Framing the question on electronic surveillance

Quinnipiac has published a poll purporting to find the following facts:

  • 55 percent of Americans say Edward Snowden is a “whistle-blower”, as opposed to 34 percent calling him a “traitor”;
  • voters say 45 – 40 percent the government’s anti-terrorism efforts go too far restricting civil liberties, a reversal from a January 10, 2010 survey … when voters said 63 – 25 percent that such activities didn’t go far enough to adequately protect the country.
  • While voters support the phone-scanning program 51 – 45 percent and say 54 – 40 percent that it “is necessary to keep Americans safe,” they also say 53 – 44 percent that the program “is too much intrusion into Americans’ personal privacy”.

Now, the most striking thing to me is that 88 percent of the people surveyed in January 2010 thought they knew enough about the government’s intrusion on personal privacy to even formulate an opinion — in particular, that 63 percent thought they knew enough about the scope to say that it didn’t go far enough.

But even more interesting is the formulation of the question that got 54% to agree that “the phone-scanning program” is “necessary”. (It is noteworthy that at least 4% of those surveyed both support the program and believe that it is “too much intrusion”. They must have a different concept than I have of either the word “support” or “too much”.) What they were asked was

Do you support or oppose the federal government program in which all phone calls are scanned to see if any calls are going to a phone number linked to terrorism?

Now, if you put it that way, I’d kind of support it myself. “Scanning” sounds pretty innocuous, and “phone numbers linked to terrorism” sound pretty ominous. But that’s only a small part of what’s being done. They are receiving all metadata — that’s a lot more than just a phone number — and storing them, presumably, forever. They are data-mining to try to identify patterns. They are already, or are preparing to, store the content of all communications, so they may be examined in depth if there is sufficient reason in the future.

And how much of this is this about terrorism? We don’t know. And even if it is about terrorism right now, it won’t take long before enthusiastic or corrupt government officials think of all kinds of other legitimate purposes of government that could be promoted by just breaking down some of the petty bureaucratic restrictions on use of the data.

To put it in the crassest terms: This sort of unfocused big-data espionage may be marginally useful for catching terrorists, but it seems certain to be far more useful for pressuring or destroying political opponents of the anti-terror policies.

Insider trading and the birth of America

In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin I’ve just encountered the following anecdote. Edward Bancroft was secretary to the American commissioners — Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee — who were in Paris negotiating the crucial military alliance with France. The British were desperate to forestall this alliance with their own peace overtures:

The British sent to Paris the most trusted envoy they could muster, Paul Wentworth, their able spymaster. At the time, Wentworth was angry with his secret agent Bancroft for sending inside information to his stock-speculating partner before sending it to Wentworth, who was also a speculator. King George III, upset by the bad news that his spies were giving him, denounced them all as “untrustworthy stock manipulators”, but he reluctantly approved Wentworth’s secret mission.

And indeed,

years later, when he was haggling with the British over back pay, Bancroft wrote a secret memo, telling the foreign secretary that this was “information for which many individuals here would, for purposes of speculation, have given me more than all that I have received from the government.” In fact, Bancroft had indeed used this information to make money speculating on the markets. He had sent 420  pounds to his stock partner in England… and provided him word of the impending treaties, so that it could be used to short stocks… Bancroft ended up making 1000 pounds in the transaction.

I find it delicious to think that American independence was made possible, or was, at least, expedited by British agents’ clumsy insider trading.

(Anyone who is interested in the culture of speculation and market-manipulation driven by political information, and also enjoys a good philosophical yarn, should read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.)

Though this be madness, yet there is method in it

One of the key lessons of emotional game theory is that madness — or, at least, the convincing appearance of madness, which may amount to the same thing — can be an effective strategy. You can win some otherwise unwinnable games (Chicken being a favourite example) by convincing your opponent that you are too fixated, angry, or suicidal to be persuaded by threats and/or appeals to what may seem to be mutual best interests.

This seems to me the only way to understand the response of the US government to Edward Snowden. If the most recent news reports are to be believed, the US has somehow persuaded European governments to practically kidnap the president of Bolivia, because they believe Snowden might be on the presidential plane, flying to asylum. The lesson to future whistleblowers is clear: There’s no point trying to game out the usual protocols, the law, or even what might seem to be too much trouble or too embarrassing for the Americans. If you embarrass the US government, and particularly its clandestine services, they will go full berserker.

That was something of the sense I had after 9/11: The torture, the pointless war in Iraq, it wasn’t so much a means to an end, as a direct demonstration that the US was not going to respond in any proportionate, rational, or even legal manner.

The actions of the Europeans are pretty shameful. At the same time that they are howling about the crimes that Snowden has uncovered, they are conniving at US attempts to treat him as a criminal, rather than a political dissident. Germany, among others, has dismissed Snowden’s application for asylum by saying that he first needs to get to Germany before it can be considered; but, of course, they won’t let him come now that the US has revoked his passport.

If you don’t have anything to hide, why don’t you speak English?

The NSA documents that have gotten the most attention in the German press are the ones that divide the world into 3 categories of reliability (and hence relative freedom from US espionage). Class 1 is the US itself (though the Snowden affair should lead them to question their own reliability). Class 2 comprises the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Class 3, subject to presumably no restrictions and given no trust, includes everyone else.

Naturally, the Europeans are offended to be in the same category as the Chinese and Iranians, but really, you have to wonder why they’re encoding all their communications in these weird non-English forms of communication. Trustworthy partners speak plain English!

“I hope the Russians love their secrets too…”

Remember back in the 1980s, when Sting and Prokofiev teamed up to extol the blessings for world peace that would flow from recognising that Americans and Russians deep down shared the same basic needs? Now the headlines read

Russia’s Putin tells Snowden to stop US secrets leak.

Okay, the cynics will say that east-west agreement on imprisoning political dissidents isn’t really on a level with “loving their children”, noble-sentiments-wise, but when former enemies can work together to cover up each other’s spying on their allies — well, when you get right down to it, how far is that from lions-lying-down-with-lambs territory? Put this together with the climate catastrophe, and we must truly be living at the end of days…

That this heartwarming rapprochement is happening just as Cold-War so-called allies are betraying the US, on  the pretext of protesting against being themselves the targets of NSA espionage — WHAT DO THEY HAVE TO HIDE?! — is all the more poignant. Sniff. I think I have to go drown my Weltschmerz tears in shots of Freedom Vodka (TM). За нашу дружбу!