Sarcasm: last refuge of the modest and chaste-souled when the privacy of that soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.—
Privacy and Secrecy
June 14, 2013
Consider this example: You’re about to inherit $1 million. This is a personal fact that you may or may not want to share with everyone. You may treat this information as secret, or as private. If you aren’t that close to this person, you may say nothing whatsoever about your inheritance. In that case, it’s a secret. But if this person has no interest in your money, for him, it isn’t an important secret. However, if your wife’s divorce lawyer is taking a deposition regarding your assets, should you neglect to mention this inheritance, then it becomes an important secret because withheld information is important to actions in the relationship. Unimportant secrets should be respected.
Now, say you reveal to the next person that you’re getting an inheritance, but you don’t say how much. The existence of the inheritance is no longer secret. If the amount isn’t provided, it’s because you deem that information private. It isn’t a secret because its existence is now known, just not its content. If this person is unaffected by the amount of your inheritance, then your privacy is unimportant to him. Unimportant privacies should be respected.
But what if you owe that person $50,000 that you’ve been unable to repay? Your inheritance is now relevant to the relationship. Keeping your newfound wealth private turns it into an important secret with potential implications within the relationship itself. If this person later finds you could’ve repaid him but didn’t, then your relationship likely turns from personal to legal. (But perhaps you merely intend to surprise him on his birthday next week by paying him off with a stack of cash tied with a bow, so no harm done.)
Some information may have a security classification: this data is by definition secret. The existence of the data (if not its exact contents) may be common knowledge (as is the case for passwords or nuclear launch codes) or the data’s mere existence may itself be secret (as is the case with some defence or intelligence operations). The content of someone’s medical records or tax returns are private, but in most cases aren’t secret. But if the President suffers from Addison’s Disease, and thus is constantly on extremely powerful painkillers, this would be an example of private data which is also secret data.
On the other hand, the existence of the US spying programme Prism was a secret, but not private. But now, it’s no longer secret. Prism needed to be secret to be effective because the targets needed to be unaware that they were under surveillance. A whistleblower is someone who reveals secrets (it’s “good” if they’re “bad” secrets and “bad” if they’re “good” secrets — such judgements are inherently subjective and fallible). By themselves, neither privacy nor secrecy are bad. The term privacy often relates to personal information, while the term secrecy often implies that one or more parties in a relationship enjoy an unfair advantage.
Security is the degree of resistance to, or protection from, harm. It applies to any vulnerable and valuable asset, such as a person, dwelling, community, nation, or organisation. Much of the conflict between people who want to hold on to old ideas of security and a future that will push their concerns aside with irresistible indifference is centred on the difference between privacy and secrecy. While secret lives are fundamentally dishonest, we all need and deserve a private life. Privacy is a priority for security: we can carry on discussions with a reasonable degree of confidence that we aren’t leaking personal or business secrets to the rest of the world. We can be candid with those we trust. Someone working on a new project, product, or idea can publicly release it at a time of his or her choosing. Privacy is something we all assume we have, at one time or another, whether online, talking on the telephone, or in the bedroom.
Surveillance is monitoring behaviour, activities, or other changing information, usually of people, and for the purpose of influencing, managing, directing, or protecting them. Surveillance is therefore an ambiguous practice, sometimes creating positive effects, at other times negative. It’s sometimes done in a surreptitious manner and usually involves observation by government organisations.
The word privacy does not appear in the Constitution.
— Bill Maher
USA border agents and immigration officers, in a long-standing practice, are authorised to search and in some cases hold for weeks or months the digital devices of anyone trying to enter the US. The government can (though this power is seldom invoked) read and copy the contents of computers carried by US travellers without a good reason to suspect wrongdoing (“based on no more than a hunch”). The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) doesn’t believe border searches are unreasonable, and therefore no one’s rights are violated. Conversely, a 1986 government policy allows only cursory review of a traveller’s documents — but hey, times change. “[Otherwise] officers might hesitate to search an individual’s device without the presence of articulable factors capable of being formally defended, despite having an intuition or hunch based on experience that justified a search,” DHS added.
Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government.
— Jeremy Bentham
Secrecy is the first essential in affairs of the State.
— Duc De Richelieu
Democracies die behind closed doors. Today the US has a multitude of secret agencies, secret committees of Congress, a secret court — and even secret laws. Federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security, have assumed an unprecedented amount of authority to detain and spy on individuals. Yet the public has been kept unaware of how these powers have been used. Government secrecy is a concept completely at odds with the idea of government accountability.
Secrecy is often controversial, depending on the content of the secret, the group or individuals keeping the secret, and the motivation for secrecy. Secrecy by government entities is often decried as excessive or in promotion of poor operation. Yet excessive revelation of information on individuals can conflict with virtues of privacy and confidentiality.
Oh, well, there’s a difference between privacy and secrecy.
— Laura Schlessinger
When is Privacy Important?
Anything a person carries across the border has always been fair game for searching, but the widespread use of various electronic devices has made the job much harder. These devices potentially contain a lot of information about the person’s character and morals, but to search them all would take far too long. So, if border guards have reasonable suspicions, devices can be confiscated and copied so that the digital information therein can be looked at more closely (and possibly even shared with other federal agencies such as the IRS and the FBI).
Civil liberties groups have sued to stop this practice. And indeed, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has objected to such searches without reasonable suspicion. But their objection only applies to the states within their jurisdiction: Arizona, California and Alaska. While the 9th Circuit’s decision isn’t binding on other circuits, none has formally disagreed as yet. Further, the 9th Circuit is the only circuit to hold that government can search laptops at ALL. Until and unless there’s a split between the circuits, or a circuit is overruled by the Supreme Court, what one circuit says can be reasonably interpreted as law.
There are times when your privacy may be invaded without your knowledge: New types of personal and household devices are connecting to the internet, from your television to your car navigation systems to your light switches. An “Internet of Things” — that is, wired devices — has emerged — a treasure trove of data if you’re a “person of interest” to the spy community. Once upon a time, spies had to place a bug in your chandelier to hear your conversation. With the rise of the “smart home,” you’ll send tagged, geo-located data that a spy agency can intercept in real time when you use the lighting app on your phone to adjust your living room’s ambiance. The new Xbox by NSA partner Microsoft may be watching you (one hopes not without a very good reason, but who knows). One of ithe XBox’s key features is full integration of Kinect, a motion-sensing camera that allows users to play games, scroll through menus, and generally operate the Xbox just using hand gestures. Microsoft has touted the camera as the hallmark of a new era of interactivity in gaming. What Microsoft hasn’t promoted, however, is the fact that you won’t be able to power on the console without first enabling the Kinect, designed to detect both heartbeats and eye movement. Furthermore, you have to position yourself in front of it. A recently-published Microsoft patent reveals Kinect has the capability (through eye movement tracking) to determine exactly when users are viewing Xbox-broadcast ads. Consistent ad viewers are to be granted rewards, according to the patent. Does the camera record anything else? Is data being stored? Identified as to source? This represents a potential massive invasion of privacy.
Items of interest are located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation internet and using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing (the latter now going to the cloud). These household spy devices change notions of secrecy and privacy.
We tend to think of privacy as sheltering us. But some people feel we need no shelter in that regard — if you’ve done nothing wrong, what do you have to hide? Except for information about sensitive topics (erectile dysfunction, say), it’s hard for them to imagine that mere disclosure of your personal data would change you in any meaningful way. The underlying assumption seems to be that privacy is about hiding bad things. But privacy serves another function — it can spare our feelings. (Do you want your neighbours to know that you have a gambling problem or like to sleep with a stuffed bear?) Your self evolves largely in private when you runimate on mistakes made and lessons learned. Privacy shelters an emergent personality from external efforts to render it orderly and predictable (think classroom teachers). Privacy counteracts surveillance, which seeks to impose a grid of fixed, stable meaning on human activity. Privacy enables the development of critical perspective and creates the conditions for personal growth.
In a recent US Supreme Court case, Maryland v. King, the Court narrowly ruled that law enforcement can take DNA samples from everyone arrested for a “serious” new crime in the hope it helps solve old crimes. Scalia’s dissent is worth reading, blistering in its criticism of the majority opinion:
The Fourth Amendment forbids searching a person for evidence of a crime when there’s no basis for believing the person is guilty of the crime or is in possession of incriminating evidence. That prohibition is categorical and without exception; it lies at the very heart of the Fourth Amendment. Whenever this Court has allowed a suspicionless search, it’s insisted upon a justifying motive apart from the investigation of crime.
It’s obvious that no such non-investigative motive exists in this case. The Court’s assertion that DNA is being taken, not to solve crimes, but to identify those in the State’s custody, taxes the credulity of the credulous. And the Court’s comparison of Maryland’s DNA searches to other techniques, such as fingerprinting, can seem apt only to those who know [little] about how those DNA searches actually work.
Scalia points out that allowing searches unrelated to a specific crime have only been allowed in very special circumstances, and this ruling blows that out of the water. He notes that the whole claim that these DNA searches were just for identification rips to shreds the basics of the 4th Amendment:
If identifying someone means finding out what unsolved crimes he’s committed, then identification is indistinguishable from the ordinary law enforcement aims that have never been thought to justify a suspicionless search. Searching every lawfully stopped car, for example, might turn up information about unsolved crimes the driver had committed, but no one would say that such a search was aimed at “identifying” him, and no court would hold such a search lawful.
All parties concede that it would have been entirely permissible, as far as the Fourth Amendment is concerned, for Maryland to take a sample of King’s DNA as a consequence of his conviction for second-degree assault. So the ironic result of the Court’s error is this: The only arrestees to whom the outcome here will ever make a difference are those who have been acquitted of the crime of arrest (so that their DNA could not have been taken upon conviction). In other words, this Act manages to burden uniquely the sole group for whom the Fourth Amendment’s protections ought to be most jealously guarded.
Scalia points out that the court has never really tested the legality of fingerprinting. So even the assumption that it’s constitutional is not necessarily settled:
The Court asserts that the taking of fingerprints was “constitutional for generations prior to the introduction” of the FBI’s rapid computer-matching system. This bold statement is bereft of citation to authority because there is none. The “great expansion in fingerprinting came before the modern era of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence,” and so we were never asked to decide the legitimacy of the practice. As fingerprint databases expanded from convicted criminals, to arrestees, to civil servants, to immigrants, to everyone with a driver’s license, Americans simply “became accustomed to having our fingerprints on file in some government database.” But it’s wrong to suggest that this was uncontroversial at the time, or that this Court blessed universal fingerprinting for “generations” before it was possible to use it effectively for identification.
According to Scalia, the basic logic of the majority more or less justifies almost any search.
Today’s judgement will, to be sure, have the beneficial effect of solving more crimes; then again, so would the taking of DNA samples from anyone who flies on an airplane (surely the Transportation Security Administration needs to know the “identity” of the flying public), applies for a driver’s license, or attends a public school. Perhaps the construction of such a genetic panopticon is wise. But I doubt that the proud men who wrote the charter of our liberties would have been so eager to open their mouths for royal inspection.
After all, your DNA isn’t private — you leave it everywhere you go, in shed skin cells and hair. A swab is easier to test, but better instruments in the future will enable capture of your DNA from very small samples without your even knowing.
“Anyone who wants some of my DNA can have it. What’s the BFD with DNA? It doesn’t hurt to give a sample. I don’t have a limited supply of DNA. It’s not like the scene from Dr Strangelove where General Jack D Ripper was horrified that the dreaded commies would “sap and impurify” Americans’ precious vital fluids. My DNA sample might show that my sister is my sibling or that my ancestors came from Eastern Europe or that I didn’t leave blood or semen at a crime scene. Horrors! I have much more to be concerned with than accurate identification.” — Michael N Marcus 4 June 2013 @ 5:05am TechDirt comments
This cartoon may be a bit misleading in this discussion. To my knowledge, no one is suggesting that medical records be made public (though there are concerns about hackers getting access). This discussion is about the information that could be gained about you via a thorough analysis of the DNA sample taken by authorities, not one taken by your doctor in a medical setting.
The truth is; your DNA sample can show many things today and the profiling that can be done will only increase hugely.
|rs53576||in the oxytocin receptor influences social behaviour and personality|
|rs7412||can raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by more than 10x|
|rs429358||can raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by more than 10x|
|rs6152||can influence baldness|
|rs333||resistance to HIV|
|rs1800497||in a dopamine receptor may influence the sense of pleasure|
|rs1805007||determines red hair and sensitivity to anæsthetics|
|rs9939609||triggers obesity and type-2 diabetes|
|rs662799||prevents weight gain from high fat diets|
|rs7495174||green eye colour|
|rs12913832||blue eye colour|
|rs7903146||in 3% of the population greatly increases the risk of type-2 diabetes|
|rs12255372||linked to type-2 diabetes and breast cancer|
|rs1799971||makes alcohol cravings stronger|
|rs4680||varied cognitive effects|
|rs1333049||coronary heart disease|
|rs1801133||folate metabolism and several cancers|
Can insurance companies access your DNA sample? Can reporters? Your boss?
Another potential problem with the government’s harvest of personal data is one of exclusion. Exclusion occurs when people are prevented from having knowledge about how information about them is being used, and when they’re barred from accessing and correcting errors in that data. Many government national-security measures involve maintaining a huge database of information that individuals can’t access. Indeed, because they involve national security, the very existence of these programmes is often kept secret. This kind of information processing, which blocks subjects’ knowledge and involvement, is a due-process problem. It’s a structural problem that creates a power imbalance between people and their government. To what extent should government officials have such power over citizens?
Mississippi will require doctors to collect umbilical cord blood from babies born to certain mothers who were 16 or younger at the time of conception under a new law intended to identify statutory rapists and reduce the state’s rate of teenage pregnancy (highest in the country). The measure is the first of its kind in the US. Under the law, doctors and midwives will be expected to retrieve umbilical cord blood in cases where the father is 21 or older or when the baby’s paternity is in question. Samples will be stored at the state medical examiner’s office for testing in the event that police believe the girl was the victim of statutory rape but they won’t automatically be entered into the state’s criminal DNA database. Supporters of the law say it offers an important new tool to prevent older men from having sex with younger girls.
Defenders of transparency argue that more information, rather than less, is our best protection against misjudgement. They question the social value of privacy. Richard Posner, federal appeals court judge, argues that privacy can be inefficient and contribute to social fraud and misrepresentation because it allows people to conceal true but embarrassing information about themselves from other people in order to gain unfair social or economic advantage. Philosopher Richard Wasserstrom suggests that our insistence on leading dual lives — one public, the other private — can amount to a kind of deception and hypocrisy; were we less embarrassed by sexual and other private activities traditionally associated with shame, we’d have less to fear from disclosure because we’d have nothing to hide. David Brin argues in the same vein in The Transparent Society (1998), quoting John Perry Barlow, former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, now an advocate on cyberspace issues: “I have no secrets myself, and I think that everybody would be a lot happier and safer if they just let everything be known. Then nobody could use anything against them.”
But if privacy is defined as the ability to control the conditions under which personal information is disclosed to others, even those who claim that society would be better off if people were less embarrassed about discussing their sexual activities in public may feel invaded when the existence of their expensive hairpiece is announced in a company meeting.
Then there’s the basic question of intimacy: if everyone has and is entitled to the same information about us, then that eliminates the notion of intimacy, in part defined by sharing more about oneself with certain people than with others (sharing our “private” parts).
A Word about Anonymity (Just to Be Sure It Isn’t Confused with Privacy)
Many people don’t want the things they say online to be connected with their offline identities. They may be concerned about political or economic retribution, harassment or even threats to their lives. Whistleblowers report news that companies and governments would prefer to suppress; human rights workers struggle against repressive governments; parents try to create a safe way for children to explore; victims of domestic violence attempt to rebuild their lives where abusers can’t follow. Instead of using their true names to communicate these people choose to speak using pseudonyms (assumed names) or anonymously (no name at all). For these individuals (and the organisations that support them) secure anonymity is critical. It may literally save lives.
Anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social discourse. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment. A much-cited 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission reads:
Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views … Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. ... It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation … at the hand of an intolerant society.
When is Secrecy Important?
In a restaurant, you’re accountable for your actions. But as long as you don’t intrude on other patrons’ privacy, you can talk about anything you wish with your group and behave in whatever manner you choose that isn’t disruptive and they’ll pretend you don’t exist and that they can’t hear a word you say. You’ll have privacy. But put up silk walls between each table so that you can’t tell if there’s anyone sitting next to you. You don’t know if what you say is being listened to by someone unknown or whether the person at the table next to you is eating a hamburger or his fellow diner. Maybe he has a microphone and is recording you. But you are invisible — you have secrecy — and therefore (assuming you aren’t under surveillance) you’re less accountable. Secrecy is a threat precisely because it allows a means to escape accountability.
FBI investigators for at least the past 5 years have routinely used a cellphone tracking tool that pinpoints callers’ locations and listens to conversations. (Warrant? What’s that?) The tool is called Stingray and it operates from an unmarked van.
In one recent case, the deadly toxin ricin was apparently found on a dust mask that FBI agents saw the defendant place into a “public garbage receptacle” in the town where he resided. A search of the defendant’s laptop revealed that, several months ago, someone using that computer downloaded two ricin-related publications, including “Standard Operating Procedure for Ricin,” which “describes safe handling and storage methods”.
Two months later, another person was arrested for a similar offense because a high-tech computer system captures front and back images of “every mail piece that is processed” by the United State Postal Service. It’s called Mail Isolation Control and Tracking. Nearby pieces (all collected from the same area) have a similar zip code which allows officials to isolate from whence this particular mail originated even with no return address. The speed and capacity of today’s computers allows information to be captured and organised for retrieval as never before. Anonymity is becoming rare.
It is humanly impossible for any government official to read all the intelligence reports each agency produces every day from the billions of pieces of data caught in its dragnet. For most of us, that confers a degree of privacy — for now. Most Americans are unlikely to have much confidence that the surveillance state is adequately controlled. Yet the number of government snoopers will only grow.
Governments often legitimately attempt to conceal information from other governments and the public, including information on weapons designs, military plans, diplomatic negotiation tactics, and secrets obtained illicitly from others (intelligence). The US spends at least $80 billion a year on intelligence alone, which is more than the defence budgets of all but a handful of countries. Most nations have some form of Official Secrets Act (the Espionage Act in the US) and classify material according to the level of protection needed (hence the term classified information). An individual needs a security clearance to access it and other protection methods, such as keeping documents in a safe, are also stipulated. Few people dispute the desirability of keeping Critical Nuclear Weapon Design Information secret, but many believe government secrecy is in general excessive and too often employed merely for political purposes.
- Some 1,271 government organisations and 1,931 private companies work on programmes related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the US.
- An estimated 854,000 people (nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, DC), hold top-secret security clearances.
- In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together, they occupy the equivalent of almost 3 Pentagons or 22 US Capitol buildings — about 17 million square feet of space.
- Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organisations and military commands, operating in 15 US cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
- Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgement by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year — a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.
Burn Bag is the informal name given to a container (usually a paper bag or some other waste receptacle) that holds sensitive or classified documents which are to be destroyed by fire or pulping after a certain period of time. The most common usage of burn bags is by government institutions in the destruction of classified materials. Destruction via burn bags is considered superior to shredding, because shredded documents can sometimes be reconstructed. Due to environmental concerns and the high value of recycled paper, institutions that generate large amounts of classified material tend to securely desensitise their data in disintegrators with an NSA / DOD approved top secret screen. Even though the term burn bag is still very popular, rarely within the US is any classified material incinerated.
NATO Classification of Information is for sensitive information shared amongst NATO allies; there are 4 levels (from most to least classified):
COSMIC TOP SECRET (CTS)
NATO SECRET (NS)
NATO CONFIDENTIAL (NC)
NATO RESTRICTED (NR).
A special case exists with regard to NATO UNCLASSIFIED (NU) information, which must not be made public without NATO permission — in general, these documents aren’t cleared for internet-transmission unless clearly marked RELEASABLE FOR INTERNET TRANSMISSION. Documents that can be made public should be clearly marked NON-SENSITIVE INFORMATION RELEASABLE TO THE PUBLIC.
The WikiLeaks scandals of recent months demonstrate a dramatic failure of security policies in place to maintain government secrecy, though not a failure that should be surprising. The upshot is that one person in the middle of one of the largest secrect operations in the history of the world managed to leak more than 250,000 embassy cables to a website whose sole effective purpose is to publicly display information people try to keep secret. (And it isn’t the only site that does this. There’s an entire industry growing around this concept, encouraging whistleblowers to smuggle secret data into the public awareness.) What Bradley Manning did would have been impossible before 9/11 because different agencies didn’t share data. After 9/11, they were harshly criticised for not talking to each other, so they began sharing data internally, and that gave Manning the access he needed. What we’re seeing is a tradeoff between security and effectiveness. With Edward Snowden (whistleblower for Prism), the NSA proved itself inept at handling its own information. According to the Guardian, Snowden is a 29-year-old high school dropout who trained for the Army Special Forces before an injury forced him to leave the military. His IT credentials are apparently limited to a few “computer” classes he took at a community college in order to get his high school equivalency degree — courses he didn’t complete. His first job at the NSA was as security guard. Then, amazingly, he moved up the ranks of the United States’ national security infrastructure: The CIA gave him a job in IT security. He was given diplomatic cover in Geneva and hired by Booz Allen Hamilton, a government contractor, who paid him $200,000 a year to work on the NSA’s computer systems. Note what Snowden is not: He isn’t a seasoned FBI or CIA investigator. He isn’t a State Department analyst. He isn’t an attorney with a specialty in national security or privacy law. As he says, the NSA let him see “everything.” He was accorded the NSA’s top security clearance, which allowed him to see and to download the agency’s most sensitive documents. But he didn’t just know about the NSA’s surveillance systems — he says he had the ability to use them.
WikiLeaks was a vulnerable, unreliable avenue for distributing leaks. The US government’s campaign targeting it in an attempt to shut it down betrays the culture of secrecy in government to the public at large and undermines any government claim to value transparency. But WikiLeaks isn’t the cause of the “problem” for secretive government officials but merely a superficial indicator of a much deeper problem — a deeply flawed security model. That security model maintains long-term storage of private communications, presumably for accountability purposes. It then attempts to maintain the secrecy of those archives — not their privacy. The need for a means of ensuring accountability requires that people have access to the stored data, but the desire for secrecy requires prohibiting such access. This is a basic conflict of goals. Because Snowden is now out of the country, it’s unclear what the US can do to him. But he’ll be called unpatriotic, unprofessional, treasonous, a liar, grandiose, and worse. As in the Bradley Manning case, the worse Snowden is depicted, the more rickety the government’s case for surveillance becomes. After all, they hired him. They gave him unrestricted access. It makes the whole operation seem amateurish.
More frightening is the noise that from Congress regarding an Internet “kill switch.” Such a capability, assuming it were to be effective, would represent the single most powerful tool of censorship available today. But even this wouldn’t be a terribly effective protector of secrecy. The ease of speedy widespread distribution of any data would be greatly diminished by an Internet kill switch, but by no means would it be eliminated. Pocket-sized devices capable of storing gigabytes of data via wireless networking technologies will see to that. As a last resort, physical distribution of hardcopies of “secret” data would still be possible. Secrecy is never perfect unless you can account for the motives, security practices, and privacy technology utilisation of every single individual who has access to the data. In short, once distribution is widespread enough within a context such as a government, a corporation, or an economic market, the game is over; secrecy simply is not a reasonable long-term expectation.
The Internet scouring programme, code-named PRISM, allows the NSA and FBI to tap directly into the servers of major US Internet companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and AOL. Like the phone-records programme, PRISM was approved by a judge in a secret court order. Unlike that programme, however, PRISM allowed the government to seize actual conversations: emails, video chats, instant messages and more.
Within hours of the disclosure that federal authorities routinely collect data on all phone calls Americans make, regardless of whether they have a bearing on counterterrorism, the Obama administration issued the same platitudes presidents offer every time they’re caught overreaching their power: Terrorists are a real menace. Trust us to deal with them because we have internal mechanisms (what? you ask but we’re not telling) to make sure we don’t violate your rights.
Those reassurances aren’t persuasive — whether on secret warrants to grab a news agency’s phone records or secret orders to kill an American suspected of terrorism — and this is a president who promised transparency and accountability. The Patriot Act, enacted in fear after the 11 September 2001 attacks by members of Congress who mostly didn’t read it, was reckless in its assignment of unnecessary and overbroad surveillance powers. The administration had no intention of revealing eavesdropping, just as it wouldn’t have acknowledged the killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi (a now-deceased American citizen) had it not been reported in the press. Even then, it took the president more than a year and a half to acknowledge the killing, and he still keeps secret the protocol by which such decisions are made. But not to worry. A senior administration official said the executive branch internally reviews surveillance programmes to ensure that they “comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties.” In the case of PRISM, it would appear to have been reviewed and approved by the Democratic Senate, the Republican house, the Bush administration, the Obama administration, and something like a dozen senior judges. Few programmes are so extensively vetted for legality. Oversite does exist, though it may lag considerably.
What (if any) controls did the NSA have to detect, prevent, and/or contain abuses of their system? Why did they fail in this case? How does this compare to other agencies? (Most government departments have access to at least some sensitive or private information; how many people at the IRS can pull up any tax return they wish? What stops them from doing so? Who catches them if they do?)
Some think that the solution to problems of unfairness is better information. Faith in the truth value of information reaches its zenith in risk management, but the relationship between information processing and risk is very complicated. Events in the post-9/11 world reveal a relationship between new technological methods of managing risks and risks that new technological methods themselves create. Large-scale data mining relies heavily on algorithms that approximate the requirement of logical completeness. Much evidence suggests, however, that relying on such techniques to the exclusion of human judgement doesn’t eliminate a risk of failure, but instead magnifies the probability that a failure is likely to be large and catastrophic. The meltdown of the global financial system was precipitated by the toxic combination of reliance on automated logically-complete financial models and regulatory deference to those models.
An intelligence source with extensive knowledge of the National Security Agency’s systems says America has participated in offensive cyber operations and widespread hacking — breaking into foreign computer systems to mine information. Provided anonymity to speak critically about classified practices, the source said: “We hack everyone everywhere. We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we’re in almost every country in the world.” The US likes to haul China before the international court of public opinion for “doing what we do every day,” the source added.
One of the unclassified points released by the administration in January stated: “It is our policy that we shall undertake the least action necessary to mitigate threats and that we will prioritise network defence and law enforcement as preferred courses of action.” The full classified directive repeatedly emphasizes that all cyber-operations must be conducted in accordance with US law and only as a complement to diplomatic and military options. But it also makes clear how both offensive and defensive cyber operations are central to US strategy.
Cyber-operations “intended or likely to produce cyber effects within the United States” require the approval of the president, except in the case of an “emergency cyber action.” When such an emergency arises, several departments, including the department of defence, are authorised to conduct such domestic operations without presidential approval. Obama further authorises the use of offensive cyber-attacks in foreign nations without their government’s consent whenever “US national interests and equities” require such non-consensual attacks. It expressly reserves the right to use cyber tactics as part of what it calls “anticipatory action taken against imminent threats”. (But, teally, none of this is surprising or new.)
For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgement, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that — either now or in the uncertain future — patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.
— Bruce Schneier
Recent evidence of deep data mining by the US government has caused a furore among certain groups. But of course if there’s deep data, it will be mined. After the general public realises it’s happening, then come recriminations. (Who’s responsible? How dare they?) Perhaps legislation will be proposed, but it’ll get watered down and changed so much just to get passed that not much is likely to happen. What does change is sometimes ignored in actual (secret) practice.
Some cultures consider nothing private and label refusal to disclose private information as always being secretive. Some cultures place much more value on privacy than American society does, with less pressure to disclose personal information unless the relationship truly warrants it. There is no one-size-fits-all answer,
Open access to information is an important underpinning of our political culture, but critical subjectivity is a good we can’t do without. Privacy — and the necessary possibility of limits on knowledge — shouldn’t be lightly surrendered. Secrecy in government is another matter entirely. Who watches the watchers then?
- http://www.morethanmoney.org/articles.php?article=Privacy_vs._Secrecy_270 “More than Money: Privacy vs Secrecy” Issue #28 by Jim Grubman 2011
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory Conspiracy Theory
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveillance Surveillance
- http://www.aclu.org/national-security/secrecy Secrecy
- http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/03/petraeus-tv-remote/ “CIA Chief: We’ll Spy on You Through Your Dishwasher” by Spencer Ackerman 15 March 2012
- http://dailycaller.com/2013/06/07/new-xbox-by-nsa-partner-microsoft-will-watch-you-247/#ixzz2VYZSDzox “New Xbox by NSA partner Microsoft Will Watch You 24/7” by William Green 7 June 2013
- http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/07/us-usa-mississippi-babies-idUSBRE9560SL20130607 “Mississippi Aims to Curb Teen Pregnancy with Umbilical Blood Law” by Emily Le Coz 7 June 2013
- http://atheism.about.com/b/2006/04/03/privacy-vs-secrecy-should-we-be-more-open-not-less.htm “Privacy vs Secrecy: Should We be More Open, Not Less?” by Austin Cline 3 April 2006
- http://washington.cbslocal.com/2013/06/05/dept-of-homeland-security-laptops-phones-can-be-searched-based-on-hunches/ “Dept of Homeland Security: Laptops, Phones Can Be Searched Based on Hunches” 5 June 2013
- http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20130603/16534123300/horrifying-supreme-court-ruling-lets-police-collect-dna-because-you-might-just-be-horrible-criminal.shtml “Horrifying Supreme Court Ruling Lets Police Collect DNA Because You Might Just Be A Horrible Criminal” by Mike Masnick 4 Jun 2013
- https://www.eff.org/issues/anonymity Electronic Frontier Foundation: Anonymity
- http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2013/06/decryption-deadline-looms/ “Deadline Looms for Suspect to Decrypt Laptop, or Go Directly to Jail” by David Kravets 4 June 2013
- http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/mar/29/feds-fbi-warrantless-cell-tracking-very-common/ “Can You Hear Me Now? Feds Admit FBI Warrantless Cellphone Tracking ‘Very Common’” by Shaun Waterman 29 March 2013
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secrecy Secrecy
- http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a1dd626c-cf80-11e2-be7b-00144feab7de.html “Data Intelligence Complex Is the Real Story” by Edward Luce 7 June 2013
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burn_bag Burn Bag
- http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/articles/a-hidden-world-growing-beyond-control/1/ “A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control” by Dana Priest and William Arkin 19-20 July 2010
- http://www.thesmokinggun.com/buster/james-dutschke-complaint-768754 “FBI Details Case Against Second Man Charged With Mailing Ricin-Tainted Letters To Obama, Other Officials” 30 April 2013
- http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/woman-arrested-for-obama-bloomberg-ricin-letters-687435 “Ricin Suspect Was Tracked Via Mail Scanners” 7 June 2013
- http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110524/00084614407/privacy-is-not-secrecy-debunking-if-youve-got-nothing-to-hide-argument.shtml “Privacy Is Not Secrecy; Debunking The 'If You’ve Got Nothing To Hide…’ Argument” by Mike Masnick 26 May 2011
- http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/07/opinion/president-obamas-dragnet.html “President Obama’s Dragnet” by the editorial board 6 June 2013
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classified_information Classified Information
- http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/security/the-difference-between-secrecy-and-privacy-as-security-concepts/5002 “The Difference Between Secrecy and Privacy as Security Concepts” by Chad Perrin 31 January 2011
- http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/07/obama-china-targets-cyber-overseas “Obama Orders US to Draw Up Overseas Target List for Cyber-Attacks” by Glen Greenwald 7 June 2013
- http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/americas/8774616/US-intelligence-chief-defends-Internet-spying-program “US Intelligence Chief Defends Internet Spying Program” by Lara Jakes and Jim Kuhnhenn 9 June 2013
- http://www.law.georgetown.edu/faculty/faculty-webpages/julie-cohen/documents/upload/InverseRelPvcySecrecy.pdf “The Inverse Relationship Between Secrecy and Privacy” by Julie E Cohen Social Research Volume 77 No. 3 Fall 2010
- http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/06/09/edward_snowden_why_did_the_nsa_whistleblower_have_access_to_prism_and_other.html “If the NSA Trusted Edward Snowden With Our Data, Why Should We Trust the NSA?” by Farhad Manjoo Slate 9 June 2013
Five Suns and One Moon
- This photographer, Mark Gee, has a website based in Australia. But I was pleased to learn that he actually lives somewhere in Wellington. He’s taken some remarkable long-exposure astrophotography shots. The water past Lyall Bay is Cook Strait, with the South Island is off to the left. Head toward the right side of the rainbow arc and you’ll end up somewhere in Antarctica.
- Alexander’s band is an optical phenomenon associated with rainbows (named after Alexander of Aphrodisias who first described the effect in 200AD). It occurs due to light-deviation angles between primary and secondary rainbows. Both bows exist due to an optical effect called the angle of minimum deviation — for the primary bow this is 137.5°. (The refractive index of water prevents light deviation at any angle smaller than that.) Light can deviate at the inner bow up to 180°, causing it to be reflected right back to the observer. It is the light deviated at intermediate angles that brightens the inside of the rainbow. The minimum deviation angle for the secondary bow is about 230°. That the angle is greater than 180° makes the secondary bow inside-out (its colours are reversed); light deviated at greater angles brightens the sky outside the bow. (The outer bow isn’t visible in this photo). Between the two bows is the unlit area of the sky called Alexander’s band. Light reflected by raindrops in this region can’t reach the observer, though it may be part of a rainbow that someone in a very different location is viewing.
- From where I live in Wellington, there’s a hill between me and the horizon toward both the east and the west. There’s something to be said for living either on the beach or on the edge of a plain for good views of rainbows and sunsets (I don’t see too many sunrises). Probably good night-sky viewing near Taylor, Arizona.
- Westerly cloud developing ahead of a front at Mt Ruapehu, taken at 6.30am.
- The Rub’ al Khali is the largest sand desert in the world. It is 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) long, and 500 kilometres (310 miles) wide. Along the middle length of the desert there are a number of raised, hardened areas of calcium carbonate, gypsum, marl, or clay that were once the site of shallow lakes. These lakes existed during periods from 6,000 to 5,000 years ago and 3,000 to 2,000 years ago. The lakes are thought to have formed as a result of “cataclysmic rainfall” similar to present-day monsoon rains and most probably lasted for only a few years.
- Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero, California is one of the most picturesque lighthouses on the US Pacific coast. The tower stands on a rocky promontory and has long been a landmark for ships approaching San Francisco Bay from the south. This headland (and hence the lighthouse) took its name from the ship Carrier Pigeon that wrecked there in 1853. The lantern room of the tower is no longer equipped with the original first-order 1,000-watt Fresnel lens. No longer illuminated even for demonstration purposes, the lens had 24 flash panels composed of 1,008 hand-polished lenses and prisms and was capable of producing over 500,000 candlepower illumination. It was was first lit at Pigeon Point in 1872 and originally burned refined lard oil (pig fat). In 1888, that lamp was replaced with a kerosene lamp. Pigeon Point’s assigned characteristic was one white flash of light every 10 seconds, rotating once every 4 minutes. In 1926 the lighthouse was provided with electricity and the kerosene lamp was replaced by a 1,000 watt bulb and an electrically-operated fog signal. The lens was removed from the top of the tower in November 2011, now displayed in the fog signal building adjacent to the lighthouse. (The tower is now closed to tours due to its deterioration.) During the latter 1970s, the lighthouse was guarded by an 800 pound pig named Lester.
Finally, this is a short video clip of a rotating supercell near Booker, Texas that is stunningly lovely.
The Odd Thrill of Centering the Setting Sun
- Manhattanhenge is a semi-annual occurrence when the setting sun aligns with the east-west street grid in Manhattan. For best effect, position yourself as far east in Manhattan as possible. But ensure that when you look west across the avenues you can still see New Jersey. Clear cross streets include 14th, 23rd, 34th. 42nd, 57th, and several streets adjacent to them. The Empire State building and the Chrysler building render 34th street and 42nd streets especially striking vistas. “The next full-sun Manhattanhenge”: is Friday 12 July 2013. Note that several years ago, an article in the New York Times identified this annual event as the Manhattan Solstice but the word solstice translates from the a Latin word meaning “stopped sun”, when its daily arc across the sky reaches its extreme southerly or northerly limits. Manhattanhenge comes about merely because the sun aligns along the canyons of NY’s straight, narrow streets.
- In November 2011 more than 100 people gathered at the Building 8 end of the Infinite Corridor to catch a glimpse of MIThenge, a phenomenon that occurs twice a year when the setting sun aligns with the axis of the Infinite Corridor. The place that has the largest unobstructed angle of view of the sky is the stairwell just below the 3rd floor. Get your eye right by the edge of corridor floor. Great view? Now give someone else a chance to see it. (The next one is in November 2013.)
- StoneHenge has become a religious symbol for Neo-Druidism, in appreciation of the Druid’s early practices of human sacrifice, sorcery and reincarnation.
A bit like Wall Street?
It’s Lonely Out in Space
- A Galileo false-colour image of the Mare Tranquillitatis and Mare Serenitatis areas of the moon. This picture was made from 4 exposures taken during Galileo’s second earth/moon flyby. The colours are enhanced to highlight compositional differences. Mare Tranquillitatis at left appears blue due to titanium enrichment. Orange soil in Mare Sarenitatis at lower right indicates lower titanium. Dark purple areas at left centre mark the Apollo 17 landing site, composed of explosive volcanic deposits. Red lunar highlands indicate low iron and titanium.
- This false-colour composite image, constructed from data obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, shows the glow of auroras streaking out about 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from the cloud tops of Saturn’s south polar region. The auroral emission is shown in green. The dark spots and banded features in the image are clouds and small storms that outline the deeper weather systems and circulation patterns of the planet. They’re illuminated from underneath by Saturn’s thermal emission, and thus appear in silhouette.
- This exceptional image of the Horsehead nebula was taken at the National Science Foundation’s 0.9-metre telescope on Kitt Peak with the NOAO Mosaic CCD camera. Located in the constellation of Orion, the Hunter, the Horsehead is part of a dense cloud of gas in front of an active star-forming nebula. Just off the left side of the image is the bright star Zeta Orionis, the easternmost of the 3 stars that form Orion’s belt. The Horsehead is located about 1,600 light-years away from Earth. The area shown in this image is quite large in the sky, covering about 5 times the area of the full moon.
- A solar eruption gracefully rose up from the sun on 31 December 2012, twisting and turning. Magnetic forces drove the flow of plasma, but without sufficient force to overcome the sun’s gravity much of the plasma fell back into the sun. The length of the eruption extends about 160,000 miles out from the sun. With the earth about 7,900 miles in diameter, this relatively minor eruption is about 20 times the diameter of our planet.
A Person Is a Being Such as a Human (Such As? So Does That Mean Animals Can Be Persons?)
- This is a tired mallard getting a ride home with the Eagle Cab Company.
- Winner in the National Geographic Traveller Photography Competition in the Wildlife category.
- Jenny and Shirley were held captive at the same circus when Jenny was a baby and Shirley was 20. Twenty-five years later, the elephants were reunited at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, USA. The long-lost friends recognised each other immediately and became inseparable. Jenny’s leg had been seriously injured in an attack by a bull elephant to whom the circus had hoped she’d mate. Jenny could barely walk and Shirley took care of her. Elephant Sanctuary co-founder Carol Buckley said she had never experience anywhere close to the depth of emotion the two displayed. Their love for each other united the loose group of elephants into an elephant family. Jenny and Shirley were inseparable for several years, then Jenny died. Shirley didn’t eat for two days. In my opinion, if any animals could be considered persons, it would be elephants.
Thou Who (Do) Art? In Heaven!
Figuratively, not Literally
- Ringed by mountains, Avila, Spain (an ancient city of saints and stones) is perched on a rocky outcrop on the banks of the Adija River. The city is almost completely walled in; built in the Middle Ages, the 12 metres (39 foot) walls are virtually the town’s symbol, visible from almost any part. Walls are interrupted by a series of 88 semi-circular turrets and punctuated with 9 gates at various places in the 2.5-kilometre length. Why walls? At various times in the past Avila was invaded by the Celts, the Romans, the Moors, and the Christians.)
- Nothing is written in stone — except this. (A stone-carver with a sense of humour or just too much free time?) This is in front of a bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, USA.
- The is a digital artwork. Born Poland in 1972 (currently living in Cannock, UK), artist Adam Martinakis employs photorealism and surrealism to create a “mixture of post-fantasy futurism and abstract symbolism”.
- Ricky Gervais is an atheist (can you tell?) stating he lost his Christian faith at the age of 8; in June 2008 he became an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society. In December 2010 he wrote an editorial for The Wall Street Journal defending his non faith.
- Helium is named for the Greek God of the Sun, Helios. Though it is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, it’s relatively rare on earth.
- In this video Jon Stewart (who looks about 22) says he belives in god (but I don’t believe him).