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Archive for the ‘Press freedom’ Category

Privacy and anonymity on the Internet and in real life are under increasing assault due to companies’ and governmental agencies’ ability to capture incredible amounts of data mainly from Internet traffic, and their ability to track users across websites and services, generally without users’ knowledge.  Once it’s been captured, this data is essentially impossible to erase regardless of whether it is right or in error, and many organizations that have captured such troves of data have demonstrated a weak ability to maintain control of it.

Often this data is used “just” for commercial purposes, but could also be used to threaten to expose users of certain websites or services, or expose holders of unpopular political, social, or economic views, or to prevent people from accessing whatever websites someone in power wishes them not to access.

Privacy and anonymity are different but interrelated, and both are deeply and honorably enshrined in American legal and cultural traditions.  For our purposes,

  • Privacy means other people can’t get information about me (e.g. tax returns or medical records) that I don’t willingly give them, and it’s no business of anyone else’s what websites I go to or what I do online.  To have privacy is part of what it means to be an autonomous human being; if you have no privacy, other people can know everything about you and be able to make decisions for you or predict your actions.
  • Anonymity means I can express opinions, access Internet-based data, or visit websites without anyone knowing who I am in real life, or where I am physically (not being able to find or contact me, in other words to be able to harass, expose, or arrest me).  This should include someone not being able to identify me via some pseudo-me that they have constructed from my presence using cookies, malware, or other hidden identifiers.  Just their not knowing my real name is not enough, to be anonymous is to be unreachable.

I am disturbed by people who, in the wake of 9/11 or because of some other real or perceived terrorist activities, take the position that “only people with something to hide need to hide behind privacy.”  This is nonsense.  We all deserve privacy in our private lives, unless for a very specific reason someone gets a court order to pierce this veil.  Nor is anonymity somehow un-American.  In the early days of our Revolution, Madison, Jay, and Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers under the name of Publius to avoid any untoward personal issues from their views.  Purer and more patriotic Americans never existed than these!

This situation has been brought about by aggressive data capture technologies, and the ability to cheaply store incredible amounts of raw data and quickly process it to correlate, trace, and extract meaning from even the tiniest pieces of it.  Governments, repressive or otherwise, have used court orders to compel Internet-based services to disgorge details on individuals’ use of these services and have also developed network-penetration techniques (hacking) to harass individuals and obstruct their access to data.  Technology has thus leapt ahead of accepted proper use of it, and indeed ahead of the common person’s ability to even comprehend what is happening.

Here is a good, and seemingly harmless example.  If a woman is a regular Target shopper, using a Red Card or consistently using a single credit or debit card, and she becomes pregnant, Target will know that fact by the third or fourth month with a very high degree of certainty, based on subtle shifts in her buying habits.  Not because she’s buying diapers, because she isn’t yet, but by other changes they won’t make public.  At this point they start biasing their ads delivered to her for the purpose of increasing her “lock in” to Target, so that Target becomes her preferred store during the next couple of years.

But if Target can do this, what if an insurance company could buy data on policyholders that would allow them to determine that you are developing some serious health problems, and raise your rates, or drop you entirely,or not take you on in the first place?  Or could the state pre-emptively revoke your driver’s license?  Or arrest you because they felt you were exhibiting signs of radicalism, whatever that may mean?  And worse yet, if any of these things happened to you, would you even know the reason, or would you think it was some accident of nature?

And now we have the evidence that the National Security Agency has for many years, without any warrant or even hint that any wrong-doing was being carried out, been recording phone call details and Internet access data (“metadata”) on a great fraction of the American public on an ongoing basis.  These governmental criminals then look you in the face and say, “we’re not listening to your calls or looking at your data, we’re just recording this ‘metadata,’ you don’t have to worry!”

Let’s look at this metadata.  For a phone call, it would include your number, where you were, were you moving, who you called, where they were, at what time of day, and how long it lasted.  You may say, “so they know I call my sister in Toledo every Friday evening.  So what?”  Well, if they have the metadata on every call you have made for the last several years, they can build a profile of your normal calling patterns to a surprising level of detail.  Now you start calling – even twice a week, say, a lover in San Antonio.  They would be able to see this as a deviation from your usual calling pattern, and they could be alerted, perhaps, and perhaps interested.

So metadata on calls and Internet accesses is far from harmless.  They don’t have to listen to the calls with this kind of stuff at their fingertips.  Indeed, the call metadata is in many ways superior to merely listening in on somebody’s line.  What Target can do with charge-card metadata, the NSA can to a thousand times over with call metadata.

So what they want to do is to record communication metadata on everybody in the country, forever, so they can go back into it at their convenience, and analyze it retro-spectively looking for some hint of wrongdoing.  At this point, we have no personal privacy any more, we are as good as naked on the street.  Even the Chinese or Russian police states don’t (yet) have this power.

So I ask: is this the kind of country we want to live in?

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We have heard a lot lately about how much of the anti-dictatorship uprisings in the Middle East have been mediated by technology, including cell phones and social media such as Twitter and Facebook.  “Freedom of the Press” no longer means just the right to print and distribute newspapers, but to have digital freedom of access to internal and external news sources, free from governmental censorship or retaliation.  Oppressive regimes certainly have noticed this fact, witness the Egyptian government’s attempt to cut Egypt off from the Internet during their recent rebellion.

But using the Internet safely from inside a repressive regime is not necessarily an easy thing to do.  Likely, you would not use your own identity on your posts or in your emails, and even going to certain websites can either be blocked or at least noted for later retaliation.  How would someone go about this, then?  The answer is that there are organizations that provide anonymous proxy services that allow access through sites that are not blocked (yet!) by national firewalls (as in: China, among others).

I point out to you an organization that is working not just to advocate Internet freedom, but providing resources and information to help those trapped within these countries to use the Internet to forward their causes.  Take a look at Access, which describes themselves as:

. . . a global movement premised on the belief that political participation and the realization of human rights in the 21st century is increasingly dependent on access to the internet and other forms of technology. Founded in the wake of the 2009 Iranian post-election crackdown, Access teams with digital activists and civil society groups internationally to build their technical capacity and to help them advocate globally for their digital rights.

If you are proud to think that the technologies we use every day are playing a part overthrowing dictators and oppressive regimes, you might consider participating in or donating to Access or to a similar organization — put your money where your heart is.  Or consider participating in one of their proxy-anonymizer projects.  But get involved — make it happen.

And, if you’re interested in their how-to suggestions on preserving privacy in a repressive country, take a look at this.  Actually, these aren’t bad instructions for US, if you really want to be anonymous in the digital world — you can use these same techniques yourself here at home.

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That’s right, I totally refuse to do any post-election analysis or speculating or anything else. The votes have been cast and counted (however flakily) and I really don’t have much of anything to add.

But now that you guys are in there, I’d like some action. Don’t talk, Do. Show a little leadership, since the Prez doesn’t seem inclined to do any leading. Here’s my work list, if you are confused as to what your plan should be:

Get us disengaged from Iraq. They say this is what the election was about, and it was, so get busy. The not-country Iraq is degenerating into civil war and we are in the middle of it, in everybody’s line of fire. The war was a mistake to begin with, and now its unwinnable in any use of the word that’s meaningful to us. As was the case during my tour of duty in the Army during Viet Nam, the only question is now many more of our soldiers will have to be killed and maimed before we figure out how to leave. The end is not in doubt, just the date and our death toll.

Go get the war profiteers. Nothing, nothing at all, is as slimy as the sole-source contracts that have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to various presidential-crony firms such as KBR for shoddy, inadequate, and uncompleted work in Iraq. I’m a taxpayer, I want my money back from them. Reauthorize the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and start pressing charges.

Give us back Habeas Corpus. Repudiate our use of torture. Let us hold our heads up in the world again.

Balance the budget. Either cut the spending, or raise taxes, or likely both. Help the electorate see just how much Iraq is costing us. And don’t forget to factor in the lifetime disability payments to all these veterans who have sacrificed their limbs and health on our behalf.

Work day and night to give us a new centrist, bipartisan working coalition that will work over the long haul to find actual solutions to such thorny problems as immigration reform, fiscal entitlements, and national security in these days of terrorist attack threats.

That enough?

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You can find a lot of discomforting things about the policies of the Bush Administration in many sectors of interest, but perhaps none so basic and so far-reaching and so disturbing as their attack on the US Constitution. Using the ramrod of the “war on terror” they have mounted what appears to be an all-out assault on some of our most basic freedoms. It seems that we are saved from the specter of another Caesar only by their astonishing military incompetence, which may yet lead to their wick being trimmed in this upcoming election.

I have before me, and I recommend to you, a report of the Cato Institute on the Bush Administration’s record on Constitutional matters, and it’s not a pretty read. Note please that the Cato Institute is not exactly a hotbed of liberalism, and one of the authors of this report had previously published a book entitled “Arrogance of Power Reborn: The Imperial Presidency and Foreign Policy in the Clinton Years.” So when these guys take on the current administration, it’s a real sign.

I can do no better than to quote from their summary. They conclude that we are faced with:

  • “a federal government empowered to regulate core political speech—and restrict it greatly when it counts the most: in the days before a federal election;
  • “a president who cannot be restrained, through validly enacted statutes, from pursuing any tactic he believes to be effective in the war on terror;
  • “a president who has the inherent constitutional authority to designate American citizens suspected of terrorist activity as “enemy combatants,” strip them of any constitutional protection, and lock them up without charges for the duration of the war on terror— in other words, perhaps forever; and
  • “a federal government with the power to supervise virtually every aspect of American life, from kindergarten, to marriage, to the grave.”

I guess its the near-discarding of the Great Writ, the writ of Habeas Corpus, that bothers me most. And make no mistake about it, they now have the legal authority to ignore habeas Corpus whenever they choose to do so.

What’s the solution to this? As I’ve watched this unfold over the last 5 years I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that the President is nothing more than a two-bit tyrant-wannabe surrounded by a great lot of drooling sycophants who think its great fun to play at government. They have distorted our economy by giving tax breaks during a war, and by allowing record-setting amounts of war profiteering by their corporate friends, debased our image as a beacon of freedom and liberty throughout the world, and now are attempting to strip us of the very liberties we are supposedly in Iraq and Afghanistan to defend.

They should be thrown out, the lot of them — the administration, the congress, the whole bunch. We would be better off with legislators chosen via a random draft.

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So now the Administration feels its necessary for Internet Service Providers to keep detailed logs of our behavior online, just in case we might do something that could be construed as disloyal or comforting the enemy (whoever and wherever he is). At least this is so far just a proposal, whereas it now appears that they have been clandestinely keeping telephone and e-mail contact logs on us — all of us, not just suspects or terrorists, but all of us — all along.

What's with these people?

Bob Herbert in the New York Times has said it very well:

Mr. Bush wants ordinary Americans to remain in a perpetual state of fear — so terrified, in fact, that they will not object to the steady erosion of their rights and liberties, and will not notice the many ways in which their fear is being manipulated to feed an unconscionable expansion of presidential power.

[snip]

This is a road map to totalitarianism. Hallmarks of totalitarian regimes have always included an excessive reliance on secrecy, the deliberate stoking of fear in the general population, a preference for military rather than diplomatic solutions in foreign policy, the promotion of blind patriotism, the denial of human rights, the curtailment of the rule of law, hostility to a free press and the systematic invasion of the privacy of ordinary people."

I keep looking around for the conservative that Mr. Bush says he is, the one who values the Constitution, who reveres the Rule of Law. All I see is a would-be tyrant and his slavering syncophants. Hopefully his dismal approval ratings will translate into an electorial smack-down for this whole world-view.

Some of my friends, who regard themselves as "patriotic conservatives" chastise me for not "standing behind our President." I'm sorry, I am related to Patrick Henry. When he said "Give me liberty . . . " he meant liberty from a king, not the liberty to select a new one. We don't do kings in this country. We don't do people who think their power or position makes them above the law.

For a great book on rationally approaching security I suggest Beyond Fear by Bruce Schneier. Come to think of it, his security blog is well worth reading, too.

It seems that FDR was right — in the depths of World War II he said, "The only thing we have to fear is — fear itself." Not the Japanese, nor the Nazis, but just plain fear.

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The cowards at Borders seem to feel that self-censorship is the best policy when it comes to Islamic terrorists. The April / May issue of Free Inquiry will not be in their bookstores because it reprints a couple of the cartoons from Denmark.

''For us, the safety and security of our customers and employees is a top priority, and we believe that carrying this issue could challenge that priority,'' said Beth Bingham, a spokeswoman for the Borders Group.

"Safety and security?" I grant you that these terrorist maniacs will apparently stop at nothing, but it really bothers me that our fear of them has become so pervasive that here in the US we will bow to their requirements and publish only things that they approve of. Will we start submitting our book lists to the ayatollahs for their review? How soon will we stop carrying certain books because somebody might throw a bomb?

This news item has received almost no press coverage in the US, and what it has recieved has generated no public discussion. Does no one but me feel a little threatened — not by the terrorists, but by our own fears? The terrorists are carrying the war to our shores and we are surrendering!

How soon will we get serious about homeland security?

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In the context of all the incendiary harangues and self-righteous bloviation about the Mohammed cartoons, Flemming Rose, the editor at the Jyllands-Posten who made the decision to publish them, has written a thoughtful piece on his actions, including this snippet:

I acknowledge that some people have been offended by the publication of the cartoons, and Jyllands-Posten has apologized for that. But we cannot apologize for our right to publish material, even offensive material. You cannot edit a newspaper if you are paralyzed by worries about every possible insult. I am offended by things in the paper every day: transcripts of speeches by Osama bin Laden, photos from Abu Ghraib, people insisting that Israel should be erased from the face of the Earth, people saying the Holocaust never happened. But that does not mean that I would refrain from printing them as long as they fell within the limits of the law and of the newspaper's ethical code. That other editors would make different choices is the essence of pluralism.

I suggest that you read the whole article, here.

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