|May 24, 2006|
The Crumpled Filing Cabinet of Cyberspace
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
In my small town, during the antediluvian times of my preadolescence -- by which I mean the 1950's and early '60's -- our home telephone number was 2218. The number for my father's drugstore on South Main Street was 28. And the Church Insurance Agency's number was 1.
Crossed signals were common, as were party lines shared by more than one home, so the busybodied could, from time to time, listen in on other people's lives. There were no pushbuttons on the phones; not even rotary dials. You picked up the receiver and there was a short wait until an anonymous, friendly but vaguely harried female voice asked, "Number, please?
They didn't call the phone company Ma Bell for nothing -- Big Mother was listening, but usually by accident. Or with legal warrants. Usually.
Even the illegal invasion of privacy used to be more forthright -- like the filing cabinet, circa 1971, I saw the other day at the Smithsonian in Washington. Dull green, standard office issue, the four-drawer cabinet had been smashed into, clumsily pried open with a crowbar and brute force. Looking for dirt to smear the reputation of Pentagon Papers liberator Daniel Ellsberg, Richard Nixon's Watergate plumbers were the break-in's perpetrators; the crumpled filing cabinet belonged to Ellsberg's shrink. Now this battered piece of office furniture is a featured attraction in an exhibit on the American presidency.
Simpler times. Hard to believe one longs for the return of the blunt instrument, but sophisticated snooping via the ether of cyberspace has moved beyond thuggery and gone out of control. The information available is vast, the technology that provides it galloping far beyond our capacity to grasp its potential for good or ill. Time to rein it in.
It's not that surveillance isn't necessary. Of course it is. But beneath the surface desire to defend the country against terror appears to lurk a deeper desire to control information and stifle dissent, to use knowledge not only to protect us but keep us in line. Warrantless wiretapping and the recent revelations of telecommunications companies allegedly cooperating with the National Security Agency (NSA) to build a colossal database of every phone call in the country may be just the beginning.
There are laws about this kind of thing: the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, the Communications Act of 1934, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), to name three. Congress and the courts are supposed to apply the brakes of oversight and judicial review. But this White House has decided with cavalier recklessness that extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and precedent be hanged. They know what's best for us and we needn't bother our pointed little heads about it.
So far, despite a few stand-up voices of opposition, Congress is going along. And as they salivate at the prospect of being allowed by the government to charge more and more for access to the Internet, the telcos appear to be falling all over themselves to cooperate.
Massive amounts of data are being mined by the new eavesdropping programs, so much so that the danger of false positives sending the innocent to jail and mission creep -- sharing information beyond its original intended use -- is ever present.
One aspect that's especially exasperating is that, as per reporting by Siobhan Gorman of the Baltimore Sun, there was a pilot surveillance program developed for the NSA that not only protected privacy but did a better job of flushing out the potential bad guys than the possibly illegal systems they're using now.
Called ThinThread, according to the Sun's May 18 edition, it "used more sophisticated methods of sorting through massive phone and e-mail data to identify suspect communications, identified US phone numbers and other communications data and encrypted them to ensure caller privacy, employed an automated auditing system to monitor how analysts handled the information, in order to prevent misuse and improve efficiency, [and] analyzed the data to identify relationships between callers and chronicle their contacts. Only when evidence of a potential threat had been developed would analysts be able to request decryption of the records."
ThinThread was killed, Gorman wrote, because, "Despite its success in tests, ThinThread's information-sorting system was viewed by some in the agency as a competitor to Trailblazer, a $1.2 billion program that was being developed with similar goals. The NSA was committed to Trailblazer, which later ran into trouble and has been essentially abandoned... Trailblazer had more political support internally because it was initiated by [then Director Michael] Hayden when he first arrived at the NSA, sources said. NSA managers did not want to adopt the data-sifting component of ThinThread out of fear that the Trailblazer program would be outperformed and 'humiliated,' an intelligence official said."
ThinThread's champion at the NSA was Richard Taylor, head of the agency's operations division, now retired. Reportedly, he told the 9/11 Commission that the system "could have identified the hijackers had it been in place before the attacks."
Many believe what's being gleaned from the systems that are in place is invaluable, but other experts say it's being put to little practical use. "The vast majority of what we did with the intelligence was ill-focused and not productive," a Pentagon consultant told The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh. "It's intelligence in real time, but you have to know where you're looking and what you're after."
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of a California Internet security company added, "We're looking for a needle in a haystack. Dumping more hay on the pile doesn't necessarily get you anywhere."
Or, as cyberpunk sci fi novelist William Gibson wrote three years ago in the New York Times, "Regardless of the number and power of the tools used to extract patterns from information, any sense of meaning depends on context, with interpretation coming along in support of one agenda or another. A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and a quotidian degree of madness."
Add to this confusion the politicization of intelligence, the paucity of on-the-ground, human intelligence from abroad, cultural ignorance and the spy community's recent, lamentable win-loss record and you've got a recipe for trouble.
Yet a sizable portion of the public seems indifferent to the dangers. "I keep seeing that in the lower discourse of the Internet, people are saying, 'Oh, they're doing it anyway,'" Gibson said in a recent radio interview. "In some way our culture believes that, and it's a real problem, because evidently they haven't been doing it anyway, and now that they've started, we really need to pay attention and muster some kind of viable political response."
"An all-seeing domestic surveillance is slowly being established," one journalist notes. Intelligence historian Matthew Aid told Salon.com, "It's all coming out in dribs and drabs, but when it all becomes clear, we'll find out that the key oversight function -- those functions that were put in place to protect the rights of Americans -- were deliberately circumvented."
The breathtaking potential of the government's invasion of privacy will continue to make itself manifest: the Department of Homeland Security's own data mining computer system, called ADVISE; the monitoring of everything from Internet blogs, chat rooms and websites to fiber optics and BlackBerrys; individuals being tracked via satellite and cell phone. The Associated Press reported that the FBI was given more than 9200 national security letters last year, administrative subpoenas that allow them to access the personal and business records of citizens and legal residents -- including, perhaps, journalists -- without court approval. That's up from a mere 35 (!) approved between November 2003 and April 2005.
And, lest we forget, there's the push for a national identification card, with holographic thumbprint, retinal scan and DNA information.
To paraphrase: O brave new world, that has such wonders in it. Number, please?
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
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