Facebook and Writers’ Status Messages

My last post on Facebook led me to think a bit more its–current and possible–integration into our lives, especially those conducted online.

As ‘net users are by now aware, almost any site you visit on the ‘net features a Facebook button so that you can indicate whether you ‘Like’ the page and thus, share it with your ‘Friends.’ Of course, in so doing, you also leave a digital trail of sorts, indicating what you have read, what music you have listened to, which videos you have viewed, which jokes you found funny, and so on. As Eben Moglen put it rather memorably at a talk at NYU a few years ago, (and I quote from memory):

In the old days, the East German Stasi used to have to follow people, bug them, intimidate their friends to find out what they read, what they got up to in their spare time. Now. we have ‘Like’ buttons that do the same for us.

The surveillance, the generation of data detailing our habits, our inclinations, our predilections, is indeed quite efficient; it is made all the more so by having outsourced it to those being surveilled, by dint of the provision of simple tools for doing so.

I personally do not get very creeped out by the notion of hitting ‘Like’ on a article that I enjoyed reading–though, struck by Moglen’s remark, I have not done so even once since returning to Facebook in 2010. I do however find it very creepy that Netflix asks me if I would like to share my movie viewing preferences with my friends on Facebook; that seems excessively invasive. 

In any case, I do not think the limits of this kind of ‘integration’ of Facebook with the information we consume and the software we use have yet been reached.

Here is at least one more possible avenue for Facebook’s designers to consider. Many ‘net users access it via an ‘always-on’ connection. Thus, even when they are not actively using an Internet application–like say, a word processor, or a spreadsheet–they are still connected to the ‘net. In the not so distant future, these programs could be designed–by close cooperation between Facebook and the software vendor in question–to supply information about our usage of these applications to our ‘Friends.’ On a real-time basis.

Thus, for instance, when I would open a file on my word processor, my ‘Friends’ would be so informed; they would then learn how long I had continued editing, how many breaks I took, (and of course, if those breaks were online, they would be told which pages I had opened, and how long I had spent there), and so on. Our software would come with this feature turned on; you would have to opt-out or customize your sharing.

This way, all those status messages we are often treated to on Facebook: ‘Hooray, first draft complete!’ or ‘Finally got five hundred words written today’ or ‘I just can’t seem to get anything written today’ could be automated. Extremely convenient, don’t you think? Examples like this–for other kinds of applications–can be readily supplied, I’m sure.

Nice Try NSA-Defenders (Not!)

There are two very bad arguments and one rather illiterate confusion making the rounds in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal. I’ll consider each of them briefly.

First, we have the ‘it was legal’ argument: the surveillance was sanctioned by the Patriot Act, approved by FISA courts, and Congress was in the loop etc. Now, the elementary distinction between legality and morality, between what the law permits and proscribes and what we might consider the right thing to do is just that: elementary. The undergraduates in my Philosophy of Law classes don’t need to be introduced to the distinction between natural law and positive law or to the assigned readings which inquire into our supposed obligations to the law to understand and know this difference. Their lived lives have given them ample proof of this gap as have the most basic history lessons. (Slavery is everyone’s favorite example but many more can be found rather easily.) Indeed, why would we ever have impassioned debates about ‘bad laws’ that need to be revised if the ‘it’s legal’ argument was such a clincher?

Furthermore, the folks complaining about the NSA surveillance are not just complaining about the legality of this eavesdropping and surveillance: they are suggesting the application of some laws is an onerous imposition on them, one that grants the government too much power. They are suggesting this is a moment when the laws of the land require revisitation. This is especially true of the obnoxious Patriot Act. (In another context, consider the draconian Digital Millenium Copyright Act.) Or consider that FISA courts routinely approve all requests made to them, and that the NSA has seven days in which to mine data before it applies for a warrant. All of this is legal. Is it problematic? We could talk about it so long as we aren’t shut up by the ‘its legal’ argument.

Second, we have the vampire ‘if you have nothing to hide, then what do you have to worry about’ argument – it simply refuses to die. No matter how many times it is explained that privacy is not about the hiding of secrets but about the creation of a space within which a certain kind of human flourishing can take place, this hoary nonsequitur is dragged out and flogged for all it is worth. But let me try real quick: we need privacy because without it, very basic forms of life would not be possible. An important example of this is the personal relationship. For these to be built, maintained and enriched, privacy is required. We do not generate and sustain intimacy–emotional and sexual–under observation and analysis; we do so far away from the madding crowd. I am not doing anything illegal or secretive in the maintenance of my personal relationships but I would still like their details to be private. Hopefully, that’s clear. (Who am I kidding?)

Lastly, there is a dangerous conflation between paper records and electronic records. For instance, David Simon, the latest to join the ‘relax, its legal and being done to protect us’ brigade, runs an analogy with the Baltimore wiretaps carried out by the local police and concludes:

Here, too, the Verizon data corresponds to the sheets and sheets of printouts of calls from the Baltimore pay phones, obtainable with a court order and without any demonstration of probable cause against any specific individual.

Except that it doesn’t. Those ‘sheets and sheets’ do not correspond to the billions of digital records obtained from Verizon, which can be stored indefinitely and subjected to data analysis in a way that the hard-copy data cannot.

These arguments will be made again and again in this context; might as well get some brief refutations out there.

The NSA Needs Better Apologists than Charles Shanor

Professor Charles Shanor of Emory university thinks that ‘liberals and civil libertarians’ are making a mountain out of a digital molehill. Apparently, we should be reassured by the fact that the NSA‘s data collection was legal under the terms of the Patriot Act (you know, that civil liberties disaster), that FISA judges approved it, that select members of Congress–not all of whom were comfortable with it–were briefed about it. And as all three branches of government appear to be involved, Professor Shanor is at peace. Checks and balances are working.

But all is not well.

First,

We cannot rule out the possibility that the voluminous records obtained by the government might, some day, be illegally misused. But there is no evidence so far that that has occurred.

Perhaps we’ll have to wait for the next Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden to tell us if that happens, eh, Professor Shanor?

Second, Shanor seems mysteriously comforted by the fact that the government did not monitor call contents, that ‘only’ metadata was collected. Perhaps he should educate himself about the value of metadata, which ‘is frequently more valuable to security officials than the content of the messages.’ In particular:

For some communications, metadata matters more than content. “A call to a suicide hot line, Alcoholics Anonymous, or a gay sex chat room at 2 a.m. are all more sensitive” than the actual message, said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. “You can text political donations. The metadata shows your political leanings, the content just shows the amount you gave. Calling a cell tower away from my house in the middle of the night indicates I’m not sleeping at home.”

 But nothing quite shows Shanor’s cluelessness–technical, legal and political–like the following:

But shouldn’t I be concerned that F.B.I. agents are trampling my rights, just like the I.R.S. might have trampled the rights of certain organizations seeking tax-exempt status? As it turns out, the answer is no. The raw “metadata” requested will not be directly seen by any F.B.I. agent.

Rather, a computer will sort through the millions of calls and isolate a very small number for further scrutiny. Perhaps one of the numbers was called by one of the Tsarnaev brothers before the Boston Marathon bombings. Or perhaps a call was placed by a Verizon customer to a known operative of Al Qaeda. The Supreme Court long ago authorized law enforcement agencies to obtain call logs — albeit on paper rather than from a computer database — without full probable cause to believe a crime had been committed.

There we have it, folks: the Google-GMail defense. Don’t worry about a thing, because human eyes don’t read your emails, computers do. You know, those stupid machines that just happen to handle all our civilization’s data and which possess tremendous executive capacity. Shanor also notes a Supreme Court ruling authorizing the collection of call logs and cursorily notes that it applied to paper logs as opposed to those in a computer database. The latter, as is apparent to anyone who knows anything about digital communication, can be stored indefinitely and can be processed in much more sophisticated fashion.

Nice try, Professor Shanor. Next time, try renting a clue first.

Glenn Greenwald is Not the Story; The Surveillance Is

The New York Times has an article on Glenn Greenwald, who has broken two stories on the NSA surveillance programs that now occupy most thinking people’s attention, which is titled thus: ‘Activist Blogger Is At The Center Of A Debate‘ on its front page. (The article’s title reads ‘ Blogger, With Focus on Surveillance, Is at Center of a Debate’). That headline, and the content of the story, tells us a great deal about what is wrong with modern journalism  and why civil liberties outrages aren’t so outrageous any more.

Greenwald is most emphatically not at the ‘center’ of any debate. He is not the story; the surveillance program is. But surely, some background on the reporter who broke the story would let readers evaluate his credibility? I’m afraid this claim does not withstand closer scrutiny even though it smacks of a pleasing epistemic rectitude: ‘all we are doing is investigating the source of this story’. To focus on him  is a a straightforward misdirection of journalistic effort. The New York Times should be concentrating on uncovering more details about the surveillance programs in the Greenwald articles, but not about Greenwald himself.

(Incidentally, just for good measure, the New York Times article includes a couple of ad-hominem slams against Greenwald:

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a national security expert and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who is often on the opposite ends of issues from Mr. Greenwald, called him, “a highly professional apologist for any kind of anti-Americanism no matter how extreme.”

Mr. Sullivan wrote in an e-mail: “I think he has little grip on what it actually means to govern a country or run a war. He’s a purist in a way that, in my view, constrains the sophistication of his work.”

There is praise for Greenwald too, but all of this is really besides the point.)

The correct thing for New York Times journalists to do at this point is to get to work on verifying the authenticity of the documents that Greenwald’s source has made public and to explain to their readers:  what their legal and political implications are; how these programs fit into the context of the surveillance that the previous administration kicked off; what the relevant sections of the Patriot Act are; whether the defenses made by administration officials stand up to scrutiny or not; and so on. The New York Times has done some of these things, but my point is that at this moment, those  ought to be its exclusive focus. There is a chance here for a serious journalist to expose the workings of a provably out-of-control government; anything else is a distraction at this stage.

This kind of missing-the-point is not restricted to the focus on Greenwald. Consider for instance, the stories on the Bradley Manning trial. As Matt Taibbi points out, most media outlets are obsessed by his personal background and are rather spectacularly missing the forest for the trees:

The CNN headline read as follows: “Hero or Traitor? Bradley Manning’s Trial to Start Monday.” NBC went with “Contrasting Portraits of Bradley Manning as Court-Martial Opens.”

Unsurprisingly, the citizenry marches on, its attention diverted.

The Spying Will Continue Until Morale Improves

The New York Times, picking up on a Guardian story by Glenn Greenwald, reports that:

The Obama administration is secretly carrying out a domestic surveillance program under which it is collecting business communications records involving Americans under a hotly debated section of the Patriot Act, according to a highly classified court order disclosed on Wednesday night.

The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in April, directs aVerizon Communications subsidiary, Verizon Business Network Services, to turn over “on an ongoing daily basis” to the National Security Agency all call logs “between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.”

This policy is a straightforward continuance of the Bush administration’s massive surveillance effort, similarly directed by the NSA in co-operation with telecommunications companies. The scope of the order indicates the data collection is indiscriminate: it is not directed, targeted or narrowly focused. (The court order does limit the data collection by time.) Rather, it is a broad sweep, a trawl to net the NSA’s desired catch. This is not surveillance to confirm a hypothesis; this is surveillance to try to frame one. This is not surveillance as an aid to detective work; this is surveillance as an integral component of that work. As Greenwald notes:

FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.

Especially interesting, I think, is the reaction to the story. By that I do not mean the reactions of politicians, journalists, and privacy advocates. Rather, if one is allowed to believe that comments on the New York Times story are at all reflective of the ‘word on the street’, then a couple of apologetic samples are depressingly interesting.

For instance, ‘pjd’ from Westford writes:

I’m surprised that no one has noted the dates in the order. The order was signed on 4/25/2013 which is ten days after the Boston Marathon bombing.

This response is emblematic of the ‘it’s justified because of the terrorists.’ Never mind that nothing about the Boston bombers seems to indicate any kind of widespread conspiracy that would justify such a massive surveillance effort.

And ‘Kurt’ from NY writes:

Ordinarily, this kind of data collection could be interpreted as overly broad and a threat to civil liberties….But, again, given just how disturbing it seems on its face, if a judge is willing to make such an order and Congress is aware of it, it would seem to suggest that there is legitimate need in response to specific threat. Which would also say that, given the security classification it has been given, for this matter to be public knowledge as it now is is possibly injurious to national security.

Here we have the standard ‘the government must have a reason even if they aren’t telling us, and that’s fine by me.’ The trust displayed here in a judicial and executive branch that have done nothing to justify it is touching.

And this statement by the Obama Administration is equally risible:

The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber.  It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.

Why is this not even remotely comforting?

Killing American Citizens Without Trial: The NYPD Way

The New York City Police Department is always ahead of the curve. They have aspirations to be a domestic surveillance service–after all, why should the FBI have all the fun?–and to secure all the budget increases and prestige that goes with it. Besides, don’t the movies tell us that ‘secret agents’ always get all the chicks? It also has international aspirations, which will suitably ratchet up its glamour quotient. Thus we heard last year about the NYPD’s collaboration with Israeli police, and the opening of a branch in Israel. This would considerably enhance the NYPD’s grab-bag of tricks pertaining to searching and frisking, especially when dealing with a hostile, recalcitrant subject population. Not that they don’t already have considerable experience with the good ‘ol up-against-the-wall-spread-your-legs move.

There is another area in which the NYPD have long been known as trailblazers. While the nation is agog with frenetic debate about the use of drones to kill American citizens without trial or due process on American soil, and law professors, bloggers, and sometimes Republican lawmakers, talk themselves hoarse about its ramifications, the NYPD with little fanfare, and plenty of ammunition, has been doing the same for many years: offing American citizens with nary the hint of either. Suspect identified; suspect shot. Cap in the ass, cap in the back, cap in the head. One more down, several–not yet identified but surely out there–to go.

This remarkably efficient procedure, directed primarily against American citizens of skin hues that approximate those that have met such a fate thus far–one of whom, it must be said, shares my first name–has not been conducted on distant, sandy, parched lands littered with shimmering mirages. Rather, these dispatches have been carried out in the midst of American cities, in urban landscapes.

To that list of urban spots, soon to be marked with flowers, candles, wreaths, and photographs of teenaged boys, we can now add East Flatbush, where, on the night of March 9th, Kimani Gray, all of sixteen years old, went down after being shot at eleven times. Seven bullets found their mark; four from the back. He seems to have made a threatening move; perhaps he had a gun. But he does not seem to have used it, if he had one. He’s dead though. Just another casualty in the ‘jungle out there.’ The officers who shot him are on ‘administrative duty.’ Perhaps this is NYPD code for all the paperwork they will now have to do in detailing the expenditure of ammunition and the cleaning charges incurred on their firearms.

There will be demonstrations; the mayor and the police commissioner will call for calm; there will be calls to not rush to judgment (although no calls to not shoot so damn fast); the slow–very slow!–wheels of police procedure and perhaps state justice will grind. At the end of it all, there will still be grieving parents. And one more photo added to the placards that will be observed the next time a march is held to protest the NYPD’s killing of yet another brown or black man in New York City.

Glenn Greenwald on Civil Liberties and Their Willing Surrender

Today, at Brooklyn College, Glenn Greenwald delivered the 39th Samuel J. Konefsky Memorial Lecture. I was lucky enough to be in attendance and thoroughly enjoyed watching this top-notch muckraker and gadfly in action. I have often seen Greenwald speak on video but this was the first live presentation I have witnessed. It was everything it was promised to be: Greenwald was passionate, precise and polemical. The title of his talk was ‘Civil Liberties and Endless War in the Age of Obama’ and so, appropriately, Greenwald began by offering a definition of ‘civil liberties‘: a set of absolute, unconditional constraints on governmental and state power, ones defined and defended by the people. These should be so stark and clear that no abridgments should be possible or tolerated; those who suggest or support these show themselves to not possess a true understanding of the concept.

With this uncompromising bottom line clearly articulated, Greenwald then presented a tripartite analysis of why, despite the presence of the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights, the state of civil liberties in the US today appears to be quite as problematic as it is and why the US populace has so easily acquiesced to this denial of their constitutional privileges.

First, the US has been since 2001, in a state of ‘perpetual war’, against poorly defined enemies, with no geographic or temporal limitation. This war ensures the endless invocation of natural security as a reason for the attenuation and abuse of civil liberties, whether it be surveillance, indefinite detention without trial, or the assassination of American citizens without trial. The lessons of history have been learned well by the administrations that have held power in the US over the past dozen years: war provides refuge for roguish government behavior of all kinds, and nothing quite prepares a populace for the surrender of civil liberties like the threat of an enemy, one whose threat can only be repelled by increasing the powers a state commands.

Second, the surrender of civil liberties is made more palatable when their abuse by the state appears to be directed against a demonized minority. The gullible majority, convinced that these systematic corruptions of the Bill of Rights remain confined to just this hapless lot, and convinced that their liberties are being protected as a consequence, gladly sign on and form cheering squads, unaware that soon the baleful eye of the powers-that-be will be turned upon them. In the American context  Muslim-Americans have borne the brunt of the the post-911 ravishing of the Bill of Rights. There is little sympathy for them in most parts of the American polity, but the damage done to what is considered ‘normal’ is real enough. Our civil liberties were, and are, next.

Third, yesterday’s ‘extreme’ or ‘radical’ is today’s normal. When the Patriot Act was first passed, it provoked vigorous debate and contestation even in a country still traumatized by 9/11. Its renewals have provoked little debate and attention. We live in a post-Patriot Act US. Its draconian provisions are now the new normal. In this context, I’d like to note once again, the seemingly-useless but very-effective-in-getting-citizens-used-to-the-idea-of-random-searches subway searches in New York City.

Greenwald spoke on a great deal more, including, most importantly, how concerted, determined, political activism by the citizenry still remains, the only and best way to safeguard and preserve the Bill of Rights.

My brief notes above are merely a sampler; catch him at a speaking venue near you if you can.

The NYPD as Domestic Intelligence Force: Kelly and Browne Need To Go

The New York City Police Department (NYPD) has a vexed relationship with civil liberties. The department’s long and troubled history with minority populations is perhaps the best indicator of a kind of systematic confusion in its training institutions, its rank-and-file, its leadership, and thus, in its deeply-ingrained institutional culture, about the very notion: “Civil liberties? You talkin’ to me?” Its current whole-hearted embrace of a new role as member of the domestic intelligence apparatus, dedicated to aggressively conducting surveillance on NYC and NJ’s Muslim population, add to the list of its previous achievements such as coerced confessions, stop-and-frisk, over-enthusiastic deployment and use of deadly weapons, corruption, and sometimes even rape. The NYPD is also the police department that shows racist films in its academy and publishes creepy maps showing the locations of Muslim businesses and houses of worship. A rap-sheet this long would condemn most to life without parole; in New York City’s case, we seem to be the ones destined to never receive relief from the NYPD’s policing.

Yesterday, a petition signed by four hundred fifteen faculty members–“the first nationwide faculty response to the AP’s revelations of widespread NYPD surveillance on college campuses”–was sent to Mayor Bloomberg, calling for the resignation of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, in whose reign rights-abusing practices appear to have bloomed. The petition and the list of signatories is available online. Yesterday too, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an Op-Ed by Saskia Sassen and Jeanne Theoharis, which explains why this petition was necessary. Kelly’s response, thus far, to the furore over the NYPD’s malfeasance, has revealed deep ambivalence and confusion and, of course, Mayor Bloomberg’s defense of the surveillance program has been disappointing, especially for a man ostensibly committed to civil rights in other domains.

(On a side note: AP’s ‘revelations’ such as they are, only came about once it became clear that surveillance of Muslim students was not restricted to say, grubby public institutions like the City University of New York, but also extended to ‘prestigious’ Ivy-League campuses such as Penn and Yale. One reaction among CUNY faculty was, “Well if it takes surveillance of the Ivy League to get this to be noticed, then so be it.” But another reaction is a little less sanguine: Had this remained confined to the nation’s less-privileged pockets would it ever have been noticed or cared about?)

The NYPD, perhaps more than any other police force in the nation, does not so much see itself as a part of the community that it polices, as much as it sees itself set over, above, and against it. This aggressively, offensively, and destructively adversarial posture is what contributes to its continued abuses of city resident’s civil rights. Unless its leadership changes, unless it changes its training practices, indeed, unless it engages in a fundamental ‘overcoming’ of itself, it remains destined to be locked into a pattern of behavior that will continue to do damage, sometimes deadly, to the citizens that are controlled and regulated by it.

The first step in this institutional reform should be the resignations of Kelly and Browne.

Update: Alex Vitale, in comments, clarifies that AP’s response came earlier, and that it was the nation-wide faculty response that came later, in response to news of the surveillance taking place all over the North-East. Still, civil liberties violations get noticed more when they take place in pockets of privilege.