About two and a half years ago I posted on the danger of the US turning into a tech pariah over its data collection policies. At the time I thought the main sticking points would be foreign governments’ concerns about their own confidential data being sent abroad, and objections to privacy violations that American companies’ indiscriminate collection practices (e.g. Google Street View) would subject their citizens to.
I was wrong about that issue being a simmering pot getting ready to boil. It just sort of stayed on the back burner, which I still find somewhat surprising. There has been pretty compelling evidence since as least 2006 that US tech companies have been allowing the government to indiscriminately suck up Internet traffic. Though the Wired article characterizes it as being in the service of a domestic surveillance program, it seems clear that the program would not exclude foreign traffic.
Maybe it was an out of sight, out of mind situation; maybe foreign governments weren’t willing to confront the US as long as their own citizens were in the dark; who knows. For whatever reason, the merger of American IT companies’ data and the US government’s surveillance apparatus didn’t seem to trouble anyone too terribly much - until Edward Snowden came along.
The details from his leaks have stirred up serious worries outside the States. The main source of concern (and I feel like an idiot for not anticipating this) is the implication for the business community. Individuals having their data collected and shared without their consent are still pretty much on their own. But companies that are purchasing remote storage - also known as The Cloud and Big Data - in the US do not have to simply resign themselves to having the National Security Agency blind carbon copied on anything they put there.
There is already evidence that purchasing decisions are changing based on this; for just one eye-popping example (emph. in orig.):
In a survey conducted after the Snowden leaks, 10% of the foreign companies using cloud computing services said they’d already cancelled a project with a US cloud provider and 56% said they’d be less likely to use US-based providers.Those providers are over a barrel now. They can’t just give earnest assurances that they really value their customers’ privacy and work super hard to keep it protected. Everyone knows the US government is pretty much destined to end up with any data that gets stored on American soil. The spying capability has been getting baked into domestic infrastructure for years now, probably to the point that there are more back doors than anyone can even keep track of.
There isn’t really any easy way out, either. An injury that long in the making will take a long time to rehabilitate. One action that might help would be increased Congressional oversight of the NSA, which could help explain why the recent bill reining in the NSA lost by such a surprisingly thin margin. (It would also be a cynically appropriate parallel with Europe: Violation of citizens’ rights are yawned at, but threats to corporate profitability get immediate action.)
The one thing these companies have going for them is a lack of ready competition. I’ll double down on my 2011 prediction that other countries will start to prioritize server farms located on their own soil. It may now start to be seen as a matter of each country’s national security to have its most important data confined within its borders. Until that infrastructure is built, though, American companies have some time to repair their reputations.
While storage providers have gotten the most attention on this issue, there may be an impact on device makers as well. A pecking order could develop based on how tightly integrated they are with US tech. At the bottom would be those like Apple based in America and running American operating systems. Next would be foreign device makers like Samsung, HTC and Nokia that run American operating systems like Windows 8 and Android. Then at the top, funny enough given their dismal market share, would be non-American companies running non-American operating systems. In other words, a company like BlackBerry that has a good (but not bulletproof) reputation for security might be well positioned to thrive in an environment that suddenly undergoes a seismic shift.
Predictions are dicey, obviously. But regardless of what happens going forward, American tech companies are suddenly in a real jam. There’s no easy way out of it either, because outside the US there is openness to alternatives that would have been hard to imagine not too long ago.
Activists across Ohio are preparing for a weekend of activities in the northeast part of the state. On Saturday and Sunday, July 27th and 28th, at the First Congregational Church in Ravenna, there will be two days of trainings designed to give us the tools we can use to build a powerful movement that will achieve our right to clean air and water and democracy. At the “Don’t Frack Ohio 2” Rally in Warren on July 29th we will tell our policymakers that we do not want to be a fracking wasteland. Music and info at 11:30 and the rally starts at 1:30 at the Trumbull County Courthouse in Warren.
The post below was originally submitted as a letter to the editor of the Record-Courier.
In January of this year a drilling operation in St. Marys Township (Auglaize County) suffered a significant spill. The county’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA) director, Troy Anderson, was unable to obtain any information about it. No one from the agency knew what was in the spill, its volume, or any other basic information required to safely clean it up.
Anderson had this to say about his agency’s inability to assess the damage: “EMA has no paperwork on this, and we should have had. This is no different than a factory…we should have a list of any hazardous conditions at the site, a drawing, how it operates and who to call in an emergency.” But unlike the spill, his not knowing what was happening was no accident.
The federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986 established basic hazardous chemical inventory reporting, and in 1988 Ohio passed a more stringent law (now in chapter 3750 of the Ohio Revised Code). Unfortunately, in 2001 Ohio House Bill 94 (HB 94) opened up a loophole stating that companies which have filed well log and annual production statements to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) have satisfied the inventory reporting requirement.
The spill at St. Marys shows how problematic that loophole is in the real world. Instead of having hard copies available in case of emergency, counties are expected to cobble together their own hazardous chemical inventories for each operation based on much more general production reports and logs. If for some reason they don’t have even that skimpier information at the time of an emergency, their only recourse is to navigate the ODNR website trying to track it down. In practice emergency planners and first responders are essentially blind when confronted with an actual spill.
Last year Ohio’s Senate Bill 315 (SB 315) put communities even further in the dark by making it more difficult for doctors and nurses to obtain chemical information in an emergency, and also by placing a gag order on them prohibiting them from disclosing those chemicals. So even if medical personnel responding to a chemical contamination know exactly what has spilled, and what danger it poses to the wider community, they are prohibited from letting anyone know.
The oil and gas industry claims a trade secret exemption for the gag rule, saying that their proprietary formulas need to be protected. Spokespeople often compare their trade secrets to that of popular colas, but no one ever had to be evacuated from a Pepsi spill. These toxic cocktails pose a real risk to the communities where they are used. Neighborhoods that might bear the brunt of those hazards have a more urgent claim on knowing the composition of those fluids than the companies have in keeping the formula from competitors and maximizing profits.
In response to the spill at St. Marys the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruled that HB 94 violated the EPCRA. If HB 94 violates federal law then SB 315 would seem to be untenable as well. If, as the Record-Courier editorialized Tuesday, Portage County is indeed going to become Ohio’s fracking dump, then we need to take a hard look at what the consequences of sweetheart legislation and industry-friendly regulation might be for us.
The spill at St. Marys shows just how weakened emergency preparedness has become in Ohio, and that weakness is by design. It’s time to change the design. Substantial reform or outright repeal of HB 94 and SB 315 needs to be one of the most pressing tasks of our elected representatives.
One of the interesting wrinkles of journalism in the online age is the ease of accessing archives. It used to be that back issues were at best scanned to microfiche and stored in some musty, stale vault somewhere. Now, though, anyone with an Internet connection can get to them.
This is not exactly an original observation, but there is an implication to it that doesn’t seem to have been discussed very much: News sites can, if they want, issue corrections long after publication. Back when everything was a mass produced hard copy, something that went out wrong was staying wrong forever. A correction could be run in a subsequent edition, but the mistakes that had been printed and shipped were out there for good. There’s a certain messiness implied in that, and I think everyone from publishers to readers made allowance for it.
While that dynamic remains for physical editions, the online counterpart of a story is printed in exactly one place - and updates to it are effective immediately. News organizations can (and do) make revisions to electronic versions fairly quickly. From my own observation though, they seem to make corrections using the same model as print: when errors surface fairly quickly.
Once a week or so passes, the chances of a correction being run appear to be very small; after about a month almost zero. On the face of it that’s understandable. A news organization could devote all its resources to correcting every last little thing brought to its attention, no matter how far back. Going down that rabbit hole would be crazy.
On the other hand, the ease of retrieving and correcting Web pages makes them something other than the “first rough draft of history.” They aren’t (or don’t have to be) fleeting, indelible first impressions. For issues of great and ongoing importance, a newspaper’s site can - and maybe should - reflect changes to the story as it evolves. Subsequent drafts of history can easily be incorporated. Not only would that reflect a decent journalistic ethic of getting things right, it would also be a service to readers who take the time to research these newly liberated archives.
All this began to rattle around my brain as I’ve been making my way through Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill. He extensively covers our secret war against Yemen (which passes the ongoing relevance test), and chapter 32 covers a particularly horrific episode.
On December 17, 2009 the village al Majalah was bombed, killing dozens of people. Scahill notes how the New York Times reported incorrectly on the bombing, often by relying on anonymous quotes. The Yemeni government claimed credit for the attack, and the Times reported that Yemen’s forces had (among other targets) “struck militant bases in Abyan, a lawless area in the south of the country.”
The next day the paper ran an article that consisted almost entirely of unsourced and unverified allegations. In less than 400 words it refers to generic officials four times; American officials twice; Pentagon, military and intelligence officials; officials in Washington; administration officials; and Yemeni officials. And it has precisely one named source: Bryan G. Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. There is literally a 10:1 ratio of anonymous to on the record sourcing.
A week and a half later the story was still roughly the same: “Yemen escalated its campaign against Al Qaeda with major airstrikes on Dec. 17 and last Thursday that killed more than 60 militants. American officials have been coy about the role of the United States in the strikes, saying that they have provided intelligence and ‘firepower’ for the efforts.” In early January the Times still reported it was a Yemeni operation, but now noted many innocents were killed in addition to (or instead of) the 34 militants reported the prior month:
Yemeni officials, in two major strikes against Qaeda targets in December, first said that they had killed Mr. Awlaki, but he later spoke to Mr. Shaea to prove that he was alive, as other key leaders seem to be. But dozens of Qaeda family members and local residents were killed, increasing antigovernment sentiment.1Then in August the paper quoted an anonymous (natch) Yemeni official reporting no militants and forty four civilians killed in the attack, now attributed to cluster bombs launched by an offshore Navy ship.
So in just under eight months the story from the paper went, with no explanation, from a Yemeni air and ground attack that killed 34 militants2 to an American cluster bomb that killed dozens of civilians (which, in the Times’ sedate language, increased antigovernment sentiment). Yet the original articles do not reflect that jarring reversal - as of this writing they remain uncorrected, available to misinform those who come across them.
It would be nice to know how the story traveled so far so quickly, or at least that it had. Maybe some of the many anonymous sources who got the story wrong could be named in an update as well. Unlike a generation ago, articles that are a few years old are not destined to be interred in some journalistic catacomb to only rarely be visited by the odd archaeologist. Books and other projects with broader scope, produced over months or years, will continue to drive traffic to them.
Readers may not take those stories to be an initial snapshot of the event but a living document; not a first draft but a primary source. Accuracy should matter not just on initial publication but after it as well. Perhaps for a handful of the biggest issues, newspapers could spare some resources to make sure their electronic reporting reflects the truth as our understanding of it changes.
1. The wording here is really awkward: “Yemeni officials, in two major strikes against Qaeda targets in December, first said that they had killed Mr. Awlaki, but he later spoke” etc. The “two major strikes” part doesn’t assign responsibility for either strike. Mentioning Yemeni officials first would seem to lead the casual reader to the conclusion that it was a Yemeni operation, though.
2. News stories that present a version of events without challenge are functionally endorsing that narrative. The initial report that the attack “kill[ed] at least 34 militants in the broadest attack on the terrorist group here in years, Yemeni officials said.” With no counter claim about who was killed, the Times is implicitly crediting that version. Also, there is something more authoritative about printing the allegation first and the attribution second: The attack killed 34 militants, officials said. And your mother is a cheap slut, an insider added.
Two recent stories have made for an interesting juxtaposition. First, the map of America’s intelligence underworld had some important contours filled in last Sunday with the New York Times’ report on the secret body of law that it called “almost a parallel Supreme Court.” Then on Wednesday a Quinnipiac poll showed a substantial increase in support of civil liberties. Taken together they might suggest a new dynamic in how the federal government relates to Americans on these issues.
Government has historically had free rein based on a general public ignorance of the policies; it looks like going forward those policies will exist in a cloud of popular disapproval. Such opposition puts the continued presence of the surveillance state in a new light: Following the Constitution on civil liberties and human rights has to this point basically been on the honor system. We don’t have any mechanism that springs to life when there are credible allegations of wrongdoing in these areas; it’s up to the leaders in the relevant institutions to have the will to follow through on their obligations. They will not face any sanction if they fail to, though.
For instance, look at the Convention Against Torture. Congress passed it, Ronald Reagan signed it, and under the Constitution it is the law of the land. Yet there have been credible allegations of torture for at least a decade now. No action has been taken. We like to pretend the Constitution has some sort of compulsion or force to it, but in the end it is only relevant to the extent it is willingly followed. Ultimately, all that matters is what those sworn to defending the Constitution decide to enforce. If officials responsible for investigating torture don’t feel like investigating torture, it won’t be - Constitution be damned.
Violations of civil liberties have been a little trickier for the federal government to dismiss, but so far so good. We now have an established precedent that those who are unjustly spied on cannot show standing to sue - even when they can. That technicality disposed of, the NSA and other intelligence agencies have carte blanche to snoop to their hearts’ content.
Now that its scope is becoming clearer, though, public opinion is turning pretty decisively against it. That is not necessarily a problem for the government. As with torture, it is largely on the honor system. The visible legal system has established its Helleresque logic of no one having any standing, the shadow legal system has its rubber stamp pretty much set up for drive-thru approval, and a whole infrastructure is in place according to a novel understanding of what law is. (We’ve come a long way from the “tricky legalisms adopted in classified memos” that Jane Mayer wrote about in The Dark Side.)
This is the age of impunity. If you manage to get to a certain critical level of importance, you are above the law. It’s true in the political world, as with torture and spying, and it’s true in the financial world as well. In the late eighties, the Savings and Loan crisis - which was of a far smaller scale than the 2008 meltdown - produced 1,100 criminal prosecutions and 839 convictions. Yet the most recent crisis produced zero of either. (And incidentally, as we approach the five year anniversary of the meltdown in October, keep in mind that statutes of limitations on what happened will begin to expire.)
Officials have not had to follow much more than their own moral compass in any of these matters. It isn’t as though anyone in Congress will go to jail for failing to provide robust oversight. And it’s not as though that body’s approval rating could go much lower. What’s one more failure at this point?
But the creation of a shadow government is not going over well, and that widespread public disapproval is a new complication. Many were initially cowed with ticking time bomb scenarios and other fearmongering into acquiescing to an awful lot immediately after 9/11. The populace seems to be getting its bearings back, though.
Leaders could just say damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead - and that is probably the most likely outcome at the moment. In which case, we will have begun something of an experiment: seeing just how contemptuous of the citizenry elected officials can be (and how corrosively cynical citizens can in turn become towards those representatives) and still retain the consent of the governed.