Counterterrorism Mission Creep

One of the assurances I keep hearing about the U.S. government's spying on American citizens is that it's only used in cases of terrorism. Terrorism is, of course, an extraordinary crime, and its horrific nature is supposed to justify permitting all sorts of excesses to prevent it. But there's a problem with this line of reasoning: mission creep. The definitions of "terrorism" and "weapon of mass destruction" are broadening, and these extraordinary powers are being used, and will continue to be used, for crimes other than terrorism.

Back in 2002, the Patriot Act greatly broadened the definition of terrorism to include all sorts of "normal" violent acts as well as non-violent protests. The term "terrorist" is surprisingly broad; since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it has been applied to people you wouldn't normally consider terrorists.

The most egregious example of this are the three anti-nuclear pacifists, including an 82-year-old nun, who cut through a chain-link fence at the Oak Ridge nuclear-weapons-production facility in 2012. While they were originally arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge, the government kept increasing their charges as the facility's security lapses became more embarrassing. Now the protestors have been convicted of violent crimes of terrorism -- and remain in jail.

Meanwhile, a Tennessee government official claimed that complaining about water quality could be considered an act of terrorism. To the government's credit, he was subsequently demoted for those remarks.

The notion of making a terrorist threat is older than the current spate of anti-terrorism craziness. It basically means threatening people in order to terrorize them, and can include things like pointing a fake gun at someone, threatening to set off a bomb, and so on. A Texas high-school student recently spent five months in jail for writing the following on Facebook: "I think I'ma shoot up a kindergarten. And watch the blood of the innocent rain down. And eat the beating heart of one of them." Last year, two Irish tourists were denied entry at the Los Angeles Airport because of some misunderstood tweets.

Another term that's expanded in meaning is "weapon of mass destruction." The law is surprisingly broad, and includes anything that explodes, leading political scientist and terrorism-fear skeptic John Mueller to comment:

As I understand it, not only is a grenade a weapon of mass destruction, but so is a maliciously-designed child's rocket even if it doesn't have a warhead. On the other hand, although a missile-propelled firecracker would be considered a weapon of mass destruction if its designers had wanted to think of it as a weapon, it would not be so considered if it had previously been designed for use as a weapon and then redesigned for pyrotechnic use or if it was surplus and had been sold, loaned, or given to you (under certain circumstances) by the secretary of the army ....

All artillery, and virtually every muzzle-loading military long arm for that matter, legally qualifies as a WMD. It does make the bombardment of Ft. Sumter all the more sinister. To say nothing of the revelation that The Star Spangled Banner is in fact an account of a WMD attack on American shores.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, one commentator described our use of the term this way: "What the United States means by terrorist violence is, in large part, 'public violence some weirdo had the gall to carry out using a weapon other than a gun.' ... Mass murderers who strike with guns (and who don't happen to be Muslim) are typically read as psychopaths disconnected from the larger political sphere." Sadly, there's a lot of truth to that.

Even as the definition of terrorism broadens, we have to ask how far we will extend that arbitrary line. Already, we're using these surveillance systems in other areas. A raft of secret court rulings has recently expanded the NSA's eavesdropping powers to include "people possibly involved in nuclear proliferation, espionage and cyberattacks." A "little-noticed provision" in a 2008 law expanded the definition of "foreign intelligence" to include "weapons of mass destruction," which, as we've just seen, is surprisingly broad.

A recent Atlantic essay asks, somewhat facetiously, "If PRISM is so good, why stop with terrorism?" The author's point was to discuss the value of the Fourth Amendment, even if it makes the police less efficient. But it's actually a very good question. Once the NSA's ubiquitous surveillance of all Americans is complete -- once it has the ability to collect and process all of our emails, phone calls, text messages, Facebook posts, location data, physical mail, financial transactions, and who knows what else -- why limit its use to cases of terrorism? I can easily imagine a public groundswell of support to use to help solve some other heinous crime, like a kidnapping. Or maybe a child-pornography case. From there, it's an easy step to enlist NSA surveillance in the continuing war on drugs; that's certainly important enough to warrant regular access to the NSA's databases. Or maybe to identify illegal immigrants. After all, we've already invested in this system, we might as well get as much out of it as we possibly can. Then it's a short jump to the trivial examples suggested in the Atlantic essay: speeding and illegal downloading. This "slippery slope" argument is largely speculative, but we've already started down that incline.

Criminal defendants are starting to demand access to the NSA data that they believe will exonerate themselves. How can a moral government refuse this request?

More humorously, the NSA might have created the best backup system ever.

Technology changes slowly, but political intentions can change very quickly. In 2000, I wrote in my book Secrets and Lies about police surveillance technologies: "Once the technology is in place, there will always be the temptation to use it. And it is poor civic hygiene to install technologies that could someday facilitate a police state." Today we're installing technologies of ubiquitous surveillance, and the temptation to use them will be overwhelming.

This essay originally appeared in TheAtlantic.com.

EDITED TO ADD (8/4): Other agencies are already asking to use the NSA data:

Agencies working to curb drug trafficking, cyberattacks, money laundering, counterfeiting and even copyright infringement complain that their attempts to exploit the security agency’s vast resources have often been turned down because their own investigations are not considered a high enough priority, current and former government officials say.

Posted on July 19, 2013 at 9:40 AM • 46 Comments

Comments

TomJuly 19, 2013 10:37 AM

I'm disturbed by the tone of much American commentary on this. The underlying statement seems to be, "You're using this on Americans??? You're only supposed to do that to foreigners!" The assumption seems to be that the rest of the world is filled with scum-bag terrorists who are not to be trusted and that surveillance of them is not only reasonable but perhaps the only sane course.

Remember us? We're supposedly your allies. Not that you behave like it much.

Americans seem to almost accept gun deaths as part of the American way of life. When someone walks into a school and kills ten, twenty, thirty, whatever people with a gun then sure, you arrest his, charge him, imprison or kill him, but it's no big deal. It doesn't cause any sort of questioning of society's course, nor is it seen as a major threat to the American way of life. But try killing three people with a bomb... This is as disturbing as the attitude to foreigners; it seems a significant cultural blind spot.

KirkJuly 19, 2013 10:42 AM

"Criminal defendants are starting to demand access to the NSA data that they believe will exonerate themselves. How can a moral government refuse this request?"

Moral government. Really?

And _whose_ morals should prevail under this New Infoworld Order?

AlanSJuly 19, 2013 11:17 AM

The mission creep has a Robespierrian logic:

"If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most urgent needs.

It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution is liberty's despotism against tyranny. Is force made only to protect crime? And is the thunderbolt not destined to strike the heads of the proud?"

Kris LaBruneJuly 19, 2013 11:31 AM

Terrorism's definition is intentionally vague so the puppeteers can level any charge at you they wish if you make them uncomfortable enough in a way that they notice. Considering the history of the neo-con posse's usage of unjust violence and comically veiled oppressive actions, to believe that technologies and programs like PRISM ever actually experienced 'creep' of any sort to me is highly improbable. These programs are being used exactly for what they were intended to be used for at the get go. To see what anyone is planning, whenever they want so they can take action as quickly as possible before any form of seriously dissenting movement can pick up steam. We still don't know the true scope of what is in place, for how long it's been there or what I can only imagine are vast numbers of administrators and analysts that are involved with its implementation, maintenance, analysis and monitoring. Given Mr. Snowdens recent actions, I'm sure that number can only go up as a more severe separation of duties policy is put into place...or maybe just enforced this time. To say there is federal oversight of this technology by elected officials, many of whom were born in the 1800's or who have scientific literacy on par with believing islands can tip over if they're too heavy at one end, and expect me to believe it, is frankly insulting. All the while there is sequestration in place and of course as a country we are totally broke, or so Washington keeps telling us. I remember Rumsfeld making the comment that there was 3.2 Trillion USD unaccounted for in the Pentagons budget the day before 9/11. I would venture to take a guess as to some of the things that immense sum was spent on.

OtterJuly 19, 2013 11:44 AM

Actually, Smith was disciplined for revealing the government's attitude toward citizens before the official roll-out.

KevinJuly 19, 2013 11:54 AM

I wonder how much further this will go before enough people actually pull the emergency brakes on this type of activity.

I read an article about the phrase "nothing to hide" is misleading and can injure privacy even more. The justification to continue to use this technology will be great and anyone who opposes it will probably be hit with some type of charge or maybe an NSL.

With secret databases comes the need to ensure the information in it is of the highest quality and lowest percentage of errors. Then you have to protect it from prying eyes or the eyes of those you are trying to use it against. Perhaps 90% of the data is not even looked at after the initial automated analysis, but what happens to it once the analysis is complete and deemed not to be relevant?

RSaundersJuly 19, 2013 11:57 AM

While the Atlantic article you cite is interesting, "somewhat facetiously" isn't even close. The USA can, apparently, afford for the NSA to keep everyone's phone records for 5 years. Five years ago, I was making a lot more calls. I've really got no reason to even have a phone at home, it's so infrequently called by someone I want to talk to. The Supreme Court decided that these phone records were not private, back in 1979 (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smith_v._Maryland ). Now, 30+ years later the USA has a database! What's shocking about that? All those other things listed are many orders of magnitude more data. It doesn't seem within the realm of Computer Science as we understand it to record all that. Not "facetious" it's Science Fiction. While the NSA may have a large budget, you're talking about spending a literally unlimited amount of money here. Even the USA can't afford that.

The backup app, that's a killer app.

The other NSA stuff is just the USA asking companies that have ALREADY SPIED ON THEIR USERS to share the results. Now I think that perhaps companies shouldn't spy on users, but even I can't object to the government getting access to the take. It's rediculous to call Google spying, and selling the results to advertizers, an OK thing and then object to the CIA getting those results.

Anonymous-984July 19, 2013 1:13 PM

Bruce,

I think you did a great job with the Atlantic article.[1] However, I have a couple constructive criticisms I would like to share with you.

First, please don't use the name "slippery slope" to refer to the valid concerns you raise. I use the term continuous marginal expansion, which more accurately represents the baby steps with which power hungry institutions grow programs and powers.

People wrongly think the argument you're making refers to the logical fallacy of many improbable events being linked together.[2] I would call this an avalanche effect, but this is how many people interpret this argument since they do not critically. This choice of words negatively impacts the understanding of those who are only vaguely aware of how human institutions and bureaucracies operate.

Second, the FBI is already using this system. More importantly, they are taking over existing child porn sites and running them for long periods of time to collect criminal intelligence on the users of the sites.[3][4] I have a friend of a friend, who is a gifted infosec resource, break into one of these sites, which was a hidden service on tor. He dumped the customer data and gave it to Spanish LEAs. Unfortunately, he dumped data from an FBI honeypot and the FBI made the Spanish prosecute him.[5]

I hope no one publishes or writes anything that could disrupt the ongoing FBI operations in anyway, but everyone needs to know this is already going on.

Soon they will be targeting political dissidents with the same measures. Based on Snowden's politics, it would not surprise me, if they do not declare Libertarians as a national security threat. This is as inevitable as the sun will rise tomorrow. We only need look at the FBI's abuses and checkered past with programs like COINTELPRO.[6]

[1] - http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/...
[2] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slippery_slope
[3] - http://theweek.com/article/index/244963/...
[4] - http://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/...
[5] - http://www.eldiario.es/turing/...
[6] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COINTELPRO

sandifopJuly 19, 2013 2:14 PM

@Tom I understand and even agree with your point about our actions regarding our allies; however, the tone of posts like this author's is usually in light of the American Constitution and "Bill of Rights." One can easily be forgiven if one does not include someone from outside of that umbrella when the umbrella is the framework for the conversation.

GopiballavaJuly 19, 2013 2:15 PM

@Tom:
"You're using this on Americans??? You're only supposed to do that to foreigners!"

I'm not sure how much people really think about this, but at least in theory there's actually some rational rationale for different rules, or at least there used to be:

The intelligence agencies aren't supposed to be able to arrest people or perform law enforcement activities. At least traditionally, they wouldn't share most of what they got with other countries either.

Given the data sharing agreements that seem to be going on and the rendition, I don't think those assumptions come close to being accurate anymore. But I do think there are explanations other than nationalism.

There's also the point that they're not supposed to do domestic surveillance. Somebody might simply not be thinking about it - they're not thinking "I only want them watching those dodgy foreigners", they're just thinking "that's not what they're supposed to do."

aboniksJuly 19, 2013 2:18 PM

@ Bruce

"The notion of making a terrorist threat is older than the current spate of anti-terrorism craziness. It basically means threatening people in order to terrorize them..."

Or, perhaps less recursively, it basically means threatening people in order to get them to behave differently; scaring them badly enough that the scarer encourages them to behave in a way that benefits the one doing the scaring.

So much the better, for the scarer, if people become so scared that they begin to believe that the change in behavior was their idea in the first place, and a therefore a justifiable and/or logical response to being scared in that particular fashion.

JohnAnonymousJuly 19, 2013 2:52 PM

Wow, another very good article, like the interview. Very persuasive, very powerful. Thanks.

JohnAnonymousJuly 19, 2013 3:06 PM

@Tom

It would be nice to see more global protest about this. There is not much national protest, either.

From the President of Bolivia's airplane incident it does appear that a lot of nations are in the pocket of the US Government.

If the US goes full blown totalitarian, the rest of the "free" world will go with it. (These nations are in-arguably still more free then a China or Saudi Arabia, but they are still very immature and backsliding in freedom.)

The US is gearing up increasingly for war and the old excuse of a global Communist menace is no longer there. You do not mass produce assassin drones and just stockpile for defensive purposes.

Arguing that "to make peace, prepare for war" is absurd as many times over for as many nuclear weapons America has. Looks more like last century post-WWI Nazi Germany in terms of military and intelligence buildup.


JohnAnonymousJuly 19, 2013 3:18 PM

@Anonymous-984

"I have a friend of a friend, who is a gifted infosec resource, break into one of these sites, which was a hidden service on tor. He dumped the customer data and gave it to Spanish LEAs. Unfortunately, he dumped data from an FBI honeypot and the FBI made the Spanish prosecute him."

That is hacking of a site. The FBI has run all sorts of honeypots. Some famous examples are with the carder website, and with Lulzsec (while not a honeypot technically, it was a honeypot, false flag operation).

Not sure how that says the FBI is using the surveillance system recently disclosed.

I would be surprised if they are not. Twitter, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft are making moves saying, "Disclose, federal government, so we can be vindicated" and saying, "We are only giving data on individuals".

Fact is the US Government would want complete access. Which they can get just from server certificates as they are already upstream, but they want the underlying infrastructure to help them parse and trace the data. They want networks. Who knows who. Who is connected to who. Seven degrees of connection.

As their legitimate operations there would be against foreign spy networks operating in the US and terrorist networks, they would not want the companies involved able to know what they were doing.

That is far too sensitive of data to trust to "everyone" (as it would turn out) at some Silicon Valley company.

So, there is very likely a deeper backdoor implemented which may involve some insiders and the "give me information on this target" is just effectively a cover. An operational cover that would be all that level of agent would be aware of, but a cover, nonetheless.

Note: I am only hypothesizing here. Obviously, if I worked for the US Government I would not post such a thing here.

KevinJuly 19, 2013 3:24 PM

I don't disagree that the definitions of terrorism could be expanded to meet someones political or personal agenda. Mission creep I am positive is real. But, all too often I think the most overlooked part about surveillance systems like PRISM is manpower. I don't know how many analysts the NSA has working for them but I would think it would have to be an enormous amount to be able to spy on 350 million Americans.

I feel we need to petition our congressmen and senators to start defining what can and cannot be included in this type of surveillance and what it can be used for. If it is for the purpose of trying to identify foreign and domestic terrorists whose true intent is to cause mass murder and destruction and anyone who may be assisting them then by all means continue. But if it ends up being used by the local Sheriff who has some personal vendetta against someone trying to find anything at all about them to justify arresting them then that is too far. They also need a oversight committee made up of private citizens to make sure the system isn't being abused.

I guess I am trying to say that surveillance systems like PRISM can be useful tools in fighting terrorism but the government needs to be forthcoming about it's existence and what it is being used for with oversight from a non political entity. Although, I am not the one smart enough to figure out exactly how this would happen.

WaelJuly 19, 2013 5:09 PM

@ RSaunders

It's rediculous to call Google spying, and selling the results to advertizers, an OK thing and then object to the CIA getting those results.

Say you have a disease that you wish to keep secret, but Google captured it and catalogued you because you keep searching for a certain type of pill. Is there a difference between giving access to this data to:
a) An online pharmacy?
b) An insurance company that will deny you insurance?

I call (a) Annoyance, and (b) Spying

Likewise, capabilities of advertisers and CIA to cause you annoyance or harm are a little different. Not ridiculous at all ;)

Nick PJuly 19, 2013 5:14 PM

@ Tom re Americans vs foreigners

" The underlying statement seems to be, "You're using this on Americans??? You're only supposed to do that to foreigners!" The assumption seems to be that the rest of the world is filled with scum-bag terrorists who are not to be trusted and that surveillance of them is not only reasonable but perhaps the only sane course.

Remember us? We're supposedly your allies. Not that you behave like it much."

That's kind of naive. It assumes national governments are inherently good and cooperative until one does something evil. That's not true at all. In reality, selfishness among nations goes way back and imperialism was common among many Western nations. Key underlying factors are resource scarcity, national competition, national pride, and greed. In the past this involved many wars and empires. From Cold War on, it's been done more through diplomacy, economic strategy, and subterfuge.

That leads to the next point. A government is a tool of protection or empowerment of its people. People expect their governments to look after them, do what benefits them, etc. The factors I mentioned previously mean most nations will constantly be competing, with some on top at any given moment. America being on top requires us to outmaneuver the competition in many ways, some considered legitimate and some downright evil. Our "Allies" are simply people we cooperate with most of the time. They still compete at times with our interests and so our government naturally treats them as an opponent of sorts in those situations.

Global politics is a complex series of manipulations with similarly complex motives. Many countries publicly act like they hate such a concept, but privately use it when it benefits them. The US simply got itself in a dominant position where it can get away with more, sometimes in the open.

Nick PJuly 19, 2013 5:32 PM

@ RSaunders Re Google/Facebook vs Fed spying

Abstract: By their effects, they're not the same at all.

"It's rediculous to call Google spying, and selling the results to advertizers, an OK thing and then object to the CIA getting those results."

I certainly didn't say it's OK. However, I think it's not as much a threat to me because Google & advertisers won't:

1. Make me loose my job.
2. Make me loose access to products and services. (ie. wael's remark)
3. Make me loose important "privileges" such as driving.
4. Cancel benefits from government (e.g.social security) or financial investments (e.g. IRS seizure)
5. Throw me in prison.
6. Kidnap me, strip me of my rights, & torture me (rendition program)
7. Murder me. (err, "execution")

The federal government has the legal (sometimes "extra"-legal) authorization to cause each of these effects under certain circumstances. The circumstances broaden quite regularly. The more they know, the easier they can justify causing me harm in one of these ways. They also attempt higher amounts of secrecy and legal immunity in how they operate the programs that accomplish these things. They also have a habit of taking our protections, especially due process & press, away in the same programs.

Historically, even in US, when these capabilities were concentrated into the hands of a few they became systematically abused to benefit one group over others. So, the above give me reason to do what I can to prevent the current government from acquiring these abilities.

Most services such as Google and Facebook are purely voluntary, bound by law against committing many serious forms of harm, and cause temporary aggravation at worst for the majority of their "victims." Difference between their power and a surveillance/police state are the difference between night and day.

dr2chaseJuly 19, 2013 7:27 PM

A little odd that we attach so much importance to intentional killing, and so little to accidental killing. You're just as dead if you're hit by a car as if you're blasted by a bomb, and many, many more people are killed by cars each year (over 3000 of them not in cars). Or, if you look at where we mismanage medical care, either through errors or misallocation (problems that are dealt with somewhat more competently in other companies), thousands of deaths per year, every year.

But all those "accidental" deaths, which result from bad habits, haste, inattention, profit-oriented corner cutting, and "we've always done it his way", despite being an order of magnitude or two more numerous, are no big deal.

stevelaudigJuly 19, 2013 7:30 PM

" How can a moral government refuse this request?" But this is a government that has created a legal order in which torturers retire on pension [Cheney] and their apologists become law professors [Yoo] or judges [Bybee].

Nick PJuly 19, 2013 10:48 PM

@ dr2chase

"But all those "accidental" deaths, which result from bad habits, haste, inattention, profit-oriented corner cutting, and "we've always done it his way", despite being an order of magnitude or two more numerous, are no big deal."

It is odd. I think the reason is that the other things benefit us. Driving gets us places and helps us make money. Our stressful jobs might too. The healthcare is meant to deal with our health problems. And so on. An act of murder doesn't tend to benefit the victim except in the most rare cases.

The debate gets more interesting when you say what constitutes intentionally killing someone. Is it murder when a company leaves a safety defect in a car to save money? Was it murder when companies used transfats for extra profit knowing that they'd kill many people over regular ingredients? What about when a consumer buys products from offshore vendors whose employees are subjected to many toxic practices (vs buying local)?

The main difference between these and what's typically considered murder is that it takes longer to kill someone. The other difference is that it's usually not face to face. Yet, it has intent, there's known risks, they're often concealed, and people die as a result. If it quacks like a duck...

jdgaltJuly 20, 2013 1:49 AM

I don't buy that "our" counterterrorism campaign ever was about stopping terrorism. I think it's really about scaring the public into giving away more of our freedom, just like the "war" on drugs and all the environmental and energy "crises". Whenever it's a slow news day, politicians announce another phony emergency.

When are people going to learn to stop responding when they cry wolf?

dr2chaseJuly 20, 2013 7:50 AM

@nickp - the medical system could be better; other countries do better on almost all metrics for less money. Ours is mismanaged.

And the (alleged) efficiency-death tradeoff that you propose for our particular use of autos seems like it just happened, and that we're not actually thinking about it.

Your logic seems to be that we mean well, and there is some benefit (and we've always done it this way). But we could do better -- the number of deaths associated with these otherwise beneficial things are so large that fractional change dwarfs the costs of terrorism. We'd be better off with much less NSA snooping and slightly better management of medicine and transportation.

robJuly 20, 2013 9:31 AM

Does anyone besides me see the disconnect between the extent of the NSA snooping and the White House outrage at the idea that surveillance (store security, neighbourhood watch) may be based on factors that they want to decide are off-limits (such as race)?

The issue I really have with the surveillance is that it is being used for personal and political gain, the general lack of openness in the process, and the focus on certain factors while ignoring others.

aboniksJuly 20, 2013 12:51 PM

@ dr2chase @ Nick P

"But all those "accidental" deaths, which result from bad habits, haste, inattention, profit-oriented corner cutting, and "we've always done it his way", despite being an order of magnitude or two more numerous, are no big deal."

"It is odd. I think the reason is that the other things benefit us. Driving gets us places and helps us make money. Our stressful jobs might too. The healthcare is meant to deal with our health problems. And so on. An act of murder doesn't tend to benefit the victim except in the most rare cases. "

If one were terribly cynical, it might also appear that violent deaths currently present a comparatively miniscule opportunity for those in the legal profession to make a living through litigation, while the background hum of culturally acceptable losses due to accident, inattention, and greed present a huge opportunity for profit by third parties.

Most killers haven't got the money on hand to properly grease the wheels of the legal machinery. Notice, there's no "murder insurance" that will pay your way through the halls of justice if you decide that your landlord would look better stuffed into the freezer in easy-to-carry chunks.

All of the violence that we do to each other through limited liability corporations, vehicular idiocy, and illness-maintenence has been normalized; whole industries exist in order to track it, predict it, codify it, and profit from it.

RSaundersJuly 20, 2013 1:08 PM

@nickp & weil: Youall list lots of undesirable things, and aledge the Feds can do them to citizens based on data collected by the NSA.

Bunk.

The best example was weil's insurance company abuse. The government of the USA can only do those sorts of things to americans by taking them to court; trying them for a crime; and winning the case. That's not unilateral action as you've aledged. It's not against the law to have a disease.

While it makes some sense to worry about the IRS, they seem to construct data queries without much oversight or quality control, the Judiciary Committee hearing on FISA last seemed to show grownups in charge.

wumpusJuly 20, 2013 1:46 PM

@RSaunders
"The USA can, apparently, afford for the NSA to keep everyone's phone records for 5 years."

Uncompressed POTS (phone) audio is 64kbps. Imagine how long it would take to fill a modern 3TB* hard drive up via dialup (I think its about 3 months). That's how much you can naively store on one cheap hard drive. Compression should cut that down a bit, and you could cut it down by 95% via voice recognition (the remaining 5% would likely be accents that the recognition software failed).

It isn't just the USA and NSA. They are the only ones who can proudly claim to record everybody's phone and still get away with it.

* assume that it costs the FBI 100 times as much and the NSA 10,000 times as much as newegg.com charges for each hard drive. It still won't be enough to show up on a congressional budget line. And from my (non-secret) contracting experiences, the Navy would pay at least that much for a recording system (and of course, you will need at least as much extraneous gear as hard drives no matter how you put it together such a project is hardly all gilding the hammer), and nobody claims top secret/black programs are any cheaper.

GogalthorpJuly 20, 2013 1:49 PM

So the terrorists simply have to call a few thousand US numbers and voila almost every one is on the watch list.

Really it is truly a bad idea

aboniksJuly 20, 2013 2:31 PM

@ Gogalthorp

"So the terrorists simply have to call a few thousand US numbers and voila almost every one is on the watch list."

Finally, an excuse to pull out that old 56k and fire up the war-dialer.

wumpusJuly 20, 2013 2:58 PM

@NickP

I can only assume that the reasons google can't effect you is that the UK has wildly strict libel/slander laws and the EU has privacy laws. Here in the US, corporations (particularly corporations with monopoly powers) could do just that:

1. Make me loose my job.
google "lost job due to facebook". If google wants to return sufficiently damaging information instead of old basic code when someone googles "wumpus", I am in trouble:)
2. Make me loose access to products and services. (ie. wael's remark)
As far as I know, I have no way to force google to allow me to use their services. I would admit that as long as Microsoft is willing to keep paying for the existence of Bing, I could use that, but some other monopoly could effectively do this.
3. Make me loose important "privileges" such as driving.
Every company that makes a breathalyzer or red light/speeding cameras could do this.
4. Cancel benefits from government (e.g.social security) or financial investments (e.g. IRS seizure)
How many investments do you think Jammie Thomas still has?
Unlike others on this list, this is far more likely that you might think. When Google wants to attack Apple (or vice versa) with a patent troll lawsuit, they don't do it themselves but with some shell of a company which only owns the patents in question (Apple vs. Samsung was over design patents where this strategy would become very, very obvious and thus not used). Since patent trolls have been going after end users, this becomes even easier.

5. Throw me in prison.
Google "US debtors prison". And pray for us in what was once a free country (ok, free for whites. Forgive me).
6. Kidnap me, strip me of my rights, & torture me (rendition program)
You might want to stay away from US casinos. I would be very surprised if this thing didn't happen all that often (for at least quick beatings). "Legit" operations will want to stay on the "straight and narrow" (i.e. only 1-5) if they want to stay away from the US's RICO laws (which are about the only way to hold a corporation accountable, and thus only used on mafia-like organisations). You really, really, don't want to be indicted under the RICO laws.
7. Murder me. (err, "execution")
Give the Zimmerman issue time to die down and I'm sure Blackwater/Xe/hired-killers-nom-de-jour will offer creative ways of removing you while claiming self defense. Note that Zimmerman isn't a very good example of this and there are others that would pretty much be shown as "using self defense to mask first degree murder". Again, buying such services would set off RICO alarms in any corporate board, so don't expect even the slimiest legit corporate CEO to even think of such things going on under his watch (not to say someone below might want to be seen as "getting things done" as long as they can't be traced to him/his department/his company). You also have to lure the victim into a "sufficiently red" legal system/jury pool.

I should also remind you that in the US, medical care is only available if you have the money. For anybody who's life, or the lives of family members requires a specific level of income, an economic attack is the same as a lethal attack. You might call such a situation barbaric, but it should be noted that the given article used US government examples, that claiming corporations have limited power is rather silly.

Nick PJuly 20, 2013 6:15 PM

@ wumpus

"I can only assume that the reasons google can't effect you is that the UK has wildly strict libel/slander laws and the EU has privacy laws."

I live in the United States. And seeing where you're going with all this, I'm going to update my claim for accuracy. They "can't" or "wouldn't" cause me harm in these ways because it's illegal, it's unlikely, it's against their interests (esp profit incentive), and so on.

"1. Make me loose my job.
google "lost job due to facebook". If google wants to return sufficiently damaging information instead of old basic code when someone googles "wumpus", I am in trouble:)"

That's not Google and Facebook causing you harm. That's you putting potentially damaging information into the hands of a 3rd party under an agreement giving them immunity for how they use it. With Google, people typically put the info on websites reachable by strangers, indexed by a huge search engine, and someone else finds it in a targetted search with a search engine. With Facebook. you put sensitive information into a service provider with both a financial incentive to exploit it and a history of privacy abuses. In both cases, the entire process was voluntary on the user's part and foolish if personal image/safety is a goal.

"2. Make me loose access to products and services. (ie. wael's remark)
As far as I know, I have no way to force google to allow me to use their services. I would admit that as long as Microsoft is willing to keep paying for the existence of Bing, I could use that, but some other monopoly could effectively do this."

By default, we get most products and services unless there's a specific reason to disqualify us. (Those involving exclusivity or risk are obvious exceptions.) Companies even have an incentive to offer us more. Arbitrary restrictions being used to cut a person off from services, maybe very important ones, is quite uncommon in commercial market. I'd agree with you that a monopoly would be the main source of risk here.

(But wait, what is a monopoly? A company + laws/regs that prevent competition. In other words, it's a government problem with a corporate face. A hybrid in our discussion.)

"3. Make me loose important "privileges" such as driving.
Every company that makes a breathalyzer or red light/speeding cameras could do this."

Yet again you're confusing the entity developing a tool with the one that uses it. Those companies don't cause me harm at all: governments pass laws, hire enforcers, and improve their harm effeciency by acquiring such tools. A red-light camera without a legal body behind it has no effect on me except perhaps to try to shame me. Or give me a reason to purchase a paintball gun.

"4. Cancel benefits from government (e.g.social security) or financial investments (e.g. IRS seizure)
How many investments do you think Jammie Thomas still has?
Unlike others on this list, this is far more likely that you might think. When Google wants to attack Apple (or vice versa) with a patent troll lawsuit, they don't do it themselves but with some shell of a company which only owns the patents in question (Apple vs. Samsung was over design patents where this strategy would become very, very obvious and thus not used). Since patent trolls have been going after end users, this becomes even easier."

This doesn't address point 4 at all unless there something I'm not aware of about this case. If anything, this is a broader government issue again where government gives the few more rights than the many, then they abuse them, and the courts go along with it. Nonetheless, these companies do cause harm and so I'll update my claim later on in response to your valid criticism. ;)

"5. Throw me in prison.
Google "US debtors prison". And pray for us in what was once a free country (ok, free for whites. Forgive me)."

This concept has two major meanings. The first is that borrowing money or using goods without [re]payment can be a crime. That's called doing time for breaking the law. The other kind is more disturbing. That's where the law or courts can declare that you owe someone money, then you must pay them. The examples I've seen, like child support, usually involved a real responsibility or some kind of compensation involving a contract.

So, again these aren't out-of-nowhere, unprovoked harm. That said, a conniving business can take you to court under some circumstance to try to invent a debt you owe them. This is possible. (Copyright/patent trolls are indeed the best example.) Most individuals are more likely to be forced by government groups to pay taxes, fee, etc. in their life than to be both (1) sued without provocation by a business and (2) forced to owe a non-existent debt. Nonetheless, the update to my claim will also cover this.

All of that still ignores the bigger picture in my jail claim: a government agent can hold you in jail without charges for a period of time (depending on agency/law). If there are companies that can do that, they are a small minority that I've never run into.

"6. Kidnap me, strip me of my rights, & torture me (rendition program)
You might want to stay away from US casinos. I would be very surprised if this thing didn't happen all that often (for at least quick beatings). "Legit" operations will want to stay on the "straight and narrow" (i.e. only 1-5) if they want to stay away from the US's RICO laws (which are about the only way to hold a corporation accountable, and thus only used on mafia-like organisations). You really, really, don't want to be indicted under the RICO laws."

You quote an illegal and exceptional situation to disprove the rule? That's a no-no. ;) Patriot Act, rendition, military and spooks were the main concern for 6. Let's hit another aspect though. US law often makes it a felony to commit an act of violence against a cop. Even with dirty cops, courts often expect people to follow the law and then take any claims to court. That means that you essentially have little to no right of self-defense. I can't just start squeezing off rounds at a cop unless I'm sure I can prove my innocence and can endure the wrath of the police force. If I have no reason to believe someone is a cop, then they better not try to tackle me, run me off the road, aim a weapon at me, etc. Things LEO's can get away with.

"7. Murder me. (err, "execution")
Give the Zimmerman issue time to die down and I'm sure Blackwater/Xe/hired-killers-nom-de-jour will offer creative ways of removing you while claiming self defense. Note that Zimmerman isn't a very good example of this and there are others that would pretty much be shown as "using self defense to mask first degree murder". Again, buying such services would set off RICO alarms in any corporate board, so don't expect even the slimiest legit corporate CEO to even think of such things going on under his watch (not to say someone below might want to be seen as "getting things done" as long as they can't be traced to him/his department/his company). You also have to lure the victim into a "sufficiently red" legal system/jury pool."

Again, an unlikely thing that almost never happens and isn't even legal. Verizon, Google and Facebook can't shoot me b/c I refuse their terms of service. Police officers, state/federal agents, and soldiers shoot plenty of people legally every year to enforce compliance with their requirements. Courts often have their back, too. Example:

" an Orlando Sentinel columnist demanded a federal investigation into the 2010 police killing of Torey Breedlove in Orlando's Pine Hills neighborhood, noting that killing the unarmed Breedlove somehow required 137 shots, with cops missing on at least 115. The columnist added that the Justice Department is currently investigating a Cleveland, Ohio, case in which local police killed two unarmed men but coincidentally also required 137 shots. (In both cases, the officers were exonerated after local investigators determined the officers believed the suspects were armed.)"

Most US companies would have a hard time pulling that off without negative consequences. There will be exceptions to every rule, but the rule seems to apply most of the time.

"For anybody who's life, or the lives of family members requires a specific level of income, an economic attack is the same as a lethal attack. "

*That* is true but...

"I should also remind you that in the US, medical care is only available if you have the money."

...that is not. There are extensive medical welfare programs in the United States. Also, emergency rooms in many places are required to try to treat someone whose about to die due to a more immediate condition. So, it's overstated.

Plus, the responsibility for harm here is still in hot debate. Health care is a service that is performed if professionals choose to, usually for money. Eventual illness and death are the only health guarantees most people get at birth. Any healthcare you get is a lucky bonus. Lack of it isn't the industry harming you: it's just a fact of life resulting from choices people make about what is a "right" or a "commodity."

(Now, coming up with a sneaky way to disqualify you like bogus pre-existing conditions... that's a threat. And fraud. So it's outside the scope of the legal threats I talk about.)

Revised Claim

Promised update to original claim due to your legitimate criticisms:

Outside of malicious use of the courts, most companies either cannot or will not harm an individual in the ways I mentioned above without good reason. Even with the legal system, there are still limits to companies' behavior that don't exist for the US government.

Nick PJuly 20, 2013 6:28 PM

Treat for readers in general: Point by point comparison of Googe Facebook vs Government Threat

Common Claim: It's an unfair double standard to say the government can't be trusted with these surveillance powers while letting companies like Facebook or Google do similar things.

My Claim: It's preferrable that neither have massive surveillance powers. Yet, the US Government has vastly more ability to cause us harm with such systems than most companies. And Facebook and Google are almost a non-threat as far as taking action against individuals.

Test strategy

I'm going to test the hypothesis using criteria from a previous comment that categorizes various types of harm. The reason I'm using these companies is that (a) they're the biggest data collectors at the moment and (b) they're often cited in national discussions on this issue. These tests include both "can they" and "would they." If they could, but have no motivation, then they simply won't be a threat in that regard. I hope people find that reasonable. The government's power is baseline because it can do all of these. So, here we go:

The Test

1. Cause a loss of my job without my participating in their service or putting damaging information on their service?

Both: No.

2. Deny me access to critical products or services?

Facebook: No. It isn't critical at all, nor does it control critical services.

Google: Google, Gmail and Android are very useful. I might even say they're critical for my productivity. It has no incentive to deny me access to these services. The more users, the more money.

3. Make me loose important legal privileges such as driving?

Both: No. These are mainly determined by government processes and records.

4. Cancel benefits I get from the government such as Social Security, healthcare, financial aid or government/military job-related benefits?

Both: No. Same reason as 3.

5. Put me in prison?

Both: Maybe. Only the government can do this arbitrarily. For non-arbitrary, both companies would need to prove I commited a crime that has a prison sentence and get the judge to administer that sentence. I've never heard of either company working to imprison people. Extremely low risk here.

6. Kidnap me, strip all rights away, and/or torture me?

Both: No. And my response to such commercial tactics would be... less than legal.

7. Execute me.

Both: I'm reluctant to remember almost any company that can do this outside of those in armed security or those contracting for governments. Latter might include lethal injection, bounty hunting, private military companies, etc. They tend to need provable reason to do it. This category of companies doesn't include Facebook and Google.

Conclusion

Most companies can't or won't harm you like the government would. Even with a ton of information, Facebook and Google pose virtually no more risk to me than I allow. Legislators and courts granting monopolies and tolerating predatory lawsuits are more a risk in that they might empower companies to harm me. The largest risk is the government themselves because they can, with little to no reason, cause any type of harm on the list. Giving them more might make substantially more harmful actions available to them. And they're all legal actions in either a technical or a practical sense.

So, the conclusion: giving the government the power of a surveillance state barely compares to letting a company collect data in terms of harm one can cause.

Tip for people with similar arguments: focus on what several companies in different industries colluding together could do with a ton of user data. That might produce a result as scary as government abuse of power. It can be argued that it already has many times. However, the argument that Facebook, Google, Verizon, etc. collecting all kinds of data is the same as near omniscient US government... is severely flawed.

FigureitoutJuly 20, 2013 7:59 PM

@nickp & weil: Youall list lots of undesirable things, and aledge the Feds can do them to citizens based on data collected by the NSA.
RSaunders
--First off, since we aren't talking face-to-face, the first sign of respect you can show to keep the conversation civil online is to spell a name right, especially since they spelled yours right. You should know there's a lot of expletives just dying to get typed here. You may write a good movie plot, but your grip on reality is greased up and weak. Newsflash pal, what do you think I've been screaming about, opening my guts on schneier[dot]com about how the gov't can get very PHYSICAL w/ you. I don't reveal specifics b/c then they just switch it up; I use their own tactics against them. I've been playing these stupid little spy games w/ these people who think they're in a James Bond film at a serious level for the past 3 years and probing began before that. The only reason I haven't taken some serious action for the harm these people have caused me is b/c then they will frame me as the aggressor. I could break into all of their houses and watch over them as they sleep but I know it's a trap. Now they can essentially target me w/ more operatives (I've got a count of around 20 physical ones) for the rest of my life, persecute me on laws I don't even know about, ruin my employment opportunities w/ places in the gov't I want to work like NASA, maybe DARPA, anywhere doing exciting research and that have the equipment I need to do research but more so space-based research. Since the gov't is so damn big now my employment opportunities are now a lot smaller.

Private companies conducting surveillance or deceiving its customers is a dreadful practice and wrong, but putting boots on the ground (google maps kind of treads the line here) and guns in your face is a whole other issue. You're wrong here, sorry.

FrodoJuly 20, 2013 9:38 PM

@Bruce

Have you ever read "Gulag Archipelago" by Alexander Soljinitzen? To extrapolate on your point that the data will be too irresistable, in every case of a totalitarian "slippery slope" and mass surveillance, notably in the soviet union; the data was gathered in order to be able to prosecute ANYONE for a crime which no one would question. Then political dissidents, unfriendly political parties and anyone who challenged the centers of power were arrested for: financial crimes, not paying correct taxes, and violations of numerous SECRET laws, not for their dissident acts. Sound familiar?

This path we are on is so heavily trodden and worn, it would take a complete idiot not to see where it leads, or possibly someone completely brainwashed. I know you are aware of this, but some readers may need to do some reading up on history.

StukeJuly 20, 2013 11:57 PM

Everybody loves Bruce's careful and objective analyses. However, his cautious nature has a tendency to leave the roots of this issue unspoken.

Not only can data collected by the NSA be misused, but widespread spying is already causing more damage to our privacy and liberties than our depicted adversaries probably could.

FigureitoutJuly 21, 2013 12:24 AM

Stuke
--No human's analysis is "objective". It should merely be a reference point like "infinity".

Wesley ParishJuly 21, 2013 8:22 PM

I wrote a piece of flash fiction just recently about a possible outcome of universal surveillance once it is connected to AI and various related technologies. Called Mephistopheles in Silicon it's about a step in the road to Skynet. I'm indebted to Roderick at Random for inspiration.

As far as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction being so broadly defined, one should remember that if everything tastes like chicken, that leaves open the question of what chicken tastes like. I imagine the only reason why the US isn't greeted with an overwhelming guffaw every time I talks about "terrorism" and "weapons of mass destruction" on the international scene, is because although the US Federal Government is medically deranged, a deranged man with as little self-control and as many weapons as it has, is usually given a healthy respect.

Wesley ParishJuly 21, 2013 8:24 PM

opps, that "the US isn't greeted with an overwhelming guffaw every time I talks about "terrorism" " should read "the US isn't greeted with an overwhelming guffaw every time it talks about "terrorism" "

My bad. Too many all-nighters!

WJuly 22, 2013 1:15 AM

@Nick P "In reality, selfishness among nations goes way back and imperialism was common among many Western nations. Key underlying factors are resource scarcity, national competition, national pride, and greed. A government is a tool of protection or empowerment of its people."
I know it's been like this. But can we still afford to think like that in a globalized world, where the real challenges are climate change and such; where there is the ability to make the whole world uninhabitable? Do we need to identify ourselves with the country we happen to be born in? Genetically, there's more variance within nations than between them. Nowadays we can communicate with people all over the world, so we can empathize with them.
I see more and more that the real dividing line is not between nations but between people and the governments.
The UN was supposed to establish rules that all countries adhere to. Unfortunately, the US has become so dominant that it does not need to stick to any rules any more. But this is only a moment in history.

bobJuly 22, 2013 3:48 AM

Re Anonymous-984

"don't use the name 'slippery slope' ... use the term 'continuous marginal expansion'"

Yeah, Bruce, don't use metaphors that are in common usage and clearly describe an effect so that even people hearing it for the first time come away with a clear understanding of your meaning.

Instead use some weaselly new term that I just invented that should fly over the heads of the disengaged while not conveying anything useful to those engaged enough to try to decipher it.

ATNJuly 22, 2013 4:19 AM

A Texas high-school student recently spent five months in jail for writing the following on Facebook: "... And watch the blood of the innocent rain down. ..."

Seems that every French person is a terrorist because they have sung at least once their own anthem in public.
http://french.about.com/library/weekly/...
extract (badly translated): May impure blood Water our fields!

Clive RobinsonJuly 22, 2013 7:00 AM

@ W,

The UN is in effect a "scrap yard dog", it was flawed from the very begining and as such a tool by which despotism survives.

The problem is "the big five veto" where the US amongst others protects it's national interest whilst also abusing smaller nations. In modern times it is the US that uses the veto on security council resolutions more than any other of the permanent five (China, France, Russia and UK) and since 1972 has used the veto more times than the other four combined.

As an example of this see how many times the US has vetoed draft reolutions against Israel, yet used the UN against the nations that suround Israel. This behaviour has caused much of the problems in the Middle East we currrently see and will continue to do so and arguably is one of the reasons behind 9/11. If there is to be a stable peace in the Middle East the US must stop using the veto and Israel must learn to obay UN decisions and stand on it's own as a fully independant nation.

Likewise the actions of other veto holding nations, as long as there is the big permanent five nation vetos the UN is at best a talking shop for other nations, at worst the UN is used as a tool against them or the UN is just side lined (Iraq war).

This veto power of the permenent five on the UN security council is an anathma to justice, in that it alows these nations to act outside of the laws they insist apply to all other nations.

It was this veto power that in effect destroyed the UN's predicessor the League of Nations and thus the only way I can see the veto powers being removed is by the ending of the UN and a new more balanced organisation arising from the ashes.

Nick PJuly 22, 2013 10:54 PM

@ W

"I know it's been like this. But can we still afford to think like that in a globalized world, where the real challenges are climate change and such; where there is the ability to make the whole world uninhabitable? Do we need to identify ourselves with the country we happen to be born in? Genetically, there's more variance within nations than between them. Nowadays we can communicate with people all over the world, so we can empathize with them.
I see more and more that the real dividing line is not between nations but between people and the governments.
The UN was supposed to establish rules that all countries adhere to. Unfortunately, the US has become so dominant that it does not need to stick to any rules any more. But this is only a moment in history."

You make good points. Alas, it is human nature to look after one's own immediate interests before long-term goals. The main long-term goals elites seem to work on are profit- and power-based. Occasionally, in personal interviews, people running Fortune 100 companies say they have many of the same worries as others but their hands are tied. Even as CEO, he or she can't make the company go in a certain direction b/c he or she will simply get replaced.

As for the UN, it was a product of efforts of so-called "international bankers." I know Council on Foreign Relations policy pushers had a hand in it. There were others. What these globalists have in common is a vision of a global empire of capitalism and elitist political influence. Looking into such people, you will find they supported (directly or indirectly) every point of criticism you bring up and then some.

The UN is a power structure that mainly supports those who created it and hold the most power in it. Heck, many countries in it are known opponents of freedom in their own country and many more undermined effort in competing countries for selfish ends. In short, it is evil and was always intended to be.

WaelJuly 23, 2013 7:25 PM

@ Clive Robinson,

As an example of this see how many times the US has vetoed draft reolutions against Israel, yet used the UN against the nations that suround Israel. This behaviour has caused much of the problems in the Middle

If it's not a rhetoric question, my answer is: All of them! Probably the majority of people know that as well. If you want to be the policeman of the world, be a fair one. Reminds me of Balfour -- you know, "The one who does not own gives the one who does not deserve" ;) Oh well....

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