Why I’m not losing sleep over PRISM.


Photo by WekWek

I’m probably about to anger a few friends, but I’ll state at the outset that of all the things I’m concerned about in this world (and there are many), the PRISM program doesn’t even get on my radar.  No, I do not think Ed Snowdon is a particularly heroic whistleblower, and I am not alone in that belief, but bear with me, and let me first offer a bit of context as to why this story is exactly the kind of digital-age phenomenon that inspired this blog.

The seeds of The Illusion of More were planted amid the brouhaha over the SOPA/PIPA bills while observing the unprecedented role of social media on our political process.  Even if I hadn’t supported those bills, I considered the mechanics and the tone of the reaction against them to be a truly dysfunctional combination of hysteria, ignorance, lazy journalism, and corporate manipulation.  As a result, I began paying closer attention to my own habits and biases as well as those of my friends, realizing that even we GenXers who finished college before the internet went public seemed to be abandoning many basic rules of reasoning for the sake of sharing news fragments and incendiary headlines.  And even if one does click on a shared article, for example, the quality of so much reportage has been degraded by the expansion of media itself to the extent that even traditional news organizations now source one another and work hardest to capture traffic and cover the meta story rather than soberly investigate the crux of the matter. Then, we add in political and vested interests and individual biases, and I began to wonder if this tool that is supposed to foster a better informed electorate wasn’t having exactly the opposite effect.  The seminal moment for me happened the day one of my smartest friends shared a viral story about why a particular senator voted against a bill for which he had in fact voted “Aye.”  It doesn’t get more basic than Yes v No, and it was while discussing these phenomena with my friend, political operative Cormac Flynn, that I first used the expression “illusion of more” to describe the paradox in which more access seemed to be making people less well-informed.

One of the problems with viral, emotional stories is that they create an instantaneous bandwagon of apparent consensus which, in turn, creates social pressure in an environment like Facebook to either be on or off said bandwagon even before there is time to seek out a voice from among the ever-shrinking population of reflective and experienced professionals.  In fact, voices like Thomas Friedman, Michael Moynihan, David Brooks, and Alan Dershowitz do offer sensible recommendations to tone down the hysteria over Prism in favor of a conversation that includes the recognition that counter-terrorism intelligence gathering is not some bogeyman invented by “the government” in order to create an authoritarian state. It is as though all those Americans running out to buy copies of 1984 forgot that 9/11 ever happened, and I agree with Friedman, who writes, “If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: ‘Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.’ That is what I fear most.” In short, if we maintain a constant witch hunt against even the legitimate actions of our national security forces, we risk bringing about conditions that would foster real, rather than theoretical, threats to civil liberty.

Consider the typically brief interval between Ed Snowdon revealing his identity and TV news polls asking Is he a hero or a traitor?  This side-show makes great filler and creates synergy between social media and broadcasting, but it is an utterly useless distraction from the very question it pretends to be asking. General consensus has already formed across the political spectrum, long before we ever heard of Mr. Snowdon, that all things government are bad and thus all so-called whistleblowers are presumed altruistic.  Social media has aggravated this oversimplified bias, and it is one we cling to at our peril, if we consider its larger implications.  While oversight is an essential, and believe it or not still extant, component of the American system, a universal and unwavering distrust in “the government” is tantamount to distrust in one another, and this is the cancer that grows into a malignant threat to civil liberty.  “The government” still comprises millions of fellow citizens who are as diverse, as well-intentioned, or as flawed as those of us who are not “the government.”  But if one automatically judges a story like Prism through the “government bad” filter, there is no way to come to any conclusion other than the one already assumed. Thus we cannot rationally determine whether or not Edward Snowdon is really warning us about something sinister.

On the subject of privacy, I’m hardly the only person to mention that through social media and GPS enabled phones, we already volunteer more information about our lives than the NSA could want or possibly find of any practical use.  So, watching friends and colleagues use Facebook and Twitter to share their fears about the government listening to our calls and reading our emails is satire that ought to be self-explanatory.  Or as humorist Andy Borowitz put it:  “Man with 9,000 photos on Facebook angry over government spying.”  In all seriousness, I do wonder if the indignation over Prism is not only overwrought but functionally obsolete since we chose to give up privacy at least a decade ago.  Moreover, if you might agree that universal distrust in “government” implies a distrust in one another, then how do we reconcile the dichotomy of social media?  Why do I trust that none of my 400+ “Friends” will not use the information I share to cause me harm, and by the same token, why should I assume that my friend at the FBI will misuse someone’s information thus?  To be blunt, if everyone is really worried, why don’t we see a mass abandonment of social media?

Don’t get me wrong.  I assume my life is a potentially open book in the digital age, but when considering my personal level of concern vis a vis government abuse, the calculus goes something like this:  take the information we already share voluntarily, which is considerable; add (if you want) the information we believe to be private; divide that total by the vast but still limited analytic capacity of intelligence services; then factor for the reality that most analysts really are looking for specific needles in the haystack; and the answer is probably such a small increase in actual surveillance of concern that I wonder if we have measurably tipped the scale away from the value of liberty. Is Prism really a major increase in substantive invasion of privacy, or is the program more like the cops and soldiers we see at the train station, who are indeed seeing all of us but by are by no means interested in all of us?  Within the intelligence services, relevant and contextual analysis would have to be dramatically outpaced by the rate of data collection, and it’s a given that most of the data are meaningless, dynamic, and rapidly obsolete. Thus, if Occam’s Razor is our divining rod, then the government’s statement that the NSA is not listening to our phone calls or reading our emails, is actually the most rational conclusion. The explanation from the Obama administration really is the one that makes the most sense — that what’s being gathered is metadata for the purposes of pattern detection, which is both legally and technologically a very different animal from mining the content of a phone call or an email.

Of course, in the video segment on The Guardian, Ed Snowdon describes a system in which all our data are gathered, analyzed (although he doesn’t define how it’s analyzed), and stored in such a way that it can be used at some point in the future against any one of us.  This raises two natural fears we might describe as the cockroach and The Crucible.*  In Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, a cockroach falls into the machinery at the Ministry of Information and changes the printed name of a wanted man by one letter; and this absurd error sets the plot in motion when the innocent man is summarily abducted, tortured, and murdered by the faceless authority.  And, of course, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible dramatizes how the motivation of personal vendetta can maliciously abuse state authority to destroy a fellow citizen.  These fears are very real and continue to be borne out every day and in most societies, but does a program like PRISM increase the likelihood of either the cockroach or The Crucible, or is it  being blown out of proportion and shattering some lingering illusion of privacy to which some of us still cling?

As this story unfolds, and each opportunist makes hay while Snowdon’s sun shines, I seriously advocate settling down on the rhetoric that a program like Prism moves America closer to authoritarian rule.  It’s true that, in theory, a government agency can spy on everyone (think China), but how effectively this translates into authoritarianism depends on factors other than the intelligence apparatus being employed.  In the U.S. for instance, I tend to have faith in our love of social chaos as a humanistic buffer against authoritarian rule.  We Americans have been openly cussing and spitting at one another from Day One, and our lack of a common culture is good for democratic health the same way cross breeding is good for genetic health.  To have an authoritarian state requires that a substantial segment of a given population have faith in the authority, and this usually depends upon something cultural like religion, race, or tribe.  And while we do have those types who would define what it means to be a “real American,” it’s worth remembering that most of us are still mutts, and this includes those inside the defense and intelligence communities, the halls of Congress, and the White House.

I was no fan of George W. Bush, primarily because I considered him to be incurious about the complexities of the world, and his famous decisiveness is a tragic flaw when it is not tempered by contemplation.  Still, during his last press conference, he was asked about some of the programs started under his administration and the promise by Obama to change directions.  Bush essentially said, “I wish him luck,” which was both sincere and sardonic. And I remember thinking in that moment that no matter who the president is, he or she will get a security briefing that very few people in the world ever see. And I wondered then if some of Obama’s more idealistic promises of transparency might come back to haunt him once he was privy to more of the complexities of the global security landscape.  We can choose to pretend otherwise, but cyberspace is without question a new battlefield just as it is a new social sphere.  I think it’s right that we debate matters of security in telecommunications, but we cannot have an effective debate based on the premise that nobody in the entire apparatus of our elected government knows anything every time one guy blows a whistle.

*ADDENDUM:  In this story by Gail Collins, we find a perfect example of the cockroach  in the story of the wrongful incarceration of Brandon Mayfield.

© 2013 – 2017, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Thank you for being provocative! It worked. I have a lot to say about this viewpoint, so let me start with the parts with which I agree: 1. the NSA thing is not as big a deal as it’s being reported to be, and 2. preventing national security fiascoes is the responsibility of our government and its agents would be foolish not to use every tool at their legal disposal to pursue that aim. And it would lose elections if they did. You are correct to point out that the media narrative is about as stupid as can be because the issues in security policy and civil rights are complex grown-up discussions that are being held at the grade-school level. However, I disagree wholeheartedly with some of the stuff that equates how much we “voluntarily” reveal to our corporate minders to becoming complacent about governmental expansions in surveillance, and in downplaying the potential harms from the overall erosion in personal privacy. While it’s true that we do like to “share” an awful lot about ourselves, we in fact share exponentially more with companies than most of us would, if we were sufficiently informed about it, and if we felt we had the power to combat it. Short of giving up the positive aspects of communicating and sharing in these new ways (not to mention the petty rewards of narcissism), we are essentially powerless in that arena. But I think it’s important always to differentiate between government surveillance and that of marketers and other private entities. The parameters of government surveillance are governed by laws, if not always “good” ones. When we find those laws wanting, we have some power to change them. Corporate surveillance is much newer and the legal foundations for regulating it is much murkier. A variety of “free market” and constitutional arguments show just how challenging regulating corporate surveillance can be. Both types have the potential to harm individuals in a variety of ways, not the least of which is what Michel Foucault called “carceral” reasoning, in which our behaviors change because we know (or think) we are being watched. I would argue that corporate surveillance is actually more pernicious and unseen than government surveillance, but the ways we manage our government are often, eventually reflected in how we govern the private sphere, so any work we do regulating governmental data collection could have positive results in the private sector. Eventually.

    In regards to government surveillance, what I’m most concerned with is how we’ve come to resign ourselves to living in a state of constant fear and panic. While the data the NSA is gathering is most likely not that as invasive as many suspect, it is an unprecedented amount of data collection, and much of it includes information about people who are not now, and will never be, “terrorists.” The idea that we should resign ourselves to that practice is galling, and a little lazy. In particular, invoking 9/11 as an excuse to water down any of our previously held freedoms is a non-starter. It’s a classic “bloody shirt” argument that allows those with both good and bad intentions to invoke laws and practices that fundamentally change how we see our society, culture and legal philosophy. We lost about 3,000 loved, valuable people on 9/11, but we got off easy compared with the rest of the world under our heel before and since that terrible day. Starting on 9/12 we threw large parts of our constitution under the bus, and we did this in the name of “safety” because someone finally got around to bombing the shit out of us, after decades of stomping around the globe like we owned it. As a result we’ve put Americans at risk from other Americans in new and unnecessary ways. The overwhelming majority of people who have been targeted by law enforcement using some or other provision of the Patriot Act and related laws, are not terrorists. They are garden-variety criminals. Are those people deserving of a free ride for being criminals? Probably not. Does it make sense to give up the remarkable, and important civil rights protections we enjoy, rights that protect ALL of us from potential criminal investigations in the quest for Total Public Safety? I say, no. For one thing, we can’t get there. The only thing that has been shown to reduce crime in this country is to attack the root causes of poverty (same is probably true for terrorism, by the way). Meanwhile, our law enforcement system is uneven, crude at times, and fundamentally imperfect (it’s human, after all) and its imperfections blow back on the law-abiding and law-breaking alike. Watch any cop show and you’ll see that it’s not only the “perps” who fall under suspicion in an investigation. Go to any airport and watch (or experience) people get needlessly hassled and humiliated (especially brown or funny-named people). Ask any diligent public defender and you’ll learn that innocent people often wind up in prison, and some get executed.

    What the NSA/Snowden event reveals is a paradigm shift–one we should be pushing back against. Loosening our interpretations of the constitution and permitting reckless surveillance behaviors by law enforcement is a Pandora’s Box. We are shifting the expectations about our culture of law to a place we have never gone before and we shouldn’t go there willingly. As you have pointed out, once W pried open the door of warrantless wiretaps, rendition, torture and so on, it became very hard for any successor to close for both political and real national security reasons. But causeless domestic surveillance is a cancer. It is quickly acquiring “normalcy” and therefore acceptance. Its culture has spread to local law enforcement, as in NYC of late, and that culture mostly targets poor people. It rarely achieves its original aims. It spreads to the level of the traffic stop and the profiled pat down. It feeds the flames of fear and it doesn’t make us any safer from threats. It only supplants one threat to our peace and harmony with another. Just because it’s not “invasive” doesn’t make it acceptable. Facebook, Google, the NSA and Congress are unlikely to champion our privacy and the “right to be left alone” unless we do so as a society. That is what Edward Snowden shows us.

    • David Newhoff

      Thanks for writing such a thorough response, Mike. To your first paragraph, I agree that the aims and powers of corporations are very different from government agencies, but I’m not sure it’s practical to make the distinction because, as we see in this case, the government will go to corporations who have already built the infrastructure and are already collecting the data. The NSA et al will not reinvent that wheel, and we’d be awfully pissed if they spent the money to do so. My main point about the sharing is that we’re leaving plenty of breadcrumbs for anyone from a rogue agent to a hacker to mess with us, and I wonder if privacy is the real concern.

      Regarding your other points, you know perfectly well that I would never condone or casually accept abuse in a system, even if I think we have to accept that there are no systems entirely free from abuse. More to the point, one of the reasons I balk at these sensational, sky-is-falling events is that they make, as you put it, adult conversation about fixing a system nearly impossible. But the real question is whether or not, as you assert, we have normalized a paradigm shift that has weakened civil liberties and “thrown large parts of the constitution under the bus.” I freely admit that were we having this conversation in 2002, while W was in office, my response would have been total agreement; and I admit that part of that response would have be based on my utter distrust of that administration and its march toward absolutely the wrong war. But after 10 years, a transfer of power, a messed up war, near financial collapse, and living with news media that makes a hash of everything, I’m genuinely surprised that the overall balance of security and liberty actually remains pretty good, hence my statement about ultimately having faith in one another. Instead of talking about broad constitutional shifts and grand conspiracies, we should be talking about doctrine and practices. We can’t expect to ameliorate some of the abuses you rightly describe if half the country is screaming “Police state!” every month. The sad reality is that Joe the Lebanese businessman who gets harassed at the airport barely makes a ripple in this jittery world of information, but millions of Americans are absolutely sure right now that the NSA is monitoring their individual phone calls. (If this were true, there would be dozens of agents jumping out of windows after listening to the quotidian ramblings of average citizens.)

      I’m glad you brought up NYC because it really is a testing ground for all of this. It remains the number one target worldwide and is already one of the most complex cities to run even without security threats. I recommend Chris Dickey’s book Securing the City. It’s a very insightful account of how the NYPD handles an unbelievable volume of security threats without turning the city into a camp. You may decide they aren’t really succeeding, but at least it’s an informed look into the process.

  • I must admit that PRISM got me thinking once again that a society without real problems will do its utmost to invent new ones.

    Except, it’s not like we don’t have real problems – only that we are reluctant to address them. I’ve read the most sensible speculation as to how PRISM really works (given budgetary constraints and other things we already know) over at The Register and it only served to reinforce my belief that most of the data is stuff we willingly surrendered to unaccountable private interests (who – if you read the ToS – are already pretty much entitled to dispose of it as they see fit; so why not give it to the NSA).

    Yesterday at the office I found myself listening to a broadcast conversation between several of seemingly intelligent people, who for some inexplicable reason seemed to have checked their brains before going into the studio. Perhaps the most telling example of how confused people are about the private/public distinction was the case they brought up of a theatre director (IIRC) who – when Pope Francis was elected – said a rather nasty thing about him on Facebook (based on the allegations of his working for the Argentine dictatorship) which erupted into a national scandal after it went mainstream. They compared it to having a conversation in a cafe and my response to it was “And?” I mean: if a tabloid journo overhears a moderately famous person saying something “news”-worthy in a public place (such as a cafe), they’re free to run with the story. It’s like these people were living in a world without paparazzi.

    In many ways, PRISM is a non-story. Why anyone would expect the NSA not to have some way of monitoring online data is beyond me. Everyone seems to have picked up the idiot ball and taken the “omniscient Big Brother” angle hook, line and sinker, but I wonder whether any of those people have stopped to consider whether it’s even possible – considering the sheer quantity of data.- for the NSA to implement even a reasonable facsimile of such a system.

    About the most sensible concern is what rogue actors might do with this data, but even that’s barking up the wrong tree. This data is being primarily collected and mined by private companies to an extent we can only guess at. Any threat is going to overwhelmingly come along that vector – not the intelligence services (if only because it’s safer to steal from Google, who are likely to have more data in any case.)

  • Mr. Newhoff, your musings about the cultural effects of PRISM in the age of facebook are interesting, I suppose, but you’re ignoring the fundamental issue. I presume you’ve heard of the 4th Amendment to the constitution. PRISM obviously violates that. It’s illegal. The potential for abuse is almost unfathomable.

    You ought to ponder that a bit.

    • David Newhoff

      Gordon, thank you for commenting. I would have to counter that, based on what we know so far, the programs are not a clear violation of the 4th Amendment. More to the point, as the law is always being reinterpreted, wouldn’t you agree that as we continue to live online and wrangle with security, that a sober discussion of what does and does not constitute an illegal search will be necessary? Mostly, I’m asking for the sober discussion instead of the circus.

      • David, thanks for your reply to my comment. 🙂

        Here is the text of the 4th Amendment:

        “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

        Ed Snowden asserts that PRISM surveilance is now a matter of in-house policy at the NSA. Warrants are irrelevant. Probably cause is irrelevant. Assuming that he’s telling the truth, one would have to engage some serious pretzel logic to arrive at the conclusion that the program is constitutional.

        Pundits in the corporate media of course focus on Snowden’s personality, as a distraction from the constitutional issues. Pundits in the internet media suggest that privacy is voluntarily surrendered in postings on social media, so why all the fuss?

        But pattern recongition software has been utilized by the US intelligence establishment for decades. (Look up Echelon, if you like.) The nets are cast pretty wide now. Snowden has asked for accountability. He lost a lot of sleep over the issue.

      • David Newhoff

        Thanks, Gordon. Your comments are welcome, but there’s no need to copy the text of the Constitution. I do have my own copy. Speaking for myself, I’m unconcerned with Snowden’s personality past a point, although character always plays a role in people’s decision making, so it’s not entirely irrelevant. In practical terms, though, there’s no question that a warrantless tap into a citizen’s phone call or email without cause would be a violation of the 4th, but there is no indication that doing this is policy under these programs. In fact, it would make no sense for that to be policy unless you honestly believe the goal is an Orwellian state. It’s essential that we have oversight, but when stories like this break, and everyone leaps to “the government is listening to my phone calls,” it’s ridiculous. It’s a failure to consider how many trillions of bits communications data are traveling around. Facebook has 1.1 billion users, and it discloses government requests for data in the thousands. So, some perspective is required. Don’t confuse what I’m saying with blind trust, and I’m open to more revelations about this story. For now, I’m not that worried.

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