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NSA makes final push to retain most mass surveillance powers (theguardian.com)
113 points by panacea 1258 days ago | hide | past | web | 58 comments | favorite



Here's a transcript of the NPR interview referenced in the article:

http://www.npr.org/2014/01/10/261282601/transcript-nsa-deput...

Regarding the subject of the HN headline, "at most one terrorist attack might have been foiled", Inglis said:

"There's a candidate for that, which is the plot that was exposed in San Diego. I think we were able to essentially tell the FBI that an individual was materially involved in terrorism that they had, three years prior, investigated based on a tip and kind of laid that case to rest.

And but for the 215 Program, which we essentially tied that individual to some foreign terrorist activity overseas, the FBI would have let that case lain fallow for quite sometime. Now I cannot tell you that that wouldn't have turned up some other way. There wouldn't have been some other tool in the tool kit."


While it seems like a good thing that the mass surveillance seems to not actually stop terrorist attacks, I feel a bit uncomfortable about this line of argument 'against' the NSA.

What if they did foil many terrorist attacks? I might feel different if me or mine had been affected by such an attack, but I'd like to think that I would still be against mass surveillance, simply because the dangers of that are not offset by being safer.


I was mugged earlier this year. I live in a neighborhood that used to be quite rough in Brooklyn but is getting better. It was 2am and I was walking around by myself and I got mugged.

He didn't take much from me: my phone (big deal) and wallet (easy to cancel credit cards.) Along with that phone he got a lot of photos - memories - of things and at that moment I wish I had automatically backed up to a private G+ album. But I didn't because I'm pro-privacy, I think.

When I filed the police report, the detective walked up and down the block with me, seeing if there were any cameras to see where the person went, or to identify them. Ordinarily I would be part of the anti-mass-surveillance crowd, what is this, England? but at the time I might've appreciated a few cameras along that block so to maybe deter my mugger.

I often think about this when it comes to discussions of surveillance. I, like so many hackers, want privacy, anonymity, and for the government to just go away and let us enjoy the ability to live private lives. I want Google to stop trying to save all of my personal emails, photos, text messages, and location data to the cloud.

And then I say "but it would've been nice if there were a police security camera on that block." Or "I guess I have principles about google plus but I'm still out my photos."

I don't think it's so unreasonable, in a sense, for someone to feel that, if in fact these efforts are foiling peoples' ability to do us harm, that they're fruitful. What is the essential difference between wanting a stronger police/watch/community force in my Brooklyn neighborhood versus the surveillance we're talking about here?

Obviously there is some difference. But what is it?


Beyond the usual security/freedom dichotomy we can go on for ages about, there's also a question about effectiveness.

We tell ourselves that having security cameras will deter criminals, because we say "well, it won't entice them will it? ". But there are two points about this:

- How effective is this? If installing cameras all over the city of London stopped one person from being mugged, is it worth it?

The big issue with trying to measure this is two-fold. Firstly, the notion of "stopped" is a bit hard to measure. Obviously, the number of people caught thanks to evidence on the cameras counts, but if there were eyewitnesses as well, does it still count? Inversely, what about the chilling effect brought on by the cameras? How do you count the number of people who don't even think about mugging thanks to the cameras? And who's to say that the crime isn't simply displaced? Society is pretty bad at figuring out general supply demand curves (an example: We would think that raising wages would entice people to work more, but a decent amount of arguments exist to say that after a certain wage level, increasing the wage would decrease the number of hours we work (substitution effect with leisure) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backward_bending_supply_curve_o...)

-How do we measure effectiveness? I get mugged and lose a $200 phone. I think I would be slightly irked by it, and quantifying this as merely a $200 loss might insult me (especially considering I'm not very used to being mugged and I would consider it a traumatic experience).

A terrorist attack has a similar quantification problem, there are widespread psychological effects (even just the loss of loved ones, beyond the macro "security theater" stuff which induces circular reasoning). And the economic damage can be longterm.


The cameras don't seem to have much deterrant effect in the UK, nor do you often hear of them catching people or convicting them through this footage. Which makes me wonder wtf they are for...


A few months ago someone broke into my locker at the swimming pool, got my iPad, BB, credit cards, cash and car keys. Thank God I hadn't driven there. Anyway, leaving the pool, he was in full view of the CCTV. The cops reviewed the footage, and the guy is just a black silhouette, no recognizable features.

So enemies of the surveillance state rejoice, there are cameras everywhere, the footage they record however is worthless. And I dare say the thief had figured that out for himself.


Most times you see the modern equivalent of a wanted poster, it's stills from CCTV - or even cuts of video. While I doubt the quality is high enough to use evidentially in many instances, I would bet they do play a decent part in deterring or convicting people.


> But security officials are arguing strongly against curtailing the substance of domestic surveillance activities.

Right. How about just having a sane and humane foreign policy instead of blowing up people all over the World? How about NOT creating hostility against the US in the first place? Did that ever cross your simple minds?

Oh sorry, I forgot - this would make the NSA/military less important, so that's no option, I suppose.


NSA, DHS, TSA, NYPD's "intelligence office", FBI's terror plot manufacturing - it's all one big security theater, and everyone is playing along with it.

If the Utah data center is not closed down/sold off, where they plan to keep all the data on everyone on Earth, forever, then they haven't ended anything, regardless of what Obama will say on TV next week.


I'm a little skeptical of the conclusions drawn from these questions, especially when they're phrased in terms of surveillance data directly preventing specific attacks. From experience elsewhere it seems (I claim no expertise here) that you rarely begin looking a terrorist's or potential terrorist's communications at just the right time (neither too early nor too late) to discover a planned terrorist attack for the first time. What happens more often, apparently, is that you start looking at someone's communications and you gather information useful to turning them or someone else into an informer. Then you discover attack plans drawn up in the future because your double agent calls you up and tells you about them directly.

If the US is in fact using domestic surveillance effectively to generate informers, and thus prevent terror attacks, then US alphabet-soup spokesmen might plausibly be very slow to mention much about it in response to questions asked about specific attacks being directly detected through surveillance, both because a) the question as phrased doesn't cover such operations and b) you want at almost any cost to say nothing about them. Though on the other hand, if you aren't having success in those operations you wouldn't feel like saying much about it anyway, partly because it means you're failing at counter-terrorism ...


"Fear is lucrative. Fear is big business".

Now that's actually a quote from a presentation about bike helmets and the culture of fear around cycling (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jS9UhHf7GsQ) but I think equally applicable to the culture of fear surrounding terrorism.


> Obama will follow the recommendations of a review group he set up, which suggested that the responsibility for the bulk domestic call records database should be transferred from the NSA to a third party, such as the phone companies

Mussolini: '' Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.''

It seems each 'reform' that these authoritarian sociopaths put forward just further enables/legalizes their crimes.


>Mussolini: '' Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.''

The word "corporatism" in this context is not a very good translation. It's a real quote, but "corporation" in Mussolini's time would be more accurately translated as "guild" or any arbitrary hierarchical group of people with common interests. Corporations as we know them (commercial enterprises) weren't a thing as far as Mussolini knew.

As much as I appreciate the sentiment this quote carries, it's just not applicable to anything today. Snopes thread about this:

message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=36218


> any arbitrary hierarchical group of people with common interests

From the Guardian article: ''Obama’s White House staff were meeting representatives of tech firms on Friday, concluding a packed week packed of meetings with surveillance stakeholders''

I damn well think you could call corporate surveillance stakeholders a ''guild'' or an ''arbitrary hierarchical group of people with common interests''.


Sure, and that's fine if you want to torture the meanings of words that way. I don't have any problem with you doing so.

I have the same contempt for these people as you do but if we always let off-context quotes, righteous as they may feel, go unchalleneged, it's a shame on all of us.

The context of the Mussolini quote was not uttered with a commercial enterprise in mind. Commercial enterprises called "corporations" were not a real thing in Mussolini's world. That's all I have to say here.


So the one 'attack that might have been foiled' was some bloke in San Diego sending some money to someone in Somalia who might have had contact with extremists, extremists that are in Africa, a whole continent and a dozen time zones away.

Liberal left wing types that supported the bombing of Afghanistan on humanitarian grounds ('we have to bomb them because if we don't then they will all starve') did not imagine for one moment that the talk of 'terrorist training camps' was utter bullshit. It was all true - to them when Donald Rumsfeld was telling them. They thought that bombing them would only encourage the terrorists.

So where are they?

There are plenty of immigrants fresh from Afghanistan in London, the ones you meet work hard for a living driving taxis and doing jobs white people don't like doing. So if the NSA/GCHQ have not caught any of them for being unduly fundamental-extremalist and none of them have come here to join terror cells so they can blow up thousands more innocent babies and puppies, what is going on?

As a taxpayer I expect more from this clash of civilisations. I have not had any days of work due to terror bomb threats, no postcard sites have been blown up and I have no idea what the colour coded threat level is for the day.


>Liberal left wing types that supported the bombing of Afghanistan on humanitarian grounds... to them when Donald Rumsfeld was telling them.

I think you're confusing your political parties.

>There are plenty of immigrants fresh from Afghanistan in London, the ones you meet work hard for a living driving taxis and doing jobs white people don't like doing.

Nice casual racism.

>As a taxpayer I expect more from this clash of civilisations. I have not had any days of work due to terror bomb threats, no postcard sites have been blown up and I have no idea what the colour coded threat level is for the day.

While I question the notion of a "clash of civilisations[sic]," you're saying this like it's a bad thing.


> I think you're confusing political parties

In the UK liberal refers to more socialist and inclusive policies (I think in the US it refers more to people being allowed to take care of themselves?).


I think you've missed a particularly oblique piece of sarcasm.


Thank you!

Sarcasm and humour in general is usually not the way we deal with serious things like the war, even here on HN.

This is a pity as humour, even if it is British rather than American (or German) is a great way to make big, scary, difficult-to-understand-things a bit easier to talk about. It is a tactic and we should be taking the piss out of the politicians and the spies, rendering them to being pathetic 'Peeping Toms', tantamount to being dirty perverts, lowest of the low.

That said...

...I am genuinely surprised at how we have been able to kill whomever we like in The War Against Terror with a lack of reprisals from those we bombed. I am sure soldiers in Afghanistan do not see it that way, but for the folks in UK/USA there is practically zero terror threat.

To all intents and purposes those we have attacked and tortured are like unwitting subjects for a follow up to the MKULTRA type of things that went on 50 years ago. I do wonder if there are those in the military that see it that way, testing new weapons by killing a few people with them.

Fortunately those we bomb are people as opposed to complete psychopaths, so they don't have the mindset of those in the arms business.


The near-rambling presentation suggests to me that the author would only claim sarcasm if the post was not well received.


> Nice casual racism. How is that racist?


It's textbook racism in that it assigns characteristics based on race alone.


> it assigns characteristics based on race alone.

By that standard, saying that black people have dark skin is racist. I could say all sorts of things about different racial groups that nobody would find offensive except guilty white people who know nothing of real class struggle.

You don't mess with a black girl's hair. Asians are more family-oriented than most. White people tend to be higher-minded in ways that often look out of touch. Latin culture idolizes a certain ideal of the strong male patriarch. Africans are extremely practical.

These statements are uncontroversial and I discovered them through direct interaction with the cultures in question. It's once you start organizing these observations into a racial narrative that purports to explain why one race is 'better' than another that your motivations become suspect.


>I could say all sorts of things about different racial groups that nobody would find offensive except guilty white people who know nothing of real class struggle.

Swing and a miss. Assigning job preference to a race is just a lazy version of explaining what you really mean, and we try to be above that.

Your response, for instance, is all over the place:

>You don't mess with a black girl's hair(1). Asians are more family-oriented than most(2). White people tend to be higher-minded in ways that often look out of touch(3). Latin culture idolizes a certain ideal of the strong male patriarch(4). Africans are extremely practical(5).

1 - I don't know what this is. 2 - do you mean "as a entire ethnic group" or "people from the Asian continent?" 3 - I don't even know where to start with your statement of white people being "higher-minded" and I'm pretty sure I don't want to follow you down your impressions-of-races rabbit hole. 4 - you hedged this comment by refining it to the "culture." 5 - by referring to the entire continent of people, this is such a strange generalization.


>Nice casual racism.

That's not racism.

>While I question the notion of a "clash of civilisations[sic]," you're saying this like it's a bad thing.

I don't see where he assigned a value to this prediction. It seems to me that you've done that for him, both in this comment and the one accusing him of racism.


>That's not racism.

He stated "doing jobs white people don't like doing." How do you interpret this? This is, by definition, stating that by being white alone, the population carries a characteristic.

>I don't see where he assigned a value to this prediction.

They're independent clauses ("I question that this event is occurring _and_ it seems as if by the preposition 'as a taxpayer', you expect a little theatrics instead of quiet aversion of harm.").


>He stated "doing jobs white people don't like doing." How do you interpret this? This is, by definition, stating that by being white alone, the population carries a characteristic.

Only if you're a twat.

He was making a general observation: that minorities tend to do jobs that white people don't want to do.

And he's right. That's a simple observation, one which carries no value judgment. It just is.

That's not being racist; it's making an observation. If you think that any statement which differentiates between the races in any way - even if only tangentially - is a racist statement, then frankly, you need to get over yourself.


>Only if you're a twat... you need to get over yourself.

You're adorable. You must be the life of parties.


YOUR FACE IS STUPID!!!


So where are they?

A great many went to Iraq.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/opinion/iraq-a-school-for-... and many more.


Even regardless of the outcome of each program, just the fact that we're starting to have this discussion in the open is a big step forward, in my mind at least. I do understand that by discussing some of these plans we are in essence hampering their effectiveness, but my feeling is that in the grand scale of things it's a price that I think I'm willing to pay. Just my feelings.


Ignoring the privacy concerns, we spend an awful lot of money on the NSA. Tens of billions for sure. Maybe if they'd been thwarting a 9/11 every week (or if we were at risk for a 9/11-scale event semi-frequently) I'd feel that we hadn't quite wasted that money.


You say "billions". But if you know this [0], then you start asking yourself if all that money can really be just "lost".

[0] http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2013/11/8-5-trillion-taxpayer...


The money isn't "lost"; what's gone forever are millions upon millions upon millions of man-hours that could have been used to do something useful. Saying the money is lost is just a handy shorthand for expressing what a waste it all was.


Interesting logical fallacy they're employing: by inverting the inequality such that the upside is capped, they're strongly implying that the value is non-zero. This shifts the conversation away from the value being, in fact, zero.

At most 1 person may have been killed by the official making that statement.

At most 1 child may have been abducted by journalists mentioning Snowden's name.

Nice trick. Wonder if it'll catch on with other officials?


This fear mongering was expected. Let's suppose that this is true for the sake of the argument. Does this still justify mass surveillance? No it doesn't. But the NSA knows how to play this. Most people think the NSA is doing a good job and since people think they have "nothing to hide", they would keep on supporting the NSA because it "keeps them safe".


To me it does not seem to be worth the huge cost/enormous effort/loss of privacy/loss of guaranteed constitutional rights.


Actual article title: NSA makes final push to retain most mass surveillance powers


I would rather know how many politicians they blackmailed


At least the NSA is issuing an honest statement.


Fencepost error


If we spent all the billions of dollars on healthcare or medical research, we would have saved million times more people.


It's not just about lives saved. This type of analysis is complicated because the costs are not always straightforward to analyze: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6890606.


Is it that complicated? An American life is generally considered (by our government) to have a value somewhere in millions[0]. Back-of-the-napkin math suggests that from an order-of-growth analysis, it may well be just about lives saved. (Roughly, each million lives saved saves a trillion dollars in economic value.)

[0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value_of_life#Estimates_of_the_... As a lower bound, the lifetime earnings of an individual are $1m and up: http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/acsbr11-04.pdf


Loss of life from 9/11 was about 3,000, which using your numbers works out to be twenty million, but the total direct and indirect costs of 9/11 are in the trillions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_effects_arising_from_t...). The insurance losses alone totaled forty billion. Innocent life lost under any circumstance is a tragedy. That said, its a multifaceted problem. Large amounts of economic damage also results in the loss of innocent life.


Right, but I think you missed what I was saying about order of growth: the loss of life on 9/11 was very small, so economic damage due to death was relatively very small. But as loss of life increases, it makes up a larger portion of economic damage, to the point that it outweighs direct effects of terrorism.

To wit, to offset that $40b loss we could either a) prevent a 9/11 scale attack or b) prevent at most 40,000 deaths of any cause. The operative difference being 1) we know for a fact that many more than 40,000 preventable deaths will happen in the next year alone and 2) we can make a good prediction about what the cost would be to prevent them.


Sure, I think we can both agree that its a tradeoff that should be discussed, but lets not minimize how complex the analysis is. Money spent on preventing terrorist attacks can can have many-order effects (i.e. invention of multi-use technology), as can money spent on stopping preventable deaths. As a logical person I'll of course agree to spending money in the most effective place; our disagreement will be in how to do the cost-benefit analysis. For example, you mention preventable deaths as a good place to spend money, but the devil is in the details. Smoking, being overweight, and alcohol are the leading causes of preventable deaths in the United States and the government has been waging a campaign against these in some form or another for decades. In the case of alcohol we're actually coming up on a century. It's not a given that spending more money on the problem will actually help and if that's your position you should justify it.

My reason for entering the debate is I think people generally don't think about the true cost of a successful terrorist attack. For example, a successful attack on a nuclear power plant would cost $700 billion. Even if people were thinking about costs accurately, I recognize even then there will be disagreement and I'm happy to have that debate about whether anti-terror or anti-smoking is the right place to spent money. I'm just pushing for people to think more accurately about costs because the usual level of discourse is how cars kill more people than terrorists and thats just not the whole story.


> It's not a given that spending more money on the problem will actually help and if that's your position you should justify it.

This is a statement that applies to terrorism, not to all-cause mortality. Statistically, it is a given; we can spend $Xm addressing Y different causes of death, watch how death rates respond, and have a pretty good idea which was the best investment. That's the whole reason the various departments have this dollar figure for a human life; they do this sort of analysis all the time.

Trying to apply that sort of economic analysis to a statistically nonexistent phenomenon like major terrorist attacks is utterly useless by comparison. It doesn't matter how accurate or inaccurate our assessment of the costs is, because we have no idea how likely they are to occur in the first place, and no framework to assess what the cost of preventing them would be.


> Trying to apply that sort of economic analysis to a statistically nonexistent phenomenon like major terrorist attacks is utterly useless by comparison. It doesn't matter how accurate or inaccurate our assessment of the costs is, because we have no idea how likely they are to occur in the first place, and no framework to assess what the cost of preventing them would be.

That's complete bunk! What's so special about terrorist attacks that make them so hard to model, as compared to other things governments routinely model like inflation, technology transfer from NASA programs, etc? An absolutely ludicrous assertion.


Okay, let's do it. I'll get us started: in 2013, inflation was around 1%. About 30% of Americans were obese. There were roughly zero major terrorist attacks.

Your turn: In 2014, what will the inflation rate be? How many people will be obese? How many major terrorist attacks will occur?

Approximate answers are fine.


You're completely off the rails here. You've devolved back into discussing the probability of dying from a terrorist attack instead of a whole system analysis. Some questions to answer your questions. Do you think the government knows things about the economy they don't release to the public but use to inform their monetary policy? Do you think the same might be true for terrorist attacks and their security posture? Does the fact that you don't know something mean that it is inherently unknowable?


So your answer is that you have no idea what the chances of a major terrorist attack are, and no way of finding out, but you think the government does, because they have secrets.

Well, there's no way for me to argue with that. Good talk.


This is straightforward: We've spent more than 5 trillion on the war against terrorism, homeland security, NSA, and other measures as a response to 9/11.

http://nationalpriorities.org/cost-of/

If you want to talk money and not lives, then by your citation we're spending the equivalent economical impact of a large terrorist attack every month to prevent something that is more rare than being struck with lightning from happening.


That's exactly my point. It would have been better to spend large amounts of money preventing 9/11 from happening so we wouldn't have spent the 5 trillion we did on our reaction to it (never mind the cost it had to our national psyche). If someone hits a skyscraper in NYC or the Pentagon with what is effectively a cruise missile, the US military is going to be on the ground to get the bad guys within the month and we'll stay until we find them. That's just a law of nature; its what the people demand from their government, not just in America but in general. Given that, it makes a lot of sense to spend money on preventing terrorism. The direct and indirect costs of a successful terrorist attack are huge.


Spying isn't just about saving lives, it's also about protecting national interests.


I don't want my national interests to involve most of the shit NSA & Co does, including rendition, torture, spying on everyone, secret courts, secret rulings, secret laws, etc.


Well for that matter, do we really need to try to solve every medical issue?




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