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Seaching, Searching, Not Finding

Jan
17
2006

When we talk about government searches and eavesdropping what – really – are we talking about? Does anyone know?
The president – the same guy who talks about those Internets – says one thing. That this is a limited program that only targets suspicious behavior. But news stories – specifically today’s New York Times’ piece about the overwhelming amount of data collected – seem to indicate something else entirely. And for those of us who know a little bit about how massive data searching works, well, none of it really makes sense. There’s something funny going on here.
A detailed search of your e-mail traffic is the electronic equivalent of a pat down: What do you have tucked away on your laptop or cell phone and what are you going to do with it? But, under the right circumstances – say a search that’s organized, documented and detailed from start to finish where intentions are known and declared in advance – it might be possible to make an argument that such searches are legal. Even those who are adamantly opposed to the very idea of government spying on its citizens might admit that in this electronic age these are, in fact, preventative measures that governments should take. But those sorts of things take time to set-up and implement. So perhaps, in thinking about how the technology actually works, we have an explanation – a weak one – for why the administration was so anxious to avoid the very courts created by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act created to oversee this activity. They didn’t think they could make the technology and the law work in concert.
There have been plenty of calls for a smart and informed conversation about what the administration has done. But given the panic that can be ginned up over what happens on those Internets and the calls the administration will make for national security as a way to protect the details of what’s actually been done it’s unlikely that any conversation will be forthright. Instead, it’s more likely to degenerate into a back and forth between “law and order” types who are mostly Republicans or centrist Democrats looking to get re-elected and Democrats who have legitimate but not very well articulated (out of technical ignorance) fears about the power of the state.
In looking for needles in haystacks – which is really what the NSA is doing when it eavesdrops – it’s possible to make detailed and limited searches, of course. But they cost money and they take time. And it’s not immediately clear if that kind of searching is, in fact, legal. It may, instead, be that there’s just no specific law against it and that ultimately, the absence of control is what the administration is banking on to make its widespread searching legitimate.
More troubling, a large part of what the Bush administration is saying about its domestic spying program seems to rest on the lingering distrust of the technology that is the Internet. What’s worse is that it’s almost impossible to tell if there’s a deliberate attempt underway to muddy the issue; if in fact the Bush folks are relying on the fear of technology and Congressional ignorance to make their case that they should spy to protect us.
A classic example of this: Last week’s story, clearly a deliberate leak, about how “terrorists” were buying pre-paid cell phones – which are thrown away when they’re used up – in bulk to avoid law enforcement listening in on their regular cell numbers. Well, you know, I watch TV and I’ve seen that behavior among drug dealers. It’s not exactly new and it’s not exactly unknown to law enforcement folks either. (Ever seen that show they call “The Wire”? How do you think it got that name? I’m betting last week’s story is not a case of life imitating art, how about you?)
But perhaps – and yes, it is after all this time, very hard to give the Bush folks the benefit of the doubt – the search technology they’re using is so out-of-date that it can’t do fine searches. In other words, the best they’ve got isn’t up to the job. They have to search wide and send FBI agents on what they dismissively called “Pizza Hut runs” because, well, that’s all they have.
In its zeal to keep costs (and taxes) down maybe the NSA hasn’t bought the right equipment. Remember, the FBI didn’t have a working intra-office computer network until Bob Mueller got the directors’ gig. Using the rudimentary stuff they inherited, maybe NSA had to take the what-the-hell approach and go for broke, taking down anything in their path including information that should have remained private. To cover for that, the administration decided to avoid the FISA courts.
Or more frightening, only a few people – the ones not in charge – know the difference between any of these scenarios because no one has ever bothered to see if the technology that’s being used could be improved, if searches could be refined, if the technology could be made to adhere to the law. Or, more chilling and, I suspect, more realistic, given the administration’s track record: They do know and they’re counting on us to not want to explore the matter further. After all, the Internet is a scary place – see this piece in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle about terrorism on the web – and George Bush’s job, as he frequently tells us, is to protect America.
This administration has done a bang-up job of capitalizing on American’s fears. But in its fear, this nation and its leaders have been made powerless to their worst nightmares. They have become afraid of fear; it has paralyzed them and made them do stupid and short-sighted things that are illegal and that, in the long run, will damage individual liberties and forego the very concept of “justice for all.”

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 4:12 PM | Permalink

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