Tag Archives: NSA

The Private Sector Reigns Supreme…Again

Good news for Apple fans: the company’s mobile operating system, iOS, as well as its new iPhone 6 devices, feature beefed-up levels of default encryption and–to the horror of our federal government’s “Justice” department–no “back door.” Zack Whittaker of ZDNet argues that the “feds only have themselves to blame” for Apple (and also Google) beefing up their smartphone encryption, because the federal government has failed to scale back the NSA’s bulk metadata collection in any significant fashion. I agree, and I also agree with Whittaker’s (and others’) disappointment in the Washington Post editorials echoing “Justice”‘s call for a “back door” and arguing for a “compromise” on encryption.

Yes, government should be able to compel the production of evidence when it has probable cause and particularized suspicion (and follows procedures appropriate for the context). But government should not be able to compel manufacturers of devices to do its job, to make it unnecessary for the government to approach the device owner directly with the warrant. As Yaron Brook alluded to on Facebook yesterday, it is great to see the profit motive encouraging companies to cater to customers’ privacy preferences.

[Also notable: this story about Twitter suing the U.S. government over limits on its ability to disclose surveillance orders, something about which Apple has also complained.]

Now, if only Apple could figure out a simple and elegant solution to the threats posed by ISIS and Ebola…

The news on Ebola is getting worse, as we learn that a nurse in Spain–who presumably knows what precautions to take and has the materials necessary to take them–contracted the disease while treating two patients who had been brought to Spain for treatment. The nurse’s husband and two others have reportedly now also been placed in quarantine. The Los Angeles Times published a speculative piece, in which one expert opined that “We just don’t have the data to exclude [the possibility of Ebola spreading by air in close quarters].” While it’s natural to worry about a disease that seems to be killing more than half of those who contract it, we need to keep in mind that the assertion about the possibility of airborne Ebola is arbitrary–there is no evidence to support it and therefore it should be dismissed–unless and until such evidence materializes.

While we wait for more information on the transmission of Ebola, it is heartening to read of the Firestone plantation in Liberia, where the tire manufacturer has applied determination and common sense to the task of containing the Ebola outbreak, with great success. “[E]ven as the worst Ebola outbreak ever recorded rages all around them, Firestone appears to have blocked the virus from spreading inside its territory.”

It is not surprising to me that a private company has outperformed governments in containing Ebola. In fact, while our own government should likely be doing more–temporary travel restrictions or enhanced screening–to combat the current outbreak, preventing the spread of disease is not a routine government function. Firestone realizes that it is crucial for the success of their plantation in Liberia effectively to contain the virus, and they have acted accordingly. (HT Rick Wilmes, who brought the Firestone story to my attention.)

What is a proper government function, however, is defending citizens against threats of physical force from enemies foreign and domestic. And it is here that the Obama administration’s default is most concerning. ISIS continues to behead western journalists and threaten the beheading of veterans and active members of the military. They are harassing military members and their families via social media. ISIS supporters have even managed to place their graffiti in Washington, D.C. And yet our President and his Secretary of State continue to evade the nature of the threat, or its origin, saying it has nothing to do with Islam and, apparently, everything to do with Syrian rebels needing our assistance.

Thankfully we have some Americans who are willing to speak the truth about the nature of the threat we face. The most unapologetic and outspoken critic of ISIS and Islam of late is, surprisingly, a liberal who most likely would not want to be included in a post praising the private sector: Bill Maher. Here’s the latest in a long series of Maher’s excellent commentary on Islam and the danger it poses:

Check the Real Time account on YouTube for more commentary by Maher, and join me in thanking him for speaking out and telling the truth when no one in our government seems to be able to.

You might also enjoy this from a few years ago: Maher’s “Muslim Dior” fashion show:

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A Facebook News Sandwich

Wired UK reports that Facebook has created a “Connectivity Lab” dedicated to bringing the internet to remote areas via a network of “flying drones, satellites, and infrared lasers capable of beaming internet connections to people down here on earth.” As Wired notes, the news comes within days of Facebook’s acquisition of gaming headset manufacturer Oculus, which Facebook plans to use to develop virtual reality enhancements for its social network.

A recurring theme on News Sandwich is the celebration of innovation, particularly in an economy struggling to survive after the lashings it has received from the last few presidents. But I find Facebook’s investments especially heartening because they are explicitly aimed at the long term: “[W]hile discussing the Oculus buy, Zuckerberg painted both projects as platforms that represent not the near future of Facebook, but the distant future.”

Innovative tech industry leaders are even more important today, because we are depending on them to figure out ways to protect our privacy until we can either elect the right politicians and win the right court cases needed to achieve major changes in the law.

Remember when Obama promised to end the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program “as we know it”? Well, as I suspected, so far it’s just a bunch of hot air. If you dig down into this New York Times story, entitled “Obama to Call for End to N.S.A.’s Bulk Data Collection,” you will learn, first, that “the administration has decided to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew the program as it exists for at least one more 90-day cycle”—i.e., at least another three months of the program as it is. Then, the plan is apparently to do exactly what Obama previously admitted was not a real solution: require the phone companies to retain the metadata. The only difference, apparently, is that the data will be retained for only 18 months, whereas the NSA is currently collecting and retaining data for five years.

Hmmm, 18 months. Just enough time for Obama to finish up his term, leave office, and even help the next democrat get elected.

Conspiracy theories aside, it is wrong for the government to force companies to retain this data even if, as the New York Times reports, “federal regulations already generally require [it].” Moreover, even assuming (as I do) that phone companies have a legitimate business reason to retain some metadata for some period of time, it is wrong for government to be able to obtain that data without probable cause and particularized suspicion.

What was perhaps most disappointing to me about Obama’s announcement of, essentially, nothing, was the news that Edward Snowden hailed Obama’s proposals as a “turning point.” Am I missing something? I just don’t see that requiring phone companies to do the government’s dirty work makes a bit of difference. Is Snowden trying to negotiate a plea bargain with Obama?

With Obama seemingly determined to keep his toys, and Snowden dropping the ball, I turn to the tech industry innovators and leaders to develop ways to protect our privacy in the current legal context. And I am hopeful that Mark Zuckerberg will do his part. In a recent post on Facebook, Zuckerberg wrote:

The US government should be the champion for the internet, not a threat. They need to be much more transparent about what they’re doing, or otherwise people will believe the worst.

I’ve called President Obama to express my frustration over the damage the government is creating for all of our future. Unfortunately, it seems like it will take a very long time for true full reform.

So it’s up to us — all of us — to build the internet we want. Together, we can build a space that is greater and a more important part of the world than anything we have today, but is also safe and secure. I’m committed to seeing this happen, and you can count on Facebook to do our part.

Whatever complaints I have about Facebook—the ads, the default settings or notifications I don’t always like, the confusing changes in news feed and profile layouts—I commend Mark Zuckerberg for continuing to innovate for the long term, and for committing to protect our privacy, despite governments that seem intent on violating it.

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A Too Little, Too Late News Sandwich

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who attended a meeting at the White House this week to discuss the future of the NSA’s data collection programs with President Obama, told The Guardian that he left the meetings with the impression that “[t]he debate is clearly fluid.” In other words, he thinks there is a significant chance that Obama will decide to curtail the NSA’s bulk telephone data collection program. This is something that he, as a long-time outspoken critic of the NSA’s intrusive programs, would like to see. The Guardian also reports that another legislator who attended the meeting, Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner, is the co-sponsor of pending legislation that would end bulk data collection. Apparently they are waiting to move on the legislation until after Obama announces his decisions regarding the NSA’s programs, something he might do as early as this coming week.

Contrast these legislators with John McCain, who seems to just now be coming to the party, and who has oh-so-boldly called for a congressional investigation into the NSA’s activities. Sorry, Senator McCain, it doesn’t take a months-long-investigation to realize that the thing we most need to do to protect Americans’ privacy is end the third-party doctrine.

What’s more troubling to me are indications that any significant changes to be proposed by Obama this week will enhance the privacy not of Americans, but instead of foreigners, perhaps including terrorist suspects. In the same article in which The Guardian reports McCain’s half-hearted proposal to investigate the NSA, it also quotes the following from a speech Obama gave in December:

“In some ways, what has been more challenging is the fact that we do have a lot of laws and checks and balances and safeguards and audits when it comes to making sure that the NSA and other intelligence agencies are not spying on Americans.”

“We’ve had less legal constraint in terms of what we’re doing internationally … and the values that we’ve got as Americans are ones that we have to be willing to apply beyond our borders I think perhaps more systematically than we’ve done in the past.”

Pessimistic Translation: I don’t want to do anything to curtail the NSA’s spying on Americans, but how about we make terrorists’ jobs easier, now that I have an excuse to make some modifications to these programs? (Do I pretend to know that this is what Obama will announce this week? No, but I think we all have good reason to fear it.)

The good news is that, should Obama decide not to eliminate the NSA’s bulk data collection (and having the telephone companies collect the data instead does not qualify), there is a good chance that Americans won’t let him get away with it. Privacy advocacy groups have been raising public awareness of these issues, even going so far as calling for boycotts against companies they believe to be complicit in providing “backdoor” access to the NSA. One group recently started an online petition to encourage comedian Stephen Colbert to cancel a speech he plans to give for a privacy firm, RSA. RSA is believed to have taken $10 million from the NSA “to incorporate a weakened algorithm into an encryption product called BSafe that would allow the spy agency easier access to protected information.”

If Colbert decides to join others who have canceled their talks at the upcoming RSA conference (he should), and particularly if he decides to announce his reasons for doing so, it could help keep a fire lit under politicians in Washington. It would also give me another thing to like about Stephen Colbert (so far, this is all I’ve got).

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