Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Through a PRISM darkly

Meet Vince, who will be collecting my $2.06 coffee and beef stick tab for the foreseeable future.

  After almost three months since I reported that Cody was leaving his position as the Jiffy night shift weekend clerk, a replacement has been found. The new weekend clerk is Vincent, who is the son of weekday overnight clerk Dot. Vincent trained for two weeks and had his first solo shifts this past weekend. So far the reviews are stellar: the coffee was hot and the beef stick hopper was well stocked. No one knows what the future will bring, but it looks as if Vincent is settling in a for a long run as Daisy and Baxter’s new beef stick contact at the Jiffy.

  After Edward Snowden quit his $120,000 job as a technical contractor for the National Security Agency, he may have given Vincent some competition for the position at the Jiffy but instead Snowden leaked the details of the United States secret surveillance program code named PRISM and is holed up in Moscow trying to escape being extradited to the United States and tried as a traitor under the 1917 Espionage Act. The PRISM program is run by the National Security Administration and intercepts internet and phone traffic that is routed through the Unites States, which is scoured by NSA analysts to gather emails and phone calls to help locate foreign terrorists and foil their terrorist plots.

  I don’t think very many people were surprised the government is monitoring phone and internet traffic, but the scope of the PRISM program surprised everyone. On a daily basis, Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T turn over data concerning all its customers’ phone calls and Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Skype, and Apple are among the many participants in the PRISM program providing data to the NSA about who is going to what internet site and the emails that are received and sent. Credit card information is also collected. The NSA has every bit of everyone’s electronic footprint at its beck and call.

  The government from top to bottom has gone into a frantic spin control mode to make everyone knows that a) collecting the data in the national interest (Deputy press secretary John Earnest – “a critical tool in preventing the nation from terror threats”); b) that is subject to rigorous oversight (Senator Diane Feinstein - “As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years…This renewal is carried out by the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] under the business records section of the PATRIOT Act. Therefore, it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress; c) No one really cares (Senator Saxby Chambliss - “To my knowledge, there has not been any citizen who has registered a complaint”) and that it only involves foreigners (President Barack Obama - “do not involve listening to people’s phone calls, do not involve reading the e-mails of U.S. citizens or U.S. residents, absent further action by a federal court, that is entirely consistent with what we would do, for example, in a criminal investigation.” And that is all true. The program keeps getting renewed and permissions for all this surveillance must be obtained from something called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court which has denied exactly 11 warrant requests in almost 35 years!

  While the news that the government is spying on the electronic movements of its own citizens was met with outrage from the predictable sources, the outcry from the government over Snowden’s extradition to the United States from Moscow and Hong Kong was what made the revelations front page news. Without that outrage, there would have been some embarrassment over our government not only doing the same sort of civilian spying that we accuse Russia and China of doing to their civilian population but also the citizens of our allies. Once the politicians stopped talking about Snowden, he all but disappeared from the news.

  Sales of George Orwell’s novel 1984 have spiked since the NSA revelations and the PRISM program does contain elements of a government scrutinizing its own citizens in the name of protecting them against the unseen enemy. Even if the government analysts or their hired subcontractors aren’t supposed to read or listen to private email and phone calls unless they are 51% sure that it involves a foreigner, any communication that involves a criminal inquiry is fair game, domestic or foreign, and no one can have any confidence that anything they think is private is private.

  Two months ago IRS has recently admitted to targeting groups with the name ‘Patriot’ and ‘Tea Party’ for extra scrutiny. At first it was blamed on a couple of rogue agents but the admitted abuses kept on growing and more and more higher level IRS officials resigned and finally the latest IRS commissioner said the abuses were more widespread than previously disclosed. In decades past liberal groups like ACORN were singled out for special attention from the IRS. Criticism from politicians of all stripes (except the specific groups affected) have always been muted because both ‘parties’ want to be able to abuse the system when they are in power. If everyone’s emails, phone conversations, and Internet usage are kept on file, how could any political entity be trusted not to abuse this information if it’s available? The secretly taped remarks made by Mitt Romney about the 47% of the people who would never vote for him was very damaging to his presidential campaign last year. Imagine a politician running for office and two days before the election having to explain why they had the Al Jazeera cable network on TV every night or received 6 emails of support from Paula Deen?

  While the 1984 comparisons to the PRISM program have much merit, it reminds me more of the ‘Matrix’ movies where the computers run the world or the ‘Skynet’ program from the Terminator films. Even all this top secret information at PRISM’s disposal couldn’t stop the bombing at the Boston Marathon and it is a sure thing that amongst the ELEVEN MILLION undocumented immigrants or illegal aliens or insert your own buzzword there are at least a few terrorists. So it is only a small leap of logic to have a computer put in charge of the PRISM program not only to keep the information from prying eyes but also to efficiently target our enemies. AND since we are our own worst enemy, we will all soon be the targets as the computers run everything for our benefit.

  It’s not a given that a computer takeover will necessarily be an apocalyptic event; it may be a boon to society. Last week at work I needed to find an email from a customer but couldn’t find the folder it was in. It would have been so nice to be able to just dial 1-800-MYY-PRISM and have a copy of the email sent directly to me. And when I lost my thumb drive and was looking frantically for it yesterday, PRISM could have come to the rescue and let me know where I left it (it was in the bottom of my chess box but THEY already knew that). And maybe someday, before we take Daisy and Baxter out for beef stick treats, PRISM can tell us whether Vince has the beef stick hopper stocked.

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