Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-26


It pays to do your homework

Most political protest these days has boiled down to blanket accusations, and what’s more unfortunate is that the people that spout them are fairly clueless about the details.

A couple of weeks ago, I read about protesters who marched up to the AT&T headquarters because it collaborates with the NSA by sharing phone call data. They were disheveled, and they weren’t even on the same page. Some were talking about Net Neutrality, and all had some pretty clueless looks on their faces. I wonder, if someone had asked them of the details of both of these issues, if they could have answered cogently. I doubt it. Now I read about the Marc Jacobs store in San Francisco, which has a big sign in their window which says “Worst President Ever”. If I were to walk in and ask one of their clerks why they think that, I bet they’d be clueless, and they’d point me to the manager, who’d point me to the district office, etc. Or, they’d give me an accusatory look, to blame me for not knowing the answer already. Signs like these only serve to alienate instead of proving a point.

I believe people simply can’t get their point across unless they do their homework about what they stand for, and they’re able to express their opinion clearly and convincingly. I don’t care what your stance is on something as long as you can truly stand for it. If there’s something I don’t like, it’s parrots who spout catchphrases but can’t explain them.


The NSA wire-tapping scandal

I wrote about the wire tapping issue back on the 8th of April, and it looks like the it’s resurfaced big time. Just today, I read this USA Today article. Senators Leahy and Specter picked up the stoy, then CNN picked it up as well. Now the Washington Post published the results of a telephone survey that says most americans (60% or so) support the NSA’s collection of information on telephone calls.

It seems like all that’s happening is that massive amounts of data are getting crunched at the NSA, for statistical purposes, in an effort to try and determine patterns in terrorist communications, but the NSA (including Gen. Hayden) and the Bush administration have been going about it all wrong. As the USA Today article details, they used strong-arm tactics on the phone companies in order to get them to cooperate. When Qwest wouldn’t, they accused them of compromising national security and told them they wouldn’t get any more classified contracts… Is that the way to treat someone who has legal and understandable doubts about its customers’ privacy? I think it’s shameful.

So let me see if I get it straight. The government gives you classified contracts if you jump through their hoops, and once you get used to the taste of steady government money, threatens to yank them from your plate if you won’t compromise on your ethics. It looks to be a pretty good tactic, which works great on most executives. After all, every one of the phone companies but Qwest capitulated and handed over their data.

It’s all very sad. The NSA’s methods are classified, but I for one have a hard time seeing how one can gather real data about terrorists (people who are, for the most part, already flagged and monitored) by crunching through the phone calls of the average law-abiding citizen, unless you’re trying to make sure this same average citizen isn’t a terrorist.

Maybe it’s about establishing a “noise floor”, and that’s why they need a statistically-relevant mass of data? Once they’ve compiled a database of the common conversations of regular folks, anything out of the ordinary will spike above the “noise floor”, raising a flag for further examination. Just my uneducated guess. The method sounds good, but the manner in which they’re going about securing the data is, as I’ve said above, wrong.