I’ve said many times before that I don’t want to ban guns. With the amount of guns on the market already and the amount that would likely sell before a ban took effect, it would not only be ineffective it would be dangerously polarizing. I also don’t think it’s the right way to view the problem. Responsible people should be allowed to freely purchase firearms. What we need are better authentication systems to determine who is responsible which is largely what gun control advocates want. Opponents have a whole host of fears doubts and outright conspiracies about these systems. Mind you none of the proposed systems would prevent hunters from owning the guns they desire for their lifestyle, or the people who desire personal protection of their choice. Many gun control opponents though claim they are just standing up for their Second amendment rights and that it is important because it’s the only way to protect our freedoms. The Second amendment is what separates us from tyranny. I would argue that the Second amendment is an antiquated back up redundancy to the only true protection to our freedoms the 1st amendment. This is a problem because while people have been spending a lot of time trying to protect a backup system that no longer works, our number one protection of freedom has been eviscerated.
The Second Amendment: The Maginot Line of the Constitution.
I love the history of the Maginot line. For those unfamiliar with the history of World War I and II the Maginot line was a series of outposts and obstacles built during the buildup to World War II along the French-German border. It is a case study in how you cannot rely on events to repeat themselves in the exact same way. The French built themselves an amazing fortification between themselves and the Germans that was rendered impotent almost immediately as the Germans moved around it by invading through Belgium. In much the same way the right to own a gun will do very little to stop the government from running roughshod over your freedoms. Back when the constitution was ratified the US was an agrarian society with a tiny population relative to its geography. Yet even then owning a musket would do little against government forces showing up at your doorstep. In an age of stealth bombers, unmanned drones, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, all launched and coordinated remotely from space how pray tell does even the most obscene assault rifle protect your rights?
The Right to Privacy
Another complaint of the gun control opponents is that the suggested policies would allow the government to invade our privacy and establish a database of citizens. How can I say this… too late? Many have suspected this for a long time, and many elected officials have even flat out said this was happening. After last week though there should no longer be any doubt our government knows who we are and what we do. Not only that they can with a disturbing amount of accuracy predict what we plan on doing. Our privacy no longer exists and I hate to say it the internet is to blame. Or rather, the internet is not to blame but allows this to happen. Think about it, Target is able to predict when someone becomes pregnant just so they can send them coupons for diapers. It is now clear that at least since 9-11 and probably earlier, the government has become obsessed with spying on people living in the US. Just so you know what I’m talking about here three big stories came out last week, the first one being that Verizon has been giving the government meta data on all its business subscribers tracking phone identification numbers, and call logs. The government says they have not been listening to the conversations, but there are few problems with this assurance:
- This is of little consolation as the information gathered is already a gross overreach of government surveillance,
- The revealed documents were classified and only became public as a result of a court case, and therefore more classified requests that have not been revealed by the court could go much further,
- It is inconsistent with the other two stories.
The lesser covered story that came out this week was that Google has lost a court case in which the FBI can request customer data without a warrant. Meaning that pretty much the FBI at any time can simply draft a memo and get pretty much anything they want from any company that has any information on you. One more important caveat with these memos, they also say the company can’t tell anyone, not even the person who is being investigated, that the request was made or what has been revealed. Finally the big bomb shell, a career security agent has given information revealing a program that allows the government to tap into pretty much everything on the internet. So to recap, the government won’t tell us the extent of their spying, we have discovered that they can write a memo and force companies to give up any information about you without your knowledge, and they have some system that allows them to monitor most of the internet. How sure are we that they aren’t listening to our phone calls, and at this point does it even matter?
The End of the Wild West of the Internet
To find out how we got here we have to take a step back and look back at the relatively early days of the web. Back in the early 90s the internet was a playground of anonymity. At the time it was extremely difficult to track people. A lot has changed in the past twenty years. In order to turn the internet into a marketplace some method of authentication was necessary. Given the amount money processed on the internet these days authentication has clearly become a growth industry. The result is everything we do online is traceable. Besides the information we volunteer to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and others it is important to realize any site that requires a cookie (meaning all of them) is collecting information that can in some way be linked to you. The argument can be made that these companies have a fiduciary imperative to safeguard this information in order to maintain the trust of the users of their service. Unfortunately that falls apart if they are compelled by the federal government to violate that trust, particularly if they can retroactively be given blanket immunity by congress.
The “Necessity” of the Security State
The government wants us to believe that all this tracking is necessary to keep Americans safe from those who would do us harm. The argument is twofold, first no one wants another 9-11 so it is necessary to do any and everything to prevent that from happening, and second if you aren’t doing anything wrong than you won’t have anything to worry about. Both of these arguments are wrong because they don’t just rely on shoddy reasoning but because they violate our core principles. Think about the first argument. Is it possible that reading all our emails and tracking all the websites we visit would keep us safer, yes, but why stop there? Wouldn’t it make us fundamentally safer to have the government come into our home whenever it wanted to make sure we hadn’t built a bomb in the kitchen of our mom, to paraphrase the idiot murders in Al Qaeda. Logically it would, but we don’t allow that to happen because it is an obvious violation of our core principles namely the 4th amendment. Should some information be easily accessible by law enforcement, yes potentially, but if it is without a court order it should be limited strictly to what is publicly available.
We See You but You Can’t See Us
Of course one of the biggest problems with this whole mess is the secrecy. It’s easy to think that you have no reason to fear your government but because we don’t know who is doing the tracking and for what purpose, nor do we know how people are added or eliminated from scrutiny there is no way of telling what the government thinks is suspicious. After the Boston bombing is everyone who purchases a pressure cooker flagged? Do people who match a particular profile automatically get added to the list? Is there even a list? Can minors be put on the list? If we’re put on the list accidentally, how do we get off the list? Hell what if there was a valid reason to put us on the list in the past can you ever come off the list? People would like you to believe that this secrecy is necessary because it is the only way to prevent the wrong people from also having this information. It’s called security through obscurity. But this is not the only method. The tech industry must deal with this problem all the time. They have to safeguard their user’s information from any number of prying eyes. There is of course the security through obscurity model. This is typified by closed source programming. Microsoft and Apple do not show you how their operating systems work; they give you tools so you can interact with it but the core of how the system works is a secret. In contrast Linux and the operating systems based of Linux like android reveal how each line of code works it is open source. Neither is perfect, exploits are revealed on both systems constantly both are regularly compromised and updates are necessary to prevent people from harm. The thing you have to ask yourself is which of these two systems align with our core values as a democratic society. In a closed source environment one entity is solely responsible for maintaining and securing the safety of the system. It is up to this sole entity to decide what a threat is and how to deal with this threat. In the open source environment it is up to the community to maintain security. Everyone is looking patch holes because a threat doesn’t just threaten one person it threatens everyone. It’s become cliché to say sunlight is the best disinfectant, but that implies a cleanliness that is really improbably to achieve. Security solutions are as complicated, messy, and cludgy as the threats to them. Nothing will be perfect nothing will be clean that being the case it becomes important to stay true to your beliefs because that determines how people react when you’re security inevitable fails.
Just let me do my job
But what about the people doing the actual watching? Won’t creating a bunch of rules just make it harder for them to catch the bad guys? I mean we’ve all seen those movies and TV shows where the good cop knows just how to get the guilty criminal but some idiotic judge won’t give him a stupid warrant and so the good guy bravely goes rogue and goes around the system that just won’t let him do his job. Overcoming adversity is a deeply heroic trait in our society and if that adversity is bureaucratic “nonsense” well that’s downright patriotic. Except what if the cop was wrong? What if that cop has an axe to grind against someone who wronged him? What if someone has something on the cop and is blackmailing him to harass someone? The premise that we should just trust these guys is a bit hard to swallow because it presumes that everyone working for the NSA is a good guy. Most of the people doing this aren’t even government employees. They are private contractors. The security complex in this country is so massive that it cannot be contained within the walls of government agencies. This to me leaves a glaring security weakness. It’s bold to say just trust the government with this amount of data, it’s a whole different scenario to say trust company x because they were the lowest bidder on this contract.
The truth is the NSA doesn’t need this kind of access. Like I said before it would make us a lot safer if the cops could just search all of our homes whenever they wanted to, but they are not allowed to do that. Cops can still prevent crime without that kind of access and so can the NSA. To me this has parallels to New York City’s controversial “Stop and Frisk” policy. Ray Kelly the police commissioner claims that it’s the only way to keep New York safe but there is no correlation between the policy and changes in crime in the city. The stop and frisk policy just like the NSA spying program feel effective because it is something tangible that can be tracked. But there is a huge disconnect between the amount these tools are used and the supposed amount of crime they disrupt. More than 80% of people stopped and frisked are innocent, and I’d imagine, if we knew the extent of the data collected, an even higher number of people investigated by the NSA are searched without probable cause. Remember all this surveillance has been around for years, these aren’t proposals these are implemented policies and so far they have a poor track record. While neither the underwear bomber nor the time square bomber were successful this enhanced security failed to flag them beforehand. The same can be said about the shooters around the country who managed to kill dozens before being taken down. Even after the fact the Boston bombing suspects were difficult to identify with these tactics. Doing your job should not mean violating millions of Americans inalienable rights.
Reclaiming your big data
The solution to this mess will begin to become clear as the scope of the problem reveals itself. The truth is this is bigger than the government spying program. Part of what makes this all possible is that we don’t own our own data. Companies buy and sell our data all the time. This is true for everything from when you log in to your Google or Facebook account to when you use your valued shopper card at the supermarket. Drug stores sell information on what drugs your doctor prescribes to you so that drug companies can advertise costlier drugs. The credit rating agencies literally cost people thousands of dollars a year with their errors yet somehow manage to still make millions off of our data. This is a problem both technically and legislatively. We must come up with a way to allow companies to perform the roles they are providing now but in a way that leaves the citizen in control over how much access is granted. For example can they only access your anonymized data or can they access your identifiable info? How long are they granted access? In the age of social media these rules are being hashed out in real time in regards to your Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ information. Users can revoke access for certain apps that access this info, and even regulate how much access they have. The problem is what if you want to leave Facebook? This is where legislation and data portability come into play. We can get to a point where we have control over how our data is used and put in place legal frameworks for when the government with adequate probably cause and transparent oversight can still gain access in matters of national security.
The First Amendment – The Bulwark of Democracy
Our Second Amendment rights offer us little in terms of reforming the system and clawing back the rights the government has indeed desecrated. How will owning a gun prevent the government from reading my email? Recording my phone calls? Tracking my movements though my cell phone, GPS, or EZ-Pass? I’m sorry but it’s not the Second Amendment that assures our individual liberty it’s the First. It wasn’t armed citizens that brought down the totalitarian governments in the Middle East. It was the ability to assembly and demand redress of grievances. What will keep us free is not a shot gun in our car but a free press reporting on the wrong doings of our government forcing them to remain honest. The only way things get better is if we rediscover the role this plays in our democracy.