Tuesday, 10 March 2015

If Apple won’t spy on its users we should ban gov employees from using iphones at work

Amitai Etzioni says:

Technology firms are implementing high end encryption that could derail efforts to track terrorists. The White House should push back against this trend.

The greatest new threat to American security is that thousands of Westerners will return from the Middle East and Africa with the training and intent to commit acts of terrorism.

(emphasis intact)

Is it?  Etzoni doesn’t make clear what he means by “security” or “threat”, let alone on what basis he makes his conclusion. He states it as a fact when it’s not even not a fact. It’s not even a coherent statement.

He admits that some people travelling to the Middle East might be there to good, humanitarian things. Or might alternatively be journalists or people of business.  So we should allow them to travel (thanks, Amitai) but should definitely “keep an eye on them, for a defined period of time”. That involves, he says, tracking their phone and email communications:

to determine if these returning Westerners are keeping in touch with ISIS or al-Qaeda, consulting web pages that teach one how to make bombs, or forming local terrorist cells.

It seems unlikely that people would travel abroad for terrorist training and then look up how to be a terrorist on the web when they get home. That’s a pretty piss-poor training course and they should probably ask for their money back. But Etzoni thinks this is the greatest new threat to American security.  He thinks the government should be able to spy on everyone travelling to the middle east for any reason and for an indeterminate length of time.

But they can’t! Because tech firms are evil!

A major obstacle in proceeding are the major Internet and telecommunication companies—the high tech giants, including Apple, Facebook, and Google—who adamantly object to the new security measures the government is seeking and to many already in place. In doing so, they are placing private profits ahead of the public interest.

That rather depends on what is the public interest. If the public interest is spying on absolutely everyone in case they might one day turn out to be a baddie then I agree that scrupulous companies are not acting in the public interest. But I don’t think that’s what the public is interested in.

Etzoni claims that Ed Snowden’s work was detrimental to US corporations because revealing the extent to which the US spies on every single person ever might make people less likely to use American products. Each loop of that argument is more circular than the last.

But this is what he suggests to combat the threat he seems so incapable of defining or quantifying:

If private corporations continue to put their profit motive and ideological beliefs above the needs of the public, I believe the Obama administration—if it can find its backbone—should respond with a market-based solution. It should announce that it will not do business with—not purchase products or services from, not have our diplomats overseas act on behalf of, and not allow federal employees access during work hours to—corporations that do not cooperate with the war against terrorism.

I love some of this language. “IF YOU DO NOT COOPORATE WITH OUR WAR, THEN…” is my favourite.  But I also love the idea of government employees being banned from using their iphones during work hours or from using Google services. Or from using services that buy data from or sell data to Google, presumably. What if a government employee is served an advertisement by one of Google’s many advertising subsidiaries? Who gets the blame? Who enforces the ban? Do government employees have fewer rights than everyone else because of a policy of the current government? Good fucking luck explaining why that’s constitutional. It might be more effective to ban US companies from buying data that originates from companies that don’t comply with requests by government for broken encryption. You’re going to need even more luck for that, though.

But far be it for me to imply that Etzoni hasn’t thought things through. He understands the problems:

I grant that it might be painful for government employees to do without Google and Apple for a few days, or even longer, while on the job. But it is a price well-worth paying to convince the Silicon Valley CEOs that a good American citizen balances profit and ideology with concerns with the public interest and the urgent need to head off a new wave of terrorist attacks of the kind evident in Europe.


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