Thursday, June 13, 2013

In a PRISM, darkly

The NSA scandal did not take me entirely by surprise. You could infer that something big was going on by reading the techie help wanted ads. Very large databases, metadata, interoperability, cross-database searches, security clearance required.

The surprising part is just how big and intrusive the thing is, sweeping in information about, potentially at least, any and every American. The line from Washington is not to worry. They're only looking for terrorists. If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.

The trouble, though, is in the blanket warrants and the blithe assumption that everyone's data is fair game. Why is that a problem? If you're not plotting to blow things up, why would you worry?

Jim Yardley, blogging over at the American Thinker website, has a germane observation about that. The system is only looking for enemies, looking for terrorists? We are investing a whole lot of trust in the people who are defining who is an enemy and who is a terrorist. Indeed we are investing too much trust. The reason our laws require warrants to be narrow and specific is that broad fishing expeditions are inherently dangerous to liberty. Yardley:

Only terrorists need be concerned.  Otherwise, there's nothing to see here, so move along.
I seem to recall, however, that Janet Napolitano, our peerless Secretary of Homeland Security disseminated a white paper in 2009 that indicated that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Tea Partiers and other "right wing extremists," those who mistrust the government and others of like mind are potential threats and potential terrorists. 

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We have given the government enormous powers to snoop and pry. What safeguards are there against abuse of these powers? In another scandal, running simultaneously with this one, we see that the IRS was used as a weapon targeting Obama's enemies: tea partiers, religious conservatives, etcetera. Is the NSA immune to the corruption to which the IRS succumbed?

In a followup article, Yardley revisits the nub of the problem:

Given the current ability of the NSA to collect unimaginable masses of date, and then given specifics regarding what phone numbers/names/addresses and other variables to concentrate their efforts on, is there any doubt, in anyone's mind that the damage that is potentially destructive to Obama's political enemies would be of the same magnitude as the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs?
Any military man, no matter which nation they defend, will all say the same thing.  Never plan on what you expect your enemy to do, but rather plan based on what they are capable of doing. 

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My reading of history suggests that when the old line gets trotted out, "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear," then you actually do have something to fear, whether you have anything to hide or not. For instance, there is nothing illegal about being a tea partier, a Christian, or a conservative. However, it is inconvenient to the regime. See what I'm driving at?

The problem is not that the government has abused its power in that way. I see no proof that it has done so, at least at the NSA. The problem is that it can. Absent the safeguards, checks and balances of narrowly specific warrants, anything goes, and the abuses will show up; it is only a matter of time. That's why we have a Bill of Rights in the first place.

The practice of vacuuming everyone's information into vast databases looks to me like a violation, in principle, of the 4th Amendment's insistence on narrowly specific warrants and probable cause. Of course the government has lawyers ready to argue that what is going on is not really a violation. If the public feels strongly that they are being mistreated, and at present it appears that they do, then all the logic chopping and lawyerish wrangling of government legal teams will make no difference. This is instead shaping up as a question about the consent of the governed.

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