Q & A: What Big Brother can’t do
Will new investigative tools stop terrorists or
help government catch up to the private sector in prying into our
Steven Rosenfeld: There’s
apparently been a deal in the House Judiciary Committee late Monday
to give the federal government more tools to track terrorism. Many
of these tools involve tracking electronic communication. What’s
now available to government?
Simson Garfinkel: I’m
familiar at some level. Police can do pen registers, which are a
list of phone numbers dialed. They can do voice interceptions. They
can do interceptions of electronic communications, such as e-mail.
SR: Those are the exact
things the Judiciary Committee deal reportedly will give federal
authorities more power to use.
SG: This doesn’t
differ from the current powers that they have. For instance, [US
Attorney General John] Ashcroft is making a big deal about the fact
he needs roving wiretaps. But the current legislation allows for
roving wiretaps, and the report from the administrative office of
the US [federal] courts lists how many roving wiretaps there were
SR: You’ve written you’re
more concerned about what’s available to private industry, as
opposed to what may be made available to government. What do you
SG: I’ve traditionally
thought that the privacy attacks on individuals by corporations are
more significant than the privacy attacks on individuals by the
government. There are many ways that privacy can be damaged. Over
the past 5 to 10 years, the attacks on civil liberties, on privacy
in particular, by private business has far exceeded what government
has done. That may change in coming years. But that has been the
story up to now.
For example, the FBI and the CIA will frequently
use companies like TRW to do financial background checks, because
the private businesses have very good databanks. That could be
changing though. It’s difficult to speculate on how things are
going to change.
SR: You’ve said you
would be more trusting of government than you would of private
industry, such as banks, insurers and employers. Why?
SG: The goal of
government, at some levels, is to protect the population, to make
sure that the law is enforced. The goal of private businesses is
make money. So at some level, the privacy violations being done by
government have the goal of a greater social good. We’ve seen
abuses by the government in the past — we’ve seen some pretty
terrible abuses — but those abuses have usually been directed
against a small number of people, and they’ve been directed for a
larger social purpose. And the reason we know about those abuses is
that government is audited, it’s subject to checks and balances.
Private corporations are not there to serve a
greater social good. They’re there to make money, primarily. And
the checks and balances on a business that may violate privacy are
very minimal. We’ve some privacy legislation, and if a corporation
violates the law, and if the law allows for damages, you might be
able to sue them in court. There might be government enforcement
action. But it’s very, very difficult. Violations by government
are generally easier to deal with, because there’s a political
process, a court process, than violations by private business.
Another way of thinking about it is when the
government is violating a law, as a matter of course, it’s cause
for hearings, investigations, changes. When a business violates the
law, it’s a cause for lobbying and people trying to get the laws
SR: You’ve also said
the increased use of wire taps is not likely to help the
intelligence agencies find better ways to identify terrorists.
SG: Let’s look at that
and be careful. Wiretaps would not have prevented the attacks of
Sept. 11. There’s no way that the government could wiretap every
single foreign national in the US, and there was very little to
distinguish these foreign nationals from other foreign nationals.
Fundamentally, if the terrorists are law-abiding until they commit
their acts of terror, you’re not going to be able to find them
with routine wiretaps.
Likewise, calls to ban encryption, or strong
encryption — even if strong encryption had been banned — would
not have prevented the attacks of Sept. 11. I think what’s going
on is forces inside the government are using the attacks as a
pretext for moving forward an agenda that gives them powers that
they’ve wanted for quite some time.
SR: I’m looking at an
Associated Press story that came out late Monday on this House
Judiciary Committee compromise. It talks of strengthening the hand
of investigators, of stiffening penalties, of making it easier for
the investigators to gain court permission for electronic
surveillance — all under the Federal Intelligence Security Act.
SG: Stiffening criminal
penalties will not do any good with suicide bombers. I really feel
that a lot of what’s being done is using the attacks as a pretext
for other legislative agendas. For instance, there’s a lot of
concern for anti-computer hacking and legislation is in the works.
One of the things that’s in a new proposal is classifying defacing
a website as an act of terrorism. That sounds great, but most of
those defacements of websites are being done by juveniles. This will
make federal investigators even less likely to investigate and
prosecute these crimes. There’s a real desire to have lots of
things classified as a terrorist activity, and that’s probably a
SR: So what do you see
as the agenda then behind these new anti-terrorism proposals?
SG: There’s a real
concern about increasing the amount of destructiveness when
destructive technology is made available to attackers. There’s a
real concern that America is losing control. We’re losing control
in many ways. We’re losing control internationally. We’re losing
control because of the drug war. We’re losing control in financial
crimes. There’s a desire to do something about it. But if all you
have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.
If you know you have these techniques for fighting
crime — wire taps, increased surveillance — then if you want to
fight crime, then you want to expand your investigative tools. But I
think we need to have other ways of fighting crime and terrorism
that are separate from these approaches. The approaches I favor are
different, like strengthening the security of the society that we
are in. Increasing our defenses, our internal defenses. And making
sure that the infrastructure is stronger, more resilient to attack.
Simson Garfinkel is a
journalist, entrepreneur, and authority on computer security who has
spent his career testing new technologies and warning about their
implications. His most recent book, “Database nation,” details
threats to privacy posed by new technology, the free market, and the
unbridled exchange of electronic information. This Q & A was
produced by Steve Rosenfeld. It first
appeared at www.tompaine.com
on October 2, 2001.
The dangers of polarization
Last week a political scientist at Duke University
sent out the following message to her colleagues:
Over the last week, I have been reflecting on the
character of various e-mail conversations I have been a part of. I
found myself worrying about the polarization that may come as events
unfold and mourning in advance the loss of this wonderful 25-year
period of a politics where the issues were not issues of life and
death (the “culture wars” were nothing compared to what this
could become). Some of you are too young to remember what real
politics can do to communities and to friendships. I worry about
where we might be headed on this score — so here are my thoughts
on the character of the discussion.
What strikes me is how odd it is that the
discussion threatened to polarize quickly between our current
version of “hawks” and “doves” — “appeasers” and “cowboys.”
The reason this seems to me to require explanation is that there is
so much fundamental agreement here. Everyone agrees that the attack
was unjustifiable, and that there are also reasons for it that are
important to understand. Everyone agrees that we must secure
ourselves against the continuing threat from our enemies. Everyone
agrees that innocent people ought not to die. So why the tendency to
First, I think that e-mail exacerbates the
difficulties of civil disagreement. It encourages people to stake
out their positions and then read the statements as a way of
discovering who is “like-minded” and who is not. It discourages
expressing doubts or revealing vulnerabilities. Besides, once the
addressee list gets long enough, you really are making public
statements. The e-mails read more like op-ed pieces than like
recorded conversations. And people tend to respond to what they
believe is implied in what is said as much as to what is said.
But it isn’t really a technological problem. I
think that it is a psychological problem. What has happened is very,
very scary. We are a group of academic experts (expert academics?),
but we are also human, and when we are very anxious, we reach for
our best defense mechanisms — in our case, intellectual defense
mechanisms. It is easy to frame what has happened in familiar and
manageable terms — “appeasers” and “cowboys.” Moreover,
each of these positions offers comfort in that it involves both a
fantasy of control and a fantasy of justice, as if we can construe
the situation so that we can believe that suffering falls only on
those who deserve it and we can control the suffering (either we can
believe that our behavior in the past provoked this so that if we
can become better we can prevent it — or we can believe that it is
possible to “redress the balance” through punishment and gain
control through action). The intensity of the discussion comes from
the feeling that if only we can get the right argument and convince
everybody, the right things will happen and we will be protected
from the worst. This is also a fantasy. We imagine that what “we”
think is the critically important thing. And, as always, it is
easier to be angry with those who are closest to you, and most of us
are angry as well as frightened now.
I do not say this in order to “paper over” our
disagreements in any way. It does matter a great deal what we think
and what our government chooses to do. I say this to turn our
attention towards how bad our situation really is — we can’t
have control and innocent people do suffer. No matter what the
reasons for it, innocent people suffered on September 11th.
And more innocent people will suffer no matter
what we do about it — either through additional attacks from the
terrorists or because actions to ensure our security cannot touch
only the guilty — and probably both. Moreover, even if our leaders
do the best that can be done, it won’t be good enough — there
will be mistakes and misjudgments and some things will happen that,
with hindsight, nobody would justify. We face an implacable enemy
and must find ways to protect ourselves — this is not a moral
claim particularly, but a statement of fact. It isn’t so easy to
know how we ought to go about it. This is a scary position to be in,
and we will think better about it if we acknowledge how scary it is
and if we take some time for depression and mourning along with
reflection. And when debates get heated and polarized, I hope that
we will get up from our computers and push ourselves to talk
face-to-face with those we disagree with the most and that we will
remind ourselves in our anger at each other, that we are not the
Ruth Grant’s most
recent book is “Hypocrisy and integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau,
and the ethics of politics.”
Healing old wounds
17, 2000 the Call published an article called “A shelter
is not a home,” which began:
By any measure, San Francisco is home to about
12,500 people who have no home.
25 percent of them are part of intact families.
That’s 3,125 adults and their kids who can’t sit down to
dinner under their own roof.
30 percent of them are single women. That’s
4,125 women who have no room of their own.
40 percent of them are single men. That’s
5,000 men who have no place to keep their heart.
20 percent of them are seniors. That’s 2,500
people whose golden years are spent on the streets.
100 percent of them contradict the new image of
San Francisco articulated by computer programmer Kevin Kokoszka:
“You look around, and everybody is making money, driving a Range
Rover or a Lexus…. It’s like a Gold Rush right now.”
The statement by Kevin Kokoszka was drawn from an
article by James Rainey entitled, “Debut of a glittering new
diamond: baseball — rents are soaring near Giants’ Pac Bell
Park, as is S.F. civic pride,” published in the Los Angeles Times
on April 11, 2000.
Last week the Call received the following message
A friend recently brought to my attention that you
have copied and published on your website a portion of a Los Angeles
Times article that I was quoted in. I can not tell you how much
anger this original article brought to me, much less seeing my name
printed again on your website. You see, I was horribly mis-quoted by
the reporter who wrote the story, and there is no way to “un-print”
it. My attempts to contact both the writer and the Los Angeles Times
(at the time the article was printed) to make a correction notice
were in vain. Your perpetuation of this out of context quote just
adds to my pain.
It is true that I am a computer programmer. One
day, when I was walking down the street in April of 2000, I was
approached by a gentleman in the South Park area wondering if I was
involved in the tech industry. He also asked if I was a San
Francisco Giants fan, and I responded “yes” to both questions.
He then proceeded to identify himself as a Los Angeles Times
reporter and asked me how both Pacific Bell Park and the technology
boom had affected the neighborhood of South Park. I politely gave
him a run down of the history of the South Park area (the former
warehouse aspect, the drug infestation of South Park in the 80’s
and early 90’s). I then went into the sad turn of events for the
neighborhood, and how the tech boom had caused an even greater
division of wealth. I told him that homeless people still do hang
around in the area after nightfall, which is ironic when you see all
of these Lexus and Range-Rovers parked in the neighborhood all day
long. The words “gold-rush” never left my lips. Unfortunately,
this writer decided to use me as a foil for his article, as if I was
the Lexus-driving yuppie who was ruining San Francisco.
This is what I wrote the LA Times reporter at the
time the original article was published: The truth is, I am a
musician who plays at the local clubs in the city (and have since
1990) that happens to be a computer programmer. I give money to
homeless people regularly in the city. I contribute to KQED and
various AIDS organizations. I drive a 1985 Volvo that is worth
$1,500. I bicycle to work every day. I live in the Mission and have
since 1990. I’ve fought my slumlord in court who wrongly tried to
evict me (I won). I consistently vote for tenants’ rights over
big-business rights. I DO NOT have a stock portfolio.
This is MY life, not the one IMPLIED by the Los
Angeles Times article or by your website. I guess the old adage —
“never trust a reporter” — is true, and I will NEVER speak to
I often had interesting conversations with my
musician friends who hated what was happening to the city as much as
I did. But what was I going to do, change professions? I was a
programmer AND a resident of the city LONG before the dot-com boom
started in 1997.
After years of living in SF, I made a hard
decision to leave the city in July of this year, and am currently
living in Portland, Maine. It seemed that San Francisco had lost its
charm for me, in large part because of the industry I was involved
in (again, you can imagine my mixed emotions). The music scene,
which was already in trouble due to the economic disparity, was
dealt a near fatal blow due to closure of Downtown Studios. Frankly,
the city had changed so much in the years that I lived there that it
just didn’t seem to be the same place I loved. I do believe that
the city was “Manhattanized.” The fact that my aging parents
live on the East Coast also played a major role in my decision.
But I do imagine myself moving back to San
Francisco in the future. And when I do, I hope that the city has
bounced back from the great Willy Brown sell-out. San Francisco is
too beautiful of a city to be held down for long.
Again, I was not only mis-quoted, but my words
were completely taken out of context by this writer. I ask you to
please stop perpetuating what I consider to be a slander of my name
and remove this quote from your website, or at least remove my name
in connection with it. The article from which this quote was taken
was a sham, but my name is not — I am a real person who is very
hurt by this!
The Call regrets any pain it caused.