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Pros and cons of the U.S. surveillance program

It has been revealed that the FBI and NSA are using the Patriot Act to monitor pretty much all telephone calls and media files drifting through 9 major Internet companies including Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Obama says that those things are in the context of the fight against terrorism. Some key officials responsible for these formerly secret programs have criticized the... leak.

I was sort of pleasantly surprised by the New York Times editorial

President Obama’s Dragnet (via NewsMax)
which sort of concludes that the Obama administration has lost all credibility on this issue. The surprise is nice not because I am sure that I agree with the Grey Lady – my feelings are mixed – but because I would agree that the newspaper's approach to similar questions has been consistent throughout the Bush and Obama administrations.

Some partisans who have criticized Bush for certain things suddenly get unbelievably silent when the same things are being done by Obama but the New York Times doesn't seem to belong to this hypocritical club. I know that many fellow rightwingers really despise the Grey Lady but for me, it still represents the kind of healthy and manageable (nearly) centrist America that I first met in the late 1990s. Well, mostly.

Needless to say, some people find it creepy and unacceptable whenever their personal data are accessible to some third parties – even if the third parties are just Silicon Americans (I mean computers and similar creatures who use transistors to think). Well, I personally don't share these emotions but I agree that even if the reason for concern is purely psychological, those who find it creepy have the right to use the mechanisms of democracy to promote their opinion that these things shouldn't be happening.

I have said that a similar monitoring, as long as it is guaranteed that it's illegal to abuse it, doesn't scare me. Imagine that you have some private data or habits on the Internet or photographs etc. that you don't want to publish. Why do you really want to avoid it? Are you scared when an employee – usually one in a distant city, one whom you're not meeting – knows some intimate details about you but he or she is acting exactly in the same way as if he or she knew nothing?

My pragmatic viewpoint is that the only rational reason to be concerned is the possibility that someone will blackmail you or humiliate you or create other kinds of disadvantages for you by using the data that should have remained confidential. If we may be sufficiently confident that such things won't happen, e.g. because they're illegal and someone who would abuse the data would be sufficiently punished to discourage others, we shouldn't be worried about the surveillance too much.

Needless to say, this pragmatic attitude of mine partly boils down to the fact that in my life, I have experienced a sufficient numbers of problems that were caused by real people and people who were geometrically or socially close to me so that I didn't find it helpful or necessary to invent fictitious problems, conspiracy theories, or dragons or to worry about some distant people I have never interacted with.

There is always some risk that something unpleasant will happen to you but these programs also have a virtue that may be much more important: they may actually help to catch many or almost all terrorists and other people who are planning to hurt you or other decent people. And that may be a decisive factor. I am not primarily talking about two or three minor attacks that may be thwarted thanks to similar programs. I am primarily talking about the possible big attacks that may be stopped.

The question whether the government should be trying to protect or otherwise help its citizens in ways that are not transparent at all is very subtle. Again, there are arguments on both sides. The virtue of the transparency is that policies that are found truly unacceptable by most citizens may be identified and stopped – in other words, the feedbacks work and allow the people to improve the system; the vice of the transparency is that it helps the villains to adapt or change their behavior – in other words, there is again a feedback but in these cases, feedbacks are negative things.

Because of the latter reason, I tend to understand the worries of those whose task is to protect the safety of the U.S. citizens. The leak just makes their work harder. The fact may have been leaked simply because someone was honestly stunned by the arguably creepy policy. I can't answer the question whether these people had the right to leak it; I am no lawyer. And the question whether they had the moral right is a complicated one. At any rate, it's understandable that some people sometimes leak such things because they think it's the right thing to do. When policies become sufficiently creepy, you may bet that in a sufficiently large collective of employees that works on them, there will be someone who will leak what is going on. This may be bad for a particular program but it is good, too. It is good because in the long run and when it comes to really big conspiracy theories, you may just dismiss these conspiracy theories.

For example, 9/11 almost certainly couldn't have been an inside job because you would need too many people to cooperate and none of them has leaked it which makes the conspiracy theory unlikely. We don't even have to rely on the belief that no one in the U.S. establishment could have possibly had a sufficient incentive to organize such a monstrous event.

This monitoring is clearly a less ambitious theory than what the truthers believe and it turns out that it is true. The leak will have some consequences and many people may fight to completely abolish similar programs. But I think that such programs are ultimately helpful as well because they help to make the protection of the U.S. citizens more efficient or cheaper or both.

The citizens may think whatever they want but I do think that it would be rational for them to accept a certain layer of surveillance they don't understand as long as there seems to be sufficient evidence that the data obtained in this way aren't being used to harass innocent citizens by the methods mentioned above; and that they're not used selectively against certain groups of citizens in the case that these groups aren't quite innocent but they're doing something that is sufficiently widespread and that would almost certainly remain unknown to the external world if the surveillance didn't exist. (The latter concern – double standards – is a reason why the IRS' harassment of the Tea Party charities may be less creepy but it is more self-evidently immoral.)

It's hard to say whether the mechanisms that already exist – or mechanisms that may be adopted – guarantee that the negative impact of similar policies is minimized and whether there exists a conceptual reason (probably a mechanism) to think that the negative impact will be minimized. People should think about this general framework – how to make sure that the government agencies are working for their interests (because a government that isn't controlled by the people ultimately doesn't have any reason to behave in ways that are optimal for the electorate!) – but I think it's rational for them to leave certain technicalities to the professionals and allow them to maintain a certain opacity because this opacity may work in their interests and for the interests of justice in general.

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reader physicsnut said...

This morning the Times actually uses the words "Abuse of power" ... uh oh !
well - the whole idea that all this data is merely to deal with possible terrorists - yup - they will use it for whatever they think they can get away with, if not now then later. Heck, just Obama's campaign was a Web marvel - and that will be the excuse - everybody else has lots of data to target voters, just like everybody has to move their factory to Mexico, because that is what the competition does - always the excuse. That is how it grows and grows and grows.

reader Guest said...

"But I think that such programs are ultimately helpful as well because
they help to make the protection of the U.S. citizens more efficient or
cheaper or both." Why do you think this? If I don't believe you, do you have a rational argument based on facts to convince me otherwise?

reader Simon Hopkinson said...

My friend today asked, if I'm not doing anything illegal, where's the problem? I conceded that perhaps she's right, and suggested that next time she's having sex I be allowed to watch. I mean, she's married, he's her husband, they're not doing anything illegal are they?

reader Luboš Motl said...

It shouldn't be so much about believing as it is about common sense. Access to the data of major Internet companies is clearly a weapon that gives one (the government) superior powers. It may obviously be used for admirable goals, like to better fight terrorists, as well as the less admirable ones.

It seems obvious to me that the terrorists sometimes communicate to get their plans, equipment, whatever, and this communication is sometimes a remote one. When it's remote, it has to involve phones or computer-like gadgets, so if these are eavesdropped, terrorists become weaker. This is really common sense, not a matter of belief to some special secret information.

reader Gene Day said...

In line 2 of your second paragraph you seem to have dropped the word “lost”.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Thanks! I didn't drop the word, I just "lost" it. ;-)

reader Steve in Seattle said...

One of the founding fathers of the USA made the following statement: "Those who give up liberty for security will not gain the later, and do not deserve the former".

reader Luboš Motl said...

You may be surprised - but I will not be - once you find out that she actually enjoys your watching them and maybe you will enjoy the watching less than you think now. ;-)

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Steve, I hold these words dear but do you think that one is actually giving up any liberty when he's being monitored by some professionals? I am not sure it's the right interpretation. They're not really preventing you from doing anything legal. In fact, they're not even preventing you from doing anything that is illegal - although it may be perhaps just once and you must be fast. ;-) Because they're not preventing you from doing anything, I don't think it's right to say that you're losing liberty.

reader Ann said...

I have never assumed that what I communicate via email, twitter or phone is guaranteed to be private. Maybe people will start using encryption a lot more, NSA is top dog there, so probably can crack most/all encryptions also, but maybe a new 'arms race' of encryption algorithms will happen because of all this? The IRS harassed individuals for political reasons, so why couldn't the NSA do the same? I guess it's a question of trust. I believe Obama is not being truthful about IRS or Benghazi, so it makes me cynical about his administration's motives with secret NSA data gathering. The claim today is that they need to track terrorists. What about tomorrow? Who will the enemies be defined to be -- drug dealers, tax evaders, global warming deniers? We need checks and balances on such immense political powers, It seems kike a lot of information sitting in a Pandora's box with many chances for misuse and abuse. (btw, the director of the IRS has made 160+ visits to White House, about 60 more than the next most frequent visitor who is DOJ Eric Holder. The idea that Obama was wholly unaware of IRS misconduct is mind boggling to me.

reader Shannon said...

Being in a free country means that you have at least two opposite political forces.This whole surveillance program will always be used by both. Democracy and a change of president every 5 or 10 years will always even out the forces in the end. (Maybe 6 years non renewable in power is enough btw ?)

reader hartin said...

"I have said that a similar monitoring, as long as it is guaranteed that it's illegal to abuse it, doesn't scare me"

reader Gene Day said...

After Richard Nixon’s egregious abuse of the IRS’s powers a fairly deep chasm was deliberately inserted between the White House and the IRS. That chasm is bridgeable, of course, and it would never stop a President from exerting considerable influence over the IRS should he choose to do so.

The question is whether Obama actually bridged the gap. I find it plausible that he knew nothing in advance but I do fault him for not stranding up and taking full responsibility for the situation. The same goes for Benghazi. The President is responsible for permitting a culture to exist that would make politicization of IRS powers acceptable at any level. Benghazi may or may not have been an error in judgement but the white House is still responsible. There is no escaping that.

The NSA situation is different, of course, thanks to the Patriot Act, which, in my view, should b repealed. Absent that I am with Rand Paul in wanting a search warrant before obtaining phone records.

reader lukelea said...

If there aren't to be any secrets, then why should that be kept secret?

reader Luboš Motl said...

Hi Luke, my view is that there are no *absolute* secrets. Various things are secret, or guaranteed to be secret, relatively to differently defined and variously large audiences and there are lots of parameters of "degree of secrecy" to adjust for the society to function optimally.

In particular, the fact that there's probably some way for a sufficiently powerful authority to get to some data is probably not secret. The list of companies that cooperate in a program should have been secret for the program to be more efficient, and so on.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Hartin, this NSA program is surely *not* an example of unlimited power and it does *not* imply that the state kidnaps, imprisons, tortures, and murders without trials.

Your naive comment about this' being "unlimited power" is probably caused by the fact that you don't have the slightest clue how an (a nearly) "unlimited power" looks. I have lived in such a setup and I assure you that it looks very different from some computers' and anonymous people's monitoring your Internet traffic for your safety so that you can't even notice unless someone finds out. This is not an unlimited power by any stretch of imagination. Incidentally, I am confident that in the Czech Republic, the authorities corresponding to FBI and NSA have these powers now as well, even 23+ years after the fall of communism.

This has nothing to do with communism or totalitarianism in general. It's about an efficient setup to investigate. As long as these methods don't influence legally behaving citizens in any observable way, the right physical description, from citizen's empirical vantage point, is that no power is exerted upon him at all!

reader Mark Luhman said...

Nixon did not abuse the IRS, he tried and the IRS refused. The
present case is not even close we know the IRS abused it power the
only question was Obama part of it, we also know he did benefit from
it. I am always amused how little people know about what went
wrong in the Nixon White
and how little people are willing to excuse Obama for the abuse that
is going wrong in the Obama White
of course it all you fault since the MSM has not bothered to uncover
of the Obama administration abuses, it had to come from someone else.
That the problem with the NSA records with the Obama track
record do we really want government to have these records, yes they
can do a lot of good but in the wrong hands the can do a lot of evil.
the question I have are they in the wrong hands? Lastly
do we
want any administration to have this much information? We
need to remember that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts

reader Marc said...


I have really enjoyed reading you and find you generally intelligent, wise and the opposite of naive.

However, in two regards here, I am nearly shocked, based on your heretofore visible shrewdness, that you have a misinformed view.

With respect to the NYT, irrespective of what it might have formerly been, it is now nothing less than an expertly executed subversion of freedom. The fact that it can clothe itself in an aura of seriousness and plausible credibility is simply part of its expertise at subversion, and seriousness and credibility are qualities that it doesn't genuinely possess, but only imitates. I am not suggesting that the Times cognitively decides to be subversive, it is simply part of their inherent belief system which is deeply flawed, misinformed, and superstitiously and psychologically driven. I think if you dig more deeply you will find that my conclusion is inescapable upon a full examination of the evidence. While I am not going to attempt to lay out the proof here in this comment, the information is available to you should you want to examine this question more fully. Perhaps your current feelings are from a lingering and dated era. As currently constituted, the NYT is a stalwart enabler of malevolence.

Secondly, I will simply say two things about this massive data mining. The administration has proven through the IRS situation that it can't be trusted to resist the temptation of corruption inherent in its power. Additionally, this data mining interferes with effective interdiction because it weighs the system down with 99.999............% useless information. It is a substitute for accurate (but politically incorrect) profiling. To wit, it didn't stop Boston, which would have been easy in an environment where resources were directed at and willing and able to stay focused on truly plausible threats.

Anyway, I enjoy your experience with totalitarian regimes and the illumination and wisdom that contributes to your well-expressed world views on important subjects.

I hope on the issues I have mentioned that you are open to perhaps being able to update your conclusions upon a deeper examination of the available knowledge, particularly on the subject of ascribing any credibility whatsoever to the NYT.

reader Guest said...

You've changed your argument without responding to my challenge. Appeals to common sense aren't good enough. To some, it's common sense that the government should be allowed to do whatever it sees fit when it comes to national defense; to others, it's common sense that programs ostensibly designed for defensive purposes will inevitably be misused, and that strict limits need to be placed on the powers of government agencies, even if the cost of those limits is increased risk. Disagreements over "common sense" are precisely why this is an issue, and precisely why I've asked you to use rational arguments based on facts rather than bare assertions based on what you think is obvious.

reader Luboš Motl said...

I haven't changed my argument at all.

It's silly - throwing baby out with the bath water - to suggest that any "defensive" policy of state has to be misused. The reason why I find such propositions disingenuous is that defense is probably the most important role of the state or the government - way more important than social security, public schools, and all similar cherries on the pie that were added over the years.

reader Marc said...

Furthermore, the NYT is not displaying consistency. They would have called for Bush's impeachment in light of the same revelation. This is either a fleeting fit of pique, or an intention to appear consistent so as to maintain its plausible credibility in furtherance of its larger goal of influencing public opinion further in the direction of a NYTocracy, unlimited power in the hands of "the morally and intellectually superior elite" to which they fancy themselves belonging.

reader johnl said...

Lubos you are missing some important points. There are very few terrorists in the USA. So few it's impossible to do statistics with whatever telemetry we have on them. So to, uh, augment the terrorist data, we add in other unpopular people. The FBI goes through fads but all kinds of people with no history of violence are considered by the FBI to be extremists because they listen to bad music, play complicated board games, or advocate cuts in the federal budget.

So the terrorists targeted consist almost entirely of normal harmless people. So lots of these people suffer from the intrusion. And at the same time, the government is so busy targeting harmless people, that when the FSB warns us about people who are about to bomb us, it does nothing. Because they are too busy hassling harmless people.

This is worse than useless.

reader Gordon said...

I totally do not believe that the government and its agencies are data-mining ALL emails, phone calls etc

simply as an OCD response of concern for citizens' safety. Once the data is stored, any citizen could be targeted and bots could trawl the info out of the incredibly massive server farm. The idea that if you are not doing anything illegal, you have nothing to worry about is shallow---what if you are complaining about govt corruption, are a whistleblower, etc?

There is a corruption scandal involving the PM's office in Canada right now. While governments are necessary to a degree, I trust them about as far as I can spit. And the proliferation of CCTV cameras everywhere in the UK and evolving in the US is truly frightening and uber-Orwellian:

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear John, it's you who is missing some important (not so) details here. The Prism campaign is monitoring the traffic on the Internet in the whole world - that's really the point - mostly outside the U.S., so the question how many terrorists are in the U.S. is completely irrelevant for the question whether Prism is an effective project.

reader johnl said...

It's not likely the USA is getting phone numbers of bad actors from places where there is lots of terrorism. We'll use USA pseudo bad actors, and they'll be harmless people.

Also, since there is very little terrorism in the USA, it will seem like a waste to have all this data put to no use. So some use will be found for it.

reader Dan said...

seriously dude, comparing the NSA to a mosquito?

I guess a preposterous amount of metadata belonging to a person critical of the government could wind up having it parsed and the enemies can cause a publicity issue for that person if not something more substantial.

You are the one being naive here, bro.

reader Dan said...

yup, and we also have a constitution.

it doesnt matter how effective a power can be if it is unconstitutional!!!

also consider that the government doing something unconstitutional/illegal and then using the "classified" label to cover it up is also in and of itself illegal.

reader nightspore said...

I agree with your assessment of the NYT. After reading the book, "Gray Lady Down", I've (more or less) stopped buying the rag just on principle.