The Trustworthy Government Officials Delusion: Eventually Any Program Will Be Abused

from the not-everyone-is-trustworthy dept

I'd been meaning to write up a post like this for a few weeks, and when Pro Publica wrote about why it was publishing details of the latest Ed Snowden leaks concerning the feds ability to break encryption, they highlighted the exact point I was thinking about in talking about the nature of an untrustworthy government:
American history is replete with examples of the dangers of unchecked power operating in secret. Richard Nixon, for instance, was twice elected president of this country. He tried to subvert law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies for political purposes, and was more than willing to violate laws in the process. Such a person could come to power again. We need a system that can withstand such challenges. That system requires public knowledge of the power the government possesses.
To date, nearly every single defense of the NSA's pervasive surveillance powers, whether it comes from President Obama, James Clapper, Keith Alexander, Dianne Feinstein or Mike Rogers all seems premised on denying this basic fact. They're all focused on how hard the people working on these programs work to stay within the law and how they're designed with the best intentions in mind. In fact, the defenses seem almost entirely premised on this point: "we're the good guys, so you can trust us not to do the wrong thing here."

There's something about historical evil that makes people think that it won't happen again. I know it's a mental bias that I have all the time. We hear stories of the atrocities of Adolf Hitler, the excessive attacks of Joseph McCarthy, the pervasive surveillance of J. Edgar Hoover, and the paranoid political opportunism of Richard Nixon and we have a natural tendency and bias to think "wow, those guys were bad, but that was then -- isn't it great that we live in a time after those guys are gone?" The things that some of those people did were considered so bad, we have a hard time believing that it could happen again. After all we "learned our lesson" and we're in a new era.

But, of course, that's wrong. It's silly and naive.

These things didn't happen long ago at all.

People do bad things. And they will continue to do bad things. That doesn't mean that people are necessarily evil -- most are not. In fact, many who end up doing bad things start out with the best of intentions (and maybe believe to the end that they were following through on those intentions). But, temptation and power are strong drivers of behavior. And eventually abuse and excess are bound to happen.

Even if we assume that everyone working on these programs today is a wonderful soul with the best of intentions (a proposition that is unlikely, but let's go with it), there is simply no way that this will always be the case. This is what is leading to the miscommunication between defenders of these programs and those who fear them. Not all of us automatically assume that those in charge have nefarious intent (and, yes, I know some readers here do assume that), but we recognize that sooner or later, those with nefarious intent will have access and will abuse it. That's just the nature of the beast.

So, when President Obama, James Clapper, Keith Alexander, Dianne Feinstein or Mike Rogers argue "trust us," with these programs, that's really not the point. Even if we trust them, we have no way of knowing if we can or should trust the next guy or the guy after that. The only way -- the only way -- to make sure such programs won't be abused is to build programs that have real public and open oversight. And that's what the defenders of these programs continue to fight back against. And that's the problem.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    NoahVail (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 8:31am

    Every journalist and news outlet that believes in the above statement will reflect it in their publications.

    Those in the press who believe the above is false will never mention it.

    Where do your news outlets stand?

     

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  2.  
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    Doug, Sep 6th, 2013 @ 8:37am

    It isn't even always intentional

    I totally agree with your point, and it is an important one. We like to think we are, or our society is, different and better than the evil ones of the past. But the reality is that it is easy for things like these to happen again. They do all the time (Syria, North Korea, Al Qaeda). It's hubris to think it can't happen here based solely on the idea that we have good intentions.

    Moreover, it is not always even evil intent that leads to evil actions. It can be that simple self-interest sets up a system that implicitly encourages and makes it easier for evil actions to be done. If you have a system that makes illegal surveillance possible, even though you have checks and balances, just the stresses of the every day job can lead to abuses. Suppose some boss is stressed and in a bad mood one day and says to his analyst/agent, "Look we need to get this done! I don't care how you do it." The agent might then decide it's OK, "this one time", to step outside the bounds. Then, slippery slope and all....

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 6th, 2013 @ 8:44am

    All of the "trust us we're the good guys" BS spewing from President Obama, James Clapper, Keith Alexander, Dianne Feinstein and Mike Rogers makes me want to slap them across the face and ask how/why the American public isn't good enough to be trusted. We're supposed to be in charge of this country. Does our own government trust us so little they won't even open up and be the slight bit transparent about what they are doing?!

    So to President Obama, James Clapper, Keith Alexander, Dianne Feinstein and Mike Rogers as well as the FBI, NSA, CIA, and [insert other alphabet soup organization of choice], "trust us we're the good guys"!

     

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    HappyBlogFriend (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 8:44am

    We should teach children that they're evil from a young age. Problem solved.

     

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  5.  
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    Jim G., Sep 6th, 2013 @ 8:56am

    >Such a person could come to power again.

    Here, let me fix that for you--


    Democrat Version:

    "Such a person WILL come to power again."


    Republican Version:

    "Such a person HAS ALREADY come to power again."

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 6th, 2013 @ 9:00am

    The real question...

    Can you trust a human just because they say "I am from the government, police department, or your politician?"

    If you can, then give me all of your money for safe keeping because I work for the government.

    Otherwise you have to realize that the government is just a collection of people with the same shady desires as those you work with, live down the street from, or the local thuggery you see wandering around town. They have no vested interested in doing the right thing for you, they only have a vested interest in following rules that say they will get into trouble if they do not follow them, followed by someone that is not in the business of being their friend so they can have a special exception.

    If congress was doing their job, then the NSA problem would have been over with by now. How many of you are going to remember this during the election season?

    I predict that most will not even care, and your politician knows it because they have been successfully lying to your faces for years.

     

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  7.  
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    NoahVail (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 9:00am

    Re:

    That line in the article really bugged me.

    It infers that we haven't had overtly abusive administrations since Nixon when the overwhelming evidence indicates quite the opposite.

     

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  8. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
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    out_of_the_blue, Sep 6th, 2013 @ 9:09am

    Nixon brings up Kissinger, and who does Kissinger endorse?

    According to Julian Assange, text at Cryptome:

    "So just how close is Google to the US securitocracy? Back in 2011 I had a meeting with Eric Schmidt, the then Chairman of Google, who came out to see me with three other people while I was under house arrest. You might suppose that coming to see me was gesture that he and the other big boys at Google were secretly on our side: that they support what we at WikiLeaks are struggling for: justice, government transparency, and privacy for individuals. But that would be a false supposition. Their agenda was much more complex, and as we found out, was inextricable from that of the US State Department. The full transcript of our meeting is available online through the WikiLeaks website.

    The pretext for their visit was that Schmidt was then researching a new book, a banal tome which has since come out as The New Digital Age. My less than enthusiastic review of this book was published in the New York Times in late May of this year. On the back of that book are a series of pre-publication endorsements: Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Michael Hayden (former head of the CIA and NSA) and Tony Blair. Inside the book Henry Kissinger appears once again, this time given pride of place in the acknowledgements."

    http://cryptome.org/2013/08/assange-google-nsa.htm

    So Eric Schmidt is a mere two degrees away from Nixon, and directly connected to war criminal Kissinger.

     

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  9.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 9:16am

    Historical evil

    There's something about historical evil that makes people think that it won't happen again


    It amazes me when I come across people who think this way. The whole of human history is demonstrates who radically wrong that is. Everything that has happened before will happen again, sooner or later.

    And extreme abuse of governmental power in the US isn't even ancient history! We can find many examples within our lifetimes.

    This is a biggest part of what is meant by the need for eternal vigilance.

     

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    Designerfx (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 9:17am

    yep

    I can't even say enough that when I said programs like FIPS were very, very dangerous for security that I wasn't kidding.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 6th, 2013 @ 9:18am

    Re:

    And prior to 2008, the roles were reversed there...

     

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    John Fenderson (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 9:18am

    Re:

    I don't think the Democrat and Republican versions are actually different. They're both "such a person has already come to power again."

     

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    beech, Sep 6th, 2013 @ 9:20am

    Re: Nixon brings up Kissinger, and who does Kissinger endorse?

    Gasp!

    Wait. Whats your point? Something something guilt by association of association? Statistically he's only a hop or two away from Kevin bacon now. Does that mean kevin bacon is in on "it" too?

     

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    sehlat (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 9:20am

    Trust *REQUIRES* Verification

    Again and again we have been told, "trust us, we know what we're doing," but any evidence is withheld on grounds of "need to know" and "national security."

    Trust and verification are siamese twins, joined at the heart. If you cannot get feedback on the results of giving trust, you have no reason to give it in the first place.

    Schneier is right.

    Trust is essential for society to function. Without it, conspiracy theories naturally take hold. Even worse, without it we fail as a country and as a culture. It's time to reinstitute the ideals of democracy: The government works for the people, open government is the best way to protect against government abuse, and a government keeping secrets from is people is a rare exception, not the norm.


    He doesn't use the word, but given our ideal of government "of the people, by the people, and for the people," the NSA and their allies in the rest of the government are, in fact, committing treason.

     

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    jupiterkansas (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 9:26am

    The U.S. Government was NEVER meant to be trusted. Our government was created with the idea that people will abuse the system any way they can. The underlying philosophy was the people should be suspicious of the government.

    Unfortunately since we became the world's superpower after World War II, that system has been subverted by the military-industrial complex and is now wide open to abuse and has been for decades. Now the government is suspicious of the people.

     

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    mmrtnt (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 10:47am

    Human Nature

    Any system designed by man, no matter how trivial or banal, will be gamed by someone, if for no other reason than pure boredom.

     

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  17.  
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    OldMugwump (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 11:17am

    If men were angels

    Nothing changes.
    "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."
    --James Madison, Federalist No. 51
    http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa51.htm

     

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  18.  
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    ChrisB (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 11:24am

    Libertarianism

    This should explain exactly why people are libertarians. "Public and open oversight" is a great idea in theory, but these guys just hide in plain sight. Most people don't have the time or inclination to research these issues.

    No, the solution is to not give governments the power in the first place. Mad that the government spent a trillion dollars bailing out the banks? The solution is not oversight, the solution is to not give the government so much money and power in the first place.

     

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  19.  
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    OldMugwump (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 11:34am

    Re: Libertarianism

    You are right, but we need both.

    A limited government that performs only those functions needed to keep the peace and defend against aggression, AND oversight for the remaining functions.

     

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  20.  
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    Chris-Mouse (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 11:34am

    Re:

    This will last until the Republican party gains power, at which time both parties switch their positions.

     

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  21.  
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    art guerrilla (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 11:46am

    Re:

    religionists already do teach their children they are sinners no matter what ('original sin')...

    which makes it difficult to figure out: are religionists authoritarians because they are already pre-disposed to that ?
    ...or do religionists become authoritarians, because that is how their 'system' works and they adopt to it ? ? ?

    either way, they are programmed to uncritical obeisance...

    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy
    eof

     

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  22.  
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    Joe Dirt, Sep 6th, 2013 @ 11:57am

    Re: The real question...

    A quote from Bierce Ambrose sums it up quite nicely.

    "Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage."

     

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  23.  
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    Spointman (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 12:13pm

    Re:

    OK, this really gets my goat. President Obama just urged Congress to IGNORE their constituents and vote in favor of war. Think about that for a second. How can we trust an administration that explicitly tells another branch of government to ignore the American public?

    http://gma.yahoo.com/president-obama-urges-congress-vote-165105755.html

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 6th, 2013 @ 12:18pm

    Re: Nixon brings up Kissinger, and who does Kissinger endorse?

    Of course you don't mention that your 'solution' to all this, including Google, is to trust the government with even more money and power and that this makes no sense at all...

     

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  25.  
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    HappyBlogFriend (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 1:33pm

    My (tongue-in-cheek) thinking was that if all children grew up believing that they were evil, then they wouldn't trust themselves with power. And if that were the case, then we wouldn't be in the present situation with government officials so convinced of their own goodness and trustworthiness that they can't understand how they might be doing something wrong.

     

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  26.  
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    Kal Zekdor (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 1:39pm

    Re: Re:

    Which is incalculably better than just authorizing military action without congressional approval. Which is normally what Obama does. Congress is supposed to decide whether we should or should not take military action. By choosing representatives who are (ostensibly) better informed than we are to decide on these matters, we are exercising control. That's how it works. My concern is whether or not he'd listen if they say Nay.

    No, I have my fair share of gripes against Obama, but this is certainly not one of them.

     

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  27.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 6th, 2013 @ 2:24pm

    i wonder exactly how close we are to having all 4 of the conditions mentioned (the atrocities of Adolf Hitler, the excessive attacks of Joseph McCarthy, the pervasive surveillance of J. Edgar Hoover, and the paranoid political opportunism of Richard Nixon)? in fact, what proof is there that they aren't already being (ab)used? we have people locked up for years in Gitmo without trial, we have people sentenced for finding flaws in governmental software, procedures and personnel, we have people threatened with accusations of being terrorists for releasing information about the way the government and security agencies are abusing laws which turns out to be true but the embarrassment caused is too much to bear, we have civilians being killed in custody at the rate of at least one every month (that we know about), then there are the things we dont know about (yet!)!!

     

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  28.  
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    michael, Sep 6th, 2013 @ 2:26pm

    There is only 1 trait necessary to become a politician (or a CEO, or an actor, or just about any other position that's ALL ABOUT YOU): extreme narcissism.

    It's not about that evil person who might one day come to power. It's that all people who come to power are totally convinced in their own superiority and greatness.

    Every person you name -- President Obama, James Clapper, Keith Alexander, Dianne Feinstein or Mike Rogers -- all have this in common, or they would not hold their current positions.

     

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  29.  
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    jupiterkansas (profile), Sep 6th, 2013 @ 2:36pm

    Re: Re: Libertarianism

    The government needs to defend us against aggression so that its citizens are not killed. Fair enough.

    But what if citizens are killed because of corporate malfeasance? Or because of human-created health issues? What about natural disasters? What about being taken advantage of financially or in the workplace? All of these things are more likely to happen than being invaded by some foreign power.

     

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  30.  
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    Cowards Anonymous, Sep 6th, 2013 @ 5:16pm

    This brings to mind an illustrative example from something a lot of people have seen and could relate to: the recent Batman movies.

    “Beautiful, unethical, dangerous. You’ve turned every cell phone in Gotham into a microphone... This is wrong... Spying on thirty million people isn’t part of my job description.”

    Lucius Fox to Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight

    *** Movie Spoilers for "The Dark Knight" and "Dark Knight Rises" below ***
    In "The Dark Knight" Batman turns every cell phone in Gotham into a microphone to catch the bad guys. Lucius threatens to quit if Batman does not destroy this system as soon as the immediate treat, Joker, is neutralized. Batman keeps his word and destroys the system thus preventing any chance of it from falling into the hands of Bane in the next sequel when Bane breaks into Batman's armory and takes all of Batman's toys.

     

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  31.  
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    erikjay (profile), Sep 7th, 2013 @ 5:46pm

    Nixon again? Please...

    "Richard Nixon, for instance, was twice elected president of this country. He tried to subvert law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies for political purposes, and was more than willing to violate laws in the process. Such a person could come to power again."
    - - -
    Please. Let's hear from Cicero: "To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child." Nixon was less of a felon that LBJ, and not as good -- he got caught. JFK, Truman, Wilson, Lincoln... just about every president abused power, sold favors, took care of his friends and family, etc., etc. They also waged illegal wars (Polk, 1846, Mexico; look that one up, disgusting), assassinated and deposed leaders around the globe, ran roughshod over anyone in their way, and aggrandized themselves and their apparatchiks. Nixon is a pantywaist compared to FDR: internment of CITIZENS of Japanese ancestry, turning away Holocaust refugees, illegally arming Britain, goading the Japanese into attacking, allowing Pearl Harbor to be sacrificed following the breaking of the Purple Code, illegal power grabs, wholesale centralized economic management during WWII with untold waste, graft, and bribes. Tricky Dick is out of his league, and should be retired as the "worst example of a president." Why, we have a prez right now that the ACLU says is the WORST EVER ON CIVIL LIBERTIES. There's your primo exemplar, okay?

     

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  32.  
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    OldMugwump (profile), Sep 8th, 2013 @ 9:34am

    Re: Re: Re: Libertarianism

    All good questions.
    But what if citizens are killed because of corporate malfeasance?
    Prosecute them for murder, families sue for damages.
    Or because of human-created health issues?
    Sue for damages. Polluters must pay compensation to those damaged by the pollution.
    What about natural disasters?
    Red cross, police and fire departments, volunteers, etc.
    What about being taken advantage of financially or in the workplace?
    Suits for fraud.

    Libertarianism is not anarchy - it is classical liberalism in the mold of Lock and Mill. Government has important roles - to run courts and police, to defend the country.

    But not to tell peaceful people what to do or not do, when they are not violating the rights of others.

     

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  33.  
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    Pragmatic, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 3:46am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Libertarianism

    http://www.politicususa.com/2013/07/06/koch-brothers.html

    http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/ 05/09/164699/loser-pays-lawsuits/

    I found those in two seconds flat. Whoever holds the levers of power can influence which laws get passed. To launch a lawsuit, you need standing and to be able to make a case for a civil or criminal law having been violated.

    If the laws aren't in place to cite for violations, where do you go? That is the failure of Libertarianism; it refuses to address those facts. It also assumes we can all afford to launch lawsuits. We can't. You need to be wealthy to begin with, and to have the same access to resources that everyone else has in a Libertarian-run state. In practise, what you get is a two-tier system run for the benefit of the rich.

    I flirted with Libertarianism for a while, but when I realised what effect it would have on someone on my income level, I quickly rejected it as unworkable. Any system we put in place to replace the one we have must include everyone, not just a privileged few.

     

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  34.  
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    jupiterkansas (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 11:54am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Libertarianism

    I was going to reply but Pragmatic got it.

    Most of your solutions are government solutions. If we have a stronger/broader government with regulations and oversight, I wouldn't have go sue because someone was killed. The person might not be killed to begin with, which is a much better scenario.

    Corporations already weigh the cost of fixing a problem vs. the cost of lawsuits.

     

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  35.  
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    OldMugwump (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 4:30pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Libertarianism

    Libertarianism, like any other political idea, is not a magic wand that is going to solve all problems by itself.
    Whoever holds the levers of power can influence which laws get passed.
    Yes, that is a generic problem with any form of government. I don't see what is different about libertarian government on that score.

    Political scientists have lots of interesting ideas about how to solve that (few of which are ever tested because of so much fear of anything new).
    If the laws aren't in place to cite for violations, where do you go?
    Maybe we're talking past each other. You go to court. If you have a strong case, some ambitious attorney will be happy to represent you at his own risk for a share of the winnings.
    That is the failure of Libertarianism; it refuses to address those facts. It also assumes we can all afford to launch lawsuits.
    Most people have insurance, and insurers have both incentive and funds with which to pursue lawsuits.

    More to the point, not everyone has to sue in order to make people be careful about endangering others. Libertarians support laws against violent crimes. The point of lawsuits is to compensate those damaged, but a side effect is to make it risky to endanger people - not everybody has to sue to cause that result. If people take care to avoid endangering others, indeed "the person might not be killed to begin with". That's my point.
    Corporations already weigh the cost of fixing a problem vs. the cost of lawsuits.
    Well, sure. We all do that - we can hardly do anything else. There is no such thing as 100% safe - life entails risk. We have to weigh the costs of risk mitigation against the benefits. Otherwise nobody would ever get out of bed in the morning - 'cause there's risk.

    The core idea is that people should be free to live as they see fit, provided that they don't violate the equal rights of others, and that they compensate those they damage when that happens by accident. (When it happens deliberately, that's a crime.)

    Yes, most of the solutions I cited are government solutions. Government does have a very important role to play. Among the most important roles is implementing a system of justice - without that we have black markets and street justice, not civilization.

     

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