Why Are We Emoting About a Few Intercepted Phone Calls (part 3, final)
In my previous posts I noted the current theft by hackers of our confidential financial information in the files of companies such as Target and Neiman Marcus, cyber warfare conducted by the U. S. and other countries, a brief reference to the clandestine operations the U. S. has conducted since the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and our government’s use of our primeval emotion of fear to justify its world-wide surveillance of our personal internet and telephonic media. The President’s recent speech and press release on our government’s surveillance programs illustrate the continued use of fear to distract the public from fundamental constitutional and other national issues.
The news story this weekend about the publicly available software Snowden used to compromise the National Security Agency’s files raises new questions about the competence of the NSA and its civilian contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton and Dell. I hope the President and Congress will start demanding answers from the military and these contractors about the value of the services we’ve paid billions of dollars for. It’s our money the government’s spent, and without disclosing confidential information to the public, I think we should insist that Congress through our representative and senators satisfies itself that competent actions are being taken and value received.
An example of the military’s duplicitous dealing with Congress was the testimony of James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, to an open hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In response to Senator Wyden’s question: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
Clapper replied: “No, sir, not wittingly.”
A few months later Booz Allen’s former employee, Snowden, made it quite clear that the correct answer to the question was: “Yes, we have been for a number of years.” Now, this was an open hearing and that answer could not have been made. But, the presumed respect that one branch of our government has for another would have required Clapper to clarify privately his answer to the Senator. This he never did. Our elected officials should demand that the information they need to oversee government projects be promptly and correctly supplied to them.
The disclosure of our internet and telephone information without our permission raises fundamental constitutional issues of our right to privacy and the right to defend ourselves if the government uses such information against us. Unreasonably giving up these rights affects our safety as much as it does terrorism.
We have all probably said at one time or another: “I don’t have anything to hide, so I’m not concerned if they listen to my phone calls or read my emails.” You’re not the person, however, who will make the decision about the meaning of your phone calls and emails. First, some kind of algorithm will decide whether what you say, the person you say it too, and the context in which it’s said raise a red flag. Then a human being will review the file with an inherent bias that the “machine has been right most of the time, so, why should I question it now?” And, “questioning it now” will surely take more effort on the part of the reviewer than just letting it pass for someone else to deal with.
The difficulties and costs in time and money of persons whose identities have been stolen (a cyber crime) are similar to what an innocent person is likely to face if s/he believes the algorithm and the reviewer are wrong.
The safety problems we are dealing with on these issues are layered, complicated, and require consideration by experts with military, scientific, legal, and business backgrounds. We are already hearing the President, the NSA, the military and some congress persons say or intimate that this is just too difficult for the public to comprehend. I find that attitude insulting. I have confidence in the judgment of our citizens when they are properly informed. (The government apparently doesn’t think it’s too complicated for us to pay for, however.)
We all need to let our government know that we want these issues reviewed, questions asked, and solutions proposed that take into account all the issues involved, not just “terrorism.” This doesn’t require the disclosure to the public of confidential information, but we do need to be satisfied that the issues are being considered by competent, experienced people who can deal with complex issues and make considered decisions where there is no simple “right” answer.
As examples of what I’m talking about, here are a few issues that should be considered and possibility acted upon:
- The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court should be reformed to allow appropriate challenges to broad surveillance programs.
- The procedure for selecting and appointing judges to the FISC should be more open and require approval not limited to just the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
- Persons whose data is intercepted and subject to scrutiny should be informed and provided some opportunity to defend themselves. The algorithm will inevitably tag persons who aren’t spies, terrorists or other “bad persons.” In our system we are innocent until proven guilty and have the right to defend ourselves.
- The loopholes in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act enabling warrantless search should be reconsidered and revised.
- There should be some civilian oversight of the military’s surveillance procedures.
- The officials in the military and other executive offices should be reprimanded for failing to respond truthfully to congressional inquires, observing of course confidentiality rules. I hope I’m correct in assuming that every member of Congress or the Senate could receive, or has received, a high security clearance. After all, Snowden received his.
We must insist now these issues be considered and acted upon or we will pay the price for our indifference at a future date.