History of the U.S. Surveillance Debate

Excellent article, chronicling the surveillance debate from the mid 1980s until today. Don't expect good coverage of the current debate, however: the legality of the NSA's recent domestic eavesdropping program, and the legality of the assistance provided by the telcos.

Posted on May 8, 2008 at 1:05 PM • 10 Comments

Comments

Brandioch ConnerMay 8, 2008 1:58 PM

It's THOSE people again. Those "some" people.

"Some in those ranks would have liked, and indeed tried, to make the digital network a wiretap-free zone."

Let us not name the names of those "some". We'll just wax eloquent about "their" failings.

This article sucks. It's written in a cutesy style and glosses over every important fact.

Carlo GrazianiMay 8, 2008 2:24 PM

A careful and illuminating review of the (recent) history of the debate. Grownups will enjoy it.

One thing the article makes completely clear (if clarification was necessary) is that while there are powerful bureaucratic constituencies in favor of expansive surveillance powers within the Federal government, there is no government constituency that places any value on privacy. So there is no intramural debate on the propriety of surveillance, merely on its technical feasibility. Apparently the ideological orientation of the administration has little impact on this dynamic (well, except to the extent that the enthusiasm for surveillance of the current crop of commissars has accelerated it).

PavelMay 8, 2008 3:44 PM

The invisible army concepts are, indeed, somewhat annoying (the 'them' and such), but they are also largely valid.

It has been my experience that, as is natural for most people, when law enforcement asks for the surveilance powers, it is not with the explicitly with the goal of violating people's civil liberties or for other, similarly nefarious, reasons.

Instead, the abuses which gain so much publicity (think NSL, for example), happen when the uninvisioned uses of the powers happen.

It is not clear that it is possible to envision all the possible abuses of a given idea due to the complexity of the environment in which regulations and laws operate - life. The balancing act of need of LE to be able to do something vs. the right of privacy vs. the non-trivial intelligence applied by "the bad guys" to exploiting the system is a difficult one. To quote Clemens, "No wonder truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense!"

What is most disturbing is not the fact that the abuses occur or that the possible abuses were not forethought and checked. Rather, it is the lack of recourse when the abuse do occur.

Brandioch ConnerMay 8, 2008 5:01 PM

@Pavel
"It has been my experience that, as is natural for most people, when law enforcement asks for the surveilance powers, it is not with the explicitly with the goal of violating people's civil liberties or for other, similarly nefarious, reasons."

I can agree with that in principle.

The problems I've seen arise when the balance shifts from what would result in the broadest possible protections for such civil rights ...

... to what is EASIEST for those agencies and their agents.

And the abuses would seem to be easy to predict. Just look at human nature. When you have one difficult option (but one that respects privacy and other rights) ... vs ... an easy option that violates some privacy and/or other rights ...

Which option do you think most of the people in our government will choose?

Particularly when they're allowed to hide behind gag orders and such (NSL's for example).

"Rather, it is the lack of recourse when the abuse do occur."

Would you agree that that is a characteristic of a police state?

lightningMay 8, 2008 6:52 PM

@Pavel:
"It has been my experience that, as is natural for most people, when law enforcement asks for the surveilance powers, it is not with the explicitly with the goal of violating people's civil liberties or for other, similarly nefarious, reasons."

Generally, law enforcement tries to get these powers for the best of motives; generally, when a real Bad Guy finds a loophole and can't be touched by current laws/procedures. Unfortunately, when you've done it once, it becomes a precedent and a basis for future decisions.

The only solution is oversight. The biggest problem with the current "PATRIOT Act" stuff is that it eliminates oversight.

Marc B.May 9, 2008 12:49 AM

Too long, too chatty. Is there a decent timeline of all changes of FISA and other relevant laws somewhere on the net?

AndréMay 9, 2008 4:30 AM

[Off Topic - Best practices for on-line authentication]

Does somebody have a pointer to the best practices for on-line authentication? Google was not a good friend.

I am limited to authenticate users on what they know. No token, no biometrics. So I think the best I can hope is to survive a few logins (or phishings) from a compromised hosts. Does somebody have an analysis of the "password with holes" (you only enter letter 1, 3 and 6 from the password) scheme or know of competing schemes?

Thanks
André

DaveAronsonMay 9, 2008 7:16 AM

@Andre: Off the top of my pointy little head, it seems to me that a "password with holes" is pretty much the same as an ordinary password, of the length requested, but even more prone to human errors in entry....

PavelMay 9, 2008 7:58 AM

@lightning / @Brandioch Conner:

I absolutely agree with the points you both make.

Oversight, in and of itself, is a non-trivial problem. As has been pointed out in other discussions on this (and, I suspect, many other similarly-theemed places of discussion), there is the issue of "who watches the watchers".

In our system of government, judicial oversight is the best we have, though judges are, too, political in their appointments.

I suspect that most of us would prefer imperfect oversight to none.

carbon14May 9, 2008 10:00 AM

power is an end in itself. bureaucrats who live in cubicle habitrails, cut that cheese very thinly and enjoy it by the numbers. FBI is using the 'national security letters with great joy and abandon, the no fly list is just a repubulican harrassment campaign for dissenters.
Every legitimate power the govenment gives itself will be abused and if done with sufficient secrecy, it will go on for a long time on a massive scale. the a generation will live that just routinely accepts that this has been stolen from them before they were born. Serfs.

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