Tag: surveillance

Public More Wary of NSA Surveillance Than Pundits Claim

Based on a bevy of polls conducted in the wake of revelations that the NSA surveiled millions of ordinary Americans’ private communications, many have prematurely concluded public support or opposition to the government surveillance program (for instance here, here, and here). These polls are insufficient gauges for what Americans actually think for several reasons. First, slight wording differences result in majority support or opposition of the program as described in each particular survey question, as I’ve written about here. Second, the full extent of these government programs is not yet fully known; fully 76 percent of Americans think that we’ll find out the programs are “even bigger and more widespread than we know even now.” Third, most Americans are not even fully aware of the revealed information and its implications—according to a Time poll only 24 percent of Americans say they’ve been closely following the reports of the large-scale government surveillance program called PRISM.

The public’s view of the information leak and revelations about these programs is complicated, as Americans strike a delicate balance between security and privacy. For instance, a Time poll found that 53 percent of Americans think the “government should prosecute government officials and others who leak classified materials that might damage security efforts,” but 54 percent thought that Edward Snowden, the person who leaked the information about the secret program, “did a good thing in informing the American public.” This is likely because only 30 percent, according to a CBS/New York Times poll, think these leaks will weaken U.S. security.

Examining the different poll wordings can still offer value, demonstrating how people’s opinions change when they learn different details of the program. For instance, the public distinguishes between tracking ordinary Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing and collecting records of those suspected of terrorist activity. Pew/Washington Post found 56 percent thought it was acceptable for the NSA to get “secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.” However, a CBS/NYTimes poll distinguished between tracking phone records of ordinary Americans and those suspected of terrorist activity. In contrast to Pew, CBS/NYtimes found 58 percent disapprove of “federal government agencies collecting phone records of ordinary Americans” but 75 percent approve of tracking “phone records of Americans that the government suspects of terrorist activity.” Americans continue to reveal their preference for targeted surveillance when 73 percent told a Rasmussen poll that the “government should be required to show a judge the reason for needing to monitor calls of any specific Americans” and 64 percent said “it is better to collect phone records only of people suspected of having terrorist connections.”

Survey data also suggests Americans distinguish between government tracking phone records and government monitoring the content of online activities. Although polls have found public support for tracking phone records to investigate terrorism, most Americans draw the line at government monitoring the content of Internet activity, such as emails and chats. For instance, Pew found 52 percent think the government should not be able to “monitor everyone’s email and other online activities.” Likewise, when Gallup describing the government program as collecting phone records and Internet communications, 53 percent disapproved.

Surveys that assume away potential misuses and abuses of the data not surprisingly find greater support for government surveillance programs. For instance, A CNN/ORC poll, found 66 percent thought the Obama administration was “right” in gathering and analyzing data on Internet activities “involving people in other countries,” while assuring respondents that the “government reportedly does not target Internet usage by US citizens and if such data is collected it is kept under strict controls.” The validity of this later assertion, however, is actually at the crux of the debate for those critical of the surveillance program. In fact, according to the same CNN poll, nearly two-thirds believe the US government has collected and stored data about their personal phone and Internet activities. Moreover, Rasmussen found that 57 percent thought it was likely that government agencies would use the data collected to “harass political opponents.” The fact that the public’s reported support for the program jumps when survey-wording guarantees the collected data will not be abused suggests that part of the reason the public is wary of the program is the very potential for abuse. The public does not desire privacy for just privacy’s sake, rather the public fears loss of privacy because of the potential for misuse or abuse. Questions that assume away this possibility are entirely unenlightening.

In sum, these data suggest the public is wary of untargeted government surveillance of ordinary Americans, especially without a warrant. They are more tolerant of government tracking phone records; however, many draw the line at government monitoring the content of ordinary Americans’ Internet activity.

A version of this post also appeared on Reason.com

In Its Bubble of Secrecy, the National Security Bureaucracy Redefined Privacy for Its Own Purposes

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) is nothing if not a security hawk, and this weekend he decried the NSA’s collection of all Americans’ phone calling records in a Guardian post entitled, “This Abuse of the Patriot Act Must End.” On Thursday last week, he sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder demanding answers by Wednesday.

It also became apparent over the weekend that the National Security Agency’s program to collect records of every phone call made in the United States is not for the purpose of data mining. (A Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “Thank You for Data Mining” was not only wrong on the merits, but also misplaced.) Rather, the program seizes data about all of our telephone communications and stores that data so it can aid investigations of any American who comes under suspicion in the future.

Details of this program will continue to emerge–and perhaps new shocks. The self-disclosed leaker–currently holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room waiting to learn his fate–is fascinating to watch as he explains his thinking.

The court order requiring Verizon to turn over records of every call “on an ongoing daily basis” is a general warrant.

The Framers adopted the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in order to bar general warrants. The Fourth Amendment requires warrants 1) to be based upon probable cause and 2) to particularly describe the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized. The leaked warrant has neither of these qualities.

A warrant like this would never be adopted in an open court system. With arguments and decisions available to the public and appeals going to public courts, common sense and simple shame would foreclose suspicionless data-gathering about every American for the benefit of future potential investigations. 

Alas, many people don’t believe all that deeply in the Constitution and the rule of law when facile promises of national security are on offer. It is thus worthwhile to discuss whether this is unconstitutional law enforcement and security practice would work. President Obama said last week, “I welcome this debate and I think it’s healthy for our democracy.”

What Is the Value of Bitcoin?

With Bitcoin enjoying a spike in price against government currencies, there is lots of talk about it on the Interwebs. If you’re not familiar with it yet, here’s a good Bitcoin primer, which also counsels reading a lot more before you acquire Bitcoin, as Bitcoin may fail. If you like Bitcoin and want to buy some, don’t go all goofy. Do your homework. As if you need to be told, be careful with your money.

Much of the commentary declares a Bitcoin bubble for one reason or another. It might be a bubble, but nobody actually knows. A way of guessing is to compare Bitcoin’s qualities as a currency and payment network to the alternatives. Like any service or good, there are many dimensions to value storage and transfer.

I may not capture them all, and they certainly don’t predict the correct price against the dollar or other currencies. That depends on the ultimate viscosity of Bitcoin. But Bitcoin certainly has value of a different kind: it may discipline fiat currencies and the states that control them.

Government Surveillance of Travel IT Systems

If you haven’t seen Edward Hasbrouck’s talk on government surveillance of travel IT systems, you should.

It’s startling to learn just how much access people other than your airline have to your air travel plans.

Here’s just one image that Hasbrouck put together to illustrate what the system looks like.

He’ll be presenting his travel surveillance talk here at Cato at noon on April 2nd. We’ll also be discussing the new public notice on airport strip-search machines issued by the TSA earlier this week.

Register now for Travel Surveillance, Traveler Intrusion.

Comment on TSA Strip-Search Machine Policy—And Attend Our Event April 2nd

You can now comment on the TSA’s proposed rule regarding its use of strip-search machines on American travelers at our nation’s airports.

Under a July 2011 court order requiring it to do so, the TSA finally proposed the rule that explains its airport procedures with respect to strip-search machines. You can now know your rights and obligations in that process, how to opt-out of the strip-search machines, and where to register complaints if you feel you’ve been treated badly.

Just kidding!

This is the two-sentence statement it proposed to add to existing language about passenger screening:

(d) The screening and inspection described in (a) may include the use of advanced imaging technology. For purposes of this section, advanced imaging technology is defined as screening technology used to detect concealed anomalies without requiring physical contact with the individual being screened.

It took 20 months to produce these two sentences, which allow the TSA to do whatever it wants. My initial thoughts were to find TSA contemptuous of the court’s order and wronly using secrecy to hide the analysis of its policies.

We’ll be discussing the proposal at a Cato policy forum next Tuesday, April 2nd, called “Travel Surveillance, Traveler Intrusion,” starting at noon Eastern. Like most Cato events, it will be live-streamed.

The event is a two-fer. Not only will we hear from Ginger McCall of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the organization that brought the suit that finally produced this rulemaking. We’ll also hear from Ed Hasbrouck, whose research reveals just how intensively the U.S. government monitors the air travel of every American.

Feel free to move about the country? Just wait until you learn how your movements are tracked—before and after you get your digital strip-search or prison-style pat-down.

Register now!

Called it! Eleven Years Ago

What is this blog for, if not to let Cato scholars call out what smarty-pantses they are?

The Wall Street Journal reports on automobile license plates as the “new tracking frontier.”

For more than two years, the police in San Leandro, Calif., photographed Mike Katz-Lacabe’s Toyota Tercel almost weekly. They have shots of it cruising along Estudillo Avenue near the library, parked at his friend’s house and near a coffee shop he likes. In one case, they snapped a photo of him and his two daughters getting out of a car in his driveway. Mr. Katz-Lacabe isn’t charged with, or suspected of, any crime. Local police are tracking his vehicle automatically, using cameras mounted on a patrol car that record every nearby vehicle—license plate, time and location.

I didn’t have every detail, of course, but 11 years ago I noted the coming problem of license-plate tracking in testimony to a House Transportation subcommittee.

It was a little odd at the time, and still is, to talk about the privacy problem with license plates. But the emerging technology environment makes it essential to analyze and assess more carefully the information and identification demands that the government places on us.

[T]he requirement in all fifty states that cars must exhibit license plates linked to their owners is “anti-privacy” law, as would be a law requiring people to wear name tags in order to walk on public sidewalks. Mandatory license plates prevent citizens from exhibiting the expectation of privacy that Justice Harlan wrote about in Katz. Roughly speaking, they require people to expose their identities to police as a condition of driving on our roadways.

I expanded on “anti-privacy” law in my 2004 Cato Policy Analysis, “Understanding Privacy—and the Real Threats To It.”

We’re still grappling with the problem of privacy “in public.” The Supreme Court’s decision on GPS tracking in the Jones case is the most significant recent iteration of that. (Cato brief and related blog post; pre-decision posts: 1, 2, 3; post-decision posts: 4, 5, 6.) The latest Cato Supreme Court Review (also available digitally) includes an article of mine on the case. My latest thinking on Fourth Amendment privacy can by found in Cato’s brief in Florida v. Jardines.

It is possible to think systematically about privacy. Privacy is not just a morass of feelings about advancing technologies. Once one understands privacy (in its strongest sense) as the exercise of power to control information about oneself, one can see a decade ahead that license plates create privacy problems.

Pretty smart, huh? Yeah.

What 9/11 Should Teach Us

As a fan of comedian Dennis Miller, I was astonished to discover that he became a supporter of U.S. government policies in fighting terrorism after the September 11th attacks. Perhaps I am in the minority on this issue, but the 9/11 attacks were what helped to erode my faith in government.

Few people bring this up, but in 2004, a CIA Inspector General report found a number of weaknesses in the Intelligence Community’s pre-9/11 counterterrorism practices, many of which “contributed to performance lapses related to the handling of materials concerning individuals who were to become the 9/11 hijackers.” Two al Qaeda terrorists who later became 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, had attended a meeting of suspected terrorists in Malaysia in early 2000. The Inspector General probe uncovered that the CIA had learned that one of the operatives had a U.S. visa, and the other had flown from Bangkok to Los Angeles.

Yet, the Agency failed to forward that relevant information by “entering the names of suspected al-Qa’ida terrorists on the ‘watchlist’ of the Department of State and providing information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in proper channels.” Some 50 to 60 individuals—including Headquarters personnel, overseas officers, managers, and junior employees—had read the cables containing the travel information on al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar.

The report said in a stark assessment, “The consequences of the failures to share information and perform proper operational follow-through on these terrorists were potentially significant.” Indeed. Had the names been passed to the FBI and the State Department through proper channels, the operatives could have been watchlisted and surveilled. In theory, those steps could have yielded information on financing, flight training, and other details vital to unraveling the 9/11 plot.

Corroborating these findings was a Joint Inquiry Report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. It found “persistent problems” with the “lack of collaboration between Intelligence Community agencies.” About the FBI in particular, the report went so far as to say as late as December 2002 that “…the Bureau–-as a law enforcement organization–-is fundamentally incapable, in its present form, of providing Americans with the security they require against foreign terrorist and intelligence threats.” Now that is a ringing endorsement of our government’s ability to protect us.

We often hear that the failure of 9/11 was government-wide. But few observers delve into why it failed, especially on 9/11 anniversaries, when, one would think, such explanations would be most helpful. A number of structural factors impede effective collaboration. For instance, many intelligence agencies operate under different legal authorities. Many of them have distinct customers and cultures, and jealously guard their turf, budgets, sources, and methods. Individuals within various agencies also share information by relying on trust and personal relationships.

Yet, dispersed knowledge made it so that there was no single person or “silver bullet” that could have enabled intelligence agencies to prevent the 9/11 attacks. As the CIA Inspector General report made clear, neither the U.S. government nor the Intelligence Community had a comprehensive strategic plan to guide counterterrorism efforts. Amid the pre-9/11 flurry of warnings, intelligence cables, and briefing materials on al Qaeda’s plot to hijack airliners and ram them into our buildings, a significant failure, concluded the 9/11 Commission, was one of imagination.

After 9/11, many Americans were quick to cede yet more power to government. While much has changed in eleven years, with agencies less reluctant to share critical data, a February 2011 Government Accountability Office report noted that the government “does not yet have a fully-functioning Information Sharing Environment,” that is, “an approach that facilitates the sharing of terrorism and homeland security information”:

GAO found that the government had begun to implement some initiatives that improved sharing but did not yet have a comprehensive approach that was guided by an overall plan and measures to help gauge progress and achieve desired results.

Over the decade, while our government focused narrowly on the problem of terrorism, it also embraced ambitious, wasteful, and counterproductive programs and policies that drained us economically and spread our resources thin. After 9/11, excluding the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, American taxpayers have shelled out over $1 trillion dollars for their sprawling counterterrorism-industrial-complex, replete with its thousands of federal, state, and local government organizations and the private companies that work with them.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that our government expanded after an attack that called into question its primary constitutional function: protecting our country. What is more remarkable is that the public continues to accept humiliating pat-downs and invasive full-body scans for airline travel, costly grant programs rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security, and reckless politicians who advocate endless wars against predominately-Muslim states that play directly into al Qaeda’s hands.

Now, many Americans ask: Are we safer? Certainly, but marginal increases in safety have come at an exceptionally high cost, have far exceeded the point of diminished returns, and have encouraged a terrorized public to exalt a government that failed them.