People Just Don’t Understand

userpic=soapboxWhile eating lunch, my mind kept going back to a post I saw yesterday at lunch from Wil Wheaton titled “How to Turn a Democracy into a STASI Authoritarian State in 10 Steps“. It got me infuriated, because neither the US nor the UK is anywhere near the STASI political apparatus. So I decided to write something up… and then let it sit until the evening were I could review it over dinner. In general, these statements come about because people really don’t know what they are talking about, at least in the detail. So although I don’t know what I’m talking about either, let’s correct what misconceptions I can:

  • Information is not arbitrarily classified for convenience, as Wil’s link implies. Classification requires the original owner of the information to make a determination that release of the information will cause some level of damage to the nation (the level of damage determines the classification). Given that there is a large cost to handling classified information, there is often a push not to classify. However, some cultures and organizations tend to exist in a classified bubble, and routinely classify information when it might not really need it. Often, this is an artifact of poor information technology — if you are working at System High, it is easier to deal with everything classified. Give us true multilevel systems (i.e., systems that can reliably separate data of different levels with appropriate assurance and at reasonable cost), and you’ll likely see stuff float to realistic classifications. But the important takeaway is that information is not classified just to hide it from the public.
  • Understanding classification demonstrates why what Snowden and Manning did was so problematic. It wasn’t per-se the “whistle-blowing” — it was how they did it. If something wrong is being done — where “wrong” is defined as either morally or legally — it should be reported.*  However, the way they did it was a problem. They were not in a position to have the visibility or enterprise view to truly determine the damage the information release could do. They were both low-level. This is not to say that they had to run it up their reporting chain (where it might be suppressed)… but going to the media was the wrong way to do it. They should have gone to their elected representative — House or Senate — to discuss what they were seeing. The representatives are cleared, they have the larger view, and they have the legal and moral obligation to both defend the constitution and defend the nation. Further, there is always someone in Congress just itching to start an investigation of government wrongdoing. Even if you believe in a grand government conspiracy, it is hard to believe all 535 elected congresscritters are equally brainwashed. [ETA: This post shows why what Snowden did was such a problem.]
  • [*: As for whether what has been reported is “wrong”: It may have been legal under some readings of the law. It may even have been in the interest of defending the nation. But at least based on the information disclosed to date, it gives the appearance of being a privacy concern, which is an American issue. Any congresscritter should know that the appearance of wrong can often be worse than anything.]
  • As for the detention of David Miranda — that was the UK’s doing, not the US. The White House had denied it was involved. Of course, Wil doesn’t believe that denial. [ETA: This post (same as above) also shows why Miranda’s detention was not what it appeared to be — that is, the detention of an innocent] This goes to another pet peeve — when did we stop believing our government? There seems to be a belief that all government workers are lazy and inefficient, that all the government does is a lie, that all of government is a waste. This may be an artifact of Vietnam; it may be an artifact of Nixon… but at one point we trusted government, and that trust has been lost and (just like cheating in a relationship) will never return. Part of this problem is Obama’s: Like him or not, he was swept into office on the belief that he was different… that the nation could trust him… and the reality of the position is making him break that trust. He needs to figure out how to regain the high moral ground — and that likely means exerting some moral authority (such as suspending all investigations for a short period except for those revalidated in a normal, non-Secret court, while new privacy protections are put into place).
  • On the other hand, we seem to implicitly trust the motives of big business. I’d be more suspicious of big business (after all, their motive is just to raise the profits for their executives) and less suspicious of government (whose ultimate motive, except for a few bad apples, is protection of the nation — I’ve never seen anyone claim the government is trying to weaken the nation).
  • There seems to be an expectation that government will get it right the first time. Guess what folks… it won’t. Government — as with any bureaucracy — always overreacts. The overreaction is detected, and then overcorrected, and the pendulum swings back and forth, eventually getting closer to right. This happens with everything. In the next year (because government never does anything fast — think about turning a battleship), Congress will work to get privacy restored (although, surprisingly, this will come from the President’s party). Keep up the pressure on your congresscritters.
  • For all the claims that the government has a surveillance state — we don’t (the UK is different, and operates under different rules). Most of the cameras that follow you… are operated by private businesses.  All the tracking of every purchase with a credit card is done by… the banks. All those records of your phone calls… are made by the phone companies. All those requests you make on the internet… by your service providers or Google. The government, if it wants any of that information, must get a request approved (leaving a paper trail) and formally request it. The government, except for the occasional traffic camera, is not watching you. Big Business is (and government is requesting only a small portion of that data). [However… that said, there likely is traffic being monitored directly by the government legally… foreign calls on the international trunk lines… wireless transmissions you are sending unencrypted… and things you do on government websites. [ETA: There are also reports that NSA can supposedly monitor up to 75% of Internet traffic, although it is unlikely to be looking for anything and everything, only specific terms and traffic involving foreign parties — remember, the NSA cannot legally target purely domestic communications by law.]]

There. Now I feel better.