Reading headlines on vacation

Four days into my vacation in sunny Turks and Caicos, President Obama gave a speech about his goals for the nation’s recently controversial security measures. Yes, I was on vacation, but I needed a little bit of news. (Vacation updates later!) I figured that there would be a ton of opinions to read when I got home.

Here’s the speech in full:

Well, now I’m home and I’m surprised that no one I know is talking about it! Though I usually scroll through the typical complaints and funny stories on my Facebook news feed, my friends are generally political and insightful. So where’s the conversation? Is this something people still care about? I have a lot to learn but that’s honestly my biggest question (— would love to hear your answer in the comments section below).

The big headline last year was that the U.S. spied on its own citizens via mass data collection. In June 2013, Edward Snowden was all over the headlines and people started thinking about what privacy meant in a world saturated with technology.

“I’m willing to sacrifice … because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building,” Snowden told The Guardian.

Snowden alleged that this spying was causing more harm than good. People swore off Gmail or started turning off certain location trackers. Everyone was skeptical of the government for at least a short time. I’ve been interested to see how the President would act.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but it’s pretty obvious at this point that our leaders make some morally-ambiguous choices. What I’m also not is an expert. I’m just an American citizen interested in information.

Points worth noting

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), an essentially secret and unchecked entity, allowed several programs to go on (which Snowden revealed), including the blanket collection of phone records and other types of data. The intention of the U.S.’s intelligence program is mainly anti-terrorism, Obama emphasized. The collected information is not intended to target critics or foreign competitors.

It’s easy to imagine someone crossing the line and connecting data to an individual’s ideologies or preferences. Facebook, Google or your phone collects your personal information every second and uses it for third parties. We opt-in by using these services. It’s nothing new.

What’s changing? (Per the speech)

– Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) decisions will be reviewed annually & potentially be declassified at the discretion of the dir. of National Intelligence and the Attorney General. (40 have been so far, Obama said). Since there is no actual expiration date for these secret cases, this feels like an appeasement. We can’t ever know what wasn’t declassified and for what reasons.

– Establishment of a panel of “advocates from outside the government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before” FISC. The question is how would we know that these advocates were truly independent? Even a judge who is theoretically apolitical and sworn in usually has a record of their leanings. Still, it’s a great idea in theory.

– The NSA and other intelligence-gathering govt. agents need a FISC order, or “a true emergency”, to go through the collected telephone data.

– Storage of bulk data to potentially move out of the gov’t to a theoretical third party. This sounds sketchy and I’m not really sure what the point is.

– National Security Letters (used by FBI to get info) are like subpoenas but with a gag order that does not allow the person to even acknowledge receiving the letter. As far as I know there is no appeal process, other than suing the U.S. government. Obama acknowledged that the process could be slightly more transparent, so from now on “this secrecy will not be indefinite, and will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy,” he said. “We will also enable communications providers to make public more information than ever before about the orders they have received to provide data to the government.” This last bit is strange because what is the standard now for sharing?

Why should you care?

I spend several (too many) hours a day on my laptop. My work revolves around the internet. I use social media and rely on Google to tell me where I’m going and when. I text my friends more than I talk to them face-to-face, and I imagine a lot of your lives are similar. It’s eerie to think that anyone could track me. It’s horrifying to consider that individuals can be monitored so easily if they are slightly “suspicious”.

Yes, that sounds like the vague starter for a George Orwellian novel, but as the President said himself: it’s been done before. In recent years, FBI has spied on protestors and secretly went through journalists phone calls and emails.

The American Civil Liberties Union has a thorough report titled “Unleashed and Unaccountable.” I have yet to finish reading it, and this other article provides a shorter list of FBI privacy-themed abuses. The ACLU wrote on its blog,

Even before the NSA spying scandal broke, the FBI was caught issuing up to 40,000 or 50,000 national security letters every year to collect the communication, financial, and credit records of people without any nexus to terrorism. In 20072008, and 2010, Department of Justice Inspector General reports found extensive abuse of this authority, shoddy record keeping, and concocted emergencies. In at least two instances, the FBI issued NSLs to obtain information that even the FISA Court deemed to be a bridge too far and an infringement of First Amendment rights. Despite voting on the Patriot Act several times in the last several years, Congress has never amended this authority to return it to its original purpose – the collection of information pertaining to suspected terrorists and spies.

The bottom line in my search for information is the nagging feeling at the back of my mind: What can we do? If the government creates laws but can get around them with exceptions, what’s the point? My first instinct after the speech was to be cynical. How can we trust an internal review of the program to be unbiased?

Cory Doctorow of The Guardian wrote an interesting blog post back in June that underlines why there was a problem in the first place.

You should care about privacy because privacy isn’t secrecy. I know what you do in the toilet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to close the door when you go in the stall.

You should care about privacy because if the data says you’ve done something wrong, then the person reading the data will interpret everything else you do through that light.

I’d suggest you read the rest of the short post as well.

“One thing I’m certain of: this debate will make us stronger,” Obama said toward the end of the speech and I hope that will be a reality. If you got to the end of this post (you rock!), I’d love to hear your opinions.

Have you heard about this before? Will you be following the situation? DO you care?

3 thoughts on “Reading headlines on vacation

  1. You mentioned in the beginning that this isn’t really trending and people aren’t talking about it but I think it’s the total opposite! Discussions go around in my school and the whole NSA topic is a never ending conversation between students, teachers, and even gossip. I think that the security measures taken to watch out for and stop terrorism is both a success and failure. You can look at it and say, yep, no terrorist attacks that impact our country and global affairs today so the NSA is doing their job. You can also look at it and say, umm their too busy monitoring citizens and what sites they visit and what phone calls they make to notice any real terrorist activity. There are also many conspiracies about the U.S. planting and arranging any terrorist acts or attempts on our lives as an excuse to monitor and control us.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful response! There’s a lot of info (facts and “facts”) out there, but in general it’s great to hear that people your age are talking about something like this.

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