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Ask HN: After the Paris Attack, have your feelings changed on NSA surveillance?
27 points by steven2012 on Nov 16, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 42 comments

No, and I'm not sure why anyone would expect they would, given that the flowering of mass surveillance and crystallization of opinions around it happened in the wake of the much larger attacks of September 11, 2001.

Well, except that US global mass surveillance, presumably targeting groups including IS, has existed for many years, and is least restrained when it comes to non-US targets, and yet failed to provide information sufficient to prevent this attack (apparently, the information that an attack in the West was planned did turn up, but from Iraqi intelligence, not our mass surveillance, and not specific enough to identify even the targeted country.)

I can't help but feeling reactionary when something upsetting happens. It is true that early reports suggest that encryption was being used and obviously low-tech communications like meeting in cafes. But despite the rather extensive surveillance state that exists, it still did not prevent such a massive, coordinated attack.

So yes, I am still skeptical of NSA style surveillance, however I am now more likely to keep my opinion to myself as the issue is now so caught up in emotion.

Downvotes seem unwarranted. And slightly ironic.

Yes-- My feelings have become even more negative as this is yet another instance where there was undoubtedly plenty of evidence within existing surveillance programs to have prevented this.

As usual nobody could stop playing bureaucrat long enough to find it, but now that it's happened NSA will surely have no problem helping france find targets to hit in Syria and Iraq. To say nothing about how various agencies will use this event as a flagrant power grab.

Time and time again the terrorists turn out to be people who were already being monitored by conventional intelligence strategies. However, the difficulty is in spotting the difference between people with terrorist sympathies and people who are an imminent threat. Harvesting more data won't help with this at all.

Actually, more data probably hurts - adding more "noise" to hunt through.

I'm genuinely curious, if it's not more data, what do we need to differentiate between a would be terrorist and a run of the mill extremist? Like better systems for prioritizing, filtering people?

The argument wasn't that we should be doing things better in order to make these systems "valuable".

The argument was that these types of things simply cannot be done with the current state of tech, and any attempts by governments to do so should be viewed by the public as both useless wastes of public funds and thinly veiled power grabs-- similar to how we view authoritarian regimes that try to extend their own term limits or institute a national curfew in response to political protests.

ahh thank you! So instead of trying to prevent attacks by intercepting them (which is probably doomed to fail anyway), we should work on the greater issue of diplomacy in general.

Fundamentally, you can't read people's minds, so you can't use surveillance to stop individual actions.

A single motivated individual could likely have pulled off the worst of these (the theater shootings).

The barrier of entry is low: any of [peculiar mental configuration], [willingness to die], [overwhelming frustration or disenfranchisement with society] or [extreme anger] plus access to a firearm (or some chemicals, a machine shop and time... even access to a vehicle might be enough).

Given that many statistics indicate that mental health is deteriorating globally across the developed world (not just due to aging population or drugs, either, but due to fundamental structure-of-society issues), Donald Trump's "this would have been different if there were more weapons on people" takes the cake as the most idiotic response.

We can't stop these things, we can only make them universally reviled, and that's already the case.

What I find interesting is the response of leaders: France has said it will ignore EU rules, increase its prison and military budget, and refuse to drop the latter for another 5 years citing 'national security' (following the destructive and viral American model obviating respect for treaties, as China and others now do). Simultaneously, it redoubles bombing of already suffering Syrian targets, presumably on suddenly fortuitously acquired intelligence. One of tens of remote wars since the mid 20th century in which vastly powerful western militaries permanently shatter the fabric of societies half-way around the world, deploying nationalist rhetoric that wouldn't have been astray in Rome, and often leaving power vacuums that cause chaos for decades or longer, one is forced to ask the question: who are the real terrorists? Read some Chomsky.

“The Americans came,” he said. “They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.” http://www.thenation.com/article/what-i-discovered-from-inte...

It is interesting this is being asked here. Even more interesting is/are the responses.

My first thought (after the initial thoughts of OMG and etc.) when I heard about the Paris attacks (lower case on attack is mine - when did attack stop being a verb?) was the upcoming attack that would be perpetrated against civil liberties in the name of freedom.

Maybe I am in the minority, and honestly my assessment is that readers here are likely to be in the same minority group; but from a philosophical point of view the rapid reversion to tightened control and monitoring by governments was a significant setback to our race as a whole and the great strides made in last 200-300 years regarding personal freedoms. We can marry whomever we want in the US now, but heaven forbid I wanted to have a private conversation.

I don't know what our future holds; but I am quite sure that this won't bode well. Knee jerk reactions are now a specialty of all governments and critical analysis and discussions are no longer in vogue.

I sincerely hope that Edward Snowden has nothing he was looking forward to in the US.

A few assholes with guns shouldn't scare you into giving up the rights that millions of brave people have devoted their lives to defending.

Ok... when exactly did millions of brave devoted their lives to defending privacy? There were all kinds of reasons for fighting (many of them including being drafted) but we never ever had a War For Privacy.

Yes, we did.

Justice Roberts in his opinion for Riley v California.

    Our cases have recognized that the Fourth Amendment was the founding
    generation's response to the reviled "general warrants" and "writs of
    assistance" of the colonial era, which allowed British officers to
    rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of
    criminal activity. Opposition to such searches was in fact on of the
    driving forces behind the Revolution itself. [...]

    Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience.
    With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many
    Americans "the privacies of life." The fact that technology now allows
    an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the
    information any less worth of the protection for which the Founders fought.

So you are saying that we fought for independence because British were invading our privacy? They were opening our snailmail and were reading it and that's why we fought for independence. Right.

I have never seen any credible historian claim that. Good luck with that line of reasoning.


Let me guess, you're a strict constructionist? This quibble about the specific word "privacy" is a useless distraction and a waste of time.

If you aren't convinced, go research the various SCOTUS cases that recognized that the right to privacy is implicit in the constitution. I quoted a recent SCOTUS opinion already.

Also, Article 1, Section 1 of the California Constitution:

    All people are by nature free and independent and have inalienable rights.
    Among these are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring,
    possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety,
    happiness, and privacy.

So you are saying that we fought for independence because British were invading our privacy?

Not only is he saying it, so is the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, whom he quoted. Opposition to such searches was in fact on of the driving forces behind the Revolution itself.

Did you even read the above paragraphs?

Yes, there were obviously other factors as well.

When people say 'privacy' what they actually mean is 'liberty'.

You can't have liberty without the expectation of privacy. It just doesn't happen.

Liberty is definitely something our ancestors (both yours as an American I'm assuming, and mine as a Brit) have fought and died for and we should absolutely resist any attempts by enemies both foreign and domestic (that includes our politicians) to take it away.

Nope, not really. Snooping on people to find terrorists is reacting to the problem - while we continue to create it (for example via drone strikes).

We should be preventing terrorism, which we can only with peace.

FWIW I don't believe that the NSA programs actually help keep us secure, similarly to how I don't believe the TSA or any part of the "Freedom" Act has helped us significantly. I believe in 30 years, children will be reading about this "terrorist-scare" the same way we were taught about the "Red Scare" during the 50s.

That said, it certainly is an easy security blanket for some people, to believe that "if we were monitoring everything, all those lives could have been saved". I just don't believe it, and for example, it didn't help stop the Boston bombings, even when that information was available.

But I'm curious if other people feel otherwise, and if so, what are their reasons. Maybe I can be convinced otherwise.

Yes. I've become more disgusted by those who use this attack as opportunism to push for more surveillance.

This is probably going to get super downvoted, possibly flagged, but what evidence does anyone have that they could not have stopped it?

I think it's PLAUSIBLE that the intelligence community knew and identified this attack ahead of time, and chose to ignore it.

I'm not saying that's what happened, but it wouldn't surprise me (let's be clear here: I'm not saying they caused it, I'm saying they knew and chose to do nothing).

That move 'The Imitation Game' raised a good point: If you have the ability to read 100% of your enemies comms...what's the best approach for defeating them?

The second you stop 100% of every attack you know about, the jig would be up, they'd know that their comms had been compromised, they'd switch to a different technology, and you'd be on the defensive (instead of offensive).

It's not like we'd even know how many they stopped, I'm sure that material is so classified not even analysts have access to it, let alone would it be open to FOIA requests.

Anyway, just a thought.

I think the major problem is that it's easy to fill yourself into thinking that you could have stopped it in hindsight because you already know what happened.

If you took this one report more seriously you would have stopped it, sure, but how does that help you going forward? It's the same kind of thinking that makes you feel like you could have made a killing buying Microsoft stock or Google or something. Easy to make a post hoc rationalisation that explains the observed facts, likely impossible to do ex ante.

No, my feelings remain completely unchanged. I'm still very much against it. I'm not convinced terrorists are the ultimate, primary target of this surveillance, honestly.

Even if it were, we know this type of mass surveillance has been in use for years now and it seems utterly ineffectual in preventing the kind of incidents they are supposedely meant to prevent.

Also, seeing the exploitative opportunism in some politicans and the media since the Paris attacks in spouting their thinly veiled fascism and demagoguery really pisses me off. It just makes me that much more resistant to any attempts to curtail our civil liberties.

The whole point of terrorism is to change the country it is inflicted upon through fear tactics. This is exactly what is happening by spying on people, censoring websites and introducing police-state like controls on our freedoms.

So you could say that by allowing ourselves to be led down this path we are in essence 'letting the terrorists win'.

Fuck that shit.

As with most things, I think that it is a trade off. There is a very delicate balance between security and privacy.

Too much surveillance

- General public feels incredibly uncomfortable due to lack of privacy

- An incredibly scary amount of power in the hands of whoever has access to that information ( and who knows what they will do with it )

- Reduced risk of terrorism and security concerns

Too little

- Increased risk of terrorism + massive security concerns due to lack of intelligence ( it's like trying to find a needle in a huge haystack )

- Public feels safe due to perceived increased privacy and yet feels unsafe due to ( potentially ) increased number of terrorist incidents.

It's a rather difficult problem to solve. How can we extract critical security information without invading people's privacy?

Apologies if this is blunt, but the western media obsesses over incidents of terrorism where relatively small numbers of westerners are the victims. Particularly if they die in unexpected and graphic ways.

Far more people die all the time due to many other reasons that we could decide to care about.

E.g. 1.5 million people died from tuberculosis in 2013 [1].

E.g. in 2014, 45% of deaths of children under five were due to malnutrition - 3.1 million deaths per year [2].

E.g. 15 people die in my wealthy western country - Australia - every day, due to alcohol [3] [4].

E.g. my hobby-horse issue political issue, climate change, will probably directly or indirectly lead to the deaths of billions over the next century or so, due to long-term lock-in decisions that have been made in the past, and are being made now. Unfortunately the changes are gradual, most of the victims haven't died yet, most of the victims won't be relatively powerful and rich westerners, and there isn't a clear "other" for our society to demonise and blame, and it would require the status quo to change, so there isn't much of a fuss about it in the media - nobody in a position of power particularly wants to hear about it, let alone do anything, and it isn't particularly newsworthy as nothing much changes - it's just consistently bad news, getting gradually worse over time.

[1] - http://www.who.int/gho/tb/en/

[2] - https://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats

[3] - https://theconversation.com/australias-daily-alcohol-toll-15...

[4] - I am drinking a glass of wine as I write this.

edit: to become even more drearily pragmatic, as a society i think it is for the best not to be concerned or distracted with relatively small losses due to terrorism or any other cause. we cannot be completely shielded from risk. we cannot bear the cost of being completely shielded from risk. the risks are probably going to ramp up over the next few decades, as population continues to grow, resource stocks decline and are exhausted, natural disasters increase, climate changes, and global society becomes increasingly interconnected, more efficient, and less resilient to damage.

In the case of Paris it's not just about the losses. It's at least partially about trust, meaning, can we trust millions of people who are profoundly like us to integrate smoothly or are we instigating risks of further attacks as a result.

I don't particularly like it when terrorist attacks are contextualized in terms of deaths that are not political in nature at all. Everything you mentioned are close to being "random processes" in the statistical sense. Terrorist attacks may be somewhat chaotic in distribution (a brief arxiv.org search shows researchers trying to prove otherwise); but terrorists are adversarial, people who actively want to see you dead. On the other hand, tuberculosis, malnutrition and alcohol could only be construed as adversarial in a weak sense at best. A much more non-intentional perspective is better suited for the latter than the former.

Fair comment. Can you go into more detail regarding why this classification matters?

I note you've refrained from taking a position regarding climate change - fair enough, it is a gnarly subject. I don't think that it neatly falls into an adversarial or "random process" classification. I think it is reasonable to regard the consequences of climate change as both intentional, and highly political, with large doses of randomness and uncertainty.

Here's a perhaps terrible analogy: for whatever reason, suppose people are willing to pay money to watch me shoot a gun into the air. Perhaps they find it entertaining. Occasionally bullets might fall in an unlucky place and kill someone or damage property. I certainly don't intend anyone or anything in particular any harm, but hey, I've got to earn some money to pay the bills.

Don't read too much into me not saying "climate change is X". I refrained because it involves human agency, but I wouldn't call it truly adversarial either. Let's add "intentional" to the mix. ISIS/Da'esh is an organization that has intentions to kill people, and is essentially a singleton in that regard even if it influences people to kill in packs of autonomous cells ("autonomous" used loosely, they're on the Internet and talk to each other).

Climate change, on the other hand, doesn't really have a central bureau that seeks to engineer more climate change. At best it's a nasty side-effect that some large organizations might chose to ignore, but they don't explicitly optimize for it and it's obvious it's not large organizations doing most of the damage. It's like a tragedy-of-the-commons problem, which once again you can construe as adversarial – I wouldn't. But if you continue to, I would implore you to consider that the attacks are adversarial-intentional while climate-change is adversarial-incidental. Terrorism isn't a tragedy-of-the-commons, it's a design.

I think the classification matters because it alerts us to some facts that I'm afraid we might underrate: like the notion that the people Actually Believe This Stuff as the simplest explanation, rather than convoluting it with some hammy sociological explanation, or even a statistical one. Because I think that they Actually Believe This Stuff I continue to think that they are ideologically incompatible with the West and should be isolated rather than risk being welcoming to them (by accident). The deaths of the Parisians should, if not be avenged, then be taken seriously as a failure of our ability to protect ourselves from our enemies.

Genuinely - thank you for your careful reply, it is appreciated.

I don't think I believe that climate change is adversarial, and I really get the tragedy-of-the-commons aspect. Perhaps "knowing criminal negligence" is a better fit than "adversarial".

That said, perhaps from the perspective of victims/friends/families of terrorism/climate change/etc, I suspect that it may not make all that much difference if they were the victims of some adversarial action, or the victims of the predictable yet semi-randomised results of negligence.

I get your point about a failure of our ability to protect ourselves. I think the lesson here is not to try to completely protect ourselves (by yielding to increasingly oppressive government surveillance), as complete protection is not possible. It is particularly hard to defend oneself against, while preserving some pretence of civilisation/democracy/rule of law, against people who are willing to die in order to kill you.

I think the real lesson here is to understand that we, and our society, and our civilisation, are all mortal, and will die some day, perhaps sooner than we think, and there is nothing we can do about it. We are not in control. This lesson is perhaps a hard one to internalise. I am not sure I internalise it. There's some more words by someone more eloquent than I here: [1]

[1] - http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/learning-how...

I just want to thank you as well for your willingness to engage with me, especially with how delicate the subject matter is. It gives me hope for the state of modern political discourse.

You've presented an interesting distillation, that's for sure (on your recommendation I shall read the article). It's worth noting that there are probably multiple lessons to this experience or event and the relevance will change from person to person, but in a way that's nitpicking.

My response to the notion of looking at these risks with fatalistic acceptance, is that we shouldn't completely evaluate the impact of things like malnutrition, disease, violence, {climate change side-effects} in terms of death. Death is a nice common impact measure, same as money, which is why they're so popular as they make the incomparable, comparable. But they should be seen as approximate representations of what we value, rather than what we value. Even if there isn't a whole lot we can do to gain knowledge of when people are attacked or when they die, there are still values beyond death/money for which these events have meaning. Something could be done for those shared values even if it can't be done for ourselves.

I agree with what you're saying RE: surveillance. Two things:

(1) I don't think we quite know the extent for which our military agencies are preventing harm, only the extent to which they haven't. There could be a "Red Queen" effect where less surveillance is a net loss but more surveillance does nothing, or is also a net loss. Just a thought, and I wouldn't be surprised.

(2) ISIS is using our compassion and our values against us: they say as much in their magazine.[0][1] If we don't do the same to them then the fight will keep being asymmetric, but I don't have any answers that aren't probably wrong in some way. Already I've been drawing conclusions that I thought were correct, but they were expecting and wanted. Russia is the only country with the balls to fight a ground war but NATO is not on best terms with them, either, among other things.

(An aside: While Silicon Valley's techno-optimism is perhaps one of the most productive, proactive and pragmatic stances one can take to the world's flaws and inefficiencies, I try to remember that it's probably an exception rather than the rule. SV exists in a bubble of its own and is ultimately dependent on much else being stable.)

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10579975 [1] https://theintercept.com/2015/11/17/islamic-states-goal-elim...

Not. But I hate NSA&Co even more as they use such tragedies to further their agenda[0]. If spy agencies did their primary job and focused more resources on actual spying and infiltration of terrorist organizations (not mass surveillance as they do now), I'm sure results would be much better.

0. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/17/world/europe/encrypted-mes...

I expect all/most communications are and will continue to be monitored/recorded by someone (NSA, gov, fbook, goog, etc.)

If this monitoring does prevent an attack from happening that's great but I don't think we have or will have a choice or even will know what is being monitored and logged or by who.

I mean we are all paying to carry around tracking devices (phones) 24/7.

If someone told you 10 years ago that in the near future everyone would be forced to carry a device to track their every move and that could listen in on their communications what would you have thought?

The privacy ship has sailed.

It has for me.

When the Snowden revelations first came out, as an engineer, I was in awe of the NSA's capabilities.

But slowly, the awe has reduced to "meh, they're just another inept government agency" levels. If they were so capable, how does one explain the rise of groups like ISIS since 2003? It's hard to believe such a well trained well financed group can rise and take over vast territories without emails, IMs and mobile calls.

No, not at all. Freedom is its own end, and State sponsored mass surveillance is inimical to freedom. Even IF this stuff kept us safer, which I doubt, it wouldn't be a trade-off that makes sense to me. If you're not free, why live at all? To me, agency, the freedom to make our own choices, to live our own lives, is the most fundamental essence of what it means to be alive.

What does illegal domestic surveillance by the NSA have to do with recent attacks across the pond?

Are you asking if we now feel more ok with our rights being violated, because we are so damn scared for our own safety after what happened in Paris?

I personally will take liberty/privacy over supposed security any day.

I feel more strongly that such massive violations undermine the legitimacy of the government(s) involved.

They say the terrorists hate "us" for our freedom and democracy... but we don't even have that.

Shame on the CIA chief for grandstanding on the cover of the NYTimes. 14 years after 9/11 and we are no further along. Isn't he ashamed of himself? Why should we have more of people like him? Terrorist activity is borne out of desperation. Where does the money come from? What has that not been traced and revealed?

No. Why should they? Surveillance has nothing to do with this.

Not a single bit.

Not at all


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