On Being Watched and Being Watchful

Thoughts on the surveillance state, in no particular order:

1. Every Republican, Glibertarian, and other opportunist screaming about this who was of voting age when the Patriot Act was passed and George W. Bush was re-elected can shut right up. I forget who said it when the FISA fight was first going on, but he or she said something about how “these are all powers you wouldn’t want Hillary Clinton to have,” which, as it turns out, was true from their perspective, and their outrage is just a little bit rich.

2. Which makes it not okay one little tiny bit. Democrats are, and have always been, just as capable of rolling over and playing dead at mention of the word “threat” as anybody else, maybe more so, because of Chris Matthews in their ears constantly about how if they don’t agree to attack everything all the time voters will think they’re pussies. And the way I know that is that we went to war in Iraq, didn’t succeed in that first FISA fight or in any subsequent one, and continue to do shit like this.

3. OF COURSE we continue to do shit like this. No one ever gives up power. No one ever says, look, you know what? I don’t actually want to be able to do whatever I want. That sucks. Here, take some of that back. Because what if you need it for something? That’s the problem, what if you need it? That question never goes away. It’s why you don’t hand over power like this in the first place. You can’t unfuck this dog.

4. Which again, makes it okay not at all.

5. Pressure on government in these matters works demonstrably not at all.Pressure on private companies, though?That may have a better chance of succeeding. Government don’t have to give a shit, honey badgers. Businesses that lose customers do, though I don’t know where we’re all going to go, other than Google.

5.Is it okay as long as they’re not listening to the calls?

It’s at that point, people, that law enforcement requires a full-throated argument of probable cause. It’s at that point that privacy rights must be seriously measured against the legitimate investigate needs of law enforcement. And it’s at that point that the potential for authoritarian overreach becomes significant.

6. Part of the problem here, though, is that we do not exactly have a track record right now, America, of using our power judiciously when it comes to vague threats of terrorism. The comparison above is David Simon on the drug war, and compared to the terrorism issue, we are models of human rights and above-board decency when it comes to the drug war. Simon goes on:

The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. And it forever will, to a greater and greater extent. And therefore, the present-day question can’t seriously be this: Should law enforcement in the legitimate pursuit of criminal activity pretend that such data does not exist. The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is unsupervised.

And to that, the Guardian and those who are wailing jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of U.S. big data collection are noticeably silent. We don’t know of any actual abuse.

And we never will. My GRANDchildren will not know of any actual abuse. This will be classified until the end of time. That’s the point and the problem.

Since his next graf is about the model of oversight that is the FISA court, I’ll stop reading there.

7. You don’t wait for something to be abused before you decide it’s okay, because see point 3 above.


8 thoughts on “On Being Watched and Being Watchful

  1. This whole debate is still happening in the dark, too. We don’t know any actual details, it’s just reporting by newspapers of leaked documents and furious denials by government. I take it as given that there’s massive surveillance going on, but whether it’s through Prism or Total Information Awareness or Boundless Informant, whether it’s a secret room at an AT&T office sucking up the traffic or super-secret letters to tech companies, who knows.
    My girl Jane Mayer summed up the situation in a slightly different context in The Dark Side:

    The Bush Administration could have openly asked Congress for greater authority, or engaged the public in a discussion of the morality and efficacy of “enhanced” interrogations, but instead it chose a path of tricky legalisms adopted in classified memos.

    All this crap is happening in classified proceedings before a secret court, so how the hell can a citizen make any kind of intelligent decision on what (if any) good it’s doing?
    And don’t tell me that there was some bullshit discussion with select members of Congress either, because that’s a sham. I made exactly that point, again in a slightly different context:

    Harman’s complaint shows what makes the Gang of Eight process a charade: The president decides when to use it and can bring enormous pressure to bear on those being briefed. Human nature is to err on the side of caution and to give the benefit of the doubt to those we work with. If the president says, “I’m going to tell you this, but it’s enormously sensitive and a leak could have grave consequences,” how defiant do you think any of those eight will be? Harman could have flatly said, I’m taking notes – try to stop me. She did not, though. Yes it was a failure of courage on her part, but no formula for effective oversight can have courage as a prerequisite.

    And it fucking pisses me off that these quotes are years old and we’re still at square one.

  2. This is great: “We don’t know of any actual abuse.” Yes, that’s right –because it’s all done in secret, you dumbass! And incidentally, careful with your pronouns, bub. Maybe you don’t know of any but some of us do. And again, that’s a case that didn’t come about because of a process of disclosure but because of a mistake. It’s easy not to see anything when your head’s in the sand.

  3. Simon is being weirdly naïve on this one.
    No one can challenge the surveillance because they cannot show standing. Which of course was impossible because it was all secret
    This is an echo of the lawsuit brought against Shrub’s funding of (mostly conservative Christian) religious groups: The Supremes ruled that since the plaintiffs couldn’t show that their, as individuals, tax money was involved, they didn’t have standing. Thus creating an impossible standard.
    Give this to the permanent government: it learns from its setbacks.

  4. You want the surveillance state rolled back?
    Easy: just make sure it’s known far and wide that the data NSA collects will be mined for targets of potential insider-trading investigations.
    It’ll get shut down in a New York minute.

  5. For some reason Simon really pissed me off, like with what you’ve seen, you trust authority to do the right thing here? Really?

  6. All right, first point number 5 (there being two of them) says that pressure on the government works not at all. So, which businesses do you suggest we boycott or pressure or hold to account to lift the “classified” blanket under which so much has disappeared?
    Or, is the point of the post “Well, sure all this stuff is happening, it might be horrible, but there’s nothing that can be done, and it’s probably very, very wrong, but we might as well just sit back and enjoy the ride”? Put me in the “fuck that shit” camp. I’ve had my permanent site reserved there for more than a quarter century.
    As for “classified until the end of time,” I’m guessing that was in the minds of any number of people during the 20th Century when they were carrying out some pretty dastardly deeds (e.g., South Africa under apartheid or East Germany under the STASI).

  7. And one more thing. The reason the al-Haramain case is important is because it just extended the insanity. The logic before than had been this: No one can challenge the surveillance because they cannot show standing. Which of course was impossible because it was all secret. Then someone found out by sheer accident, and lo and behold: standing! But the case got dismissed anyway, at which point the situation went from Helleresque to Kafkaesque. You never have standing, even when you do.

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