The surveillance state and the dangers of 'data-mining'
The lies keep coming. During the run-up to war with Iraq, we
were told this administration knew for
sure that Saddam had "weapons of mass destruction," and
not only that, but knew exactly where they
were. When no WMD turned up after the invasion, the Bushies came up with
ever saying that in the first place.
Oh, but don't worry – their real
motive for going to war was to export "democracy"
to Iraq – which, as anyone
is happening –
so none of
that matters anyway.
When it came
out that the U.S. government was intercepting and listening to all
overseas calls, the president himself stepped
up to the plate and declared that they weren't spying on domestic calls
– and now
we learn that the biggest database in the world is being compiled by the
National Security Agency (NSA)
in which a record of every phone call made in the U.S. since 2001 is kept.
Oh, but don't fret – no
one in government would ever
allow this vital and potentially sensitive information to be put to unsavory
purposes, such as blackmailing
political opponents or similar
dirty tricks. That anyone in Washington would do such a thing – why, it's
Trust us, say the biggest liars since the
boy who cried wolf. Scooter Libby really doesn't remember outing
undercover CIA agent Valerie
Plame, and Ahmed Chalabi
really is a "hero in error."
All the lying war propaganda vomited forth by this administration and its media
toadies on the front page of the
New York Times, then dutifully
lapped up by administration talking heads on the Sunday morning talk show
circuit, was just an honest mistake. They didn't mean to deceive
see, and this is supposed to make us feel better as well as let the
War Party off the hook.
It does neither. It won't matter in the long run, however, if the neocons get
what they're after. What's really at stake here is the continued relevance of
and the legacy
of the Founding Fathers. Listen closely – you can hear them turning in
What is significant about this new revelation is the way the White House is
spinning it: they claim it's
all perfectly legal, because the president – according to their creative
interpretation of the Constitution – has the "inherent"
authority to create such a database. Congress may object, but it isn't up to
them – it's up to "the
decider," as Dubya has recently begun referring to Himself. Instead
of a president, we now have a decider in chief, who combines the qualities of
executive, a military
chieftain, and a
king. Not a modern monarch, all of whom are merely symbolic reminders of
fallen empires, but a king of old, who could dismiss Parliament and rule by
The phone record database is ostensibly
a weapon to be used against terrorists plotting another 9/11: by employing a
technique known as "data-mining"
the authorities are supposed to be able to detect "bursts" of unusual
calls and reveal a pattern that will somehow lead them to the bad guys. A piece
in the Christian Science Monitor says this "can be used to identify
a 'social network' of interconnected
people – including, perhaps, would-be terrorists." Yes, and also
including the "social network" of the political
leaders, and – yikes! – antiwar writers.
Data-mining is the Big Idea now energizing the burgeoning
"anti-terrorist" industry, and its purpose is nothing less than to
build databases that can be "cross-referenced in the hope of matching patterns,
relationships, and activities that bear investigating." The Monitor
goes on to cite Silicon Valley security expert Bruce Schneier, of Counterpane
"You should presume that phone numbers are being collated with Internet
records, credit-card records, everything."
That's why they call it totalitarianism
– because they want access to everything. The totality of your life must
be available at the touch of a button. Remember "Total
Information Awareness," the scheme cooked up by John
Poindexter and Donald Rumsfeld that Congress ordered
dismantled? Well, this "data-mining" business is it: Rummy, it appears,
the program in a different
bureaucratic rat-hole, and they've been pursuing their quest for omniscience
ever since, without the knowledge or oversight of Congress. This usurpation
has so riled Sen. Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, and 50
other members of congress, that there will be a congressional
investigation into the matter.
"Privacy nuts," sneers
The Weekly Standard, which wheels out good old reliable Heather
MacDonald to explain why "only a paranoid solipsist could feel threatened"
by this latest intrusion. After all, Heather explains, your name won't be attached
to the number: it's just a bunch of digits, silly. And even then, there's just
so much data that getting anything out of it is going to be very difficult.
There, there – now go back to sleep.
But if there's too much data to glean meaningful patterns in anything close
to real-time, then doesn't that invalidate the entire "data-mining"
procedure as a useful tool in tracking terrorists? As William Arkin put it in
a fascinating piece
on this subject of "harvesting" useful intelligence from a massive
"An all-seeing domestic surveillance is slowly being established, one
that in just a few years time will be able to track the activities and 'transactions'
of any targeted individual in near real time."
And digits can always be attached to a name, as MacDonald admits:
"True, the government can de-anonymize the data if connections to terror
suspects emerge, and it is not known what threshold of proof the government
uses to put a name to critical phone numbers. But until that point is reached,
your privacy is at greater risk from the Goodyear blimp at a Stones concert
than from the NSA's supercomputers churning through trillions of zeros and
ones representing disembodied phone numbers."
The mere fact that "it is not known what threshold of proof the government
uses" before implementing this Orwellian
technique tells us all we need to know about this very imminent threat to what
is left of our civil liberties. What threshold of proof must be reached before
the government arrogates to itself the "right" to ferret out the perhaps
intimate details of your life? If we are talking about this government, one
shudders to contemplate the answer. The Bush administration considers itself
the law: it recognizes no law but itself, and to hell with the
Constitution and especially the
Bill of Rights.
The old republic passes
away, but what will take its place? The outlines of the new system emerging
from the ruins of the Constitution are beginning to take shape, and it isn't
a pretty sight. One of my
favorite bloggers put the issue in context, warning against:
"The ultra-conservative legal scholars who invented the doctrine of
the unitary executive and turned into our own home-grown version of the Fuhrerprinzip
– now backed
by the ability to process 10 billion bits of telecommunications data per second.
Big Brother, eat your heart out."
Last year, a number of writers, including Lew
Rockwell of the Mises Institute, Scott
McConnell of The American Conservative,
and myself, among others,
took up the question of whether or not America is going fascist.
A unique confluence of various factors gave rise to this kind of speculation:
the leader cult
that had grown up around the president, the worship
of the military, and a foreign policy stance
somewhere between old-style
British imperialism and Soviet-style "liberation" (as when the
Red Army "liberated"
Afghanistan in the 1970s). Rockwell started the discussion with his perceptive
comments on "Red
State Fascism," and the topic soon became a subject of debate all over
the Internet, as well as in print. I chimed in on
several occasions with my own somewhat pessimistic prognosis. Scott was
more optimistic, yet still clearly worried about the future prospects of a genuinely
fascist regime taking hold in the land of the free. The existence of government
"data-miners" with full access to our phone records, our
financial records, and every
other bit of data they can dig up, provides yet more evidence that Rockwell
is right about the rising fascist danger. As he put it:
"The most significant socio-political shift in our time has gone almost
completely unremarked, and even unnoticed. It is the dramatic shift of the
red-state bourgeoisie from leave-us-alone libertarianism, manifested in the
Congressional elections of 1994, to almost totalitarian statist nationalism.
Whereas the conservative middle class once cheered the circumscribing of the
federal government, it now celebrates power and adores the central state,
particularly its military wing."
The Bushies and their media megaphones are loudly
touting a recent
poll that shows majority support for increased surveillance. This, I think,
underscores the prescience of Rockwell's analysis. The present regime is busily
building up the structural basis of a police state, one in which they will have
the power to see into everything with the possible exception of your very soul
– and that, I can almost assure you, is coming.
Yes, data-mining can be used to track those millions of Americans
who aren't plotting terrorist attacks – and, heck, Big Brother can even
watch us from
space. I suppose executive orders could
be used to lock up political dissidents without charges or a trial: and, yes,
the U.S just possibly
might use its doctrine of military "preemption" to defeat
a threat that was never
there. Luckily for us, we're governed by angels.
Otherwise, I shudder to think what might happen…
Read From Looking Glass News
Telephone Records are just the Tip of NSA's Iceberg
by William Arkin