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How the IRS scandal may damage PRISM and other anti-terror data mining

How the IRS scandal may damage PRISM and other anti-terror data mining

That the government data mines isn’t news.

That the government has the ability to use secret judicial processes to obtain emails and phone records isn’t news.

The controversy over the latest revelations is a controversy about things which have been known — at least in part — for years and in some instances for decades.  It started, in various forms, before George W. Bush.

Ace uses Chesterton’s parable of the fence to suggest that we need to know more about how these systems operate and why before reaching a conclusion whether to tear them down:

But what if the program were such — and when I say “what if,” understand I have no idea if it works this way; I am simply speculating about one possible configuration — that automated non-human algorithms searched for certain keywords and, generally, signs of either a foreign language or English being written by a non-native speaker.  And what if the traffic so identified was kicked up to a higher level of automated scrutiny– still no humans reading — and scanned for additional worrisome signs.

And then, only after the billions of messages had been screened down to Worrisome Few, say a few thousand in a month, would humans then check the flagged passages, and then, if they thought those passages were alarming, seek a judge’s warrant to read the full text, and not just the flagged sentences and phrases.

Now, I think that such a system would be far less worrisome, although it would still be creepy, and of course still prone to great and serious abuse.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that if we abandon our advantage in the realm of computer processing power (and the incredible advantage we have in that most internet traffic, world-wide, circulates through the US), I think we’re going to be down to our human capabilities which, once again, I think are virtually non-existent with regard to Al Qaeda.  I think we’ll be down to the felt.

Perhaps there will be more public acknowledgement, and some additional safeguards, precisely because data mining was built for a reason.

I also don’t think you can separate the current reaction from the IRS scandal, which showed how supposedly neutral bureaucrats can politicize data and use the control over and demand for data as a weapon.

Explanations and justifications which might have worked in the past no longer are enough, thanks to the IRS.


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That’s a pretty weak justification in my opinion. That’s like saying we have a great advantage in police searching power that we are giving up if we don’t violate the 4th Amendment and just search whoever’s house we want just on the chance or a hunch that we might find evidence of crimes or, in this case, terrorism. Well, it doesn’t work that way. Does the 4th Amendment prevent the police from catching SOME criminals. Of course! That’s the price we pay for not living in a police state. Same applies here. Just because these supposed algorithms MIGHT catch a criminal or terrorist in the future does not make it constitutional to spy on all the communications of EVERY AMERICAN. And if we HAVE been doing that for along time well shame on us for giving up our freedom so willingly. I am disgusted.

This administration has been looking the American public directly in the eye and lying through their teeth, repeatedly. IRS targeting and Benghazi for example and there are more if you are really interested. Once trust is lost it is impossible to regain it completely if at all. Nothing this administration says can be trusted without independent verification. The administration has no credibility.

    wyntre in reply to OldNuc. | June 7, 2013 at 11:58 am

    Just on THIS issue according to the edited but unacknowledged NYT article which went from saying Obama has lost all credibility to he has lost all credibility on this issue.


Plus the actual education reforms in K-12 and higher ed are capturing a tremendous amount of data in ways this Administration understands (since they wrote a paper on Learner Analytics and data mining) but the typical parent, student, or taxpayer do not. That’s what is inherent in the personalized digital learning push. That computer tablet or online massive role-playing game or even the MOOCs are gathering data about interests, motivations, how you think, etc. The book Big Data says that we simply need to make the companies accountable not to abuse the data. I think the IRS and still unfolding PRISM story show that is
not practical. is a story I wrote trying to raise awareness that these companies are out there bragging about all the personal data these educational software, tutors, online games, and virtual learning platforms are throwing off.

The National Academy of Sciences really did publish a report last summer looking to the tech companies to help governments at all levels plan a new type of American economy around Sustainability using the data being thrown off by us day to day. Of course it will be abused. Lois Lerner clones helping to plan the economy? That will be disinterested.

Henry Hawkins | June 7, 2013 at 10:37 am

Federal Government: TOO BIG TO FAIL

My relationship with my own government grows increasingly adversarial.

I heard a sobering comment about this on the Glen radio broadcast this morning …

“If Hitler had this technology would there be any more Jewish people left?”

Think about it. 1984 is now.

    wyntre in reply to mgparrish. | June 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    ‘s what Rand Paul is saying. Ironic, isn’t it, that 1984 was published 60 years ago this week?

    J Motes in reply to mgparrish. | June 7, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Actually, Hitler’s Nazi Germany did have high-powered modern technology that made the identification and slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people very efficient. Edwin Black revealed the connections in his book “IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation.” Black says the Nazi regime worked with IBM on technology and information gathering that would “accelerate and in many ways automate key aspects of [Hitler’s] persecution of Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others the Nazis considered enemies.”

    From the website for Black’s book (

    “As the Third Reich embarked upon its plan of conquest and genocide, IBM and its subsidiaries helped create enabling technologies, step-by-step, from the identification and cataloging programs of the 1930s to the selections of the 1940s.

    “Only after Jews were identified — a massive and complex task that Hitler wanted done immediately — could they be targeted for efficient asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, enslaved labor, and, ultimately, annihilation. It was a cross-tabulation and organizational challenge so monumental, it called for a computer. Of course, in the 1930s no computer existed.

    “But IBM’s Hollerith punch card technology did exist. Aided by the company’s custom-designed and constantly updated Hollerith systems, Hitler was able to automate his persecution of the Jews. Historians have always been amazed at the speed and accuracy with which the Nazis were able to identify and locate European Jewry. Until now, the pieces of this puzzle have never been fully assembled. The fact is, IBM technology was used to organize nearly everything in Germany and then Nazi Europe, from the identification of the Jews in censuses, registrations, and ancestral tracing programs to the running of railroads and organizing of concentration camp slave labor.

    “IBM and its German subsidiary custom-designed complex solutions, one by one, anticipating the Reich’s needs. They did not merely sell the machines and walk away. Instead, IBM leased these machines for high fees and became the sole source of the billions of punch cards Hitler needed.”

    Search online for “ibm nazi germany” (without the quotes) for hundreds of thousands of links that discuss this black period in an iconic American corporation’s history. Do you believe that IBM had no knowledge of the genocidal purposes their data collection systems were used to enact? Do you believe that today’s corporations would ALL refuse to participate in building massive data collection systems focused on American citizens? Trick question, that: This work is already well underway. And as others in the comments to this post have already noted, our government has defined the true terrorist threat to be American conservatives. I do not feel much reassured that our dictator is one of the benevolent sort.

DDsModernLife | June 7, 2013 at 10:40 am

With regard to the NSA datamining ‘phone records, you may ask yourself, “Why should this worry me?” And the obvious answer is: “The Government can not be trusted to handle the resulting data with discretion.” On the contrary, this administration has demonstrated time and again a complete lack of discretion.

With regard to this issue, Sen. Dianne Feinstein stated yesterday that, “It’s called ‘protecting America’.” If that’s all it is, Dianne, why stop at half-measures?

There wasn’t ever supposed to by domestic monitoring under the Patriot Act, at least not en masse.

There may be some advantage to what the government is doing, but at this point it has to stop immediately.

Once the government has shown it is willing to turn such tools on the public, which we have seen in a massive way now, they have to be taken away.

Obama will use this data against the domestic opposition, hell, he probably has already.

How many times have we seen some Republican go squishy out of the blue? How often have we see the left start some crazy rumor that turns out to be true (like the thing with Larry Craig?)

This power is too dangerous to leave in the hands of those currently in government. Period.

    snopercod in reply to 18-1. | June 7, 2013 at 11:17 am

    “Obama will use this data against the domestic opposition, hell, he probably has already.”

    That’s a real concern. I can easily imagine some petty tyrant in the executive branch or congress making a phone call asking for “all records” on…say…Sarah Palin or Ted Cruz. Maybe that was how the information on Herman Cain leaked out?

      DDsModernLife in reply to snopercod. | June 7, 2013 at 11:49 am

      Herman Cain crossed my mind as well. His dual “bimbo eruptions” may have damaged his campaign but the release of some rather inappropriate text messages brought the END.

      Besides choosing a person and looking at who they’re calling it can be worked the other way: “Who’s calling the local gun store or shooting range?” for example.

      wyntre in reply to snopercod. | June 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      A blogger at another site pointed out all 9 companies cited in the PRISM story donated heavily and solely to the POS campaign.

      Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, YouTube, etc.

      Who’s to say some employees didn’t do some anti-Romney political data snooping?

It would be naive to believe the November 2012 election was won by Team Obama simply by means of voter fraud. Every communication by Romney was intercepted.

The election was stolen.

So, Obama is not our legal President any more than Biden is the legal VP.

President Boehner?

    Subotai Bahadur in reply to clafoutis. | June 7, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Your train of thought is directly on point. If the government is not legitimate, what is our duty? The assumption that Boehner would be president, however, may be premature. If the contract between rulers and ruled which is the Constitution has been unilaterally voided, it cannot be made to apply until it is re-established as the supreme law of the land. That will not be done until those who violated its terms are removed; which process has not even begun.

    The champion(s) of the Constitution have not been revealed, and may not in fact exist [in which case the experiment in Constitutional liberty is over]. We can be pretty sure that Boehner is not our Dux Bellorum, since he has compromised himself with the enemies of the Constitution repeatedly.

    If the Constitution is re-established, the process will itself, hopefully, include the simultaneous re-establishment of a social contract, leaders will have emerged during the process, and the enemies of the Constitution will have been excluded from that contract the same way the Tories were post-1783.

    Subotai Bahadur

    wyntre in reply to clafoutis. | June 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm


    Just last week the campaign director who ran Allen West’s opponent’s race in St. Lucie County, Florida, was indicted for vote fraud.

    West fought the results but eventually threw in the towel. It’s likely he won.

    In Illinois, one county ruled the POS had not qualified to have his name on the ballot because the majority of qualifying signatures were fraudulent.

    In another county, a campaign worker has been sentenced to jail for voting six times.

    And let’s not forget the urban areas where the POS picked up 150% of the vote while Mitt didn’t get even one vote.

Subotai Bahadur | June 7, 2013 at 11:09 am

It strikes me that ACE is trying desperately to avoid dealing with the truth in front of him. Yeah, there might be a conceivable justification for the system if it was run as he suggests. But that method of operation a) is still unacceptably intrusive on the liberties of Americans, and b) as more and more comes out it is blatant that nothing like that was what was actually happening. Instead, the American public and those who are not part of the circle of Obama supporters are exclusively targeted.

When you consider that apparently somehow the only phone carrier that preserved its users privacy in this country was whichever carrier was used by the Tsarnaev brothers; so they were able to carry out their terrorist bombing unimpeded by the government that gathers EVERYTHING on Americans and uses it against them; it shows where the emphasis is.

Subotai Bahadur

    heimdall in reply to Subotai Bahadur. | June 7, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    Ace was getting ripped apart last night after he used this analogy by commenters on his site. You either respect the 4th amendment or you don’t. You take ALL of the constitution or you don’t. It is not a cafeteria. You don’t get to pick and choose what amendments we follow or don’t follow.

Juba Doobai! | June 7, 2013 at 11:11 am

The problem with this data mining is the government we have. Sure Americans want to be secure in our own country. However, we also want our rights as enshrined in the Constitution. We want liberty. Unfortunately for us, the Democrats are socialists and communists, and the GOP are socialist lite. Therefore, it is unlikely that Democrats will do anything but herd us on to a one size fits all plantation, while the GOPE will attempt to stifle and disdain the liberty-loving TP.

The Obama government has no regard for the rule of law or the Constitution. The regime has been willing to trample over everyone’s rights, not out of some altruistic view that they are protecting the country–if they wanted to do that, they would secure our border instead of allowing the marish, the parish, and the terrorist to come in as they see fit.

So, given what we have, and given the sentiment of the people, it’s a nice idea to discuss the utility of PRISM, to think of it in terms of national security. However, distrust of government makes that discussion one we are not likely to have.

So, the chickens have come home to roost for the Democrats. Big time.

I couldn’t find sources, but I seem to recall reading a year or so ago that the FBI was telling its agents to look out for domestic terrorism ties among those who advocated smaller government or opposed abortion, etc. Basically, the government was saying that all of the people who support this website could be suspected of domestic terrorism.

Why would we assume that their computers were searching for international and/or Muslim terrorist connections as opposed to simple conservative views that they claim indicate a propensity for domestic terrorism? If they are trying to stop terrorism, I would assume they are watching this website, any and all activity among Tea Party activists, any and all activity among anti-abortion advocates. Under their standards, wouldn’t they follow anyone who has visited or maybe even the not-so-conservative Wall Street Journal opinion page, let along the conservative blogs? I wonder if they flagged me when I looked up the “screw the government” scene from “Legends of the Fall” on youtube last week.

Someone above mentioned the use for political data mining for use in the campaign. I think that is also a good point.

    Disco Stu_ in reply to WTell. | June 7, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    So if someone happened to shout out …
    … we can no longer doing on Big Brother/Uncle Sam to simply accept such unkind & unfair – and incendiary too – “hate speech”. Am I understanding that correctly now?

    (Would NOT be me, of course, because I have a loving family to protect and a business to run.)

      Juba Doobai! in reply to Disco Stu_. | June 8, 2013 at 1:25 am

      It will not be you?

      Those who stand for nothing are condemned to fall for everything. You seem willing to fall for a family and a business in bondage to government. Good luck with that.

Iranian hard drives got scanned, so did yours (it just hasn’t leaked yet).

Israel believes Iran want to destroy them. What do you think the US government believes about you?

First, monitor dangerous thinkers.

Second,round them up.

We’ve seen this movie before.

stevewhitemd | June 7, 2013 at 11:52 am

ACE indeed makes a good point as far as he goes on human intelligence (hum-int) — we aren’t very good at it overall, and we especially aren’t very good at it when dealing with Arab terrorist and extremist groups.

You may recall our adventures in Lebanon: Hezbollah, Hamas and various Palestinian crazies have targeted our intel people for a long time. Remember William Buckley — not the National Review founder but the CIA officer? Kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Lebanon.

And so on.

We don’t have a deep well of people who can penetrate these groups, and the core members of these groups are committed to their beliefs and ideologies in ways we barely begin to understand.

So signal intelligence (sig-int) has to make up for that somehow, or we’re really screwed.

That’s ACE’s point.

Where ACE doesn’t go, but others do, is this: to the extent that we can’t trust our own government to honor its commitments to its citizens with regard to privacy and following the law, we can’t trust the government with the power to snoop.

If certain people in the current administration have no qualms about using IRS information to spy on, mistreat and wreck political groups, who’s to say that those same people (or fellow travelers) won’t do exactly the same thing with NSA information? Why would I believe that there’s an invisible wall separating IRS from NSA generated data that would never, ever be breached? Especially since the former already has been mis-used.

It’s the erosion of trust in our own government, our own elected officials, and our own citizens that is most dangerous to our country.

I think that’s what the conservative/libertarian/Tea Party reaction is today: we don’t trust Champ, Joe, Nancy, Harry, Eric Holder, Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice, Chuck Hagel, etc., and because of that we don’t want them to have this power.

I think ACE actually gets that but didn’t want to say it in that post.

Henry Hawkins | June 7, 2013 at 12:09 pm

The question is whether the good the surveillance apparatus does for national security outweighs the risks that:

a) it *could* easily be used as a political blackmail machine…

b) that, given human nature, it ultimately *will* be used as a political blackmail machine…

c) and that, given the demonstrably corrupt heart of the current administration, it may *already* be in use as a political blackmail machine.

Whom should we fear more – the terrorists or our own government?

    Ragspierre in reply to Henry Hawkins. | June 7, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    I rationally fear them both.

    Imagine how far the nation would tilt in favor of “safety” were there to be a successful WMD terror attack here.

    Imagine the forces in this nation who would love to fill that demand.

    you won’t like my answer.

    I fear the people who put this government in power, because they are largely fine with this.

    Earlier this year I gave the American experiment another 50-100 years, I’m not sure about that now.

Obama is not trustworthy. That is the overriding issue with regard to collection of data that, in the right hands, would not be used inappropriately, and would only be scrutinized as to a non-suspect if the machine threw out a terrorist profile.

The heart of the problem is that Obama not American-identified. He neither internalized a patriotic attachment to this country as a youngster (while you were celebrating Thanksgiving, he was in a Muslim madrassa in Indonesia, etc.), nor is he an immigrant who came here with appreciation for our values. This is dangerous, and it’s why there is a restriction in our constitution regarding who can be president.

I R A Darth Aggie | June 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm

The parable of the fence is good start.

But you need to go back further than when the NSA or whoever first decided this was a Good Idea.

The original fence is the 4th Amendment, in particular no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Apparently, that fence has been smashed into little bits debris, because I don’t think getting everyone’s email then sort thru it looking for stuff fits the word “particularly”.

2nd Ammendment Mother | June 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm
“The letter follows an April report by Fox News revealing the agency had released the personal information on thousands of farmers, many of whom had only a few animals.

The information was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Earth Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Pew Charitable Trust.

According to a document obtained by FOX the EPA said “some of the personal information that could have been protected … was released.”

Senators asked the EPA in the letter why some of the information was collected in the first place and under whose authority it was released.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) said the EPA intentionally targeted farmers when it released the information.

“Whether they’re spying on farmers or leaking their personal information, the EPA is clearly targeting farm families, and this has to stop,” Blunt, said in a statement Thursday. “Americans deserve answers immediately on what the Obama administration is doing to stop this clear invasion of privacy.””

Some of the Enviro groups are malicious and nuts…. did you ever wonder what led them to planting metal spikes in trees to cause injury to loggers. Have you had your kids targeted by PETA at the local county fair?

Midwest Rhino | June 7, 2013 at 1:03 pm

We the people are at war with “domestic terrorists”, aka, “rogue agents in the IRS”, OSHA, EPA, or knee-capper union thugs that have weekly audience with Obama. Holder lies openly to congress, POTUS lies openly to us and promotes those that lie for him, while demoting those that tell the truth. If those that used police powers to sway an election are not prosecuted, then the biggest threat is domestic.

We at least got a judge involved in this “PRISM border fence”, and I guess some in congress are aware, but when Holder can lie to a (shopped) judge about Rosen, to override the checks and balances, and nothing happens to him, then we are not safe until a hundred “rogue agents” are brought to justice.

This WH has a record, and CAN be trusted (“You Can Still Trust the Communists”) … trusted to use their police powers to punish their political enemies. Obama’s people praise Mao and pose with feet on our flag. Obama sided with Chavez and Castro and narco-terrorists in Honduras, over the Honduran democratic congress and courts … not a very promising precedent from this Fast and Furious administration.

Prosecute “traitors” and improve the separation of powers, before we carry on with this “hi-tech border fence”. If extreme wartime type measures are necessary, then extreme prosecutions are needed to destroy the enemy within, that fires on his own citizens with these intrusive weapons.

2nd Ammendment Mother | June 7, 2013 at 1:12 pm

and then there’s this:
“In an interview with The Daily Caller, Kit Moncrief, a big-money fundraiser and state chair in Texas for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, recounted an unusual telephone call she received from an IRS agent on her personal cell phone in the spring of last year.

“The first place [the agent] called me was on my cell phone,” Moncrief said, explaining that she believed the only place the agent could have accessed the number was from a Romney list. “The number is listed under my husband’s name. She wouldn’t have been able to be able to have my cell phone number because on the IRS form it shows the office number.

“She would have had to have gotten it from the Romney list. That’s the only way I can figure out how she got the number,” Moncrief said.”

Read more:

Do we have to dredge up Ben Franklin yet again to remind ourselves what is at stake.

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Well Dr. Franklin what have we got a republic or a monarchy? A republic replied Franklin, if you can keep it.