Clear and Present Danger, Global Province Letter, 21 March 2012

Red Herrings: A society that suffers from weak-kneed, ethically challenged leadership chases risks that don't exist and averts its eyes from real dangers. For instance, insular academics and starry-eyed Lippmann liberals in their doorman- protected high- rise cooperative apartments get agitated when the CIA or NSA looks into the doings of our own citizens, even if it is far from certain that their electronic snooping will lead to a police state or some other dire outcome. We cannot assert for sure that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. would find that the actions of the Government are meant to prevent "a clear and present danger," but it is arguable that our several governments are acting in good faith to block an international terror threat to life and limb, dedicated to the destruction of modern civilization. Lest we forget, the Government is acting in the face of a pervasive and very real antagonist.

And so, too, is New York's Police Commissioner Ray Kelly who has aroused the ire of an assortment of semi-journalists and paranoids who assert he has a vendetta against Middle Easterners. The Police Department's intelligence services have brought a keen focus to people who might blow up subways and skyscrapers, keeping the city pretty safe since September 11, 2001. In fact, it is worth reading an incisive article about the city's robust intelligence force, which probably has proven itself more effective than the CIA or FBI during the last decade. It helps of course that Commissioner Kelly has better relationships with certain foreign agencies than the fellows in Washington. Oddly enough, the Wall Street Journal, which tends to be terribly muddled about most things, gets it right on Kelly: the New York Police operate under more constraints than most agencies and they are doing well a job that needs to get done. New York City is the safer for it.

In other words, our press and some of our other plot-conjuring vigilantes are pursuing what we once called red herrings back in the days when Senator Joe McCarthy was on the loose. That is, they are chasing phony dangers in the grand old spirit of yellow journalism, even as real rascals out there do us harm.

Facebook et. al. Intelligence officials in more than one nation have urged us, in passing, not to join social networks since they are certain that U.S. intelligence agencies pore through the data accumulated by the likes of FaceTwitteretc.. We never paid them much heed, til lately. Little bits of evidence are leaking out, almost daily, that suggest all sorts of data aggregators are mis-using and mis-laying data. And that these data networks themselves are not secure and are too easily hacked.

It turns out that the social networks and the search engines are violating our privacy at every turn. But, unlike the National Security Agency, they cannot claim that they are pursuing some greater good with their eavesdropping and data plundering. Google particularly annoys us, because it is a company that we thought good at heart when it was starting up and which we even recommended to our colleagues worldwide well before the chattering classes had heard of it. It has long since lost its halo. Now, for example, the Google chieftains have alarmed officials on both sides of the Atlantic as it is learned that its engineers have gone around privacy safeguards in Apple's Safari software, just one example of its buccaneer practices. Further, it intends to link its various products and platforms together so that it can build an ever more detailed mosaic of each of its users.

Governments the world over are looking at Internet privacy and beginning to construct a patchwork of safeguards. Though too little too late. "The EU's effort (formally published on January 25th) is part of a global government crackdown on the commercial use of personal information. A White House report, out soon, is expected to advocate a consumer-privacy law." As well, says the Economist, China and India are looking at privacy issues. In fact, commercial intrusions into our privacy are much more insistent, much more pervasive, and pose a much greater threat to all our liberties than anything hatched by our security agencies. George Orwell's 1984 laid out a future when the Big Brother of Government would be watching our every move. It turns out that out-of-control enterprises are reading our mail and tracking what we do through our computers and our telephones.

Citizens are well advised to put roadblocks in the way of intruders. For instance, Abine is simple software one can put on one's computer to frustrate all the intermediaries who try to track computer behaviors. Abine has put the blocks to some 600 of these unsavory snoops. The founders of this firm know how bad things are. They come out of the industry and have seen what the silent intruders can do.

A Blank Check. The search and social engines are not the only sector that's gone off the rails. It's popular these days, on the right but even the left, to blame government for everything that ails us. But we have fastened on the wrong culprit. For perhaps 20 years our governments have been complicit at worst as financial services firms- out of control- have sapped our liberty and sucked the life out of our economy. They have been doing much more than reading our mail. Given a blank check and a license to steal by the worst Fed Chairman in our history-- Arthur Greenspan, certain kinds of companies have cashed in right and left. We are still paying the price for the meltdown in 2008, a crisis brought on by bankers of every stripe, mortgage peddlers throughout the land, and asset strippers who decapitated American industry.

Goldman Sachs certainly has been a leader of the pack. It knowingly sold structured financial products to an unsuspecting public at the very time when its own traders were shorting them. Lots of Wall Street veterans, including Ray DeVoe of the highly respected DeVoe Report have inveighed against this disgraceful behavior. Wall Street, indeed, led the march into the depression beginning in 2008. But Goldman is only its most visible emblem. A host of private equity firms stripped companies of their assets and loaded them up with debt. This all occurred, not because we had too much government, but too little. Our governors did not govern.

Real Threats. You do not have to be a right or left winger to understand that our bloated financial services and internet (and other digital) industries, in order to monetize their wares, have gotten way off the reservation under lackadaisical governance that stretches at least through all the Bush and Clinton years. It is not just that they and their lobbyists are clearly prepared to embrace anti-democratic practices. But, as importantly, they have diverted resources away from bedrock areas of our economy, such as infrastructure, and pose a real threat to our continued well-being. They are worse than pernicious: they are distracting. If we are clear headed and can get beyond the inflated language of our ideologists of every persuasion, we must come to realize that our financial and digital businesses consume too much of our national treasure and of or lives.

Why Are We Blind? It is worth asking ourselves why dithering but very loud types on the left and the right can conjure up imagined slights by our government instead of focusing on the terrorists, the internet flimflam types who violate rules of decorum and trod on our right to privacy, the larcenous financial engineers who do not add value to the economy but scrape away capital that should be going into real economic activities. In part, but only in part, we can blame confused academics and a broken press--neither of which are bringing much acuity to public discourse.

But, more importantly, we are in a period of denial where we don't want to face the tough questions, so we fasten on distractions. It is easier to fume about contraception, or the imagined misdeeds of New York's cops, or the evils arising from our failure to let GM go bankrupt, or the harm to our medical system that would arise from negotiated rates for drugs, doctors, and medical services than to face a few tough questions head on. It's easier for a while to agonize over questions that don't count than to tackle the tough matters that relate to our prosperity and our survival.

P.S. Google is marvelously inept. It is hard to reach someone there about the simplest of problems. Google would rather that you email some odd address and wait for a response that never arrives. We recently solved a small matter because we found a way to penetrate the facade: it took 30 days. But the person who solved the problem resolutely avoided having a direct conversation with us. Google, in other words, is hugely bureaucratic, but has grown so large, not because of its agility and acuteness, but because monopoly has been allowed to flourish unchecked in the Internet sector.

P.P.S. Ronald Mueller, current director of the FBI, was recently given the highest marks by a commentator on C-Span, for wisely using FBI resources, for coordinating FBI efforts with other intelligence services, and for making sure his agents followed the rules of the road. We suspect that government intelligence agencies in general are better directed, both for results and for lawful process, than they have been in the past.


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