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Old Jun 21, 2013, 12:46 PM   #1
vrDrew
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If a tree falls in the forest: Thoughts on electronic surveillance

Its an age-old metaphysical thought experiment: If a tree falls in a forest, and no-one is around to hear it, did it really make a sound?

So if the metadata for your telephone account lives on a National Security Agency computer database, but nobody ever looks at it, have you really been spied upon?

Lets look at this another way: You were quite happy with that same metadata existing on Verizon (or ATT, or US Cellular, etc.) computer databases. Companies that are owned and managed by people who are, by any reasonable measure, far less answerable than our elected representatives. (Hint, when was the last time you got to vote for the CEO or board member of a telecommunications company?)

This isn't to say that the NSA's acquisition and trolling of phone company metadata isn't, at least on some level, an invasion of our privacy. But I'd argue that on the Big Brother scale (where a video camera peering into your home 24/7 is a hundred) - this ranks considerably further down the list. Not a zero, but probably not in double figures.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 12:49 PM   #2
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So if the metadata for your telephone account lives on a National Security Agency computer database, but nobody ever looks at it, have you really been spied upon?
Yes.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 01:09 PM   #3
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Yes.
Then I'm going to have to ask you: How?

Lets look at it another way: Lets say that the metadata shows that your next-door neighbors (the Arab-looking guys who smoke hookah pipes and drink tea on a rolled up carpet in their garage*) had regularly called a cellphone number registered in Abbotabad, Pakistan. Would you be in favor of, or against, an NSA analyst looking a little closer at what these guys were up to?


* Note: I do, in fact, have some neighbors who meet this description (apart from the phoning Abbotabad part, as far as I know). They seem like nice enough guys, but then - you never know.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 01:23 PM   #4
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If they drink tea on a rolled up carpet, I'd definitely want to know what was in the carpet they were smoking.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 01:24 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by vrDrew View Post
Its an age-old metaphysical thought experiment: If a tree falls in a forest, and no-one is around to hear it, did it really make a sound?

So if the metadata for your telephone account lives on a National Security Agency computer database, but nobody ever looks at it, have you really been spied upon?
Suppose someone has set up automatic audio recording equipment in the forest. It continually records the time-varying air-pressure waves in the range 20-20Khz that occur when a tree falls (colloquial term "sound waves"), storing them digitally. There is enough digital storage for a 2 year span. During that time, a tree within range of the microphone falls, the microphone converts the pressure waveforms to electrical signals, which are duly digitized and stored. At the end of 2 years, the equipment stops recording. No person has yet retrieved the digitized signal, but there is plainly a record of the event in the data.

If a person retrieves the data and runs software to search for high-amplitude low-frequency signals of short duration (say less than 30 seconds), the software will easily be able to find the event. If the person looks at the waveform on the screen, experience will let them identify it as a tree falling. The recorded signal for a falling tree would be easily distinguished from other activities that happen in the woods, such as ones possibly involving bears.

If the person is deaf and has never heard a sound, this identification is still possible. If there were multiple microphones and direction-finding software, then this person (or any other) could plausibly identify exactly where the fallen tree was, without ever actually hearing anything.

There is plainly a record of the original event's sound, which can be analyzed, used, transmitted, stored, or even listened to at any future time. Even if the signal is never played on a speaker or headphone, the record of the sound is still available, and various analyses can be performed on it, at any future time.


Or consider this shorter version:
If automatic equipment records the voice signal sent over a telephone line and stores it indefinitely, but no person listens to that recording, has the telephone been wiretapped or not?

Does the possibility that a person could listen at any future time to the recorded signal constitute a wiretap? When does the tapping occur, at the time of recording, or at the time when a person listens to it? If the data is lost or erased before a person listens to it, was there a wiretap or not?
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 01:26 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by vrDrew View Post
Then I'm going to have to ask you: How?

Lets look at it another way: Lets say that the metadata shows that your next-door neighbors (the Arab-looking guys who smoke hookah pipes and drink tea on a rolled up carpet in their garage*) had regularly called a cellphone number registered in Abbotabad, Pakistan. Would you be in favor of, or against, an NSA analyst looking a little closer at what these guys were up to?


* Note: I do, in fact, have some neighbors who meet this description (apart from the phoning Abbotabad part, as far as I know). They seem like nice enough guys, but then - you never know.
Against

Could be family for all you know and they want to stay in touch...

Your unwarranted suspicions should not give reason to spy on their calls
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 01:31 PM   #7
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Well said.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 01:36 PM   #8
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Wise people think in terms for capabilities, not intentions.

Now that we know they have - and are using - the capabilities, all it takes are for the intentions to change just ever so slightly to become a disaster.

So, absolutely yes, you're being spied on even if the data's not looked at by a human. The temptations for an analyst to get "the big one" is just too large for them to pass up.

Again, the answer is yes, sophist arguments aside.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 01:46 PM   #9
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Verizon, AT&T et.al. may store metadata, but they aren't searching for illegal activity.

I've got nothing to hide, I don't do anything at all illegal; but that is in no way a guarantee of immunity from investigation or suspicion of wrongdoing. Plenty have even been convicted of crimes of which they were completely innocent.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 01:58 PM   #10
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Verizon, AT&T et.al. may store metadata, but they aren't searching for illegal activity.

I've got nothing to hide, I don't do anything at all illegal; but that is in no way a guarantee of immunity from investigation or suspicion of wrongdoing. Plenty have even been convicted of crimes of which they were completely innocent.
I agree with your post except for "I've got nothing to hide."

If you truly believe this, you'll post your SSN, picture, bank account numbers and credit card numbers.

But I'll wager you won't do this, as you'll realize you actually DO have things to hide.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 02:05 PM   #11
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I agree with your post except for "I've got nothing to hide."

If you truly believe this, you'll post your SSN, picture, bank account numbers and credit card numbers.

But I'll wager you won't do this, as you'll realize you actually DO have things to hide.
The "If you have nothing to hide" concept is pure sophistry, a non sequitur, and, IMO, totally irrelevant.

The concept...the principle is the issue. And the issue is privacy, and one's right to it, or lack of that right. Not having anything to hide does not mean I will want innocent, non-incriminasting information about me to be held without my permission.

I know I am dealing with an issue with a large gray area, and not a simple black and white. But that "if you have nothing to hide" thing in no way addresses that issue.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 02:36 PM   #12
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The "If you have nothing to hide" concept is pure sophistry, a non sequitur, and, IMO, totally irrelevant.

The concept...the principle is the issue. And the issue is privacy, and one's right to it, or lack of that right. Not having anything to hide does not mean I will want innocent, non-incriminasting information about me to be held without my permission.

I know I am dealing with an issue with a large gray area, and not a simple black and white. But that "if you have nothing to hide" thing in no way addresses that issue.

Why is it that we hear this most from conservatives? That is, they're the ones who are fine with government spying on them. Isn't government spying on its citizenry big government? Isn't big government something conservatives are against?
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 02:43 PM   #13
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Why is it that we hear this most from conservatives? That is, they're the ones who are fine with government spying on them. Isn't government spying on its citizenry big government? Isn't big government something conservatives are against?
Interested to know how you made this leap of faith
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 02:55 PM   #14
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Isn't routine universal surveillance the very essence of Big Government?
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 03:25 PM   #15
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Why is it that we hear this most from conservatives? That is, they're the ones who are fine with government spying on them. Isn't government spying on its citizenry big government? Isn't big government something conservatives are against?
First, I did not present my ides with any political view in mind. It was a matter of logic and rational argument.

Forgive me if I misread you post, but are you suggesting that I am making a "conservatives" argument? (Really, I read the post several times and was not clear if that was what you were suggesting...please see first paragraph for the intention of my post)

My goodness, Man...I'm a Maxist-Leniniist Communist Socialist Anarchist Psychotic Leftist Socialist Communist...not a conservative!
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 03:29 PM   #16
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I agree with your post except for "I've got nothing to hide."

If you truly believe this, you'll post your SSN, picture, bank account numbers and credit card numbers.

But I'll wager you won't do this, as you'll realize you actually DO have things to hide.
I have personal info to hide, sure. My point (which I even came right out and stated explicitly) was that I'm not doing anything illegal. There is nothing about my Internet, telephone, or any other dealings that is at all untoward.

Don't be so obtuse.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 03:39 PM   #17
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First, I did not present my ides with any political view in mind. It was a matter of logic and rational argument.

Forgive me if I misread you post, but are you suggesting that I am making a "conservatives" argument? (Really, I read the post several times and was not clear if that was what you were suggesting...please see first paragraph for the intention of my post)

My goodness, Man...I'm a Maxist-Leniniist Communist Socialist Anarchist Psychotic Leftist Socialist Communist...not a conservative!

I wasn't pointing to you making a conservative argument because I was with you on the logic of this. Rather, I hear the rhetoric of "if you have nothing to hide...." mainly from people who identify themselves as conservatives. To be fair, I do hear it from liberals but it mostly comes from conservatives. I was correlating the "big government" statement to how these wiretaps is big government and how so many people give a pass to the government and use "if you have nothing to hide...." as their primary argument when they should be concerned with the violation of their right to privacy.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 03:58 PM   #18
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Suppose someone has set up automatic audio recording equipment in the forest. .

<SNIP>..other activities that happen in the woods, such as ones possibly involving bears.
Thanks for your response. You will forgive me for altering (and mixing..) my metaphor slightly, as follows:

Lets say that a Forest Ranger does as you have described, but with the intent of looking for those one-in-a-hundred year events when a tree does indeed fall in the forest. He is in no way interested in the bowel movements (or other activities) of the forest's many ursine inhabitants.

When the equipment records spikes in sound pressure level at frequencies that correspond to a rapid arboreal collapse event (RACE) he dispatches a crew to investigate.

Now, as you say, for a period defined by law and practice, he does maintain an electronic record of all sound events that occur within that forest. But in accordance with instructions, on a two year rolling schedule, all such records are destroyed, taking with it any record of exactly where and when ole Smokey Bear dropped a deuce.

I still say that the bear wasn't spied on.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 04:10 PM   #19
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I wasn't pointing to you making a conservative argument because I was with you on the logic of this. Rather, I hear the rhetoric of "if you have nothing to hide...." mainly from people who identify themselves as conservatives. To be fair, I do hear it from liberals but it mostly comes from conservatives. I was correlating the "big government" statement to how these wiretaps is big government and how so many people give a pass to the government and use "if you have nothing to hide...." as their primary argument when they should be concerned with the violation of their right to privacy.
First, thanks for the clarification.

Second, just to be perfectly clear...I was arguing that the "If you have nothing ti hide" position has no value and is irrelevant to the principle of the right to privacy.

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Old Jun 21, 2013, 04:11 PM   #20
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I have personal info to hide, sure.
Good, glad to hear it.

Information is information. You *do* have something to hide.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 04:32 PM   #21
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I agree with your post except for "I've got nothing to hide."

If you truly believe this, you'll post your SSN, picture, bank account numbers and credit card numbers.
The government gave me my Social Security Number.

I think they already have that.

But seriously, the problem with your argument is you're talking about exposing this information to the public, not giving a government agency access to it, which IMO are two different things.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 04:33 PM   #22
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Thanks for your response. You will forgive me for altering (and mixing..) my metaphor slightly, as follows:

Lets say that a Forest Ranger does as you have described, but with the intent of looking for those one-in-a-hundred year events when a tree does indeed fall in the forest. He is in no way interested in the bowel movements (or other activities) of the forest's many ursine inhabitants.

When the equipment records spikes in sound pressure level at frequencies that correspond to a rapid arboreal collapse event (RACE) he dispatches a crew to investigate.

Now, as you say, for a period defined by law and practice, he does maintain an electronic record of all sound events that occur within that forest. But in accordance with instructions, on a two year rolling schedule, all such records are destroyed, taking with it any record of exactly where and when ole Smokey Bear dropped a deuce.

I still say that the bear wasn't spied on.
Forest rangers shouldn't need a warrant to monitor bear defecation while purporting to scope out falling trees.

The government does and should need a warrant to view human beings' telephone metadata. The Fourth Amendment does not apply to ole Smokey Bear.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 04:52 PM   #23
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Big Brother isn't listening (but his machines are)...

Quote:
Originally Posted by vrDrew View Post
Its an age-old metaphysical thought experiment: If a tree falls in a forest, and no-one is around to hear it, did it really make a sound?

So if the metadata for your telephone account lives on a National Security Agency computer database, but nobody ever looks at it, have you really been spied upon?
...
If the government setup an array of parabolic microphones aimed at the windows of your house/apartment and digitize the signals from the mic-array and store that information on a hard drive, and used a voice-to-text program to convert that data to digital text, and then used text-mining software programs to scan the digital-text in order to analyse the content and context of that data, is that really "spying"?

In this example no human would actually be listening to your conversations, etc. -- they would merely be recorded and analyzed digitally by machines. However, if certain conditions were met, then a human would be notified that a certain "profile" match had occurred. At that point, the human would fill out the paperwork for a secret paperwork that would be submitted to a secret court, seeking permission for a human to listen to the digital data that had been recorded. If approved, a human (or humans) would listened to the data and appropriate follow-up measures would be taken...

Since no human was actually listening to the sounds coming from your house/apartment until there was a "good reason" to do so, how could anyone consider this to be "spying"?
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 05:33 PM   #24
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If the government setup an array of parabolic microphones aimed at the windows of your house..
But thats not what the NSA is doing. They aren't doing anything thats vaguely close to that.

They are looking at metadata, which has a very different expectation of privacy. The phone company already knows what numbers I call, and for how long. The phone company doesn't know what I talk about on those phone calls. And I'd be outraged if they did.

But if I'm comfortable letting a faceless multibillion dollar corporation have access to that information (the metadata), I'm not sure I can claim, with a straight face, that I'm that outraged that the Federal Government has the same information.
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Old Jun 21, 2013, 05:39 PM   #25
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But thats not what the NSA is doing. They aren't doing anything thats vaguely close to that.
Where did I say it was? I merely provided you with an example and asked if you thought it was spying or not.

In my example, no human is actually listening to your words (until there's good reason to), so again, I ask you -- is that spying or not?

I ask, because I wonder how far your privacy has to be invaded in order for you to consider it spying.
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