Dog Hair

My work winter coat is a navy blue cloth greatcoat that extends down to about knee level. It’s sturdy and warm and reasonably professional looking — and also seems to magically attract every strand of white dog hair in our household.

IMG_5821When you live in a house with two dogs, dealing with dog hair is just part of life. When we’re gone our dogs jump up on chairs, flop down on rugs, and leave their fur behind. You can brush their coats regularly, sweep and vacuum repeatedly, and flap out rugs until you can flap no more, but dog hairs are always going to be there, ready to leap onto any item of dark clothing and make you look like a vagabond who’s been sleeping with a pack of strays in a downtown alley.

In our household, we deal with the dog-fur-on-clothing issue by owning approximately two dozen adhesive rollers designed specifically to remove hair from garments. (Of course, the plastic handles of the rollers have all been chewed to smithereens by our dogs, which is just another fun thing about life with dogs.) Although the rollers are designed to remove hairs and pick up most random items, they don’t do an especially good job on dog hairs. The only real way to remove dog hairs from your coat is to exercise your fine motor skills and individually remove them, hair by stinking hair.

That is because dog hairs are clingier than your two-year-old at his first terrifyingly large family reunion. Dog hairs have a special bonding property that makes them stick — well, doggedly — to any dark item of clothing. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the NSA is attempting to build listening devices into strands of dog fur to assist in its surveillance programs. Because the NSA apparently monitors just about everything, and dog hairs can be found just about anywhere, it seems like a match made in heaven.

Privacy Reform, The NSA, And The “Spy Court”

An interesting and important effort is underway in Washington, D.C. to address the delicate balance between data-gathering by the National Security Agency and other federal agencies and the privacy concerns of American citizens. President Obama is set to explain his views in a speech on Friday. In the meantime, Congress is holding hearings on the issue and is getting some meaningful feedback on its reform proposals — which is precisely what congressional hearings are supposed to accomplish.

A key issue with reform of intelligence-gathering efforts is the lack of information about such efforts. Clandestine programs by definition are not transparent; knowledge is limited to a small group that is sworn to secrecy. When information about the programs leaks — as happened with Edward Snowden’s disclosures last year — people react with astonishment and concern. But how do you achieve reform, and have a full airing of competing views, if the programs remain inside a black box?

That’s why congressional hearings are such an important tool. Yesterday the Senate Intelligence Committee received testimony about reform efforts, and one of the submissions was from U.S. District Judge John Bates, the current Administrative Judge of the United States Courts and the former chief judge of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court — the so-called “spy court” that considers governmental surveillance requests. Bates wrote in opposition to proposals that an independent “privacy advocate” be appointed to bring competing viewpoints to the court’s attention; he argues that given the nature of the court (such as the fact that the advocate could never communicate with the proposed target of the surveillance) the advocate could never provide a truly adversarial perspective or help the court consider the facts.

Bates also opposed a proposal to require the court to pass on every “national security letter” the government sends in an effort to obtain information from third parties. Bates noted that there are 20,000 such letters each year and argues that requiring court approval of each one would bury the court. It’s hard to dispute that conclusion; 20,000 letters amounts to about 55 letters each day of the year. How are the judges on the court supposed to give meaningful consideration to each such letter along with their other workload?

It’s difficult to stake out a position on these issues because the secrecy of the programs means the general public may not have all of the pertinent information. No one wants to undercut national security concerns, but the Snowden revelations have given rise to legitimate concerns that the NSA’s enormous appetite for data collection that touches upon the lives (and phone calls, and internet uses) of Americans isn’t justified by realistic objectives or by results. I’m glad to see that Congress is taking testimony and receiving competing views, and I hope that it and the President make a thoughtful and legitimate effort to tackle the privacy concerns raised by the NSA’s programs.

Deniability And Accountability

The latest surprising American surveillance story has to do with the amount of spying the National Security Agency is doing overseas — and who is the target of the spying.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of a number of foreign leaders whose phones were wiretapped by the NSA.

The NSA now says that President Obama wasn’t aware of the wiretapping of Merkel’s phone or those of other foreign leaders and stopped the practice this past summer when NSA surveillance programs were reviewed after Edward Snowden’s leaks.  The NSA says the President doesn’t sign off on such programs — basically because there are so many spying programs the NSA doesn’t even advise the President of all of them.

There are reports to the contrary, which assert that President Obama in fact was aware of the wiretapping programs and didn’t stop them.  But let’s assume for the moment that the denials of President Obama’s knowledge of the programs are true.  Doesn’t that tell us something even more damning about our spy programs?  It’s fair to assume that foreign leaders would be upset about America tapping their phones if they ever learned of the practice — to the point where it might imperil our relationships with our allies.  Given that risk, wouldn’t it be prudent to get clearance for such programs at the very highest levels?  If President Obama wasn’t regularly advised of such programs and making the decisions about whether to continue them, who was?

We’ve got a surveillance community in this country that has an insatiable appetite for more information and that appears to be accountable to no one.  Congress and the President need to address this issue and bring our intelligence community back under meaningful civilian control.  Otherwise, we are going to be in for more leaks, more embarrassment, more difficult conversations with angry foreign leaders, and more credibility problems for the American government.

The NSA And Human Frailty

Last week the Inspector General of the National Security Agency admitted to 12 instances where NSA employees engaged in “intentional misuse” of data gathering programs.  Most of the dozen incidents, predictably, involved NSA employees spying on their spouses or significant others.

It’s not clear how often NSA employees cross the line and engage in this kind of conduct.  The Inspector General letter was in response to a request from Republican Senator Charles Grassley, who sought information on “intentional and willful” abuse of NSA surveillance authority, and the letter reports on “substantial instances” where employees were caught engaging in “intentional misuse” of NSA data-gathering capabilities.  Who knows how often such spying goes undetected, or is covered up by a phony excuse for the surveillance, or is deemed not sufficiently “substantial” to warrant disclosure?

NSA analysts are human, like the rest of us.  If you hire a person to work for a super-secret entity and give him incredibly powerful surveillance tools that allow him to track and gather confidential information about anyone, there is going to be significant temptation to use that access to check out girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, family members, that loudmouth neighbor, and the bullies who made seventh grade a miserable time.  In one telling incident, an NSA employee was caught improperly reading the emails of his girlfriend and six other people on the first day he was given access to surveillance programs.  The guy just couldn’t resist the opportunity to snoop on his girlfriend — and I’m guessing he’s not alone.

People are people, whether they work for the NSA or the local Starbucks.  Give them a chance to listen in on conversations or read private emails that might mention their name, and at least some of them are going to do it.  With the lack of meaningful oversight of the NSA, due to its super-secret status, the temptation to dip into forbidden territory must be even greater.

We really need to revisit what we are doing with our surveillance programs and figure out a way to address the routine gathering of huge amounts of information — and the inevitable abuses that follow.  In the meantime, people who are dating NSA employees should be on guard.

Our Law-Breaking Government

An “internal audit” by the National Security Agency — one of the documents leaked to the Washington Post by Edward Snowden — shows many breaches of legal authority or privacy rules by the agency and reveals that the agency engaged in unauthorized surveillance of Americans and activities within America.

According to the Post article, the NSA “audit” indicates that there were 2776 such incidents in the 12 months preceding May 2012.  That number, however, is just the tip of the iceberg because the “audit” counts only incidents at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters and other ­facilities in the Washington area, and does not examine other NSA operating units and regional collection centers.

I’m not going to try to summarize the Post article here; it includes a lot of detail and a lot of attempted explanation and should be read by anyone who cares about privacy issues and how our government deals with them.  It appears, however, that the NSA is a world unto itself.  The special court, and the congressional committees that are supposed to provide oversight, don’t have either the resources, the access, or the interest to really police and control the NSA’s activities.  The Obama Administration’s willingness to immediately disclaim knowledge of the improper activities of government agencies that are supposed to be under its control also doesn’t give any comfort that the executive branch will vigorously protect the privacy rights of Americans.

If the NSA really is the proverbial black box, with its activities wholly hidden from view in the name of national security and governmental secrecy, why should we trust a so-called “audit” that the NSA itself has prepared?  Why should we believe its count of breaches, or its categorization of breaches, or its depiction of breaches as inadvertent?  More fundamentally, why should we believe that the NSA would hesitate to collect information about Americans if it thought it might be useful to do so?  When no one is guarding the hen house, the fox doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the niceties of its conduct.

Land Of The Free, Home Of The Monitored

Yesterday the New York Times published an excellent editorial on the federal government’s routine collection of data about everyday Americans.  As the Times aptly framed the issue, the question is whether the government should be allowed to continue to use anti-terrorism efforts as a catch-all excuse for increasing encroachments into our private activities.  In short, have we gone too far in trading liberty for (alleged) security?

The latest disclosures indicate that the federal government, through the National Security Agency and the FBI, obtains massive amounts of data from the servers of internet companies.  The NSA also apparently has obtained an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that requires Verizon to give the NSA on “an ongoing, daily basis” information on all telephone calls in the Verizon system, including calls that are entirely domestic.  That court order runs from April 25 to July 19, and will provide information on millions of calls — including mine, because Verizon is our cell phone provider.  (Nice to know that, somewhere deep in the bowels of an NSA supercomputer, data about my calls to Kish telling her I’m on my way home from work will be preserved forever, available for use by whatever government functionary cares to access it!)  And, of course, we know that in most metropolitan areas video surveillance cameras surreptitiously record our movements.

For decades, the argument in favor of enhanced government police powers has been that law-abiding citizens have no cause for concern, because only criminals would be targeted.  That argument doesn’t wash when information about the personal activities of millions of Americans is gathered indiscriminately.  Whatever you might think of your fellow citizens, we aren’t all terrorists.  By what right does our government collect information about our telephone calls, our internet searches, and our daily movements?  Shouldn’t anti-terrorist activities be focused on terrorists?

As the Times editorial linked above notes, the Obama Administration’s response to such disclosures has been to offer bland reassurances that systems are in place to prevent abuses.  Those reassurances ring hollow in the wake of incidents like the IRS scandal or the Department of Justice targeting of journalists, where the President and other high-ranking officials disclaim any prior knowledge of classic examples of overreaching by faceless government employees.  So, where are the systems that we are supposed to trust?  With respect to many of these governmental intrusions, it appears that there is no control from the top and — if the statements of press secretaries are to be credited — no meaningful decision-making by anyone who can be held accountable to voters.

Under President Obama, the government’s ever-growing appetite for collection of data about average, taxpaying Americans seems to be on auto pilot.  That is a very scary proposition.