Some random scribblings & musings on NSA surveillance

Blindfolded-ManIt seems that every few days, the basic understanding of the NSA surveillance leaks changes. At first, it was just phone records, but really, how many of us use our phones to call all that much any more? Then, it included nearly all internet traffic, but we were assured there were “meaningful safeguards in place”. And then, last week (to far too little fanfare) we found out just how meaningless these “safeguards” really are.

And still, the journalists at The Guardian say they are preparing their “next round” of articles, and so who knows where we’ll be, come next week.

To a large extent, this prevents truly meaningful and lasting commentary that can sustain a discussion for more than a few days. And so, instead of trying to do that, I will just put up some random, disjointed nuggets of thought on this issue; things that, hopefully, can offer us some food for thought. Respond as you like in the comments below.


I realized I’m a racist. I realized in the course of these leaks that I have some latent racism. The US government kept assuring us that these spy capabilities were not ever turned on Americans (this is false), but were only turned on “foreign entities”. It wasn’t until a day or so went by that I realized that whenever I saw that assurance, I automatically had an image in my head of Middle-Eastern “foreign entities”. This isn’t at all true.

We spy on our allies. Most of the spying powers are used on our allies, not on the “big bad terrorists” that we use to justify this surveillance.

Germany is awesome, but the NSA is suspicious. A new friend of mine who lives in Germany told me this past weekend that, in Germany, an employer is not allowed to see or know about any email that an employee sends, even if it is sent using the company’s own software, email addresses, computers, or servers. That’s crazy. I couldn’t imagine that here.

And yet, Germany is the European country that America spies on the most, conspicuously more than everyone else. Perhaps it’s precisely because they don’t make their data so easily accessible to America that we just have to go in and take it?

And so, it’s America’s fault that no one sympathizes with their Snowden woes. Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this stuff, is globe-hopping, trying to find asylum, and no nation is willing to arrest him and extradite him to America. American authorities, meanwhile, are flabbergasted that this could happen. If you’re a bully in the rest of the world, spying on everyone without their knowledge or consent, you’re not going to have too many friends. Do you, reader, feel America has a “right” to spy on everyone else? How does telling our allies that America is spying on them fall in line with “espionage” as Snowden has been charged?

Civil liberties vs. security: It’s not a compromise. Two parts of this one. Obama said over and over again that we need to find a “balance” to our liberties and our security. That’s not how the Constitution lays out our rights. Our civil liberties are absolute. They are the boundaries within which the government must play to “keep us safe”. They are the lines on the field on which the game is played. A sport is not a “compromise” between the rules and your winning. You are given the rules and boundaries and then given free reign to work within those to win the game, not try and change the lines and rules as you go.

Secondly, there is no compromise here. The NSA begins this “compromise” with everything, sacrificing nothing. And then tells us to “deal with it, we’re compromising”.

You’re 14 times more likely to be killed by fireworks than by a terrorist attack. Look at these stats. You’re also 9 times more likely, as an American, to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist. So where’s our “War on Law Enforcement” or “War on Fireworks”? Really. All this surveillance stuff was put in place to save us from terrorism which, in 2011, killed 17 non-military Americans. Is it because it’s working so well, then? Maybe, but even before the “War on Terror” there weren’t many American fatalities from terrorism. Far more from poverty, cancer, and other things that could really use the money that is otherwise being spent on this “war”.

Imagine this in the hands of the politician you fear the most. Even if you’re inclined to be in favor of these policies, you have to imagine this apparatus in the hands of whatever politician you fear the most. Maybe you trust Obama. Do you trust Michelle Bachmann with these powers? Lindsey Graham? Hillary Clinton? Nancy Pelosi? Whatever system you put in place has to be “leader-neutral” so as to be safe no matter who’s in power. That’s why we have the Constitution.

I’m actually impressed with Obama. I’ll admit it. I’m really impressed with the safeguards he attempted to put in place here. In a sense, Congress was the one that gave him these powers and told him “use this to keep us safe”. And you know what? It really seems like he tried to put safeguards on these programs. I completely disagree with where he drew those lines, but at least he drew some.

Lindsey Graham is the most vile, morally bankrupt and twisted individual with any semblance of power in this nation. I just needed to say that.

We prefer Daddies to Mommies in our Government. It seems to me that there is a sort weird metaphor here. Republicans rail against the “nanny” or “mommy” state that lets its citizens “suckle at the federal breast”. So the government can’t do those “maternal” things like support, offer security, educate, care, feed, and clothe. But then those same Republicans (and many Democrats) feel like the government must be as big and intrusive as possible to do those “paternal” things like protect, punish, admonish, assert influence and control, and bestow authority upon. It seems like many of our leaders think America should be a “Daddy State” rather than a “Mommy State”. That explains a lot.

There really aren’t meaningful safeguards here. Read this excellent and readable summary of what we know so far about these program.

You really should care about this. All of you. This stink about all this isn’t about people “not having anything to hide”. It’s about a fundamental shift in how laws are enforced in this country. The burden of finding crimes has always fallen on the authorities. They were the ones that had to search out and prove wrongdoing, and no one could incriminate themselves. In a sense, the system has been this: everyone is going to be assumed innocent; if you do something wrong and we don’t find you, then it’s our fault–you’re still presumed innocent until we prove you otherwise.

With these NSA programs, however, that changes. It’s no longer “we consider you innocent until we prove you otherwise”, nor is it even “we think you’re guilty until we prove you innocent”. Rather, it’s a weird ambiguous, unprecedented middle space where we are all considered potentially guilty and kind of stay there until declaring us one way or the other becomes relevant.

You do have something to hide. This is sort of a lame argument, I know. But still, it could be important. Plenty of studies have shown that as more and more laws are made, there’s more of a chance that we break them without knowing. One book even estimates that the average American breaks at least three federal laws a day. The way these NSA programs are structured is that if at any point in the future that there is a reason to suspect you of anything (whether you’ve legitimately committed a crime, you are part of some marginalized group, or even if you’re running for office!), the NSA can–literally–“rewind” your entire communications and online history and find something–anything–that might actually break a law.

History, History, History. It’s well-known now that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the subject of surveillance like this, and tapes of him and his mistresses were used to try and get him to stay quiet. J. Edgar Hoover constantly did this to political enemies. Occupy Wall Street had these powers turned on them, and I’m sure the Tea Party has. You simply can’t assume that you will never find yourself in solidarity (or at least agreement) with a group that this apparatus would never be turned upon. History shows that governments can’t be trusted with powers like this.

Living Room Toilets: The best metaphor I’ve heard about all of this. I was listening to a radio show and one of the interviewers referenced this, and so I don’t know the exact source (please let me know if you do), but it was about how the whole “I have nothing to hide” reasoning is silly. I’ll end with this.

No one has a toilet in the open in their living room. Why? Not because people have anything to hide in their bathroom. But simply because some things inherently deserve to stay private.

[image credit]08


3 thoughts on “Some random scribblings & musings on NSA surveillance

  1. Pingback: Repeal the 4th Amendment! (and a few other quick & dirty items) | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

  2. Pingback: An idiot defends the Patriot Act | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

  3. Pingback: My concern with Obama’s NSA surveillance reforms | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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