Tag Archives: NSA

US Intelligence Budget

US Intelligence Budget

WaPo put together this fantastic infographic several months ago on the national intelligence budget, highlighting the overall split among agencies, missions, and individual expenses of each of those agencies. Really fascinating to be able to break down the spend and learn a little about how we prioritize and how we gather the majority of our intelligence.

Much has been said recently about the intelligence community, but little attention has been paid to the spending that underlies it. This is obviously critical spending and also requires a lot of secrecy, but without transparency we also lack the ability to provide much public oversight of its activities. Most members of Congress are also unaware, and if they are aware cannot share what they have learned (e.g. Ron Wyden). It’s a balancing act, but it illustrates the difficulty that we face in controlling what our government does. Important to learn more about it either way – I think I need to read more about the history of the intelligence apparatus, the Church Committee, etc.

Interesting to note we spend about 3 times as much on our intelligence programs as we do on NASA, although that’s always my selfish benchmark.

Overdue Article Review

I have been under reading during the past few weeks, and have thus been quite behind on categorizing and picking out the noteworthy articles that I have seen. This will be a potentially longer edition, as I have a long Pocket backlog to get through.

Laws Are Not Enough – An interesting read about some of the differences between the accounts of the NSA surveillance issues. Most of the defense is around the legal safeguards that are in place, but the potential for abuse exists as long as there are not actual barriers to those actions that are legally impermissible. Police are restricted legally from doing a whole host of things that end up occurring fairly regularly. It would be best if the all seeing eye had some physical limits to its use.

The FBI Can Remotely Activate the Mic on my Android Phone – And speaking of the NSA, it looks plike my love of Android may leave me more vulnerable than the average person. Ouch!

NSA revelations could hurt collaboration with ‘betrayed’ hackers – In recent years, the NSA and other government agencies / organizations that deal with cyber issues have relied on the hacker community for help with spotting vulnerabilities, helping find solutions, and as a talent pool. As it become more clear that their overall philosophies are at odds, does it make it more difficult for these organizations to function? Hackers raised on the internet are more than anti-establishment; freedom is a virtue the internet has always cherished and enabled since its early days.

The suburbs are dead – I have never liked the suburbs, seeing them as homogenous bubbles where folks don’t really get to see much of society. Fascinating how that view is shifting and may no longer be true. Also, turning entire malls into apartment communities sounds like an intriguing idea, and is very cool.

Made in the USA – Manufacturing is often touted as a potential future driver of American growth, but I think that this hope is misplaced. While it is important to make stuff, it isn’t going to bring back jobs in the manner that folks in power seem to promise. Manufacturing is either going to add low wage jobs such as the assembly of the new Moto X profiled in this article (looks like an awesome phone), or add higher wage engineering jobs that require a deeper education (and fewer in number than the GM line workers of the past). There seems to be such nostalgia for the labor security that came with big union shops like auto, but the old contract cannot be competitive anymore (and was subsidized by tariffs and other costs on the consumer). We need to figure out how to make a new social contract that can create this economic security, but manufacturing jobs are not going to be it.

Twitter’s free speech problem – I tend to like Twitter’s stance on a lot of these issues. From being the most direct in not cooperating with the Feds on PRISM, to its sanctity ideal of free speech (nice shout out to JSM in the article), it holds many ideals that I tend to agree with. What is frightening here is the tone of the article, as well as the growing importance of internet companies on the front lines of establishing and protecting rights. The article seems to suggest that Twitter needs to be the one to monitor and moderate such “abuses”, but who is to decide that? If someone threatens you over the phone, do we assume that it is the place of the phone company to screen and stop that activity? We have a system of laws to deal with this, and while the internet certainly makes the process more difficult, it should not put Twitter or any other company in the role of judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense. Twitter understands that it is a vehicle for speech, and is wary of getting involved in these issues, and I think that is right (so many examples of this, ISPs being asked to punish for copyright violations for instance). The real problem here is the incredibly slow manner in which our legal code has changed with the times.

Administration overturns ban on some iPad, iPhones – This week, the administration vetoed an import ban on several iProducts that violated parents from a significant rival. While patent law is certainly in need of repair, don’t we need a real revisiting of the whole of patent law? This action is arbitrary at best. Will the Feds do the same if Apple is successful in lobbying for a ban on Samsung phones? Picking winners and losers…

The $4 million teacher – Fascinating look into the private teaching market that has developed in Korea. Definitely pros and cons of their way of doing things – students go to school practically twice a day, but the system encourages outstanding teaching. Our teachers and schools seem to be incapable of attempting much softer innovations (the constant battleground over charter schools), much less something as radical as described in this article.

Big fish, little fish, and the SEC – What I fail to understand about the recent SEC proceedings is why Tourre has taken the fall for the abuses of the industry. There were probably hundreds if not thousands of such transactions throughout the Street in the years leading up to the crash. While this does not absolve his actions, it is sad to see such spotty and seemingly arbitrary enforcement of the law.

The payday playbook: how high cost lenders fight to stay legal – I reserve a special distain and outrage  for businesses that only survive and profit by taking advantage of those that do not know any better. Herbalife, Rent a Center, payday lenders – all argue that they perform vital services for those in need but instead render little service and make people’s lives worse. I consider these businesses unethical if not criminal. The tactics described in this article to keep the petitioners off the ballot is simply disgusting. More people need to be aware of this.

Why Americans all believe they are ‘middle class’ – The most used phrase in politics right now, the ‘middle class’ has interesting roots and usage in a society that tends to avoid class distinctions. Everyone thinks they are middle class today, and this shapes our policy, votes, and how our country ends up.

Google flip-flops on network neutrality – This article makes me very disappointed in Google. Net neutrality is an important idea, and I hope it gets enshrined in the future. The internet is a utility: the modern age electricity changing how we do work and how we live. Like electricity, it should not be overly monitored. Last time I checked, I was not prevented from plugging in a specific type of coffee maker within my own home. Plugging in a server is no different. Of course, if I ran a nuclear reactor in my apartment and overloaded the network, I could understand their involvement. Google, do something similar.

Man shot by Austin cop – Why does this continue to occur? “Not following police policy” gets people killed. And usually, these things fade into the background without leading to any changes.

Germany’s clean energy plan backfired – I bring up the example of Germany a lot in discussions on clean energy and how it can and cannot be supported. Largely, it is a zero sum game. Someone has to bear the costs, and whether through government or business, it ends up at the taxpayer or the consumer (of course, unless the environment itself bears the cost). In that kind of an environment, it is important to consider how those burdens will be distributed before crafting policy. Removing nuclear energy seemed like a good idea, but is it really if it brings coal plants back online and raises emissions? Either cheap coal returns, or electricity prices go up. Too often, our governments do not seem to have an honest conversation about where the costs will go, and we end up making sub-par policy as a result.

Decline of homeownership – Homeownership has declined for a number of reasons, and this article examines a few. Joblessness especially among younger Americans, mobility, and the breaking of the homes-always-go-up-in-value fallacy have all contributed. There are a number of changes taking place in this generation that may lead to a very different consumer of the future. Ownership of hard assets like homes is simply less attractive for a mobile person, and they tend not to be particularly good investments. One of my favorite statistics, slightly unrelated, is the rate at which 18 year olds have drivers licenses – in the 70s, it was close to 90%, while today it is below 70%. Will the young ever own homes of their own?

Why privilege is so hard to give up – I could write a whole essay on this, and perhaps in the future I will. I categorically reject the premise of the article. “Privilege” is such a misnomer here. What we are talking about here is injustice. Folks being pulled over for driving while black, women subjected to a glass ceiling, whatever example you want to give, this is an example not of someone taking advantage of “privilege” but of some being subjected to forces that are wrong. Why would someone define this issue thus way? Why would we seek to “abandon” privilege and “give up” status that shoukd be free and open to everyone? Let us treat this issue as it should be treated, and alleviate these injustices where they exist. The privileged should not be pulled down, instead those without privilege should be brought up. Even if this writer were correct on privilege, the prescription is impossible. One cannot simply “give up” something that occurs simply because of who they are. Let’s set aside the fact that the author “schools” others on the “facts” of this social science. No wonder the author has people disagree with the arguments – as they are veiled in language that comes off as offensive. I had such a negative reaction to this article. I’d invite a debate on it.

That’s all for now. This has been a hodgepodge of articles. At some point, I will do this regularly enough to focus posts on specific themes and issues. As I get up to speed, we will get there.

We’re Being Watched

Given the revelations over the past week, it seems clear that our government has overstepped what many of us would consider proper in the realm of surveillance.

Initial reports –
NSA Disclosure in the Guardian – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/06/nsa-phone-records-verizon-court-order
PRISM in WaPo – http://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/us-intelligence-mining-data-from-nine-us-internet-companies-in-broad-secret-program/2013/06/06/3a0c0da8-cebf-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.html

While it is perhaps too early to call these reports “the facts”, the administration has not denied that the programs exist, and has defended their usage and effectiveness in combating terrorist threats. However, the power wielded seems to be incredibly massive – all phone records of all calls made in or out of US soil in a multi-year period, ability to sift through the content of internet communications (“accidentally” picking up a lot of intra-US material even when only foreign material is targeted), in addition to all types of surveillance we know is available already, including databases of license plate numbers and warrant-less wiretapping and the like.

The framers knew that power was a corrupting influence, so they attempted to split it up and let power balance power as much as was possible. The “tyranny of the majority” needed the representative process to “cool” its passions. Power was vested in 3 distinct branches, so that any movement would be tempered, and a broad concensus would be needed to move policy in very new directions. The American people are directly responsible for two of those branches, with a third as a derivation and quasi-impartial check on the rest. This balance of the government, along with the influence of the people and public opinion, is responsible for the (relative) success of our system to date.

However, inherent in this process is that the people can be an effective check on the actions that are done in their name; without transparency, there is no way to hold the government accountable for what it does. In this case, with the legislature signing away extremely broad powers of surveilence, the executive interpreting them in an aggressive manner, and all questions adjudicated by a court whose opinions can never be read, how can the public really know or even attempt to police PRISM, cellular metadata, and other types of ridiculous collecting of information?

Our laws have evolved epically slowly in this time of technological transformation. The jurisprudence that allows the government to collect and aggregate this data, read any emails over 180 days old, and tap into other internet communication without a warrant was built in a simpler, less connected time. It is up to us to become educated and push for a modernization of the law. For unreasonable search and seizure should not be limited to the physical world; my old emails and digital footprint are immensely more personal than if police were able to rummage through my pockets as they pleased.

It seems inevitable that this will lead to corruption. Why should I trust the 3 branches to do their duty in isolation, without the check of the people? Why should I be made to trust that they will not use it for other ends? Saying that “if we don’t trust in the 3 branches to do what’s right” (paraphrase) in secret, then “we’re going to have some problems”, does not make me feel particularly at ease. If something is too powerful, no one or group should wield that power over another.

Nearly no one outside of the administration and the few senators that have spoken out on the program have taken stands to defend it. See some of the commentary –
If each of the seemingly small number (200) of court orders on this is as big as the Verizon one… – http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2013/06/nsa-numbers/
The NYTimes in on the action – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/07/opinion/president-obamas-dragnet.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
Sad for the country that has done so much to push freedom around the world (disagree if you wish) to not follow its own guidance – http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/06/07/prism_hurts_us_internet_freedom_rankings_freedom_house_to_downgrade_america.html?wpisrc=most_viral

I think that each of us should take a little effort to familiarize ourselves with these programs, and what they might mean for our own information stored online. When I think about the size of my online footprint in the context of this, it surely is disheartening. Something I might test later is https://myshadow.org/, which might be able to help out. Others have written articles to help out – http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/06/07/how_to_secure_and_encrypt_your_email_and_other_communications_from_prism.html.

Peripherally, it will be interesting to see how this effects many of tech’s biggest giants, who inherently now rely on our data as their major business proposition. What if that data dries up because we have no faith that it won’t be used against us? – http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/06/prism_apple_google_microsoft_how_the_nsa_s_surveillance_program_could_ruin.html

Very thought provoking stuff.