FISA Warrants

It’s worth noting that there are primarily two very different groups lighting their hair on fire and screaming off in all directions over the revelation that the security apparatus created pursuant to the Patriot Act is compiling a database directly from the servers of all major communication companies: The paranoid right wing conspiracy idiots who think Alex Jones is a prophet, and arrogant Liberals who smugly assert that anyone who disagrees with Glen Greenwald is a fucking Obot traitor slightly more evil than the bastard spawn of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.
Whenever these two gangs of assholes come together, one is well served by shooting one’s reflexes full of something potent and giving the matter closer consideration.

The depth and breadth of the collected data reminds one of that TV commercial for some video-on-demand service: a weary traveler checks into a motel and asks, “Do you have cable?”
The clerk replies, “We have every movie ever made, in any language, ever.”
The man looks perplexed. “How is that even possible?”
Oh, it’s possible, Toto. It’s possible and they’ve been at it for some time. Every phone call, every email, every tweet…all of it is logged and turned over to the government. There is an important distinction here, and I will return to it later: The fact of the call is logged, the content is not. More specifically, the source of the communication (ISP, phone number, twitter handle), the recipient (email address, phone number…) and the date/time of the communication is logged. The specific content of the communication (at least pursuant to this particular warrant and this particular program – PRISM) is not.
This is emphatically NOT to suggest that there are not other covert operations under the auspices of the NSA that ARE pulling message content out of the ether for analysis. Project Echelon has been public knowledge for some time. It employs supercomputers to analyze the content of electronic communications looking for specific keywords, and flags those for closer examination. If you send an email to your sister telling her, “Jimmy really bombed in the school play,” the proximity of the word “Bomb” to the word “School” will probably result in some junior G-Man having a peek at you.
If you turn out to be a suburban housewife from Maine, they probably won’t dig any deeper. If you turn out to be a Saudi exchange student studying chemical engineering, they may very well look a little deeper. I’ll come back to this, later, too.

To those convinced that the government has already crossed the line into tyranny (and especially since the Kenyan Usurper began his plot to turn America into a communist, fascist, secular Muslim drug orgy), this “revelation” is all the proof they need. They never needed any before, but now that they have something at which to point while they sputter their paranoid fantasies, they feel vindicated.
They were unreasonable idiots to begin with, and they’re still unreasonable idiots. They’re just more convinced, if such a thing is possible.

But let’s break this down into manageable pieces. The first screaming point of the unhinged left is the alleged invasion of privacy, so let’s examine this in some detail.
Years ago (and I mean many years ago), I was offered a client card by my regular supermarket. Each time I went through the checkout, they would swipe the card and I would accumulate “points” useful for discounts, as well as air miles (which I never collected or used). Nevertheless, I soon began receiving offers from my supermarket chain for products that demonstrated a rather intense and particular knowledge of my lifestyle, habits and circumstances. They knew I had a dog (Science Diet); when my girlfriend was menstruating (Tampax); that she was on the pill (prescription filled at in-store pharmacy); that I bought environmentally considerate products; that I had thing for fish sticks; that I had no children (never bought school supplies); my preference for beer and liquor; the red meat unbalanced nature of my diet. They knew what size underwear and shoes I wear, what brand of deodorant I use, and a thousand other things that most people would consider none of their fucking business. Any information the government might possibly discern by knowing who I phone or email, and when, absolutely pales in comparison to the information my local supermarket was able to accumulate about the most “private” details of my life. So, the idea that this data grab pursuant to a FISA warrant is some sort of new, unheralded breach of anyone’s privacy is ludicrous. Compared to what corporate America already has on you, the government is playing fucking catch-up.

The big knob on which the unhinged right seems to want to gnaw is that this amounts to some sort of investigation in which each and every citizen of the United States is, without any form of reasonable or probable cause, the subject; that the government is now using this data from the dot.coms and the Ma Bells to go after anyone it deems troublesome, or just to generally troll with a massively over broad net looking for evidence of wrongdoing. In a word, bullshit.
The government is not compiling a list of all of YOUR phone calls. They are compiling a database of EVERYONE’S phone calls. They don’t give a flying fuck that you called the HIV testing lab, then your doctor, and then your insurance company. They don’t care if you’re fucking around on your wife, calling in sick so you can play golf, or planning a surprise party with strippers for your brother-in-law.

When the next twisted jihadi freak show, or Minute Man militia asshole, or god-walloping abortion clinic bomber gets nabbed, the government will then have the ability to discover who the suspect was communicating with and when; who those people frequently call…and by virtue of accessing that information, better know where to devote their investigatory resources most effectively. This is precisely what we should WANT the government to be doing.
Is it open to abuse? Of course it is…and this is why there must be some form of oversight and control – to ensure that this data mining is not employed for improper purposes. But the data cat is well and truly out of the privacy bag. It is already being compiled, bought and sold and used in ways you cannot imagine and probably wouldn’t like very much. The only question now is how are we going to ensure that the collected data is not misused. Well…misused in ways that might be more troublesome than your local Whole Foods knowing your wife’s due date and that your daughter has herpes.


4 Responses

  1. Cousin Avi, I’ve missed seeing your posts for awhile. You generally crack me up. This particular entry, not so much. Low doses of humor. I also disagree with your (somewhat sublimated) point. Terrorism is not an over-riding issue, it is an excuse. The government may be doing what corporations have been doing but no, I for one don’t want them doing it. The possibility it will thwart some terrorist plot is of relatively minor importance, compared to the certainty of misuse by the government. They simply have no business doing this stuff. I generally agree with you and occasionally am persuaded but I find little persuasion in this post. The fact that they’ve been so furtive makes it clear they prefer their motives go unevaluated by those who ostensibly they represent. You didn’t really speak much about Ed Snowden, but I find his motives admirable and the government’s tactics despicable. Good to see you back.

    • They have every business doing just exactly what they are doing…and the point is that “What” they (the government) ARE doing is less intrusive; less a violation of anyone’s “Privacy” than what your credit card company or supermarket is already doing.
      Furtive? I’m not sure I agree with that characterization. Certainly they are not transparent about the gathering of information pertaining to National Security – nor, one might point out, are the police transparent about their investigative techniques and ongoing or active investigations.
      As for Snowden, there have been enough contradictory moves made by Snowden and Greenwald, not to mention the outright lies and exaggerations sold by GG…I’m not sure either of them have enough credibility left to bear the weight. Your assumptions about Snowden’s motives are just that – assumptions…and may be driven more by a desire to see him as occupying some moral high ground than is fairly supported by the facts. There does not appear to have been any abuse of the collected data by the government, but I believe the concern about that possibility may be sufficiently addressed by proper oversight – which, I submit, is to be preferred over taking away a potentially powerful investigative tool on the fear that it MAY be misused (which, of course, applies to everything from guns to tazers to billy clubs).

      • I’m sorry, but even if PRISM itself does only what they claim it does (which I’m skeptical of), they don’t have any business compiling this shit and storing it until they manage to “prove” you guilty. Innocent until proven guilty..probable cause…You know…all that meaningless legal bullshit.

        The value of after-the-fact attempted dot connecting does not outweigh the potential for ongoing abuse. How far back do they have to dig to find that “connection”? The 70’s? If you have to go back further than a couple months, you’re reaching. How many pizza places and their employees get their lives combed over because some suspected would-be bomber likes to order from them? Besides, terrorists using their own phones is soooo over. More likely to use the US Postal Service at this point. I hear that, in the final years, Osama only used hand delivered notes.

        Big Brother doesn’t need to know my mother, right around 9/11 was living closer to the airport 9/11 hijackers were training at than they were and that she was calling the same German city said to be the hijackers’ HQ. Thanks to motherfucking Verizon, the US government knows and will have that information on file for forever. Fucking CSIS/RCMP has already visited my family’s house once regarding our frequent trips to East Germany, despite not having actual relatives there. Given the websites I visit, I’m sure the Sedate Me Family file gets thicker every year. How long until I get the “perfectly legal” drone strike?

        As the Daily show did once regarding a major owner of FOX stock, once you start playing 6 Degrees of Osama Bin Bacon, almost everyone becomes a “legitimate” person of interest and deserving of whatever these devious fuckers can think up.

        (By me frequently posting here) Tag, you’re it! Good news is you never see the drone strike coming.

  2. As you said, PRISM doesn’t appear to be another Echelon. If the Military-Industrial-Security complex is to be believed (and what have they EVER done to engender mistrust???) “all” PRISM does is log every call everybody makes and keeps the numbers & duration of calls on file for forever. It is a database to be mined. But how and by who? Who really knows? Yeah, there’s a process that vaguely resembles a legal procedure (aka FISA). However, from what I hear, FISA “courts” almost never reject requests. Besides, to paraphrase Bush, “Who says I gotta ask FISA?” When something is only a click of the mouse away, who is going to ask permission, especially when you already know the answer will be “yes” and that nothing bad will happen to you even if caught?

    Until a few years ago, when we got our first sniff, only a precious few had any idea PRISM existed, never mind how it worked. And that fact alone is enough to get people pissed…and rightly so. We all know it isn’t, but America is supposed to be a democracy in which citizens are born with inalienable rights, not just privileges to be taken away at the whim of rulers, or violated by desk jockeys at private subcontractors. In a perfect world, this kind of violation of the Constitution (at least in spirit) should require a constitutional amendment. It should at least get a referendum, be a campaign issue, pass in a Congressional vote, something. Hell, how about announcing it by putting posters on some telephone poles next to pictures of missing cats? Nope. Apparently, citizens don’t even merit notification of what the Security Industrial Complex is doing to them.

    PRISM may, or may not, be a 1 out of 10 on the privacy violation scale. Yes, there are a lot of 10 out of 10s out there. But that’s not the point. The point is they ALL operate on the same premise. That citizens should have no part in their own governance. Citizens are all disobedient children who need to monitored and controlled. “You’re all guilty. We just haven’t caught you yet. But we will.” This is all about power, control and lack of consent. By their very nature, programs like this are undemocratic and show us who is really in charge….and it sure as shit ain’t us. The communication conglomerates have secretly plotted with the government to track citizens. Specific abuses or not, it’s abuse by its very existence. PRISM just follows the same asymmetrical format that’s essentially taken over society; knowledge and power in the hands of a few with no accountability.

    And we all know all such programs will get abused. There are just too many people with grudges and ex-wives out there for that not to happen. The mere fact that most of the activity is done by a myriad of private contractors ought to be cause for alarm. But we’ll probably never even hear about the abuses because all the information is hermetically sealed and under the control of those who would be committing the abuse. It’s just like Catholic bishops being in charge of all the information regarding kiddie diddling priests. Shit, everything is so secretive, even the Kenyan Muslim socialist running the joint barely has a clue what’s going on. Only through whistle blowers will we catch glimpses of the truth and look what happens to them. Who is going to tell the public anything when it means kissing your cushy, self-important, job goodbye and spending the rest of your life in a shitty fucking airport, or solitary confinement in a military prison?

    Speaking of which, here’s a leak of a secret internal NSA audit that was edited to put things in a better light before presentation to the higher ups. What it says is that the NSA DC offices have, and continue to , violate privacy rules and/or the law thousands of times a year. In fact, instances are going up, not down. Are there even that many people actually worth spying on legally, never mind breaking the law for? If so, it’s time to build a bunker.

    And to what end are these programs anyway? Supposedly, it’s to protect us good, white, Christians from the brown tinted, ham-rejecting, hoards out to kill each and every one of us. Just where the fuck are they? Well, the few left ain’t here and they sure as fuck ain’t making calls on their home phones. Yet the Security Industrial Complex grows by the hour and is applied to more and more ordinary people. Terrorism is a straw boogeyman. Sure, a few mentally ill losers may blow up some pressure cookers, light their underwear on fire, share delusional fantasies about derailing VIA rail trains or cutting off Stephen Harper’s head (if only!) But even though catching them is like shooting fish in a barrel, all-knowing Big Brother still manages to miss some. Hell, in most of those cases somebody is begging the spooks to do something and they get ignored. Too many e-mails of ordinary Americans to read first, I guess. But none of these missed fish have done more damage than the average lunatic exercising his 2nd Amendment rights in a theatre.

    Yes, what little we are told by the government about what they’re doing wrong is very comparable to what those motherfucking corporations do. Both are attempting to build profiles on you in order to predict and control your behaviour for their benefit. But two wrongs don’t make a right. Nobody has a right to turn human beings into mere collections of data.

    Or, as one of my favourite shows of all time puts it. (Hopefully that video didn’t embed.)

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