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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 lives?

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 last year.

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 mean?

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 changed.

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 mistake.

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.

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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 polarize?

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 enemy.

Ruth Grant’s most recent book is “Hypocrisy and integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the ethics of politics.”

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Healing old wounds

On April 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 from Kokoszka:

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 one again.

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!

Kevin Kokoszka

The Call regrets any pain it caused.