Archive | July, 2013

The dreaded Star Chamber returns in 21st Century garb

7 Jul

tahrir_square_001

Some people have been wishing me a happy birthday, but it is not my birthday. They were being kind and polite, but they were wrong.

They had been advised by a large, rich, influential corporation to send the greeting, and they did. Prior to this, the large, rich, influential corporation had asked me for my birth date and I gave the wrong one.

On purpose.

It was not to confuse friends. It was to confuse the large, rich, influential corporation and those who acquire its data. I sought to foul the digital path toward me.

I maintain a fantasy that if and when powerful forces decide to come get me, they will go somewhere else as a result of my deliberate misdirection.

In truth, my silly little protests are minor and of no consequence. They are done more for spite than protection.

I’m not afraid of the large, rich, influential corporation known as Facebook (although I probably should be). What I’m afraid of are the people who have easy access to its data and much more; mainly the United States government.

Without evoking too much laughter, one could say the U.S. government today is fairly benign when it comes to privacy violations.  In other words, don’t expect it to come get me or you any time soon. But governments evolve toward darkness rather than light, and ours is rapidly headed toward the shadows.

The progression starts with good intentions. Since the 9-11 attacks, and even before, Washington has worked hard to protect us from terrorists. It has done an exemplary job.

The problem comes as government experiences a gradual desensitization, thinking less and less of our constitutional rights, and an increased boldness, sense of mission and sense of self-importance. Those at the top come to feed on power, like a drug, and need higher doses. It’s a common pattern. Without suggesting in any way that our present government resembles the Third Reich – for it does not — that historical example is perhaps the most explanatory of this tendency toward the gradual erosion of rights.

The good citizen can become monster. It is wholly within our nature.

Well before the digital revolution, I read the novel “1984” by George Orwell. It induced the appropriate amount of fear, but also inspired the idea for a whimsical story. The story takes place in the setting of “1984,” when all actions are monitored by TV cameras. The main character is someone who watches what the cameras record. He does not like his job and does it poorly, leaving a large security breach. In order to break his boredom, he uses the TV cameras mainly to find women.

The story was never written, but it was to have ended with the realization that many people working as monitors were apolitical, lazy and uninterested in advancing the state’s cause. The reality was that people actually were much freer than they thought because no one really was watching them. An underground resistance group learns of this weakness (it is headed by a woman contacted by the main character) and exploits it to lead a successful revolution.

In the digital age, no one needs to spend endless hours watching TV monitors. With minimal human involvement, massive amounts of data are sucked up and quickly analyzed. If you are the type of person the government wants, or if you have done or said something it finds objectionable, a computer spits out your name and the government comes and gets you.

If you live in Pakistan it sends a drone.

How does all this happen in a constitutional republic like the U.S.?

Who approved it? Who rules on its legality?

Star ChamberIn 17th Century England there was the hated Star Chamber.  In 21st Century America we have the FISA. They are similar.

FISA stands for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The New York Times wrote about it today. Like the Star Chamber, it operates in secret.

Its origins were in approving case-by-case wiretapping orders. Now its 11 members serve as a parallel Supreme Court. The Times says it is “the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come.”

It let’s the NSA be the NSA.

Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor the government is desperately trying to get its hands on, last month leaked a classified order from the FISA permitting the collection of all phone-tracing data from Verizon business customers.

The Times quotes a source saying the court’s “still-secret decisions go far beyond any single surveillance order,” and that it is establishing a growing body of law.

Which leads back to my fake birthday.

If government spooks, acting in secret, insist on scooping up all data from emails, cell phone calls, Facebook posts, “likes,” Tweets, Instagram photos (software will recognize your face), and God knows what else, try to make it at least slightly less useful for them.

Try simple things at first. If you go to the supermarket and aren’t buying anything on sale, don’t give the Bonus Card to the cashier. If you download a new app, don’t let it track you, and don’t sign on using Facebook, which gives Facebook new data in addition to everything else it has. Be careful with “likes.” They paint a profile of you, as do your contacts if you let others have them (guilt by association is part of data analysis).

And please, don’t write email thinking it is private. Try putting the words “Nikon 3200” into an email. It is very possible that shortly after you will be served an ad by a camera store.

These small bits of advice won’t protect you. They are equivalent to a few hundred people in Tahrir Square. Those few hundred, however, can become a few thousand, then tens of thousand, then a million. Then an authoritarian government is brought down.

And that is why I may love you, but I won’t ever “like” you.

Be vigilant, and don’t give it all away.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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Communist is jealous of former Communist

3 Jul

Putin-Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping, the president of China, visited Moscow in March for talks with Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. Xi is a Communist. Putin used to be one. Still, the non-Communist impressed the still-Communist with all the things his country is doing for its people.

Back home, Xi told the Chinese how impressed he was with Russia’s ability to care for its citizens. In the U.S. we call this welfare, food stamps, handouts and the dole. Those who don’t get it resent government for giving it. But Xi thought it was noble and Putin said any government that denies its people the basic components of life has no heart. Worse, he said, doing so creates stress, anxiety, dissatisfaction, crime and turns people into animals.

Xi seemed concerned that China has not done quite as well as Russia. He told his people that Russia provides five guarantees:

  1. Free housing.
  2. Free medical care (but not medicine).
  3. Free education (including one meal a day).
  4. Free public water.
  5. Government review and approval before any company can layoff off a worker.

Putin, a tough old bastard who was a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, sees this as civilized and helpful in building the economy and keeping people happy and productive.

Would you be happier and more productive with these things? Or would you hate yourself and your government?

I always thought we didn’t have these things because the rich people had taken all the money. But in post-Communist Russia the rich people also have taken all the money.

So how do they do it?

Maybe by using what they saved from pulling out of Afghanistan.

I’ll end with a joke – a true story.

A former United States secretary of defense during the Cold War visited new Russia and was amazed.

“Everyone is rich,” he said. “They drive big cars, smoke big cigars, have money bulging out of their pockets. On their arms are beautiful women. It is just like Beverly Hills, except there are fewer Communists.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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