Kevin Drum - June 2013

Friday Cat Blogging - 7 June 2013

| Fri Jun. 7, 2013 11:42 AM PDT

This has been a dispiriting week on a bunch of levels. I'm not sure what else to say about it. So here's a soothing sort of catblogging photo to make up for it. The weather is nice, our garden is in full bloom, and this week Domino was outside enjoying it. Maybe we should all do the same this weekend.

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Obama is Bad on Civil Liberties, But That Shouldn't Surprise Anyone

| Fri Jun. 7, 2013 11:09 AM PDT

I turned on Fox for a few minutes and heard Megyn Kelly talking to someone who claimed that Democrats would all abandon President Obama en masse over the latest leaks about NSA spying. Maybe so. But I'm curious about something: Is anyone really surprised by the recent revelations of NSA surveillance programs? Actually, let me rephrase that. You might be surprised to learn about details of the programs themselves, but are you surprised to hear that Obama approved them?

I can't figure out why anyone would be. Obama voted for the 2008 FISA amendments, a position that outraged liberals at the time. He continued the Bush-era surveillance of communications networks. He ramped up the war in Afghanistan. He vastly increased drone use overseas. He's declared a war on leakers. He participated in the assault on Libya. He's approved the assassination of American citizens abroad. His DOJ has aggressively made use of the state secrets privilege. He's fought relentlessly to block lawsuits challenging privacy violations and presidential abuses.

Basically, Obama's record on national security and civil liberties issues has been crystal clear for a long time: He falls squarely into the mainstream of the elite, bipartisan, Beltway consensus on this stuff. He always has, just like every president before him. This isn't the fourth term of the George Bush presidency, as so many people like to put it, but more like the 16th term of the Eisenhower presidency.

Will the public finally rebel after learning about the latest way their government is keeping tabs on them? I doubt it. As near as I can tell, most of the public is willing to sell their innermost secrets for a free iTunes coupon. Until we figure out a way to change that, none of this stuff is going to stop.

UPDATE: At the same time, maybe we should still be surprised to hear Obama say something like this:

But I know that the people who are involved in these programs... They're professionals. In the abstract you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, I think we've struck the right balance.

Sure. And it's possible, even likely, that these professionals aren't abusing the data they've collected. Not yet, anyway. But does Obama really think that a government that collects this kind of stuff won't abuse it eventually? That's vanishingly unlikely.

What Does PRISM Do? How Does It Work?

| Fri Jun. 7, 2013 9:31 AM PDT

What, precisely, does the PRISM program do? The Guardian described it as providing "direct access" to corporate servers owned by the likes of Google and Microsoft, and I was puzzled about exactly what that meant. From a technical perspective, I didn't understand what this entailed. Some kind of remote superuser access? Taps on incoming and outgoing communications links? Software agents installed on company servers? Or what? It's especially peculiar because most of the companies involved have now issued seemingly unequivocal denials that they allow NSA any kind of access at all without a firm legal basis.

Well, the Washington Post updated its story this morning and added this paragraph:

It is possible that the conflict between the PRISM slides and the company spokesmen is the result of imprecision on the part of the NSA author. In another classified report obtained by The Post, the arrangement is described as allowing “collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,” rather than directly to company servers.

Does this help? It doesn't help me much, but maybe it means something to someone with the right background. Anyone care to weigh in?

Also: Britain apparently has access to the PRISM program too, which allows their spy agency "to circumvent the formal legal process required in Britain to seek personal material such as emails, photos and videos from an internet company based outside of the country."

"Horror at Their Capabilities" Drove Leak of NSA Spying Program

| Fri Jun. 7, 2013 9:00 AM PDT

Dan Drezner is curious about why we're suddenly getting a bunch of leaks about U.S. surveillance programs. As it happens, the Washington Post explained in the very last paragraph of its story about the PRISM program:

Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.

Is this the same source who was responsible for the story about NSA's surveillance of phone records? That's not clear—though if the sources are different it's a helluva coincidence.

In any case, this got buried at the end of my blog post about PRISM, and I thought it deserved a bit more play. So now you know part of the story, anyway.

Crappy Graphics Are a Sign That NSA Is Focusing on Its Core Mission

| Fri Jun. 7, 2013 8:48 AM PDT

Matt Yglesias is upset about the quality of the intel community's PowerPoint skills:

I don't have much to say about the substance, but note that nothing from America's national security agencies seems to get published without some incredibly lame infographic....There are obviously bigger policy issues in play, but I have to say that I think well-run organizations wouldn't rely on this kind of garbage in their internal presentations.

I'm on the opposite side: I'm perfectly happy that America's spy agencies aren't wasting their time polishing their graphical skills. If they haven't been to Edward Tufte's latest gabfest on chart junk, that's fine with me. People worry about this stuff too much. Who cares if managers in both the private and public sectors are enamored of crappy-looking infographics and PowerPoint decks? Pretty much no one except us tech-savvy journalistic types, who traffic in charts and images for public consumption because it's part of our jobs and we know our peers will mock us if we produce 90s-era craptacular graphics. That's fine for us, but we should leave the rest of the world alone on this.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in May

| Fri Jun. 7, 2013 8:12 AM PDT

The American economy added 175,000 new jobs last month, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 85,000. That's about the same as last month: OK, but not great. The headline unemployment number increased from 7.5 percent to 7.6 percent (actually from 7.51 percent to 7.56 percent) thanks to a small increase in the number of people who rejoined the labor force and are looking for work.

Once again, the fiscal cliff deal and the sequester don't seem to be showing up in the job numbers yet—though public sector employment was flat and federal employment was down, which might be partly due to cutbacks. In any case, the changes aren't huge. So far, it looks like we're continuing to tread water.

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Happy 35th Birthday, Tax Revolt! Thanks for Destroying California.

| Fri Jun. 7, 2013 3:56 AM PDT

Yesterday was the 35th anniversary of the tax revolt in America. On June 6, 1978, two-thirds of Californians voted to pass Proposition 13, which cut and capped property taxes and mandated a two-thirds vote for any future tax increases. Howard Jarvis ended up on the cover of Time and the tax revolt was officially started.

Prop. 13 was certainly successful at its primary goal. Not only do I pay a property tax rate of 1 percent on my Orange County house, but I pay it based on the price of the house when I bought it 20 years ago, even though it's doubled in value since then. My mother, who still lives in the house I grew up in, pays 1 percent of the value of her house as of 1978. That's because Prop 13 not only caps the tax rate, it also caps the assessed value of property, which is allowed to go up no more than 2 percent per year.

For ordinary households, that's the good news. But even if you're a stone conservative, there's some bad news to go along with that. For starters, Prop. 13 applies to corporations too, and corporations usually keep their property for a long time. That means their property taxes rarely reset, which in turn means that corporations pay a lower share of property taxes than they used to. What's more, there are even clever loopholes that allow corporations to sell their property without resetting its assessed value, reducing their share of the tax burden even further.

What else? Well, Prop. 13 makes tax increases all but impossible, which means California has been overtaken by a blizzard of one-off fees that technically aren't taxes and therefore can be imposed by a simple majority vote. Some of these fees are on newly built housing tracts, which means that new buyers might pay property tax rates as high as 2 percent while old-timers like me only pay 1 percent. The other fees are a confusing and inefficient patchwork of tiny surcharges on every undertaking imaginable, while still others fall on groups—like university students—who are least able to afford them. And whatever else you can say about property taxes, they tend to be fairly stable. California's overreliance on income and capital gains taxes in the aftermath of Prop. 13 has made its finances a roller coaster over the past 20 years.

And there's one other little-appreciated bit of fallout from Prop. 13: It's given Sacramento far more power over local governments. Before Prop. 13, state and local governments all set their own property tax rates. Cities and counties could vote on their own taxes, and those votes would succeed or fail depending on what the money was being used for. After Prop. 13, tax rates were set permanently at 1 percent, but the law was silent on how that 1 percent got divvied up. That power was given to the state, which means that Sacramento gets to decide how much money it gets for itself and how much it allocates to local governments. You can probably guess how this works out.

The tax revolt has had a long run since Prop. 13 was passed, and it's hardly over yet. But last year, for the first time since 1978, Californians voted to raise their own taxes after a decade of self-inflicted budget crises. Then, at the end of the year, Congress (under duress) agreed to raise taxes on the wealthy for the first time since 1993. In both cases, this was at least partly due to the kinds of problems that Prop. 13 made manifest: a growing realization that the tax revolt has benefited the rich far more than the rest of us and a grudging understanding that at some point you have to pay for the services you want. Californians want decent schools and Americans want to preserve their roads, their military, and their safety net.

Thirty-five years is a pretty fair stretch. But nothing lasts forever, and as it enters middle age the tax revolt is huffing and puffing to stay relevant. Despite what the tea party thinks, tax cuts simply aren't a serious option any longer, and tax increases are no longer taboo. It's not 1978 anymore.

WSJ: NSA Program Also Tracking Credit Card Transactions

| Thu Jun. 6, 2013 9:21 PM PDT

Here's the latest from the Wall Street Journal:

The National Security Agency's monitoring of Americans includes customer records from the three major phone networks as well as emails and Web searches, and the agency also has cataloged credit-card transactions, said people familiar with the agency's activities.

....It couldn't be determined if any of the Internet or credit-card arrangements are ongoing, as are the phone company efforts, or one-shot collection efforts. The credit-card firms, phone companies and NSA declined to comment for this article.

This is sure starting to sound a lot like our old friend, Total Information Awareness. You remember TIA, don't you? It was the Bush-era program designed to tap into commercial and government databases across the country and hoover up credit card statements, medical records, travel plans, phone bills, grocery receipts, and anything else that sounded interesting. Congress killed it in 2003, but forgot to salt the earth behind it:

A program can survive even when the media, the public, and most of Congress wants it killed. It turns out that, while the language in the bill shutting down TIA was clear, a new line had been inserted during conference—no one knew by whom—allowing "certain processing, analysis, and collaboration tools" to continue.

....Thanks to the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, which had lobbied for the provision, TIA didn't die—it metastasized. As the AP reported in February [of 2004], the new language simply outsourced many TIA programs to other intelligence offices and buried them in the so-called "black budget." What's more, today, several agencies are pursuing data mining projects independent of TIA, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the CIA, the Transportation Security Administration, and NASA....Even with TIA ostensibly shut down, many of the private contractors who worked on the program can continue their research with few controls.

I'd pretty much forgotten all about this. I guess it's time to brush up.

New Report Says NSA Is Surveilling Google, Microsoft, Skype, and Others

| Thu Jun. 6, 2013 3:38 PM PDT

What the....? When Glenn Greenwald revealed last night that the NSA was collecting massive amounts of telephone metadata, I wasn't surprised. I already assumed that was happening. But today he reveals details of another NSA data collection program called PRISM:

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian....The document claims "collection directly from the servers" of major US service providers.

....Companies are legally obliged to comply with requests for users' communications under US law, but the PRISM program allows the intelligence services direct access to the companies' servers. The NSA document notes the operations have "assistance of communications providers in the US"....With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.

I'm stumped here. How is it possible to reach "directly into the servers" of these companies? And what does that even mean? That NSA can copy anything it wants off the storage systems of these companies? That seems wildly unlikely. That NSA has tapped into incoming and outgoing communications links? That's more plausible....I guess. I'm not sure.

For what it's worth, Google flatly denies being a part of this. Or at least, it seems to flatly deny it:

In a statement, Google said: "Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government 'back door' into our systems, but Google does not have a 'back door' for the government to access private user data."

Would legal cooperation with PRISM done according to the law count as a "back door"? Maybe. Maybe not.

In any case, on the surface this is more mind-boggling than NSA's surveillance of phone metadata, simply because we had no idea it was happening. Also, it appears to involve the content of communications, not just metadata.

UPDATE: The Washington Post has more:

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.

....The PRISM program is not a dragnet, exactly. From inside a company’s data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes, but under current rules the agency does not try to collect it all.

Analysts who use the system from a Web portal at Fort Meade key in “selectors,” or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness.” That is not a very stringent test. Training materials obtained by the Post instruct new analysts to submit accidentally collected U.S. content for a quarterly report, “but it’s nothing to worry about.”

Even when the system works just as advertised, with no American singled out for targeting, the NSA routinely collects a great deal of American content. That is described as “incidental,” and it is inherent in contact chaining, one of the basic tools of the trade. To collect on a suspected spy or foreign terrorist means, at minimum, that everyone in the suspect’s inbox or outbox is swept in. Intelligence analysts are typically taught to chain through contacts two “hops” out from their target, which increases “incidental collection” exponentially.

....According to a separate “User’s Guide for PRISM Skype Collection,” that service can be monitored for audio when one end of the call is a conventional telephone and for any combination of “audio, video, chat, and file transfers” when Skype users connect by computer alone. Google’s offerings include Gmail, voice and video chat, Google Drive files, photo libraries, and live surveillance of search terms.

Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.

What Is the NSA Doing With All Those Phone Records?

| Thu Jun. 6, 2013 1:39 PM PDT

Why does the NSA want records of every phone call made in the United States? Tim Lee provides the usual answer:

Since the program is secret, it's hard to say for sure. But the NSA is probably using a software technique called data mining to look for patterns that could be a sign of terrorist activity. The idea is that NSA researchers can build a profile of "typical" terrorist activity and then use calling records — and other data such as financial transactions and travel records — to look for individuals or groups of people who fit the pattern. Many businesses use similar techniques, building profiles of their customers to help decide who is most likely to respond to targeting advertising.

Some critics question the effectiveness of these techniques. For example, in a 2006 Cato study, an IBM computer scientist argued that we simply don't have enough examples of real terrorists to build a profile of the "typical" terrorist.

Actually, this isn't the only possible use of data mining. Here's David Ignatius, back in 2006, with a somewhat more concrete way that these records could be used:

Let's take a hypothetical problem: An al-Qaeda operative decides to switch cellphones to prevent the National Security Agency from monitoring his calls. How does the NSA identify his new cellphone number? How does it winnow down a haystack with several hundred million pieces of straw so that it can find the deadly needle?

The problem may seem hopelessly complex, but if you use common sense, you can see how the NSA has tried to solve it. Suppose you lost your own cellphone and bought a new one, and people really needed to find out that new number. If they could search all calling records, they would soon find a number with the same pattern of traffic as your old one — calls to your spouse, your kids, your office, your golf buddies. They wouldn't have to listen to the calls themselves to know it was your phone. Simple pattern analysis would be adequate — so long as they had access to all the records.

This, in simple terms, is what I suspect the NSA has done in tracking potential sleeper cells in the United States. The agency can sift through the haystack, if (and probably only if) it can search all the phone and e-mail records for links to numbers on a terrorist watch list. The computers do the work: They can examine hundreds of millions of calls to find the few red-hot links — which can then be investigated under existing legal procedures.

Is this what NSA is doing? Does it work? I have no idea, though I assume Ignatius had a little professional help dreaming up this example.

The idea that data mining is used solely to build profiles of "average" terrorists is fairly widespread, and there are lots of reasons to think that such profiling isn't especially effective. Just for starters, the sheer number of false positives it generates is probably immense. But that's not the only way this data can be used. There are other, more concrete ways to use it too, and probably plenty of other data it can be linked up to. It would be a mistake to assume that crude profiling is the only possible use of data mining and then go from there.

Before I'm asked, I'm bringing this up strictly for informational purposes, not because I want to defend NSA surveillance. I didn't like this stuff when Bush was doing it, and I don't like it now. Either way, though, it's worth knowing what it's capable of.

UPDATE: Shane Harris, author of The Watchers, has more here.

UPDATE 2: How much data is this, anyway? How does it get to the NSA each day? Well, if you figure there are roughly 4 billion phone calls per day, and about 100 bytes of metadata per call, that's 4 terabits of data. The big carriers are responsible for maybe a quarter of that each, or 1 terabit per day. A single DS3 line can carry about 4 terabits per day, and a DS3 line is nothing special. In other words, the actual physical transmission of this data is no big deal.

The database that holds all this stuff, on the other hand, is a whole different story.....