When I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, privacy meant something. Not only did the federal government recognize that privacy was a right, they backed that assertion by providing us with a service by which we could effectively communicate with guaranteed privacy. I am of course referring to the U.S. Postal Service.
Lets construct a system model here. I am a citizen of the United States of America. I can take some written documents, place them in an envelope, and take them to the post office to mail them to another interested party. When I drop off this mail, the federal government becomes the custodian of this message. They will deliver this message to its recipient in a timely manner. The letter will be unopened. The contents of the message will never be read of revealed in any way. The recipient will be left alone to read the message in privacy, and my communication with that individual will be secure.
But the model does not end there. If I have a particularly important message, I can spend a little more money and send a registered letter. This is yet another service provided to me by my government. A federal employee will take this message and their custodianship is bumped up a notch. They will go out of their way to find the recipient face to face. The postal carrier will check the identification of the recipient, and then provide me with written proof that my private message was delivered to that person, and no one else. Again, my message will not be read. The contents of the message are private between myself and the recipient.
Further still, the United States Postal Service will provide me with a post office box if I wish to spend a few more dollars. What is the purpose of this? This provides a small layer of obfuscation and anonymity between myself and people with which I wish to communicate. So I can send a message to a recipient without revealing my identity to that person. In other words, the federal government not only supports anonymous communication, they have gone out of their way to provide a service that makes it easy.
Does mail ever get intercepted? It does when items are shipped. A drug enforcement animal may smell illegal drugs in a package, and that package may be intercepted. A package with a bomb may be x-rayed and opened. But one could argue that the federal government is not the custodian of thoughts and ideas in this scenario. They are a delivery service, and as such they attempt to prevent dangerous and illegal items from being delivered to victims. However, if my envelope contains nothing but paper, language, and ideas, the message will make it to its intended recipient undisturbed.
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, the model I describe above is almost identical to electronic communication. Since the electronic mail system was patterned after the real thing, this only makes sense. In the electronic world my letter is a packet of information. My envelope is the encryption sealing my message from prying eyes. Sending a message through SSH is much like sending it by registered letter. My VPN service provides me with something very much like a post office box to help give me a layer of anonymity if I so chose.
So here we have two separate systems that help me to perform the exact same goal, sending private messages to specific recipients through a secure service. Even though both systems have the exact same goal, one system is so supported by my government that they actually provide the service itself, and the other system is spied on, snooped, and recorded methodically. The PRISM program is the equivalent of the federal government setting up shop near a US Postal Service hub, stopping all the mail trucks they see driving down the street, opening all of your private letters, Xeroxing them all for information gathering and archiving, and then resealing it again so that both the sender and recipient are completely unaware of this breach in privacy.
Can someone please explain this change in policy to me? When I was in elementary school I was taught that the job of the Postal Service was a sacred duty. They actually made me memorize a poem about it. Younger citizens of this country may not have had the same experience, but if someone makes you memorize a poem about something, you can bet it is a fairly important concept. Some recent polls suggest that younger members of our society think our government spying on us is necessary and it will somehow make us safe. Those who have grown up in a world where Google and Facebook create a relationship with consumers in which services are provided for free at the expense of privacy may not understand what they are sacrificing for the sake of convenience.
If I cornered an older congressman or senator and proposed doing away with P.O. boxes, reading everyone’s private mail, and spying on everyone’s correspondence in secret that person would think I was nuts. But like so many lawmakers who have no idea what the internet is, I could ask the same question about email and he would probably say, “Oh, we have to shut that down. Criminals and child pornographers exchange information on the internet.” To which I would say, “Do you honestly think no one has every planned a crime or traded child pornography through the U.S. Postal Service? Why don’t you want to shut that system of communication down?”
The arguments abound. And I have answers for every one of them.
Argument #1: We have to trade freedoms for safety. This is what we have to do to catch terrorists.
Answer #1: Terrorism is not new. We had a government run private messaging service (U.S. Postal Service) before electronic communication was available. Various terrorists organizations have been blowing things up, taking hostages, hijacking planes, and causing general mayhem for decades. One could actually argue that this has been going on for hundreds of years, and that at one point the founding fathers of this country were technically terrorists of their era. I have been living in the same world our lawmakers and security professionals have been living in for decades. Again, I ask that someone please explain this policy change to me.
Argument #2: This is a new unprecedented threat. It calls for new tactics and policies.
Answer #2: This threat is not new. See answer #1. But beyond this I would like to call attention to the word “threat”. Am I really that threatened? If you count up all the acts of terrorism that occur over the course of a year and compare that to various statistics you may arrive at some interesting revelations. For instance, a U.S citizen has about as much chance of being injured or killed by terrorism as they do being struck by lightning or winning the lottery. Far more people are the victims of drunk driving, violent crime and other fates. I could get run over by bus while crossing the street tomorrow. Life has risks. Being the victim of a terrorist attack is so low on my list of worries that being concerned about it seems laughable. Should we recognize the threat? Sure. Go ahead and tighten up security at the airport. Go ahead and make it difficult to buy a truck full of fertilizer. I get it. I really do. But our government’s response to this threat is completely inappropriate. In the final analysis, it is comparable to the federal government spending billions and billions of dollars trying to prevent lightning strikes. What if the federal government set up an Emergency Lightning Task Force? What if they put a lightning rod on every roof in America? What if they tracked the movements of every citizen to make sure they weren’t performing lightning strike promotion activities such as walking in an open field during a storm? Does this sound ridiculous? So is PRISM. And it will probably save less lives than my example of the War on Lightning.
Argument #3: The stakes are higher this time. It would be possible to deliver a device that would kill hundreds or even thousands of people. It would be irresponsible for a government to not address that threat.
Answer #3: Honestly, this is probably the best argument, as it has happened a couple of times in our nation’s history. However, I was in EMS and fire for a long time. I went to numerous trainings about weapons of mass destruction. It is a horrible thought, but anyone could go to the grocery store and very cheaply build a device that could kill dozens or hundreds of people. No one could every stop me if I was determined to do this. Even though this is true, the threat has remained at random lightning strike levels since 9/11. Should we address this threat? Sure. But I would argue that this perceived threat is not going to be eradicated by PRISM. Or any other law enforcement technique for that matter.
But our government has chosen to deal with this problem in a very different way than they have dealt with anything ever before. The history books we all read in school are full of examples of governments making these same mistakes and the consequences, but for some reason we didn’t listen.
In 1994 I spent a semester studying in London. It was one of the best experiences of my life. The NRA had broken one of many cease-fires while I was there and one day while walking near my flat I came across a pub that had obviously taken a bomb blast. The front of the building was scorched, the windows and front of the building were in rubble, and the only thing separating me from the scene was some police tape. Did I call my parents and demand to be on the next plane home? No. Did I change all of my personal habits to create a safer environment for myself? A little. I can tell you that I watched for suspicious packages a little more closely. But on that day I simply kept walking and found another pub in which to drink warm beer. In other words I took their advice: I kept calm and carried on. Unfortunately the UK has taken to spying on their own citizens in ways our government can only dream of right now. Too bad. Another notably event that I witnessed was a full on riot in Hyde Park. I used to go jogging there and one day rounded the corner to find police with shields, helmets, and batons. I also found angry masked young people moving rapidly back and forth trying to get an angle to throw something. I thought to myself, “Oops, this isn’t for me” and I jogged the other way promising to check Time Out a little harder before planning events in the park. What was the riot about? The police were starting to detain people from over 72 hours without a warrant or cause. Are they any safer for this? No, but they now have the added problem of their own citizens causing large scale rioting and property damage. Go figure.
And please don’t talk to me about protecting my freedoms. In the name of ‘protecting my personal freedoms from terrorists’ I have lost a significant amount of my freedom. Call it irony, or call it folly. Rebecca Solnit in her admittedly syrupy article that appeared in Salon described the predicament of our government as, ” The agony of a monster with nowhere to stand — you [Snowden] are accused of spying on the spies, of invading the privacy of their invasion of privacy — is a truly curious thing. And it is changing the world. Europe and South America are in an uproar, and attempts to contain you and your damage are putting out fire with gasoline.”
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Jimmy Carter. I truly believe that he was the last U.S. President who did not arrive at the White House on his first day already bought and paid for by special interests. He is probably the last president of the United States that made decisions based on ethics and benefit to all citizens. During a speech in Atlanta on July 16th he stated, “America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy.” The weight that this statement has with me is hard to describe. It is as if my entire childhood, upbringing, morals, and sense of self have been unraveled in the course of a single sentence. Jimmy Carter says we are no longer a functioning democracy. We truly have flown off the rails.
Now I would like to take a moment make the argument for PRISM actually being dangerous to American citizens.
1. Number one at the top of my list is one of the most glaring in my opinion, but I have not seen it really expressed anywhere else. Keeping all of my data on file forever is a direct danger to me. In effect, the NSA has created the largest honey pot in history. What is at stake if it is compromised is the identity and safety of every American citizen. Trust me, if you build it other hackers and foreign governments will try to crack it. And they went ahead and built it, so get ready for it to be compromised. So in essence the government has made me a target of terrorism in a way I never thought possible. Not only can I be a victim of violent terrorism (the statistical chance of which is miniscule) but I can now be a victim of terrorism through identity theft. Knowing what I know about the current state of computer security, I give myself about a 90% chance of becoming a victim of this threat. Thanks NSA.
2. President Obama keeps telling us in speeches that we are going to have to have a discussion about safety vs. freedom. He repeated this several times after PRISM was revealed. He stated this after the NSA lied to Congress about it. He said this while Snowden’s passport was being revoked and we were already trying to extradite him. I’m sorry Mr. President, but the time for discussion of this subject would have been before billions of our tax dollars were spent making it happen in secrecy. The only reason you wish to discuss it now is because you got caught. If you had asked me like you should have the answer would have been, “No. The intrusion into my privacy and personal freedoms is not worth the desperately tenuous hint of an increase in my personal safety.” Hint, hint…they knew what the answer would be so they didn’t ask. The time for discussion has passed. The answer is no. And you have changed the mind of one of your voters forever. Transparency, eh? Yes we can? We all know this started before you took office but for the last five years you have been complicit. Yes we can…fail.
3. As has been seen so many times in history, someone who wields this kind of power will eventually abuse it. It’s just too tempting. If it is not the president, it will be a military official. If it is not a military official, it will be one of the thousands of government and private contract employees who have access to this data. If your security net couldn’t keep a whistle blower from sacrificing himself, why do you think you can stop another employee from partaking of the much more pleasurable enterprise of personally gaining from this information? In fact, I give it about a 100% chance that it has already happened. But we’ll never know, and there was no way for us to give feedback (see fundamental principles of democracy…feedback from the citizens of said democracy) so it’s a lucky thing this whistle blower informed me of this new threat you have created.
4. In case you haven’t noticed, our economy is failing. Yet in the midst of this economic meltdown, our government is employing thousands of people and spending billions of dollars to subvert my privacy in secret to protect me from a threat that is less significant to me than…oh I don’t know…just about anything. I am more likely to die of an allergic reaction tomorrow than I am to be the victim of terror. What do you think could be done to the state of this nation’s healthcare system if those same resources were thrown at it? How many lives do you think that would save, and how many of our citizens would receive a tangible and significant benefit? You know…real threats like surviving deadly illness.
So if President Carter is right, and we no longer have a functioning democracy, what should we call it?
Merriam-Webster defines a dictatorship as the following: ‘a form of government in which absolute power is concentrated in a dictator or a small clique.’ Small clique, eh? We are getting close. How about oligarchy? That one is defined in the same dictionary as ‘a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.’ Oops. We may be getting closer. I took a stab in the dark and looked up fascism: ‘a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.’ Honestly I do not think we are there yet, but it sounds a lot more like what we have than the definition of democracy which is ‘a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.’
Jimmy Carter is right. In order to have a functioning democracy, the people must have a say in what their government does. Our current government has lost sight of that. They started secretly spying on their own citizens, and in so doing have created new threats of which we never would have been aware were it not for Mr. Snowden. My favorite quote from Mr. Snowden has been the following, ” Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein, and King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.” I couldn’t agree more. Mr. Snowden is officially my new hero.
I tried to look up a way to donate money to Snowden’s defence, but most of them looked shady. If anyone confirms a mechanism to get money to him let me know and I will post it.