Sunday Commentary: Why Government Surveillance is a Threat to All

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One of my biggest disappointments with the current administration has been their lack of resolve in curbing the intrusion of the federal government into the private lives of citizens. In fact, not only have they failed to curb it – in a lot of instances they have expanded it.

Government surveillance has always been a tension between the need for the government to stay out of the lives of citizens and the need for the government to protect its citizens from those who would do it harm, whether it be criminals or terrorists.

But the Founding Fathers, while operating in a completely different world from the high-tech technology and surveillance world that we live in, built in protections against government intrusion, including most significantly the Fourth Amendment which gives people the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and requires warrants to be issued “upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

But we know our government violates this with impunity on a daily basis and we have generally allowed it to do so under the guise of national security and protection.

A lot of otherwise reasonable people take the attitude that if you’re not doing something wrong, you have nothing to fear. It is actually a much more potent argument than civil libertarians would like to admit. My usual rejoinder against it is the ability for the government to mistake evidence.

I often highlight the case of Brandon Mayfield who was wrongly arrested for being involved in the Madrid Subway Bombing a decade ago. It turns out that, while the FBI pulled his fingerprint from evidence on the scene, their investigation would later clear him.

How could this happen? Well it turns out that fingerprint science is not quite as scientifically foolproof as authorities would like you to believe, and we do not pull fingerprint matches on a one to one basis, but rather on a sampling of various spots. So the fingerprint actually pulled up about 15 different hits and Mr. Mayfield was one of them.

We learned a lot about fingerprint evidence from that mistake, but what we should be learning is that allowing government to have private information on us can be dangerous to our liberty and freedom – the government makes mistakes.

Even with that mistake I still think most people do not believe it could ever happen to them. The case of Michael Morton where an intruder kills his wife and he gets convicted for it just don’t resonate with people as being possible. People somehow believe that if they’re innocent they will not go to jail and that even wrongfully convicted individuals were not completely innocent of any crime.

But as I thought about it more, I think I’m using the wrong argument. We shouldn’t trust government because government makes mistakes, but rather because government has no right to get involved in our private lives, whether or not they use the information properly.

So in the way of illustrating this point, if you still believe that you have no problem with the government looking into your private life, I have a suggestion for you. You give me the email address and password to your email account. And then you give me permission to not only read your account but to publish your private emails .

Do I have any takers? Because that is essentially what you’re giving the government permission to do – get into your email accounts listen to your phone conversations and do with all as it pleases.

This is a point that Glen Greenwald made in his TedX talk from this fall, “Why Privacy Matters.”

Mr. Greenwald noted the 2009 interview by Eric Schmidt, longtime CEO of Google, whose response to criticisms about how Google handles privacy was, “If you’re doing something that you don’t want other people to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Mr. Greenwald responded, “The people who say that, who say that privacy isn’t really important, they don’t actually believe it, and the way you know that they don’t actually believe it is that while they say with their words that privacy doesn’t matter, with their actions, they take all kinds of steps to safeguard their privacy. They put passwords on their email and their social media accounts, they put locks on their bedroom and bathroom doors, all steps designed to prevent other people from entering what they consider their private realm and knowing what it is that they don’t want other people to know.”

He noted that privacy “is so craved universally and instinctively. It isn’t just a reflexive movement like breathing air or drinking water. The reason is that when we’re in a state where we can be monitored, where we can be watched, our behavior changes dramatically. The range of behavioral options that we consider when we think we’re being watched severely reduce. This is just a fact of human nature that has been recognized in social science and in literature and in religion and in virtually every field of discipline.”

In a social situation, when you know you are being watched, most people become conscious of their every action and movement. As Mr. Greenwald puts it, they “make decisions not that are the byproduct of their own agency but that are about the expectations that others have of them or the mandates of societal orthodoxy.”

That is just a social situation; when the government is watching, it becomes even more so.

Mr. Greenwald also draws the critical lesson from George Orwell’s 1984, which is not that we believe that we will reach a state where there will be monitors in people’s homes watching every moment, but rather, “The warning that he was issuing was about a surveillance state not that monitored everybody at all times, but where people were aware that they could be monitored at any given moment.”

As Orwell wrote through his narrator, Winston Smith, “At any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live, did live, from habit that became instinct, in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard and except in darkness every movement scrutinized.”

That is the true danger. It is not just people who do something wrong that have things to hide and reasons to guard their privacy. As Mr. Greenwald, argues, this is a “very destructive” message. The first message is that “the only people who care about privacy, the only people who will seek out privacy, are by definition bad people.” Secondly he argues the “more insidious lesson” is this: “If you’re willing to render yourself sufficiently harmless, sufficiently unthreatening to those who wield political power, then and only then can you be free of the dangers of surveillance. It’s only those who are dissidents, who challenge power, who have something to worry about.”

This is what I worry about with regard to privacy and government surveillance – we are ceding our power and liberty in ways that we really don’t understand. Most people do not recognize that power they have psychologically ceded when they know someone is watching them.

Most people are not like French philosopher Michel Foucault, who was able to conceptualize that the very construct of modern surveillance is a system of power.

So yes, if we are doing nothing wrong we need to fear a society in which people can be monitored at all times, as that is likely to breed conformity, obedience and ultimately submission. So those not worried about it, feel free to post your email address and passwords as well as user names and passwords of your social media accounts, and let us see for ourselves that you have nothing you wish to hide.

—-David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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27 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Why Government Surveillance is a Threat to All”

  1. Anon

    “One of my biggest disappointments with the current administration has been their lack of resolve in curbing the intrusion of the federal government into the private lives of citizens. In fact, not only have they failed to curb it – in a lot of instances they have expanded it.”

    In this entire article, you have not defined what you mean by federal gov’t intrusion.  Please be more specific as to what it is you object to, that the federal gov’t is engaging in.

  2. Alan Miller

    DG, Nice to agree with you 100% on this Sunday afternoon.

    I would add, however, that it is not “the government” that is primarily allowing this to happen, but “we”, the people, that are allowing it to happen.  Complain as we may about this invasion, in reality, the society has given up privacy for convenience.  We turn on our GPS tracking device so we may easily find where we are going.  The government can know, too.

    Corporations as well.  Sony, for example, could operate the internal operations on a completely closed computer network, and have only limited systems that connect to the outside world.  That is costly and inconvenient, however.  Also inconvenient is having all your corporate secrets exposed to the world.

    I succumb to much, but I avoid Facebook.  Facebook’s algorithms are designed to connect people with common traits, to link like-with-like, to define and cross-reference groups and individuals, automatically.  As a Jew who, I understand, had half the family killed in concentration camps, I ask all who associate with others by identification through electronic matching algorithms, how wise is to give your information to the internet for any to hack?  What if you are of the “Blue” persuasion, and someday we have an oppressive government that hates Blue people, or are invaded by a government that hates Blue people.  The government, if it had reason, could seek me out as a “Blue” individual, but far more likely the anti-Blue haters are going to go to Facebook and find all the Blue people that way.

    A couple of years ago there were some terrorists in Palestine territory that met their end when the Israeli Government found a picture of them, determined it was a place they hid out, used the embedded GPS coordinates in the picture and programmed the coordinates into a cruise missile.  Boom.  End of terrorists.  So now take all those pictures on Facebook with Blue people on them, extract the GPS coordinates, and send out the missiles to greet the Blue people with the information they provided for their own destruction.  Boom.  No Blue people.

    I largely blame the young and their culture of instant communication devices.  They seem oblivious, and I guess that cannot be unexpected, it is the world we gave them, and they do not have the perspective of first hand experience with a highly oppressive government or invasion.  We all believe it can’t happen here.

    Keep on believing, it can’t happen here.

    Can it?

    1. Anon

      Your point is well taken, and why I made the following comment to David: “In this entire article, you have not defined what you mean by federal gov’t intrusion.  Please be more specific as to what it is you object to, that the federal gov’t is engaging in.”

      I am trying to find out what exactly David is concerned about, in regard to gov’t intrusion.  The problem is that emails are held by third party private entities, that do not necessarily protect customer privacy.

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        I intentionally left it blank – but it could be anything from wiretapping cell and phone calls to other interception of transmissions. While what you state about emails is true, the government’s intrusion into them would nevertheless be a rather serious breach into privacy. The fact that we haven’t taken steps to protect electronic communications as we have physical mail or other communications is very telling.

  3. Biddlin

    A couple of decades late, guys.  This genie has been out of the bottle since ECHELON launched c. 1988. Now government, corporations and individuals have access to any and all communication media in your life. Worried about UAV surveillance? Worry more about your laptop and cellphone. Who do you think is a bigger threat, the federal government, the kid next door who’s hacked your wi-fi or DISH network?

    You are in plain view.

    ;>)/

  4. Tia Will

    I agree that both convenience and a sense of connectedness are factors in our willingness to accept a lack of privacy.

    I believe that a third factor is fear. Our national fear of attack from the outside escalated sharply with the 9/11 attacks. While this was of course understandable at the time, its ongoing consequences have been the sacrifice not only of convenience as in long security lines at airports and other points of entry and exit from the country, but also a general willingness to surrender privacy in order to “feel” safer. Again, I would emphasize the difference between “feeling safer “and “being safer”. Of course, we have only the word of those running our security systems that these systems are in fact preventing further attacks. Could it not equally be the case that no further attacks of this magnitude have occurred because they have not been planned ? After all, security was less the entire time prior to 9/11 and yet this was the first attack of this magnitude.

    As a society we tend to be very fear driven, frequently at the cost of any rational determination of risk. This is not a “it couldn’t happen here” approach. It is an argument for action based on reasonable risk assessment rather than the  fear driven “what if” thinking that drove the recent and extremely expensive Ebola preparations in virtually every community with health care in the nation. In the case of Ebola, fear drove us to divert precious resources from our true needs. In the case of national security, our fear has made us accepting of loss of privacy that we would not have considered acceptable previously.

     

    1. DavisBurns

      I believe our citizens are less afraid than our leaders.  The 9/11 disaster which found our security apparatus with their pants around their knees, left then embarrassed and led to them over compensating.  The fear is generated from the top and it is imposed on us.  If we had a media blackout on the subject of national security for 3 months and at the end of those 3 months we could go to the ballot box and vote on which security measures we would allow in the future, we’d find out how public feels about privacy vs security.

      There is a booming business in “security” and those powerful interests will not give up their profits without a fight.  I would love to know how much we spend for TSA guards, all the private and public jobs monitoring and all the equipment they use.  America isn’t poor.  We just don’t spend our money wisely.  Eisenhauer warned us about the military industrial complex and we didn’t heed his warning.  We now have more private soldiers than we have in our armed forces.

      I believe the problem we see with aggressive police is due to been taught on every level, that they are in imminent danger. You can hardly avoid police dramas on TV where they are always under threat. I imagine all their training emphasizes that they risk their lives every time they are on duty but so they every look at the reality, the statics? How can they approach a citizen with a plastic toy gun calmly if they are conditioned to constantly be afraid?

      1. DavisBurns

        As a society we tend to be very fear driven, frequently at the cost of any rational determination of risk.

        This is certainly true of our motivations to use excess light at night.  There are no studies that show light at night increases safety yet the lighting industry as so successfully used our innate fear of the dark to convince us to constantly increase illumination at night, we believe light makes us safer.  Communities that minimize outside lighting at night find over and over again, that crime goes down but the facts don’t matter. From the Illinois Coalition for Responsible Outdoor Lighting:

        Fear of crime is a concern which hangs at the back of each of our minds. Crime has much in common with disease; we all have either suffered its unpleasant effects, or know someone close to us who has. We desire to avoid “catching” it.
        “Apply artificial illumination after dark” is one instruction we regularly hear from people telling us how we should protect ourselves from crime. But does following this broad injunction and operating lights all around us throughout the night reduce the likelihood of our becoming victims of crime? Is darkness itself a “breeding ground” for crime, or are we expressing an innate human fear of the dark in this instance, rather than looking at the true nature of the crimes which we fear? These questions are not that difficult to answer, but they are too seldom asked; adding more light is repeatedly prescribed, but those prescriptions are often not backed up by real statistics or any depth of analysis.

        We sacrifice the night to FEEL safer just as we sacrifice our privacy and our civil rights to FEEL safer.  I would welcome the opportunity to have choices based on facts not propaganda.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could put the Patriot Act on the ballot?

        1. Biddlin

          Wouldn’t it be great if we could put the Patriot Act on the ballot?”

          I used to have faith in the “common sense’ of most folks, but not so much, these days.People are prone to ignore realities and choose a comfortable myth. Some people “choose” to believe all their problems are the result of 75 million year-old galactic Lord and that medications are poison. I “choose” to believe that people are just intellectually lazy, not really stupid. None of those indulgences change the realities. The reality is that we were willing to trade our freedom for a default “security,” that it turns out didn’t make us a damned bit safer. W. Bush’s second term is proof enough of that.  I have no reason to doubt that the “plurality” of voters would add an even thicker seal over our liberties.

          ;>)/

    2. Alan Miller

      Mostly agree, except the part about their not having been a plan to destroy in the USA since 9/11.  El Al has had no such incidents, because they have always known the world is a dangerous place and their people aren’t soft and spoiled and sheltered like we here in the good old USA.  We always were at great risk for 9/11 and the government should have had El Al style precautions in place pre-2001.  The soft, I-want-it-now American citizens wouldn’t put up with such an inconvenience until 3000 people died.  The world is still a dangerous place.  However, I fully agree on Ebola and the idea of stupid diversions of resources due to media hype not fact.

  5. Davis Progressive

    anon – i’m not sure why this a point in question.  one of the big issues has been the collection of phone records by the nsa, most of which is just the accumulation of personal data.  we had no idea just how much the government had done until edward snowden’s revelations – that should be a warning sign that we don’t even know the extent of the government’s involvement here.

     

    1. Anon

      Okay, I will take a deep breath, and try not to get impatient 😉  My question gets to the heart of the matter.  See discussion below.

      DG: “I intentionally left it blank – but it could be anything from wiretapping cell and phone calls to other interception of transmissions. While what you state about emails is true, the government’s intrusion into them would nevertheless be a rather serious breach into privacy. The fact that we haven’t taken steps to protect electronic communications as we have physical mail or other communications is very telling.

      You intentionally left it blank?  In other words, you have no idea to what extent the gov’t is snooping or not snooping, I take it?  Well let me enlighten you about the problem:

      From Findlaw: “The Fourth Amendment, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Patriot Act
      Email privacy is derived from the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and is governed by the “reasonable expectation of privacy” standard. Unfortunately, given the open nature of email mentioned above (passing through several computers and stored at multiple locations), the expectation of privacy may be less for email, especially email at work, than for other forms of communication.
      Emails are also governed by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and the Patriot Act. Although the ECPA originally set up protections (such as a warrant requirement) to protect email, those protections have been weakened in many instances by the Patriot Act. Even where the protections remain under the ECPA, emails lose their status as a protected communication in 180 days, which means a warrant is no longer necessary and your emails can be accessed by a simple subpoena.”
      – See more at: http://consumer.findlaw.com/online-scams/email-privacy-concerns.html#sthash.EobxB431.dpuf

      Advice from Findlaw: “Emails are stored at multiple locations: on the sender’s computer, your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) server, and on the receiver’s computer. Deleting an email from your inbox doesn’t mean there aren’t multiple other copies still out there. Emails are also vastly easier for employers and law enforcement to access than phone records. Finally, due to their digital nature, they can be stored for very long periods of time, so think twice before writing something down in an email you don’t want others to see.”

      Anyone who thinks emails are private should have their head examined.  If you want to say something to someone so that it is truly private, then phone them, or write a letter.  Anything sent over the internet is, by its very nature, NOT PRIVATE!

      1. Davis Progressive

        i can’t speak for david, but i think it’s pretty clear we’re talking about the snowden disclosures here, not email.  email was simply an easy analogy.  nevertheless, my point was that email should be made more secure.  and just because the government can read it, does not mean it should have the right to do so.

        1. Davis Progressive

          that’s actually fairly easy.  one way is through end to end encryption which only allows the sender and the intended recipient who has a key to read the contents.  i would also suggest that email providers not store emails on their server.  that likely eliminates the possibility of being intercepted and unencrypted as well as being accessed from off the server (since it’s not stored there).

          how bullet proof can encryption be – there’s a rogue organization call cryptowall that can infect your system, take your files for randsom, and hold them hostage until you pay $500 or $1000 or lose them.

          http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/04/opinion/sunday/how-my-mom-got-hacked.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0

          “Is there any other way to get rid of it besides paying the ransom? No — it appears to be technologically impossible for anyone to decrypt your files once CryptoWall 2.0 has locked them.”

          so if a bunch of criminals can develop a system that can’t be unencrypted – and they’ve probably made $30 million or more infecting perhaps 1 million computers, why can’t google or comcast or at&t or any number of these multinational multibillion companies do the same?

          the answer to your question, there are plenty of ways to do it, we just have to pressure the email companies to take security and privacy more seriously.

  6. Napoleon Pig IV

    Has there ever been a time in the history of humanity when “trust the government” – any government – was a rational personal policy position for a mere citizen to hold?  Oink!

  7. LadyNewkBahm

    speaking of privacy. look at how we all have to provide information to david greenwald on who we are. The vanguard has discouraged random posting under multiple pseudonyms and preventing us from masking ourselves. If we had any expectations of privacy here, we wouldn’t have to provide our email addresses. Anyone could come up with any random pseudonym, no questions asked.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Of course a few years ago we fought a subpoena to provide that information in court. There are many people who register under a fake name with an email address that preserves that privacy. We have no rules to prohibit that

      1. Anon

        And you could have lost that fight, in which case privacy would not have been protected. According to Google, they had to comply with 84% of record requests in Jan-June 2014.

        1. Matt Williams

          Do you post anything here in the Vanguard comments that you have to fear criminal prosecution for?

          Does LadyNewkBahm post anything here in the Vanguard comments that she has to fear criminal prosecution for?

          Does anyone post anything here in the Vanguard comments that they have to fear criminal prosecution for?

      1. Matt Williams

        Do you post anything here in the Vanguard comments that you have to fear criminal prosecution for?

        Does LadyNewkBahm post anything here in the Vanguard comments that she has to fear criminal prosecution for?

        Does anyone post anything here in the Vanguard comments that they have to fear criminal prosecution for?

        1. Anon

          Does anyone know if anything they post on the Vanguard comments may at some point in time lead to criminal prosecution?  I’ll answer that one for you – NO!

        2. Miwok

          I think commenting on the Vanguard will put you on the Watch Lists.. 🙂

          I was a bit reluctant to post because of the lurkers out there. I am a bit amazed this article speaks out against surveillance. Overseas they have armed drones overhead, and the FAA is being lobbied to have those here too. “for the kids” “to keep us safe”

    2. Biddlin

      I feel reasonably safe with David having that information. Given the Vanguard’s general level of efficiency.I’m sure it would take several exchanges with authorities for them to find and provide the correct information, which would doubtless lead them to disappointment, anyhow. My European friends are fascinated by this concern over government snooping. They seem to know someone is always watching and don’t mind. They are much more concerned about private financial-sector’s data collection.

      ;>)/

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