The ACLU reported on Wednesday that the IRS may be reading Americans’ emails without a warrant, because all Americans are now terroriststax evasion is just like terrorism look because they can OK jeez you people with all your Constitution this and Constitution thatshut up already!
[Artwork adapted slightly from Leo Reynolds on Flickr]
After the 9/11 attacks, a traumatized nation considered whether the attacks could have been thwarted by coordinating intelligence-gathering better between the FBI and CIA. From that impulse grew the fusion centers, of which there are now at least 7277 86 across the country. Us lucky SOBs here in Massachusetts get two, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center at One Schroeder Plaza, Roxbury, MA 02120 and the Commonwealth Fusion Center at 124 Acton Street, Maynard, MA 01754. The idea was that they would be able to thwart terrorist attacks before they occur, by gathering representatives from different agencies, and in some cases the military and the private sector, together to report on “suspicious activity”. In practice, it has not worked.
Thing is, actual terrorists are relatively thin on the ground. A network of 7277 86 fusion centers might handle three genuine cases of terrorism between them in any given year. That’s not enough to enable each fusion center to show that it’s doing anything at all. What’s a good bureaucrat to do?
Just because one part of the government has a certain set of data, doesn’t mean that all other parts of the government should have it. Your tax return is kept privately within the IRS; records of your immigration applications stay with USCIS; Medicare keeps your health records private; and so on. This kind of data confidentiality used to be routine; but once again, in the service of terrorism, the normal limitations on government power are considered expendable.
This is what happened.
NCTC asked the Department of Homeland Security for access to a database on terror suspects. DHS gave NCTC the disks, on the condition that NCTC, within 30 days, remove information regarding “innocent US persons” (innocent non-US persons are apparently fair game).
NCTC couldn’t do it. In fact, after 30 days they had barely been able to download the database from the disks. Even with another 30-day extension, they couldn’t do it, and in response to this failure, they have demanded, and gotten, even broader access to even more government databases. The only constraint is that any time they access a new database, they have to publish that fact in the Federal Register.
Their problems in removing “innocent US persons”‘ data are completely understandable, because NCTC was anxious that today’s innocent person may not turn out to have been innocent tomorrow. How do you remove innocent people, when nobody is provably innocent?
From a resource standpoint, how could NCTC possibly deploy enough skilled analysts to prove the innocence of the (at minimum) hundreds of thousands of people this one database contained? And that’s just one of the many databases to which they will now have access!
This is an example of what, over at EFF when I was interning there in 2000, we used to call “Data Valdez”. The amount of data being created is enormous and essentially impossible to thoroughly analyze. The federal government has, in its various parts, access to data on every part of our lives, but no matter how fast its computers, it will never, ever have the human resources necessary to process it properly. Demanding access to ever greater oceans of data is not going to help. It’s a processing problem, not a data problem.
That’s why, at Digital Fourth, we recognize the wisdom for law enforcement of aggressively applying the constraints identified in the Fourth Amendment. Even if you have the ability to collect more data, it works better to consciously commit to collecting less. Law enforcement should, for its own sanity and ours, collect, retain and use in investigations only data that is related to investigations of actual, well-defined crimes committed by previously identified people. Only then will the volume of data collected be low enough that law enforcement will be able to process it thoughtfully and intelligently. Yes, that means that connections will be missed that will only become apparent after the fact of an attack. But we cannot insure perfectly against the probability of future attacks. We have to invest our resources rationally, and we have vastly over-invested in preventing terrorist attacks relative to other things that kill many more Americans.
Thanks for the tips, DHS snooping guys! If I hadn’t been reading some of these before, I certainly will now!
Aside from the regular sites here that monitor and translate foreign news sources relating to threats to national security, there is a heavy emphasis on sites that take a critical view of the surveillance state (especially Wikileaks, Cryptome and Wired). Amusingly for my pedantic soul, Homeland Security Watch is listed twice.
Back in the days of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO, government agents often had to physically impersonate civil rights activists if they wanted to be privy to their communistic conspiracies. Indeed, Occupy shows that they still do. But if J. Edgar Hoover had had the technological tools available to today’s FBI/DHS, there might have been no civil rights movement at all. The ability to plan dissent in secret, without fear of arbitrary imprisonment, torture and trial, was much on the mind of the insurgents we now call the Founders, and underlies the protections of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments. The Founders, in fact, were keen in principle to safeguard the right to behave in ways the government of the day emphatically disapproves of.
I’m not saying that we can’t expect the government to snoop on people online. Comments on websites are in public view, and those who make them have no reasonable expectation of privacy in what they say. However, I am letting you know that (a) they are doing it, (b) that they provably have a priority focus on undermining opposition to the surveillance state, and that (c) if you’re interested enough in these issues to be reading this stuff, you’re probably right to be feeling watched.