Saturday, March 24, 2012

Big Brother is a Big Fat Idiot

When smarmy Eric Holder announced the other day that Big Brother will now be keeping our private information for five years instead of 18 months, one thought immediately occurred to me. These humanoid drones must be up to their bloodshot eyeballs with totally useless information about innocent people! They have finally risen to the level of their own incompetence. They're lagging behind in their reading of our private business, simply because their reading skills are probably right down there at the abysmally low level of the average "educated" American. They can't keep up with the information overload because they weren't taught the necessary critical thinking and comprehension skills in school.

(This theory of course presupposes that actual humans will attempt to read and analyze the computerized output generated by their complex algorithms. If it's all automated with no human oversight at all, then we are definitely screwed. All the science fiction novels you ever read will come to life. I have visions of HAL 900 taking over that remote Utah data mining site they're building, and running amok).

So much dumpster diving by FBI and NSA agents. So many billions of emails with so many combinations of suspicious words to wade through. So many complicated algorithms and terabytes. So many sales receipts from Walmart, reams of photographs of people taking photographs of people taking photographs. Let's face it: there is an immense but finite number of people with security clearance working for the Surveillance State. Nobody knows the true number -- although Dana Priest of The Washington Post put it at about the entire population of Washington, DC a few years ago in her Pulitzer Prize winning series. It has probably at least doubled since then.

Nobody, writes Priest, has ever mapped the entire secret labyrinth of the massive security apparatus. Nobody, not even the Defense Secretary or the president, can tell you the names of all its of its many subterranean subsidiaries and private subcontractors. Nobody knows how much money is being poured down its maw, because so much of the funding is top secret and there is probably a lot of laundered money to finance whatever the hell it is doing. The Security State is an entity unto itself with a life of its own. It is way beyond any one person's control.   

And now Eric Holder says the behemoth needs more time to go through all the piles of what is likely utterly useless information. The reason he will not comply with Freedom of Information and Congressional requests on the actual workings of the Patriot Act is probably not so much that the information on state secrets is classified and sensitive, but because it will reveal ineptitude and paranoid pettiness on such an staggering scale that even the people who haven't been paying attention will start paying attention.

Senator Ron Wyden stood up last week and announced that if we only knew what our government is doing to our privacy, we'd be alarmed. He also might have meant we'd be appalled to learn that the Homeland has employed a confederacy of dunces to spy on us. And the irony is he can't reveal the unconstitutional machinations of the Secret Government and the Secret Patriot Act and the Secret Court because by doing so,  he would be breaking his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. I love it when politicians use the Constitution as a human shield and then proceed to shred it to bits when we're not looking. 

This, remember, is the same politician who is partnering with Paul Ryan to voucherize Medicare. So I am not really expecting him to go all Serpico and do the courageous thing and spill the beans on government malefactors.  Although, wouldn't it be a treat to watch President Obama and Henchman Holder prosecute a United States Senator as a whistleblower under the Espionage Act? Not happening. All Wyden can do is passive aggression. "I know something you don't know. Na na na na na na!"

So what is a spied-upon citizen to do? Well, we can always turn the tables on them and do some spying ourselves. ProPublica has a great tool, for example, for regular people to help expose the secrecy of Citizens United -- the Supreme Court decision that enables rich elites and corporations to give unlimited anonymous money to candidates. The website says their invention has the potential to uncover illegal relationships between the politicians and the SuperPacs, which are supposedly independent entities unconnected with the campaigns. But come on. We know they've got their grasping tentacles wrapped so far around one another that they are truly one and the same corrupt corpus. 

Take lots of photos, everywhere and anywhere. Copy and paste all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past and email them to 100 friends. Start a dozen blogs and fill them with polysyllabic words the goons won't understand, like polysyllabic. Write a lot of comments in New York Times message boards (monitored by Homeland Security) and relentlessly make fun of the government while doing so. Use your imagination.

Back in the 60s and into the 70s, paranoid President Richard Nixon began a totally illegal CIA spying campaign against muckraking journalist Jack Anderson. Anderson got wise to it, and fought back with the help of his gaggle of children and assistants. Whenever they caught a goon in sunglasses taking pictures they snapped pictures right back. Anderson planted joke booby traps in his garbage cans to disgust the agents. If he was being tailed, he turned his car around and chased the tailers. On one occasion his kids managed to block off an entire motorcade of agents on their street and then proceeded to take their pictures. Nixon called off the pursuit only when Watergate seized his undivided attention.

Of course, those were the simpler, pre-Internet, pre-terror days. Richard Nixon was booted out of office, but he bequeathed his paranoia to most of his successors. President Obama, well on his way to becoming more Nixonian than Nixon, has the luxury of conducting his own operations behind the craven secrecy of a computer screen. We just never know when his clones are looking over our shoulders. So we might as well make their lives more confused than they already are, and maybe amuse them and ourselves at the same time.

Remember: the reading levels of Americans continue to plummet. Most high schoolers score only at fourth or fifth grade levels. Even the reading proficiency of college graduates rapidly deteriorates in later life, because hardly anyone reads any more.  The government is being very foolish in its systematic destruction of public schools in order to enrich the profiteers of private education. Without an educated surveillance force of the future, pouring billions into imperialism and domestic spying now is just pouring money into an infinite black hole. Even another century of pathological information mining and hoarding will not make a difference if the average spy can only read at a fourth grade level. Algorithms do not translate into human intelligence. Computers can't compensate for epidemic ignorance. OMG, WTF, LOL.

Big Brother's Opulent Resort


Jay - Ottawa said...

So the Security State’s new HAL 900 is overheating, the algorithms can’t separate the wheat from the chaff neatly enough, the spooks are falling behind, and Holder’s directive was put out to let the spy system catch up with its backlog of things to read. Wouldn’t Holder’s fix be about as useful as Churchill asking Hitler in 1939 to hold off with the Luftwaffe’s bombers for a few years until London could better establish its anti-aircraft defenses and Vickers-Armstrong turn out more Spitfires? Will terrorists mark time and hang around until the snoops finish screening the archives?

Years ago Daniel Berrigan wrote an allegory – forgive me if the details escape me now -- about the Pentagon’s deciding to dig a really deep hole for some reason, a hole bigger than any other world-class military power’s hole. The hole got very, very big, so big the digging machinery itself kept slipping down into it, irretrievably. Then, because the hole was so big, it began progressively to pull in everything on its circumference. Pretty soon the whole country was in the hole.

The Security State is a hole, and it’s getting bigger by the day.

Anonymous said...

This is an important post. I recently had a direct experience with a federal background investigation. The sheer stupidity of the process is too much for me to recount at present. Let it be known that the government has clarified any previous uncertainty: Questioning the state, no matter how peacefully, is hazardous to one's health and career. And baby, baby, baby, the irrational authority of the government knows no shame.
On the other hand, "The Front's" Hecky Brown didn't make out so good in his brief act of fealty to corrupt authority. If it's a no-win situation, I'm still glad you and your readers haven't given up, Karen. I haven't either, but it hasn't exactly been painless.

Anne Lavoie said...

Thanks for another great post, Karen! We can always count on you to focus on the really important stuff.

I wonder how the giant new Utah Data Center meshes with the 70 Fusion Centers around the country. Fusion, Fission, whatever - we are definitely heading for a gigantic explosion of information and ultimate system meltdown.

What a blast we can have with word bombs! Figuratively speaking, of course, Hal.

James F Traynor said...

These things are symptoms of an authoritarian or totalitarian mindset. The enemy they fear the most is 'the enemy within'. And the 'enemy within' in the U.S. is becoming those who want national health care, strict preservation of habeas corpus, the right of peaceful assembly and free speech, publicly funded political campaigns, full civil rights for women and gays and so on. 'The enemy within' is becoming us and we damn well better realize it.

The business community, for instance, has developed a crush on China. Formally Communist, China has morphed into a totalitarian form of Capitalism much admired by increasing numbers of capitalists who just love the combination. And part of that is the security state which we are rapidly becoming.

Jay - Ottawa said...

By all means, click on that blued link in Karen's second paragraph: "Utah data mining site." The link takes you to an article, a bit long but well written -- and a tad mind blowing. The massive data-mining site is part of what Americans should regard as the new Manhattan Project, similarly mesmerizing, expensive, toxic and forbidden.

In addition to the fascinating techy stuff (nicely laid open for the layperson) are bits of political commentary from nerds who still own their soul. Here's one startling little paragraph from one of those computer whizzes who have something else to say after counting past ten 'yoddabytes.'

"Sitting in a restaurant not far from NSA headquarters, the place where he spent nearly 40 years of his life, Binney held his thumb and forefinger close together. 'We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state,' he says."

If only the trillions of dollars being poured into this project -- and similar competing endeavors by other advanced countries -- could be redirected to global warming or world poverty. If only.

We live in exciting times AND (I am now holding my thumb and forefinger close together) this far from even more exciting times.

Kat said...

Good grief-- the amount of data described in the Wired article is mind boggling. What I would like to know is what exactly 5 years is going to do? I mean, it is not like there is a moratorium on new data coming in during that period. You're right this is a big money suck. Honestly, after reading the article privacy concerns seem almost secondary. How can that information be of any use?
Better to fight terrorism plots the old fashioned way-- have the FBI create one. The government's pretty good at foiling those.

Denis Neville said...

“Yottabytes and exaflops, septillions and undecillions—the race for computing speed and data storage goes on. In his 1941 story “The Library of Babel,” Jorge Luis Borges imagined a collection of information where the entire world’s knowledge is stored but barely a single word is understood. In Bluffdale the NSA is constructing a library on a scale that even Borges might not have contemplated. And to hear the masters of the agency tell it, it’s only a matter of time until every word is illuminated.” – James Bamford, The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)

And millions of our fellow citizens go blithely along. The terrible truth is that they cannot bear the burden of freedom. They yearn for nothing more than to surrender their frightful freedom to Big Brother, who will care for their bodily needs and relieve them of the spiritual suffering known as the will to choose.
Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor understood how weak and wretched human beings are. “In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, make us your slaves, but feed us.” As did the German nation when it submitted to the Nazis.

“In place of the clear and rigid ancient law, You [oh Lord] made man decide about good and evil for himself, with no other guidance than Your example. But did it never occur to You that man would disregard Your example, even question it, as well as Your truth, when he was subjected to so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?” - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Grand Inquisitor

Fred Drumlevitch said...

Rename your cat "Pentagon", and your dog "NSA", photograph them, and post photos of them, with those names, on public photo-sharing sites. Also modify the photo metadata to show the geographical coordinates of those locations, rather than where they were actually taken. Finally, bury within those photo files via steganography (not to be confused with stenography) a secret message, that, when the NSA decodes it, tells them, among other things, where they can put their unconstitutional democracy-destroying surveillance!

On a more serious note: Always remember that a prime characteristic of totalitarian systems is intimidation, which is particularly relevant during the period that tyranny displaces freedom. Rights unasserted are rights lost. If you wish to keep previous freedoms, the prime defense is to not be intimidated, which includes speaking your mind, loud and clear, no matter what agencies may (or may not) be listening.

Zee said...


“Honestly, after reading the article privacy concerns seem almost secondary. How can that information be of any use?” --Kat

I don't think that any of us knows with any certainty how that information will be used. But my great fear is that it will eventually be used by someone in government for purposes far removed from combatting “terrorism.”

If, as seems to be all the rage today, we go to a “cashless” society, e.g.,

then for all practical purposes our entire lifes' histories will be contained in that Utah storage facility. Maybe for five years, but, more likely, forever.

Heck, for all intents and purposes, we're already a cashless society.

Think about your credit card history and what it can say about you or anyone else. Where you've traveled, how much you drink or smoke, what kinds of materials (newspapers, magazines, books, movies etc. ) you read and watch, what types of food you eat, when—and maybe why—you were treated by a psychiatrist...

And maybe any number of innocent, private little secrets that harm no one but which we'd really prefer were kept private. However, if it involved buying something, those secrets are secret no more.

Earlier in this thread @Anonymous mentioned being involved in a federal background check. By virtue of the work that I did, I was the subject of an initial background check and five “re-investigations” during the course of my career. These were intrusive enough and got more intrusive through the years.

But imagine your friendly neighborhood Office of Personnel Management investigator with access to the NSA data. Punch in a name and social security number, and see what pops up, and, maybe more insidiously, what connections are made by a machine which the imaginative investigator can turn into the “sleeper agent threat of the century.”

Or just any number of little things from the distant past that you thought were private:

OPM investigator: “Hmm, Dr. Zee...I see that you and your wife went to a marriage counselor five years ago for several months. When did you stop beating your wife, anyway?”

OPM investigator: “I see that you visited a psychiatrist concurrent with your counseling sessions. What was that all about?”

OPM investigator: “I see that you made a purchase at Victoria's Secret a couple of weeks ago. Was that for your wife or, since our records indicate that you seem to be unhappy in your marriage, do you have something going on the side that you need to tell me about?”

Even if these questions never get asked directly, imagine the turns the investigation will now take as the investigator mulls them over in his/her mind?

Beyond background checks for security clearances, imagine if the Utah data are eventually consulted for routine government jobs?

And what if some gnome down in the bowels of the Utah data storage facility just gets bored and decides to go fishing for information on random people for personal titillation or maybe blackmail?

Bradley Manning walked out of a secure facility with CDs full of classified data. Why can't the gnome at NSA do the same?

The implications for personal privacy, and the potential for misuse of these data are truly staggering.

Jay - Ottawa said...

Yes, Big Brother is a Big Fat Idiot. Nah-nah-na-nah-nah. I don’t think too much of the likely candidates of the two major parties, either.

On the positive side, I have just become a nominee for a third party candidate. And so can you at

Some of you have toyed with voting for Ron Paul, mainly because he’d put the brakes on the war machine. Former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer is in the lead for those who have registered as delegates to this on-line nomination process. Rocky Anderson, Jon Huntsman, Lawrence Kotlikoff and Bernie Sanders are also in the running on the Americans Elect site.

AE intends to get on the ballot in all states, and whichever candidate wins their in-house, on-line nomination gets his name on all those ballots in all fifty states. Then, in November 2012, every one of us will really and truly be able to vote for the Best of All Candidates, instead of the Lesser of Two Evils. Check it out. Get registered. Nominate now so you can vote Third Party later.

Bridget said...

If you put your efforts into volunteering for good candidates instead of all of this, think what good you could accomplish.

Anonymous said...

Bridget wrote:

"If you put your efforts into volunteering for good candidates instead of all of this, think what good you could accomplish."

I have a couple of questions.

First, what "good candidates" is Bridget talking about? President Drone? Senator Goldman Sachs?

Second, when she writes, "instead of ALL OF THIS" (my emphasis), she implies that conducting the essential role of a good citizen in monitoring the government's increasing lunacy is an act without substance.

Karen, please never listen to the Bridgets of the world. Your voice and your reporting is important, and any person with any sense, whether on the right or the left, would appreciate what you're doing.

Karen Garcia said...

Thank you. Whenever I get a post like Bridget's it only inspires me to write more of "all of this."
See Paul Krugman's blog today on the purposes and power of intimidation. Telling someone to STFU and get with the "program" is often a sign of insecurity and weakness. But as Krugman says, such criticism, vacuous as it is, often does succeed in squelching the public discourse.