Surveillance Weather

Surveillance Weather
(To the tune of “Sweater Weather” by The Neighborhood)

All he is, is a man,
Confidential files in his hands
Took an oath
That he’d stand
By the Constitution and the laws of the land
Hacked the database,
Didn’t leave a trace
Now the whole thing is a federal case.
Trust me, Snowden, you’ll get yours
If you ever set foot on U.S. shores, oh

We know what you think about
And what you talk about
We have eyes all about
Your work, your house
New shirt, new blouse?
Trust us, we’ll find out
Nothing we can’t figure out, no

‘Cause it’s too cold
For him there in Russia
So let us hold
Hold Snowden in a cell down in Gitmo

And it may just take your breath away
We know every single word you say
Our spying doesn’t know constraints
There is no place too far away
Intelligence is a race
Sometimes it’s hard just keeping pace
Monitoring cyberspace
Power is addictive once you get a taste, yeah

The NSA adores
Programs like Carnivore
We know where you have been
You don’t need a Guardian

Talking ‘bout
Email in doubt
Surveillance throughout
You’re safe, without
Honor of a scout!
Nothing else to talk about, no, no, no

‘Cause it’s too cold
For him there in Russia
So let us hold
Hold Snowden in a cell down in Gitmo

Whoa, whoa…
Whoa, whoa… whoa
Whoa, whoa…

‘Cause it’s too cold
For him there in Russia
So let us hold, let us hold…


The Perils of Big Data

WASHINGTON, DC – The NSA announced today that, working in cooperation with several other branches of the Department of Homeland Security, they have managed to identify a massive underground homegrown terrorist organization here in America. This organization has been active for decades, secretly working to recruit and train operatives in survival skills, weapons training, and small unit tactics to some unknown purpose. Speculation has it that high-ranking and long term members of this elite organization have even managed to infiltrate our very government, even to the highest levels. They go by the code name “The Boy Scouts”.

These individuals can be identified by the highly stylized “uniforms” they wear, as well as their ritualistic chants and secret signals. They reward members with recognition for completing missions and earning “merit badges”, as well as attempting to ingratiate themselves into the wider community. Sleeper cells have been found across the United States and even in other countries. Radio and internet chatter has been picked up about some sort of mass gathering code named “Jamboree”.

They support themselves through private high-pressure collections in local areas, taking “donations” and “selling” door to door, an obvious front (because really, who even buys popcorn kernels anymore?) Their primary targets for recruitment are boys between the ages of 13-18, although they are believed to have an affiliate group that targets younger boys, as well as a sister organization that targets females and has a much more successful fundraising operation dealing in highly addictive narcotics.

If approached by one of these “Boy Scouts”, citizens are advised to remain calm and move away slowly. Their primary goal at this time seems to be focused on recruitment of young men, except for homosexuals.

The NSA Knows

The NSA Knows

(Sung to the tune of “Anything Goes” by Cole Porter)

Times have changed,

As I’m sure we can all agree,

Since the Americans rebelled

And they created a country.

If today,

They should list several Rights of Man,

Instead of answering the call,

They would be tossed into the can!


In olden days the Fourth Amendment

Was looked on as something sacred,

But Snowden showed,

The NSA knows.


You thought your email, text and Facebook

Were safe from some spook taking a look.

Under your nose,

The NSA knows.


The world has gone mad today

And good’s bad today,

And black’s white today,

And day’s night today,

When warrants today

Are issued today

By secret courts today

And though I’m not a philosopher

I know that it’s unpopular

When you propose,

The NSA knows.


When grandmama whose age is eighty

In night clubs is getting matey with gigolo’s,

The NSA knows.


When something’s done in South America

Particularly Brazil and Mexico,

The NSA knows.


If driving fast cars you like,

If low bars you like,

If old hymns you like,

If bare limbs you like,

If Mae West you like

Or me undressed you like,

Watch for agents in plainclothes!


Your Google drive

Has tax returns

Or your Flickr account shows your friends in nude photos?

The NSA knows.


If saying your prayers you like,

If green pears you like,

If old chairs you like,

If back stairs you like,

If love affairs you like

With young bears you like,

Watch out for privacy’s foes!


And though I’m not a philosopher

I know that it’s unpopular

And I propose –

The NSA goes!

Take a Bow

It’s been a banner week for the intelligence community. First David Miranda (note the irony in the name) was detained by British police at Heathrow Airport under the aegis of “terrorism”, and then Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in Leavenworth for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks. As if that wasn’t enough, Pfc. Manning then announced that he would be living as a woman named Chelsea and seeking gender reassignment therapy. Oh, and the NSA admitted they maybe, possibly, might have accidentally illegally intercepted up to 56,000 emails from American citizens per year between 2008 and 2011, in “a direct breach of US law and constitution.” But really, that bit’s not important.

So what do all of these things have in common, other than security leaks and embarrassing the United States government? Step back a minute and think about what you really know about these cases. You certainly know the name Bradley/Chelsea Manning. You may know Mr. Miranda and his partner, Glenn Greenwald. No doubt you know the name of Mr. Greenwald’s source, Edward Snowden. But how familiar are you with the substance of the issues they represent? Other than the words “leaked government documents”, “WikiLeaks”, and “NSA”, do you really know anything?

Probably not. And that’s just how the government wants it.

You may be familiar with the phrase “security theater”. It’s most often used to describe the TSA, one of the greatest examples of security theater of all time. The purpose of security theater is a feel good measure, the political class’ response to the general outcry to “do something!” Unfortunately while the TSA might be compared to stand-up comedians, there’s another kind of performer who shows up in theaters that most folks have forgotten about: magicians.

The greatest, arguably the only, trick in the magician’s bag is misdirection. When the trick is going on here, he convinces you to look there. There are countless ways to accomplish it, from the simple to the insane, and a great magician knows them all. So while we’re all looking over there at Edward Snowden touring around Russia, what are we not paying attention to? As we enjoy the media salivating over Chelsea Manning’s fight for the right to gender reassignment surgery, what aren’t we being bothered by? Even something as potentially unnerving as Mr. Miranda being detained can be forgotten in the space of a news cycle, but so can a report about illegal activity at the NSA. After all, that’s so two years ago.

The truth is we’re being sold personalities instead of facts. I’m not saying I’m for or against what Manning did, nor am I trying to justify the actions that Snowden took. In order to even have that conversation we would need to have a full grasp of what happened, and the cloak of secrecy that keeps being drawn over the events surrounding their actions in the name of “national security” is growing thinner by the day. But that’s okay, because the show goes on, and the audience is getting all the entertainment they need.

So please, all those in Washington who have the power to actually do something about this: take a bow.

No Secrets Allowed

It’s been all over the news, and it keeps popping up. It certainly seems to be President Obama’s latest headache, and I would argue for good reason: it seems the NSA, despite agency head Gen. Keith Alexander’s protests to the contrary, has been spying on the American people. Oopsie. At the risk of sounding like one of those crazy, far-out there civil libertarians, I have to ask, did anybody not see this coming, for sheer irony if nothing else?

This follows so closely on the heels of other revelations of domestic spying by our own government that even the New York Times has started to call out the Obama administration. While it’s nice to see that there’s something besides the Justice Department seizing phone records that can ruffle the media, it’s almost gilding the lily at this point. If things follow their usual pattern, there will be an outcry, perhaps even a Congressional investigation which will bog down in cheap political point scoring, and both Republicans and Democrats will focus on getting the upper hand in the next election. It almost feels like déjà vu all over again.

Now it’s well known among magicians that the worst thing you can do in front of an audience is to make a big deal about how unremarkable an object is. “Just an average, every day, perfectly normal handkerchief, nothing unusual or exceptional about it.” This draws suspicion, makes people wonder what’s going on here, there must be something hinkey. This goes to President Obama’s insistence that “Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.” (I have to believe he’s regretting that particular turn of phrase right about now, considering how often it’s been thrown back at him by now.)

The problem is with each new revelation those voices that warn of tyranny sound just a little more like they might be on to something, and I think it’s important to focus on another part of that passage as well: “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems.” Note that’s not one specific administration, one particular party, or one named ideology. The current problems began under the Bush administration, or (arguably) even further back. Government writ large, as an entity, is what the warning cry is against. It is Leviathan the voices cry against, the absolute power that Lord Acton warned corrupts absolutely.

The primary purpose of power, before any other, is to aggregate unto itself more power. That power does not then exist simply to exist – it exists to be used. The more people demand security the more security theater we’ll get, but in addition the more (quietly, behind the scenes, when we’re not looking) we’re going to get the things we didn’t want. Will they ultimately make us safer? Marginally, perhaps. But at what cost?

And if anyone ever says “security at any cost”, think very long and hard about the Faustian bargain they’re proposing. There are times in our recent history (for example the 1950s and the McCarthy hearings as well as the Japanese internment during WWII) when we have pursued “security at any cost”, and it is all too easy to see that we are headed down that road again. With very little effort any person of imagination can conjure scenarios of costs that vastly outweigh the benefits that might accrue, even if we were willing to set aside the cherished institutions and beliefs of our country.

Even those without imagination can conjure a vision of what “security at any cost” would look like, and what the down payment would be. All they have to do is watch the news.