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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Terrorists, Nixon, and Snowden

Two weeks ago The Atlantic ran a terrifying article about aspirations for an Islamic state. The article triggered debate about what percentage of Muslims hold such views (answer: very small) and what the vast majority of Muslims are doing to suppress the threat of fundamentalists (answer: not enough). Nevertheless the basic facts of the article are not in dispute, and it reminds us of the growing potential for violence and the need for preventive and reactive measures that are both effective and ethical.

Yesterday's The Times of London describes how British intelligence lost track of individuals in the UK who subsequently became active threats to the West. Their identity as Islamic fundamentalists is not relevant to my point in this blog. The UK government asks for additional flexibility for intercepting and monitoring telecommunications in order to remain informed about the whereabouts and plans of bad actors. The government is justified in its request, up a point — how far?

The question is sometimes framed as how to balance a government's surveillance powers with citizens' rights to privacy, but that's not the best way to frame it. Privacy as a concept is nebulous and undergoing rapid change as people choose, or are required by society, to adopt new technology that is almost irreconcilable with privacy. People who worry about privacy are like people who worry that their lives have become fully dependent on a vulnerable electric grid and food supply chain. The vulnerability is real but merely the 21st-century version of existential angst.

Rather, I believe what has truly worried citizens since the adoption of the Patriot Act is more specific than loss of privacy. The U.S. government was created "by the people" who had a fundamental distrust of government but saw the necessity for some of it. (This theme of distrust is heard daily in Washington and Raleigh.) We don't want increased surveillance to inadvertently enable a totalitarian state. Another example of far-fetched angst? No. Bring to mind Richard Nixon and Watergate when incumbents misused the powers granted them by the people for selfish ends and nearly turned the nation into a half-democracy.

Equally disturbing to me is Edward Snowden, who began his fifteen minutes of fame in 2013. I regret that his fifteen minutes are being stretched out over several years. When he disclosed the extent and techniques of governmental surveillance of telecommunications in the U.S. and Europe, he didn't surprise me or anyone else who works in the telecommunications industry. There has always been cat-and-mouse in telecommunications between law enforcement and evil-doers. When I worked at a predecessor of Sprint from 1982 to 1985, I heard rumors that organized crime was one of the largest early adopters of MCI, Sprint, etc. Why? The FBI found it difficult to trace and intercept phone calls over the alternative long-distance networks. This gap was closed in the 1990s. It reopened briefly with Skype and was closed again. The cycle continues.

I find Snowden's actions to be mainly criminal. Unlike Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers, which were already historical at that point, Snowden compromised existing and lawful methods that had future applicability. Arguing that government cannot have any means of conducting surveillance is as absurd as arguing that government cannot be restricted in conducting surveillance.