Archive for July, 2013

NSA Fears

July 20, 2013


The question of government surveillance is getting major play now, and we’re forced to examine the protection of privacy in the Constitution. But the basic issue is whether we are now more vulnerable to government abuse. Based on the published Snowden leaks, I think we are, but this can hardly be surprising after 9/11. We were always aware that the Bush2 policy was to expand surveillance into all electronic contacts, both public and private, as necessary to combat terrorism. Ostensively, that is. As we’ve seen many times before, the executive branch often finds reason to consider its own political opponents as “enemies” of the country as a whole, and can hide such activity in the name of “national security”. But that problem will remain even if the we make a new legal definition of the right of privacy. No, the difference today is the increase in the amount of publicly available information about each of us, and the ease with which it can be learned.

Changing the rules is inevitable because of the sheer number of electronic communications that are made each day, all of which are retrievable from the internet and the records of public carriers. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, the data is entirely in digital form and is permanently stored in the “digital cloud”. But we should remember that the mere collecting of this data is not an invasion of privacy per se, at least not in the traditional sense.  Privacy is only invaded when someone is actively looking for something, and inspects your records or property to find it. That still exists, of course, but the revelations in the leaked information concern this new kind of surveillance.  This data is apparently being stored without any intent by a government official to target a particular person. It is contained in all of the electronic communications we make every day. They are permanently stored, and can be accessed by the government, or, for that matter, by anyone else. They are thus a tool for a potentially greater abuse of privacy than anything we have experienced before.

The new rules must be different from the previous ones, which were mainly for pre-selected monitoring of our activities by government agencies.  Wiretaps and the like must still be reviewed by impartial judicial officers.  They are usually predicated on some evidence of ongoing criminal activity, and this must be sufficient to avoid fourth amendment preclusion. But that was the old game; before the “cloud” became the permanent storehouse of data that used to need a search warrant to access.

Still, although the existence of this stored data is disturbing, the very nature of electronic records allows us to prevent potential abuse by the government in ways that we never could before. This is because it’s not the collection of the personal data – whether phone calls or other records – but how it is accessed and used that matters. This is different from J Edgar’s time, when agents could target  “enemies” at will. Now the data is collected robotically, often with no human judgment involved. It’s not the collecting of the data that endangers liberty, but the uncontrolled access to it. Consequently, if we devise rules to keep access under tight control, with the fullest protection of civil liberties, there is much less danger of abuse. It is certainly possible to create software that bars access to any citizen’s personal data unless the user is an authorized person and who, most importantly, states the exact reason to see it. Also, most importantly, that the search itself be recorded. After all, you cannot prevent robotic searches of the data; not in the age of terrorism. But you can require procedural notice to any citizen identified in a search, and that it not become part of any permanent record of that citizen without good reason.

It could work like this: each time a government official has reason to scan and index the data – using a kind of keyword search – an official request needs to be filed that an independent judge would review and approve before any access is granted. Until then, the government would not be able to know the content of the data in any way. While the government would know that there is a repository of our private communications in a specific place, it could not scrutinize any of it secretly. Congress should be able to codify such a system by adopting strict standards for allowing an agency to see the data, and to assure total compliance by having firewalls and safeguards embedded that could immediately cut off any unauthorized attempts to use it.

The Lone Ranger (review)

July 5, 2013

  It’s not easy to goof on history. You have to use an era and place that are widely known, and that evoke common images, and then send it up with gleeful ridicule. The fun just follows from that. Mel Brooks made a whole career out of it: the Old West, Robin Hood’s England, Nazi Germany, not to mention the biblical Middle East.

  The Lone Ranger, from Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer, tries to bring the fun of the Old West back again by re-telling the story of a pop culture icon. Gore Verbinski is a tried-and-true director of  this kind of thing, viz. his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. So why is the film such a chore to sit through?

  It think it goes wrong because of the history it chose to spoof. When you mix together the robber barons of the transcontinental railroad, murderous outlaws, the Texas Rangers, the entire Comanche nation and the U.S. cavalry, the comedy won’t work if you’re confused about why the bad guys are trying to kill the good guys. And why new bad guys keep cropping up all the time. And why some bad guys are trying to kill other bad guys, and why these new bad guys want to kill the good guys too, and….well, why bother. Family fun shouldn’t be such hard work.

  Speaking of family fun, some of the scenes in the film are so violent, you wonder just who can be sitting on the Disney board now if something like that can go out under that famous name. I mean, seeing an outlaw mutilate a dying ranger with a knife? Not to mention cavalrymen shot by arrows, and dozens of Comanches slaughtered by machine gun fire. Did they think that adding jaunty Hans Zimmer music would make it funny?

  Sometimes the original inspiration does come through, though. Johnny Depp gets some funny lines, and he is a hoot as the ninety year old Tonto telling his story to a little boy. It’s possible that the incoherent story was meant as a satiric retelling of American history from the eyes of a real native American. If so, they misjudged their intended audience. But I did  like counting the number of Western classics parodied: The Searchers, Once Upon A Time In The West, Blazing Saddles, etc.

  Finally, I want to add that Verbinski’s talent is evident even in this mess. One clever gag begins with a horse galloping alongside a speeding train. We cut to inside a train car, where the heroine is being attacked by the villain. He picks her up, throws her off the train and we see her falling to – certain death? – no, she lands clean, facing backwards, onto the galloping horse. We see here what could have been a nifty entertainment in the Buster Keaton tradition. Well, maybe next time.

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