14 Jun 2013

Metal Detectors vs. NSA Spying

Big Brother 43 Comments

Glenn Greenwald and Ari Fleischer have a good debate below, and I mean “good” in the sense that they both put up a case for their position and have serious clash (I’ll say):

The person I saw discuss this on Facebook (and what happens on FB stays there, so I won’t say more) didn’t like Fleischer’s analogy, when he said (I’m paraphrasing), “Hey, we force lots of innocent people to take off their shoes and go through metal detectors at the airports, in order to prevent the small percentage from hurting us. Same thing with the NSA program, so Greenwald doesn’t have a trump card by saying it’s spying on people who haven’t broken any laws.”

Now it’s true, the TSA is also a coercive organization and shouldn’t be used to justify the NSA’s activities (as my FB friend pointed out), but I don’t think that’s really the fundamental problem with the analogy. No, the main reason average Americans are flipping out about this is that the government was doing this in secret and the only reason we know about it, is because of Snowden.

So for a better analogy, suppose the TSA had introduced the “naked scanners” at airports but did it without telling anybody, and then finally a contractor just couldn’t stand it anymore and thought Americans needed to know that TSA agents were routinely seeing their body profiles every time they went to the airport. In that case, people would be flipping out too, probably far more than they are right now.

This is really what’s so insane about these debates among policy wonks. They are acting like it’s a no-brainer that the public will support these measures, that they are an acceptable sacrifice of liberty in the name of security. OK, if that’s true, then why does the government keep them a secret? This isn’t some targeted operation, like sending helicopters to go get Osama bin Laden (another Fleischer analogy), this is a huge dragnet. I have been assuming for years that the government records every email and phone call, and conduct myself accordingly. I doubt actual terrorists naively thought the Obama Administration cared for their civil liberties, and that disclosure of this NSA program will make them change their behavior.

43 Responses to “Metal Detectors vs. NSA Spying”

  1. Matt M says:

    ” I doubt actual terrorists naively thought the Obama Administration cared for their civil liberties, and that disclosure of this NSA program will make them change their behavior.”

    This is a critical point that (almost) nobody seems to be making. Remember, the government would have us believe that BOTH of the following conditions are true:

    1. We are engaged in a non-stop 24/7 war against a very sophistacated, intellgent, and well organized group of adversaries who will stop at nothing to indiscriminately slaughter innocent civilians, therefore requiring advanced and potentially intrusive surveillance techniques.

    2. Multiple times, these supposedly sophisticated adversaries have been foiled by sole virtue of talking about terrorist plots in unsecured domestic phone calls and e-mails, tactics that even the drug gangs in The Wire wised up to and wouldn’t dare attempt because they knew the police were always potentially listening.

    • Robert Fellner says:

      Excellent point!

    • Ken B says:

      No that’s not very good. You can assume the terrorists are sloppy and naive about communications and therefore want a wide net. The assumption is that the analysis will find the sloppy naive terrorists, but won’t be used for other, less laudable, purposes.
      The rationale for data mining is partly the same as it is for Wal mart or anyone who data mines: cost. Assuming the sloppy, naive terrorists this is a cheaper way to find them than profiling and careful investigation.And assuming sloppy and naive of course you want it secret, so they don’t get less sloppy or naive.
      No, the real case against the wide net is that assumption the data won’t be used for other purposes. It will; it is.

      • Matt M. (Dude Where's My Freedom) says:

        What about the Tsarnaev brothers? Were they sloppy and naive? Why didn’t the NSA catch them? Or were they ultra sophisticated and disciplined?

        • Ken B says:

          Right, because policies have to be perfect to be worth anything. The data mining won’t cure herpes either, what a waste.

          Look, I oppose the NSA policy. But I oppose weak arguments more. Advocates have a case. Pretending they don’t may make you fell all righteous, but it won’t sway anyone.

          • Major_Freedom says:

            You’re not concerned about weak and strong arguments as the goal, Ken B, because all arguments for universal surveillance by big brother are weak.

            Advocates don’t have a rational case. Saying they have a case doesn’t mean a whole lot, because every perpetrator of wrong-doing “has a case”, which is why they often defend themselves in court.

            There is a difference between a case, and a good case.

            The case for universal surveillance is not a good one, and never has been a good one.

            • Ken B says:

              Not very safe ground MF. After all, we don’t know what the successes have been. I expect there have been a few, which may or may not have been possible with less extreme programs. We can’t know, so cannot make a strong argument about the low benefits. But we can make a very strong case about the dangers and the risks.

              Won’t convince anyone with claims it can’t work when it might have. Why argue from weakness when we have a position of strength.

              • Ken B says:

                Advocates can turn Matt M’s argument around in the same fashion. ” you worry about data mining? Why? Because it finds things out, it works!” Data mining does work! That’s exactly why this program is worrying!

              • skylien says:

                Ken B,

                I know that you are against it but why couldn’t they argue on the same basis for cameras and mics in absolutely every room of every house? And maybe GPS transponders injected below skin for every person being on US soil?

                If I am not allowed to have any privacy talking on the phone, why should I have it within my own home?

              • Ken B says:

                A good example skylien! I bet though that would be very effective in ferreting out crime, and win conjunction with computerized analysis, terrorism, or even nutters with guns.
                But we agree the cost is too high, right?
                But saying, ha that would never help with whatever goal we had, drug stuff say, is wrong. It would be effective for the stated purpose.
                That’s my point. Data mining, or your scenario, probably DO work for their stated purpose. So denying that is an un persuasive weak argument. Pointing out reductions like your though is a good argument.

              • skylien says:

                Well, right. Thanks for the answer.

      • Ken P says:

        I agree with your analysis, Ken B. I would add that they don’t have to be sloppy or naiive. There are endless patterns that can be picked up. A terrorist is not going to perfectly randomize all the variables involved with electronic activities.

        You can bet that OWS and tea party people were being watched. It wouldn’t surprise me if information found has or will be used for political purposes. Does no one remember Watergate? Or how about Elliott Spitzer (found out he was seeing hookers because of money laundering data mining- was that truly apolitical)?

        • Ken B says:

          Yes, I just kept to sloppy and naive because that was Matt’s argument. But data mining can find amazing things. And I agree that the data will be used to skew elections.

    • Major_Freedom says:

      Nick Rockefeller told Aarson Russo that the war against terrorism is to redirect the public’s attention to finding the boogeyman in caves and burkas, so as to take our liberties away, which is needed for their global currency plans to succeed.

    • Kay says:

      “Lone wolf/ves” is spookspeak for ” intelligence connections up the wa-zoo”. In this case the 2 Boston bombers are well -connected to Graham Fuller, among other connections harder to follow.


      Any hand-wringing over how to surveille these two was simply an exercise in public opinion manipulation. The state may be annoyed by recent leaks, but also benefits from them, as they instill a general fear in the public –fear of the government’s omnipotence.

      Even in the late 80s people knew the NSA was monitoring all overseas communication for keywords. This is hardly new.

      What is somewhat amusing is the fact that Mednedev (sp?) is being tapped and translated in realtime, as he has an acerbic wit that must make them wince at times.

  2. Ivan Jankovic says:

    And Bob, you were right to assume the government is listening and recording everything, but you did no’t have to guess: we had a first-hand evidence from a previous and much higher-profile whistleblower than Snowden, William Binney, Just nobody paid any attention to what he was talking about, years ago:


  3. GeePonder says:

    That it was done secretly does seem (at least) to be anti-democratic.

    However, going forward it is no longer secret. Does it follow then, that it is now less bad? And how likely is it that this was the point of the whole episode?

    “We confess. We are collecting everything. See, we are transparent. We are good.”

    Does this improve the standing of “Avg-Man’s” natural rights?

  4. Sam Geoghegan says:

    Ron Paul said a similar thing with Piers Morgan the other day.
    Obama campaigned on transparency and now he’s got it. He should be sending Snowden a thankyou note.

    Probably not to convolute Greenwald’s press campaign; there is never any discussion on U.S. foreign policy in all this. Here is the perfect example of exogenous threats; influenced by govt policy, resulting in all sorts of unsavoury behaviour, such as surveillance and torture, being used inversely to pacify the public.

  5. Z says:

    How much fish does it take to feed a sea lion for a whole day? And is it moral to use dolphins as tools of surveillance?

  6. Chris Branco says:

    I’ve given up all hope. I thought the whole “Boston Strong” fiasco would have awakened the American people and there would be total outrage that a little kid…oops, I mean “terrorist”, who weighs 120 lbs, soaking wet…was able to shut down a whole city and have people threatened and physically removed from there homes by police, SWAT, DHS, FBI, etc to search…but instead a celebration broke out. Then we find out that the NSA has been data-mining all our phone call, emails, texts, etc.and most people still support the government because they keep us “safe” from all the bogeymen in the world. When will we say enough is enough? When will it stop? Like I said, I give up. It just keeps getting worse and we lose more and more of our rights every day! I don’t see a change happening, only the government growing. And no amount of voting, blogging, debating, complaining (yep, I’m complaining) is going to change anything. I totally believe in and support a voluntary, libertarian, free market society. Do I ever think it will happen…NO! This whole thing has turned me into Gene Callahan, dammit!

  7. Andrew_M_Garland says:

    Our government declares that secrecy is vitally important to effective defense. But, that same government releases information about successful operations for their political benefit. It is convenient that secrecy hides the errors and failures of those programs.

    Supposedly, the secret scope of surveillance keeps amateurs like the Tsarnaev brothers from knowing that they should avoid some types of email communications. But, they were in contact with more experienced terrorists who certainly had worked out a way to communicate without being very visible. It only takes one terrorist department to discover how to communicate under surveillance, just as it takes only one terrorist department to design bombs.

    Terrorists are specialists who know what is going on. The only amateurs here are the public.

    Just how are NSA employees and the political operatives of our government prevented from bad acts? What keeps them from mining that data to blackmail or influence citizens, companies, political enemies (the other party) and political competitors (the same party)? Secrecy hides the truth about what controls are placed on the people empowered by this data.

    We already live under a government where crimes (violations of law) are punished by resignation, or merely reassignment. Later, these criminals do something else for their party, usually in other government jobs. That isn’t punishment, it is a cost of doing dirty business.

    Military analysts have a philosophy: “ability must be considered to be intent”. If an enemy has a weapon, we must assume that he will use it. The only question is how to deter or defend against that use.

    The government has assembled, and will do more to assemble, a vast database on the people. It will be used to track enemy communications. It will also be used to attack citizens and political opponents. What are the real safeguards and penalties which will deter that despicable use?

    • Ken B says:

      In the sterling character of our elected officials, the warm embrace of whistle blowers like Snowden, and the non-partisan scrutiny of our press.

  8. skylien says:

    With that kind of arguments you can justify absolutely anything! Why not install NSA video cameras and mics in every house and every room even the bedroom? You WILL catch some bad guys this way, and there is your justification.

    I am sorry but they are building any dictators dream toolbox… Pray it’s not getting into the wrong hands. (And I can guarantee, you won’t notice it until it is far too late) However, but how much does praying help if it finally is just a matter of time?…

  9. skylien says:

    Some of Remy’s videos are really good:


  10. Major_Freedom says:

    Naomi Wolf’s historiosophy of the rise of police states is ringing truer and truer over time, isn’t it?

  11. Yancey Ward says:

    The funniest thing I read the last few days was the claim made by intelligence officials both in the executive and legislative branches that Snowden was lying his ass off and didn’t have the access to the material he claims to have given to Greenwald. Yet, at the same time, they claim he did great damage to the country’s intelligence gathering abilities.

    • Tel says:

      It is faster and more efficient to try Plan A and Plan B in parallel and see what works, rather than try them one at a time.

    • Mule Rider says:

      It’s quite amusing which way some people (hypocrites) slice their hyperbole, depending on what point they’re trying to make . Reminds me of a few years back when I got into an argument with a journalist in the Seattle area over the school district there being forced to considerably scale back its use of racial designations in deciding where kids would attend school, which nearly eliminated all the busing that was being done merely to fulfill racial political motives. In any event, she argued on the one hand against the naysayers of the quota/busing program that they shouldn’t be up in arms because it only affected kids “on full moons every other decade.” No big deal, right? But to make her case as to why the program needed to stay in place, she said this, “”the seven-year battle over the Seattle School District’s use of race, and its disappointing end at the U.S. Supreme Court last winter, will come to represent one of the last stands against educational inequality” So evidently something affecting kids only on full moons every other decade was also big enough to represent one of the biggest fronts on educational equality.

      I don’t know if people really are just that careless and stupid when they rattle off such an inconsistent position on something, or if they truly are that malicious and deceitful and blinded by partisan hate that they’ll say just about anything to advance an ideological agenda.

  12. Gamble says:

    Soon the IRS will instruct Obama to drone strike dissenters.

    The GPS inside your smart phone, camera, vehicle, etc. is all they need…

  13. Ken Pruitt says:

    Bob, what’s your take on the whole argument that people shouldn’t expect privacy on the phone anyway because they don’t own their phone number, the company does?

    • Ken B says:

      I expect privacy in my bathroom, even though I only rent it.

      Of course I don’t think all rights are property rights to start with.

  14. skylien says:

    Be careful what you mention in absolute hyperbole and as reduction ad absurdum. It could become true and therefore not that absurd much faster than you thought:

    New X-Box from Microsoft has a mic included that cannot be switched off:

    Of course the X-box needs permanent Internet access if you want to use it etc.. Shame upon him who thinks evil upon it.

    • Ken B says:

      Honi soit qui mal y pense

      Never saw you as a Plantagenet loyalist, skylien.

      • skylien says:

        Thanks for making me googling it. I didn’t know the history behind this saying. I just was quite confused when I looked up the English translation of this saying that I only knew in German and then the French version came up first in the English dictionary. Is the French version really commonly used, not really, or is it?

        • Anonymous says:

          It’s only used in the French, as part of the royal coat of arms.It’s a vestige. I’m not sure it’s even on the modern coat of arms anymore, being a Plantagenet thing.

        • Anonymous says:

          I’ve tried replying before but get errors…
          It’s only used in the French, as part of the royal coat of arms.It’s a vestige. I’m not sure it’s even on the modern coat of arms anymore, being a Plantagenet thing.

          • Ken B says:

            That was me btw. Stupid browser.

    • Ken Pruitt says:

      This is why I’m buying a PS4….

      • Yancey Ward says:

        “Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design.”

      • whiskey1bravo says:

        Exactly.. Lol

  15. Susan Marquez says:

    So Bob, you say that “for obvious security reasons” you have to keep everything a secret. That’s just not true. The best security is open and readily available for scrutiny by a wide community. The fact that you keep your methods and techniques secret proves that they are worthless. The only reason for government secrets (other than short-term tactical info) is to protect the ineptness of the government.

  16. Cryptoast says:

    1. The dragnet doesnt work because the most sophisticated bad guys arent simply emailing or facebooking terror plots. The use advanced, but easy to to use, easy to obtain encryption techniques that nobody can break.

    …which leads me to…

    2. Bob, I also have treated the web as though pan-surveillance has been in place for years now. I consult and make a good deal of money teaching individuals and organizations why encryption is important, I implement it for them and tech them how to use these tools.I charge between 165-580 dollars to handle an 1 phone and one computer. Im offering you my services and software free of charge. You know where to find me.

    Using these methods is much easier than you think, has very little cost in terms of inconvenience and implementation, and no NSA, CIA, or any other organization can do anything about them. I demonstrate effectiveness to all my customers by installing and implementing the software, then on my own devices – I call and email my partner to say very, very detailed, explicit, and definite “things you are not allowed to say” using our real name, email addresses, and phone numbers. He is in the states, and he repeats those thing back to me. When we arent droned or questioned, I call that proof of effectiveness.

    These methods can add a few steps to certain tasks. You can also operate without them when you want. Youre not ‘stuck’ with them or the minor inconvenience they carry., I suggest encrypting everything just to gum up the dragnet, but thats up to the user.

    I recently saw a news story saying that for the first time, bad guys communications were unobtainable by eavesdroppers because of encryption. Thats beyond stupid, Its not something you could know. They finally figured out someone was encrypting, and call it the first case of encryption? Come on.

  17. Cryptoast says:

    Oh, and I dont expect a shout-out, a reference or an ad. I expect nothing in return. I have benefited from your work and I dont think Ive ever put a dime out on any of it. Least I can do.

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