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by danps

How strange is too strange for bedfellows?

4:31 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Political coalitions often bring together otherwise adversarial groups: In the eighties a subset of feminists and Christian fundamentalists worked together on anti-pornography issues; starting in the nineties immigrant rights and business groups found common cause on citizenship reform (still no success though); earlier this year environmentalists and Tea Party members created a Green Tea movement for local renewable energy choice; there are lots of examples.

The Utah Data Center

When working on a specific issue it’s often practical to turn a blind eye to the motives of one’s partners, especially when the issue in question has dicey prospects. In theory, anyway. The issue of National Security Agency (NSA) reform, though, presents some allies the left might want to be a little wary of.

California’s Tenth Amendment Center (TAC) is creating the most cognitive dissonance right now. Founder Michael Boldin appears to be a bit of a gadfly, though he seems to spend more time courting the far right than anyone else. I hadn’t given him or his group a second thought until last weekend, when I read about a wildly creative proposal for fighting the NSA’s new Utah data center: By cutting off its water supply.

The problem (to my mind) is that the TAC immediately cripples its own proposal by framing it in terms of a bunch of high-minded claptrap (PDF). Even its local action page recommends communities pass 4th Amendment Protection Resolutions.

The NSA can’t be successfully fought with those kind of direct challenges to the federal government. Congress has greased the skids, presidents love the power, and secret rubber stamp courts are eager to approve of everything placed before them. Anyone who wants to openly defy all of that should be ready to get very familiar with federal prison cuisine. And I suspect there won’t be many volunteering to become martyrs to that cause.

Using sub-federal level legislation to show disapproval of the NSA is worth considering, though. Within its defined scope. Creating an environment that says “we don’t like this and you are not welcome here” is a lot more realistic than a Constitutional showdown, and may – unlike pinning all hopes on a single, grand duel – accomplish something by slowly eroding support for the NSA.

I would think there are an abundance of hilariously subversive ways to make that disapproval plain. For instance, set the speed limit at all roads leading to the data center to five miles an hour – and speed trap the hell out of it. Zoning ordinances, property laws, and so on contain a wealth of details, with devils in them, for people to creatively work against the surveillance state. You don’t need to start by chaining yourself to the courthouse door.

Between Boldin’s grandiose strategy, protests-too-much references to proto-secessionists and wildly inapt comparisons to civil rights leaders, it’s a bit hard to imagine the average liberal signing on to his approach. The same goes for Stop Watching Us, which mysteriously sprang up a couple months ago just in time to announce a big protest – and is still advertising the protest on its home page, incidentally (“On October 26th, join us” etc).

This thing – group? organization? web site? what the hell is it? – has no contact page, no officers listed, no known funding, no history, nothing. Nothing but the whiff of Koch-funded astroturf, anyway. Yet it is very concerned with NSA spying. Give them your contact information and I’m sure they will keep you abreast of all the important ways you can help them do whatever it is they think of next.

Then there is the new Reform Government Surveillance (RGS) web site (via), created by big tech companies now that obediently handing over massive quantities of data to the government is a PR problem. At least this site is backed by known entities and is advocating more than romantic displays of bluster. On the other hand, there are no legislative partners listed, nor are proposals or even model legislation offered. All it has is (brace yourself) high minded claptrap,1 this time from tech executives.

Should those principles be translated into bills and introduced in Congress, it might be at least somewhat worthwhile. Legislation that even ostensibly reined in surveillance would be a good indicator of the national mood. That’s better than nothing.

Of course, supporting RGS means throwing in with the very companies that went along with the program just fine as long as it remained secret. Companies that also, incidentally, engage in some pretty unsavory activities when they are not lamenting the new unpopularity of helping the government spy on everyone. For instance, Google has recently launched a civil re-engineering program that allows their privilegemobiles to muscle people out of public spaces. With friends like that who needs enemies?

Still, what can an individual do? If one opposes the surveillance state, the options are pretty thin. It will probably never be a flashpoint issue, something that stands on its own and gets sustained, dramatic attention. (That might even be appropriate. This comment on the controversy over Pope Francis besting Edward Snowden for Time’s Person of the Year gives a good indication of why many rightly put government surveillance low on their civic To Do list.) Contacting representatives at key moments is a good and useful thing, but being a part of any ongoing campaign will require progressives to figure out just how much tolerance they have for working with those they otherwise oppose.

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by danps

US tech companies hamstrung by US surveillance

4:57 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

About two and a half years ago I posted on the danger of the US turning into a tech pariah over its data collection policies. At the time I thought the main sticking points would be foreign governments’ concerns about their own confidential data being sent abroad, and objections to privacy violations that American companies’ indiscriminate collection practices (e.g. Google Street View) would subject their citizens to.

AT&T, spying, surveillance

I was wrong about that issue being a simmering pot getting ready to boil. It just sort of stayed on the back burner, which I still find somewhat surprising. There has been pretty compelling evidence since as least 2006 that US tech companies have been allowing the government to indiscriminately suck up Internet traffic. Though the Wired article characterizes it as being in the service of a domestic surveillance program, it seems clear that the program would not exclude foreign traffic.

Maybe it was an out of sight, out of mind situation; maybe foreign governments weren’t willing to confront the US as long as their own citizens were in the dark; who knows. For whatever reason, the merger of American IT companies’ data and the US government’s surveillance apparatus didn’t seem to trouble anyone too terribly much – until Edward Snowden came along.

The details from his leaks have stirred up serious worries outside the States. The main source of concern (and I feel like an idiot for not anticipating this) is the implication for the business community. Individuals having their data collected and shared without their consent are still pretty much on their own. But companies that are purchasing remote storage – also known as The Cloud and Big Data – in the US do not have to simply resign themselves to having the National Security Agency blind carbon copied on anything they put there.

There is already evidence that purchasing decisions are changing based on this; for just one eye-popping example (emph. in orig.):

In a survey conducted after the Snowden leaks, 10% of the foreign companies using cloud computing services said they’d already cancelled a project with a US cloud provider and 56% said they’d be less likely to use US-based providers.

Those providers are over a barrel now. They can’t just give earnest assurances that they really value their customers’ privacy and work super hard to keep it protected. Everyone knows the US government is pretty much destined to end up with any data that gets stored on American soil. The spying capability has been getting baked into domestic infrastructure for years now, probably to the point that there are more back doors than anyone can even keep track of.

There isn’t really any easy way out, either. An injury that long in the making will take a long time to rehabilitate. One action that might help would be increased Congressional oversight of the NSA, which could help explain why the recent bill reining in the NSA lost by such a surprisingly thin margin. (It would also be a cynically appropriate parallel with Europe: Violation of citizens’ rights are yawned at, but threats to corporate profitability get immediate action.)

The one thing these companies have going for them is a lack of ready competition. I’ll double down on my 2011 prediction that other countries will start to prioritize server farms located on their own soil. It may now start to be seen as a matter of each country’s national security to have its most important data confined within its borders. Until that infrastructure is built, though, American companies have some time to repair their reputations.

While storage providers have gotten the most attention on this issue, there may be an impact on device makers as well. A pecking order could develop based on how tightly integrated they are with US tech. At the bottom would be those like Apple based in America and running American operating systems. Next would be foreign device makers like Samsung, HTC and Nokia that run American operating systems like Windows 8 and Android. Then at the top, funny enough given their dismal market share, would be non-American companies running non-American operating systems. In other words, a company like BlackBerry that has a good (but not bulletproof) reputation for security might be well positioned to thrive in an environment that suddenly undergoes a seismic shift.

Predictions are dicey, obviously. But regardless of what happens going forward, American tech companies are suddenly in a real jam. There’s no easy way out of it either, because outside the US there is openness to alternatives that would have been hard to imagine not too long ago.

by danps

U.S. spying on Americans: Unpopular, and unlikely to end

4:04 am in Uncategorized by danps

Two recent stories have made for an interesting juxtaposition. First, the map of America’s intelligence underworld had some important contours filled in last Sunday with the New York Times’ report on the secret body of law that it called “almost a parallel Supreme Court.” Then on Wednesday a Quinnipiac poll showed a substantial increase in support of civil liberties. Taken together they might suggest a new dynamic in how the federal government relates to Americans on these issues.

Spy vs. Spy

Spy vs. Spy

Government has historically had free rein based on a general public ignorance of the policies; it looks like going forward those policies will exist in a cloud of popular disapproval. Such opposition puts the continued presence of the surveillance state in a new light: Following the Constitution on civil liberties and human rights has to this point basically been on the honor system. We don’t have any mechanism that springs to life when there are credible allegations of wrongdoing in these areas; it’s up to the leaders in the relevant institutions to have the will to follow through on their obligations. They will not face any sanction if they fail to, though.

For instance, look at the Convention Against Torture. Congress passed it, Ronald Reagan signed it, and under the Constitution it is the law of the land. Yet there have been credible allegations of torture for at least a decade now. No action has been taken. We like to pretend the Constitution has some sort of compulsion or force to it, but in the end it is only relevant to the extent it is willingly followed. Ultimately, all that matters is what those sworn to defending the Constitution decide to enforce. If officials responsible for investigating torture don’t feel like investigating torture, it won’t be – Constitution be damned.

Violations of civil liberties have been a little trickier for the federal government to dismiss, but so far so good. We now have an established precedent that those who are unjustly spied on cannot show standing to sue – even when they can. That technicality disposed of, the NSA and other intelligence agencies have carte blanche to snoop to their hearts’ content.

Now that its scope is becoming clearer, though, public opinion is turning pretty decisively against it. That is not necessarily a problem for the government. As with torture, it is largely on the honor system. The visible legal system has established its Helleresque logic of no one having any standing, the shadow legal system has its rubber stamp pretty much set up for drive-thru approval, and a whole infrastructure is in place according to a novel understanding of what law is. (We’ve come a long way from the “tricky legalisms adopted in classified memos” that Jane Mayer wrote about in The Dark Side.)

This is the age of impunity. If you manage to get to a certain critical level of importance, you are above the law. It’s true in the political world, as with torture and spying, and it’s true in the financial world as well. In the late eighties, the Savings and Loan crisis – which was of a far smaller scale than the 2008 meltdown – produced 1,100 criminal prosecutions and 839 convictions. Yet the most recent crisis produced zero of either. (And incidentally, as we approach the five year anniversary of the meltdown in October, keep in mind that statutes of limitations on what happened will begin to expire.)

Officials have not had to follow much more than their own moral compass in any of these matters. It isn’t as though anyone in Congress will go to jail for failing to provide robust oversight. And it’s not as though that body’s approval rating could go much lower. What’s one more failure at this point?

But the creation of a shadow government is not going over well, and that widespread public disapproval is a new complication. Many were initially cowed with ticking time bomb scenarios and other fearmongering into acquiescing to an awful lot immediately after 9/11. The populace seems to be getting its bearings back, though.

Leaders could just say damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead – and that is probably the most likely outcome at the moment. In which case, we will have begun something of an experiment: seeing just how contemptuous of the citizenry elected officials can be (and how corrosively cynical citizens can in turn become towards those representatives) and still retain the consent of the governed.
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