Verizon and the NSA – a response to five non-arguments justifying surveillance

Today my tweeting was heavily focused on the revelation that Verizon gave up a significant amount of information to the NSA. Among the many interesting pieces I read was an attempt by Slate’s Will Saletan to justify the surveillance. In a nutshell, Saletan argues:

  1. It isn’t wiretapping.
  2. It’s judicially supervised.
  3. It’s congressionally supervised.
  4. It expires quickly unless it’s reauthorized.
  5. Wiretaps would require further court orders.

See his article for further details. But in brief, his arguments seem to rest on the bases that the surveillance could be worse (true but not a justification), and that there are lots of nifty procedures to provide oversight (doubtful that they work). Below are the responses that I posted on Slate to Mr. Saletan’s arguments (slightly edited), providing my own translations for what I think the arguments really amount to:

  1. “It isn’t wiretapping.” Translated: it could be worse, so suck it up. Not a real strong starting point.
  2. “It’s judicially supervised.” Translated: the FISA court “supervises” the surveillance, which means that it probably usually rubber-stamps what the executive branch wants. But since it’s a secret court, we have no idea what’s going on.
  3. “It’s congressionally supervised.” Translation: Congress also “supervises” the surveillance, which means it also likely rubber-stamps what the executive branch wants.
  4. “It expires quickly unless it’s reauthorized.” Translation: the surveillance is likely reauthorized continually, making the authorization process a joke. And since we don’t know what’s going on, we’re not in on the joke. We are the joke.
  5. “Wiretaps would require further court orders.” Translation: it’s “only” metadata, which ignores the fact that metadata—when aggregated with other user metadata and external sources of data—is extremely revealing of private information. The argument that “[w]iretaps would require further court orders” also goes full-circle back to point #1 that it could be worse, which again is not real persuasive.

Saying that something could be worse is hardly an argument. We don’t justify burglary by saying that arson is worse. And “oversight” is meaningless when it is a rubber-stamp that is unseen by the public. Indeed, meaningless procedures provide nothing more a veil of lawfulness to otherwise outrageous conduct. As Congressperson John Dingell once famously said about procedure, “I’ll let you write the substance … you let me write the procedure, and I’ll screw you every time.”

Cross-posted to Infoglut Tumblr.

Is Zoetrope the next-gen Internet Archive?

Although the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is a great research tool, its utility is hampered but a lack of basic search mechanisms.  One can search by URL and archived links, but basic Google-style boolean searching isn’t available.  The Archive once offered a beta boolean search tool, but it never worked and it was later withdrawn.

However, a new application may significantly expand our ability to data-mine archived webdata. Reports give a sneak peek at Zoetrope, an application being developed by researchers at Adobe and the University of Washington.  As put by the researchers:

The Web is ephemeral. Pages change frequently, and it is nearly impossible to find data or follow a link after the underlying page evolves. We present Zoetrope, a system that enables interaction with the historical Web (pages, links, and embedded data) that would otherwise be lost to time. Using a number of novel interactions, the temporal Web can be manipulated, queried, and analyzed from the context of familar [sic] pages. Zoetrope is based on a set of operators for manipulating content streams. We describe these primitives and the associated indexing strategies for handling temporal Web data. They form the basis of Zoetrope and enable our construction of new temporal interactions and visualizations.

The demo video shows how historical webdata could be manipulated and compared, as the authors note, in a variety of “novel” ways.  Even more significantly, researcher Eytan Adar “hopes to eventually incorporate information from the Internet Archive’s nearly 14 years of records.” Such a combination would massively increase the utility of web archives, but would also — as discussed in a paper I’m writing — exacerbate concerns over informational autonomy.

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The research paper can be found here.

Odysseus and tax day

Nature.com reports that several researchers have combined astronomical data with events in Homer’s Odyssey to pinpoint the exact date on which a returning Odysseus executed his wife’s suitors.

Marcelo Magnasco and Constantino Baikouzis identified four astronomical events in the epic poem and calculated dates within 100 years of the fall of Troy that would fit in with the events described around Odysseus’s return home and the ensuing slaughter of men propositioning his wife.

According to the researchers, the date was April 16, 1178 BCE.  That’s also the day after Tax Day, though I’m pretty sure the IRS didn’t exist back then.

(Abstract and paper here; press release here).