Dear Government Snoops: Just Come Get Me Now

For a number of (really good) reasons, I’ve not been able to spend much time following the endless, ever-forthcoming details about the US government’s decision to vacuum up as much of our communication data as possible.

Even from such a less-than-ideal base of knowledge, and even though it will take months or years for everything to come out (if ever), I already believe the following:

What Edward Snowden did is one of the most heroic, medal-worthy acts by an American so far this century. I say this even though I’m also horrified that somebody with his scant qualifications was in such a position.

No mountain of prestigious journalistic prizes can repay the debt owed to the Guardian and Glenn Greenwald by the citizens of this country.

President Obama should immediately grant Snowden a full presidential pardon — and, further, give Snowden his own (prematurely given and, as is now clear, unearned) Nobel Peace Prize as a token of his gratitude.

Concerns about the steady erosion of civil liberties and all-too-quick slide into a surveillance state are finally starting to get a sliver of the traction they should have gotten since roughly the end of 2001.

The erosion of civil liberties via state surveillance has been accompanied by an ever-shrinking capacity for citizens to monitor the state. This ranges from the mundane (e.g., police officers routinely harassing, arresting, injuring, and/or falsely charging people for photographing or recording them in public) to the profound (e.g., charging journalists as “co-conspirators” for soliciting restricted information).

There is perhaps no better test of whether technology activists will be able to mobilize the public en masse on behalf of a desired change — rather than, as in the SOPA blackout, against an unpopular proposed change.

Whether or not an anti-surveillance movement can effect major changes in policy is not a fair measure of whether and how well such a movement performs as a movement; better measures include people mobilized to action, mainstream coverage, and policymakers and allies recruited.

Regardless of whether it is fair to measure an anti-surveillance movement based on policy outcomes, such policy outcomes may be a fair way to measure the viability of our democracy. If we can’t get people on the left, right, and center to join together to take back the Fourth Amendment, the promises of our Constitution are pretty hollow indeed. (Satire or not, this hits close to home.)

If I were in the position of Snowden, Greenwald, or the Guardian, I hope and believe that I would make pretty much the same decisions.

I say all of this publicly, even though I no longer have faith that I can do so without fear of retribution (yes, I use that term deliberately) by the state.

So, to the snoops that are undoubtedly listening — even though it’s unlikely that any human will ever actually read this tiny speck in an ocean of data — come and get me.

If what Snowden did lands him in prison, being there next to him would be an honor. If blowing the lid off a giant, proto-police-state phone and internet surveillance operation is wrong, I don’t want to be right. If leaking state secrets in the public interest puts one in danger of torture, indefinite detention, exile, or being disappeared, we’re all in danger — and for most people, this will be because too few will be brave enough to take such a risk to protect the citizenry from the state.

So consider me part of the conspiracy, Mr./Ms. Snoop. Tell your supervisors that we have a dissident who needs closer scrutiny and maybe a visit from an agent.

I’d rather go to prison, right now, for the rest of my life than to live in complicity as we slide ever-closer toward becoming a bona fide police state.

And just to increase the odds that a real human does see this: bombs Al Qaeda assassinate infidels fertilizer kill death murder planes airports President Obama Capitol White House 9/11 TNT flying with liquids in containers larger than 100 ml (3 oz. for you SAE holdouts) and not taking off my accursed shoes. So there.

P.S. If there’s one consequence I do fear as a result of this post specifically, it’s being put on the no-fly list — itself a particularly apt illustration of the intersection of terrorism paranoia, unchecked executive branch power, and rank bureaucratic incompetence.

TSA Has A Blog

The TSA blog, Evolution of Security, is an honest-to-goodness attempt to communicate with the public and (here’s the shocker) listen to feedback.

The bloggers are employees who are free to write in a casual blogging style. One made a joke about heavy drinking in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday. Responses range from sardonic or hostile to genuinely thoughtful.

Perhaps most impressive, the agency is actually listening to (and not merely damage controlling around) citizens’ comments. Well, at least they’ve done it once thus far. In one post, they celebrate the TSA critics for ironing out some inconsistencies in their enforcement of the removal of electronics.

Some local branches had decided that ALL electronics had to be removed (if you can fit a bomb in an iPod nano…), and the blog’s commenters asked about it. This week, the TSA made sure that all local agents knew that small electronics can stay in bags.

This is an interesting exercise in e-government, and as a regular traveler, I hope they keep it up.

(Link via NYT)

How (Not) to Do FISA Reform

Here is a letter I just sent to Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ), my elected representative, with added links:

Dear Rep. Sires,

I am a voter in your district, and I am writing in regards to H.R. 3773, the RESTORE Act. I urge you not to support this legislation unless it meets two key conditions.

First, the bill must not be amended to grant immunity for telecommunications providers who cooperated with the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping program. Such a grant of immunity will cut important court cases off at the knees before we can learn the full nature of the administration’s spying. In short, you must not reward the administration for their blatant disregard for the law of the land, including the very balanced Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and you must not reward common carriers for their willingness to join in the illegalities. Bush’s threat to veto the legislation without such a grant of immunity only confirms concerns that the law has been broken.

Second, do not approve the bill without all of its current protections for civil liberties. In particular, insist that the bill retain or strengthen the following provisions:

• Section 5, requiring oversight and periodic audits of surveillance activities
• Section 7, requiring the Department of Justice to conduct a timely audit of all warrantless surveillance programs since September 11, 2001
• Section 8, requiring record keeping of all surveillance of United States persons
• Section 10, reiterating FISA as the sole legal justification for the gathering of electronic surveillance

Not incidentally, the Bush administration’s willful disregard for FISA is an impeachable act if ever there was one, but sadly it is not the only one committed in the past seven years. Speaker Pelosi may consider impeachment to be off the table, but I do not, and if you and your colleagues do not stand up for the Constitution, I fear for the future of our democracy.


Bill D. Herman

Torture: As Seen on TV

Much media violence research focuses on at-risk populations, such as the imitation of violent scenes among children. The U.S. Army has recognized its own cadets as another sort of at-risk population, it seems, requesting that Kiefer Sutherland (Jack Bauer on TV’s 24) visit West Point to tell cadets that torture is not okay. Citing the New Yorker, Foreign Policy notes, “the motto of many of [retired West Point Professor Gary Solis’ former] students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: ‘Whatever it takes.'” Foreign Policy also points out:

The failure to temper future soldiers’ enthusiasm for the Bauer approach—in addition to reports that interrogators in Iraq plagiarize tactics displayed on the show—had previously led West Point’s dean to make a bizarre, on-set appearance before begging 24’s producers to be gentler with the show’s almost exclusively Muslim torture victims.

From what I’ve read of research on interventions designed to increase media criticism abilities, this kind of thing would work better in the short term than in the long term, but most researchers can’t afford to have actual celebrities show up in person for their studies. Best case scenario would be if such efforts are indicative of a broader push to curb torture in the military, and not just a cheap PR move.

Maine rejects federal Real ID Act

The state of Maine has passed a resolution refusing to implement the Real ID Act.

The federal law, passed in 2005, orders states to adopt Department of Homeland Security-approved ID cards. It also requires citizens to have one of these cards or other federally-approved ID, such as a passport, to fly, open a bank account, or receive most federal services–including receiving Social Security.

The Maine legislature told the Feds what they could do with their federal ID cards on a nearly unanimous vote: 34-to-0 in the state Senate and 137-to-4 in the House. States that are considering similar resolutions include Montana, Georgia, Washington, and Massachusetts.

Man sets himself on fire, barely makes a news ripple

On November 3, Malachi Ritscher set himself on fire near a Chicago expressway in protest of the Iraq war. Police couldn’t definitively identify him for days. A friend later got a package in the mail with an explanation, a will, and a key to Ritscher’s apartment.

The story hit the AP on November 26, and the headline was, “Protester Immolation Virtually Unnoticed.” You may have been unaware until reading this very blog post.

Ritscher posted his intentions and an obituary on his website. No matter your ideology, read both. The domain registration is paid through 2009, which suggests forethought but not particularly careful planning. (I would have paid through 2099 and explicitly donated the site’s content to the public domain.)

The story is remarkable, and he comes across as lucid and sincere. Reviews on the action are mixed, of course, ranging from worship (“I heard you, Malachi“), to regret (“more good to us alive than dead“), to cynical, partisan dismissal of Ritscher and the small hint of media coverage of his story (“AP: Lionizing an Anti-war Activist’s Suicide“). I, personally, am moved, but this post seeks to explore the media vacuum surrounding the story.

Many commentators have expressed outrage that the media never covered this story properly, yet I disagree with the standard explanation of partisan bias. Continue reading

American travelers to get secret “Risk Assessment” scores

You think the credit scoring system isn’t Big Brother enough? Wait until Monday, when the Department of Homeland Security rolls out its “Risk Assessment” scores for travelers. See this EFF link for more on this nefarious plot.

Like the “No Fly” list, you’ll be unable to see where you stand (does this post add to my score?) or have the chance to challenge it–unless the EFF, ACLU, or another civil liberties group can win another court battle.

If the terrorists really had attacked us because “they hate our freedom” (perhaps the dumbest claim ever uttered by any administration), then we’ve done nothing but help them for the past 5 years.

the NSA wiretapping program ruled unconstitutional

This blog is not all about bad news! Judge Anna Diggs Taylor from Detroit is the first judge to rule about the legality of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program – it was justified as necessary for battling terrorism but is now found to violate the rights to free speech, privacy as well as the separation of powers, as protected by the US Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) succesfully fought in this case of ACLU vs NSA – good thing to see that my money donated to ACLU, even though I am not even an American citizen, is being used properly.

In layman terms: the NSA cannot just randomly wiretap citizens without going through the formal procedures that have been established a long time before there was a war on terror.

More indepth legal analysis and the ramifications of this case by Derek Bambauer of Info/Law, Susan Crawford, and Jack Balkin. Professor Balkin also graciously hosts the opinion and the order.

New AT&T slogan: “Reach out and tap someone”

I wish I were the clever person who came up with that quip. Nope, it was Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), who (in an unrelated story) is also the hero of the hour in the network neutrality fight in the House.

In case you missed it, USA Today (in a shocking fit of investigative journalism) reported yesterday that the NSA has collected millions of Americans’ phone records from Verizon, AT&T, and BellSouth. They never got a warrant from the FISA court, the secret court established to approve all domestic surveillance. (Remember that pesky 4th Amendment guarantee “against unreasonable searches and seizures”?)

This is downright offensive to anybody who deserves to call themselves an American. Congresspersons from both houses and both parties, including Republican Senator Arlen Specter from PA, have spoken out against the clearly illegal program.

Among those who have decried the program, Markey is the funniest by far. His other one-liner: the news represents “another telecom merger between NSA and AT&T.”
If you are a Quest customer, by the way, write your phone company and tell them you appreciate their protection of your privacy. They said no to the NSA. Verizon, AT&T, and BellSouth, however, rolled over with nothing more legally binding than a “please, sir” from the NSA. Shaaaady.