Government Spying

June 17th, 2013

I believe that it was Thomas Jefferson who wrote something to the effect of “I have always lived my life as if, at every moment, somebody was watching.” This reflected some hypocrisy on his part: his affair with his slave Sally Hemming was carried out in secret. Nevertheless, the ideal is a noble one and I think that we should all honor it.

The current hot topic in the news is the exposure of secret Federal government spying programs that go far beyond what anybody had thought likely. It appears that Big Brother really is watching, and people are understandably upset by this. I’m glad that this issue has come to public prominence, because currently we have a hodgepodge of disparate schemes all addressing the problems of identity and security. 

The first issue that pops into people’s minds is terrorism, of course. I dismiss this issue; even a successful attack such as 9/11 inflicts greater damage to our pride than to our physical well-being; we have spent far more money fighting terrorism than we spent replacing the physical damage of all the terrorist attacks combined. Nevertheless, if we want to fight terrorism, some government spying is necessary, and we need a clear set of rules constraining what the government can do.

The counterpoint is that, if we reveal exactly what methods we’ll use to spy on terrorists, we’ll be giving terrorists a clear statement of what NOT to do. That makes it easier for them to avoid detection. While this argument has merit, our experiences with the excesses of the Bush Administration demonstrate clearly how a lack of transparency invites abuse of personal freedoms. Remember, the Bush Administration went well beyond the legal limits, figuring that the lack of transparency gave them enough cover to get away with it. We should also remember that over-eager junior bureaucrats will abuse the law despite the warnings of their superiors, as demonstrated by the crimes of the Ohio IRS staff who abused their power by treating conservative political groups more harshly than liberal conservative groups. The conclusion is clear: we cannot always trust our government to implement the law in good faith; there will always be government officials who will exploit legal gray areas to the detriment of society. The only way to protect ourselves from this abuse is 1) to make the laws absolutely clear; and 2) to insure that all governmental actions are subject to proper independent review.

Independent review is supposedly carried out by a combination of special courts and special Congressional oversight. In both cases, the review process is itself secret, providing citizens with little assurance that the oversight process is effective in protecting the rights of the citizenry.

The solution, I think, is to have Congress pass legislation that specifies in as much detail as possible what government officials can and cannot do in their anti-terrorism efforts. The fine points must be kept secret, I acknowledge, and must be overseen by a small contingent of Congresscritters. I think that this contingent must include a goodly number of the loudest objectors to the legislation. We want the process overseen by people who are skeptical of the government’s good faith. Trust, but verify.

Personal Identification
Have you ever considered just how fragmented and ineffective our systems of personal identification are? The primary means of personal identification is the driver’s license, which suffers from problems at both ends of the security system. In the first place, it’s too easy to break the security by manufacturing fake driver’s licenses. In the second place, it’s too hard for some people to get driver’s licenses.

Adding to this is the huge problem of identity theft. It cost Americans about $1.5 billion in 2011, and the costs will only rise. Even worse is the huge hassle that can sometimes bedevil the victim of identity theft.

Another problem involves voting. Republicans all over the country have been making a huge stink about voter fraud, which in fact is trivial in magnitude. They’re using these trumped-up charges to justify nasty laws making it harder to vote. And let’s not forget immigration problems, which are causing lots of trouble for innocent people.

A National Identification System
All of these problems would disappear if we had a robust national identification system. I discussed this at some length six months ago. My point then was that commercial operations are gravitating towards universal identification systems, and it won’t be long before we have an international identification system controlled by commercial interests. Such a system would be beyond our control; a national system could be designed to reflect our political concerns. 

A National Information Database
It’s time that we merge all the patchwork bits and pieces of our privacy policies into a single overarching policy. That policy should permit the government to collect any and all information about anybody anywhere in the world. The controls would not be on the collection of information, but on access to the information. This would separate the job into two more readily controllable parts.

The first part is the collection department, which is given a budget and told to gather as much information about everybody, especially American citizens, as it can. It could use your cellphone to keep track of where you are on a realtime basis. It could keep track of all your phone calls, all your emails, all your twitters, all your expenditures – everything.

This would entail the elimination of various sources of privacy. Cellphones that aren’t associated with an individual would be illegal. I’m not sure just how far such laws should go; but I recommend that the ability of the citizen to hide from prying eyes be limited.

Access Control
The protection in the system comes from the second part: access control. The establishment of such a system must also be accompanied by strong, clear laws specifying exactly who can access the database and what information they can access. A certified doctor, for example, could readily access your medical records, but nothing else. The IRS could access your financial records, but nothing else. A police officer could access basic facts about you, such as place of residence, without a warrant, but would have to obtain a series of warrants for additional information – one warrant for each class of information. Anybody who wants to access the database must undergo a clearing process to verify the legality of their access request. Moreover, accesses must be precisely specified; no fishing expeditions would be allowed under any circumstances.

Before you freak out about my recommendation of Big Brother To The Max, consider the huge benefits of such a system. Medical care would be vastly improved; any doctor could obtain all the information necessary to treat you properly instantly. Identity theft would be eliminated; with appropriate biometric identifiers, the identity thief would be locked out of your private information and would be unable to fake your identity. Voter identification would be trivial, and illegal immigrants would be found out instantly (although I think we need to permit more immigration from low-wage countries like Mexico). Such a system would permit instant differentiation between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants.

Terrorism would suffer a huge blow; organizing a terrorist attack without triggering an alert by the computer system would be all but impossible. We could put the entire tax preparation industry out of business; it currently costs us about $6 billion per year. Instead, we could have the IRS calculate your taxes and bill you. (Yes, I know that there are multiple ways to organize your tax return, but minimization of taxes could be done by an IRS algorithm just as readily as it can be done by a tax preparer.)

The most serious objection to this sweeping proposal is that it might not be secure against nefarious use. There are so many ways that it could be turned to illegal purposes. Let’s work from the inside out.

What if one of the administrators of the system turns traitor and grants access to bad people? Breaking into this system could be worth billions; how many people could say no to a billion-dollar bribe, you ask. There’s an easy answer: everybody, because the bribe itself would show up in the administrator’s financial records and provide strong evidence of guilt. Could a criminal render payment through some indirect means that would escape notice? Yes, if nobody were looking, but the problem for the administrator is that such a huge crime would trigger a huge investigation, which would surely lead investigators to sniff around his own financial situation, and exposure would be inevitable.

But there’s another way to guard against internal subversion: record the exact position of every worker at all times, and sound the alarm if somebody shows up where they’re not permitted. Moreover, if such security systems involve separate watchdogs, it would be all but impossible to compromise security. With one group watching the internal security cameras, and another group watching individual positions, it’s just too tricky to compromise enough people to pull it off. Add to that complete keystroke recording for that person’s computer, and rigorous procedures requiring each person to use only his own computer (biometrics again), and you’ve blocked internal subversion.

But what about external subversion: the hacker? We know that China is putting huge resources into teams of hackers who break into computer systems to steal intellectual property. How much effort would China be willing to put into hacking into the biggest prize of them all? Could they succeed? With the current Internet, yes. There’s no way to prevent somebody with access to enough routers from intercepting a stream of packets and substituting a few of their own packets into the stream. The only solution here is the establishment of a new, completely secure Internet; call it Supernet or SecureNet or something similar. The idea here is to use a system with secure routers. Encrypt every packet that travels through the system with 256-bit keys. Only the destination IP address is unencrypted – that’s the only thing that the router needs to know. A criminal organization with its own hacked router could see where packets are going, but nothing more.

Lastly, I’d like to add one more idea into the mix: government-certified smartphones comprising the input devices into the network. The government establishes specifications for how a smartphone accesses the database and monitors the manufacturers who build the devices. The users, be they police officer, doctor, retail store clerk, or whomever else, use the custom app built into the phone that accesses the database.

I have left out many of the details that would make such a proposal feasible. Perhaps I should flesh this document out into something detailed enough to demonstrate that the system would work as intended. I’m sure that you have come up with some gotcha questions that seem insuperable just now. Perhaps there are some gotchas. Perhaps my grand design wouldn’t work. If so, it would be more dangerous than the current cockeyed system. But I’ve been able to come up with good answers to all the smaller gotchas I’ve thought of.