Tag Archives: NSA domestic spying

Brian Answers: The Benevolent NSA

All this week, I’m answering your questions! We’ll start the week off right with this one from Dave Higgins:

If you knew the government would remain benevolent for the remainder of human existence, and have perfect data security, would you object to them surveilling citizens?

This is a great question because it peers to the core of the privacy issue. Why are we upset about the NSA’s domestic surveillance program? Are we just worried about how it could be abused, or is there a more fundamental problem?

Let’s look at it from a few different angles.

First, of course, it would still be unconstitutional, and thus illegal. So I would still object on those grounds. But “illegal” is a much weaker objection than “immoral.” Let’s put the law aside for a moment.

Perpetual benevolence and perfect security suggest that the data collected won’t be misused for corrupt or overzealous purposes. This does, indeed, remove my main objection to the program. My biggest fear over surveillance is that the Executive branch could use its information to quietly blackmail Senators and discredit protesters. If we take that fear away, the picture looks much less grim.

Now, there’s still a question of privacy. I do feel that regardless of anything else, there is a fundamental right to keep personal things secret. We shouldn’t be watched against our will, and if we are, it’s a violation of human dignity.

But then, so is dying in a terrorist attack.

If we assume that the programs won’t be abused, and that they’re at least somewhat effective against terrorism, then I’d suck up my moral and legal concerns. So the short answer is: no, I wouldn’t object, in spite of my misgivings.

But let’s be clear that we’re describing a fantasy world. In the real world of imperfect human beings, the NSA’s insatiable appetite should worry anyone who believes in limited government.

Thanks for the question, Dave!

Friday Link


The New York Times reported yesterday on new revelations about the NSA’s ability to break your privacy. Encryption, one of the most basic privacy protections on the Internet, has been mostly gutted by a top secret agency program called Bullrun “using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion.”

“The agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption…that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world.”
-New York Times

What’s more, the NSA isn’t just cracking our security, it’s deliberately building failure points into it so that we can be exploited. The NSA “used its influence as the world’s most experienced code maker to covertly introduce weaknesses into the encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world.”

We’re getting continually, deliberately, and systematically fucked on an ongoing basis; we’re paying for the privilege of getting fucked, as well as research into new, more effective means of fuckery; and when we find out, they say they’re going to keep fucking us for our own protection.

Happy Friday, everybody.

Friday Links

1984 Day

1984 Day, coming this Sunday (8/4) to a city near you.


Snake Island, a dot of land off the Brazilian coast, is filled with golden lancehead pit vipers. This species of snake has – and I quote – “a powerful fast-acting poison that melts the flesh around their bites.” Looking for a vacation spot?


This just in: Dick Van Dyke finally confesses to the Zodiac killings.

Have a great weekend, peeps. See you Monday!

Yesterday’s House Vote, and What Comes Next

Restore the Fourth Cleveland


Yesterday the U.S. House of Representatives voted on the Amash Amendment, which would have halted the NSA’s vast and unconstitutional program of phone record collection.

The amendment failed. And, of course, even if it had passed – and gotten Senate support too – the President would have vetoed it.


The vote was much closer than expected: 205-217. If just seven more Congressmen had supported this bill, it would have passed. That’s remarkable.

Also remarkable is the incredibly bipartisan nature of the vote. 111 Democrats and 94 Republicans voted yes. One surprising “yes” vote was Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., who co-authored the original PATRIOT Act. He says the law was never intended to give the NSA so much power.

Most remarkable of all was the deluge of public support, your support, for the bill. According to this New York Times article:

…a web of privacy activists, libertarian conservatives and…

View original post 132 more words


The world is full of activists, people crusading for one cause or another: political, religious, corporate, technological, personal.

I’m a crusader now, fighting nonviolently for what I believe in. But it’s a strange thing, being a crusader: devoting your time to a cause, actively trying to change other people’s minds too.

I’ve been a crusader once before, several years ago, when I opposed one of the most corrupt, manipulative, and amoral groups on the planet: the so-called “Church” of Scientology. In many ways, that was good practice for what I’m doing now. I learned what it’s like to protest, how to do it effectively, how to operate in the dynamics of a resistance group.

In other ways, of course, my current crusade is different. Whereas Scientology is a small, malignant tumor that ruins a tiny subset of society, the NSA’s overreach has global implications and affects almost everyone alive today. If Snowden’s reports are correct, Britain’s GCHQ is even less scrupulous in its surveillance, and many other world governments – including Australia and Germany – are complicit as well.

In any case, being a crusader gives you a different perspective, pulls you a little outside of ordinary life. You want to grab every person you meet, shake them, scream: “How can you just walk around when THIS is going on?!”

But you don’t, of course.

For one thing, the world is full of crises. A hundred THISes are always going on. If every other crusader stopped me to yell about their own cause, I’d never make it to work in the morning. It would be hypocritical of me to pretend I’m the only one concerned about an important issue. I get that.

What’s more, I don’t want to be That Guy. You know: the friend who’s always bringing up his pet topic. The one that people start avoiding because they’re sick of hearing about it.

So I try to tone it  down.

And yet.

And yet, the NSA really is shredding the Bill of Rights. And yet, the world really is inching its way, slowly, slowly, toward 1984. And yet, we really do have to stop it.

So the crusade goes on. The double life goes on: polite smiles on the outside, fire on the inside, looking for a chance to spread.

Tell me: have you ever been a crusader?

“Restore the Fourth” Rally in Cleveland!


Yesterday I told you about the Restore the Fourth rally in Cleveland to protest the NSA’s massive and unconstitutional domestic spying program. It went forward as planned, and we had a successful event.

I’d estimate 40-50 people showed up, from Cleveland, Columbus, and all over Ohio. Young and old, men and women, conservative and liberal, we stood for the Fourth Amendment and our fundamental right to privacy.


(That’s my wife Betsy holding the RestoreTheFourth.net sign!)

We set up in Edgewater Park around 3:00. Cars driving by slowed down to read our signs, and I was gratified that so many honked in support. Curious people from around the park came over to talk about our message and get photos with us. The atmosphere was friendly, civil, and energetic.


Fortunately, the weather held out, and we only got a few drops of rain. Much cooler than it could’ve been for a July afternoon. The rally lasted about two and a half hours. Response from the public was almost universally positive.


That’s me on the left, and fellow blogger Ben Trube on the right, looking damn stylish in his Matrix shades.




A little light reading on the job.

Of course, this wasn’t just about Cleveland. Similar protests were going on all over the country, with hundreds gathering in New York City, D.C., Boston, and San Francisco. We got coverage from NBC, CNN, Fox News, BBC, Reuters, the Guardian, and CNET. We even got official recognition from the NSA (thanks for spreading the word!)

All in all, a good first step. But only the first step. We need to spread the word about what the government is doing. We need to demand respect for the rule of law and the Fourth Amendment. Talk to your friends, write to your representatives, and go to RestoreTheFourth.net for more information.

Also, I added a permanent tab at the top called “NSA Domestic Surveillance.” It gives a simple, straightforward breakdown of what’s happening, why you should care, and how we can turn it around.

This country belongs to the people. Let’s keep it that way!

Restore The Fourth on July 4th

Restore The Fourth

Today, I’ll be protesting the NSA’s illegal and dangerous domestic spying program. I’ll be fighting to protect our Fourth Amendment right to privacy.

My wife Betsy, and my good friend Ben Trube, will be joining me at the rally in Cleveland. It’s a four-hour round trip, and we’ll probably be standing in the rain. Not necessarily your idea of a fun holiday. So why are we doing it?

We’re doing this to protect the future of all Americans. If you own a cell phone, the NSA is tracking your calls: who you call, and when, and where. That’s not paranoia, that’s a fact. They’ve admitted it publicly. And they don’t think you should be worried.

Well, I’m worried.

I don’t want to live in a country that treats the Fourth Amendment like toilet paper. I don’t want the government taking notes every time I call my mom.

The U.S. is not a dictatorship. But we’re building the foundation for one. And this Independence Day, I’m demanding that it stop.

Fortunately, I’m not alone. Restore The Fourth is a nationwide grassroots organization that’s gained enormous momentum in the past few weeks. They organized the Cleveland protest and other rallies across the country.

I stand with them proudly, because they stand for all of us.

I’ll post photos and a full write-up of the event tomorrow. Happy Fourth.

Friday Link: Mr. Sulu and the NSA


George Takei, the actor who played Mr. Sulu on Star Trek, has an important perspective on the NSA’s domestic spying program. As a child, he was one of over 100,000 Americans to be “relocated” to an internment camp, due to fears that anyone with Japanese heritage might turn on the U.S. So he understands better than most why civil liberties are important.

“We know where this can go,” he said recently. “We have to be ever vigilant against overstepping of the fundamental ideals of our democracy.”

Article here.

First Meeting of the Resistance

Yesterday evening we had our first meeting to discuss (nonviolent) resistance to the NSA’s domestic spying program.

We had six people at my house, plus three more over video chat. That was interesting. We used Google Hangouts on an iPad, which was propped up at one end of the table like a mini-monolith. It worked well, except for a few times we lost signal. They could hear & see us, we could hear & see them, and the app is smart enough to automatically switch the view to whoever’s talking.

The meeting lasted over an hour, and went surprisingly well. I say “surprisingly” because I’ve never organized anything like this before, I’m not really a political person, and I imagined a lot of ways it could go wrong. But we had an agenda, we followed it, we stayed on topic.

We started by going around the room, introducing ourselves and saying why we were against the spying program. For me, this was one of the more powerful moments of the evening. All different people: liberal, conservative, libertarian, independent; quiet and outspoken; men and women; those new to the cause, and those who have followed the NSA’s programs for years. But we had one thing in common. We had heard the news about the call database and PRISM, and we wanted to do something about it.

We talked about the stopwatching.us petition, which has over 200,000 signatures now (including Wil Wheaton and Cory Doctorow!) and still growing. We discussed the Restore the Fourth movement and the nationwide protests planned for July 4. We came up with a lot of ideas for action.

And we decided to stay organized. We’ll continue meeting monthly, and in between meetings, we’ll keep in touch with each other. We’ll share ideas and coordinate our efforts.

Because we’ve seen what our government is doing, and we’ve decided it needs to stop.

P.S. Protip for resistance cells: nonviolent rebellion is hungry work. Offer free pizza!

What Comes Next

Last week was a bad week.

For starters, there was the revelation that the NSA keeps a massive database of all our phone calls, which (in my view) shows a stunning disregard for our civil liberties.

Unrelated to that: my brain goes through cycles of clarity, and cycles of dark despair. Last week was sunless. I’m feeling better at the moment, which is why I’m able to write this post in the first place. Fingers crossed that it stays that way.

And I was out sick on Friday. So, there’s that.

I’m not trying to drown you in complaints. Just trying to get my head screwed on straight, and point this blog in the right direction.

In the wake of the NSA news, I wasn’t sure what to do with the blog. I generally avoid political stuff, and I generally don’t focus on any one topic for very long, for the sake of variety. I don’t want to alienate or bore you by droning on about civil liberties.

On the other hand, this blog is a reflection of what I’m thinking. And right now, it’s hard to think about much else. When you learn that your own government is using the Fourth Amendment as toilet paper, how can you just shrug your shoulders and move on?

Well, here’s what I’ve decided.

I’m not shrugging my shoulders. I’m going to do my best to organize (peaceful) resistance to the NSA’s domestic spying program. For starters, I’m going to publicly protest in Columbus on July 3. I’m organizing a local meeting of other people who feel the same way. I’ve signed the petition at stopwatching.us and I encourage you to do the same. And for those Redditors among you, check out reddit.com/r/restorethefourth for more information about the protest movement.

To be honest, I don’t know if it will make any difference. A lot of people (for reasons I fail to understand) honestly don’t mind that the government is doing this. And a lot more people don’t like it, but won’t do anything about it. I just don’t see enough public outcry at this point to be very hopeful.

But I have to try.

As for the blog, it will be what it will be. I’ll still talk about philosophy and AI and books and writing, and all those fun topics. But you’re also going to see a lot more about the NSA stuff, because this blog reflects my thoughts, and that’s front and center in my mind right now. If that’s a turnoff for you, I’m sorry, but it can’t be helped.

So. *deep breath* Onward.