Obama’s Change.gov promise to protect whistleblowers? Scrubbed from the Web

Well, this pissed me off. Long-time readers of this site may recall my interest in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which aims to preserve the historical web. I’ve previously written to criticize the Bush administration for its lengthy robots.txt exclusion file (thousands of lines long), which could be viewed as an attempt to prevent the Wayback Machine and others from archiving portions of his White House website. I also wrote to compliment the new Obama White House website for its much shorter, and much more archive-friendly robots file.

But now the Obama administration is scrubbing the web, too. John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation reports that materials from Obama’s old transition website at Change.gov have recently been deleted. Although the main page has referred users for a while to the Whitehouse.gov site, internal pages regarding his agenda were still online, and “until recently, you could still continue on to see the materials and agenda laid out by the administration.”

So why the change? Wonderlich speculates — and I think 100% correctly — that the internal Change.gov pages were removed due to broken and now inconvenient promises made in the transition team’s “Obama-Biden Plan” to protect whistleblowers. Considering the administration’s consistent actions in aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and others, the administration likely decided to scrub inconvenient promises it made during the transition period.

But in an era of permanent digital records (hello, NSA and its yottabytes of storage in Utah!), how can the Obama administration be so naïve as to think that somebody wouldn’t: 1) notice the missing pages; 2) find the old site; and 3) point it out? As a prosecutor might say, destroying evidence may be proof of a guilty conscience. The administration’s naïveté is positively striking, considering that Obama’s people are widely touted as being extremely tech-savvy.

See for yourself. In an Internet Archive capture of the Change.gov site from June 7, 2013 (barely a month ago), a page on ethics (!) in the Obama-Biden Plan promised to protect whistleblowers:

Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.

Here’s a screen cap. According to the Wayback Machine, this was still online as recently as June 7:

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Post-Snowden, this is what you see today:

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The difference? No doubt it’s the Snowden affair, which broke in early June. A Google search of Change.gov for “whistleblowers” conducted today (screen cap here) shows no hits, so the page apparently has not been moved to another URL on the site. It simply seems to be gone.

Even more disturbingly, this may reflect a broader trend of digital scrubbing. Wonderlich notes that this is not the first time that Obama administration documents have disappeared from the internet. An earlier posting of his includes a letter the Sunlight Foundation and others sent to the Department of Labor criticizing the administration for removing materials. As the letter states, “No major administration decision should be accompanied by related materials disappearance from public view.”

HT Animal. Cross-posted to Infoglut Tumblr.

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.

What about mail surveillance?

Yesterday’s posting on unconsented cell phone surveillance reminded me of an excellent column that Peter Shane wrote a while back in Jurist where he pointed out that any technical legality of the NSA surveillance program is besides the point.  Shane asked, what if the Post Office created a database with the addresses contained on every piece of mail it handles.  Even if, hypothetically, such a program were legal:

An America in which ordinary citizens have their mail “surveilled” would be a different America from the country in which virtually all of us think we live.  Our freedom would be lost not because a law was broken, but because of the breakdown in respect for the norms of liberty and government self-restraint.

I think much the same could be said of the ends-justifies-the-means thinking of the Northeastern University researchers who got a European cell phone provider to give them individualized location information on 100,000 unknowing customers. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.

Facebook: job-hunting, non-invisibility, and the creepiness factor

Note to job applicants: your potential employers aren’t just looking at Google and Yahoo.

Sunday’s New York Times includes a really interesting article by Alan Finder on how some companies now investigate job applicants on social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Xanga, and Friendster. See For Some, Online Persona Undermines a Résumé.”

The article underscores a simple but important fact: users of social network sites shouldn’t assume that their postings are private. Although names like “MySpace” paint an image of personal spaces, personal doesn’t mean private. It’s not difficult to get into these sites – as the article notes, for some sites such as MySpace, you generally only need to register. For Facebook, to view entries for a particular college, you only need an e-mail address from that college.

That means an awful lot of people can view Facebook entries: alumni with email addresses (which could include potential employers), professors, even campus police. Despite this, at an emotional level, many people assume that their personal websites, blogs, and social network postings are relatively personal spaces that won’t be noticed or invaded by others. These assumptions are wrong in at least two ways.

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