Thursday, January 7, 2016

Why NSA surveillance scares me

Nothing To Hide explains why you should care about surveillance even though you have nothing to hide. But it missed the point that most concerns me.

Surveillance states target people who are disliked by the established political order. Starting with politicians who might inconvenience those in charge of surveillance. This distorts the political system in a way that should scare everyone.

Here are two examples from fairly recent US history:
  1. J. Edgar Hoover maintained control of the FBI and its predecessor from 1924 to 1974 because politicians knew he had the goods on them. So nobody wanted to challenge his authority, no matter what they thought of him.

    For example, he ignored the Mafia until The Apalachin Meeting was discovered by local police and reported nationally by newspapers in 1957. Even then, organized crime was prioritized below his private anti-Civil Rights Movement vendetta.  Even though this put his policies at odds with several Presidents.

    What new Hoover will emerge in the future, and what political agenda will he impose on all of us?
  2. Richard Nixon is one of the most influential Presidents in US history. His accomplishments range from ending the Vietnam war to opening relations with China to creating the EPA. But he is remembered for Watergate. Why?

    The Watergate scandal was about Nixon conducting surveillance against political opponents, then covering up evidence after it was discovered. The Washington Post traced a minor burglary back to Nixon, he was indicted by Congress, and then resigned on August 9 1974 once was clear that The Senate would uphold the indictment. He was re-elected in one of the largest landslides in US history not long before. He was widely hated for a generation after.

    Public opinion and our politicians responded to his case with fear that his actions put us on the path to dictatorship. Memories of Germany and WW II were still fresh, and nobody wanted that to happen here.

    Nixon wouldn't have been caught today. Current NSA infrastructure gives many thousands of analysts access everything that Nixon wanted, with no clues from which they can be detected outside the system. And there is no hope that they would be caught from inside the system, either. Nixon got the active cooperation of the FBI. But let's assume a rogue President didn't manage that, he only subverted one rogue analyst. According to NSA documents, there is a "we trust you'll stop" system to keep analysts from spying in the US. Analysts don't even file a report if they have done it. According to other revelations, pre-Snowden the NSA had no other effective oversight mechanism. The most likely result of an effective oversight mechanism is the possibility of embarrassment for the NSA, so they probably haven't created one since.

    Will our political system get subverted? Has it been already? How would we know?
How do I rank this threat versus the terrorist threats that the system is supposedly protecting me from?

In my lifetime, the total number of Americans killed or injured on US soil by terrorism and related causes is under 5000. (Here is a list of incidents.) There are over 300 million Americans alive and my life is more than half-over, so my future risk of injury or death from a terrorist attack should be under 1/60,000.

Let's analyze the other side conservatively. No government in history has ever survived 3000 years. I doubt that the US government will be an exception. Surveillance sliding into dictatorship is one of the most common ways that democracies fall. So it is reasonable to give us greater than a 1% chance of falling into dictatorship in any random period of 30 years. Such as the rest of my life. I have a habit of speaking my mind in public, just as I'm doing here. Suppose this gives me at least a 10% chance of showing up on some surveillance list. Let's further suppose that being on that list gives me at least a 10% chance of having bad things happen to me once the government falls. I now have greater than a 1/10,000 chance of death or injury in my lifetime from our surveillance state.

Therefore our surveillance state is many times more likely to result in my death or injury than the terrorists which it supposedly protects me from. Both possibilities are unlikely, but surveillance is the much bigger risk.

Stop and think about that. I don't do much wrong. I'm not out to overthrow or hurt anyone. I may not like our politicians, but I bear them little ill will. I believe that the vast majority of people who are part of our security structure have the best of intentions. I believe that most of our NSA and military are truly devoted to protecting people like me. But I still conclude that I am many times more likely to suffer harm from NSA surveillance than I am from Muslim terrorists.

This fact scares me. Maybe you should be scared too.


Bill said...

Nixon is one three presidents that have been impeached. The other two are Andrew Johnson & Bill Clinton.

Ben Tilly said...

You're right, but both of the other two were acquitted. Nixon would not have been acquitted.

Ken said...

Asking a government not to use its fancy gadgets to spy on its citizens is like asking a man not to use his eyes to see.

andrew said...

Nixon was never actually impeached. A House committee had approved articles of impeachment against Nixon, but the full House never voted on them: Nixon resigned before they could do so.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I agree with the author, but observation must be used intelligently. It all depends on what information you need to get. When observation turns into surveillance, I don't like that either. Technologies and applications in our phones themselves collect information, which in my opinion is not good. Engineering students need to learn a lot to master their specialties. When they need help in studying they get help here.

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