Beyond the Cusp

April 6, 2014

Are Privacy Rights Even Possible Today?

The United States Constitution stipulates a carefully constructed and balanced governance with opposing interests and powers separated and posed as checks against the usurpation of excessive power over time by any one branch, individual or small group of individuals. Still, the Founding Fathers were challenged by the representatives of the various states and the people to give stated recognition and formalized structure to the protections of the individual from the power and infringement by the government which resulted in the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. This set of Amendments placed defined limitations on the government and its related institutions as well as defined unabridged rights awarded the people by an authority which superseded the government and any individual, group, corporation or entity. Initially there were a dozen proposed Amendments which were to constitute the Bill of Rights but only ten survived the ratification process. The first of the two Amendments which were not ratified pertained to the number of representatives and the maximum number of citizens they would be permitted to represent all in a sliding scale that increased the ratio as the number of representatives in the House of Representatives is increased as the total passed each hundred. It is easier to read the proposal than explain, so, it reads, “After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.” The other rejected Amendment concerned the rate of payment for members of the House of Representatives and read, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

 

All that may be interesting but it also has as much relevance to the modern world as do those definitions for the number of citizens each House of Representatives member has in their districts as today that number is in excess of seven hundreds of thousands, not the tens of thousands as was originally thought to be a fair ratio. The idea of personal anonymity and the safeguarding of each person from excessive government intrusion and inspection were considered sacrosanct at the writing and founding of the United States. This was a unique concept whose origins were a recent concept then and now is either a concept that has never been addressed for much of the world and becoming a quaint and dated concept where it originated in the political parlors and by the political philosophers and thinkers leading up to the founding of the United States and the explosion of representative governance in Europe and America. The current debate has taken some twists and turns especially since the revelations introduced into the public conscience through the release of classified information by Edward Snowden about the extent of spying on individual citizens by the United States government. Of course his releases told of what many thought to be excessive intrusions by the NSA and other data gathering government agencies and were perceived as being something relatively new as such unprecedented ability for gathering data, especially electronic data, was thought to be a recently acquired ability for government. The reality is even more frightening than what was revealed by Mr. Snowden as the NSA has been capable of recording virtually every bit of electronic data generated in the United States since somewhere back in the 1970s. This ability has been supplemented and expanded repeatedly going through different names, one of the more memorable being the Echelon System used in the 1980 -90s which also was capable of recording huge amounts of data comparable to the total electronic data output of the United States. It is apparent that the NSA has increased their abilities in, at a minimum, direct correlation to the amount of electronic data capable of being produced by the United States, no small feat. Recent revelation have told of the United States actually recording every e-mail and electronic communication of any one nation in the world in addition to its abilities to monitor the United States electronic output and some have spoken of the ability to record to some extent and level all the electronic communications and generated data of the entire planet. What possibility for privacy remains when measured against such unfathomable abilities?

 

Those who specialize in knowing the extent and depth of the abilities to gather data on an individual often are quoted, though almost always as an anonymous source, telling of borderline or even absolutely mind-boggling abilities possessed by the government spying and law enforcement agencies. There have been cases claiming they have the ability to listen to a conversation in a closed room from as much as a quarter or half mile distant simply by pointing a specialized laser at a window pane and interpreting the changes in the vibration of the glass molecules as long as the window is not covered by a thick, sound dampening set of curtains. There are claims that they can locate people using thermal imaging through walls of almost any building. Many have heard that the spy satellites optics are capable of reading a newspaper that somebody is reading sitting on a park bench. The Soviet Union demanded that their government employees never carry any classified documents outside of buildings unless they were safely contained in a briefcase. Many of the tactics used in the biggest Hollywood films such as listening in on conversations from a distance utilizing parabolic microphones and other such routine spy thriller capabilities are likely outdated by the time we see them in movies. There was a recent report that some government agency was researching some form of determining through observable and easily collected data who would be most likely to commit crimes, what those crimes would be, whom they would target and when the crime would be committed with some degree of dependable accuracy. What is the obligation of the government if they are capable of predicting future criminal events in preventing any harm resulting from such acts and how close are we to replacing the precogs lying in a pool and seeing events referred to as precrimes as in the movie Minority Report except using instruments, computers and software programs to predict such possibilities. Between the abilities of governments for data collection, computing of metadata, and making accurate predictions and profiling individuals, what possibility does anybody have of escaping with even the slightest shred of privacy intact? And what can be done to prevent governments from misusing such data, and even more important, what limits should be placed on private companies when it comes to sharing personal data and forming profiles on individuals which can and are used in targeted advertising and other such abilities. And even if such limitations were to be incorporated into regulations or criminal codes, how would they even be enforced or even could they be enforced and if enforced, what other problems would result from government attempting to gather the proof of such crimes being committed? It becomes mind-boggling just playing out the ever-expanding web resulting from data collection and manipulation.

 

The final area that also is providing insights which may be an even bigger threat is in the area of AI, artificial intelligence. Google and Microsoft are working with the United States government and who knows who else to utilize the data they are able to collect using buying patterns and search terminology used when searching the internet and many other data inputs to formulate a program or set of programs that will be able to predict future trends and reason and think in a manner close to that of a human being. They claim such research is being used to better serve the public and to be able to design robots in the future that will be better enabled to interact with people. What threats to our privacy exist as a result of such research and is there any way we can protect ourselves from such intrusions? The result of everything we are experiencing and that are being reported is that there is no longer anything that even resembles the privacy that the Founding Fathers attempted to give the people guarantees would be held sacred by government. That is looking less and less likely with every revelation. Now the United States is implementing a healthcare system which will posit all the healthcare information into the computers of the IRS, Internal Revenue Service, the tax people. How much power will the government have when the IRS has complete records of your healthcare and your financial situation? How will government use such data and will the government now determine the level of healthcare a person will be entitled to be provided conditional on their financial worth to the society as a whole? This could easily enter an area which at its worst could result in some form of euthanasia and a form of means testing to qualify for healthcare treatments at the least. Thinking too long and too hard on the completeness of the government’s ability to gather every iota of personal information on each and every individual, especially realizing that each of us are potentially ourselves, and to utilize this data to predict our future actions and results of everything in our lives such that they can literally know before we ourselves are aware of what tomorrow holds for each of us and use this ability for nefarious purposes which will compromise every shred of our privacy and most know our most intimate thoughts before we even have them, can any government or person be trusted with such knowledge and the power it imparts. Some of the items which were restricted to the areas of futurist political science fiction such as in Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World are now becoming within the grasp of government and companies making these stories warnings of what is coming soon to our worlds and it will make for many horrifying prognostications on what our lives will become. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and ultimate power corrupts beyond imagination and what is coming is beyond even that.

 

Beyond the Cusp

 

July 12, 2013

NSA Snooping Bothersome, How About the IRS?

Ever since Edward Snowden blew the lid off of the NSA Prism Program and the cataloguing virtually every single electronic signal worldwide, people have been in panic mode worrying over an overly intrusive government. The fact that the information readily available is that of trends and unless some trigger causes there to be suspicions about a particular person, the government would never actually listen to or read any of one’s personal catalogued information. This does not appear to have allayed many people’s fears and likely with a fair amount of good cause. The simple fact that this treasure trove of personal data and possibly inconvenient facts are in some gigantic storage site just waiting for somebody to decide to misuse these presumably secure files for whatever nefarious purpose their evil little heart’s desire is simply too much of a threat to allow people to maintain absolute sense of calm.

 

To those amongst us that knew about the predecessor to Prism which was called Echelon, we faced this fact back in the late 1980s or 1990s when that system was sufficiently powerful to record almost every electronic signal of the day. Running concurrent to Echelon was an agreement between the Anglo-nations of Australia, Canada, Britain and the United States that each nation would monitor the civilian information gathered through Echelon and should anything of interest be found then alert the nation where the suspected person resided. This allowed for domestic monitoring of each nations citizenry without running afoul of the laws against domestic spying by the intelligence agencies such as the CIA and NSA. No longer does the government feel it is necessary to go to such extents to avoid the regulations and laws which make spying within the borders by our intelligence agencies forbidden. Now they simply promise that the information they are collecting will simply be left unsifted beyond searching for suspicious patterns or other such traits trip set indicators. Of course we need not fear as we all can be assured that there are no people in government who might, without cause, actually sift through the personal information even if they have a friend who suspects his or her spouse may be having something undesired and would really appreciate knowing who he or she has been trading emails with? I mean, what could possibly go wrong when every phone conversation, email, instant message, web site visited, television show or movie watched, and purchase made is recorded and available to anybody within the Federal Government with the proper security clearance to peruse at their leisure?

 

Believe it or not, the invasion of privacy that Prism permits the Federal Government through the NSA is about to be dwarfed by the invasion of our medical privacy by an arm of the Federal Government which has already been proven to use their powers for nefarious and vindictive reasons when the IRS held up and demanded unnecessary details and information from conservative and pro-Israel organizations seeking tax exempt status. Starting with the advent of Obama Care the IRS will be charged with keeping the files of our entire medical histories. They will be able to profile every American for health problems and have influence over treatments that will be allowed to be made available. They will assess fees and make numerous health care decisions. Does having the IRS, who already holds every iota of your personal financial information, now be charged with your entire health care and medical history make you feel at all comfortable? Between the IRS and the NSA there will no longer be a single secret about your life that the government will not be privy to. I would be hard pressed to pick which I find more troublesome, the NSA with every byte and possibly bit of my electronic history or the IRS having every piece of my financial and health histories at their fingertips. And even if one could choose which is worse, you can depend on the fact that there will be sharing of this information between the two agencies whenever anybody’s name becomes one of those “names of interest”, whatever that may come to mean.

 

How much longer before we will all find ourselves being careful not to allow too much emotion to show as such discretions might raise the suspicions of some government minder who would then file your name as a person of interest which would start a full review of your files to decide if your show of emotion was out of sorts requiring further investigation and monitoring or simply some understandable reaction to a recent event. We must also remember the networking by numerous municipalities of all the city’s public and private security cameras tied to facial recognition software, and more are joining this list every month. And just to make an obvious prediction, the government at all levels will very soon be able to track your vehicle on every trip it makes. This will come into play once sufficient numbers of people drive vehicles which use little or no petroleum fuels. This will cause the government to tax your vehicular mileage which will require every vehicle to be fitted with an electronic identifier with GPS route and distance tracking for the purpose of collecting revenue. Such would never be utilized by the government to discover who belongs to the gun club or regularly drive to TEA Party events or other places of particular interest. Some people will tell you the government already has this ability to track movements of anybody by following their cellphone. The answer to that is sometimes let your cellphone stay home while you clandestinely go to your destination assured of arriving under complete secrecy. Privacy? We don’t need no individual privacy.

 

Beyond the Cusp

 

June 11, 2013

Prism, Echelon, Unlimited Data Mining, the NSA, Where Did it Start?

We are hearing stories and rumors, facts and flights of fancy, truths and misdirections, and enough information overload to the point that our heads are spinning and we end up so confused that we likely just shake our heads, take a couple analgesics for the headache and go off to forget the whole mess. Unfortunately, once we know that our every communication, our every internet search, every web site we visit, every purchase we make, and even our every move is being tracked, stored and can be retrieved any time in the future and collated to make any story desired about us believable. Add to that the fact that with computers tapes can be made in which there is nothing that cannot be produced showing us doing anything from sleepwalking to murder and saying anything from the kindest compliments to the worst treasons. When we delve deeply into the potential powers that the government could use in nefarious efforts to paint us as guilty of any crime and part of any conspiracy which they could ever dream up we realize that the powers that be have the ability to make our lives into whatever scheme their sick little minds desired. But at some point in our paranoid fog the thought creeps into our consciousness, when and how did all of this start and how long has it been turned against the people?

 

The beginning of modern data mining was espionage, both between rival city states and within city states by the different members of the ruling court. Espionage was accepted by the common person as it was something that did not affect their lives and it also diverted the ruling classes from further ruining their lives. That has all changed as it is now utilized by governments in order to control the lives of the people. Totalitarian governments have long been known to have secret police and entire departments within their governments which collected information on the general public and went even deeper on persons of interest. The targets usually contained the wealthy, political activists and anybody who was thought to be a potential problem, threat, rival or simply somebody who may need some convincing to assist with gathering information on any others. With the advent of the electronics age espionage became both more technical and also easier to employ against a wider set of targets. Even as electronic data increased geometrically, the ability to gather and store data increased exponentially far outstripping the rate of increase of available data. The unfortunate fact is that the ability to collect data has reached the dream point for the political class as they can now record everything. And since they have the ability to collect every iota of available data they have reached the obvious conclusion, they collect everything, why not.

 

The first major data collecting on masses of people in the United States where anybody who may be of use or importance was monitored for whatever secrets or damning information that could be uncovered was FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover. His files on politicians, leaders of industry, and anybody who was somebody became stories of legend. But J. Edgar Hoover would have salivated had he ever seen the NSA system known as Echelon, the forerunner of Prism. Echelon was preceded by international signal monitoring between nations but Echelon was capable of such volumes of data gathering as to make everything preceding it seem almost amateurish. Today’s data mining capabilities make Echelon appear almost primitive. Echelon was implemented over a quarter century ago and gave the NSA (National Security Agency) unprecedented capabilities outstripping their wildest dreams of the founders back in 1952. With Echelon the NSA finally realized their dream of having the capability to collect data on almost anybody their little hearts desired. But even the immense gathering powers of Echelon were outpaced by the amounts of data being generated very soon after its inception with the addition of general use of the Internet plus cell phones and a simple explosion with the advent of the electronics age. The onset of the electronics age also provided the solution to the unimaginable amounts of data generated. This presented the NSA with the opportunity to meet the challenge before them, the ability to collect all data from all sources. This required an extensive storage facility. That is exactly what the NSA just officially opened in Nevada where they estimate they have sufficient storage medium to store every electronic signal generated worldwide for the next century. Even if it only does as advertised for half that time, it will still have been an impressive system.

 

Echelon caused a stir amongst many people who follow government abuses, politics and conspiracy theorists. Much of what was known in the public about Echelon was refuted by government as the NSA and others denied its existence. Eventually, like anything which requires large numbers of people to run the equipment and make the raw data into something presentable that had real uses and meaning, the secret got out and enough became known that denial was no longer possible. Armed with the experience of the warnings and denials over Echelon, the revelations about Prism are easily believed by the people and thus no attempt appears to be in the works for denial. That leaves the government with the choice of facing the music or making what they are doing appear to be both necessary and innocuous. Trust one who was a believer and ever suspicious of Echelon, Prism is every bit as dangerous with levels of misuse beyond the wildest of imaginations. We have already been witness to the powers of Prism. General Petraeus and General John Allen were early victims of the powers of Prism as they were disgraced into retirement by the revelation of their private emails. The information of their emails that were released did not result from their government email accounts but from their private email accounts. The power of Prism became evident in these two cases as once those who wished to destroy these men’s lives took the knowledge that there had been emails that might be of a questionable nature and then gathered the entire history of these emails simply be entering a query into Prism data search and waited for the results. Presto, everything that matched the query for the past decade at their fingertips to use in any manner against these men. These were private emails and before you claim they should have known better than to leave such evidence, what would your bosses think if they had access to every email, chat, instant message, tweet, and Facebook entry you have made over the past decade? Would your job be safe? What about that comment you made after a particularly bad day about that slave-master who runs your office? That is the potential damage anybody in our government with access to Prism can bring down on any citizen of the United States for the foreseeable future. I am fairly sure that Prism also is collecting data from other nations as well and its capabilities are being made available to friendly government within limits. With Prism now fully activated and connected to the immense storage facility in Nevada the government can continue collecting every electronic signal and run their queries at their convenience as the data will be available for the rest of time, well, in theory at least.

 

Some may be interested in what are the main differences between Echelon and Prism other than the sheer immensity of the data that can be stored indefinitely by Prism versus Echelon. Well, that actually is the basic difference. Under Echelon the government entered key words and phrases which could be adapted depending on what were deemed to be of interest. With Echelon they had permanent key words such as bomb, President, terror, attack, assassinate, kidnap, Echelon, and the names of important or noteworthy people. When a piece of data crossed the Echelon data input channels containing any of these keywords it was saved and if it contained the right combination or sufficient numbers of key words, it was marked for review by an actual person. Echelon was monitoring all the trans-Atlantic phone cables, satellite uplinks and downlinks, Internet providers’ data points to the Web, and numerous other data points which were considered necessary or sensitive. The main deficiency of Echelon was the amounts of data it was capable of both storing and monitoring. Prism does not have such limitations as it has the capability to take in all the data that the NSA can manage to find a method to intercept. There is no requirement for keywords with Prism. Using Prism does require keywords but they can be entered well after the data was stored, not using them as a hurdle to clear in order to be stored. When accessing the Prism database one enters the names and keywords which they wish to pull the data on just like we do when searching the Internet. The difference is Prism has far more data than the Internet and Prism can track any piece of data in its memory back to the person or people who were parties to the conversation or otherwise connected to the data. Prism has another capability that too many will be even more ominous. If you wish to track the movements of someone you only need to enter a few key numbers to gather tracking information for them from that point further. Whether Prism has the ability to track one from past data it would likely be limited to tracking where any person received a cell call or used their OnStar or tracked their lost vehicle. Any way one looks at the power and potentials for misuse of Prism, it definitely is a sign that Big Brother has arrived and we may soon need to monitor our every facial expression so that our faces do not arouse suspicions, after all there are cameras almost everywhere.

 

Beyond the Cusp

 

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