Friday, January 17, 2014

Obama Says NSA's Privacy Matters Most

Paul Revere?

Seriously, Mr. President?  You're comparing eyeball observations of troop movements by Colonial upstarts to digitally spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel?

From the first paragraph of Barak Obama's speech today on surveillance being conducted by our National Security Agency (NSA), it's obvious Washington's spin doctors have no intention of conceding any privacy to the hapless American public.  Or the German public, or the German chancellor, or anybody else.

Apparently, according to our president, counting the number of enemy campfires is the same as collecting data on millions of cell phone conversations.  Seriously?  How can we listen with a straight face as the president who's given us Obamacare condones privacy piracy and waxes eloquently on "traditions of limited government" at the same time?

Few Americans remain unaware of the serious threats existing against not only our national security apparatus, but also our air space, our electric grids, our computer servers, our credit card accounts, our Social Security numbers, our smartphones, our municipal water supplies, and our large sporting events.  We get it.  We know there are bad guys out there.

We understand that one of the key duties of our federal government involves the protection of our citizens.  We have also resigned ourselves to the reality that in our wired world, very little is literally private anymore.  But we've reached this point of resignation with an important understanding:  we still have legal recourse if we discover that some data-collection entity has gleaned our personal information in an illegal manner, or has conveyed it - whether deliberately or through a security breach - to a third party with neither our knowledge or consent.

This morning, in one of my e-mail accounts, I received a notice from Target that my personal identification information was included in their massive criminal "intrusion" (as they put it) that has been widely publicized.  I hadn't shopped at Target during the dates listed as the timeframe during which their intrusion took place, so I wasn't expecting to receive any notification from the store.  But somehow, the bad guys got my information anyway, and Target is wanting to cover its legal bases before people like me decide to climb aboard some class-action lawsuit.  The retailer is offering me a free year of credit monitoring, ostensibly as a sweetener to diffuse any notion I might have to call a lawyer.  I've been checking my bank and credit card accounts, and nothing untoward has appeared on them.  I won't sue, and I probably won't even sign up for the free year of credit monitoring.  But the point is that I have a legal path available to me should I decide I need to take action against somebody who did not sufficiently protect the personal information I've entrusted with them.

See the difference?

With what America's national intelligence industry does with our private information, you and I have no legal recourse.  We don't have any reason to trust our government with the data it collects on us.  And one of the reasons we can't trust our government is because we don't really know what they do with the information they collect on us.  To hear the president tell it, the sacrifice we make by allowing ourselves to deny ourselves the right to protect our personal lives without due process is all for a good cause.

But is it?  Would that make sense to him if he was a private citizen?

Let's forget, for a moment, everything you know about President Obama.  Forget everything you know about former President Bush, or any other president.  Just imagine the leader of the "free" world, whomever that may be, giving this speech after we've all learned about how the NSA does business.  How much of this speech would you believe?

Here we have a person in the Oval Office who gets security briefings every day to which we're not privy.  This person has a far greater understanding of the breadth and scope of our national intelligence apparatus than we do.  This person knows about these secret courts that determine the secret legality of secret data collection, while we don't.  This person has allowed massive amounts of data to be collected on unsuspecting, everyday, average Americans and allied citizens, and is now facing a world full of scorn.  This person has his personal backside to protect, their political legitimacy to protect, and the fate of human spies on our government's payroll to protect.  Spies whose very lives have already been placed in certain regions of the world for reasons based on this ill-gotten data of ours.  To whom do you think presidents owe dearer allegiance when it comes to security issues?  You and me, or our national security apparatus?

Do you see?  It doesn't matter which president is the one giving a speech like today's.  Because you know what?  Any president will only know what the people who are really in charge of our national intelligence agencies want him or her to know.  And those people who are genuinely in control of how our data-gathering mechanisms work are as anonymous to us as any president we've never met.  Yet they're the ones controlling what any commander-in-chief will learn about our intelligence capabilities.  At this point, at least on this topic, presidents are mere puppets.

Now how much do you trust what the president said today?

Haven't we gone beyond laws, and common sense, and civil liberties, and all of these other protections that only exist in our visible, analog world?  Even if President Obama could shut down the NSA today, and forbid the collection of one byte of data, untold amounts of data that has been collected over the years would still be out there, wherever "there" is.  Some of it might be outdated by now, but when was the last time you moved, or changed your phone number, or your Social Security number?  In some respects, in terms of the basic invasion of our privacy, that horse bolted from the barn long ago.  Closing the gate now would only be a desperate attempt at thwarting future egregious security breaches.

That's not to say that we shouldn't try to close the barn door and bolt it.  But shouldn't we be realistic about what's at stake?

We are not being realistic when we say that we have nothing to fear about federal surveillance if we've nothing to hide.  Having nothing to hide is beside the point.  Besides, your idea of "nothing to hide" may be quite different from mine.

We are not being realistic when we say that only our telephone numbers are being recorded.  Who can prove our telephone calls are not being listened to and recorded?  Maybe not all of them, no, but that's not the point, either.

We are not being realistic when we wave off privacy concerns by rationalizing that we have to give up some freedoms to preserve freedom.  That may be the case in airports, when we choose to fly, but it should not be the case with basic human activities like interpersonal communication.

The President doesn't seem to understand that the "damage done to our operations" by the anecdotal testimony of Edward Snowden wasn't in the information he released about the NSA, but the very fact that the NSA is collecting all of this information on otherwise law-abiding people.  Neither does the President seem willing to admit that the anger millions of Americans have towards the NSA isn't directed at their capabilities, but how they deploy those capabilities.  If our government can identify suspects who can be proven in court to be persons of interest regarding crimes that may be about to occur, or have already occurred, then few Americans would deny the NSA the moral imperative to monitor the communications of those suspects.  Indeed, most of us would expect them to be capable of doing so.

It's the casting of nets in the sea of unidentified bystanders that we Americans are against!  Isn't having our government spy on us - just because it can - an unconstitutional violation of the principle of "innocent until proven guilty?"  In the incessantly generalized language of his speech, unfortunately, the President indicates an unwillingness to concede that under Washington's new world order, all of us are now suspects.

Besides, he once again rationalizes, the phone companies were saving all of this data, too.  But we can sue them, Mr. President.  And I doubt they pay to store all of that data for too long.  Who knows how long our government will keep what it collects?

Granted, the President is correct in acknowledging that a lot of the anxiety over the Snowden leaks stems from our national security's vital security laws.  Nobody can simply divulge all of the specifics and details of our government's spying activities without breaking some national security law themselves.  I myself believe that although he provided a valuable service to the American people, Snowden needs to have himself held accountable before a court of law for what he did.  However, that court of law should be a public court, so we could all hear what he and his prosecutors have to say.

As it is, nothing the President said or did today regarding the new changes in how our data is processed will console Americans who feel violated, angry, and helpless against our increasingly hostile government.  And do you know why?  Because Americans are also fearful.  And fear is a more powerful motivator than anger.  We fear another 9-11.  That's another thing the President got right in his speech.  And he knows that this fear overrules more Americans than the anger over losing our freedoms does others of us Americans.  Perhaps Obama himself is fearful.  Fearful not only of having another 9-11 happen on his watch, but fearful for what it would mean for our country on into the future.

So we know that nothing will really change.  We know that all of the illogical platitudes in Obama's speech will clang with dissonance in our ears as even the hardiest patriots among us admit that they really have nothing better to offer in terms of national security.  In other words, according to our elected (and unelected) officials, the NSA's privacy is more important than yours and mine.

It's been said that when we capitulate to fear from freedom, the terrorists will have won.

Was today's Obama's concession speech?

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