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.


Is there anyone who feels reassured by Diane Feinstein’s comments that we shouldn’t be worrying our pretty little heads over NSA storing records of ALL telephone calls (only by Verizon Business, but presumably that just happens to be the one that’s come out) over a three month period (and one might surmise that this is just three months of a rolling renewed program), both within the US and between the US and foreign addresses. She said

It is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress. This is just meta data. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication. … The records can only be accessed under heightened standards.

Through her Newspeak interpreter she added, “It’s called protecting America.”

In this case, I’m hopeful that the average person’s inability to understand technical language will lead to positive conclusions. Feinstein (who, I am proud to say, I have voted against every time she’s been on the ballot since I’ve been a California voter). Anyone who understands what “meta data” are, and how data-mining works, will be chilled by this: The FBI has a complete map of who was talking to whom when and for how long, and presumably where they were when they made the call. This is now going to be run through an algorithm sniffing out patterns similar to an already suspicious person’s phone calls or travel. And then they’ll use this as a basis for putting people on no-fly lists and other non-judicial punishments. Won’t they? Certainly the Obama administration has shown no compunction about misusing the machinery of the War on Terror (TM) — in particular the No-Fly List — including  for political ends.

But here, ignorance may help. Will the average American feel reassured at being told these are “only meda data”? What the fuck are meta data? It sure sounds like they’re tapping our phones…

I thought the IRS scandal was ridiculous — I still do — but getting the right-wing riled up about civil liberties may be the last chance to save some remaining shreds of constitutional rights in the US.