May 18, 2014

Snowden, Libertarians, spying, TURN and grey areas

Recently, I blogged about the AMC series TURN, which is a TV series about America's first spy ring. Before even the Constitution was born, but after the Declaration of Independence, America had spies.  It had to have them - it may have lost the war for independence if it had not effectively spied on the British.  Today I was revisiting my views on the NSA and the scandal that came to light with the information revealed by Edward Snowden.  I think it's healthy to revisit your beliefs from time to time in order to either validate them or else decide to refine, or perhaps even move away from them.  Otherwise you get locked into a set of beliefs that end up enabled by confirmation bias.  That happens in the mainstream media crucible all the time and they never learn from it.  They predominantly never evolve and they consequently continue to support a president who not only has led the country down a failing path but has also abandon much of the ideals the liberal media supposedly holds dear.

Now, I think my beliefs have shifted some on national security - back towards where they were in years past.  There is a delicate balance between personal liberty and national security.  Benjamin Franklin was once quoted as saying that "They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."  

Not wanting your government to spy on you is understandable.  Not wanting their nose in your business is normal.  Not wanting to grant the government too much power to do so domestically in desirable.  That is a libertarian instinct that most every American likely shares.  But what about foreign agents intent on undermining the security of America?  Without the protection of the American government (be it militarily or through espionage), the very liberties that Americans wish to maintain become highly vulnerable. 

A quote from Thomas Jefferson, less libertarian in nature addresses that notion: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Blood is certainly at least an equally precious commodity to liberty.  I guess that might be  a judgement call.  In any case, liberty must be defended.  At times that defense involves unpleasantries and that may include infringements upon liberty.

Don't get me wrong.  Illegal search and seizure is not something I condone.  But my views on the cost benefits of the actions of Edward Snowden have changed from one of him being predominantly an important whistleblower with some unintended consequences to the nation to one of traitor with some beneficial information about government over-reach important, but less so than him undermining the security of the citizens as a whole by revealing far too much national security information in the process.

America needs spies. It needs a strong military. In today's day and age with such an interconnected world, the notion of a forward defense, electronically especially, is at the core national security.  While libertarians may argue that the mitigating factor in the war for independence was that spies were outward focused, the same is true today.  Spying is done on the basis of national security and those being targeted are enemies of the nation (not the state, there's an important distinction).

The real battleground should be how the information that is being collected is used and retained.  Data collection is being done on an unprecedented scale by not only the government but also by companies and don't be so naive as to think that other countries aren't collecting data on Americans either.  Data can be transformed into information.  Information can be transformed into insights and insights can be transformed into wisdom.  Any nation with wisdom has an advantage over other nations that do not when it comes to geopolitical considerations.  To abandon that to the Chinese or the Russians is sheer folly.

Let me provide one example of how this data collection could be used.  If the phone and electronic records of known domestic terrorists are looked at patterns of behavior might emerge.  Those collected records may point to other data elements that are indicative of terrorist related potential.  A model can than be built to search for that type of behavior among the trillions of phone and data record elements and identify potential terrorists based on similar behaviors being exhibited.  That would give an agency like the FBI potential targets to investigate.

That's where the handling of the information becomes important.  If you have not met those criteria, your data should likely be expunged.  If you fit the profile of a potential terrorist, you still might not be one.That might be the point at which the FBI requires corroborating evidence or becomes limited in what surveillance it can conduct under the Fourth Amendment.  It certainly is a grey area in terms of how far they should be allowed to go.  

Because the power of that data is unquestionably strong.  Companies model customer behaviors all of the time.  I personally know that to be true.  It's done for marketing efficiency.  Why target someone to switch to a more expensive data plan on their iPhone if you know they are extremely unlikely to do so? Computer modeling behavior is very effective.  But it does require large amounts of data.  Big Data is the industry buzzword these days.

The reality of espionage has always outstripped public knowledge of what is going on.  
No matter the Constitutional protections provided to American citizens, spying is going to happen.  And there always going to be domestic threats to national security and individual safety.  My personal opinion as to what the balance between national security and personal privacy should be continues to shift from what is ideal to what is practical (not what is necessarily feasible).  There are no easy answers to this, but the one undeniable fact is that there are many, many countries where the national conversation about what the balance should be, would not be allowed to occur.  That fact is something worth fighting to keep.  The only question is how that fight should be fought.

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