Why State Surveillance Is Worse


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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97 Responses

  1. Avatar zic says:

    I like this very much Jason, and am glad you wrote it.

    But I have one thing I want to push back on: the difference between government personal data collection and corporate personal data collection.

    I agree — the state has the power of incarceration, etc.; and this is a concern. But it’s also done in ‘secrecy.’

    Corporations? Sure, they cannot arrest you. But they’re not collecting data about you for security reasons; they’re collecting data about you for profit motive. There is incentive for them to sell that data to any numbers of buyers; potentially including Russian spammers or a nation state. Considering the relative ease of transferring massive amounts of information about any given individual with an on-line presence, a cell phone, etc., I don’t think it’s wise to separate the Googles and the USGs; it’s all the same activity; what one has, the other can, with the right human assistance, gain.Report

    • Your last paragraph makes a good point, zic. However, I think it also re-inforces Jason’s point that these two types of wrongs (one type done by gov’t, the other by corporations) are different and require different ways to address them.

      Further, I think it’s a lot more likely that the government will pass laws to restrict the actions of corporations than they will to restrict their own power.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Jonathan, the government didn’t collect this data, corporations did.

        What you and Jason are both discussing is how that data’s used; the potential repercussions of collecting and storing the data. It’s rather like treating AIDS after you’ve been exposed rather then avoiding contracting the virus to begin with.

        Once it’s collected and indexed to you, it’s there waiting to be used. Better to rule that there are privacy rights in play at the collection points, and those privacy rules apply to everyone, corporate and government.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          It’s not about the existence of data, though. I’m not sure anyone here objects to the existence of the data. Nor, really, that the government should have access to it. For my own part, I want the government to have access to it.

          The thing is, though, that the government might should have to have a warrant to get the information.

          Preventing Verizon from having the data because if they have it then the government can get it strikes me as overkill, even if we very much oppose Verizon having the data.

          The law should focus on what can and cannot be done with the data, and not whether the data does or doesn’t exist.Report

          • Avatar zic says:

            That’s a very limited view of what data is collected, Will, and that’s part of my point.

            Google, in its efforts to maximize the best advertising for me, has massive amounts of data related to google searches done from my computer. That’s also data. By limiting this discussion to what Verizon has, you fail to talk about the real conundrum: what laws do we want in place to protect/preserve privacy in the age of data. You have to start at the beginning and define what’s okay, what’s invasive. Because any data can become anybody’s data. It can be sold. Stolen. It can be faked. In the wrong hands, it can cause you lots of problems.

            I have a friend who’s business failed; they’re deeply in debt, and their credit is shot. He kept applying for jobs, getting turned down. Finally, some HR person told him it’s because of his credit record.

            I wrote the original welfare fraud detection systems that were put in place after Reagan was elected; and I can tell you that this has been going on for a very long time; that our privacy is girded in all sorts of ways we never even consider. From the credit check/facebook search a potential employer does to the digital communications the government scoops up via telecoms.Report

            • Avatar Will Truman says:

              Zic, I actually oppose the use of credit scores for tangential purposes. I think its use in hiring should be very limited. My wife and I got slammed on our auto insurance due to something in our credit history (and our credit rating was really good, nobody could tell us what the problem was).

              But this again returns to the notion of how the data is used. I think the data should exist.

              With regard to the data that Google is accumulating, maybe there is some of that I would oppose. But I’d consider that to be a relatively minor part of the problem here, and my main interest is in what they do or don’t do with the data, rather than whether they have it.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                I strongly support my freedom to get lower auto insurance premiums due to my credit rating.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                And I strongly support Zic’s freedom to use Bing to search the web.Report

              • Avatar trumwill mobile says:

                I might be more supportive with a more transparent process. We were alarmed when our credit rating caused our insurance to go up $50 a month, so we got our credit ratings checked. Mine was 810 and hers was 730 and nobody could explain what the problem was.

                I’d probably still oppose it on account of the class implications, but transparency would go a long ways to alleviating my concerns.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                I get your concern. The insurance companies and third party vendors have developed proprietary and sophisticated algorithms which use data from credit reports but which are not necessarily the same as our familiar credit scores.

                Where permitted to, they effectively compete on the strength of their ability to determine expected loss costs and customer retention. Even with the well documented errors and imperfections in the data, it is probably the most important factor they use in setting rates (there is a ton of information in credit reports).

                I haven’t been involved in the credit report world for over a decade (insurance companies call it something like “financial stability”), but I do believe most states ( that permit its use at all) require insurance companies to disclose their actions on underwriting and or rating and to allow and encourage customers to fix errors.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                nobody could explain what the problem was

                “I’m sorry, ma’am, but we’ve got some information from a third party whose details he won’t disclose to us that makes you appear to be a bad risk. And it has nothing to do with the fact that you’re a black single mother. Honestly.”Report

              • Avatar zic says:

                Will, I believe that anyone who collects data about you should be required to tell you what they collect and who they share it with. You should be able to request that data and get it yourself.

                I’d also like to see thresholds of collection; beyond a certain defined point, the institution collecting the data should be required to notify you they’re collecting. If it’s about you, you have a right to know it, or so it seems to me.

                Finally, I think there should also be, at the very least, mechanism to opt out, and I’d prefer to see the active mechanism be one of opting in; that your permission is requested, and you knowingly consent.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Zic, I would very much be on board with the sort of disclosure requirements you speak of.Report

  2. Avatar Stillwater says:

    “The NSA isn’t doing anything that Google doesn’t already do,” runs the newly struck establishment line. “So you have nothing to worry about now that you didn’t already have.”

    A lot hinges on the meaning of “doing” in this case. It seems to me that Google accumulates, stores and analyzes data on individuals in order to maximize the firms self-interest (it’s a person after-all!) as reflected in the form profits, eg., via the micro-targetting of ad placements. If the analogy extends to government, then what is government doing when it engages in the same practice? How is self-interest (government’s a person too!) maximized?

    Here’s where the analogy breaks down, it seems to me. Government has an interest in self-preservation (just like a private firm) but the goal of that self-preservation is (or ought to be) purely instrumental: to protect and allow private firms and other individuals (citizens, presumably) to express their self-interest. So governmental policy bears a burden of justification on purely instrumental grounds: does the policy or practice government is engaging in further the interests of the private citizens or society at large? The answer might involve appeal to rights or pure utlitarianism, but either way, the burden is on justifying government’s actions. In the case of surveillance and PRISM and whatnot, it seems to me that from both a rights as well as a utilitarian pov, the practice isn’t justified.

    At this point, since my own thoughts are still somewhat muddled about how all this shakes out, I’ll just quote the clearer-thinking Mark T for the wrap-up:

    If the government and its defenders are being honest and truthful about their claim that the data is only accessed where they have a specific overseas threat they’re investigating, then the obvious and reasonable policy would just be to require – or at least ask – that the telecoms preserve this data for a longer period of time than they currently preserve it, so that the government may access it, with an appropriate order, as needed in connection with a specific investigation.

    That the government nonetheless insists that it is necessary for it to have real time access on a continuous basis for just about every single phone call in the country, whether domestic or international, is a strong indication that they’re lying about the purposes for which this data is accessedReport

  3. Avatar Shazbot5 says:

    “The establishment line is simply false. It’s not that corporate snooping is fine and dandy. It can be a problem, and a big one. But here’s why state surveillance is vastly more dangerous.

    First, and I hope this isn’t too pedantic, the state has violence.”

    Yeah, but so do corporations. Anti-union and anti-whistleblower violence happens from businesses, too. And corporations can use their advantge in having high-powered expensive lawyers to intimidate with litigation.

    “After it snoops your metadata it can do all sorts of things that Google, even trying its very best to be evil, could only dream about. The state can arrest you, and if it wanted, it could still detain you indefinitely without a trial. It can drone kill your family in Yemen. If we’re graced with a Republican president next time around, it might just send you to Gitmo for torture.”

    There is a sort of slippery slope fallacy here. The state is currently violating privacy rights in order to (or so it says) to increase safety. That is a “tradeoff.” But you then argue that this may mean the state can send you off to Gitmo for torture.

    “Do you have rights? No, not anymore: you’re an enemy combatant, and the world is your battlefield. (Didn’t you know?)”

    Hyperbole much?

    I agree that the Patriot Act should be revoked and stronger judicial safeguards and more open Congressional oversight be used to regulate NSA information collection, but the current failure to do that hardly means you have no rights.

    And I agree that the government should not have the ability to deem you an enemy combatant as away around giving you due process. But I am quite confident that this won’t happen to you. The enemy status classification should be mor carefully controlled by the judiciary and investigated more openly in congress, but the fact that this isn’t currently done well enough doesn’t mean you have no rights. That again would be slippery slope fallacious reasoning.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      “Yeah, but so do corporations. Anti-union and anti-whistleblower violence happens from businesses, too. And corporations can use their advantge in having high-powered expensive lawyers to intimidate with litigation.”

      Ummm…. These types of violence are illegal when committed by corporations. This is a pretty big distinction. And lawyers are part of the legal rules, which can be used by both parties. Indeed, the deep pockets of large corporations makes them an especially attractive target for abuse.

      The other critical point of course is that corporations in real markets face competition from competing brands. The state has not just violence, it has a monopoly on violence and it can use its monopoly on violence to protect its monopoly status in other domains.

      I recently switched to Bing.Report

      • Avatar trumwill mobile says:

        Before anyone says Microsoft isn’t any better, there is also DuckDuckGo for those who are really concerned.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

        “These types of violence are illegal when committed by corporations.”

        Well, if you count the Constitution as the law, the government violating rights is illegal, just as corporations doing the same.

        I’m not arguing that there are no conceptual differences between pernicious or violent corporate power and pernicious or violent government power. I’m arguing that both exist and the former is likely much worse than the latter.

        Both can be bad, though.

        I’ll reiterate, my problem with the new anti-terrorism security laws and policies is not that they violate privacy, it is that there isn’t enough transparency so that we can evaluate them.Report

        • Avatar Roger says:

          Yeah, you are right. Corporations killed several hundred million people in the last century.

          Sorry for the snarky reply, but to even compare corporate violence to state violence is absurd. It is like saying an inch is bigger than a light year.

          Corporations are not allowed to use violence, and doing so by definition makes them no longer participants in reasonably free markets. It is the equivalent of bringing bazookas to a football game. Doing so means you are no longer playing football.

          States are allowed to use violence. They have a monopoly on violence. That is their domain. That is their game. They can use bazookas and still be called states. Indeed, they have. Several hundred million times.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:


            Do you object to all instances of state violence?Report

          • Avatar Cletus says:

            You have a funny definition of violence.

            I lost access to my email account for about 5 days on account of a mistaken claim that my account was hacked and sending spam. For 5 days I couldn’t get to my email and there was no phone option or way to get in contact quickly with the company that had my email service. All I could do was try their online contact form and wait for responses. In that time I had business contacts waiting on responses, I had documents incoming that needed to be sent to an alternate account, and I had personal correspondence mising.

            I consider this violence to my person. Like it or not, my life is tied to certain things. Doing business in the modern age requires email communication. It’s not knocking me over the head with a crowbar and stealing my wallet but it has financial and social impact on me and it was done without my consent and without my having any real recourse if the company had simply turned around and refused to help. I have heard and seen stories of other people who lost access to communications channels through no fault of their own, sometimes maliciously.

            The claim that corporate violence is unequal to police violence is inaccurate. If you are adding military violence between countries, then we have an entirely different argument because you’re comparing apples to kumquats.Report

            • Avatar Roger says:

              So in your definition, VIOLENCE includes a corporation rescinding a voluntary agreement between you and it on the ability to send email using its service and technology?

              Yeah, I have a real funny definition.

              Do you mind me defining rape as when a beautiful woman refuses to sleep with me? I have been raped repeatedly.Report

          • Avatar Will H. says:

            Just to say . . .
            I wish people would stop using the term “violence” to refer to potential action of X.
            Though a bit more cumbersome, the legal phrase “force or threat of force” is much more appropriate.
            In fact, it could be shortened to “force” and retain the implication of potential threat; i.e.:

            . . . to even compare corporate force to state force is absurd; et al.

            It’s used in the OP as well.
            I just find it distracting; though granted this term is pervasive in libertarian dialogue.
            Time to do away with “violence” in favor of “force.”
            It sounds a lot less wild-eyed on the part of the speaker.Report

            • Avatar Cletus says:

              I think it’s a rhetorical trick. I can read it and understand the why. The claim is that the state’s the only one who have the right to imprison someone or order cops to beat someone up or shoot someone. If you use the word force though, you have lots of types of force and things that can be used as a threat against another person. Corporations have a number of ways to use force against an individual. The moment you do business in the modern world unless you’re a cash-only hippie living in the woods you are exposed to the pressures of corporatist force that have nothing to do with government, except maybe that the government will become complicit in them if you get sued by the corporation as part of that force. It’s impossible to say that force is unique to the state, but it’s possible to claim that violence is unique to the state provided you use a restricted and myopic enough definition of the word.Report

              • Avatar Will H. says:

                The difference is that corporations can only use force against property, whereas the state is able to use force against the person.
                Big difference.Report

              • Avatar zic says:

                I think you’re well aware that corporations often use their ability to invoke legal force against individuals; they know it’s cheaper for an individual to settle then to go to court. This is a very powerful tool; it may not be ‘violence,’ tub it’s certain inappropriate coercion.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                Yeah that sounds like a winning corporate strategy. Pretty much summarizes every corporate meeting I ever attended. One PowerPoint after another on how to screw the little guy.Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

                they know it’s cheaper for an individual to settle then to go to court. This is a very powerful tool;

                It’s also a tool used by individuals, since it’s often cheaper for a corp to settle than go to court. Sure, they might be able to afford better legal representation, but that sometimes means they’ve got lawyers good enough to tell them they’ll save money by settling.Report

              • Avatar zic says:

                I do agree with this, James. I’ve stumbled upon a few people who made their living this way.

                My original response to WillH was do to a comment he wrote in reply to me yesterday; something about a megacorp and cookies. I hope he’ll feel free to blog about that here someday soon.Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

                something about a megacorp and cookies

                I’m lefty enough to prefer home made cookies.Report

              • Avatar Will H. says:

                It’s really not that interesting.
                The cool part is that I was requesting certain items to be placed on litigation hold, and they were saying they needed a court order to do that. So . . . I threatened to sue them; that is, I invoked a duty to preserve.
                But it’s just an injunction hearing; nothing fancy.

                There’s a bit more to it than that, but I have a settlement offer making its way to ink and paper (which I’m going to request be altered to include . . . ), and I don’t want to nip that in the bud.

                I need a bit of time.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              That seems fair, Will.

              I don’t know that I have ever felt violence at the hands of the state. But there is no doubt that my behavior and choices have been influenced by the knowledge that the state could and would use force/violence against me if I were to engage in prohibited acts.Report

              • Avatar Will H. says:

                It’s not about engaging in prohibited acts.
                That’s the part people have difficulty understanding.
                It’s an assumption with no rational basis.

                I watched my best friend shot dead by the police. I had known the man for 11 years.
                It was completely unnecessary and totally stupid.
                That case is pending in a federal court right now; but after it’s over, I’m going to have a lot to say.

                I have my own little thing going on as well that stems from being a creditor in a bankruptcy.
                Do you think reporting bankruptcy fraud is smiled upon? It seemed to me like the right thing to do.
                The debtor was able to entice some unethical people to her cause, some of whom are fairly well connected (think elected officials), and they circled the wagons. Things got dangerous for me after that; very dangerous. I really didn’t know if I would be required to kill people for my own safety.
                I’ll have a lot more to day about that one of these days as well. Probably be awhile though.

                I had always taken for granted that things work the way they’re supposed to work, and everything’s dandy.
                Sometimes they don’t, and it’s not.

                The way that states use force is significantly different than the way the federal government uses force.
                The similarities are only general, and typically disappear on closer inspection.

                But minding your own business is no assurance of nothing untoward occurring.
                In my journey through life, I’ve found that just when everything looks like it’s going right is the most likely time for everything to go to all to hell.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Hmmmm… you lost me.

                I presumed it goes without saying (but perhaps it didn’t) that violations of the state’s contract with its citizens vis a vis its use of force should be seen as outside its rightful use of force, and thus criminal. If the state indeed shot your friend without proper cause, it should be seen as a crime and responded to as such.

                What I’m referring to is that which is within the contract, or the presumed contract, at least.

                It is generally agreed that I will follow the laws or submit myself to the state’s use of force. If I am walking through a crowd of people, swinging my fists and punching them in the face, we generally accept that agents of the state (i.e., the police) can use appropriate force to stop me. They can then apply additional force to prevent me from taking further such actions via imprisonment. And I’d venture to guess even the most stringent libertarian would accept this.

                However, the state also presumes to have force to prevent me from using marijuana. Or paying for sex. Or not purchasing health care. And they need not necessarily exercise this force for their ability to do so to be real.

                The problem is… this “presumed” contract… how much of it is a contract and how much of it is presumed?Report

              • Avatar Will H. says:

                I would say it’s more presumed than contract.
                Use of force is entirely discretionary for the state.
                That’s the part that gets lost.
                Nothing the state can do is criminal.
                They might be held liable for civil damages under limited circumstances, but there’s no criminal activity involved if it’s the state.
                The Eleventh Amendment saw to that.
                Hell, right up until earlier this year federal employees were exempt from civil damages when committing rape on the clock.

                Is it acceptable for the state to read the address wrong and bust into your kid’s birthday party and shoot up the place, thinking they were on their way to a drug bust?
                It’s already happened. The father was holding a camera about to take a picture of the birthday cake and they thought he was holding a weapon– shot him dead.

                What if you have a neighbor that is pissed at you and calls the law several times making all sorts of outlandish accusations? Does that give the state the right to come in and shoot up the place?
                It’s already happened. Pretty much the story of Ruby Ridge.

                If a woman is having a miscarriage and is exceeding the speed limit on her way to the hospital, does the state have an obligation to provide her medical care if they pull her over and arrest her for driving on a suspended license?
                It’s already happened. I watched the video on the evening news more times than I care to remember.

                And you know that one thing that connects all of those incidents?
                There was no manner of criminal activity on the part of the state.
                They have the right to kill you– completely discretionary– for nothing more than a brain fart.

                Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction where Travolta shoots the kid in the car?
                That sort of thing.Report

            • Avatar Roger says:

              Fine. Corporations are not allowed to use force or threats of force. Right?Report

              • Avatar Will H. says:

                Only as defined by legal means.
                Corporations still have contract rights, etc.

                As noted above, it fairly well separates action into two camps; of civil action (force against the property) and criminal action (force against the person).Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                And that is only if you contractually agreed. A random corporation can’t require anything of me…right?Report

              • Avatar Will H. says:

                Not unless they bought the rights to from someone else.

                But yeah, mutual consideration is one of the basic elements of contract.
                No mutual consideration, no contract.Report

          • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

            “Yeah, you are right. Corporations killed several hundred million people in the last century.”

            I was clearly talking about which is worse for the average American in the 21st century. (Though corporate interests and business people inflicted a lot of hell on the world historically, too.) To not not this is intentionally uncharitable and I will no longer reply to thos thread.

            “Corporations are not allowed to use violence, and doing so by definition makes them no longer participants in reasonably free markets. It is the equivalent of bringing bazookas to a football game. Doing so means you are no longer playing football.

            States are allowed to use violence. They have a monopoly on violence. That is their domain. That is their game. They can use bazookas and still be called states. Indeed, they have. Several hundred million times.”

            What do you mean by “are allowed to use violence?”

            Do you mean there is a law against it that is enforced by a state or international organization or that it is wrong and unjust and people will push back against it?

            If it’s the former, then yes, as a truism following from the definition of “allowed,” it is true that everything a state does is allowed. Germany was allowed to commit the Holocaust in this sense. If it’s the latter, then sometimes states and individual persons or corporations are not allowed to do certain things.

            So your point here is either false or a truism.Report

            • Avatar Roger says:

              I will settle for truism. Works fine for me. Can you guys further elaborate how dastardly corporations have inflicted evil violence and hell on 21st C Americans?Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                Well, I mean other than ordering my credit report and canceling my phone service.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                The bastards.Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

                It’s just like a genocide!

                Or hiding exculpatory evidence in order to convict someone.

                Or stopping and frisking people just for being black

                Or kicking down the wrong door and shooting the family dog to serve a drug warrant.

                Thank god it’s only corporations that do these things, and not government.

                Pop quiz for the hotshots out there: which gave equal benefits to gay Americans first, a corporation or a government?Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

                If this is meant to rebut my claim, it is dishonest and uncharitable.

                Which is more likely to harm any random person X, who lives in and is a resident of the U.S. tomorrow in the U.S.A.

                A. An act of the U.S. government
                B. An act of a corporation or business

                I was suggesting B, clearly.

                Thus, the Holocaust isn’t a relevant piece of evidence for A, nor WWII, nor any war. By citing these things you are trying to score cheap points in some attempt to win an argument.

                NB: People die in coal mines that weren’t safe that they were told were safe. Polluters kill indiscriminately, even when we can’t trace specific deaths to specific acts of pollution. Sweatshop labor harms people who, IMO, are Americans, even if they don’t have documents.

                I get that you think I am wrong to think B. instead of A., and there is a reasonable argument to have here (especially in how we define “violence”) but the fact that you are laughing about it suggests that you are incapable of having that argument.

                And I don’t want to have it with you anyway.Report

              • Avatar Patrick says:

                I think the incarceration rates, particularly among socioeconomic subgroups, make this analysis… off.

                Any random person, maybe. But any random minority poor person is probably *way* more likely to suffer unjust harm in jail than to be harmed with a (correspondingly proportionate) amount by a corporation.

                Unless you count corporate-government collusion, maybe. But then it’s a wash.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                If this is meant to rebut my claim, it is dishonest and uncharitable.

                Maybe you should smell your cat’s breath, Shaz. You never know what it might smell like.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

                Jaybird Wiggum: “When I grow up, I’m going to Bovine University.”Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 says:


                It’s hard to say. It depends on what counts as a harm done (to a persn in a minority or otherwise.)

                And certainly some jailing of people is well justified. I thought we were talking about unjust uses of force.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:


                I am sorry, but you are missing both the essence of life and the essence of economics.

                First, life is about constant problem solving. We must constantly do work, take risks, and solve problems to survive and thrive. Some of the solutions of life involve dangerous conditions or externalities. If we are going to excavate coal out of the earth, then risks of coal mining are kind of guaranteed. Same with fire risk in a factory. These are not the evils created out of your evil nemesis the corporation. They are foundational aspects of life in an entropic universe. corporations actually help us to solve these problems, and failure to solve them is worse than not trying.

                The second error in your line of thinking is to ignore that economics is all about trade offs. When a worker chooses to take risks by working in a coal mine, they are balancing the risks and the rewards. When a corporation decides upon how many fire extinguishers, the same type of trade off occurs.

                Your line of argument amounts to attributing costs and bad acts to corporations while ignoring their good acts. It really just amounts to “life sucks and I want to blame someone.”.

                Sometimes I wonder what this paradise is that you and Chris imagine, where no workers ever are harmed doing their jobs, no pollution is ever created, and every product has perfect safety and a super low price. The folly of imposed order has been clearly revealed to even the most casual observer. You guys need a new paradigm.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                The surest signature of a cult is that is denies other people’s versions of the world. I’ve seen it from within Christianity, I’ve seen it within Islam, I’ve seen it within the military, I’ve seen it within Marxism. If only everyone else would see things as we do — life and commerce and Lord knows what else — the Temptations would start singing I’ve Got Sunshine and everyone would come outdoors and start dancing in the streets.

                Cults pretend to some superior vision of the universe.

                Your corporate gods are really no different than some people’s pitiful excuses for God himself and the evil in the world. Economics is not about tradeoffs. Economics is mostly a pseudo-science, attempting to predict the past. Corporations are amoral. They exist to make profits, not to do good in the world.

                A corporate charter doesn’t say anything about giving anyone a fulfilling life. Incorporation paperwork does bear the seal of the issuing state and the officers are held liable. Bear that in mind, ere you regale us with your mythos of Corporate God. In his omnipotence, Corporate God doesn’t have to obey his own rules, much less anyone else’s rules.Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

                OK, Shaz, then perhaps we can finally have that talk about the baby lottery?Report

  4. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    It never fails to amaze me how eager people are to throw rights away for either the illusion of security, or just for spite so they can stick it to the ‘other’.Report

  5. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Seen elsewhere (& paraphrased): If spying on us is good if we have nothing to hide, why is the government so eager to hide everything it does?Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I assume that the government can’t just monitor Suspected Islamic Terrorists and/or Teabaggers so if they monitor *EVERYBODY*, they can say that they’re not profiling for Suspected Islamic Terrorists and/or Teabaggers.Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

      You joke, but this is why white American women have the highest risk of being subject to extra search by the TSA.Report

  7. Avatar North says:

    I suspect that this is unlikely to change unless congress critters start losing elections over it. Depressingly, I am doubtful that will happen.Report

  8. Avatar Kazzy says:

    “You in the majority need these rights — cherished so well by minorities — because sometimes you in the majority are wrong, and you’re not necessarily going to know about it beforehand. You will be better off in the long run with a check on your power. Everyone is.”

    I teach this to my students, basically saying that if you act poorly towards others (e.g., hitting, mean words, exclusion), you are creating an environment where such poor behavior is acceptable and might soon be directed at you. They don’t necessarily fully grasp it, but it sets a foundation for a deeper understanding.Report

  9. Avatar Patrick says:

    But only if we ignore the fact that it’s basically impossible for Congress to stop a program that its members can’t effectively scrutinize, and that none may debate openly. (Ain’t democracy grand?)

    In an otherwise great piece, I have a problem with this (as you might have guessed by my own post a few days ago).

    I think it’s pretty easy for Congress to stop this stuff. They don’t need to know exactly what the Executive branch is doing in order to stop it; they don’t have to play “Whack-a-Mole”. What they have to do is stop handing large chunks of discretionary authority over to the White House and then being surprised when it’s used.

    Revoke the Patriot Act. Enact a very broad-reaching data privacy act with civil penalties for institutions that violate it, based upon the number of records exposed, and criminal penalties for government employees that violate it; replace HIPAA and FERPA with something that is actually broad-reaching and not domain specific. Demand significant oversight of the NSA, which has clearly blown past its original mission and jumped right into domestic surveillance and there’s no two ways about that. Tell the Executive Branch that Congress decides what constitutes legitimate gag orders for oversight committees for this function, not the Executive.

    I get that a lot of that is terribly top-down and not to your natural inclinations, Jason, but if one branch is going to game the system so that the checks and balances don’t work, it’s time to play hard ball.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      I actually support all of those policies, at least I think.

      Mark Udall and Ron Wyden tried for a long time to get other members of Congress to pay attention to what they referred to as the executive’s secret interpretation of the USA-PATRIOT Act, but for a long time it was a fruitless effort. I recall Wyden in particular saying that people had no idea what the executive was doing with section 215, and that it was far beyond what had been publicly debated, but that he was forbidden from saying anything more.

      Well, now we know, and we don’t have to guess and suspect any longer (which, to be clear, I had… I just hated that it made me look like a paranoid loon). These claims are much more well-supported now, and I hope it makes a difference.

      That said, what you outline is a pretty ambitious agenda.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      Demand significant oversight of the NSA, which has clearly blown past its original mission and jumped right into domestic surveillance and there’s no two ways about that.

      Not anymore.

      Where you call for that Congress pick up its mantle as an independent and equal — indeed, first among equals — branch of government, I sound a similar horn to the judiciary. The order from the FISA court authorizing the warrant is boundless. Courts are supposed to bounce overbroad warrant applications and patrol for civil liberties problems in cases before them, precisely because, as our own Vikram Bath pointed out the other day at NaPP, civil liberties are in fact unpopular in practice, so it takes being empowered but out of the political process to effectively guard them.

      The good news? We both can and should get what we’re calling for. The bad news? Some sort of cult of the executive has managed to work its way into the body politic. I suppose it’s nothing new — Arthur Schlesinger wrote about it in 1973, having seen it firsthand ten years previously. Still, the idea that judges and senators ought to stand up to the President seems strangely subversive to a lot of folks these days.Report

  10. Avatar Cletus says:

    I am not sure I agree with you. You say the state has “violence”, but with the state absent exigent circumstances I have the right of access to the courts. If I lose my cell phone account on account of something, I doubt I have much right to pry an explanation from the company. If my twitter account or facebook account or gmail account are closed down, I may never know the reason. Those companies won’t even provide a line I could call a human to inquire on.

    Call me callous but I am not half as worried about the theoretical idea of state violence as I am of having my work, livelihood, and personal life violated by a faceless and callous corporation against which I lack the constitutional right to petition for redress of grievance.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      So the existence of competing alternatives means nothing to you?

      A corporation cannot use violence against you. How can it violate your livelihood? *
      Please do explain.

      *Obviously it can violate your livelihood by going in cahoots with the government violence monopoly. But this is a reflection of a bad state.Report

      • Avatar Cletus says:

        A corporation can harm me with frivolous actions against my credit report.

        A corporation can harm me as you said above by rescinding an agreement without recourse or notification. Competing alternatives mean little when I may have previously chosen them based on their having the best product, only to find out that they are changing the terms of the deal or taking adverse action unilaterally. At that point they have my information, they have my communication channels, and are holding pieces of my life hostage. If you cannot understand this simple premise, you do not understand the concept of nonphysical violence.

        It is the equivalent of waking up one morning to find in complete surprise that not only has your spouse filed for divorce, but has absconded with all the property in the house and put it in storage in an unknown location. Physical violence no, but violence nonetheless.Report

        • Avatar Roger says:

          Interestingly, this dovetails with some of the recent conversations on harm. I think there is a difference between violence and harm though, especially when harm is in terms of a lost opportunity. Otherwise, all those beautiful girls that said no to my advances did violence to me.Report

  11. Avatar Barry says:

    Jason: “As often happens, Richard Cohen is the most articulate mouthpiece of the establishment. How his masters must be pleased with him!”

    I disagree, and only pardon you because you must have been reading Friedman before, which would make random letters look articulate 🙂 Cohen is just a workaday hack.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Whenever I want to know what a safe, serious, and thoroughly respectable opinion might be in Washington, I look to him. I’m not grading for style.Report

      • Avatar Barry says:

        I’ve been amazed by him ever since the Plame affair, where he openly stated that the press should not inquire into the dirty deeds of politics.

        It was like watching a priest recant his belief in God. Or rather, watching a priest openly recanting his belief in God, and continuing in his duties, with the other priests having no problem/Report

  12. Avatar Damon says:

    “Why though do Americans seem in (some) opinion polls to approve of this surveillance?”

    Because they are idots, more interested in the latest celebrity/model/fashion/BS that is spewed by the “news”.

    Because they believe “they have nothing to hide” but don’t realize that their “nothing” spun the right way can cause them a massive amount of trouble if someone wanted to make trouble.

    Because they “feel” that to be safe from the terrorists, it’s ok.

    Because only bad things happen to bad people and they are good.Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      Actually, the Pew poll was filled with false choices. The questions were phrased essentially as “Should the government monitor online activities or lets people’s children die screaming in terrorist attacks?”

      A better and more recent CBS poll found that people were not okay with the monitoring.

      Breitbart link about the CBS poll.Report

  13. Avatar Kimmi says:

    …. if you do want privacy in the corporate world, you gotta make it yourself.
    Pity most folks don’t know how to do stuff like that, ain’t it?Report

  14. Avatar trizzlor says:

    I think this is a very elegant rebuttal to the what’s good for the private sector is good for the government argument. Government has categorically different powers, and so the potential for abuse deserves much more scrutiny than in the private sector. I have a few quibbles with this specific program though:

    In the private sector, if you don’t want privacy, that’s fine. Let your freak flag fly. If you do want privacy, you can shop around for the online experience you prefer. You will never need to gather 51% of your friends (or more!) to get it, never need to raise money, never need to go door-to-door petitioning, and — best of all — never need to fear corporate arrest or drone killing.

    I believe you can freely exclude yourself from government surveillance by using only those services that explicitly state that they will not honor blanket government requests for data. The companies involved in PRISM voluntarily joined the program, so all of the same free-market remedies should still hold.

    The state can arrest you, and if it wanted, it could still detain you indefinitely without a trial …

    This line of reasoning argues for how the data can be used, not that it shouldn’t be collected. In other words, if PRISM data-collection could only be used to prioritize targets rather than as the basis for any kind of warrant, wouldn’t that effectively eliminate the security concern?Report

    • Avatar Barry says:

      “This line of reasoning argues for how the data can be used, not that it shouldn’t be collected. In other words, if PRISM data-collection could only be used to prioritize targets rather than as the basis for any kind of warrant, wouldn’t that effectively eliminate the security concern?”

      The whole point of this brouhaha has been that the government has been and will do things which are highly classified, and only come to light when somebody tosses their life away to reveal it. Accountability and oversight are at best extremely difficult, which means that you – rather – us, and apparently not you – need to put a check on this stuff at the earliest possible step, since later steps are even less likely to work.

      I’m a bit pissed at people like you here and on other blogs who are missing the entire point of the concept ‘secret government program’. Have a friend with a clue explain it to you.Report

    • Avatar trizzlor says:

      The whole point of this brouhaha has been that the government has been and will do things which are highly classified, and only come to light when somebody tosses their life away to reveal it. Accountability and oversight are at best extremely difficult, which means that you – rather – us, and apparently not you – need to put a check on this stuff at the earliest possible step, since later steps are even less likely to work.

      As far as I understand the leak has not revealed any illegal government activity. For anyone who was following this stuff as recently as the previous administration (see: Hepting v. AT&T) the only bombshell is the scope of the program and how many private companies were eager to cooperate. So the only real lesson is that if you give the NSA legal power to build a program they will build it as broadly as possible. The question then is how to put a check on this stuff and what constitutes “the earliest possible step”. You may argue that shutting down PRISM is enough while others will contend that we should shut down the NSA entirely, or just get rid of the DOD and State Department altogether; where to draw the line between privacy and security is the whole point. The way I see it these kinds of surveillance programs raise two major concerns:

      1. Presumption of privacy and opt-out. People need to know that the program exists and a rough idea of where they have no presumption of privacy so they can opt out. I would argue that this was pretty clear from the FISA amendments but it is abundantly clear after the PRISM leak: you have no presumption of privacy on most major social networks, and you should not expect any rights to privacy unless the service provider explicitly states that they will refuse government requests. At this point, standard market corrections should be enough to address the problem. If you personally are concerned with PRISM then you should boycott those products, petition the private companies to change their policies, or switch to the many other products that are explicitly anonymous. On the other hand, if people are comfortable with their providers sharing this information then there is no reason why the government should be prevented from accessing it.

      2. Potential abuse. Even if the public is broadly aware and accepting of the program, there is still a concern for rampant abuse, especially when the government has legal powers at it’s disposal that are not available to the private sector. Unless rampant abuse has been demonstrated (which it has not) the response is to not to shut down agencies but to first try plugging the holes where potential abuse can happen. That’s the point of my secondary comment. If, for example, the PRISM algorithm was run on anonymized data which was only de-anonymized once a specific targeted warrant for that person was issued, that would curtail most of the potential abuse while keeping the underlying program largely unchanged. That’s just off the top of my head, other cyrpto schemes surely exist that would be even more effective. I just don’t see what evidence there is, at this point, that the only solution is an entire shutdown of the program.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        Actually, a public opt out would be nice because then the NSA could focus more on monitoring all the traffic to companies that aren’t part of the program. Trying to avoid surveillance is itself cause for suspicion and warrants increased monitoring of such people via taps on the Internet backbones. They were built by the government, after all.Report

        • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

          “Trying to avoid surveillance is itself cause for suspicion”

          Oh hello there mister Fifth Amendment, how are you today?Report

  15. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    I don’t know what you’re complaining about. The government is us. We’re spying on our own private communications? What does that even mean?Report

  16. Avatar Barry says:

    Apologies for posting this on multiple threads:


    ‘ GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — When the war court reconvenes this week, pretrial hearings in the case of an alleged al-Qaida bomber will be tackling a government motion that’s so secret the public can’t know its name.

    It’s listed as the 92nd court filing in the death-penalty case against a Saudi man, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was waterboarded by CIA agents.

    And in place of its name, the Pentagon has stamped “classified” in red.

    It’s not the first classified motion in the case against the 48-year-old former millionaire from Mecca accused of orchestrating al-Qaida’s October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole warship off Yemen. Seventeen sailors were killed in the attack, and the prosecutor proposes to execute al-Nashiri, if he’s convicted.

    Also on the docket for discussion this week is a classified defense motion that asks the Army judge to order the government to reveal information “related to the arrest, detention and interrogation” of al-Nashiri. By the time he got to Guantanamo in 2006, according to declassified investigations, CIA agents had held him at secret overseas prisons for four years during which, according to declassified accounts, he was waterboarded and interrogated at the point of a revving power drill and racked pistol.

    But what makes the no-name government motion so intriguing is that those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.’Report

  17. Avatar Damon says:

    Timothy B. Lee of the Washington Post warned:

    “For example, having the calling records of every member of Congress would likely reveal which members kept mistresses, which could be used to blackmail members of Congress into supporting a future president’s agenda. Calling records could also provide valuable political intelligence, such as how frequently members of Congress were talking to various interest groups.”

    And this goes far beyond the example cited here and it opens up a world of ways to ensure “you get you way” if you’ve got this info. You can put pressure on all kinds of folks.

    Via Takimag: http://takimag.com/article/does_israel_have_a_backdoor_to_us_intelligence_steve_sailer/print#axzz2VzxYkFINReport

  18. Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

    Of all the brutalities that happen to Americans having our phone records and Internet histories recorded is the least of the ongoing issues.

    I am more worried about Stop and Frisk, 14 years-olds being slammed to the ground for ‘giving the cops a dehumanizing stare’, and people having their property confiscated until they can prove it wasn’t involved in drugs.

    I am not asking anyone to stop protesting the NSA surveillance, but when you are done can we talk about this other stuff?Report

  19. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I agree with your argument for the most part, but I don’t really know how to distinguish between the private sector and the state here. I could be wrong, but I imagine that data miners are private sector entities who then sell that information to corporations. Indeed, I’m not terribly concerned if they sell my data to Nike and Nike starts sending me junk mail; it’s annoying, but not a terrible concern. However, if there are private entities that sell my data, I can’t see why the state wouldn’t be able to pay more or use legal pressure to get my data and that’s where it becomes an issue for me, especially since I have no real idea who it is that collects the data and it’s harder to put pressure on them.Report

  20. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    Wouldn’t the same objections apply to the government purchasing satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe?

    Or, to ask a slightly different question, does this make it illegal for the government to contract with private firms to operate traffic-monitoring systems?Report