Tuesday, January 15, 2008

We had to destroy the village in order to save it

That seems to be the logic behind spy chief Mike McConnell's breezy description of his plan to monitor every bit of communication on the Internet. This according to a wide-ranging interview (not yet online) in New Yorker magazine.

The nation's top spy, Michael McConnell, thinks the threat of cyberarmageddon! is so great that the U.S. government should have unfettered and warrantless access to U.S. citizens' Google search histories, private e-mails and file transfers, in order to spot the cyberterrorists in our midst.

It's hard to believe he would actually suggest such a thing. But it's not just an outraged Wired blogger saying it. So is the Wall Street Journal. And myriad other outlets.

Unless McConnell's own description of his plan is completely off the mark, I can't think of a meaningful debate to have over it. Even if he's right -- that massive eavesdropping is the only way to catch cyberterrorists or terrorists using the Internet to organize attacks -- the proposed solution is so violative of common notions of privacy that it is simply beyond consideration.

And what happens when the terrorists switch to snail mail -- will the government suddenly find it necessary to open and read everybody's letters?

McConnell's NSA background really comes through on issues like this. The NSA, after all, is a giant data vacuum, sucking up information a thousand different ways from a thousand classified sources. That's the hammer he's used to, and it's natural that every problem he encounters looks like a nail.

But the NSA listens in on overseas conversations, not domestic ones. What McConnell has essentially proposed is turning that capacity inward, on to our own citizens, in a surveillance society that would put the secret police of even the most tightly controlled dictatorship to shame.

Sure, there would be legal protections: no getting thrown in a dark hole simply for saying something unkind about the government. At least, not yet or not often.

But it shifts the whole balance of power between citizen and government. A limited government is prevented from knowing too much about you, and thus is powerless to misuse information it does not have. A limited citizenry surrenders the information but trusts government-enforced laws to protect it from ... the government.

Fox guarding the henhouse, anyone?

Its like the apocryphal crocodile bird, which walks into the mouths of crocodiles and picks junk off their teeth. Generally, it doesn't get eaten. But it's totally at the mercy of the croc. Is that freedom?

The government has legitimate law-enforcement and national-security needs, and surveillance is part of their toolbox. But it's a limited tool for a reason. If we cannot protect ourselves from terrorists by using warrants, then we either have to come up with a different strategy or just get used to living with a higher level of risk. Freedom isn't free, to put a different twist on an overused saying.

So, to McConnell: Not just no, but hell no.

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Anonymous caracarn said...

The creep toward fascism continues...

1/16/2008 9:37 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

While it's kind of mind-blowing that he would publicly propose this, I think this thing is DOA both with the citizenry and with Congress. So for now, I'm not worried; just astonished.

1/16/2008 10:00 AM  
Blogger The (ex) Cowboy said...

At some point, regardless of the frightening liberties concerns, and the wild hints of stupidity, these proposals are just too expensive and too complicate to be WORTH the costs.

I mean, what are we protecting here? Porn? The only thing they are protecting, is the ID and data the government already stole for me, um from me, um, well, whatever....

Can't we be anti-terror and anti stupid?


1/24/2008 10:19 AM  

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