Image: A Facebook data center, via Wikimedia
At the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Robert S. Litt, General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, delivered a speech Friday morning, to discuss the DNI's stance on PRISM and FISA.
A veteran of “FISA applications, covert action reviews," computer security, and national security matters, Litt spent 1993 to 1999 as a Deputy to the Attorney General at the Department of Justice. He, better than most, has a deep legal understanding of how these data collection programs work.
“I want to make a few points about the Fourth Amendment,” said Litt, after launching an argument about “unlawful disclosures” of government spying programs.
Litt explained that our expectation of privacy isn’t legally recognized by the Supreme Court once we've offered it to a third party. Thus, sifting through third party data doesn’t qualify—on a constitutional level—as invasive to our personal privacy.
This he brought to an interesting point about volunteered personal data, and social media habits. That our willingness to give our information to companies and social networking websites is baffling to the ODNI. “Why is it that people are willing to expose large quantities of information to private parties but don’t want the Government to have the same information?," he asked.
Now, I'd hate to answer Litt's question so simply by saying that consumers are extorted by their love of what they consume, but it's part of it. And trust in companies that give us free things, that advance self-expression is an inalienable consumer right. If the government, theoretically, already knows everything there is to know—when we didn't directly volunteer our information—it then provides momentum for a rally cry. The shame and disgust when Edward Snowden pulled back the curtain reverberates that government by virtue is supposed to be more clear, more holistic, and an idealized reflection of ourselves.
Ironically, its often the social media platform that increases our awareness, and spreads our angelic status updates. But Litt has a strong point here. We'll never forget the latent greed of corporations, but we'll continue to confide in them as they feed our desires ever more efficiently than bureaucrats ever could.
While Snowden's leaks have provoked Jimmy Carter into labeling this government a sham, and void of a functioning democracy, Litt presented how these wide data collection programs are in fact valued by our government, have legal justification, and all the necessary parameters.
Litt, echoing the president and his boss James Clapper, explained thusly:
"We do not use our foreign intelligence collection capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies in order to give American companies a competitive advantage. We do not indiscriminately sweep up and store the contents of the communications of Americans, or of the citizenry of any country. We do not use our intelligence collection for the purpose of repressing the citizens of any country because of their political, religious or other beliefs. We collect metadata—information about communications—more broadly than we collect the actual content of communications, because it is less intrusive than collecting content and in fact can provide us information that helps us more narrowly focus our collection of content on appropriate targets. But it simply is not true that the United States Government is listening to everything said by every citizen of any country."
It's great that the U.S. government behaves better than comporations on privacy—too bad it trusts/subcontracts corporations to deal with that privacy—but it's an uncomfortable thing to even be in a position of having to compare the two. This is the point Litt misses, and it's not a fine one.