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Obama Defends PRISM, Verizon Seizures

In advance of a meeting with the Chinese premier in California, President Obama spent about 15 minutes defending the spying programs exposed by newly leaked information. The case he made is quite unconvincing, essentially saying “trust me, I wouldn’t abuse this power.”

“You can shout Big Brother or program run amok, but if you actually look at the details, I think we’ve struck the right balance,” Obama said in his first remarks on the subject since the issue arose this week…

Obama repeated details that administration had put out about the programs after reports by the Guardian and the Washington Post put two classified programs into the spotlight. The first involves U.S. officials gathering records on all phone calls, including call duration and phone numbers, to look for patterns that can be tied to terrorist activity. ”Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama said repeatedly. “That’s not what this program is about.

But it doesn’t have to be. The metadata alone makes for an enormous breach of privacy, as one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers explains:

The line between “contents” and “metadata” has blurred in the age of mobile, and the government is taking advantage of that. In 1970s and 1980s, when we passed most of our current government privacy laws, phones were dumb, stationary, shared devices that we used several times a day and otherwise left alone. Today’s phones are “smart” personal devices that are turned on and on us all day. They generate a record of a specific individual’s calls. They also create a constant, moment-by-moment record of our movements. And once I have that, I know where you work, I know where you sleep, I know the church you attend and the doctors you visit. I can also make a pretty good guess of whether you’re gay or straight (are you always at 17th and Q on weekends?). As a few of the articles point out, it appears highly possible that the data authorized by the 215 order includes this kind of location data.

That’s just about the Verizon records order. On the internet spying:

Obama said that a second program collecting global internet traffic only applies to foreigners. “This does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people in the United States,” he said.

This appears to be a flat out lie. According to the reports, the screening process for the program seeks to target any communication for which they can establish a 51% certainty that one party to the call is foreign. That’s hardly comforting. And even if that were not the case, there is nothing preventing the government from going far beyond that mandate. Once you have backbone access, what is to prevent them from spying on anyone they want? This is why warrants are important, they require that the government show probable cause and that the warrant spell out specifically what information is sought and why. Wholesale data mining skips right over that constitutionally-mandated safeguard.

Both programs, the president maintained, are overseen by all three branches of the federal government, are reviewed regularly by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and have been in place since the administration of President George W. Bush…

“It is important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we are doing,” Obama told reporters before flying to Los Angeles for a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.

This is just a bad argument. Yes, the executive branch does brief some key members of Congress, the ones who serve on the intelligence committees in both chambers, on what they’re doing. But the heads of those two committees, Dianne Feinstein and Mike Rogers, have shown a great zeal for pretty much anything the government does in the name of stopping terrorism, no matter how unconstitutional it may be. And the more civil liberties-minded members, like Ron Wyden, have been saying for years that if the public knew what the executive branch was doing they would be up in arms.

As for the courts overseeing it, that might seem a lot more compelling an argument if Obama had not spent his entire time in office working to make sure there is no such oversight through its use of the State Secrets Privilege. The courts have done almost nothing to reign in these abuses of the Bill of Rights, primarily because they have accepted the argument that they just have to trust the executive branch.

But here’s the worst argument he makes:

“You can’t have 100 percent security and also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he continued. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. On balance we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should be comfortable about.”

Obama also addressed growing outrage on Capitol Hill about the programs. “I welcome this debate. I think it’s healthy for our democracy. It’s a sign of maturity.”

You can’t have 100% security ever. You could put a camera in every room in every building in the country and still not have 100% security. And this has nothing to do with “inconvenience.” As for welcoming this debate, he can’t be serious. He certainly doesn’t welcome such a debate on the constitutionality of these programs in court; he does everything he can to make sure no judge ever rules directly on that issue, using standing arguments and privilege assertions to prevent it. And it isn’t possible to have a debate on those programs if the public doesn’t know what those programs are.

I simply do not trust Obama, or anyone else, with this kind of essentially unchecked power. The president has spent the last 4+ years zealously protecting the secrecy of these programs, making sure those who challenge his unconstitutional use of power never get their day in court and prosecuting anyone who reveals those illegal actions. That not only does not inspire trust, it ensures that any excuses they now offer for those programs ring utterly hollow.

Comments

  1. gshelley says

    No doubt if he welcomes the debate, he won’t be going after Snowden with everything he has

  2. Nick Gotts says

    Some of us furriners think even non-Americans should have their privacy respected. Weird, I know.

  3. says

    The case he made is quite unconvincing, essentially saying “trust me, I wouldn’t abuse this power.”

    I trust him. He can do no wrong. And luckily, when he leaves office, he will take all this spying equipment home with him so the next Republican president cannot abuse it. He will change the NSA password from “admin” to something only HE knows and he will not tell the new guy, AND he will not write it on a post-it next to the computer. What more do you want Ed Brayton??! We are safe. Do not worry.

  4. says

    With the sheer amount of data being gathered, it seems like good terror leads would be drowned out by false positives. They cannot possibly have the manpower to search everything they acquire, so automatic classification is a necessity. But for billions of e-mails, you need an algorithm that is just a few millionths of a percentage shy of pitch perfect to not extract a million false positives for every genuine lead.

    Come on guys, if you’re going to spy on us, at least do it right.

  5. doublereed says

    Obama why do you do this???

    I really don’t get it. He doesn’t sound zealous about this kind of thing at all, and yet his actions and his paltry defenses, along with his whistleblower destruction is all very frightening.

    I can’t imagine that when the door closes he goes “let’s crush that bastard” but wtf am I supposed to think???

  6. doublereed says

    With the sheer amount of data being gathered, it seems like good terror leads would be drowned out by false positives. They cannot possibly have the manpower to search everything they acquire, so automatic classification is a necessity. But for billions of e-mails, you need an algorithm that is just a few millionths of a percentage shy of pitch perfect to not extract a million false positives for every genuine lead.

    Come on guys, if you’re going to spy on us, at least do it right.

    I would imagine NSA actually has very powerful algorithms and research going into Big Data stuff. You’d be surprised about what you can do with Big Data and the level of precision you can have. Sorting the signal from the noise is what the game is entirely about. That’s not a problem with playing the game. That is the game.

    And it’s not just direct transactions, but also the myriad of interconnections.

  7. mikeyb says

    The only counter may be the sheer volume of information involved. If we say conservatively that 100 million people use cell phones and use email, and conservatively that each person makes 2 phone calls a day and 5 emails, were talking about tracking 200 million phone calls and 500 million emails, minimally just daily. Even with algorithms available, the sheer magnitude of tracking that and finding information is a needle in a needle in a haystack.

    The problem is that congress has authorized this under the Patriot Act. Given that the information is classified, there is no way of ever finding out what really goes on besides leaks except from congressional briefings, so we’re stuck with taking their word that it is all fine. To the public this is the Rumsfeld “unknown unknown” problem. Not a good situation. The only resolution would be to undo the Patriot Act and spell out in public what can and cannot be done.

    Not to defend Obama, but it is conspiratorial if we think he sits behind his desk and reviews with the NSA or any other agency who we need to spy on next. The NSA works largely on its own.

    So dealing with this, the primary responsibility rests with Congress in addressing what the proper balances and limits to viewing emails and phone records to address security and privacy, which doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence. How would we begin given that these are confidential programs. So our main privacy protection might be called safety in numbers, the sheer volume of information that must be waded through which makes it unlikely that much of anything is actually looked at.

  8. Artor says

    “If you look at the details…” You mean the details that we can’t be told, because they threaten “National Security?” Those details? Sure, lay them out and let us take a long, hard look at them. Somehow I suspect none of us will be comforted by what we haven’t been allowed to see.

  9. says

    @6: I’m sure they do, but as someone doing graduate work in computational linguistics and natural language processing, I know first hand that the algorithms are never perfect. The classification “game,” so to speak, is about discovering what the features of a good true positive are (in this case, a good terror lead), and training a model that captures them but is not overfitted to them, and thus balancing precision and recall. Granted, the NSA surely has algorithms that are far, far superior to anything I’ve ever written, but they’re also dealing in much much larger amounts of data, plus trying to discover features in a search space that’s always changing. Terrorists aren’t sitting around waiting to be discovered–they’re changing their tactics just as the NSA discovers them.

    So while you can throw big data at the problem and it will get better, the more data you throw at the problem, the larger the raw numbers of bad hits are going to be until the model catches up. You have an algorithm with 100% recall (captures all true positives) that has 99.9% overall accuracy, but if you feed it a billion data points, you will still get a million total positives and have relatively lousy precision because most of them are false. Then you need an even more fine-grained model to sort through and throw out those million. The NSA has thousands and thousands of ridiculously smart people writing mind-bogglingly powerful algorithms, but Big Data can only go so far when your target is just a few tiny data points in a huge field.

  10. doublereed says

    So while you can throw big data at the problem and it will get better, the more data you throw at the problem, the larger the raw numbers of bad hits are going to be until the model catches up. You have an algorithm with 100% recall (captures all true positives) that has 99.9% overall accuracy, but if you feed it a billion data points, you will still get a million total positives and have relatively lousy precision because most of them are false. Then you need an even more fine-grained model to sort through and throw out those million. The NSA has thousands and thousands of ridiculously smart people writing mind-bogglingly powerful algorithms, but Big Data can only go so far when your target is just a few tiny data points in a huge field.

    Big Data generally uses machine learning and bayesian statistics. More data means more accuracy (but more computation time). So some data will give me 95% accuracy, but lots of data gives me 99.995% accuracy, etc. etc. The algorithms do not have to be perfect to significantly reduce false positives.

    The real restriction used to be computational time, but computers have gotten pretty damn good at that.

  11. doublereed says

    Actually I might be wrong on the details of that, now that I think about it. Shrug.

  12. jamessweet says

    And once I have that, I know where you work, I know where you sleep, I know the church you attend and the doctors you visit.

    This is true. My phone knows when I am within a couple blocks of home even with the GPS off, deduced the approximate location of where I work (although with my wife, it incorrectly guessed that the YMCA where my son goes to preschool was her “work”, heh), etc.

  13. jamessweet says

    I actually agree with the first part of the “100% security/100% privacy” statement, with the caveat that I agree you can obviously never have 100% security. But yes, absolutely, there are tradeoffs between security, privacy, and convenience (the convenience enters into it here in the sense that you could just not use your cell phone, but that would suck in all sorts of ways).

    What I disagree with is the second part, where he says Americans ought to be comfortable with this program. Not even close! I mean, if it was a fucking secret, how would he even know if most Americans are comfortable with it?

    I will probably get flamed for saying so, at least on this blog — but I actually feel that a certain amount of broad-based untargeted snooping is an inevitability at this point, and the best we can hope for is to tame the beast. Transparency, checks, strict controls. That’s what I’m all about here. People should know what is being monitored, how that information is used, and there should be very strict checks in place to make sure the power is not abused.

    I don’t say this because I think it will make us safer. I say this in the spirit of harm reduction. Like a junkie using a dirty needle, it’s pretty much inevitable at this point that the government is GOING to collect vast amounts of data like this. the question is, do we want them doing it in daylight in a manner where we can “watch the watchers”, or do we want them doing it in a secret with a wink-wink “just trust us” attitude?

  14. DaveL says

    Doublereed, this is the same spiel I’ve heard from “Big Data” proponents for a long time. Unfortunately, what information we do have to go off of in the real world does not support the idea that we really do have these finely tuned algorithms capable of picking out terrorists without generating a lot of false leads. First, we have several terrorists who have fallen through the net, including Tamerlan Tsarnaev just recently despite explicit warnings from Russian intelligence. Second, we have had several prosecutions of purported “terror cells” that appear to have been nothing more than malcontents goaded into hyperbole by undercover handlers – those cases subsequently fall apart, as they did with the Hutaree. Clearly, false positives and false negatives aren’t lacking.

  15. says

    mikeyb wrote:

    The problem is that congress has authorized this under the Patriot Act.

    No they didn’t. There’s no way in hell the business records provision of the Patriot Act, Section 215, could be justified in court as allowing the government to seize every single bit of metadata from every cell phone company in the country every day. The author of that bill, James Sensenbrenner, came out and said so himself. It allows the government to seize individual records on a particular person who is the subject of a national security investigation. And the 4th Amendment clearly requires that this be done only with a warrant signed by a judge.

    But here’s the problem: No one will ever get the chance to make such an argument in court because of the State Secrets Privilege, which Obama has used (as Bush did before him) to completely insulate their actions from any legal challenge. So while this program is a rather flagrant violation of both the Patriot Act and the 4th Amendment, it is immune to a court challenge. Separation of powers? Checks and balances? Not anymore.

    Not to defend Obama, but it is conspiratorial if we think he sits behind his desk and reviews with the NSA or any other agency who we need to spy on next. The NSA works largely on its own.

    No it doesn’t. All of these policies have to be signed off on. You don’t think they built this massive system to seize and analyze staggering amounts of data without approval from above, do you? At the very least, the Office of Legal Counsel has to give it the okay. And if he wasn’t in favor of all of this, why is he defending it? No, he does not escape responsibility with such a silly argument.

  16. lochaber says

    I’m not terribly surprised this is happening. I’m pretty sure all this data isn’t going to be all too helpful in preventing any crimes, but it certainly will help the government build a case around anyone they decide to go after.

    I wonder what it would be like if the 4th amendment was as cherished as the second.

  17. D. C. Sessions says

    Just a reminder from another related thread: if this shit bothers you, you can do your part to make it less valuable by encrypting everything you keep or send. Not that they can’t crack the encryption, but mainly because it’s a far more effective generator of false positives than just throwing in what you want to think are keywords.

    Sure they can crack your encryption if they try. But it’s not nearly as easy as having the plaintext handed to them.

  18. says

    @10, 11, 14:
    So much of it depends on the side of the data. If you train your model on ten million data points and in execution it gets 95% accuracy over a million sample, that means 50000 incorrect classifications. If you train your model over ten billion data points and get 99.5% accuracy over a billion samples, that means 5 million incorrect hits, so increasing the training data size didn’t really help when you need to examine each positive classification individually.

    “Accuracy” in a mathematical sense (total correct over all categories divided by total number of data points) is a bad measure, because it disregards the per-category precision and recall of the model. A model that results in 95% precision and 95% recall in the positive category will result in far fewer false positives than a model that gets 100% recall and 30% precision over the same category, but it will also let some false negatives slip through.

  19. machintelligence says

    jamessweet @ 13
    Once again I find I am in considerable agreement with your position. One thing that is generally not acknowledged by either liberals or conservatives is the cost of having strong second or fourth amendment rights.
    Conservatives believe that a certain number of gun deaths is just the cost of robust second amendment rights.
    Liberals believe that a certain number of deaths from terrorist attacks is just the cost of a strong fourth amendment.
    Both sides will vehemently deny this is the case. The conservatives argue, unconvincingly, that more gun restrictions will have no effect on gun violence, while liberals will claim, also unconvincingly, that the extra intelligence gathering has not prevented any terrorist attacks. It is high time both sides were honest about their assumptions.
    Some compromises are possible, but not when both sides refuse to face reality.

  20. mikeyb says

    Ed,

    I defer to your judgement on the Patriot Act as to whether or not it was an authorized part of it. I can only say that congress who has undoubtedly been briefed about this, has not done a think to redress it, nor I do I expect it to do so in the future.

    As for Obama, I wasn’t implying that you think Obama directs the NSA activities from behind his desk, but that seems to be a common sentiment. Obviously Obama either directly or indirectly had to authorize the program and defends it, so he is ultimately responsible for signing off on this.

    I know I probably overstated it, but I still think it is ultimately the responsibility of Congress to address this through law, which I know they are not going to do. Whether the program was or was not part of the Patriot Act, I maintain it is the Patriot Act which opened the door for this type of abuse to be able to occur. Without oversight, there is no balance of power.

  21. says

    How’s that hopey-changey thing working out?

    This is what a “progressive” Democrat does. Imagine what will happen the next time a conservative Republican takes the White House.

  22. Nick Gotts says

    while liberals will claim, also unconvincingly, that the extra intelligence gathering has not prevented any terrorist attacks – machineintelligence

    Do you have any, er, what’s that stuff we’re supposed to care about here… oh yes, evidence – for the claim that the kind of broad-sweep collection and mining of data being complained of has actually prevented any such attacks?

  23. machintelligence says

    Nick Gotts @ 22
    I can’t find the reference at the moment, but I seem to recall it was in the Denver Post, where the telephone record monitoring resulted in the arrest of the Colorado guy, Najibulla Zazi, who bought hydrogen peroxide at beauty supply shops and made explosives to try an attack on the NYC subway. The plot was foiled and he is now in jail.

  24. zmidponk says

    machintelligence:

    liberals will claim, also unconvincingly, that the extra intelligence gathering has not prevented any terrorist attacks.

    Well, I consider myself a ‘liberal’ when it comes to this issue, and I actually oppose this kind of surveillance on the basis that we’re supposed to be fighting terrorism to protect our free society, but sufficiently intrusive and all-pervading surveillance would amount to giving up the free society we’re supposed to be protecting, so it makes no sense to do so, even if we managed to achieve 100% security by doing it.

  25. Nick Gotts says

    machineintelligence,

    From your own link:

    The government’s broad programs to collect U.S. phone records and Internet traffic helped disrupt a 2009 plot to bomb the New York City subways, a senior U.S. intelligence official said.

    But the assertion raises as many questions as it answers because court testimony indicated the subway plot investigation began with an email.

    The break in that case came, according to court documents and testimony, when Zazi emailed a Yahoo address seeking help with his bomb recipe.

    At that time, British intelligence officials knew the Yahoo address was associated with an al-Qaida leader in Pakistan. That’s because, according to British government documents released in 2010, officials had discovered it on the computer of a terror suspect there months earlier.

    Because the NSA and British intelligence work so closely together and so little is known about how the NSA monitors email traffic, it’s possible that both agencies were monitoring the Yahoo address at the time Zazi sent the critical email in 2009.

    What’s unclear, though, is how the phone program aided the investigation, which utilized court-authorized wiretaps of Zazi and his friends.

    I think it’s bullshit, brought out in an attempt to justify what has been revealed.

  26. Nick Gotts says

    Sorry, the quote @26 is not continuous: I snipped some text out between the second and third paragraphs.

  27. naturalcynic says

    How’s that hopey-changey thing working out?

    This is what a “progressive” Democrat does. Imagine what will happen the next time a conservative Republican takes the White House. Since when is Obama a “progressive”?

  28. baal says

    “No it doesn’t. All of these policies have to be signed off on. ”
    QFT
    Any large organization has planning meetings to carry out new projects. These meetings don’t happen with out someone to drive them, some one to make approvals, some one to code the software changes, someone to set up additional hardware, etc. That’s a lot of someones who aren’t going to randomly set stuff up with out getting the ok from their boss. The bigger the action (or spend or impact or degree of change) the higher up the ladder has to ok what’s going on. It’s a matter of protecting yourself as much as anything else.

  29. machintelligence says

    Nick Gotts @ 26

    , while liberals will claim, also unconvincingly, that the extra intelligence gathering has not prevented any terrorist attacks.

    I think it’s bullshit, brought out in an attempt to justify what has been revealed.

    I think you just proved my point.

  30. DaveL says

    @24:

    A swing and a miss. The article clearly states that the actual tipoff came as a result of an intercepted e-mail that was sent to a previously known terrorist account. That’s a piss-poor justification for why the government can’t get warrants, say, for a known terrorist account rather than hoovering up all traffic.

    @26

    You think wrong.

  31. machintelligence says

    That’s a piss-poor justification for why the government can’t get warrants, say, for a known terrorist account rather than hoovering up all traffic.

    How is the qualitatively different from saying, in the instance of the pro-gun arguments, that “he didn’t need an assault rifle, he could just as easily have used a sword.” So why should we restrict one particular weapon?

    The point I was trying to make is that neither side is willing to admit a rational basis for the actions of the other side. Resorting to special pleadings tends to prove my point.

  32. DaveL says

    There’s no special pleading here. The government is contending that the 4th Amendment model, that requires searches to be limited in scope, unacceptably impairs National Security. The one example you gave involved a terrorist target already known to the NSA, and therefore an easy target for narrowly-scoped surveillance. Just because your example doesn’t fit the government’s claim doesn’t make it special pleading.

    Nor is there any rational correspondence with your “assault rifle/sword” example. This is not about the means used by terrorists, but about the means used by government. You have the two arguments on opposite sides of the constitution. The constitution is intended to place limits on the government; it is not intended to place limits on the people.

  33. Ichthyic says

    This is what a “progressive” Democrat does.

    I can’t ever recall anyone ever saying Obama was defined as a progressive.

    Obama himself never said or claimed any such thing.

    There WERE real progressives running in both of the last elections on the Democratic side during the primaries.

    They were ignored.

    you want to see what progressive democrats look like? Ask these guys:

    http://www.pdamerica.org/

  34. greg1466 says

    Both programs, the president maintained, are overseen by all three branches of the federal government, are reviewed regularly by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

    I thought John Oliver’s response to this was perfect on The Daily Show. To paraphrase; I’m not worried because you broke laws to do this. I worried because you didn’t have to.

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