Showing posts with label NSA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label NSA. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Patriot Act, Terrorism and the Irrationality of Fear (Part 2)

READ: Part 1 here.

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison

Now let’s look at the two main arguments that lawmakers and spy agency officials constantly put forward to justify the far reaching and arbitrary nature of the current surveillance programs. Governments around the world agree that acts committed by seemingly normal people with no affiliation to a terrorist group are both the new soup du jour and their greatest fear. Yet, a few honest people in security establishments also add that there is virtually no way to detect or stop these people unless we can find a way to read their minds.

This begs the question whether programs exposed by Snowden, like PRISM, are an attempt by the government (perhaps unwittingly) to build a machine designed to detect an act of terror before it happens? A sort of pre-crime unit like in the one in the Steve Spielberg movie, Minority Report. Is the US government attempting to collect every piece of communication from every citizen, in the hope of trying to establish a pattern of behaviour that might indicate self-radicalization? Proponents of the current NSA programs would have us believe that such a program is the only way for the government and security agencies to keep us safe by stopping lone wolf attacks. 

Many lawmakers defend these programs by talking about the number of terrorist attacks that have been thwarted as a result of this surveillance, but are conveniently unable to provide any statistics due to national security concerns. Both the Justice Department and the FBI have publicly admitted that “in spite of all that added spying, they couldn’t point to one single case that was solved, or one single terrorist act that was thwarted through the use of these Patriot Act provisions.” (Source: Washington Post Article). Some people disagree with this view and argue the opposite, but, since we do not have access to ‘sensitive’ information, let’s look at the last few major terrorist attacks that have been thwarted.

In the case of the Times Square bomber it was a vigilant food vendor that alerted police and not the massive surveillance apparatus the government has built. It was a last minute tip from a Saudi informant that prevented the printer bombs, aboard cargo planes, from exploding in midair en-route to Chicago. The two packages bound for the US, had passed undetected “through four countries in at least four different airplanes, two of them carrying passengers” (source: NY Times). The Nigerian underwear bomber’s father personally went to the US Embassy in Abuja to warn the US government that his son was becoming radicalized. This tip was passed on to counterterrorism officials in the US, yet less than a month later Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab successfully passed through Nigerian and Dutch security using his real identity, paying cash for a one way ticket and never checked luggage – all things that are supposed red flags in our post-9/11 Patriot Act security apparatus. The older brother in the Boston marathon bombings was identified by Russian intelligence, who warned US intelligence that this young man on a path to being radicalized. I guess the NSA’s multi-billion dollar machine did not think so. 

Time after time we have seen that human intelligence is the only surefire way to thwart a terrorist attack. Human intelligence will always be the most valuable and effective way for us to stop any kind of attack, because all attacks require time to plan and the process of radicalisation is visible to the people closest to the would-be terrorist. The attacker needs time to procure bomb-making expertise, buy physical materials and will likely also have some accomplices. A friend, co-worker, family or community member will witness changes in these people; homegrown terrorists do not live in isolation. All of the recent lone wolf terrorists in the US have been well-educated and functioning members of society – but all must at some point have displayed signs of odd behaviour and warning signs to the people around them. This is where we need to focus. 

No amount of reading emails or storing metadata from our Skype and cellphone calls can provide this intelligence. We should focus our energy on winning trust in local communities and educating people to inform authorities the moment they see well-defined warning signs. I am not talking about asking everyone to spy on neighbours, but about picking up on overt changes in behaviour in people we have known all our lives.

One other factor that should concern us is the government’s growing reliance on machines and data. Every data scientist will tell you that ‘too much’ data is worse than having none at all. It can actually hamper one’s ability to prevent attacks because you either miss the needles in the haystack or spread yourself too thin trying to understand and connect every dot. Consider the sheer amount of data being collected today; it requires authorities to cast a much wider net and as a result lose focus on the more important warning signs.  

I am not suggesting that we abandon spying programs or get rid of the entire Patriot Act. Nor am I suggesting that we lay down our arms and meekly accept our fate. We absolutely must be vigilant and put measures in place to prevent attacks, but there also needs to be a discussion about the limits and oversights that must be placed on these programs. Government needs to be more honest about the realities and limits of how safe we can be, rather than pandering to voters and behaving like there is always something more that can be done after a new attack. 

America’s founding fathers were acutely aware of too much power corrupting people and built safeguards into the constitution. Today, our government and security agencies are building deeply sophisticated and frighteningly broad surveillance systems designed to spy on their own citizens in the name of protecting us from acts of terror. The problem is that this is a disingenuous and irrational argument, one that will not make us safer, but will lead to greater abuse of power with less transparency and virtually no accountability.

The question we need to answer is – have we become so irrational in this fear that we would give up freedoms for which our forefathers gave their lives? Are we willing to live in a world where government watches our every move and monitors every form of communication just to find one needle in a vast haystack? I know I do not want to live in such a world. I would rather take my chances and die in a terrorist attack.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Patriot Act, Terrorism and the Irrationality of Fear (Part 1)

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison

I believe most can agree that, no matter what your stance on national security, terrorism is and always will be a heinous and cowardly act of violence committed against innocent people, motivated by political, religious or social fanaticism. However, how we chose to let our government protect us and how we decide to fight this cowardly and invisible enemy is a choice we must make. 

The questions we have to ask ourselves are: How many hard-fought freedoms are we willing to let our government sacrifice in the name of protecting us? And how much privacy are we are willing to give up to feel safer? To say that we need to make an absolute choice between our freedoms and our security is a false argument because it’s impossible to be 100% safe from an enemy that is willing to give up their own lives to take ours. 

This is an extremely important debate given the revelations about the opaque nature with which our government and the NSA have been operating and abusing their powers. They have gone beyond our borders, bypassed our laws and their severely overextended their remit. The NSA no longer felt the need to keep the President of the United States of America informed about some of their spying programs. 

We urgently need a new framework for the NSA, one that has sufficient and effective oversight by the executive, legislative and the judicial branches of government. The NSA has shown they cannot be trusted, operating with complete impunity, little transparency and zero accountability. Beyond the argument to protect privacy, there are a number of other reasons why the current NSA spying program needs to be curtailed and have some reasonable limits applied to it, before it is too late.

Let’s start with the simple fact that, while fear is an irrational thing, it does have a tangible effect in our daily lives and societies. Take the stock market, for example, it goes up and down based on a number of rational factors, but is also directly driven by irrational sentiment – our level of confidence or lack thereof, in the economy, personal job prospects and optimism or pessimism about our future. So too with terrorism, there are irrational and rational elements that we need to consider when determining the level of security that is reasonable to protect against attacks.

First, security experts around the world agree that the majority of airport security procedures are completely ineffective in preventing an act of terror; yet the TSA’s budget in 2014 was over $7 Billion (source: Wikipedia). There have been numerous studies and reports published on how ineffective the TSA and their methods are (Source: “Airport Security Is Making Americans Less Safe” and “Report Says T.S.A. Screening Is Not Objective” and “TSA Chief Out After Agents Fail 95 Percent of Airport Breach Tests”.)  

If you examine these facts rationally, you could build a strong argument for getting rid of most of these airport security measures, or at the very least cut down on the number of inconveniences travelers face. Yet, the reason for all this security is simple and has little to do with making us more secure on an aircraft. It is psychological and driven by the fact that air travel is vital for global commerce and economic growth.

Imagine if people became too scared to fly - the world and business would come to a grinding halt. So even though the amount of money spent on airport security is disproportionate to the actual security it provides, the visibility and inconvenience makes people feel safer, which in turn helps them go about their daily lives. For this reason, there are sometimes important and valid reasons to make a show of security. There is a tangible economic benefit involved and this is why airports and not train stations, bus depots or sea ports are protected in the same manner. This is also the reason we always see a beefed up security presence on the streets in the aftermath of a terror attack anywhere in the world.

The second thing to weigh in this debate is that we have a disproportionate emotional response to terrorism as compared to every other event that ends with loss of life. Consider our response to the Boston Marathon bombings against our response to the Texas refinery explosion that happened the same week. Three people died in Boston and fifteen in Texas. In Boston, a number of people were maimed; in Texas an entire town was leveled with hospitals, schools and homes all destroyed. 

Yet, we and the media fixated entirely on the events in Boston and the subsequent manhunt for two young men. Within a few weeks America had donated $61 Million to the OneFund for the Boston victims; while Texas has received little more than $1M of our kindness in that time. I am not arguing that one was less or more devastating than the other, simply pointing out how disproportionate, both our fixation and our tangible responses is to terrorism versus any other calamitous event. 

Ultimately it is much easier to unite against a common enemy that has a name and face, and get some sense of closure when our government hunts down and kills them.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Value of Privacy

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

There has been much furor and attention in the news regarding the NSA’s blatant overreach and invasion of privacy but the reality is that the manner in which the private sector has been invading our personal lives is far more intrusive and concerning. What’s more, nobody really knows how much is actually being collected, which companies are doing the collecting or the methods they are using. 

In this regard the internet remains the Wild West. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, “A digital Magna Carta is required if we are to stand any chance of halting the Internet’s steady infringement of our right to privacy.” What is scarier is that the information being collected, on each of us, is also being compiled and sold to third parties without our knowledge or consent. 

For many years we were assured that the information we shared via online searches, sites we visited and ads we clicked was being collected and stored in a non-personally identifiable manner. And that it was being collected with the intention of improving our online experiences and adding a greater degree of personalisation for marketing to us. It turns out that this is far from the truth. 

Today, there are numerous companies compiling dossiers on us; gleaned not only from our online behaviours and habits, but then supplemented with information from the real world. Frighteningly, these dossiers are not anonymous. They identify us by name and contain comprehensive profiles that include everything from political and religious affiliations to medical and criminal histories to shopping and surfing habits. These dossiers are being openly sold to everyone from prospective employers and research companies, to marketers and financial institutions. Watch 60 Minutes report: “The Data Brokers” 

The argument used by marketing companies, internet firms and these so called data brokers, to defend this gross invasion of privacy, is to say that anything we disclose on the internet (as well as data that exists in the public domain) should be considered fair game. They argue that people are fully aware of the information they are sharing online, doing so willingly, and free to read the terms and conditions on each website about how their data is being handled. In their estimation, consumers are willingly parting with all this personal information. 

They further contend that the internet is a marketing medium, so people need to accept that information gleaned off it can and will be used not only to personalize experiences, but also to better advertise and market to us. Based on this flimsy argument they also staunchly believe that there is no need for government regulation to prevent anyone willing to pay money to know more about us, than a spouse or parent ever would. 

Then there are those who argue that if we have nothing to hide, why should we be concerned?  They ask why we care if every term we search, product we buy, page we visit, prescription we fill and gift we send is tracked by companies or sold on to third parties. To me this is a totally false argument because an individual’s right to privacy has nothing to do with having something to hide. Everyone has a reasonable expectation to privacy in a democratic society. It is a fundamental right. 

Think about a really simple analogy in the real world. Imagine you walk out of your house to run some errands on a beautiful Saturday morning. You stop at Starbucks on the corner for a latte and doughnut. Next you cross the street to go over to the pharmacy to pick up the prescriptions your doctor called in. The pharmacist asks you to verify your home address. 

On your way home you decide to run a few more errands. First, you stop at another drugstore to talk to their pharmacist about recommending something for a nasty rash you have on your inner thigh (Note: you choose not to ask your regular pharmacist who knows your whole family by name, because you are feeling embarrassed and not because you have something to hide). Then it’s a stop at the local grocery store, where you use some email coupons on your phone. 

You then make a quick stop at the wine store to pick up a nice bottle of wine for yourself and a few bottles of bubbly for the party you are attending this weekend. You spend some time browsing at your favourite local boutique, on your way to the final stop at the dry cleaner. The clerk at the dry cleaner asks for your home phone number to look up your account. 

Arguably, you have been in what can be described as the 'public domain' while running all your errands. Much like if you had stayed home and transacted entirely on the internet. In both cases, you were required to divulge and share various bits of personal and private information, including your home address, phone number, medical history and credit card information in order to complete your transactions. 

Now imagine that you are running through the same schedule, except that from the moment you leave your home, you have a dozen random strangers physically following you around and secretly take down all the little bits of information you are legitimately required to and willing to divulge along the way. 

These strangers would be doing this without your prior consent or knowledge. These shadowy figures are simply leaning in closer as you give the pharmacist your insurance information and prescription list, or peering over your shoulder to look at your grocery cart, trying to determine if you are gluten intolerant. In fact, they are keeping track of everything you say, see and do. 

Now imagine that these strangers follow you around every day for months or even years collecting, storing and then combining this data with every other bit of information they can find from public records. They include your past employers, home addresses, credit history, political and charitable donations, etc. and then they put it all together to create a file on you that they can legally sell to any third party willing to pay for it.

These exact dossiers compiled by data brokers are now being used by many financial institutions to gauge your 'social' ranking and credit-worthiness, based on who your Facebook friends are. Such compilations are even being used by prospective employers to determine your character. This gross violation of trust is actually happening today, completely in the shadows and without our consent. 

I understand that technology has reshaped our lives in many ways and with these conveniences there is a reasonable and necessary loss of privacy. With this I don’t believe anyone has an issue. However, to say that if we are bothered by the extent to which we have lost control over our private information, and the solution is to simply stop using the internet or sharing personal information on it (which is impossible) – it is akin to saying we should not leave the house if we are worried about getting mugged. 

It is a totally nonsensical argument and an unrealistic expectation in a world that has become completely dependent on technology. The point is not to have zero, or even total, privacy, but that information gathering should not be done surreptitiously. It should be conducted in a way that clearly informs us, gives us the choice to participate or not, and allows us to limit the amount of information we are willing to share.

It is an absolute right to expect privacy and be aware of how our information is being used and by whom; especially when sharing information in a specific situation for a very specific purpose, e.g. at a pharmacy to get a prescription filled. It is not unreasonable to expect that the same pharmacy will never share this information or start to combine it with other habits, behaviours, etc. and then sell the information to a third party. 

Equally, it would be ludicrous to try to regulate the entire internet by creating even more complex and detailed privacy laws that cover every possible situation or transaction; not to mention trying to do this globally in some uniform way. 

The solution is to make the whole process completely transparent and allow people to make the choices regarding information they are willing to share. Make it simple and clear about how and for what purpose our information will be used on every site. 

For example, if you shop on Amazon. then the baseline should be that this site alone would have access to only the most basic information required (name, address, credit card) for someone to complete a transaction; and this information would never be shared or sold to a third party without our prior consent. Amazon should also allow us to delete personal browsing and shopping history, if I choose not to save it or be marketed to more accurately. 

Further, Amazon could build incentives for people who are willing to share more of their shopping history, or even more detailed information about themselves, their habits and behaviours; even around the rest of the web. 

The same should hold true for tracking companies; they too can create incentives for people willing to sign-up and give them permission to follow them across the web, on their mobile phones, etc. Finally, every company that sells and profits off individual data should also share that revenue with the individual; creating a sort of human-information exchange. 

However, the default on the web and every site should always be that people are opted-out and not the other way around, as it is today.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Snowden and The American Tragedy


“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” 
Patrick Henry 

Snowden has become a big embarrassment for America. It is not so much his information leaks about America’s post 9/11 spying mechanisms that have been awkward, but the US’s increasingly humiliating global chase to capture this one man. 

There was a time when the world and almost every country within it shook with trepidation or at the very least publicly showed a great deal of respect, when America roared about anything at all. Today, the picture we are seeing is vastly different. Forget respect. Country after country is also showing no fear, even when being threatened. And we are not talking about Iran or Venezuela here, but places like Hong Kong, with whom the US has great relations, strong diplomatic ties and even an extradition treaty. Russia, with whom the US shares a love-hate relationship, usually ends up co-operating in such matters, but not today. Even tiny countries like Ecuador and Iceland are showing the US the middle finger by entertaining Snowden’s asylum request and refusing to kow tow to US demands and threats of withdrawing trade benefits.

Seeing the world react this way, most Americans will be quick to blame Obama for being a weak leader who has been soft on Iran, Syria and on terror. They will claim that he has made America look feeble. Perhaps it is true that he has tried to show a softer side of America in order to counteract the shoot from the hip years of Bush-Cheney. His words might have done this, but if you look purely at his actions around his national security decisions, they tell a different story. Consider his vastly expanded use of drones, a unilateral raid on the soil of a sovereign democratic nation (to kill Bin Laden) and his expansion of the NSA domestic spying program; all show him to be as hawkish as his predecessors. But it is too easy to put the blame squarely on Obama’s shoulders, even though he does share part of the blame for America’s growing impotence in the world today.

The reality is that America’s response and particularly her actions in the years following the attacks on 9/11 are entirely responsible for her lack of standing and respect today. On the 11th of September 2001, the majority of the world shared in America’s pain and stood shoulder to shoulder with her. There was unanimous global support for American retaliation in going after the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for providing safe haven to Al Qaeda. Nobody questioned the justification for this war; in fact most nations supported it, and it was sanctioned by the UN barely a few months after the first American and British boots were on the ground. But it was Cheney and Bush’s obsession with Saddam and their subsequent unilateral actions for their War on Terror, many in violation of International Law and the Geneva Convention, that led to America losing the moral high ground and respect it had earned for more than a century. Under Bush’s leadership the world witnessed a great superpower turn into a powerful bully that turned a deaf ear to everyone, including steadfast and lifelong allies. Now, a little over a decade later, America is witnessing the realities and outcomes that have resulted from Cheney’s knee-jerk reactions and secret government decisions made in those fear filled months and fear-mongering years after 9/11.

If I were to describe a country that operated a detention center that is located on foreign soil, simply to allow it to be outside the jurisdiction of their courts and legal processes. A place where anyone can be held indefinitely and without charges filed against them. A country that allowed warrantless wiretapping on its own citizens. One that set up detention centers across the globe for the purposes of using torture and other interrogation techniques, like water boarding. A country that believes it can use drones to hunt down and kill anyone, on any sovereign soil, without burden of proof. A country that passed opaque and far reaching laws that allow secret courts to make secret decisions that will never see light of democratic process. A country that was willing to allow its domestic surveillance programs to collect unlimited amounts of communication data on its own people, without any probable cause; and one that claimed to do all this in the name of protecting its citizens - what country would come to your mind? Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria, Burma, China, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen…

Only through a combination of press leaks, public outrage, some congressional oversight and whistleblowers have we been able to piece together the extent of the secret decisions and frightening overreach made by our government in the name of security, in the years after 9/11. Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA’s massive domestic spying program are just the latest revelation to come to light. It is now abundantly clear that the vast majority of the decisions our government has made do not uphold America’s ideals, beliefs and democratic principles. The most distressing part is that each new disclosure serves to further weaken and erode America’s already diminished moral standing in the world, because her actions continue to be consistently incongruous with her stated character and ideals. I think someone once said that we see a person’s true character in times of adversity. This is not cause for celebration or an opportunity to point fingers; in fact quite the opposite. America for all her bad has been a responsible global citizen, and the most compassionate superpower in history, doing more to help the world than any other nation. Nobody is perfect but in the grand scheme of things America has always overwhelmingly stood for good, for democracy, for transparency and for rule of law and helped promote this cause across the globe. Today, it is hard for America to claim that China and Russia are thwarting the rule of law when lawyers in the White House have spent years writing-up legal arguments to defend US invasions of foreign lands, without any threat or provocation or UN backing. Creating new legal frameworks to justify drone strikes in any country, against anyone that the US deems a terrorist and without the burden of proof. Even justifying the murder of their citizens without any due process.

The America that Bush and Cheney created and Obama has failed to dismantle has clearly lost its way. Bush and Cheney’s America trembled and succumbed to fear in the face of great adversity; taking the easier and more slippery path to safeguarding national interests. They chose the path travelled by nations that feign democracy and do undemocratic things to protect their people and beliefs, justifying it in the name of greater good. The America I knew and have respected was made of sterner stuff. She would have resolved to defeat terrorism by further upholding liberty and justice, while protecting her fierce democratic ideals and freedoms, above all else. By choosing this path Bush, Cheney and Obama have achieved the opposite. They have weakened America and thereby made an already dangerous world a far less safe place.