Category Archives: surveillance state

“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”

NSA 9000

I’m really disturbed (surprised isn’t quite the right word) at what I’m learning about the government’s massive, untargeted surveillance of millions of American citizens over the last 7 years. I thought we had this debate during the Bush administration and all decided it was illegal and should stop. Apparently, folks at the NSA and in the Bush and Obama administrations had different ideas.

In case you aren’t aware, a secret court has created secret law supposedly authorizing the federal government to spy on you, your friends, and your family. That means every email you read or write, every search you run on Google, every call you make on Skype. And the bureacracy asking the secret FISA court for approval to do this is so massive and so obscured by secrecy that there exists no single list of all of its activities. It’s called Big Brother, after all.

In my mind this is a clear violation of the fourth amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

No, it doesn’t mention electronic communications (not having been invented by 1789), but they are the modern analogue to “papers”. The wide sweep of surveillance as currently conducted seems to blatantly violate the requirement that no warrant be issued without a specific description of the people, places, and things involved. There is nothing specific about monitoring all phone calls.

The Constitution provides strong protections on privacy that are in this case being clearly disregarded in the name of national security. Combine it with the recent revelations of IRS targeting of conservative groups, and Justice Department intimidation of journalists, and a picture emerges of a gartantuan bureaucracy in which the systems, processes, and perceived mandates of government overwhelm by its very nature the interests of the individual.

Sign me up for the class-action lawsuit.

‘Bourne Ultimatum’ and the Rule of Law in a Republic

Just watched The Bourne Ultimatum with my sister and my bro-in-law. Cool movie, very well done! Of course, amidst the excellent action, its philosophical point wasn’t wasted on me. I don’t know if the original book was really about this, but it was a timely statement on the tension between security and liberty.

A Tale of Two Extremisms

One of the great challenges of our time is the defense of liberty against extremist threats, while balancing abuses resulting from too many resources and too little oversight in the instruments created or adapted for that fight. Or rather, the challenge is to defend liberty against multiple threats, multiple extremisms:

  1. extremism abroad (external risk) such as radical Islam that seeks to destroy our precious free institutions by means of terrorism and other subversive methods
  2. extremism at home (internal risk) in the form of overzealousness in battling the first form of extremism.

The Nature of the Evils of Internal and External Risks to Liberty

A useful assertion to make and then analyze is that likelihood or severity of external risks to liberty is inversely proportional to the amount of resources employed in their prevention and directly proportional to the amount of oversight committed to this resources. External risks are greatest when oversight is burdensome and resources are inadequate:

external riskLikewise, the likelihood or severity of internal risks to liberty could be said to be directly proportional to the quantity of resources employed in prevention of external risks, and inversely proportional to the degree of oversight committed to those resources. Internal risks are greatest when too many resources are in the hands of people whose activities are insufficiently monitored:

internal riskInternal and external risks can be combined to create a hybrid pseudo-metric:

composite riskThe obvious story of this chart is that too great of an imbalance of resources or oversight in either direction creates a risk that liberties will be lost. (Note that in all of these charts, the colored section is equal to the log of the corresponding value in the non-colored scale. This was to make it easy to apply a color scheme.)


I’m in favor of normalizing the civil liberties regime during this conflict against external extremism. That means no holding of prisoners without trials. The key reason this is critical now when it wasn’t necessarily so during the civil war, for example, is that terrorism will never go away. If we let it, it will become the perpetual wars from 1984 or the state of emergency of Caesar and Emperor Palpatine alike: a constant justification for shafting liberty.

We clearly can’t abandon intelligence-gathering efforts. These must be effective. But at the moment our oversight of those efforts is probably too low. We need to devise a system by which a significant number of eyes outside of the intelligence community knows what those folks are up to and has a reasonable means of lodging complaints against abuses.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?