Thursday, June 01, 2006

so, this fiber-optic salesman walked into a bar...

I wish this were a joke, but it's not. I went to a Dad's Book Club meeting last night in Half Moon Bay at the Kitchen & Cocktails and had an amazing conversation with this guy named Jerry [not his real name]. He said he owns a small company that does custom fiber-optic cable and equipment manufacturing.

That reminded me of an article I read recently in Wired Magazine. There have been other articles as well.,70947-0.html

So, I asked Jerry, "Did you hear about the secret court documents that were leaked recently by Wired Magazine? The documents were about a lawsuit against AT&T and were under court seal not to be revealed. The documents give details about how AT&T worked with the National Security Agency to install equipment in San Francisco and in other locations to allow the NSA to spy on nearly every email that is sent or received within the United States. Do you think this is for real?"

Jerry says, "Oh, yeah, we worked on that contract."

Holy crap! What a freakin' coincidence! He had my attention.

Jerry continued, "We worked with a company called CloudShield. There's a splitter on the fiber optic cable that sends the data to computers that do massively parallel processing. The NSA can look at just about every packet sent on the internet in the United States."

Uhhh.... This bothered me. A secretive group within the executive branch of the federal government, without any court order or warrants or outside supervision, was examining every or nearly every email, internet chat, voice-over-the-internet phone call, and website visited by every person in the United States.

Jerry seemed to be very unconcerned about this. He went on, "Yeah, I know to some people that privacy is a really big deal and I understand that. It's like some people are afraid of heights and other people are afraid of the outdoors and other people are really concerned about privacy. As for me, I've got nothing to hide. My emails are totally mundane and boring to anyone listening."

Well, call me crazy, but since when is concern about the 4th Amendment similar to agoraphobia? There's a reason we have checks and balances -- absolute power corrupts absolutely and we cannot simply close our eyes and trust one branch of the government to not abuse its power without an independent branch of government checking up on things. Jerry agreed with me that balance of power is important and that this intrusion on civil liberties is a slippery slope and can lead to future abuses. We went on to talk about the rise of Nazi Germany and how it was a legal takeover that brought them to power, and the cycles of liberalism and conservatism. We pretty much saw eye-to-eye.

So, what a conversation and revelation. This reminds me when my mom first got on to the Internet and started using email. In one of my mom's first emails, on Nov. 1, 2004, she wrote a bunch of political and religious opinions followed by "Is it safe to write stuff that's not politically correct? Just wondering!"

My response was, in part, "Regarding e-mail security, it's basically not secure. You shouldn't send credit card info in an e-mail, for example." At least I got that part right. At the time, I would have thought only a conspiracy nut would believe that our government was scanning nearly every bit of every American's online communication. No longer. Any NSA employee with the right clearance can examine any email you send without a warrant. If they can further identify your computer by IP address, they might be able to know every website you visit and anything else you do online.

Add to this the NSA's warrant-less wiretapping of phones. And the recent revelation that the government knows about every phone call you make and who and when you called (except for Qwest subscribers; they didn't cooperate). Again, all this without warrant or independent oversight.

Getting on my soapbox:

Our Founding Fathers created a pretty amazing document -- The United States Constitution. They were aware of the dangers of unchecked government power. Here's the 4th Amendment, short and sweet:

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.
One more infuriating aspect about all of this unconstitutional spying is that I don't think it's necessary. We don't really have to choose between security and civil rights. The FISA Court was set up for the sole purpose of quickly granting secret warrants to enable tracking down terrorists. The warrants can even be gotten for several days after the wiretapping has begun. There could be put in place a similar system of checks and balances for examining internet communications.

What can we do? Here's what I can think of:
1. Call or write or email your Representatives and Senators. They perked up when people complained about the high gas prices. But this requires some extra effort and maybe our voices would not rise above the noise.
2. Mid-term elections are coming up. Vote for members of Congress who have a backbone and who are financially independent of (currently) the Republican National Committee. A Congress that rubber-stamps whatever the president wants and ignores unconstitutional behavior is not acting as a check on the executive branch's power. On a related note, if you want independent politicians, give your donations to them directly rather than to the national public parties, then politicians won't be so beholden to national party leaders.
3. Bush is stubborn and arrogant. He's not going to change. Impeachment seems completely reasonable for trampling the Constitution and ignoring the law. Don't buy the "but not at a time of war" rhetoric -- short of annihilating the whole human race, there will always be evil doers and terrorists. It's a time-honored technique for those in power to declare a never-ending state of emergency to scare the population into submission.
4. Pass this along? Perhaps someone with more time and energy than I do can make more of a difference.


Update 6/7/06:
Pretty Good Privacy is a standard for sending secure emails:

For a good article on how email works and why it's not normally secure: