to understand my Texas accent.

But yeah, privacy is not the simple concept we think it is. Pretty much my point: it's magical thinking to think you can have all this access to people and data, and at the same time be as anonymous as you wanna be.

Gonna dance to the music, ya gotta pay the piper.

4:53 PM  
Blogger rick allen said...

On the other hand, it's nice to think that somebody might be reading one's blog.......

5:52 PM  

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