State of the Union

The Tax Man Rideth (In Your Car)


Care to give the IRS a lift?

Or at least, your local state revenue service. The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that many states are starting to turn to tracking technologies in an effort to more efficiently tax drivers for the upkeep of roads and highways:

The push comes as the country’s Highway Trust Fund, financed with taxes Americans pay at the gas pump, is broke. Americans don’t buy as much gas as they used to. Cars get many more miles to the gallon. The federal tax itself, 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t gone up in 20 years. Politicians are loath to raise the tax even one penny when gas prices are high.

Clearly, roads need to be maintained, and that will usually cost coin. For while Rousseau may have said that the true citizen would, out of love for and investment in his republic, prefer to labor on the roads himself than merely shell out some cash, I suspect that very few of us would take to the highways today, high-visibility jacket in tow.

That tax has often come from the sale of gasoline, since the cars using the roads have run on liquefied and refined dead dinosaurs. As the high cost of gasoline and increases in car efficiency have depressed the growth of gas sales, and as the future may see more electric cars that use no gas whatsoever hit the highways, transportation departments are rightfully considering alternative options.

A mileage tax is among the proposed alternatives, where cars are fitted with a device that monitors how many miles have been driven, and you are taxed on that number. It is an extension of the gas tax principle that taxes should be tailored so as to have the people using a service pay for it. For that reason, the monitoring option has attracted the support of libertarians, including Reason Foundation’s vice president of policy, Adrian Moore, who the LAT quotes as explaining, “This is not just a tax going into a black hole … People are paying more directly into what they are getting.”

Urban planners and city officials also see great potential in the devices. New York City “transportation officials are seeking to develop a taxing device that would also be equipped to pay parking meter fees, provide “pay-as-you-drive” insurance, and create a pool of real-time speed data from other drivers that motorists could use to avoid traffic,” by including both location and speed tracking.

In the post-Snowden world, though, with more attention than ever being given to just how much data—and metadata—on us is out there, even seemingly innocuous governmental collection systems like these mileage counters immediately raise eyebrows. The CEO of True Mileage, which produces a barebones mileage counter, says “People will be more willing to do this if you do not track their speed and you do not track their location…There have been some big mistakes in some of these state pilot programs. There are a lot less expensive and less intrusive ways to do this.” With the ACLU and other privacy groups, not to mention consumers being asked to participate in pilot programs, voicing concerns about the tracking, states may just go with the dumb counters.

Yet forgoing that additional information interferes with the principle driving the entire process—connecting taxation more directly to use. Should a state fit their citizen’s cars with monitors that lack a location tracking mechanism, any interstate road trip would be taxed at the same rate as intrastate travel, despite not using the roads those tax dollars are intended to fund. Should those monitors become prevalent one could hope that it would all average out, but high-travel states would collect disproportionately high taxes at the expense of their citizen’s driving destinations.

This small case study, regarding something as mundane as highway funding, may pull the curtain back on a certain inherent tension within libertarian thought. Libertarians favor a very individualistic taxation system where as much of the burden as possible is concentrated on the users. To impose an additional slight hike in the state income tax to pay for roads would be unjust, as it would require the metro rider to subsidize the driver’s travel preferences.

Yet the desire to individualize taxation effectively would seem to necessitate more and more intrusive monitoring systems, so that the state can assess who it should tax, for what. That monitoring raises substantial privacy concerns and exposes information about private habits to governmental access where it could easily be subject to abuse.

By seeking to dissolve the idea of collective responsibility for infrastructure, the obscuring anonymity of the crowd likewise dissolves and hollows out, exposing the individual, personally and in all their particularity, directly to the state.

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Patriot Act Author Writes NSA Rollback

In the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) authored the Patriot Act in order to expand the government’s surveillance powers in an effort to protect against the threat of terrorism in the 21st century. Twelve years later, he is preparing a new bill, the USA Freedom Act, to reign those surveillance powers back in.

National Journal is reporting that Sensenbrenner plans to introduce the new legislation next week with around 60 co-sponsors, including several who had voted against the attempt by Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) to defund parts of the NSA’s activities earlier this spring. “‘Six members who voted no and two who didn’t vote on the Amash amendment are original cosponsors of the USA Freedom Act,’ Sensenbrenner spokesman Ben Miller told National Journal. ‘Had they voted for the amendment, it would have passed 213 to 211.'”

In a previous discussion about the bill, Sensenbrenner told the Washington Post‘s “The Fix” blog:

I can say that if Congress knew what the NSA had in mind in the future immediately after 9/11, the Patriot Act never would have passed, and I never would have supported it. We have to have a balance of security and civil liberties. What the NSA has done, with the concurrence of both the Bush and Obama administrations, is completely forgotten about the guarantees of civil liberties that those of us who helped write the Patriot Act in 2001 and the reauthorization in 2005 and 2006 had written the law to prevent from happening.

In that same conversation, Sensenbrenner described the outlines of the bill:

Andrea Peterson: What is the USA Freedom Act?

Sensenbrenner: It does several things. First of all, it stops the collection of metadata by the NSA and has some restrictions on section 215 of the Patriot Act — essentially, the suggestions made by Senator Leahy in the 2005/2006 reauthorization act which were rejected during the negotiations. It restricts section 215 to bring it back to the original intent, which was that the Justice Department would identify a non-U.S. person who is engaged in a terrorist organization, get a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) order to be able to find out who that person was in contact with, and be able to try to spread that spiderweb to see who was involved in a plot that might target people either domestically or internationally.

And it also deals with reforming the FISA Court? 

The two other things are that we are proposing reform of the FISA Court, where we recognize there are things that have got to be classified. But if the FISA Court changes policy or attempts to reinterpret the law, we require the publication of that so it is not a secret decision when basically the FISA Court allows the NSA to shift gears. The other thing we do is create an office of public advocate to represent the public and privacy interests in particular — and also give the public advocate authority to appeal a decision of the FISA court the advocate feels does not comport with the law or comport with policies.

National Journal also reported that

The Senate Intelligence Committee is also expected to vote Tuesday behind closed doors on legislation brought by committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to appease surveillance critics by increasing transparency and accountability of FISA.

While a closed door vote on legislation authored by prominent defenders of the NSA could be the transparency critics are seeking, it seems more likely that the bill being prepared by the Patriot Act’s outraged author will be the most promising path to the first genuine surveillance reform in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations.

While the stories emerging from Snowden’s materials have veered further and further from exposing illegal and/or unconstitutional activities here at home over the past months, Sensenbrenner’s words are a reminder of just how vital his earlier leaks have been to restoring the rule of law and democratic accountability to our surveillance system.

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Global Slavery Index: Measuring Millions

Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves and well-known human trafficking expert, first estimated there to be 27 million slaves worldwide. This was an approximation offered in his 1999 book Disposable People. Since then, the topic of human trafficking has garnered international attention—yet for the past 14 years, the estimated number of slaves worldwide rested at Bales’ original approximation. But now, with a team of researchers at the Walk Free Foundation, Bales has introduced a new number: 29.8 million. The new “Global Slavery Index 2013” seeks to measure international slavery and human trafficking, and to provide informational tools for institutions fighting the problem.

Two potential weaknesses of such a report lie in its definition (how broad or specific it is, how easy to measure) and its methodology: how does one measure the global population of slaves worldwide, when slavery is an illegal and clandestine activity? The report’s authors explain their methodology, which focused primarily on secondary collection (via both governmental and non-governmental reports) and representative random sample surveys. Nick Grono, CEO of the Walk Free Foundation, told The Guardian, “Measuring a hidden crime is very challenging, but there are efforts to measure domestic abuse and drug trafficking. A lot of it boils down to taking the best data on reported issues and then looking at the scale of the unreported or ‘dark’ problems.”

The index’s definition of slavery and human trafficking has received some skepticism. Bridget Anderson, Deputy Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society at Oxford, told The Guardian this report gathers “unjust situations” around the world and labels them as “slavery.” “You have a definitional problem, everything depends on the definition and if you use tricky words like ‘forced’, you are already straying into difficult territory,” she said. Here is an excerpt from the report’s definition section:

In 2013, modern slavery takes many forms, and is known by many names. Whether it is called human trafficking, forced labour, slavery or slavery-like practices (a category that includes debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, sale or exploitation of children including in armed conflict) victims of modern slavery have their freedom denied, and are used and controlled and exploited by another person for profit, sex, or the thrill of domination … The chains of modern slavery are not always physical – sometimes escalating debts, intimidation, deception, isolation, fear or even a ‘marriage’ that is forced on a young woman or girl without her consent can be used to hold a person against their will without the need for locks or chains.

One can see Anderson’s point. Not only does this definition include a plethora of hidden, illegal criminality—it also includes criminality across a broad variety of platforms: the trafficking of persons across borders, private commercial labor, sex slavery, child soldier kidnappings, and forced marriages. Also, from reading Bales’ books and a variety of other books on the subject, I have learned “coercive labor” situations often do involve pay. But they involve pay in ridiculously minuscule amounts, offset by mountains of employer-determined debt. Thus, the “bondage” described is of a tricky and hidden nature.

The report’s definition is not necessarily wrong. It is good to have some broad (albeit sketchy) statistics on the issue. But Grono himself admitted “the data is not that strong; we want to be open about this. If a government says they don’t agree [with the data], we will say great, let’s work with a national statistics office to do a study across the country to try and analyse the scale of the problem.”

While child and forced marriage are awful human rights abuses, should they be included in the Global Slavery Index? Perhaps so—but consider, we now have a conglomeration of commercial, domestic, and sexual exploitation in the same dataset. How does one begin to parse a number so large? The index’s inclusion of basic law information for the top 10 worst countries in the index could be helpful—if one fights trafficking in Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan or India. But this is a limited contribution.

This is not meant to be harsh—the report’s authors are working for a noble cause. But one hopes they can improve the index with time. Perhaps a next step would be to specify data according to definitional groupings. What if one was to apportion the numbers for each nation according to commercial, domestic, and sexual slavery (perhaps another category for child soldiers, as well)? It would require more work, of course, but this division would allow for more practical data offerings. 29.8 million is a horrid and shocking number. But it is also, unfortunately, a rather useless one at this point.

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German Children Seized From Parents for Crime of Homeschooling

The Wunderlich family with Mike Farris, chairman of the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association.

The German government forcibly seized four children from their parents in a raid last Thursday in Darmstadt, Germany. Why? Because the Wunderlich children were home schooled – an illegal activity viewed by the German government as “child endangerment.”

Reports by World Net Daily and The Daily Mail said the police were armed with a battering ram, and held father Dirk Wunderlich to a chair while they removed the children. A team of 20 social workers, police, and special agents entered the home. According to a report by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), an organization that advocates for parental choice in education, the children were taken to unknown locations and officials told the parents they would not be seeing their children “anytime soon.”

In a phone interview, Wunderlich called the episode a “nightmare.” He said that for several days, he has felt “very down and crushed,” but is trusting that “this terrible thing is one piece in God’s big plan.”

Michael Donnelly, lawyer for HSLDA, said, “This shouldn’t happen in Germany. This is a very peaceful family.”

Not only did the German government seize the children – they seized the children’s passports as well. This prevents the family from attempting to move to another country where homeschooling is permissible. According to Wunderlich, the children could be taken from them permanently if they made such an attempt. “Our children are prisoners of the German government,” he said.

The Wunderlich family has been trying to homeschool their family legally for years, and attempted moving to other countries with greater educational freedoms. Although they found refuge in France, Mr. Wunderlich was unable to find a job. They had to return to Germany.

For the Wunderlichs, homeschooling is preferable for both religious and educational reasons. Wunderlich believes school can be a rather “artificial place for learning.” Via homeschooling, their children can immediately pursue and study specific interests. He also believes homeschooling has bolstered family relationships. But living in Germany has been hard for them. There are few homeschooling families in Germany. “In America, it’s perfect,” Wunderlich said. “But here in Germany, most parents are alone … if people were gentle and nice, it would be better, but society and authorities are against homeschoolers.”

German law states children must attend school from age six to 18. Homeschooling is not permissible. Two German Supreme Court rulings on the subject have given the state equal authority as parents over children’s education. The law is meant to ensure children receive the appropriate socialization, Donnelly said.

But according to Donnelly and other homeschooling advocates at HSLDA, this law is in direct contravention of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Germany has signed. The ICCPR gives the following permissions to parents: “The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” This parental liberty, Donnelly says, includes the right to homeschool.

In addition, Germany has signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which says states party to the covenant “undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents … to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”

Read More…

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Considering John Kerry’s New Faith-Based Office

When the State Department announced its new office for religious engagement last week, Secretary John Kerry promised that the “separation of church and state” would be preserved. But Salon writer Austin Dacey questioned that statement Sunday:

“Constitutional or not, official interfacing with ‘faith-based organizations’ will constitute a troubling form of government endorsement: the defining of some communities, among various porous-bordered normative and discursive communities, as ‘religions’ and the anointing of some individuals as recognized spokespersons for those communities.”

How much can the state interact with various faith groups without violating the Establishment Clause? Different commentators have contributed to this discussion over the past week. Some said the project will give state officials needed insight into other nations’ religious policies. While the U.S. has always enforced religious/political separation, other states have linked them indelibly. “The U.S. model works in the U.S. because it is a long-established part of the country’s culture, history, and constitution,” wrote Linda Woodhead at Religion Dispatches on Sunday. “Obviously, this is not the case in other countries. Here in the U.K., for example, religious freedom needs to be advanced by going with the grain of existing arrangements, rather than by attempting to start again.”

In their book Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, authors Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson write that “Foreign policy practitioners in the United States … are often inadequately equipped to deal with situations involving other nation-states where their imperatives of religious doctrine blend intimately with those of politics and economics. At times, this has led to uninformed policy choices, particularly in our dealings with countries of the Middle East.” This view seems relevant when considering recent diplomatic difficulties with Egypt, as well as Syria.

Some authors spoke favorably of the attention this initiative will bring to humanitarian crises and religious persecution: “As important leaders of society, builders of social capital, and trusted community figureheads, outreach to religious actors and institutions needs to become a routinized part of U.S. diplomacy across all regional and functional domains,” wrote Peter Mandaville at the Brookings Institution. “Whether we are talking about stabilizing Afghanistan, bringing prosperity to Africa, or achieving democracy in the Arab world, a focus on religion and religious actors needs to be front and center in our diplomacy and development work.”

Is it indeed the State Department’s role to stabilize Afghanistan, bring prosperity to Africa, and “achieve democracy” in the Arab world? How can it achieve such a broad transformation through dialogue with religious leaders who – it must be acknowledged – often disagree, even to the point of violence? Such a political effort may necessitate the sort of government endorsement that Dacey cautioned against.

The U.S. has a long tradition of state/religion separation. We believe the government should not play favorites with various religions or denominations. There is danger that this initiative will encourage such favoritism, despite Kerry’s assertion that it will help religious people “unify for the greater good … without crossing any [Constitutional] lines whatsoever.” In actual practice, one fears that “crossing lines” may be an all-too-easy temptation.

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Parsing the Confederate Constitution

I appreciated Ben Domenech’s takedown of Michael Gerson’s recent efforts at policing the borders of the Republican mainstream, which, according to Gerson, cannot include Sen. Rand Paul.

In defending Paul against the smear that he’s some sort of neo-Confederate, Domenech points out that the actual Confederacy, however briefly it existed, was no friend of liberty, at least as today’s liberty movement defines it:

Gerson’s depiction of the libertarian view of the Confederacy is simply fraudulent. … Paleoconservatives may find much worthy of defense in the Confederate state, but consider: The Confederate Constitution amended the US Constitution to better facilitate technocratic rule. The Confederacy was the first to introduce mass conscription. The Confederacy staged a series of repressions and massacres against local autonomy (east Tennessee, central Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, western North Carolina, etc.). The Confederacy imposed an internal-passport regime for civilian travel later echoed by European autocracies. The Confederate state took over most of its own economy by war’s end. And the Wilsonian “progressives” contained a surprising number of Confederate sympathizers who saw it as a noble experiment and set about applying its principles in the form of the segregating the federal government, fomenting the Klan, and more. …

[F]or those who actually study history, the idea that the Confederacy was a liberty-oriented alternative to Lincoln and the Union is absurd – in many ways, its worst aspects were the forerunner of the modern technocratic top-down state.

This is all to the good. However, if I may, I think Domenech is a bit too harsh on Gerson. This revisionist, they-were-actually-the-opposite-of-what-you think appraisal of Southern ideologues will strike some as counterintuitive because it’s all too easy to confirm the stereotype that apparently exists in Gerson’s mind. (This is why it’s typically been left-liberals who snicker ironically at the antilibertarian legacy of the Confederacy.)

Here, for instance, is Randall G. Holcombe, writing for the Mises Institute in praise of the Confederate Constitution’s signal improvements on the Federal Constitution, with the latter’s “General Welfare” invitation to crony capitalism and pork-barrel spending: Read More…

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Guns, Anarchy, and Leviathan

The University of Wisconsin political scientist Andrew Kydd offers an interesting critique of the spread of concealed carry and stand your ground statutes. Departing from a Weberian definition of the state as a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, Kydd suggests that “[t]he United States is now embarked on an unprecedented experiment, in that it is a strong state, fully capable of suppressing private violence, but it is increasingly choosing not to.” Kydd attributes loosening restrictions on the possession and use of guns to a libertarian fantasy that “the absence of the state will lead to a paradise for individuals.” But he follows Hobbes in predicting grimmer consequences: the replacement of violence under law by anarchic clashes between mercenaries, clans, and vigilantes.

I share Kydd’s concern about the decriminalization of gun violence, which looks to me like a risky solution to an exaggerated problem (violent crime has been falling for years). But his thinking about the relation between violence and the state is too Hobbesian to be convincing. For Hobbes, the “state of war” and the juridical state were mutually exclusive; violence was subject either to monopoly control or anarchic diffusion. For Kydd, similarly, the choice is between, say, the modern UK, in which firearms are very tightly regulated, and Afghanistan, where the strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must.

In the history of political thought, however, this is a false alternative. Following Hobbes, Kydd ignores the (small “r”) republican model of organized violence, in which the law is executed by an armed citizen body. The classical republic is not a state in the Weberian sense because it lacks a standing army or regular police force. On the other hand, it is not simply anarchic: citizens who possess the means of coercion cooperate on a relatively informal basis to enforce laws whose authority they all recognize.

The republic, in this sense, has always been more ideal than reality. But it is an ideal that has played an important role in the development of American political culture, particularly in connection with guns. For the republican tradition, particularly as transmitted by the Country party in British politics, a well-armed, self-organized citizenry poses less of a threat to safety and liberty than a strong state. That is the reasoning behind the 2nd Amendment.

There are serious and perhaps insurmountable obstacles to the revival of this tradition today. Apart from technological changes since the 18th century, the republican theory of violence presumes a relatively small, mostly agrarian society with a strong conception of public virtue. The contemporary United States, by contrast, is more like a multinational empire: a political form that has historically required much more coercive practices of government. Even so, the republican tradition reminds us that Leviathan is not the only possible source of order. We can acknowledge its necessity without regretting its evil.

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National Service Programs Have Nothing To Do With Patriotism

Nothing like a “boot camp” or forced labor to bring back that good ol’-fashioned patriotism, says Joe Klein:

We have drifted a long way from civic rigor in this country. We’ve had a period of intense prosperity and intense immigration and intense growth of government programs for those in need, followed by an economic crash. We don’t know each other very well anymore, and it’s hard to trust people you don’t know. Throughout history, civilizations have built a common cause through coming-of-age rituals. But we don’t do that anymore. Maybe we should think about that. It could be something as simple as kids’ cleaning up their schools together, as Bob Quinn did–yes, Newt Gingrich was right about that–or it could be full-blown national service, including boot camp. But unless we start getting to know each other better, our chances of coming to a consensus about the important things we have to do together as a nation are going to be pretty slim.

The co-chairs of the Aspen Institute’s project to expand national service have an op-ed in Politico today calling for the same thing, though they say it wouldn’t have to be compulsory:

What we truly value, we institutionalize. To educate, we build universities. To cure, we build hospitals. To make citizens, we must facilitate the shared experiences that cultivate civic pride and responsibility.

This should mean a period of full-time national service as a rite of passage for every young American, ages 18 to 28. Such service could be military or civilian. Young adults could choose the Army or Peace Corps, Marine Corps or AmeriCorps, the Navy or VISTA. National service would be optional, but expected. Every college admissions officer or employer must start to ask, “Where did you serve?”

Hear that, young people? The Aspen Institute doesn’t think you’re patriotic enough, so they’d like you to lend your labor toward a great patriotic revitalization of nation and soul. And if you don’t want to, you should be relentlessly shamed and denied educational opportunities.

This idea crops up from time to time, and is occasionally endorsed in the pages of our biggest newspapers, mostly because it’s slightly less controversial than drafting young people into the military. John McCain had a memorable story in the Washington Monthly a month after 9/11—never waste a crisis, as they say—in which he more or less said he’d draft you if he could:

The decline of the citizen-soldier is not healthy for a democracy. While it is not currently politically practical to revive the draft, it is important to find better incentives and opportunities for more young Americans to choose service in the military, if not for a career, then at least for a limited period of time.

Most people don’t take reviving the draft or compulsory national service seriously because they’re terrible ideas, and the latter would almost certainly be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Their defenders all share a weak, shallow understanding of patriotism that is better described as something more idealistic, like nationalism. They would have a hard time making sense of Henry James’ great aphorism that “patriotism is like charity—it begins at home.” Our betters at the Aspen Institute and other defenders of national service say the public suffers from a sort of civic ennui. But contra David Brooks, this has less to do with a nation fragmenting along economic or cultural lines a la Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, and more with the fact that the civic institutions where meaningful participation is actually possible have been stripped of much of their significance. And not just in the sense that state and local governments have abrogated many of their roles upward, but also because the more mobile a society gets, the less those local affinities matter. As the pluralistic state declines, we’re left with a unitary one, forever in a state of becoming, toward which destiny the labor of young people is demanded.

In the absence of James-ian patriotism, having been replaced by the crude jingo type prone to starting wars, libertarianism may be the idea best equipped to push back. Consider a hypothetical debate between a progressive, a conservative, and a libertarian about reinstating the draft. The conservative is perhaps slightly reluctant about the idea but embraces it because he sees a means toward restoring patriotism and, after all, the price of freedom is compulsory military service. The liberal enthusiastically supports it because it will correct racial disparities in the ranks (as per Rep. Rangel’s nauseating obsession). The libertarian says the draft is slavery.

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Newsweek Ponders Privacy—in 1970

The internet was set abuzz yesterday as Michael Moynihan of the Daily Beast posted an Instagram shot of a 1970 Newsweek magazine cover (back in the days when it was still a print magazine) published under the ominous headline: “Is Privacy Dead?”

In the era of the NSA mass-ingesting all the data that’s fit to send, 1970 almost seems like a golden, innocent age, before the internet, before cell phones, but the illustration is a good time-capsule look back into what appears to be a time-honored national discomfort with the same technologies we eagerly adopt.

To list the players, moving clockwise from the top, we find:

  • Uncle Sam towering over all
  • a microscope trained in
  • a telephone with pad and pencil, taking notes
  • a computer punch-card
  • a telephone cord*
  • a portable (film) camera
  • two media microphones
  • a telescope
  • a reel of computer tape
  • the anthropomorphized computer itself
  • all crowding around a couple, a woman in an orange top and skirt sheltered by a protective man in a business suit, as they both huddle under the spotlight of all the observational attention.

It’s a picture rich in historical detail, but the most striking contrast with today is how physical, and targeted, the privacy endangerment is. The couple is literally under the microscope, in front of the camera, and under the watchful eyes of the government. The computer is digital, literally speaking, but requires instructions and programs to be physically inserted via a punchcard in order to run.

In 1970, the very fact that the NSA existed at all was secret, leading to its nickname, “No Such Agency.” Today, we know the agency’s name, but little more about its operations. Who we are is less important to it than the fact that we are all included in its data stores, and the fact that a wristwatch today may have more computing power than the hulking beast depicted above is but a small indication of just how much privacy we may have surrendered in the interim.

The 1970s that followed this cover saw a pretty successful pushback against the government’s ability to surveil its own citizens. Time will tell if we can do the same.

*Commenter eVade indicates this is in fact a microphone for a personal dictation machine from the period

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Who Can Check the Surveillance State?

“Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” said Secretary of State Henry Stimson of his 1929 decision to shut down “The Black Chamber” that decoded the secret messages of foreign powers.

“This means war!” said FDR, after reading the intercepted instructions from Tokyo to its diplomats the night of Dec. 6, 1941. Roosevelt’s secretary of war? Henry Stimson.

Times change, and they change us.

The CIA was created in 1947; the National Security Agency in 1952, with its headquarters at Ft. Meade in Maryland. This writer’s late brother was stationed at Meade doing “photo interpretation” in the years the CIA’s Gary Powers, flying U-2s at 70,000 feet above Mother Russia, was providing the agency with some interesting photographs.

This last week, through security leaks, we learned that the NSA has access to the phone records of Verizon, Sprint and AT&T. Of every call made to, from or in the U.S., NSA can determine what phone the call came from, which phone it went to, and how long the conversation lasted.

While NSA cannot recapture the contents of calls, it can use this information to select phones to tap for future recording and listening.

Through its PRISM program, the NSA can acquire access, via servers such as Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft and AOL, to all emails sent, received and presumably deleted or spammed. And if the NSA can persuade a secret court that it has to know the contents of past, present or future emails, it can be accorded that right.

Our ability to intercept and read communications of foreigners and foreign governments seems almost limitless. In the Nixon years, Jack Anderson reported that we were intercepting the conversations of Kremlin leaders in their limos, and listening in on Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev. Our capacity today is surely orders of magnitude greater.

Last week, we also learned that Barack Obama, by Presidential Policy Directive 20, has tasked our government to prepare for both defensive and offensive cyberwarfare to enable us to attack whatever depends on the Internet anywhere in the world.

Lately, the U.S. and Israel planted a Stuxnet worm that crippled scores of centrifuges and disabled Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz. If we can do this in Iran, can we not do the same to nuclear plants all over the world, creating two, three, a hundred Chernobyls and Fukushimas?

Is it too much to imagine that, one day, if not already, the United States will be able to cyber-sabotage the power plants, electrical grids and communications systems of any country on earth? Read More…

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