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I read that Apple and Google have begun encrypting the data of customers so that nobody, including Apple and Google, have plaintext access to it. This of course means “so that the government will not have access to it.” The FBI is terribly upset about this, the first serious resistance against onrushing Orwellianism. God bless Apple and Google. But will they be able to stand up to the feds?

Here is a curious situation indeed. The government has become our enemy, out of control, and we have to depend on computer companies for any safety we may have.

NSA spies on us illegally and in detail, recording telephone conversations, reading email, recording our financial transactions, on and on. TSA makes air travel a nightmare, forcing us to hop about barefoot and confiscating toothpaste. The police kick in our doors at night on no-knock raids and shoot our dogs. In bus stations we are subject to search without probable cause. The feds track us through our cell phones. Laws make it a crime to photograph the police, an out-and-out totalitarian step: Cockroaches do not like light. The feds give police forces across the country weaponry normal to militaries. Whatever the intention, it is the hardware of control of dissent. Think Tian An Men Square in China.

And we have no recourse. If you resist, you go to jail, maybe not for long, not yet anyway, but jail is jail. Object to TSA and you miss your flight. They know it and use it. The courts do nothing about this. They too are feds.

Fools say, “If you are not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.” This might be true, or partly true, or sometimes true, or occasionally plausible, if government were benevolent. It isn’t.

The feds—whatever the intention of individuals—are setting up the machinery of a totalitarianism beyond anything yet known on the earth. It falls rapidly into place. You can argue, if you are optimistic enough to make Pollyanna look like a Schopenhaurian gloom-monger, that they would never use such powers. They already do. The only question is how far they will push. What cannot be argued is that they have the powers

Which means that if they decide in a few years, or tomorrow, to crack down on “hate speech,” and then on speech that they say they think might suggest terroristic links, and then on anti-American speech as defined by them (does anyone remember HUAC?), they will have the tools.

The mere knowledge that one is watched, or may be being watches, is enough to subvert political freedom. Already journalists have to assume that their communications are intercepted, and sources, assuming the same thing, stop being sources.

We are in the cross-hairs and what happens in the next very few years will determine in what direction we go. And when we have to depend on commercial companies like Apple and Google to protect us from our government, things are bad.

The FBI wants a “back door” in the encryption used by our telephones, so that it can spy on us—for our own good, you see, for our own good. Uh-huh. Of course if the government has a back door, others can find it.

The crucial question: Do we have more to fear from largely imaginary terrorists, or from the FBI? Your chances of being killed by terrorists are essentially zero, even if you live in Washington or New York, and far less if you live in Memphis or Raleigh-Durham. (To express this we need the concept of negative zero, which I hearwith offer to the mathmatical community.) Your chances of living in an electronically locked-down police state are very high. This is far more dangerous to what the United States was than even a successful bombing of a mall.

What goes through the minds of those who are doing this to us? In my former guise as a police reporter I knew a few FBI types. They were pathologically normal, smelled of too much soap and wholesomeness, resembled armed accountants with the other-worldly assurance of scientologists. They were deeply convinced that they were the Angels Gabriel protecting us from whatever, including ourselves—and they were as intellectual as colonels, which is to say as intellectual as fire plugs. In particular, they did not think in terms of constitutional liberties. Since their intentions were good, they figured that nobody should interfere with them. And they were on a power trip, as we used to say.

Not good.

Those at the policy level are another thing. Many are intelligent, some extremely so. They understand not just the laws, but law. Many have educations of the first quality. Harvard was not always a prep school for I-banking. They are familiar with history, understand the philosophy of constitutional government, and understand the consequences of our current direction. They know what they are doing. And keep doing it.

Why? Partly because they are screened to be as they are. Just as the military attracts highly aggressive men, who then want a war in which to use their training (would Tiger Woods practice his golf swing for a lifetime without wanting to be in a tournament?) politics attracts and favors the unprincipled and manipulative. It is a playground for psychopaths, for the charmingly conscienceless, for the utterly self-concerned. These now rule us.


This is obvious. Yet in the past there were sometimes men who understood that, to maintain a constitutional democracy, you have to pay the price of allowing freedom. They, and the courts, actually defended the right of people to say things that the government and its client groups did not like. They saw the danger of trying to control every aspect of everyone’s life. Today? Neither the courts, nor the Supreme Court, nor the President, nor the Congress, nor the military, nor the intelligence agencies shows any sign of wanting to rein in the abuses. It’s Apple and Google or nothing, and the government will threaten them with everything short of beheading. Maybe short of beheading.

For an expert, readable, and non-technical explanation of just how secure your data aren’t, read The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security. For the best (so far as I know) but fairly technical website on computer security, Schneir on Security and subscribe, for free, to his Crypto-Gram.

(Republished from Fred on Everything by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Government Surveillance 
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  1. “The government has become our enemy, out of control, and we have to depend on computer companies for any safety we may have.”

    Your pep talks suck.

  2. We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission.
    Ayn Rand

  3. Sunbeam says:

    Yeah, but why now? What changed so that things like this were deemed necessary?

    This thing has been done in other countries over the centuries, even in eras without advanced technology.

    And we had things a lot more potentially dangerous in the past than “terrorists” or militant Islam to deal with.

    So why exactly? Is it because the people became self-absorbed and total slackers? Is that the only reason?

    This sort of thing could have been plausibly rolled out in the 50’s or a few earlier eras.

    I don’t doubt the things Fred mentions, but something is really wonky about why anyone wants to do this now as opposed to a past era.

  4. Well said. About some very bad things, but well said.

  5. Why happening now? I’d say, not so many bothered these days by what used to be called conscience. Something even a few of the fireplugs used to have.

  6. The weirdest part is that while this evolution towards a police state is obvious there is very little outrage.
    Silicon Valley leaders are strongly influenced by californian counter-culture, so unsurprisingly they are the only influential group that still opposes the increased surveillance. Tech companies from outside SV, like Microsoft, gladly cooperate with Big Brother.

  7. Fred,

    Don’t forget the IRS. The intelligence agencies can monitor a great deal of information, but kicking in the doors of the upper middle class and wealthy has its PR risks. But an IRS audit is a very effective, low key way of pushing people around.

    No one really knows all of the tax code. And even if they did, a lot of it is subject to interpretation. Perfect for pushing people around. You can’t defend yourself if the rules aren’t clear. Granted, an audit isn’t as scary as some FBI agent holding a gun on you, but for keeping the vast majority of middle class types in line, it’s just as effective.

    When I read books set in the U.S. before around 1965 (I was born in 1970), it’s like reading about another country – a country I would have really enjoyed living in. The mental freedom that they enjoyed is astonishing to someone raised since then. The straight-forward thinking of people seems almost impossible to believe compared to the tortured, contradictory mental gymnastics that today’s society requires.

    While we, of course, enjoy a material well-being beyond imagination to people living under Communist rule, I feel that we live under more psychological oppression than they did. The vast majority of people living in communist countries didn’t believe the bullshit party line, and, to some degree, the party didn’t expect them to fully believe. The party just expected them to proclaim it in public. We are expected to believe the PC party line in our hearts. And, sadly, many, if not most, do.

    Trust me. When I make Sailer-like comments at various get-togethers, I don’t get quick nods and winks of agreement. I get looks of horror, anger and, interestingly, fear. And, by God, someone always brings up their smart (well, not stupid) black friend from high school or college to prove what an idiot I am. (Sadly, their smart black friend never explained to them what “on average” means.) There’s no wellspring of discontentment among the upper middle class that I see. Their isolation – and belief that it will continue – allows them to avoid crimethink.

    And that’s why I look to the past with such envy. Yea, they had less stuff – a lot less stuff – but man were they free.

    • Replies: @Reg Cæsar
  8. means nothing. If they, the government, want to find you and read your stuff, they will.

  9. Nic108 says:

    Great piece, Fred. That’s the libertarian contrarian I’ve known and read for 15 years.

  10. “So why exactly? Is it because the people became self-absorbed and total slackers?”

    It’s not the slackers doing it, and it doesn’t require surveillance to be self-absorbed.

    See The Lives of Others.

    There was a time when the culture, at least among the classes that have now created the surveillance state, was widely confessional – people maintained a regular practice, in themselves and their communities, of searching their own souls for the flaws they now seek out in others. This was sometimes done poorly, and to cure/prevent the neuroses that resulted it was widely decided to abandon the practice altogether.

    There have been unintended consequences…

  11. Mike says:

    “We are in the cross-hairs.” What do you mean, “we”, Mr. Reed?
    Judging by your recent columns, I thought you had become a Mexican.

  12. Mike says:

    Edward Snowden is not given any credit for telling the truth in this article. And General James Clapper is not given credit for his lies. The liar stays in power – the truth teller is a fugitive.

    Why are so many of these internal spymasters – generals? How much power do they have? Shouldn’t we really be worried about them spying on congress and the administration?

    J Edgar Hoover spied on Washington and stayed in power – are the Clapper types doing the same? Is that the source of their power?

    Hmm – It seems that the NSA and AIPAC have the same agenda?

  13. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    It’s a shell game by oogle.mail and grapple app. The stuff on your handest will be encrypted … but all the stuff in their cloud storage will not be. Oogling will continue … some poor fools will hand over ALL their data to the commodifiers and become Soylent Green at the Oogleplex with a smile on their faces.

    If Oogle were on your side they’d provide end-to-end encryption on your email and on all your data in their filthy hands. But they read it all and sell your profile to the highest bidder … and if they don’t like the way you hold your mouth they turn you in to the feds for some ‘crime’ abstracted from a selection of the totality of your data.

    Yeah, the government’s out of control … but its out of our control, not the control of the TNCs, not out of Oogle/Grapple control. The government is the faithful servant of its owners.

  14. By law, feds are forbidden from keeping a gunowner database, a law which stands regardless of many liberal attempts to breech it. But consider: All the feds have to do is run a program of phone calls and e-mailers to gun shops, firing ranges, large mail-order gun part and accessory outfits (Brownell’s, Midway USA), ammunition outlets and seven seconds later they have the name and address of 99.99 per cent of America’s gun owners–or at least, all the innocent ones. Knock knock, anybody home?

    • Replies: @NOTA
  15. slumlord says:

    Sorry, but the problem here is democracy.

    The erosion of civil liberties is consequential to the bovine public’s desire for safety and they’re more than willing to trade their liberty for it.

    Stop for a moment and think about it.

    Most people would rather have their phones monitored than suffer the risk that their kids may be blown up by a bomb. It’s the same logic which American’s have used to justify torture, a practice which was previously considered barbaric.

    Part of the justification in the great expansion of surveillance post Sept 11 was in order to prevent another attack from happening. People wanted to know why it wasn’t stopped beforehand.

    I wouldn’t be blaming the politicians for this, they are a second order phenomenon. In a democracy, the politicians are a product of the people.

  16. Guardian says:

    Mr. Reed’s other columns have often focused on the end of uniform, accepted, and widely embraced American cultural norms. These shared values allowed the creation of a high-trust culture. The ending of that culture means that we have to be controlled for our own good. Would you trust yourself, or your neighbors to do the right thing, or even the somewhat right thing? Of course not. We deserve to be spied upon, harassed, and policed by quasi-military forces.

    More to the point, as America becomes more multi-cultural, we must also become less tolerant, more suspicious, and resort to more invasive controls to achieve any sense of public order. Public order can be achieved voluntarily through self-policing (requiring conditions of high trust), or can be achieved externally through leviathan. Those not in favor of public order should spend time in nations without much public order.

    Libertarians like to pretend that there is some freedom to be achieved – however, all humans, at all times, are slaves, either to their passions, or to other humans with more power. It is a rare time in history, and it did happen in the United States, when people accepted that their freedoms came with a great many moral (Protestant and Christian – mostly) obligations. These obligations having been abandoned, we must still be ordered about – this time externally by the government, rather than internally by the dictates of our conscience.

    Every day that I see American police outfitted as riot troops, I welcome the future.

  17. @Citizen of a Silly Country

    When I read books set in the U.S. before around 1965 (I was born in 1970), it’s like reading about another country – a country I would have really enjoyed living in.

    With few exceptions, the voters of November 1964 were born before November 1943. The underlying question that year was “benefits or freedom?”, and freedom lost big. (Bet you can’t name a single county where Goldwater surpassed FDR’s share just 20 years earlier.)

    Those enjoying that freedom were the ones who sold it out.

    Yea, they had less stuff – a lot less stuff – but man were they free.

    And boy, did they want more. Stuff, that is, not freedom.

    Brokaw’s “greatest generation”.

  18. sean says:

    Maybe we should all tuck tale and flee to Mexico.

  19. @Reg Cæsar

    Agreed. My comment wasn’t intended as a homage to the “Greatest Generation.” They screwed us over. I was simply commenting on the lack of self-censorship you find in the characters thinking in books. The ability to notice things and not feel guilty or worried about putting the dots together in their heads. Women are different than men. Blacks different from whites. Etc.

  20. NOTA says:
    @Otto the P

    And if they were to violate that restriction and keep those records, there would be absolutely no consequences and only the whistleblower who leaked the records’ existence would go to jail, so you can totally 100% trust that those records don’t exist.

  21. NOTA says:

    It’s interesting to ask why there isn’t more public outrage. Partly, I think it’s the propaganda function of the respectable media. The talking heads shows kind-of model the acceptable outrage, and they get a lot more outraged over some useless shock jock calling a bunch of baketball players nappy-headed hos than about the NSA spying on everyone or the CIA kidnapping and torturing random foreigners. One result is that most people never hear anyone coherently outraged about this stuff, and so most people don’t expect anyone else to be outraged.

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