The Death of Privacy and the Curse of Secret Investigations

A maze, courtesy of Wikipedia

The reason why public business should be conducted in the open, according to Cheryl Chumley of the Washington Times, is that abuse and conspiracy thrive in the dark.


Civil rights advocates have been warning for years that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the entire Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act system of issuing secret warrants are rife with potential for abuse; are handovers of powers to secret sources that better belong in the hands of duly elected and appointed judges conducting business in open court; and are flagrantly, blatantly unconstitutional. And now we know they’re right.

The FBI had pursued an investigation of a presidential campaign on the basis of a dossier bought and paid for by the rival candidate with incalculable results: “This is the FBI’s darkest hour.”  The most disquieting aspect of the whole affair was pointed out by the NY Post editorial board.  Could more abuses have been committed against the general public? If the FBI could fabricate pretexts against prominent individuals who could afford the best lawyers, how safe were ordinary individuals from the secret inquisitors?

“Now that we know FBI agents deceived the court to get the warrants to spy on Trump campaign aide Carter Page, the big question is: Was this the exception, or the rule?

That is, has the bureau taken to regularly lying in its 1,500 requests a year for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act wiretaps — or did higher-ups opt to go rogue in this particular case?” …

As Adam Mill dramatically put it: “It’s the greatest scandal in U.S. legal history. Most chilling of all is that the current FBI chief, Christopher Wray, recently shrugged-off FBI agents lying to the FISA court.”  Maybe Wray was not surprised.  But Mill may have been wrong in applying the phrase “greatest scandal” to the FISA affair.  The New York Times editorial board argues that a much bigger abuse is being inflicted upon an unsuspecting public. Every moment of every day you are under surveillance by your phone and providers don’t even apply for a warrant. NYT reporters were given a workaday data set collected by application providers.


By analyzing these pings, our journalists were able to track the movements of President Trump’s Secret Service guards and of senior Pentagon officials. They could follow protesters to their homes and stalk high-school students across Los Angeles. In most cases, it was child’s play for them to connect a supposedly anonymous data trail to a name and an address — to a real live human being.

Your smartphone can broadcast your exact location thousands of times per day, through hundreds of apps, instantaneously to dozens of different companies. Each of those companies has the power to follow individual mobile phones wherever they go, in near-real time.

That’s not a glitch in the system. It is the system.

If the government ordered Americans to continuously provide such precise, real-time information about themselves, there would be a revolt. Members of Congress would trample one another to be first in front of the cable news cameras to quote the founders and insist on our rights to be free of such pervasive surveillance.

Yet, as a society, without ever focusing on this profound choice, we’ve reached a tacit consensus to hand this data over voluntarily, even though we don’t really know who’s getting it or what they’re doing with it. As the close of 2019 approaches, everybody is searching for the meaning of the decade. Here’s a thought: This is the decade — the period since the founding of the App Store, in 2008 — in which we were brainwashed into surveilling ourselves.


It would have been more convincing if the thundering NYT denunciation of surveillance had not also contained the boilerplate footer: “Like other media companies, The Times collects data on its visitors when they read stories like this one. For more detail please see our privacy policy and our publisher’s description of The Times’s practices and continued steps to increase transparency and protections.” Even the NYT can’t help spying on the public any more than anyone else.

The FISA abuses have shown there are two trains inexorably moving in opposite directions.  The first is a trend toward secret state inquiries fueled by the exigencies of the War on Terror and a renewed great power rivalry.  The other is the Surveillance Express run by Big Silicon conveying the world’s billions toward the total destruction of their privacy.

The two trains, one the government doing more things in secret,  the other bearing a public that cannot even keep its home life private will collide somewhere. It’s a tailor-made recipe for political conflict, a disaster waiting to happen; and there is no shortage of political operatives piling on the steam. On the day of the 2019 general elections that led to the defeat of the British Labour Party,  Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, founders of the research firm Fusion GPS, wrote that “Britain needs its own Mueller report on Russian ‘interference.’”


The British political system has become thoroughly compromised by Russian influence. … Our Washington-based research firm, Fusion GPS, conducted much of the early investigations into Russia’s support of the Trump campaign, aided by our colleague Christopher Steele, the former head of MI6’s Russia desk. While our initial focus was on Russian meddling in US politics, it has since become increasingly clear that Britain’s political system has also been deeply affected by Russian influence operations.

What Simpson could have said is that Western politics has become thoroughly compromised by the information imbalance brought on by the simultaneous death of privacy and expanded secret investigation of the kind he is expert in. “This asymmetry creates an imbalance of power in transactions, which can sometimes cause the transactions to go awry, a kind of market failure in the worst case.” It ruins careers, sows intrigue and worst of all falls flat on its face without open adversarial challenge, without the sunlight that disinfects rumor and hearsay.

FISA reforms by themselves will do little to slow the growing mistrust between institutions and the public occasioned by a population trapped between the searchlights and operatives determined — and able — to operate in the darkness.

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Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.

The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

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