June 15, 2013

The Government's FISA Requests Shell Game Scam

In the latest chapter of the federal government's "we don't trust the American people to tie their own shoelaces" saga, we saw two major Internet firms ostensibly release new information yesterday about key national security (e.g. FISA) user data requests that they receive, but in reality the government has forced them to play the old "three card monte" scam on us all.

You know the con? It's a classic version of the notorious "shell game" (only performed in this case with three slightly bent playing cards) where we're tricked into losing bets -- through diversion -- into believing a card is in one place, when it's actually somewhere else. This ripoff has its roots in antiquity.

Here's how the federal government version works. Prior to yesterday, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter had released transparency reports about takedowns and government requests for user data. Google has been doing this on a rather detailed, routine basis for quite sometime, and has recently begun including some data regarding National Security Letter (NSL) requests received, in terms of broad ranges of numbers and users/accounts affected -- more specific data release was forbidden by the government.

In the wake of false accusations and conspiracy theories surrounding the Snowden NSA saga, Google very recently wrote a letter to the Department of Justice asking permission to reveal aggregate range and scope for FISA requests, which are more directly related to NSA activities. Microsoft and Facebook followed up with similar letters within hours.

Yesterday, with some fanfare, Facebook announced that it had reached an independent agreement with the government to release some FISA data, but -- and this is crucial -- it would be combined with all other law enforcement requests, everything from a local sheriff trying to find a missing child to -- we assume -- Dr. Evil demanding billions of dollars not to blow up the planet.

Facebook released this combined clump of data yesterday -- their first "transparency report" of any kind, by the way. Shortly thereafter, Microsoft made a similar release, but noted that it was disappointed that they could not break out the FISA requests separately.

Google -- which as we've seen has led the way in transparency reports -- late yesterday refused to play along. They noted that under the policy that Facebook and Microsoft had accepted, Google would be required to combine all law enforcement related data requests, including conventional, NSL, and FISA.

Google asserts -- and I agree -- that this would actually be a step backwards in terms of transparency. Remember, Google was already splitting out NSL requests separately from other law enforcement requests, but accepting the government's terms for release of FISA range data would mean all of this information would now have to be aggregated. There would be no way to discern what parts of the law enforcement total related to NSL (or FISA) at all.

Twitter immediately and wisely endorsed Google's rejection of the new reporting policy.

It's critical to keep in mind that with all this data, we're only talking about approximate ranges, and no details about specific requests at all.

Why is the government trying so hard to muddy and dissemble even this modest data? Our adversaries have long known that national security data requests (both NSL and FISA) occur. How can mere broad ranges for numbers of requests and users/accounts totals be a national security risk to reveal?

There appears to be only one logical answer. They aren't a national security risk at all.

But the government perpetually views us all as untrustworthy children. Of late, it appears that they consider most of us to be potential suspects as well.

And in keeping with that pervasive secrecy mindset, they'll willingly allow conspiracy theories to flourish and to allow the reputation of important U.S. firms to be falsely dragged through the mud -- not actually in the name of national security, but in the name of protecting the power and funding of their individual intelligence empires.

This attempt to play a fast and loose shell game with this data doesn't only reveal deep hypocrisy on the part of the government, but by any normal ethical standards should be deeply embarrassing to them as well.

But just as that three card monte scammer is immune to embarrassment, it appears that our leaders are so sure of themselves, so positive of their superiority, that they have become similarly inured to criticism.

In the long run, that attitude may be more dangerous to what makes America great than all of our actual and would-be adversaries rolled into one.

And that's a very sad, but pretty sure bet, indeed.


Posted by Lauren at June 15, 2013 09:27 AM | Permalink
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