Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Was anyone actually surprised?

Once again, I'm coming late to the party in discussing this, but it's another one of those topics that doesn't seem to want to go away. I've got to admit I don't get it. Were there actually still naifs wandering around the U.S. who did not know the government spies on people all the time? Has J. Edgar Hoover been dead so long now that everyone's forgotten how he managed to stay Director-for-Life of the FBI? Hoover had dossiers on anyone and everyone in government. He controlled Presidents. And he did it all through the use of technology that by today's standards was laughably primitive: listening at keyholes, breaking into people's homes or motel rooms when they weren't there to install microphones that were hardwired to reel-to-reel tape recorders bigger than a modern carry-on suitcase, illegally wiretapping people's telephones and having real live humans sit there listening, steno pad in hand. One of the saddest stories I ever read was about the FBI agent who was tasked with spying on Martin Luther King. He spent years listening to King's phone calls, 99% of which were the usual mundane calls we all make. Can  you imagine spending a career listening to one guy's phone calls because the Director was convinced that sooner or later that person would confess to being a Communist?

If anything, I find the NSA kerfuffle oddly reassuring. First, because a whistle-blower was able to look at an aggregate picture and view spying on ordinary citizens as wrong. After all, there were hundreds of FBI agents spying on individual people for decades and they never suffered any apparent guilt or moral qualms, or, if they did, they kept those doubts to themselves. A number of agents did admit long after the fact that they weren't happy about Hoover's anti-Communist obsessions and where it led the agency, but they followed orders anyway.

Second, the sheer size of the spying operations means the spy agencies are burying themselves in garbage data. Sure, you can set up search algorithms to fish for patterns, but when you're talking about millions of phone calls, emails, whatever, it takes a whole lot of processing power to find the occasional possible real threat. Which means, in a weird way, the NSA et al. are doing a nice job of stimulating the economy. Most of us might view electronic data as intangible, but it gets processed by real machinery. It's not magic; it's technology. Someone has to sell the spies all that computer equipment, buildings have to go up to house it, infrastructure is created (roads, utility systems), power is generated, and so on. And all the computer equipment requires people to run it. The various spy agencies have to hire people: clerks, janitors, security guards who manage to con their way into jobs as "analysts," etc. Jobs are created. Not exactly the economic stimulus most of us would prefer, but a stimulus nonetheless. It almost makes me wish I owned stock in Cray.


  1. With the news that perhaps 500,000 people have clearance in various agencies and maybe that many more private contractors as well, it tells us the thing is a failure at everything but spending money. With billions of emails, links, posts, calls, texts, tweets, their is no way they can ferret out bad guys with any substantial success rate. Especially when you read the drug lords in Central America go through a dozen cell phones a day, destroying them sometimes after one call. I read one account of a mule, he was to buy a phone and write to someone else telling them the number, do not turn the phone on until an agreed on date for instructions which he will go to another town to receive, destroy the phone after that one call.

  2. The word now is that this gad-zillion dollar operation hasn't made America any safer. My point has always been and will forever remain; you want to do a wire tap?
    Fine, see a judge, demonsgtrate probable cause, and get a warrant to do so.


  3. "Were there actually still naifs wandering around the U.S. who did not know the government spies on people all the time?"

    I guess so, but if I had my own country I would do the same. You have to watch everyone to protect the many from the few that would do the rest of us harm.

  4. That is why USA has the world's largest super computers and why they are building huge storage spaces etc. Content is irrelevant. It is who talked to whom and when. You and the SO seem to take living in a police state rather calmly. You think they won't come for you.

  5. I am significanty less bothered that the government has a list of my phone calla than Google reading all my e-mailetc and selling the data. No one is "coming for me" but I am sick of being solicited on a daily basis.


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