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In 2010 and 2011, many discounted and differentiated Julian Assange from mainstream journalists by comparing him to a spy or foreign agent, despite the fact that he was just doing what every major US journalism organization does: publishing leaked classified information in the public interest.

Well, the government alleges in Rosen’s case that he acted “much like an intelligence officer would run a clandestine intelligence source” and communicated his “clandestine communications plan.” This is reminiscent of a disturbing House Judiciary hearing last year where the committee’s lead witness compared the New York Times’ David Sanger to a spy, saying he “systematically penetrating the Obama White House as effectively as any foreign agent.”

By that language, the government is arguing journalism is now akin to spying, no matter if its WikiLeaks or the mainstream press.

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It saddens me that America’s so-called government for the people, by the people, and of the people has less compassion and enlightenment toward their fellow man than a corporation. Having been a party myself to subsequent legal bullying by other entities, I am all too familiar with how ugly and gut-wrenching a high-stakes lawsuit can be. Fortunately, the stakes in my cases were not as high, nor my adversaries as formidable as Aaron’s, otherwise I too might have succumbed to hopelessness and fear. A few years ago, I started rebuilding my life overseas, and I find a quantum of solace in the thought that my residence abroad makes it a little more difficult to be served.

A Poignant Comment on Deleting Email

For the past two months I’ve been trying to figure out what to say about something Peter Fleischer, Google’s Global Privacy Counsel, wrote about his personal email retention and deletion policies. After talking about whether people should worry about “covering their tracks” from government snooping, he writes (emphasis added):

In the meantime, as users, we all have to decide if we want to keep thousands of old emails in our inboxes in the cloud.  It’s free and convenient to keep them.  Statistics published by some companies seem to confirm that the risks of governments seeking access to our data are extremely remote for “normal people”.  But the laws, like ECPA, that are meant to protect the privacy of our old emails are obsolete and full of holes.  The choice is yours:  keep or delete.  I’m a pragmatist, and I’m not paranoid, but personally, I’ve gotten in the habit of deleting almost all my daily emails, except for those that I’d want to keep for the future.  Like the rule at my tennis club:  sweep the clay after you play.

His comments struck me as being incredibly poignant when I first read them, and remain so today. I’ve stopped archiving email. I delete email (as best I can, given cloud data retention policies and all…) on a regular basis. Over the Christmas break I removed an aggregate of about 6 GB of mail that had just…accrued…in my various accounts over the past decade. In short, his post motivated me enough to spend the better part of 3 or 4 days sifting and sorting through my digital life. Ultimately I removed an awful lot of what was there.

At some point I hope to spend more time writing about, and thinking through, some of Peter’s points. At the moment, however, I’d just recommend you think about what it means when Google’s Global Privacy Counsel – the guy who is best able to go to the mat to protect the privacy of his own inbox – chooses to routinely delete his email from the cloud. If he takes that precaution, and he has the influence that he does, shouldn’t you at least consider following his lead?

Can Nulpunt “Abolish Government Secrecy?”

In a word: No.

Nulpunt is an online database that lets individuals subscribe to topics and, when a freedom of information request on the topic becomes available, ‘pushes’ the content to the user. This mediates the present format for such requests, where individuals tend to be hunting for specific information and the population generally has no effective means to see or understand the information divulged to fellow citizens.

The aspiration of the service is that government secrecy can be undermined by making information more prominently available. I’m not confident that this can possibly be the case because the service fails to address the primary means by which states keep citizens in the dark: it does not prevent state agents from refusing requests nor from redacting significant elements from released documents.

While it may be effective in nations such as the Netherlands, which have recently adopted new transparency laws, I can’t imagine Canada or the US moving to entirely new document release processes without a significant stick. Nulpunt is not, and cannot, function as that stick so long as governments refuse to recognize their situatedness as servants, rather than masters, of the population at large.

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FYI: Governments Spy On Citizens. A Lot.

You often hear that if you’ve nothing to hide then government surveillance isn’t really something you should fear. It’s only the bad people that are targeted! Well….sorta. It is the case that (sometimes) ‘bad people’ are targeted. It’s also (often) the case that the definition of ‘bad people’ extends to ‘individuals exercising basic rights and freedoms.’ This is the lesson that a woman in the US learned: the FBI had secretly generated a 436 page report about her on the grounds that she and friends were organizing a local protest.

What’s more significant is the rampant inaccuracies in the report. The woman herself notes that,

I am repeatedly identified as a member of a different, more mainstream liberal activist group which I was not only not a part of, but actually fought with on countless occasions. To somehow not know that I detested this group of people was a colossal failure of intelligence-gathering. Hopefully the FBI has not gotten any better at figuring out who is a part of what, and that this has worked to the detriment of their surveillance of other activists. I am also repeatedly identified as being a part of campaigns that I was never involved with, or didn’t even know about, including protests in other cities. Maybe the FBI assumes every protester-type attends all other activist meetings and protests, like we’re just one big faceless monolith. “Oh, hey, you’re into this topic? Well, then, you’re probably into this topic, right? You’re all pinkos to us.”

In taking a general survey of all area activists, the files keep trying to draw non-existant connections between the most mainstream groups/people and the most radical, as though one was a front for the other. There are a few flyers from local events that have nothing to do with our campaign, including one posted to advertise a lefty discussion group at the university library. The FBI mentions that activists may be planning “direct action” at their meetings, which the document’s author clarifies means “illegal acts.” “Direct action” was then, and I’d say now, a term used to talk about civil disobedience and intentional arrests. While such things are illegal actions, the tone and context in these FBI files makes it sound like protesters got together and planned how to fly airplanes into buildings or something.

You see, it isn’t just the government surveillance that is itself pernicious. It’s the inaccuracies, mistaken profilings, and generalized suspicion cast upon citizens that can cause significant harms. It is the potential for these profiles to be developed and then sit indefinitely in government databases, just waiting to be used against law abiding ‘good’ citizens, that should give all citizens pause before they grant authorities more expansive surveillance powers.