Sunday, November 3, 2013

Should We be Biting Snowden's Finger or Looking at Where It is Pointing?

My title draws upon an expression I picked up during my student days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was attributed to Warren McCulloch, who was recognized, long after his death, as one of the pioneers of computing based on neural networks. When wrapped up in an intense argument, he was apparently known to say:
Don't bite my finger; look where I'm pointing!
The act of whistle-blowing often involves little more than pointing at something that "everyone knows" but would prefer to disregard. As a result, whistle-blowers are extremely vulnerable to having their fingers bitten. This is particularly the case where "national security" is involved, as I discovered in one of my posts from 2011. Now we have Edward Snowden; and, according to the news from this week, the German government is more interested in looked at where he is pointing than we are.

Thus, by way of retaliation, Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, decided it was appropriate to run an opinion piece in today's Chronicle under the title:
NSA's call-records program is prudence – not prying
Granted that one man's meat is another man's poison, I have to wonder just how much Feinstein knows about intelligence (in the technical sense of the word) and, more specifically, the complex relationships established in that chain that beings with "raw data" and proceeds through "information" into "intelligence," as a result of what may best be called "acts of interpretation."

Back in the days when laws about communication were being reviewed under the Clinton Administration, there was a rather ludicrous side-show surrounding what was called the Communications Decency Act. Many of us realized that this was a camel trying to get its nose into the tent of Internet censorship. It turned out that Feinstein was a strong supporter of censorship. She saw the Internet as a potentially dangerous environment. Her prime example was that one could go to the Internet to learn how to make bombs. Since this was still a time when Internet access was slow, pricey, and relatively limited, she seemed to forget that, in those days, it was a lot simpler to learn this by going to the public library.

Long before there were networks, there were clever kids hacking into presumably "secure" time-sharing system, many of whom had also figured out how to hack into the telephone company. Many of those kids were subjected to the full force of criminal law. However, in a few of the sites that had been hacked, there were someone in upper management that realized that knowing what these kids know would be useful. This seems to be the German attitude towards Snowden; and, for the life of me, I cannot figure out why we refuse to persist in our belief that the Germans might be on to something, particularly at a time when we should be trying to heal our injured relationship with them.

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