Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Is My Privacy or Security Your Business?

Some readers will recognize this opening as something I wrote in a comment thread a few days ago...
Perhaps I should be upset, but I came to terms with government intrusions and privacy concerns a long time ago. The current flap is a replay of an old issue that won't be gone even if we want it to go away. In the same way that we can't "unsee" what we witnessed, neither can we put the surveillance genie back into the bottle.  
I've been a long-time advocate of a national ID card, for example, which presumes a complete database of everybody which, if done properly, would include dates of death when we die as well as our birthday -- which puzzled together with the Medicare and Social Security records, passports and visas, already makes for a lot of Big Brother issues.
Just a few hours ago I finished a long blogpost tracking the present data mining story back into the previous administration. It's a tedious mess, but here's the link if anyone cares to look it over.  
Government Surveillance and Data Mining Reading List
There's an old saying that three can keep a secret if two are dead. That's how I run my life for the most part. All that I write or say I do so with the sometimes uncomfortable acceptance that it may one day be public. I throw myself on the charitable forgiveness of others when I mess up, and hope that when the rubber hits the road the government is really all of us.

I say let 'em snoop. My life has been an open book for the most part. The closer "they" look the less I have to worry about. I'm the least threatening person I know. Ask anyone who knows me. I realize that's not a popular position to take, but there is something curious about how casually we allow banks, insurance companies, employers, credit card companies to access every detail of our lives (not to mention how many times we sign those forms with tons of mouseprint no one ever reads) and yet we get our paneezinawad over government snooping. And how about the ubiquitous cell phone and gps infrastructures we take for granted pretending no one knows where we are?
I have enough bandwagons already. I'm letting this one pass.
Nevertheless, I have not been able to "let this one pass."  And a variety of sources seem to share my ambiguity. 

Edward Snowden's interview less than forty-eight hours ago triggered a long-overdue national conversation about the meanings of privacy and security in the information age. So far the messenger is getting more attention than the message and L'affaire Snowden is still something of a Rorschach test, with defenders of the status quo working to cast him as a criminal while others for a variety of reasons see him as a hero. Opinion polls indicate that over half the population is no longer worried about personal data collection, and the partisan differences from the time the Patriot Act and its tentacles were crafted to now has shifted. The Left/Right tension is being displaced by something else.

It's not clear yet how the political configuration will play out. I've heard questioons posed several ways. Is Snowden

  • Whistleblower or criminal?
  • Hero or traitor?
  • Brave or naive?
  • Or is he just a narcissist looking for attention?
But the spotlight on Snowder, the messenger, is a distraction from the substance of the message he brought.  Actually, he didn't spill any beans yet, which is part of the reason he's still the main attraction. There is a vague uneasiness on the part of many that he may reveal another avalanche of classified information a la Julian Assange or Bradley Manning.  So there's that. 

But until that pot comes  to a boil I have been reflecting on another angle of the story that is just getting attention, the fact that this is NOT altogether about government collecting, storing and analyzing metadata. It's a government operation, of course, but unlike third party private companies that service the government in a multitude of ways -- private contractors doing everything from janitorial services to making military equipment -- in the case of this so-called metadata and all it might yield about literally every person in the country, it appears that most of it is being outsourced to private companies. 

When I was a GI in Korea years ago I was surprised to discover Korean civilians performing all kinds of work that my peers and I had previously done ourselves stateside. We had Korean houseboys and cooks. Civilian barbers and janitors on base took care of everything from cutting the grass to building maintenance. There were even civilian guards securing the base which I was told was a missile compound. As a twenty-two year old kid I didn't question any of this. We were told it was America's way of helping the local economy. Besides, after doing KP, polishing and cleaning, picking up cigarette butts before, who's complaining when there is a freshly-ironed uniform and polished boots hanging at the bedside every morning when you get up? My family lived in Columbus, Georgia, which like many communities across the country (especially the South) is dependent in large part on Fr. Benning. So I appreciate in a very personal way how important government money is to the private sector and vice-versa.

Having said all that, I have watched my whole life the growth of what Dwight Eisenhower called the military industrial complex. No need to cite the exact quote here. Everyone already knows it. And like most folks who have benefited from the government-private sector relationship I have enjoyed a number of benefits, from the GI bill that helped me finish the last two years of college to living the last forty-plus years in metro Atlanta where Lockheed-Martin has been an economic anchor, successor to Bell Bomber in WWII. 

But the Snowden revelations have made me uncomfortable, not because I'm concerned about my privacy, as I said at the beginning, but because the outsourcing of government has reached a tipping point. And I'm not alone in these misgivings. Just this morning I have come across three links that resonate with the same uncomfortable vibrations. There will be more as the national conversation continues, but these three are a good beginning. 


Booz Allen and the Big Business of Big Government
Tuesday, 11 Jun 2013
By: John Carney, Senior Editor, CNBC.com

The revelations by Edward J. Snowden, the guy who leaked the existence of Prism and other government monitoring operations to The Guardian, is drawing attention to another important issue: the vast amount of money private contractors make from selling goods and services to the government.

Snowden was employed by Booz Allen Hamilton for three months, according to the company. Booz Allen, which went public in 2010 and is largely owned by the famously connected Carlyle Group, is ostensibly part of the private sector. But it is hugely dependent on government spending for its profits.\\


As Slate's Matt Yglesias points out, having this kind of wealth transferred from the public to the private sector creates an enormous incentive for rent-seeking lobbying.
An established government bureaucracy has, of course, considerable capacity to lobby on behalf of its own interests. That's particularly true when the bureacracy's (sic) leadership can claim possession of secret information. But it's also constrained in certain respects. The National Security Agency can't bundle campaign contributions, give money to independent expenditure campaigns, or offer nice paydays to former congressional staffers. 
But if you take a few billion dollars worth of intelligence spending and transfer it onto the Booz Allen balance sheet, then political organizing around the cause of higher intelligence spending can avail itself of the tools of private enterprise along with the tools of bureaucratic politics.
One of the problems created by government contracting is that it expands the universe of potential so-called rent-seeking, trying to obtain your share of existing wealth. That is creating additional support for growing the government spending pie. So instead of capitalists lobbying for less regulation and lower taxes, you get capitalists lobbying for more spending and favorable regulation. This is one of the reasons that the growth of government spending is so closely connected with an increasing share of goods and services being provided to the government by outside contractors.

[Lots more at the link, but this part makes my point. It doesn't take much imagination to see the formation of a huge conflict of interest, or what the banking people delicately call a "moral hazard."


By Robert Reich, 
Saturday, June 8, 2013

Conservative Republicans in our nation’s capital have managed to accomplish something they only dreamed of when Tea Partiers streamed into Congress at the start of 2011: They’ve basically shut Congress down. Their refusal to compromise is working just as they hoped: No jobs agenda. No budget. No grand bargain on the deficit. No background checks on guns. Nothing on climate change. No tax reform. No hike in the minimum wage. Nothing so far on immigration reform.

It’s as if an entire branch of the federal government — the branch that’s supposed to deal directly with the nation’s problems, not just execute the law or interpret the law but make the law — has gone out of business, leaving behind only a so-called “sequester” that’s cutting deeper and deeper into education, infrastructure, programs for the nation’s poor, and national defense. 

[This prescient post was published the day before the Snowden interview, setting the stage for the misgivings I now have  Dr. Reich makes the point that federalism is melting like polar icecaps and glaciers, being replace by a retrograde return to extreme states rights.]

The states are diverging sharply on almost every issue you can imagine. If you’re an undocumented young person, you’re eligible for in-state tuition at public universities in fourteen states (including Texas). But you might want to avoid driving in Arizona, where state police are allowed to investigate the immigration status of anyone they suspect is here illegally. 

And if you’re poor and lack health insurance you might want to avoid a state like Wisconsin that’s refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, even though the federal government will be picking up almost the entire tab.

Federalism is as old as the Republic, but not since the real Civil War have we witnessed such a clear divide between the states on central issues affecting Americans.

Some might say this is a good thing. It allows more of us to live under governments and laws we approve of. And it permits experimentation: Better to learn that a policy doesn’t work at the state level, where it’s affected only a fraction of the population, than after it’s harmed the entire nation. As the jurist Louis Brandies once said, our states are “laboratories of democracy.”

But the trend raises three troubling issues.

First, it leads to a race to bottom. Over time, middle-class citizens of states with more generous safety nets and higher taxes on the wealthy will become disproportionately burdened as the wealthy move out and the poor move in, forcing such states to reverse course. If the idea of “one nation” means anything, it stands for us widely sharing the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship.

Second, it doesn’t take account of spillovers — positive as well as negative. Semi-automatic pistols purchased without background checks in one state can easily find their way easily to another state where gun purchases are restricted. By the same token, a young person who receives an excellent public education courtesy of the citizens of one states is likely to move to another state where job opportunity are better. We are interdependent. No single state can easily contain or limit the benefits or problems it creates for other states.

Finally, it can reduce the power of minorities. For more than a century “states rights” has been a euphemism for the efforts of some whites to repress or deny the votes of black Americans. Now that minorities are gaining substantial political strength nationally, devolution of government to the states could play into the hands of modern-day white supremacists.


[This essay by Lawrence Davidson sketches his discovery of a festering and growing phenomenon, right-wing extremists whose interpretation of current events is shaped by radio and TV ideologues.]

How Right-Wing Ideology Has Suckered Millions of Americans into Hating Their Own Government
Pervasive propaganda is doing great harm to one of the few solutions the people have to deal with their problems: government

[Davidson and his wife were on a cruize and] as it turned out, some 270 of the passengers on board were fans of the libertarian right-wing talk show host and Fox TV commentator Neal Boortz. This was Boortz’s retirement celebration cruise, and his most devoted fans were on the Seven Seas Mariner, at their own expense, to help him celebrate.

Until his recent retirement, Neal Boortz (aka The Mouth of the South, aka The Equal Opportunity Offender, aka Mighty Whitey) was the seventh most popular talk show host in the United States. His show was nationally syndicated and averaged 4.25 million listeners per week.


Of all the positions taken by Boortz, the one they are primarily interested in is his tax-reform scheme. I must confess that I have no idea if his tax plan would be better or “fairer” than the present arrangement. However, it should be noted that the U.S. income tax was “allowed” by the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and so to replace it with Boortz’s “Fair Tax” might necessitate a rewording of this amendment. This could be a complicated task.

The fact that almost everyone I encountered in the Boortz group fixated on the issue of taxes tells us something important about conservative Americans: they are generally suspicious of demands that they financially contribute to the upkeep of their own communities (particularly in the area of social programs).

This might sound odd, but it is an attitude rooted in history. The U.S. revolution was not made over issues of oppression and deprivation. It was made over the issue of the British Parliament’s right to impose relatively moderate taxes on their American colonial subjects. Ever since that time there has been a conservative portion of the U.S. public which sees any taxes beyond those needed for very basic services as illegitimate.

Indeed, they see such taxes as a form of theft. Just ask John Boehner, the Republican Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. Refusing to negotiate a reasonable budget with President Barack Obama, Mr. Boehner said that the real issue is “how much more money do we want to steal from the American people to fund more government.”


Ours is an age of “infotainment,” and the more entertaining media personalities, politicians and even government officials are, the more their “info” is received favorably. Just think of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show on the liberal side of the spectrum.

Conservative America is out there in many forms. Some are organized around religion, some around various forms of xenophobia, and some around the fear of government, its taxes and regulations. They are mostly white, mostly middle class, and don’t be at all surprised if you run into them on your next vacation.


A delightful Twitter message said "The only difference between a Libertarian and and Anarchist is that the Anarchist listens to better music."  As the last Republican primary and the following of Neal Boortz indicates Libertarian politics has great popular appeal. And there is something anarchic about a trend of public opinion that seems unaware, like the proverbial frog in water coming to a boil, that an incestuous, symbiotic relationship between government and many parts of the private sector has resulted in a bubble economy.

In addition to the military industrial complex, we now have complex government-fed portions in a semi-private sector which include education, prisons, housing, drugs, retirement plans and, of course, banking. Those parts of the economy are large and growing. To those other sectors we can add a fear-industrial complex which, in the words of Edward Snowden, can lead to turn-key tyranny. 

I'm not worried about government abusing or misusing information about me that I consider private. There are Constitutional remedies for that type of abuse. But large private sector entities throwing tons of money into the political arena make me very uncomfortable. And that is my greatest concern in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden affair.

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