PRISM, Tech, and Trust UPDATED

“If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress, and don’t trust federal judges, to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution with due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.”

Barack Obama

“Unfortunately you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all of our problems. Some of these same voices do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.”

Barack Obama

I trust my wife. I trust my friends and colleagues, my children, and assorted folks I meet in the course of life.

Some trust is conditional. When you ask a child who has been quiet too long just what she’s doing, and she says “Nothing,” it makes sound parental sense to doubt that claim. It doesn’t necessarily mean the child is being deceptive. It may just mean that your idea of “Nothing” is actually “Nothing,” while the child’s idea of “Nothing” is “Nothing … I want you know about.”

I don’t trust anyone trying to sell me anything, not because I’m suspicious or believe everyone is lying or cheating, but because where commerce with strangers is concerned, doubt is a sensible precaution.

By and large, I find individuals trustworthy.

Here’s the thing, though: groups are not individuals. Group psychology often functions at direct cross-purposes to the will of the individuals in that very group. People in groups can spur each other to great courage or great evil that would never be possible for the individuals of that group acting alone.

There can be a glory in some crowds: a thing I’ve experienced in certain religious settings. But there can be a madness in mobs: a thing I’ve experienced at public protests. Emotion can be contagious. The joy that ripples through a group in the presence of the Holy Spirit is in stark contrast to the panic, fear, and hatred that can beset certain mobs, and a government is just a polite mob with a corner office.

A government is not its elected officials. A government is its career bureaucrats. Democrats, Republics: their power waxes and wanes. But the man in the corner office staring a computer screen capable of almost limitless data-mining powers is there to stay. With over two million employees, the government is so vast and given so much power that no amount of policy can really rein it in.

It’s fortuitous that the spying scandal follows the IRS scandal. President Obama warns us that if we can’t trust government, “we’re going to have a problem” … right on the heels of an incident proving why government can’t be trusted. The lack of self-awareness in such a statement is alarming.

The tax scandal is about government officials making their ideological opponents jump through hoops by demanding they provide vastly more personal information than was necessary or reasonable, up to and including the very words of their prayers.

The spying scandal is about eliminating the IRS middleman and just grabbing the data at will.

Is PRISM scary tech? Yes, moreso if you didn’t suspect such a thing one day would be possible. People working in the tech field usually are a bit skeptical about giant techno-spying scenarios like that found in The Dark Knight or Person of Interest. The modern data stream is gigantic. It’s hard to even wrap your mind around the sheer volume of information being pushed through wires and air, and the amount of storage and processing power it would take to tame that data stream into something usable.

And then I got a look at the Utah Data Center, and something went flop in the pit of my stomach. It looks like this:

It’s part of a unimaginably large network of data farms capable of sifting data on the scale of yottabytes, occupying over a million square feet (including 100,000 square feet just for computers), requiring 65 megawats of power and consuming 1.5 million gallons of water daily just to cool it.

What’s a yottabyte? As Wiki explains it, if you used terabyte drives, the data center required would occupy all of Delaware and Rhode Island. It’s one septillion bytes: 1 trillion terabytes.

A 1 TB drive: it would take a trillion of them to approach the storage potential of the NSA data-mining program.

I once tried to imagine the kind of monster facility capable of processing the modern data stream and really couldn’t. The power, the cooling, the space demands all seemed so huge and expensive to my tiny brain, not to mention the software required to manage it. It seemed at least a far-off thing.

Yet here it is. Somewhere in the former East Germany, a retired Stasi operative is sighing wistfully at the thought of this kind of power on tap, instantly, at the push of a keystroke.

Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL, Skype, and YouTube are all part of the system. Dropbox is coming. Twitter, allegedly, refused to cooperate.

What kind of data does it crunch? This kind:

There has been “continued exponential growth in tasking to Facebook and Skype,” according to the PRISM slides. With a few clicks and an affirmation that the subject is believed to be engaged in terrorism, espionage or nuclear proliferation, an analyst obtains full access to Facebook’s “extensive search and surveillance capabilities against the variety of online social networking services.”

According to a separate “User’s Guide for PRISM Skype Collection,” that service can be monitored for audio when one end of the call is a conventional telephone and for any combination of “audio, video, chat, and file transfers” when Skype users connect by computer alone. Google’s offerings include Gmail, voice and video chat, Google Drive files, photo libraries, and live surveillance of search terms.

Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.

In his press conference, the President kept asserting “no one is listening in on your phone calls,” which no one had claimed. It’s the metadata–Congressman Smith made a 15-minute phone call to 1-900-HOT-BABE, Joe Johnson likes only calls his mom fortnightly, person A knows persons G, K, and T–that’s the problem in the Verizon spying case. PRISM, however, is fully capable of monitoring audio and internet video, emails, files, photos, and anything else they care to.

We’re being told that the system already prevented a subway bombing attempt, which may help focus the question but does not eliminate it.

It seems clear now that the win for Al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11 was not the deaths on the day or sucking us into a long, costly, and pointless series of wars, but in destroying our economy, our peace of mind, and our way of life. Everything from how we look at our neighbors to how we fly was affected. It was thus the worst American military defeat in our history.

They didn’t destroy us: they made us destroy ourselves.

The Marathon bombing was tragic, horrific, and heartbreaking for the families, the victims, and the country. But the military-style shutdown of Boston and the subsequent revelation that we’re all suspects in a vast surveillance apprentice is even more disturbing. People–even civilians–lose their lives in any country that tries to preserve its freedom. When people lose their lives and the nation becomes less free, that’s simply a waste.

The debate now is clear: there are costs to living in modern society. Which ones are we willing to pay? The costs of privacy and freedom from surveillance and suspicion? Or the possibility that a less zealous surveillance state would miss the next 9/11 and Marathon bombing?

Before you decide, consider this: it already missed both. PRISM was fully functional during the Marathon bombing. The perpetrators were all over the internet and cell phones, and the NSA, FBI, and everyone else missed them.

What was the lesson for the security state? Was it: “We need to go even further to prevent another such incident?” Or was it: “This doesn’t work, and the price is too high. Pull the plug.”

I imagine it wasn’t the second option.

Which brings us back to trust. Our president thinks we should “trust” some vague, abstract idea called “government,” as though saying “government” is the same as saying, “my friend Ted.” Government is not a person. Government is many people: some good, some bad, all of them working in structures and institutions prone to their own kind of hive mind and groupthink.

Government is also two other things: large and powerful. It’s ability to reach out and swat you down is frankly terrifying.

Anything–government or business–can become large enough to be a threat to liberty. Actual conservatives and actual liberals understand this basic rule: Bigness is bad.

True liberals and conservatives are of like minds on the subject of PRISM: it’s scary and wrong. Only those in the mushy middle–those in the Ruling Class–are defending it. Lindsey Graham and Barack Obama are twin sons of different mothers. They defend it because it’s a tool of power, and they’re intoxicated with power. Democrat, Republican: it makes no difference: the Ruling Class knows no limits.

Trust is a two-way street. The Ruling Class can’t treat us like a nation of suspects and lie to us (as the President, James Clapper, and many others have lied in recent months) and expect us to trust them with our data.

Perhaps you don’t care about your data. What is it, really? Family pictures, which you share online anyway? Innocuous phone calls to friends? Funny emails? Maybe you don’t think you have anything to hide.

Consider, however:

Someone comes up to your house, opens your mailbox, and reads your letters. They enter your home to riffle through your photo albums. They open your files to look at your credit card and bank statements. They take your diary out of your desk and read through it. They keep track of the movies you watch, the people you talk to, and the places you go.

People are getting used to sharing some of this information online through social media. It’s dulled us to the reality of privacy and the real meaning of data. In Person of Interest, Finch and Reese have this priceless exchange:

Finch: Hester’s living off the grid–no photos online and nothing on the social networking sites.
Reese: I never understood why people put all their information on those sites. Used to make our job a lot easier at the CIA.
Finch: Of course. That’s why I created them.
Reese: You’re telling me you invented online social networking, Finch?
Finch: The Machine needed more information. People’s social graph, their associations. The government had been trying to figure it out for years. Turns out most people were happy to volunteer it. Business wound up being quite profitable, too.

Indeed, we are happy to volunteer this information, but we want to be in control of it, or at least have an illusion of control. (Facebook’s use of our data, and our willingness to volunteer it, is a whole other ethical subject for another day.) When a massive facility of as-yet-unknown power and potential starts sifting that data looking for patterns–patterns of spending, patterns of communication, patterns of travel, patterns of thought–we rightly withdraw.

Let’s not forget what started this whole mess: conservative groups were targeted by the government for persecution because of their ideology. This was an inconceivable violation by an entity that frightens most people, and it was not the work of a few “rogue” agents but an effort coordinated from Washington. Now we find that the government has an even more powerful tool capable of, in the words of Nixon, “screwing” its enemies. And we’re supposed to count on them not to use it. Go ahead, pull the other one.

And let’s also not forget that pro-life activists and conservatives were identified early on by this administration as a threat to national security. Because that’s the way you think when you identify those who disagree with you as “enemies” and urge your followers to “punish” them.

There were only 20 people on Nixon’s enemies list. Every conservative, every pro-lifer, every person who opposes his reckless policies and wars and invasions of privacy is on Obama’s, yet he asks us to “trust” him with limitless access to our private data with no transparency and no exemptions.

That’s not trust. That’s servitude, and Americans are right to reject it and the man who suggests it.

UPDATE: The Anchoress makes a very good point about this all being theatre. I’m not sure I give the president credit for that level of scheming or intelligence  (The claim that he was the “smartest president ever” is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard: you don’t have to go back further than Clinton to find a smarter president, not to mention TR, Lincoln, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, etc.) But I’ve thought all along that it provided an excellent distraction from the real problems with Benghazi and the IRS and the James Rosen case. After all, PRISM is a Bush-era program, and although Obama now owns it, he could have one of those vaunted “public dialogs” and then make a show of reining in PRISM with the magical powers of legislation and policy.

She and Althouse, however, make a powerful case for all this–the leaks, Snowden, etc–being planned as a distraction, which means Greenwald got conned (into playing a part he’s been preparing to play for years) and Snowden is a fraud.

I’m a little skeptical about it all being planned, but it’s obvious that Obama has benefited from the PRISM revelation, and thus it’s natural to wonder if he intended it that way.

And it doesn’t change the facts about PRISM and its potential for havoc.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Kevin Cummings

    This Onion video was strangely prescient…

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=cqggW08BWO0

  • anon

    I don’t really understand how Obama benefits from PRISM.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    As I said: it provided an excellent distraction from the real problems with Benghazi and the IRS and the James Rosen case. After all, PRISM is a Bush-era program, and although Obama now owns it, he could have one of those vaunted “public dialogs” and then make a show of reining in PRISM with the magical powers of legislation and policy.

  • Gary Chapin

    I am well established as a Greenwald follower — he is easily in Hentoff’s league — so, if he was being conned, then he’s been conned for years. I’m not convinced. When has this kind of double-back-distract-them-by-letting-them-think-I’m-the-Stasi plan ever worked?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    I wouldn’t put him in Hentoff’s league as either a writer or a truth teller (Glenn is well-known for having used sock puppets early in his blogging career), though his position as the public face of The Last Honest Liberal is refreshing. The fact that I can consider the NSA leak as some kind of double-bluff out of a LeCarre novel shows how awful and paranoid they’ve made us, and in way Bush never came close to.

    I don’t think it’s a head-fake (as in Snowden was an NSA plant) but I think Obama is a master at making the most of bad situations. Chaos is his home turf. That’s Alinsky 101. It’s not a stretch to imagine that someone who thrives in chaos would engineer that chaos.

    We’ve become something unrecognizable. 9/11, Bush, and PATRIOT started it, but Obama made is so, so much worse.

  • Gary Chapin

    The fact that I agree with you about most of this is also evidence of how far down the rabbit hole we’ve gone. But I DO hold Greenwald in higher estimation than you … I’m a huge Hentoff fan. I’ve read tons of his stuff and even have Kindle editions of his great jazz writings … I can forgive early career failings.

  • JasonMankey

    Writing things like “There were only 20 people on Nixon’s enemies list. Every conservative, every pro-lifer, every person who opposes his reckless policies and wars and invasions of privacy is on Obama’s . . .” just makes you look like a right-wing hack. That’s a ridiculous comment and isn’t backed up by any sort of real fact or insight. You don’t like Obama, that’s fine, but a comment like that basically paints you as someone who wears tinfoil on their head while sleeping.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Pay attention: this will be on the test: http://www.lifenews.com/2009/05/05/nat-5019/


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