August 20, 2013

Why "NSA Fearmongers" Are More Damaging to Free Speech than Is NSA

If you've been reading my missives for any period of time, you've probably discerned by personal viewpoint that for virtually any controversial topic, the reality exists somewhere in the center area, and not against the pegs at either end of the meter scale.

Unfortunately, our culture these days -- especially in the political arena -- has become all about extremes.

Either you're with us, or you're the enemy! Compromise is caving! My way or the highway!

Complicating matters even more, we tend to congregate increasingly with persons who already share our established points of view (either in person or online), and gravitate toward opinionated news sources that will further reinforce our existing positions.

This is the essence of "echo chamber" effects we've frequently discussed. Another analogy is a loud public address system "feedback" squeal, as noise feeds on itself through continuing cycles of uncontrolled amplification.

The current controversies over NSA programs are perhaps quintessential examples of how this all works in practice.

There are many players, and many motives.

We can definitely stipulate that oversight of NSA programs and essential associated transparency with the public has become weak and sloppy -- and is now creating collateral damage that is intolerable.

We can also probably agree that some associated NSA programs -- though likely still legal in a formal sense -- have drifted beyond an acceptable scope -- especially of concern given the oversight and transparency problems.

Reported "leakage" of foreign intelligence data to domestic agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (and use by these agencies of "parallel reconstruction" techniques to obscure the original triggers for investigations) are especially worrisome, since they violate the basic premises of compartmentalization through which we draw the line between foreign and domestic intelligence operations and resulting data.

Still, there is little fundamentally new in the "revelations" we've seen that was not obvious or anticipated by followers of Congressional legislation passed in a rush after 9/11, such as PATRIOT and the Homeland Security Act. Many of us warned at the time what sorts of programs were being authorized, but we were ignored and chastised.

But for all the information we've seen about NSA to date, there is zero evidence of actual evil intent to be found -- in stark distinction to the manner in which various foreign intelligence agencies operate vast, oppressive, specifically domestic censorship and surveillance regimes -- with China and Russia being two obvious examples.

Unfortunately, many breathless observers of the NSA situation have little knowledge of (or perhaps little real interest in) how other countries operate. But in a tightly interconnected world, we cannot view NSA or other U.S. agencies in isolation -- not safely or realistically anyway.

This is true even if we ignore for now some of the "peg-huggers" at the extreme edges of the debate.

This includes most of the GOP politicos who suddenly seem to have gotten "privacy religion" -- even though they loudly supported these programs in the past and actively criticized anyone who spoke against them. We can safely relegate these members of the Grand Old Party (and indeed, some Democrats as well) to the dissembling political opportunism category. For the GOP, anything Obama did is poison and a path toward implementation of their "go to hell ordinary people" political agendas -- even if they lauded the same intelligence activities under Republican presidents.

The "let the people fend for themselves and rot" contingent that makes up a part of the "Libertarian" movement also falls into this category. They just hate government of all kinds, and NSA makes a convenient target. In their fantasies, they'll be out there shooting at the aftermath of dirty bombs and terrorist nukes with their handguns and assault rifles.

And of course there's also the contingent of well-meaning souls who just fervently believe that spying is wrong, and that if somehow the NSA could just be unilaterally defunded the rest of the world's spying agencies -- plus terrorists and their supporters -- would follow along in a glorious "kumbaya moment."

The facts are very different.

Foreign intelligence is gathered by countries all over the world -- it always has been -- long predating the development of electronic communications. Unilateral disarmament in such a context would be unthinkably irresponsible, especially since the raw truth is that there really are groups out there who want to kill us, there are plenty of fissile materials floating around for really nasty bombs, and while we may not like having to play spy for our own protection (I certainly don't) that desire doesn't change the actual threat profile by a single iota.

This is most certainly not to say that there isn't plenty of room for improvements in the ways that NSA operates. As noted, transparency and oversight is a mess, foreign-directed programs have been leaking into the domestic sphere, and in our toxic political environment this has encouraged the spread of shrill, false, and hyperbolic claims that are doing far more damage than anything actually being done by NSA.

False claims that the content of all phone calls and emails are being recorded, or the existence of "anytime, anywhere, anybody" instant wiretapping capability by low level administrative NSA workers, are but two examples.

Then we have the libelous, fallacious claims that major Internet firms are permitting free reign of their servers to NSA or other agency operatives -- false claims made all the more damaging by existing laws making it impossible for these firms to appropriately defend themselves against such allegations.

And the fallout from all this -- yes, triggered by NSA -- but now aided and abetted by the fearmongers, is a cascading effect of persons who have been unrealistically terrified into closing important sites and otherwise attempting to withdraw into the cave.

For some of the fearmongers this sort of anti-Internet response has been part of their agendas all along, often entwined with broader anti-government sentiments.

For others, it's a lack of proportionality, or lack of understanding of how tyrannical regimes actually operate (hint, I couldn't be openly blogging in any of them).

And for many of the fearful, it's a lack of technical knowledge crucial to separating the wheat from the chaff intrinsic to these discussions and accusations.

In the final analysis of course, we all gotta do what we gotta do. The range of circumstances that individuals face in these contexts will cover the gamut from absolutely justifiable concerns to utterly fantastical paranoia.

But my sense right now is that we're seeing a great deal of "knee-jerk self-censorship" that may seem appropriate if you buy into everything the fearmongers are claiming -- but is likely much less sensible in the light of actual realities.

The echo chamber, feedback effect can exert a very powerful emotional pull on all of us. So it might behoove us all to spend a bit more time pondering how much of what we're seeing amid the NSA furor is likely to be hard reality, and how much is significantly more likely to be the result of hoopla, hype, and hyperbole.

An individual decision to be sure, but an immensely important one, especially since if there's one thing that history teaches us so clearly, it's that fear and withdrawal inevitably lead to darkness, not to sunlight.


Posted by Lauren at August 20, 2013 10:23 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein