I’m a really big fan of security analyst/guru/cryptographer Bruce Schneier. I’ve been reading his blog for years and actually got a chance to meet him in November at a talk he did for a very small room of us on the NSA and just about anything else anyone wanted to talk about. Schneier is one of the people Edward Snowden allowed access to his documents, which obviously gives him a particularly interesting point of view on the subject. His basic take was best summarized in three statements: (1) This isn’t overly surprising and won’t be going away anytime soon, (2) the very best thing that happened out of all this is that the private companies involved have been exposed and some, like Cisco, have seen their business fundamentally hurt, and (3), everything else aside the one thing to know about everything the NSA was/is doing is that it doesn’t work. The last is obviously the most damming (and Schneier is definitely not the only one saying this). This method of collecting everything with hope of finding something just doesn’t work as well as good, old-fashioned, detective work.
Interestingly I was talking about the Snowden/NSA stuff with a friend from DC who mentioned that the story hadn’t gotten a ton of coverage there (as compared to government shutdown or Healthcare.gov) because it’s perceived as an issue people don’t really have a problem with. Basically we have seen over and over again that we’re willing to throw away liberties for our “freedom” and to fight “terrorism.” Not much to say on this one, just an interesting take.
Finally, and actually the real point of this post, was to share two interesting quotes from an interview Schneier did with Motherboard. The first is about our general perception of what’s secure and what’s not:
Probably the biggest problem with the public’s perception of security is that things are secure as a default. We see this a lot in the voting industry. The voting machine companies will come up with an internet voting machine or electronic voting machine and the onus will be on the security company to prove that it’s broken. It’ll be assumed secure, and that’s just nonsense. When you see a new system, you have to assume it’s insecure, unless you can prove it’s secure. The public perception is reversed. “I have a door lock, it’s secure unless you show me you can break it.” That’s not right—it’s insecure unless you can show me that it is secure.
The second is on the sort of security threats Schneier finds most threatening:
I’m most worried about potential security vulnerabilities in the powerful institutions we’re trusting with our data, with our security. I’m worried about companies like Google and Microsoft and Facebook. I’m worried about governments, the US and other governments. I’m worried about how they are using our data, how they’re storing our data, and what happens to it. I’m less worried about the criminals. I think we’ve kinda got cyber-crime under control, it’s not zero but it never will be. I’m much more worried about the powerful abusing us than the un-powerful abusing us.
I can’t remember exactly where, but right after the DOMA decision I read an article that basically said part of the reason this happened so quickly is that people in political power were able to relate to the plight of LGBT since there is a chance their son or daughter is gay. On the contrary, as the article pointed out, a person in congress is unlikely to have someone poor in their family.
As I read Obama’s comments about the Travyon Martin decision it struck me how interesting it is to have a president who can actually say something like this:
There are, frankly, very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often. And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.
However you feel about the decision, it seems that the law in Florida favored the last man standing and the jury made a decision that fell squarely in the bounds of the law as it was written. That doesn’t make it any less sad to see what happened or any more right that George Zimmerman decided to move towards a situation that he could have easily walked away from, but it does bring into focus the gap that exists between the people that write laws and the citizens those laws are meant to serve.
Overall, though, this feels like part of larger state of American politics that leaves people feeling shocked, while at the same time struggling to find the any individual situation shocking. I feel the same way about everything have to do with Prism, the NSA program to spy on citizens that we’ve all heard lots about at this point. I’ve been asked what I thought of it a few times and my general reaction has been exactly the same as the Martin case: Shocked, but not shocking. I’m not surprised our government is spying on its citizens and I believe Snowden should be treated as a whistleblower as long as he doesn’t release any details about America’s spying on foreign governments (not that I doubt they are, but I do think that’s a line where things become dangerous).
My big issue with PRISM and the culture around it is that it’s part of a larger move that allows constitutional decisions to be made outside the Supreme Court. As the New York Times reported a few weeks ago:
The rulings [of the secret surveillance court], some nearly 100 pages long, reveal that the court has taken on a much more expansive role by regularly assessing broad constitutional questions and establishing important judicial precedents, with almost no public scrutiny, according to current and former officials familiar with the court’s classified decisions.
I don’t have any problem at all with the government spying on people it thinks are bad guys, I just think it should be done within the framework of the law. For all the flaws of our government, the three-branch system the Constitution laid out is still a pretty good way to make sure no one party can consolidate too much power. What PRISM (and Guantanamo and lots of the other stuff that happened after September 11th) allow for are decisions that happen outside the system, and, judging from the experiences thus far with Guantanamo and PRISM, when that happens some basic Constitutional rights get trampled.
If there’s a bright side to all this it’s that we’re not so deep into this that I don’t think we can turn things around (at least on the PRISM/Guantanamo stuff, Travyon Martin and American political racism is a different story). The reality is that even though the world has certainly gotten more complex, we’re only 12 years into the meat of the movement to erode the system of checks and balances. I hope that the outing of PRISM and, ideally, the closing of Guantanamo will help apply some breaks to that trend. The goal, as odd as it may sounds, is to return to a time when finding out the government is spying on its citizens or throwing people in jail without telling them the charge, will once again be shocking.