Saturday, November 02, 2013

Transparency Wins and Losses…

The biggest news is, of course, the ongoing hemorrhage of secrets from the Puzzle Palace… or the National Security Agency (NSA), as now the heads of at least six allied governments are standing in line to give Uncle Sam -- or President Obama -- a smack or two for peeping and snooping on email and phone traffic, sometimes even deep within the sanctums of government.

NSA-Shine-LightIt is all just too much, too fast, for me to blare out a quick screed of impressions and I-told-you-so's. Though a few one-sentence snarks might be in order while I put my more temperate remarks together.  For example:

1) In The Transparent Society I warned that any elite, whether a top agency or company or cabal of the rich, would have to be loony in this coming age of light, to entrust secrets to any but as narrow a group of co-workers or henchmen as possible.  I said as much at the CIA and DTRA and DHS and ODNI and many other alphabetical realms (though never at the NSA: does it show?)

2) Edward Snowden has been more effective than any fifty Julian Assanges.  Why Snowden, a low level worker, had access to so many potentially damaging reports, is beyond me. But it reveals a level of trusting naivete among NSA officials that could be viewed as (actually) rather charming in its innocence… no, that's not the word.  Let's just reiterate naiveté on the part of men and women who are supposed to be hard-as-diamond realists.  

Assuming something triple devious is not afoot (and my author brain spins: but you should forget this), then it means our Puzzle Warriors fell for a Twenty-First Century failure mode called the "henchman effect."

Surveil3) How is the world of pundits and politicians responding to all this?  The best news survey I've seen -- done with very lively multi-media and great info-graphics -- has been prepared by the Guardian: NSA Files Decoded.  Do drop by and look-watch-probe this site… then also know this:

Not one of the politicians and so on who talk about restricting NSA access to information is telling you the truth -- that it won't happen.  It cannot happen.  The increasing power to surveil is intrinsic, propelled with the ponderous momentum of Moore's Law.  All posturing aside, if the NSA is restricted, these powers will simply flow to some other, darker and harder to supervise corner.

It has happened before, countless times, but one example serves.  Did you ever hear of Total Information Awarenessor TIA?  If you haven't, look it up.  If you dimly recall, then shame on you and all other pundits for not mentioning it, till now.  Way back around 2003, DARPA honcho Admiral John Poindexter was smacked down by the entire political caste for talking about doing exactly the sort of things we now see from the NSA. In ensuing outrage, his programs were dissolved, banished… only to pop back up again, as in a game of Whack-a-Mole, an inevitable outcome that not one statesman or scholar or pundit discusses, amid all the posturing and righteous dudgeon.

No. Please. Leave it all at NSA, where it leaked! Where they were so generally open that they let low level contractors see top secret power points.  

Then bring into play the dozens of potential actions and reforms that would enable us to supervise, sousveill, and make sure these powers are used by folks who accept -- deeply and wholly -- the second word in public servant.

Transparent-Society-206

4) See page 206 of The Transparent Society (published 1998). Yes, that is where - in a creepy "Twilight zone" moment - I seemed to predict the events of 9/11 in detail and then the following Patriot Act: "What might  happened if  bombers actually succeeded in toppling both towers of New York's World Trade Center, killing tens of thousands. Or imagine that nuclear or bio-plague terrorists someday devastate a city. Now picture the public reaction if the FBI ever managed to show real (or exaggerated) evidence that they were impeded in preventing the disaster by an inability to tap coded transmissions sent by the conspirators. They would follow this proof with a petition for new powers, to prevent the same thing from happening again."

The question is, will all of this finally have the effect of unravelling the worst parts of that awful piece of Bush Era legislation?  I'll have more to say about this later.  But suffice it to say that while I hate many parts the Patriot Act, I probably disagree with many of my civil libertarian friends over which exact parts are worst, and what reforms should be made.

I infuriate those sincere paladins of freedom by shrugging over how much the government can see.  Not one thing they ever do will discomfit the oncoming age of surveillance more than an iota, here and there. As I just said… but it bears endless repetitions until someone out there gets it … if we forbid surveillance in one realm -- as we did with "Total Information Awareness" then top, state of the art surveillance will whack-a-mole somewhere else.

ElitesNo, you and I should care far more what elites can do with what they see and know.  What they DO is something we can verify, perhaps even control.  I don't care about blinding them. (It will never happen, anyway.) I want to restore our power to supervise our civil servants. I want the watchers to be watched.

We should never have needed Edward Snowden. Nor do I consider him to be as pure as driven snow. But this conversation was overdue. And that makes him worth any number of Julian Assanges.

See more recent updates on Transparency and Surveillance. 

== a light aside ==

ChuckLorre326Big Bang Theory producer Chuck Lorre adds quick-glimpsed vanity cards at the end of his shows. This one - on transparency - makes a strong argument that it should help to bring a golden age of accountability and then better human behavior.  "The end result? Universal honesty, initially as a result of the duress of surveillance, will become the norm. Then over time, this mode of thinking, communicating and behaving will become second nature." 

In fact...I don't quite go that far in The Transparent Society. But if we handle the transition carefully and don't let this be a top-down dominance thing, then yes… openness could save us and help us choose to be better.

29 comments:

Robert said...

Universal honesty will not occur. Truth reading technologies are limited to a single important bias: the belief of the person in question. For instance, if you ask a mathematician with a doctorate in mathematics if 2+2=4 and she says "yes" you might get a "she is lying" result as under specific circumstances in some philosophies of mathematics, 2+2 may not equal four. The simplest being... 2+2=10 under Base-3 mathematics (assuming I didn't get it incorrect).

If my friend asked me "did you get the tickets for [some event]" and I answer "yes" then it may register as "truth" despite the fact that I didn't purchase the tickets... because at the split second I answered the question I might very well believe that I had. I might have forgotten that I wasn't able to find my credit card so that I didn't fill out the entire form... and only upon reflection does it come to light.

The smartest and most canny of politicians in the future may very well make use of directed ignorance and trusted cohorts who operate with tremendous freedom so they have the ability to say "I have no knowledge of a break-in at the Watergate Building" as the politician did not order it. His cohorts did.

Further, you may have someone who implicates himself because of not being sure. After all, how can I say I didn't murder someone when I don't know if I might sleepwalk and thus go out and kill people in my sleep? Thus when someone with a hyperactive imagination is asked a question and their mind starts running through a hundred scenarios they may very well implicate themselves for something they did not do.

In time, technology may be able to cope with these issues. But I doubt a simple smartphone app would be THAT powerful and thus these technologies will always be flawed... and cause more harm than good.

Rob H.

Paul451 said...

Re: Snowden
What puzzles me about the Snowden revelations, is the lack of political concern that a low-level flunky like Snowden, working for a mere contractor, had access to... apparently anything he wanted. (Same with Pvt. Manning.) None of which seemed even remotely connected with his job, or his company's job (which was to grant other people security clearances.)

The only reason you know he was misusing the information was that he went public. How many other low-level grunts are abusing their access that no one knows about? Hell, how many of the contractors are misusing their access in a systematic way? (I mean if you're a govt contractor, being able to get emails/phonecalls from Senators voting on your contract would he handy.)

And with something like 3 million Americans having the same security clearance as Snowden, how could these contractors not be absolutely riddled with foreign operatives?

Yet the political class in the US seem unconcerned. You may already be more transparent than you think.

Robert,
"2+2=10 under Base-3 mathematics"

Surely 11? (1, 2, 10, 11, 12...)

Alex Tolley said...

0 0
1 1
2 2
3 10
4 11 *
5 12
6 20

Anonymous said...

Snowden was a sysadmin. That's like being a valet for your data system. "A man has no secrets from his valet." Anything you do to limit their access also limits their effectiveness at their jobs.

Alex Tolley said...

Didn't Binney recently suggest that excessive data collection impedes intelligence work, not enhances it, because focus is lost?

If one's thoughts were exposed, it is not clear to me that this would make a more honest/better society. It could make a society fearful of triggering "thought crime". Little lies that smooth social interaction would also be obvious, and therefore counterproductive. All that social grooming would become potentially useless and change behaviors, not necessarily for the better.

Douglas Moran said...

The hole in Lorre's theory is two-fold: The people who tell the truth anyway because they don't care about the evil shit they're doing; and the people who are able to delude themselves, either temporarily or permanently, that they actually believe the B.S. they're spouting.

In the first category is Dick Cheney, who simply tells a tiny portion of the truth ("We're going to have to go to the dark side") and then stops. In the second category are people like George Bush, who seemed to actually and truly believe the insane nonsense he was spouting.

I should also mention a final category: The artistic truth-tellers. These are folks who tell you something that, if parsed juuuuuuust right, are the "literal" truth, and yet because of the way they have phrased things, everyone believes they have said something else. This is profoundly common in politics. The artist at this is Karl Rove, who was subpoenaed five times and never found to have perjured himself--he says something that you take to mean "A", but when it's later shown to mean "B", he goes back and says, "Oh, no; you can *clearly* see I meant B all along." This is the more dangerous situation.

A recent example: Obama said that we are not now nor do we plan in the future to spy on Angela Murkel. Well, that wasn't the question, was it? The question was, *did* we surveil her in the past?

No amount of brain-scanning will be able to sift that kind of nonsense.

CJ-in-Weld said...

Unless brain scanning can pick up deceptive intent regardless of actual words chosen...?

Paul451 said...

Apropos transparency: http://www.alternet.org/files/matt_davies_nsa.png

Anon,
Snowden was a sysadmin for a contractor that does security clearances. Why does he need to have access to documents about spying on national leaders? Or presentations about the capacity of the NSA to harvest information from companies like Google/Yahoo/etc. Or a fraction of the things he has released.

As I said, there are going to be thousands of Snowdens amongst the millions of intelligence contract workers with equivalent clearances, only a handful will ever go public. Most will be working for someone else.

David Brin said...

Paul451 the difference between Snowden and Manning is that Mannig had access to things that were mostly not incriminating. Assange has revealed very little that actually shook anything up. Snowden is another story. It is mind boggling… so much so that my author's mind comes up with hidden plots.

C-J-in-weld your approach assumes the person has a conscience. Far more important (or supplemental) to a lie detector is a psychopathy detector. There are now tests. Pre vett those guys out of politics (but not law) and we might make real progress.

Paul451 said...

David,
"Pre vett those guys out of politics (but not law)"

Can you elaborate on the parenthesized comment?

David Brin said...

Law in the courtroom is inherently psychopathic-adversarial. Lawyers act pretend as if they actually believe their clients. Creepy! But how it works

Duncan Cairncross said...

"Pre vett those guys out of politics (but not law) and we might make real progress."

Attorneys, lawyers, - possibly
Never let them become Judges!

It would be a good test for senior management,
Possibly on the lines of an extra insurance the company must carry if its senior executives don't pass the test

Kelsey said...

Paul and David,

I need to call you out on calling Snowden a low-level worker. He had worked for the CIA, the NSA, Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton for several years building trust along the way. His salary alone suggests he was valued more than a one-star general. This is not typical contractor pay and as sysadmin, he'd get to see a lot more than what a typical contractor would get to see.

Paul, I'm not quite sure why you're saying Snowden's company only works on security clearances. Booz Allen and Dell have fairly large contracts with the government and work on several different projects. Are you thinking of USIS, the ones who vetted Snowden? Snowden never worked for them.

Robert said...

I had an odd thought this morning. What if Republican efforts to turn abortion into a crime is in fact an effort to eliminate the right of women to vote? I mean, we're already seeing anti-abortion laws that add "deliberate miscarriage" as a crime that jails women. We also see laws that make it so that ex-convicts are stripped of their right to vote. (And there are even situations where a law intended to punish men who abuse women and accidentally cause a miscarriage are being used against women who miscarried naturally.)

If these laws are upheld by the Supreme Court, you may see their widescale use. More and more women will be tossed into jail for miscarriages and actions that threaten a child (you're pregnant and you had alcohol? You are guilty of attempted murder!) which "lenient" judges will then turn into Damocles Swords with suspended sentences... which still strip the right of these women to vote because they were convicted of a crime.

The end result is a growing number of Republican states where an increasing number of women are denied the right to vote. When people try to protest they are painted as liberal and soft on crime and wanting to let murderers vote... and any attempt to claim otherwise is shouted out as "you want murderers to vote!"

Add in anti-minority efforts, and you have a retained Republican majority despite the voting base being a minority. The people who suffer, women and minorities, aren't voting Republican, so laws punishing and discriminating against them become the natural weapon of Republicans while people protesting these laws are accused of being "soft on crime" and the like.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Voter ID laws already threaten women who have not perfectly changed all ID names after getting married or divorced.

Still Rob, your scenario has an extreme feel of a Margaret Atwood story. Um. One hopes...

David Brin said...

I won't be in contact much the next week. Though I will be posting prepared blogs. Enjoy good discussions! Keep em lively! ;-)

LarryHart said...

Douglas Moran:

I should also mention a final category: The artistic truth-tellers. These are folks who tell you something that, if parsed juuuuuuust right, are the "literal" truth, and yet because of the way they have phrased things, everyone believes they have said something else. This is profoundly common in politics. The artist at this is Karl Rove...


I'm a Democrat, or at least a Dem-symp, but I think the absolute master at what you are describing was Bill Clinton.

When he said "I didn't have sex with that woman," I'm sure he meant it literally. He engaged in oral gratification with Ms Lewinsky, but in a very technical sense, they did not have "sex" (if one thinks of sex as vaginal penetration), and so he didn't consider himself to be lying when he said that.

Similarly, the bit about not inhaling. I'm not experienced here myself, but from what I understand, the way one takes a hit from a joint is akin to sucking a bit of smoke into the mouth and then puffing it out, without taking a drag into the lungs as one does with a tobacco cigarette. If one convinces oneself that the act described as "smoking" involves the inhalation of the smoke, then one could claim without thinking of it as a lie that he did not "smoke" marijuana just as he could credibly claim not to have "eaten" or "drunk" marijuana.

BTW, I'd fail the lie detector every time, because when someone levels an accusation at me, a part of my brain "knows" that I'm really guilty, no matter what the accusation is or whether I remotely ever did anything like that. So if we're entering a world in which everyone will be judged by lie-detector apps, I might as well guillotine myself right now and get it over with.

LarryHart said...

Robert:

I had an odd thought this morning. What if Republican efforts to turn abortion into a crime is in fact an effort to eliminate the right of women to vote? I mean, we're already seeing anti-abortion laws that add "deliberate miscarriage" as a crime that jails women. We also see laws that make it so that ex-convicts are stripped of their right to vote...


That makes so much sense, it HAS to be true.

I've been wondering for months why the GOP is deliberately offending half its voter base. What you suggest is the only possible answer that doesn't involve their strategists being ridiculously insane.

Jonathan S. said...

Larry, the smoking thing is even more finely nuanced than you thought.

In my experience, marijuana is indeed inhaled, and even held for a time (in order to maximize absorption of THC). However, when Clinton was at school overseas, it was the done thing at the time to mix the pot with tobacco, to make it last longer. And the tobacco of choice at his college was the harsh Turkish variety, for much the same reason as some drink espresso and disdain normal coffee.

Now, one does not inhale Turkish tobacco the way one does, say, the milder Virginian variety, at least unless one does not care for one's lungs. Instead, it was shallowly puffed in the way you describe. So, in a strictly legalistic sense, he didn't actually inhale...

(Remember, Bill was a lawyer before he ever went into politics!)

Alex Tolley said...

This is good news.
California police use of body cameras cuts violence and complaints

Not only are the videos keeping the cops more honest, but it seems to be a win-win.

Now if only NYPD understood the lesson.

Paul451 said...

Alex,
Not just a reduction, but an 88% reduction in complaints, and a 60% reduction in the use of force. That's huge.

Randy Winn said...

Are you following the the "Legal Schnauzer" affair?

A judge got angry at a blogger who kept reporting on a public officials transgressions, so the cops beat him and jailed him without bond.
This was not in Russia and not in China and not even in the UK, but in Alabama.

LarryHart said...

Jonathan S:

(Remember, Bill was a lawyer before he ever went into politics!)


My theory about Bill Clinton's internal thought processes sprang from the fact that he's a lawyer.

Randy Winn:

...
This was not in Russia and not in China and not even in the UK, but in Alabama.


Sadly, that is not a surprise. One more reason to let the secessionists go next time.

David Brin said...

Frankfurt transit lounge on way to Lithuania...

matthew said...

I realize that David is gone for a little while, but I'd like to leave this here for his comment (ours too, in the meantime). From Boing Boing, COry Doctorow interviews Terry Pratchett. "I generally refuse to predict the future (on the grounds that SF writers who dabble in futurism are like drug dealers who sample the product—unlikely to come to a good end)." - Cory in one of the questions
David, I'd like to hear your take on this one.

David Brin said...

I predict this nostrum will lead to a deficit in predictions, increasing the prices paid to remaining charlatans... I mean seers like me.

Paul451 said...

The Charlatan's new thread is lit, not pol, so I'll leave this here.

Voter disenfranchising, friendly-fire edition: http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/05/even-elected-officials-have-trouble-voting-in-texas/

Even republican politicians are getting caught by their own onerous voter-ID laws. (Of course, this will likely just be used to justify the laws, "I (by which I mean my staff) managed to deal with it, why can't you.")

Publius said...

David,
Good essay, but I disagree with the assumptions of this statement:

"No, you and I should care far more what elites can do with what they see and know."

I don't think it is wise or logical to make such a distinction. They are doing something by breaking the law, and shredding the constitution, in their surveillance.

Spying on everyone is an act. It is doing something.

If the elites/government/NSA is willing to flout the law, common decency, and the Constitution, why do we think they will then refrain from "doing" horrendous things? The facts show that they already do terrible things, and continue to do them.

They let African Americans die of syphilus as an experiment. They imported Nazi war criminals and used the Nazi spy networks, and we currently use their methods of torture. WE have our own gulag at Guantanamo.

If you are willing to admit the patterns, instead of screaming "conspiracy theory" at every bit of evidence that doesn't support statism, then it is likely the government is not just executing innocents abroad with drones, but people here who are inconvenient, such as journalist Michael Hastings (before you get your panties in a bundle, explain why war crimes and barbarism should stop at the border in the minds of our criminal elites).

Regardless, I've made my point. Thanks for your blog.

Doug S. said...

2) Edward Snowden has been more effective than any fifty Julian Assanges. Why Snowden, a low level worker, had access to so many potentially damaging reports, is beyond me. But it reveals a level of trusting naivete among NSA officials that could be viewed as (actually) rather charming in its innocence… no, that's not the word. Let's just reiterate naiveté on the part of men and women who are supposed to be hard-as-diamond realists.

This is easy to explain. If you think you're doing the right thing, you don't worry as much about getting caught.