NSA Apologist Says The NSA's Actions Are Fine Because 'Privacy Is Dead'
from the column-still-serves-as-useful-'how-NOT-to-argue-your-point'-guide dept
When we last discussed columnist Froma Harrop, she was acting as a surveillance state apologist. She took some of the usual paths (directing snark at "clueless" internet users, conjuring up the threat of terrorism) and some unusual ones (claiming those opposed to the surveillance state only did so because they "hate Obama"). All in all, it was the perfect storm of condescension and cluelessness that NSA apologists do all too well.
Harrop's back again, offering an unsolicited eulogy for privacy and some plaudits for the surveillance state. She lays this all out in seven easily refutable statements, which makes a point-by-point takedown a breeze. Kudos for that, Froma.
After telling us to "relax" because the government has the ability to "collect and recall our every keystroke," she opens up her Seven Point Plan by telling us to submit.
1. Admit that we are powerless to stop this new technology. (We don’t have to like it.)It's seldom a good idea to open your defense of something by utilizing arguments a rapist might use. "Relax." "You're powerless." Just submit to what's coming because you can't fight it.
All this argument means is the aggressor (the NSA and Harrop the Apologist) wants you to believe that fighting this is futile and will only make things worse. But it's not true. Fighting back does have an effect, but neither the NSA nor the conjured rapist want you to know that.
There are several ways to fight back, many of them underway as we speak. The discovery that some underlying encryption processes have been broken and that various tech companies have been compliant in allowing the NSA access to pre-encryption data and zero day exploits may be a kick in the teeth, but it hardly signifies the battle's not worth fighting.
Deciding you're powerless plays right into the hands of intelligence agencies. They want the path of least reistance. Even small steps taken to protect your privacy slows down its efforts. So, fight back. Anyone telling you to admit you're powerless in the face of government malfeasance cannot be trusted, whether it's a government agent or just a citizen who thinks the reaction to the NSA's tactics is overblown.
2. Stop confusing capabilities with actions. The U.S. government is capable of leveling Mount Rushmore. That does not mean it intends to launch drone attacks on South Dakota, no matter what your local tea party chapter says.Here Harrop does two things, both completely disingenuous.
First, she confuses capabilities with actions and decides only the "actions" matter. The NSA has repeatedly used this tactic itself. When queried about the capabilities of its systems, it always redirects the question towards its "authority," as if that distinction actually matters. This deferral ignores the ever-present desire for humans to abuse powerful systems.
Look at former NSA director Michael Hayden's own words: "Give me the box you will allow me to operate in. I’m going to play to the very edges of that box." Look at the NSA's own actions, where it repeatedly operated outside the court-ordered confines of the bulk records program. The NSA has plenty of capabilities and it appears willing to test the limits of its authority, if not exceed them completely.
The slam on the Tea Party is just Harrop being Harrop and thinking the opposition to the NSA's programs comes solely from extremists who hate Obama. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it's a cheap way to score some ideological points with the ignorant, who might feel that opposing the NSA means becoming some sort of right-wing conspiracy theorist.
3. Recognize that this surveillance is key to national security.Some targeted surveillance programs are key to national security. The aspects that are receiving the most attention clearly aren't. Even the most ardent defenders of the NSA are hard pressed to find examples of how bulk, untargeted data collections have prevented any terrorist acts. The agency has made multiple attempts to reframe this argument as well, diluting the question by referring to "potential terrorist events," but even the NSAs deputy director, John C. Inglis, has admitted that the agency "could not identify a single case where the bulk phones records collection led to the prevention of a terrorist attack."
4. Appreciate that we do have safeguards. When the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court berates the NSA for violating the rules, that’s an example of checks and balances in action. China and Russia pass on such niceties as surveillance courts, and they want to do exactly what the National Security Agency does (if they don’t already).Let me respond with a few points of my own.
1. The safeguards don't work, as they are heavily reliant on program depictions provided by the most unreliable narrator of all, the NSA.
2. Yes, that is an example of checks and balances, but it occurred after three straight years of abuse. And there's no indication that these were isolated events, related solely to the bulk records collections. That's just the information that's been declassified by the NSA. The leaks released so far detail many more collection programs, most of which we have yet to see addressed with more than the usual "because national security" statements by the NSA. If the NSA steadily abused this one program, there's no doubt it's abused others.
Harrop (and the NSA's other defenders) needs to acknowledge the fact that the only reason this information has been made public was Ed Snowden's leaks and lawsuits filed against the government. That's not "checks and balances." The government is supposed to regulate itself with "checks and balances," not rely on whistleblowers and lawsuits brought by civil liberties groups to keep it "honest."
3. Congratulations to us! Not as bad as Russia and China! We used to be the world leader in freedom and now we're supposed to be pleased with simply not being as awful as two heavily censorious countries. If that's your standard of excellence, Froma, no wonder you're satisfied with the NSA's half-assed explanations and justifications. It doesn't take much to clear a bar set that low.
5. Admit that commercial spying is a privacy matter, as well. Retailers follow your cellphone around the mall. Amazon.com knows all about your interest in socialism and passion for manga cartoons. Of course, the telecom companies know whom you called and for how long. If the issue is privacy, what makes a business conglomerate more honorable than the government?I don't think anyone's making an argument to the contrary, but using one form of abuse to justify another is a rhetorical race for the bottom. Harrop has built a commanding lead in that race with this column and this sort of "pointing fingers" defense will only increase the gap between her and pundits who aren't prone to such lapses in logic.
What makes conglomerates more honorable? It's the fact that they're commercial entities. Their main goal is making money, not sacrificing constitutional rights in pursuit of an unattainable ideal. If you're seriously going to compare a spy agency's bulk records collection with an online retailer tracking your purchases in order to recommend products, then it's time to hand in your "high school freshmen debate team third alternate" credentials and go back to the rhetorical drawing board.
6. Call out media sources hurling thunderbolts at NSA spying while spying on you.Let's keep this short:
1. Ads and trackers can be blocked. Easily.
2. If someone exposes a particularly insidious tracking method (or, you know, Facebook), they rarely end up facing years of imprisonment for "leaking" the details.
3. Most social media, etc. have at minimum implied consent for the tracking (even if it's nothing more than an ultra-crappy browserwrap agreement). Even so, the option to use these services and sites is left up to the individual. There's no "do not track/opt out" feature for the NSA. (Nor is there for the companies the NSA "interacts" with.)
4. Stop using the "two wrongs make the NSA right" argument.
7. In assessing government surveillance activities, distinguish between a “who” and an “it.” A computer is an “it.” The fact that it is ruffling through all the metadata or even keeping the content of such communications in a vault for five years should not overly concern us. When an actual human being takes a look, then it’s time for questions. When the system works properly, the NSA still needs a warrant to look at content.I think US citizens can decide for themselves whether or not to be "overly concerned." Attempting to play this off as a neutral device sorting harvested data completely ignores the fact that humans build the algorithms, maintain the processes and provide the queries (which also include queries made before the data arrives at the "neutral" database). Implying the NSA needs warrants to search the database is simply incorrect. As was revealed last month, the NSA has a backdoor loophole letting it run searches on data collected on Americans without a warrant, so long as the original collection was a part of a "targeted" effort, even if the collected info has nothing to do with the "target." And, the NSA specifically asked for and received this ability. Even if that loophole wasn't in place there are still concerns. No matter what the rulebook might say, the NSA has full access to info stored on its servers at any time. These constitutional niceties might be occasionally respected, but more often than not, the agency will wave them aside with National Security Letters, overly broad court orders, "exigent circumstance" claims and, in many documented cases, simply ignoring the limitations altogether.
So, to recap: NSA defender opens her defense of the agency by deploying rapist logic and wraps it up by appealing to authority, with stops along the way to state that the agency is a) not as bad as China or Russia and b) no worse than the tracking software deployed by various web entities. At no point does she bring up a single affirmative argument. (The "surveillance stops terrorism" argument comes close, but is completely undercut by the evidence to the contrary.) Everything else is comparative or dismissive.
Defending the indefensible agency severely cripples logic. Apologists like Harrop should just give it up. Every time more evidence of wrongdoing is revealed, the defenders look even worse. A powerful intelligence agency that has been protected by two consecutive administrations really doesn't need any outside help.
[Hat tip again to silverscarcat, who is the apparent bane of Harrop's existence.]