Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Congress Moves against NSA Spying

Ars Technica reports that an amendment to the FY 2008 Intelligence Authorization Act “upholds the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Backed (FISA) as the only means by which to do electronic surveillance—and … requires continuous judicial oversight of requests.”

Divided government is a real boon.

Google on Anonymizing Server Logs

Here’s Google’s Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer discussing in more detail Google’s recent laudable decision to anonymize its server logs after 18-24 months. The discussion helps illustrate the diverse interests that must be balanced in choosing how long to maintain information.

It’s often easy to disregard the value that deep wells of raw information have for information-based business. Fleischer explains some of how Google makes use of data to improve its services and protect users. These consumer-beneficial activities must be balanced against the background demand for privacy protection.

Of particular note, of course, is his discussion of the emerging government demands for data retention (some of which conflict with government demands for data destruction). Data retention mandates are outsourced government surveillance, neatly shifting the cost of surveillance to the private sector while avoiding limits on government action like the Fourth Amendment and Privacy Act (in the case of the U.S.). Too put a fine point on it, data retention is bad.

This explication of Google’s thinking is a welcome contribution to public understanding. I did get a little chirping on my B.S. detector where Fleischer says he had talked to privacy activists in developing their plans. I’d like to know which ones. It’s a small enough community that I figure I would have known about it (I say at the risk of sounding self-important).

I’ve been aware in the past of government agencies deluding themselves about taking privacy into consideration because they’ve heard from government contractors selling “privacy enhancing technologies” like immutable audit logs and such. As often as not, this stuff is lipstick on a pig - seeking to make bad surveillance programs acceptable by tacking on complex, fallible privacy protections.

I’m sure Google has done better than that in its consultations with privacy experts. At least, I hope I’m sure.

A Seam Opens …

An oft-repeated scene in the Washington, D.C. kabuki dance recently began with the release of former CIA director George Tenet’s memoir At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA.

I don’t find it particularly interesting to watch a mighty ego defend his honor — mighty egos in the U.S. government are as common as pigeons in the park. (It has to be that way, doesn’t it? Only an inflated ego thinks it can run a government as overlarge as ours.) But I’m pleased by the healthy airing of differences the book has spawned.

This morning in the Washington Post, Richard Perle takes after Tenet about factual inaccuracies in the book. (Puffing pigeons.) The rift starts to reveal some important, but long overlooked, information.

Perle writes, “the CIA failed to make our leaders aware of the rise of Islamist extremism and the immense danger it posed to the United States.” An example I would offer is the presence of Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar inside the United States — terrorists linked to the USS Cole bombing. Of al-Mihdar, the 9/11 Commission reported, “No one was looking for him.” The story is recounted in brief in my Cato Policy Analysis (with Jeff Jonas) Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining.

A conclusion of that paper: “In the days and months before 9/11, new laws and technologies like predictive data mining were not necessary to connect the dots. What was needed to reveal the remaining 9/11 conspirators was better communication, collaboration, a heightened focus on the two known terrorists, and traditional investigative processes.”

As U.S. government officials turn against each other, they help reveal that their agreement to turn against us — in the USA-PATRIOT Act, domestic spying, and myriad other laws and programs — was a salve for those wounded egos. They didn’t want to admit that they outright missed the 9/11 attacks.

Structured Analysis at the WH Privacy Board

The White House’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board recently came out with its annual report, which details its organization, operations, and recent work.

I was pleased to see that it has adopted a structured approach to analyzing privacy and related issues (see pages 24-25). Its approach is quite similar to the one adopted in the Framework document created by the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee. (Well, I’ll put a finer point on it: the Privacy Board report acknowledges and thanks me and the committee. It’s very nice to be singled out, of course, but the Framework document was the product of many minds, eyes, and hands from the DHS Privacy Committee.)

This doesn’t mean the White House Privacy Board has gotten everything right, of course. I have no doubt that they could have done better. But it is very important progress to see a group like this committing to an organized, structured thought process. Doing so facilitates the discussions that lead to improved, better understood, and more widely agreeable outcomes.

WAMU Wags Its Finger, Part I

I listen to National Public Radio in the morning.  The frequent left-wing bias can be grating, but that’s nothing compared to the inaccuracies and condescension of those annoying NPR membership drives.

My local NPR station is WAMU, which broadcasts from American University in Washington, DC.  WAMU is holding one of their membership drives this week. In the past, I’ve heard NPR and WAMU personalities lecture listeners that we are “free riders” unless we cut them a check.  The only problem with that argument is that WAMU receives about 7 percent of its revenue from the federal government, which means that every WAMU listener already contributes to the station – albeit involuntarily.  Calling any of WAMU’s listeners “free riders,” therefore, is the sort of inaccuracy of which a journalist should be ashamed.

This came to mind at about 8am today when I heard a WAMU reporter reprove, “It is important for you to become a participatory member.” As if I weren’t already.

I value WAMU.  It’s just so darned informative.  But I’ve decided that I’m not writing them any checks until they forswear all involuntary contributions or Congress weans them off of the same

Until then, I’ll try to blog every inaccurate or condescending ploy that I hear WAMU use to belittle my existing contributions.  I encourage my NPR-listening colleagues to do the same.  If we blog enough of them, maybe we can wrap them up and send them to WAMU as a very special contribution. 

Though I wouldn’t count on getting the tote bag.

DHS Privacy Committee Declines to Endorse REAL ID

The Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee is filing comments on the REAL ID regulations. Comments close today (Tuesday). Instructions for commenting can be found here, and apparently, due to difficulties with the automatic comment system and with receiving faxes, DHS has opened an email address for receiving comments: oscomments [at] dhs [dot] gov (subject: DHS-2006-0030) . Emails must have “DHS-2006-0030” in the subject line.

The Committee took care to offer constructive ideas, but the most important takeaway is summarized by Ryan Singel at Threat Level:

The Department of Homeland Security’s outside privacy advisors explicitly refused to bless proposed federal rules to standardize states’ driver’s licenses Monday, saying the Department’s proposed rules for standardized driver’s licenses – known as Real IDs – do not adequately address concerns about privacy, price, information security, redress, “mission creep”, and national security protections.”Given that these issues have not received adequate consideration, the Committee feels it is important that the following comments do not constitute an endorsement of REAL ID or the regulations as workable or appropriate,” the committee wrote in the introduction to their comments for the rulemaking record.

I’ll be testifying on REAL ID today before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Bush Says He’ll Veto Hate Crimes Bill

I have an article over at NRO that critiques the hate crimes legislation pending in the Congress.  Interestingly, Bush took a strong stand against hate crimes legislation when he was the governor of Texas.  He refused to sign the James Byrd Hate Crimes Act, saying “all crimes are hate crimes.”

Just this morning, the White House has announced its intention to veto the hate crimes measure.  This is a most welcome development as the bill is an affront to the constitutional principle of federalism.