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The Surveillance State: June 2013

Last week news broke, via a conscientious objector, that the US government is culling metadata bout phone calls in the use en masse. On the heels of this another story broke that the government had back-doors into the servers of several big-name tech entities: Google, Facebook, et al. This was later revealed to be less of a back door and more of a web tool for gathering court-mandated data from said entities.

A week later I have to ask: Why the outrage?

As I see it there are two issues:

  1. Metadata harvesting via Verizon
  2. PRISM as a tool for accessing big providers' data sources

Let me address them in reverse.


If I were a big corporation, embracing 2 seems like a practicality. I’ve built tons of enterprise tools and any time you do a repeated task that requires trolling huge data stores, you build a tool. That the government federated the interfaces into something called “Prism,” uh, great, so what? It seemed like (and had slides worthy of) bad marketing slop.

Provided that these requests have a warrant behind them (as they seem to have), what’s the complaint? It’s just businesses streamlining a non-revenue yielding activity. In 2007 I recall being quite upset that some data were being gathered without warrant. The administration conceded the point and stopped until other law enshrined their position.

I don’t get the outrage there. Am I missing something in this?


The question is: “Does gathering metadata require a warrant?”

The rage for this one, in my opinion, has some legs.

Comparably, what if King George III had had the ability to track who was going to which ale houses in Boston Towne? Had the ability to see what was happening in the pubs of Concord and Lexington minutes after they happened? The British government of the 18th century might have foreseen civil unrest. Should the right of the people to assemble freely without being monitored be infringed? You and I both know that metadata could be used to notice who got a call from a blood lab, who called their loved ones after; who called a phone sex line, etc.

Take a lot at this study that Zeit Online found that demonstrates what metadata reveal.

Let us suppose, for a moment, that the administration of Obama is a high water mark for angelic good behavior and morality. Would I want this power and this surveillance infrastructure to come into anyone else’s hands? No. Remove my imaginary strictures, would I then want it in his administration’s hands? No.

For me this seems to be the concerning admission. I’m not sure what the right path out is: it seems that the law (based on mail transmission) is not sufficiently ready for the legal conundrums around mass surveillance that the digital age offers. I would like to see a vigorous debate around a theory of law about what to do here.

What I find upsetting is that the media is focusing on PRISM while the real problem is what to do when you can watch a population. If such a tool existed in Turkey or Egypt, can you imagine the power the authoritarian forces would possess? Can you imagine to what lengths they would go to preserve that power.

But again, this is troubling this is I want a legal theory behind this, I want to understand what it is you’re doing and why. Google does the same but I know the data are anonymized and while I’m not comfortable with it, I’m willing to trade some of my privacy for convenience and resources (for the moment).

In short: Why the rage? Let’s demand answers and not let the circus of rage’s entertainment value provide an escape hatch for those who would be held to account.