Privacy-ish Concerns

This week, I paid a small fortune to have the instrument cluster replaced on my car, and the mechanic, sympathizing as I wincingly wrote out the check, said, “The days of mechanical failures are over.” By this he was of course referring to the reality that everything we depend on is supported by integrated electronics and computers, the downside of which is that failures are often systemic and expensive rather than isolated and cheap.  In fact, I can’t think of any repair to any machine in the last decade or more that hasn’t required replacement of a control panel, and it’s these delicate electronics that make even products we still call “durable goods” not so durable as they used to be.  Given all that and other considerations like privacy and security, is the proverbial “smart home” desirable?   Frankly, if my coffee maker, smoke alarm, fridge, television, and thermostat all start talking to one another (and a company like Google is listening), I’m never going to sleep soundly again.

With its 3.2 billion dollar acquisition of smart device maker Nest, Google is clearly poised to enter the home through portals other than the computer and mobile device.  As this article by Steven Rosenfeld on describes, Google is fairly unapologetic about invading privacy as a for-profit venture, which makes the company’s public denouncements of the NSA more than a little hypocritical.  The article lists several ways in which Google has already violated user privacy, including its achieving the dubious honor of paying the highest civil fine ever ($22.5 million) to the FTC for bypassing user security settings in Apple’s Safari browser.  While the fine may be a record-breaker, it is likely dwarfed by the market value of the illicitly gained data Google was able to sell to advertisers. So, not an effective deterrent, then.

I’ve been called a privacy skeptic by commenters on this blog and in other places because I’ve stated that I’m not extraordinarily fussed about the Snowden revelations.  Let me try to clarify. I’m not extraordinarily fussed about the Snowden revelations in context to the larger picture.  I think the 4th Amendment should be defended, even if that defense is on principle alone; but in the case of domestic spying, I do believe we may be substantially more focused on principle and hypotheticals than on practical, day-to-day reality.  In reality, it is unclear yet whether or not the intelligence-gathering agencies have broken any laws or violated anyone’s rights. In reality, Americans polled on the issue are split right down the middle, which suggests there may be little change in policy no matter what.  In reality, most people who work at these agencies really are more interested in finding terrorists, human traffickers, and other criminals than in reading the content of our boring-ass emails during their lunch breaks.  In reality, the only entity that has been caught reading the content of our boring-ass emails is Google, and this includes not only Gmail users, but people who have corresponded with Gmail users.  In reality, if the intelligence gathering agencies really want the dope on any one of us, they need look no further than most of the stuff we voluntarily put out there through social media.  And finally, if intelligence gathering agencies want robust information, they’re going to get it from Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, DropBox, and Skype, all of which are named in the aforementioned article as supplying information to government agencies.

And this brings me to the latest email blast from the Electronic Frontier Foundation inviting users to an online protest on February 11th called The Day We Fight Back – Against Mass Surveillance.  Invoking the martyrdom of Aaron Swartz, the defeat of SOPA (again), and the disgruntlement with the NSA, the EFF wants us to raise the fists of solidarity against domestic spying.  And that’s fine, but where is there any mention of Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, DropBox, or Skype as targets of this day of protest?  There isn’t.  Instead, these corporate entities are being portrayed as first-tier victims of intelligence overreach, several issuing transparency reports as though to say, “Look at all the data we have on you the government made us give them!”  So, assuming we successfully reign in the intelligence community (or convince ourselves we can), are we still cool with all the for-profit data collection these companies are doing because it’s supposedly voluntary?  Are we okay with prospective employers or insurance underwriters judging us based on our search data or Facebook profiles?  Because that’s a lot more likely than the average citizen attracting the attention of an analyst at the NSA?

I’m all for holding government agencies accountable, but not if we’re simultaneously letting private industry off scott free.  After all, private industry is actually better at this domestic spying thing, and they have a profit motive, which I happen to think is a more realistic concern than the hypothetical analyst who just wants to pry because he’s a creep.  To debate and protest domestic surveillance without focusing on these private companies seems incomplete to say the least. So why isn’t the EFF more critical?

Here’s the thing that worries me more than anything an Edward Snowden could possibly reveal:  when corporate interests seek to drive a wedge between the public and their elected representatives, it’s often because those representatives are (as they are meant to be) a barrier between the public and whatever the corporate interests would like to do to the public.  And that’s what I believe is happening here.  I don’t think the EFF gives a damn about actual privacy, otherwise the aforementioned companies would be in their crosshairs for this protest on the 11th.  I think the EFF wants to capitalize on distrust in “the government” in the service of protecting the Internet industry’s interest in maintaining our trust in the almighty cloud.  After all, what could be worse for Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, DropBox, and Skype than if we all seriously began to care about privacy?

© 2014, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • I own a 1999 BMW M3, 5 speed manual. She’ll be 15 years old in March, yes the build month is on the door jam. She’s simple, she’s light, my independent mechanic knows her inside out. There’s a 6 CD deck in the trunk and cassette deck in the dash. No iPod / IPhone hook-up.

    I love my CDs and binge listen to songs all the time.

    I’ve got more than I need. I’m satisfied, with my car that is……………

  • Insightful blog, mate. I’ve been spewing about the ‘evils’ of the EFF (and the other corporate douchbags mentioned) for sometime now on other social media. It really is difficult for the average user of tech to understand how they are empowering their own enslavement to the profit motive of these corps. Just as the gov keeps repeating what it is they want us to believe, (because repeating things to sheeple actually does work!) the tech corps use the exact tactics (and tons of lobbying $$) for their own reasons. We just have to keep repeating that this is what they are doing (because that works, too!), until enough of them really hear it. Thanks much for this David!

  • I know it’s a shame to let facts get in the way of your theory, but the first lawsuit EFF filed over the NSA’s illegal spying was against a private company – AT&T. That suit didn’t succeed because Congress gave the telcos retroactive immunity for their role in the privacy violations.

    Also, EFF rates major Internet companies’ commitment to privacy every year and calls out the ones who don’t protect their customers. And we write software that people can use to help protect their information in the cloud.

    As to “whether or not the intelligence-gathering agencies have broken any laws or violated anyone’s rights” – the NSA has admitted to breaking the law. They only refuse to be held accountable.

    These are all things you could have found in about five minutes.

    • “We Write” Mitch are you associated with the EFF or a member?

    • All fair enough, Mitch, but that doesn’t address data collection by Google et al for commercial purposes, which is not all above board. And it doesn’t answer the real criticism, which is that the campaign to “fight back” on 2/11 reads like PR hype, particularly since SOPA and Aaron Swartz have nothing to do with our criticism of the NSA. That’s just getting people riled up through associative politicking, and I think it’s irresponsible and unbalanced, especially in light of the fact that the intelligence community has stopped actual terrorist plots. Above all, though, I’m challenging users to consider what they want in terms of real privacy more than I’m challenging the EFF.

      • Well, you’re right that we’re trying to get people riled up, but you haven’t really said why they shouldn’t. There’s no evidence that mass, illegal spying on Americans has stopped one single “actual terrorist plot.” The rest is nothing but hot air:

        As for whether the government’s systematic violations of the 4th amendment are more or less important than commercial warehousing and mining of personal information, of course people will decide which they fear more, though there’s really no need to choose…both are a problem. It’s just that we have a choice whether or not to use the services of a given company. And no company has the power to put people in jail.

      • As for riling people up, Mitch, again I use the word irresponsible. By saying “the day we fight back,” you’re trading on an us v them sensibility, and that’s fine if our government is really out to get us; but if it isn’t, then you’re doing the cause of freedom an injustice. I don’t think the world works the way you guys portray it. As I indicated to Sam, I think individual members of the intelligence community — remember these agencies are run by human beings just like you — actually have an interest in achieving the goals they’re supposed to, namely keeping us safe, and they have a balancing act to perform between civil liberties and effective surveillance in the digital age. If you don’t think any surveillance has ever foiled a real plot, I suggest reading Christopher Dickey’s Securing the City. Chris has been a journalist for over 30 years and is one of the world’s experts in terrorism and extremism. Is there overreach and the potential for abuse? Sure. But that should be the subject of calm debate, not an overreaction against all things government because it’s conveniently good for business. If that’s not what you’re doing, then you wouldn’t invoke Swartz and SOPA in this case. I’m a liberal, Mitch, but you guys remind me of my not so helpful liberal friends who say things like “Free Julian Assange because Guantanamo Bay!”

        You’re right that using online services, etc. is a choice, but only up to a point. For one thing, there really is no such thing as using the Internet without Google since they’re kinda omnipresent. Moreover, the domestic spying of which that company has been found guilty has nothing to do with consumer choice. Consumers didn’t choose to have their data mined by the Google Streets project, for instance. And honestly, if we’re going to explore hypothetical paranoia, why can’t a powerful data-controlling company have the power to put people in jail? How hard would it be for Google to take umbrage with what I write, hack into my life, and get me picked up for something I didn’t do? I’m not saying that will happen, but since we’re dealing in hypotheticals, is it any more farfetched than whatever it is I’m supposed to fear about the NSA right now?

      • Replying to your last comment here; WordPress doesn’t always put them in order…

        > you’re trading on an us v them sensibility, and that’s fine if our
        > government is really out to get us; but if it isn’t, then you’re doing the
        > cause of freedom an injustice.

        It isn’t a binary question. Speaking for myself, it’s not about who’s “out to get us” but rather about the rule of law. One of the founding principles of our country is that we don’t simply trust government officials to do the right thing, we agree on laws they need to follow. Even though most national security people are honorable and working hard to protect us – and I agree with this, by the way – humans are fallible, power creates its own temptations, and one of the ways the US has always dealt with those temptations is through checks and balances like the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Since the NSA has admitted to setting that requirement aside, we’re left with “trust me, I’m from the government and we only go after the bad people.” And even if that’s true 99% of the time, it’s reckless and naive to assume that the good will of thousands of government employees with access to our most private information is sufficient. The NSA has basically declared itself to be above the law, and if that doesn’t scare you, it should.

        > If you don’t think any surveillance has ever foiled a real plot

        That’s not what I said, and if you’re going to respond to things I didn’t say then I’ll stop wasting my time here. What I said was there’s no evidence that any plot has ever been foiled that could not have been foiled while following the law. I’m sure the government could foil more crime if they posted police in each house, but that’s not a tradeoff most of us would be willing to live with.

        >that should be the subject of calm debate, not an overreaction against
        >all things government because it’s conveniently good for business.

        Illegal spying is not “all things government.” And it is most assuredly not good for business. In fact it has likely cost US Internet companies billions in lost business from abroad.

        > And honestly, if we’re going to explore hypothetical paranoia, why
        >can’t a powerful data-controlling company have the power to put
        >people in jail?

        Sure, it’s possible. But where’s your evidence? Abuses by the national security state are not hypothetical – just ask Muslim Americans who try to cross borders.

        Getting back to the rule of law, what the NSA is doing is illegal. There are practically no laws in the US against the collection and sale of personal data by corporations, except for children 13 and under. Personally, I think there should be more government regulation of corporate information-gathering (“Big Data”), and better legal remedies for individuals. But your insinuation that protesting against violations of the Constitution – violations the government has admitted – is somehow helping intrusive commercial data-mining is just bizarre. And you’ve given no evidence for that.

      • Mitch, apologies if I wasn’t clear; I really shouldn’t write anything after 8pm. I know that you make a distinction between illegal and legal surveillance being effective in thwarting plots, etc., although I’m pretty sure if I went back into some notes (or even Chris’s book), I could find cases where the legality is gray and the efficacy is clear. Nevertheless, lets not get bogged down on a matter about which we fundamentally, as individuals, agree. No question I believe in the rule of law and that, if the NSA has acted above the law, then change is required regardless of efficacy in thwarting terror plots or any other criminal activity. I would also say that the cat is out of the bag on this, the debate has begun, and that brings us to what it is the EFF is aiming for on 2/11…

        Clearly, the EFF wants people to reject the FISA Improvements Act and to support the USA Freedom Act (two bills I’ll now have to find time read in full). But instead of a frank analysis of these bills, the landing page says “Yadda yadda Aron Swartz, yadda yadda SOPA, yadda yadda NSA…so let’s fight back.” Aaron Swartz has nothing to do with the NSA, and SOPA had even less to do with the NSA. I’m not a lawyer or a legal scholar, but I’ve been around marketing my whole life, and this is marketing. What I meant by “good for business” is that it’s good for the EFF. I won’t comment yet as to whether the USA Freedom Act good for tech giants. Meanwhile, polls indicate Americans are evenly divided on the subject of the NSA (and not along party lines); reform for better or worse is being debated; and this particular EFF campaign seems bizarrely late to the conversation, which makes me wonder about ulterior motives. The point of my post, while it takes a swipe at the EFF, is mostly a poke at the general public, suggesting that I don’t think people seem to care about privacy, and maybe they should. If we do care about privacy, a holistic look at the issue in the digital age is probably a good idea because a threat to one’s pursuit of happiness is more likely to come from a private sector actor than a public sector actor. And on the subject of things we did not say, I did not say that protesting the NSA is good for commercial data collection; but I have argued many times that the conversation about privacy ought to include commercial data collection. You seem to agree with me on this.

        Getting philosophical about the intelligence community question, I don’t assume the goodwill of anyone per se (I’m universally cynical to be honest), but I do believe there is a tipping point at which mistrust in “government” becomes mistrust in one another. While I am always in support of weeding out the crazies and the bad actors, I am concerned these days that the level of paranoia seems out of synch with the relative degree of balance we’ve managed to maintain so far. The need for nuance is is not helped by the 140-character attention span spawned by the social media platforms some people have come to think of as the antidote to representative government. (And the EFF makes great use of this short-attention span with its more incendiary headlines and calls to action.) I think intelligence gathering agencies are as good or bad as the culture fostered within them, and I simply don’t think we live in the age of Hoover and McCarthy right now, which is not to say there cannot be abuse or bad actors within the system. I do think abuse tends to happen despite the rule of law, which is part of what makes it abuse, so this brings me back to the philosophical matter of trust. Why should I automatically distrust a guy who works for the NSA anymore than I should distrust that a neighbor won’t run down my kid on her way to school? That may seem overly facile, but at a certain point, isn’t the rule of law mostly a social contract based on trust that most of us will act in good faith? Isn’t the basis of our government that “authorities” must be comprised of fellow citizens? You may read this as blind trust, but it’s actually a plea to avoid blind mistrust because the real danger is the blindness.

        On a side note, thank you for joining the conversation. When I started this blog, I hoped that the comments section would remain atypically cordial, even among competing points of view. I am unlikely to stop being critical of the EFF, especially with regard to copyright, but I do appreciate thoughtful debate.

      • The main issue is NOT the government. They have plenty of other crap to be getting on with than spying on the majority of individuals. The main issue is however private companies like the quasi-criminal Google one that pours millions of dollars into the EFF. They spy on every web site that is connected to the web in order to scrape fractions of a penny here or there. I don’t see the EFF giving back any of that tainted money at all.

        You cannot keep Google from spying on web activity, it is ubiquitous and continuous 24/7. I set up a website so that kids in the family could chatter amongst themselves, make blog posts about things they were interested in share st5uff amongst friends. I added to the robots.txt

        User-Agent: *
        Disallow: /fam-pages

        which didn’t halt the thieves at Google from spidering the sub-directory at all. The googlebot spider were reported in the access logs as they rifled through every page.

        I have more concern about some private company watching what the kids are talking in respect of the books they are reading, the music they are listening to, where they are going on holiday etc, then the NSA listening in on it.

        The government is oversighted, Google is not, and I resent people that take $millions from those creepy bastards telling the rest of us to look someplace else.

      • David, thanks for attempting to generate reasoned debate; no small feat. Your plea for nuance is somewhat naive, though. Maybe it would be better if we all worked out these issues in longform, academic-style contests of ideas rather than dueling tweets, but that’s not the world we live in it. And we didn’t create that world but we do try to influence people in it, in the hopes that some of them will demand a broadly representative discussion based on good evidence, not opinion and self-serving pseudoscientific propaganda.

        Anyway, your criticism about the means that EFF uses seems to be, at its core, a criticism of the positions we take. I haven’t known you to call out the public statements of the media oligopolies and their Washington mouthpieces as inaccurate, misleading, or lacking nuance – but you must admit that at times they are all of these things. It’s just that you agree with them more often. Which is A-OK, but don’t disguise your critiques of substance as critiques of tone. Better we cut to the real issues.

      • Well the world in which we live is, in the broadest sense, the inquiry that started this blog. As for substance v tone, I think you’d find I’ve been critical of both in various posts. Regarding the public statements of media oligopolies, it depends on the subject, but there’s no question all entities are given to being inaccurate or misleading in one way or another. This, of course, goes to the title of this blog. In a world with so much swirling around, getting attention requires provocative headlines. Thus, everyone becomes a sensationalist, even classic publications and networks that used to be more sober. Regardless, traditional media oligopolies, while I don’t approve of everything they do, are not the focus of this blog per se. And when it comes to those industries v. the EFF (for want of a better way to put it), we’re generally talking about copyright; on that subject I do reject the substance of your organization’s positions. Conversely, we’re on the same side of the issue if the questions is “Should the NSA be allowed to break the law?” But on that matter, I’ll criticize the EFF on tone and for not contributing to a healthy contemplation of a particularly complex challenge.

      • There are three players in this internet snooping game:

        1) The NSA data mining to detect terrorist activity/communications.
        2) Media companies wanting to detect people ripping off their stuff.
        3) Tech companies that data mine, the better to sell advertising.

        Which of the above snooping activities has the most impact on our lives? Which are the ones that the EFF mainly focuses on? Which organizations fund the EFF?

    • Well, over 69,400 people have called their members of Congress today to support the USA Freedom Act to rein in the NSA. Seems to me that a lot of people have considered what they want in terms of real privacy. I suppose you’ll say that it’s a shame those 69,400 people aren’t sitting in cafes debating the finer points of counterterrorism policy, but I’m sure our venerable media institutions and the “creators” whom they live to serve will get right on that.

      • Have I yet responded to you that sarcastically? I don’t think so. And if the “that many people can’t be wrong argument” is your idea of a rebuttal to anything I’ve said, I’m the one who’s no longer interested in the conversation. 69,400? I bet there are twice that many Americans who think Elvis is playing the back nine with Jesus at Pebble Beach. Tens of millions of people are concerned about overreach in intelligence, and I’m one of them. Privacy, however, is another matter, and your day of protest had nothing to do with privacy.

      • Yes David, you are equally sarcastic on many occasions, but I’m sorry if I hurt your tender feelings. My point was that this is what a grassroots movement looks like, and the day the Copyright Alliance its blogger friends get this many people outside the Beltway and the Thirty-Mile Zone to pick up a phone to Congress is the day I will start taking them more seriously.

      • Okay. On the sarcasm, I don’t think so. In my posts, I’ll sling a bit of rancor and snark, but I believe you’ll find my responses to you personally are, or at least were, cordial. I don’t live anywhere near the Beltway and have had life experiences that would probably shatter you; so don’t think for a moment some pampered, ivory-tower, fair-weather activist can hurt my feelings simply because he knows how to type. I don’t have feelings that can be hurt, Mitch, which is one of the reasons I try to stay polite. As for the juggernaut that is Copyright Alliance, I believe they have a total of 2 attorneys working there now. while the EFF, which has received millions from class action suits, has about 50? So the moment the EFF stops using vagueness and scare tactics to promote policy that serves big tech is the day I’ll start taking them more seriously. More to the point, I’m just some little blogger compared to the EFF. If you don’t take me seriously, but you’re bothering to comment, isn’t that technically trolling?

      • Sigh. I didn’t resort to name-calling, but if I started this race to the bottom then I’ll try to end it. My response to your post is this: Leaving aside our differences on copyright for the moment, the idea that a concerted grassroots effort for some legislative reform of the NSA (specifically the USA Freedom Act) somehow “helps big tech” is an extraordinary claim for which you’ve offered no facts. People are rightly concerned about the loss of their privacy to both the government and to corporations, and many people are taking action on both. There could be many people who, for example, choose which Internet companies to do business with based on EFF’s Who Has Your Back report and are also participating in today’s protests. There are many people who share your skepticism about large Internet companies who are participating in today’s protests. You simply haven’t made a case for how protesting the NSA aids bad behavior by Google. Or even if it did, why people shouldn’t support reforming the NSA and “big tech” both.

        I’m not going to debate EFF’s finances, except to say that they’re largely a matter of public record, as is the number of attorneys, which is far less than 50.

      • If you read my original post, I never actually said that protesting the NSA aids bad behavior by Google. It makes distinctions among the idea of standing up for a legal principle, some pragmatic consideration of counter-terrorism, and any real desire for privacy (if it exists) in the digital age. Those are not all the same thing. I don’t think protesting surveillance overreach inherently helps big tech, but I do think the EFF helps big tech in general, and I’m far from the only person to say so. In this last response, you raise a valid and reasonable question “why not reform both,” but that’s not the same thing as using language like “hurt my tender feelings” or resorting to meaningless sarcasm about big media and the Beltway. There have been 1,839 comments on this blog so far, and you’re the first to inspire me to trade insults, which is a tone I never wanted to foster or adopt. As for the attorneys at EFF, it’s been some time since I checked, but the last time I counted, I thought the number was 47; if that’s way off today, then I sit corrected.

        You’ll note that other commenters here wanted to jump on you, and my first response was to confirm that you do work for the EFF and that you’re welcome to join the discussion. Subsequent to that, I believe you’ll find all of my responses directly to you were polite despite the fact that we disagree on some emotionally charged issues, and despite the fact that I think the EFF’s day of protest is nonsense. You confuse this with assuming that I think the debate about surveillance is nonsense, and this is a mistake of arrogance, because the EFF doesn’t own this issue for me. From this lowly blogger’s perspective, if the EFF wants to be a thought leader on the matter, then it will have to shut up about SOPA and Mr. Swartz when taking on the NSA and the 4th Amendment. Otherwise, it just sounds silly in contrast to any number of qualified, sober experts I can source on the subject.

        And as to the underlying subject, last April’s attack on the grid in Silicon Valley reveals several indications as to why it may have been a practice run by actual terrorists. Actual terrorists communicate via the Internet and other telecom. I don’t think that’s grounds to throw out the Bill of Rights; I just think it’s grounds to have a reasoned approach to a legitimate threat. I think the EFF is playing penny ante poker with the small stuff. The big problem will be the stunning overreaction that occurs if another 9/11-scale attack happens. People will be calling Snowden a traitor and asking “where was the NSA?” and maybe targeting organizations like the EFF. For what it’s worth, I’d personally stick up for you guys if that happens, but that’s probably not worth much.

      • Whoopee-do 50,000+ people signed a petition in the UK protesting the government’s legislation to ban street photography. Despite there being no such proposals. I’ve no doubt that one could get many more to write in demanding an end to illegal immigration, that more people should be executed.

        Hey you say that some 70,000 don’t want the NSA spying on them, does that mean that 300,000 do? Of course not, it simply means that most don’t really give a crap.

        In any case these numbers aren’t the point here. The point here is that the EFF does NOT engage the privacy debate as it effects their main donors. We don’t want any one spying on our activities: not government, and not private companies either. The EFF in focusing on the former and neglecting the later is putting up a smoke screen to deflect criticism of its sponsors.

        Let me put it this way, if I send an email to a gmail account it gets snooped on, even though I have no relationship with Google. Its equivalent to DHL opening parcels and examining their content simply because some one chooses to use them as a carrier. If they did so there would be an uproar. Why not with our letters sent to a gmail account?

      • “And as to the underlying subject, last April’s attack on the grid in Silicon Valley reveals several indications as to why it may have been a practice run by actual terrorists.”

        Power systems are vulnerable to someone taking down the overhead cables. The pylons carrying the cables could easily be taken down with little more than a DIY angle grinder let alone a small explosive devices. No need to get up close to the power facility you can take it out from a few miles away. Data centres draw a huge amount of power take out the connection to one of those and you’ll cause all sorts of problems for the power station supplying it, as the demand drops to zero.

        Back in the 1970s there were those in the anti-nuclear power movement that posited that taking down the cables from a station would force an emergency shut down of the reactor.

      • In this particular case, it was snipers taking out specific components that suggested a practice run for disabling the system more widely. The accuracy seems to be the underlying reason for considering it an act of terrorism even though the FBI said it wasn’t. The story was reported in the WSJ and picked up by NPR.

      • Yeah I noticed that. The thing is you don’t need to get up close and personal to wreak havoc on a power facility. You can do it low key and from a distance by taking down the pylons. That one appears to be a substation, just severe the the lines coming in. A sophisticated attack would cut the power lines coming into the valley. Possibly by dropping half a dozen of the feeder pylons up in the mountains.

      • Understood what you mean by pylons. I don’t mean to get into a tangent on the various ways energy infrastructure can be attacked. I raised the subject with Mitch because it’s in his backyard and because I think the EFF is skirting the hard parts of the issues. I assume the biggest fear is a cyber attack — someone crashing the grid or opening up a dam from 8,000 miles away via computer. In fact, I’m confident this is the number one concern now, which is why I think it’s dangerous to go overboard with our fears about intelligence gathering. For instance, Obama wants to appoint a vice admiral from the Office of Naval Intelligence to head up the NSA, and people want him to appoint a civilian to mollify political flap post Snowden. I’ll take the Naval officer with 30 years of intelligence experience over the private-sector guy with less experience any day. With management by the latter, both security and civil rights could be in greater jeopardy. The less experienced, private sector wonk would be less adept at recognizing abuse in his own organization, and his motivations are more likely to be tainted by whatever his next job is going to be. The Navy admiral has more to lose if he screws up, and there’s a higher degree of probability (while not perfect), that he’s altruistic in his sense of duty. Wouldn’t be the first time we shot ourselves in the foot though. The head of FEMA under Bush had years experience running horse shows!

      • When I call pylons I think you call utilities poles.

      • That is the point. When those nutcases exploded a bomb in Boston people wanted to know why the authorities didn’t know what they were up to. I don’t think that anyone other than Mitch assumes that the authorities need to wait for the Russians to tell them that they have a NoGoodNik in the crowd. If one goes back to teh 1970s Utah Phillips used to tell a joke about the FBI opening his mail.

        GNU Emacs had a spook mode to insert random radical terrorist phrases into email “to keep the NSA busy”. The radicals have known that the state agencies are listening in, have probably infiltrated, and most likely acting as agent provocateurs.

        These agencies are monitoring and data mining social and other communications networks in pretty much the same way as big tech does. In the case of the agencies it is counter criminal activity, in the case of Mitch’s employers it is to sell our online activities and that of our kids to the highest bidder. That they have the affront to call themselves a consumer organisation reminds be of a passage from Jack London:

  • In reality, most people who work at these agencies really are more interested in finding terrorists, human traffickers, and other criminals than in reading the content of our boring-ass emails during their lunch breaks.”

    Security services (of any country) have a wider brief then that. They monitor ‘subversives’ which is a way wider category then what you outline and isn’t limited to those committing criminal acts. The evidence for that is already there with Cointelpro so if you want to suggest that things have changed since then, I’d suggest the burden of proof is with you.

    And finally, if intelligence gathering agencies want robust information, they’re going to get it from Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, DropBox, and Skype, all of which are named in the aforementioned article as supplying information to government agencies.

    This, however, is crucial. None of these companies are going to stand up to the government. (Hell, as I’ve mentioned before, Google only stopped carrying out the Chinese government’s bidding because they had an argument with them, not as a point of principle). These issues are entirely intertwined. Corporations and governments aren’t opposed to each other in the modern world, they’re in bed with each other.

    • I think, Sam, that any intelligence gathering agency is only as good as the culture that is fostered within it and the administration that’s directing it; and for better or worse, there’s no hope of interdiction without them. As for subversives, I think it’s a question of judgment, which goes back to the culture thing. If “subversives” means white supremacists arming themselves in Montana, I personally have no problem with the FBI & Co. keeping tabs on them. If “subversives” means a bunch of college kids joining OWS, we’ve got a problem. I don’t think the culture today is what it was during Hoover, but perhaps I’m naive. I think the culture today is driven by people trying to find a happy medium between respect for civil liberty and a population that very likely will not forgive a second 9/11. To me, this is a subject for rational debate, not angry mobs.

      • Lots of links in this post, so hopefully it doesn’t trigger your spam filter!

        While the intelligence agencies are certainly reflective of the wider political culture, but it also fosters its own internal culture, just like any workplace would. Peter Wright’s Spycatcher is a pretty good overview of the the internal culture of MI5 in the post war period, but it’s different then the wider political culture in Britain at the time; it’s a lot more right wing and paranoid.

        Same applies to the US security services. On some things, I’m sure they are very different and better then they were during Hoover; I’m pretty sure that racism is no longer going to be acceptable internally for example. But there’s other factors, often ones that are common to intelligence services round the world, that I believe are still going to be in place; the blurring of the line between dissent and criminality, commitment to the political status quo above all else, the tendency to talk up internal threats for reasons of status and job creation etc. The last is especially prevalent when you have a serious rivalry between agencies, which is the case in the US (CIA vs FBI) and the UK (MI5 vs MI6).

        Taking all that into account, what makes you think that the FBI wouldn’t be interested in OWS? It’s a movement that contains people with explicitly anti-capitalist ideas and practices direct action. On this at least, I don’t believe that the internal culture of the FBI has changed enough since the time of Hoover for them not to see that as a threat.

        On Montana, it’s worth noting that the main issue from supremacists there isn’t actually about them arming themselves, it’s about them buying up land. That pattern is part of a wider shift among the US far right- the Jared Taylors are the real political threat, not idiots in Klan costumes. And, when the FBI are using informants in the far right, there’s the question of what role those informants are playing. Are you familiar with the Hal Turner case? I think the evidence there is strong that Turner was, in fact, working as an agent provocateur while on the FBI payroll. (

        Rational debate, sure. But the issue there is that it’s hard to do that when the other side plays the national security card whenever they’re under fire. Entirely ignoring the fact that, actually, those plots that have been stopped have been mostly stopped by either family/community involvement or an old fashioned informant. And very few indeed have been stopped because of the NSA surveillance program. (

        Unfortunately, difficult though this is, there is no way of categorically stopping another 9/11. If you think, in the UK, we had 30 years of this issue stemming from Northern Ireland. And it wasn’t until a ceasefire was agreed that terrorist attacks largely stopped. The main thing that, with hindsight, would have helped, is for the CIA not to have encouraged Islamic fundamentalism as part of the cold war. ( Hopefully a lesson has been learnt there and I think it may have been.

        On top of that, rational debate is always going to be difficult when we’re actually talking about a subject that’s pretty esoteric. Very few people have done that much reading on this. At the very least, I’d say people need to be familiar with Lobster ( and the sadly defunct CovertAction Quarterly (not online).

        On the subject of both FBI and corporate surveillance of non-profit organisations however, read this report ( It’s more then worth reading in full if you have a spare evening, but the crucial pages for this discussion are p40-47. It’s both relevant because it goes into detail on the FBI monitoring of OWS which you mention, but also because of how deep the links between the official intelligence agency and corporate spying goes. Which allows me to turn back an argument you’ve previously made onto you. If you’re serious about the corporate invasion of privacy, how can you ignore the fact that government agencies are up to their necks in this and oppose them as well?

      • Thanks, Sam. Much to read, which I hope I can get to in, y’know, my lifetime. But I’ll try. Even without the reading, though, I’ll certainly concede a few points. First, rational debate is admittedly a Quixotic fantasy. Second, I believe the question of how much people value privacy in a practical sense may be moot unless we see a serious backlash and folks leaping off networks and social media in droves. Third, I assume your final question, is missing a “not” as in “not oppose them.” If that’s right, I do oppose abuse, and even just scanning the last document you linked certainly provides more than food for thought. It’s easy for me to get into the weeds on this and begin to sound like I’m universally defending the intelligence community, which isn’t the case at all. To the contrary, my more paranoid tendencies envision a public/private cabal of intelligence services and data gathering entities like Google constructing a Big Brother infrastructure. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, and we don’t necessarily have to go there; but I suspect the only way to avoid going there is to restore some integrity to representative governance. Maybe that’s a Quixotic fantasy, too, but it’s part of why I worry about placing too much faith in “technology” to set us free as it were. In the meantime, the best a little blogger like me might hope to do is suggest to readers that, in this moment in history, there’s a logical disconnect between “I’m afraid of mass surveillance,” and “I just checked in at Foursquare!”

        More later. Thanks, as always.

      • Having been a political activist most of my life, Communist party membership, claimants union, trade union, demonstrations, occupation of government buildings, gatecrashing military bases, spreading disaffection amongst members of the army, organization of prison protests, that the government monitors one’s activities is a given.

        When we are ‘up to no good’ we expect surveillance, the censoring of communications, its part and parcel of the activity. Its when we aren’t ‘up to no good’ when we are simply going about our everyday business that the rummaging through our correspondence and communications for personal gain is objectionable. The government doesn’t do that. But hey wake me up if there is ever a time when our chatter is being passed on to politicians so that they can better manipulate us into buy their sponsors goods.

  • “And honestly, if we’re going to explore hypothetical paranoia, why can’t a powerful data-controlling company have the power to put people in jail? How hard would it be for Google to take umbrage with what I write, hack into my life, and get me picked up for something I didn’t do? I’m not saying that will happen, but since we’re dealing in hypotheticals, is it any more farfetched than whatever it is I’m supposed to fear about the NSA right now?”
    Actually, that seems more likely than not, moreso by the “League of Extraordinary ‘free the internet’ Tech Companies (i.e., mentioned in the blog). My 2 cents.

  • I might be more inclined to give the EFF more than a passing sigh, if they weren’t so ardently against artist rights… and if they aren’t, you could have fooled me…

    P.S. Great article, David. I think there is a balance (rather than the overblown hype from the EFF) that needs to be found regarding the NSA et al. If something that people though was ‘obvious’, some situation that happened, and there was no government intervention… people would be clamoring on ‘how come they didn’t do anything? .. “they” should have someone looking into these matters…’. [Though i do find some of what they do creepy, and there should be oversight and possibly some reigning in… i feel ever more creeped out by the likes of Google and company.]
    Never-mind that we have a government “Of the people, By the people, For the people” (though if you said it looked more like a -Corporate ‘owned’ good-boy network, you wouldn’t get much argument from me..)
    I find people will be more inclined to act ‘badly’ when there is a profit motive involved…

    • Thanks, James. Indeed the EFF’s position on copyright is intolerable and undermines, for me, any claim they have to being a public advocate. When you call copyright censorship, you’ve lost the benefit of the doubt when it comes to hyperbole on other matters like privacy.

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