Archive for July, 2013

When surveillance is inevitable, Demand Access

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
 Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
 Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
. – The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám

Nuclear Power, Executive Privilege and Computing Power are three examples of the development and use of power. Whether for good or ill, the control of power may transfer but it never decreases. This is particularly true for powers which are powerful enough to be kept hidden from the public. Chemical and biological weapons may have written rules of development and use, even banning them, yet they persist. Land mines, and the militarization of space are similar examples. Executive Privilege, Clandestine Services (CIA, KGB, FBI, NSA, DOE) are governmental constructs which are similarly so valuable that their fundamental power cannot be decreased, but only transferred or replaced with something of greater power.

The ability to monitor and record is a similar power. Recent NSA leaks have revealed a functioning global ability to surveil detailed human activity, particularly all electronic communications. This capability is so powerful that it has been a well known internationally shared secret. Each specific technical means of surveillance are national secrets as is the ability to access the data. Although civil law suits are now challenging the secrecy and legislators are beginning to draft limits on use and access, the actual collection and use of this data will not be destroyed. It’s control can only be moved to new hands.

Total surveillance is here to stay. Our laws are only capable of protecting the search for and release of the surveillance. Those in control of surveillance will seek to hide it and to criminalize access and even disclosure of its existence and use. This access is the goal that can and should be obtained. That surveillance records will be kept cannot be changed. That they are broadly available can be enforced.

In general, most societies require their public officials to reveal more abut their personal and work activities than is required of the public they represent. This requirement of transparency is taken for granted and not rigorously enforced. The claim of protection and the greater good of the public is the common justification for officials to withhold information. This impunity from accepted behavior is a current but different problem that will be addressed in another posting.

Given the inevitability of universal surveillance, our best protection is broad access to the surveillance records of all public officials. This would be a FOIA without government middlemen. of curse there would be a continual “cat & mouse” game of trying to conceal governmental wrongdoing, but the legislated right to access must be preserved, not criminalized. Without transparency there can be no accountability.


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