Tag Archives: NSA domestic spying

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.


At the moment, I’m too angry about the NSA revelations to write a full-length post. It only gets worse the more you read. After I’ve had some time to calm down, I’ll assemble something more constructive and less seething-with-rage.

In the meantime, here’s the man who gave us the story – Edward Snowden – in his own words:

The NSA, the Fourth Amendment, and You

A quick recap of events so far:

  • On Wednesday, The Guardian leaked a top secret order from the US government to Verizon. The order demanded that Verizon hand over
    all its telephone metadata for a three-month period to the National Security Agency (NSA), and forbade them from telling anyone about it.
  • In the following days, government officials of both parties (including several Senators and President Obama) defended the order. Senator Dianne Feinstein said the order was merely a “three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years.”
  • The man who leaked the story has voluntarily stepped forward and revealed himself. His name is Edward Snowden, and he is staying right this moment in a hotel in Hong Kong. He claims he disclosed this information because it poses “an existential threat to democracy.” US government officials are calling for his extradition.

Since the program has been going on for years, it seems unlikely that Verizon alone would be singled out for this kind of surveillance. (Especially since a program called PRISM has been revealed as collecting much the same data from Internet traffic.) Therefore, it appears very likely that the NSA has a database – stretching back years – of many or most phone calls by Americans, even if they are to other Americans in the US.

In his defense of the program, President Obama told the American people, “Nobody’s listening to your phone calls.” Assuming the program is limited to what we’ve seen in the leaked order, Obama’s statement is technically true. The audio of the calls is out of scope. What’s in scope is the call “metadata,” which includes phone numbers, call times and dates, length of calls, and geographical locations (to the extent that cell towers can be used to determine them).

To reiterate: this is not just certain records, or a certain region, or a certain time period. This is all Americans, on an ongoing basis.

As a reminder, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

US privacy and surveillance laws have become a tangled mess, especially since the passage of the Patriot Act, so this program is probably “legal.” But it’s hard to see how any of the relevant laws could be Constitutional. The Fourth Amendment is remarkably clear.

Most major news editorials are condemning the program as a massive overreach. A notable exception was the Wall Street Journal, which defended the NSA’s actions:

The outrage this time seems to stem from the fact that the government is widely collecting call records, not merely those associated with a particular suspect or group. But this fear misunderstands how the program works. From what we know, the NSA runs algorithms over the call log database, searching for suspicious patterns over time….

If the NSA’s version of a computer science department operates like the rest of FISA, the government is cautious to ensure that its searches are narrowly tailored and specific protocols are reviewed by FISA judges. Mike Rogers, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that the program had helped disrupt a major domestic terror attack in recent years.

The critics nonetheless say the NSA program is a violation of privacy, or illegal, or unconstitutional, or all of the above. But nobody’s civil liberties are violated by tech companies or banks that constantly run the same kinds of data analysis. We bow to no one in our desire to limit government power, but data-mining is less intrusive on individuals than routine airport security. The data sweep is worth it if it prevents terror attacks that would lead politicians to endorse far greater harm to civil liberties.

It’s true that analyzing large datasets is not necessarily an affront to individual privacy – if that’s really all they’re doing, if nobody has direct access to the specifics of the data itself, and if there’s no way anybody ever could get access to that data. The first two are at least possible; the third is not. No system can be perfectly secure, as the NSA well knows.

Edward Snowden’s action in revealing this program was illegal. But the program itself seems to be far more illegal.

New details are emerging constantly, but from what we know now, Mr. Snowden looks an awful lot like a hero. And speaking as someone who voted for him (twice), I don’t think I’ve ever been so disgusted with President Obama.