Friday, June 28, 2013

The Very Private Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board

With the recent announcement that President Obama was meeting with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, many people around the world are wondering who this group is.  Here's some background information for you.

Let's start with a quote from the Federal Register about the aforementioned group:

"The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) is an advisory body to assist the President and other senior Executive branch officials in ensuring that concerns with respect to privacy and civil liberties are appropriately considered in the implementation of all laws, regulations, and executive branch policies related to war against terrorism. 

Recommended by the July 22, 2004, report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was established by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004...."

The PCLOB was established as a result of the 2004 report which recommended that:

(1) the President, in the course of determining the guidelines for information sharing among government agencies and by them with the private sector, “should safeguard the privacy of individuals about whom information is shared”; and 

(2) the “burden of proof for retaining a particular governmental power should be on the executive, to explain (a) that the power actually materially enhances security and (b) that there is adequate supervision of the executive’s use of the powers to ensure protection of civil liberties. If the power is granted, there must be adequate guidelines and oversight to properly confine its use.”

The Board is designed to ensure that the sharing of information is done in a manner that safeguards the privacy of the individuals about whom the information is being shared and that the President's use of power adheres to the guidelines that actually enhance security.

Between 2007 and 2012, the PCLOB had no appointees to carry on its mandate and many Democrats and Republicans have little interest in seeing it operate effectively.  Back in December 2010, the current President took the step of nominating two new members; Elisebeth Cook and James Dempsey with both nominations expiring at the end of the 111th Congress.  Both were renominated in early January 2011 as President Obama took steps to safeguard Americans' privacy and civil liberties in light of the Administration's new and improved cybersecurity legislation as shown in this letter to Congress:

Basically, the Board's purpose is two-pronged:

1.) It ensures that concerns about civil liberties are considered in the development and application of laws that are related to protecting the United States against terrorism.

2.) It analyzes the actions taken by the Executive Branch of the federal government to protect the United States against terrorism and ensures that these actions are balanced with the need to protect both the privacy and civil liberties of Americans.

The Board consists of five members, all appointed by the President, serving at "his/her pleasure".  It is part of the White House Office within the Office of the President and has its own support staff and Executive Director.

Currently, the five members on the Board as well as their political affiliation and expiry date are:

Patricia M. Wald (D) - term expires January 29, 2019 
Elisebeth C. Cook (R) - term expires January 29, 2014 
James X. Dempsey (D) - term expires January 29, 2016
Rachel L. Brand  (R) - term expires January 29, 2017
David Medine (D) - Chairman - term expires January 30, 2018

Interestingly, Patricia Wald is now 84 years of age and is a former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.  Of the five nominees, only two have extensive experience and expertise in the fields of privacy, surveillance, information and communications technologies.

When asked by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) during the April 2012 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that was held to consider the appointment of the President's nominees about whether the candidates supported the re-creation of the wall on information sharing that was taken down post-September 11th, none of the candidates had anything to say.  As well, none of the nominees took a stand on the targeting of United States citizens abroad.

Remembering that the Board members "serve at the President's pleasure", is it just me or is there a conflict of interest here?  If a Board member finds itself in conflict with the President and his views on surveillance and privacy, is their continued presence as a Board member jeopardized?  In other words, does this secretive Board have the best interests of the American public at heart?  What should be of particular concern to everyone is that the majority of the five members appointed to this Board have a complete lack of skills or experience in the fields of communications technology or in the legal fields that involve our privacy and civil rights.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Paranoia in Washington - Is History Repeating Itself?

It seems that Americans that take the step of becoming a whistleblower are taking their chances.  Under the Obama Administration, a total of eight whistleblowers/information leakers have been charged under the Espionage Act, finding themselves accused of leaking classified information.  

Let's open by looking at the Espionage Act followed by a brief look at what is currently happening in Washington and how history appears to be repeating itself.  The Espionage Act was passed on June 15, 1917 during the Woodrow Wilson presidency, a short time after the United States entered the First World War.  In its original form, a finding of guilt resulted in a $10,000 fine and 20 years of imprisonment for:

1.) Disclosing information that dealt with national defence.
2.) Interfering with the recruiting of troops.
3.) Refusing to perform military service.

Notice that the original Act says nothing about "whistle blowing" by government employees.

In its original incarnation, the Act led to the arrests of hundreds of Americans including 450 conscientious objectors and others involved in the anti-war movement.  During the Communist/Red scare of 1919 and 1920, the U.S. Attorney General and his assistant, one J. Edgar Hoover, made regular and ample usage of the Espionage Act and its sister Sedition Act of 1918, an amendment to the Espionage Act that covered a wider range of offences including the act of expressing an opinion that cast either the government or the war effort in a negative light, to arrest 1500 people for "disloyalty".  As well, nearly 250 people were deported to Russia for their involvement in "left wing politics".  Basically, as you can see, the Sedition Act functioned as a "public muzzle"; Americans were not allowed to publicly state any "disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of government of the United States...".  Under that, most bloggers, newspaper commenters and talk show hosts would find themselves behind bars!

The Espionage Act, now referred to as 18 USC Chapter 37 after it was moved from Title 50 (War) to Title 18 (Crime aka the criminal and penal code of the federal government) after World War II  states the following about the disclosure of classified information:

"(a) Whoever knowingly and willfully communicates, furnishes, transmits, or otherwise makes available to an unauthorized person, or publishes, or uses in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States any classified information—

(1) concerning the nature, preparation, or use of any code, cipher, or cryptographic system of the United States or any foreign government; or

(2) concerning the design, construction, use, maintenance, or repair of any device, apparatus, or appliance used or prepared or planned for use by the United States or any foreign government for cryptographic or communication intelligence purposes; or

(3) concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government; or

(4) obtained by the processes of communication intelligence from the communications of any foreign government, knowing the same to have been obtained by such processes—
Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both."

Notice that the offence occurs when the information is used to benefit a foreign nation.  In the recent case of both Wikileaks and the NSA, the information released did not particularly benefit another nation directly, rather, it was used to the detriment of the United States, the Department of State and the National Security Agency.

Prior to the eight "lucky souls" who have been charged under the Espionage Act since 2009, we find three gentlemen charged with leaking information; Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower who was charged during the Nixon Administration, Samuel Morison who was charged under President Ronald Reagan for leaking satellite photos of a Soviet aircraft carrier to the British defense journal Jane's and Lawrence Franklin who was charged under President George W. Bush for passing classified documents regarding the United States policy toward Iran to the state of Israel.

Interestingly, this President that promised protection for whistleblowers has taken steps to prevent such actions.  It appears that the White House is attempting to crack down on leaks using a 2011 Department of Defence program called "Insider Threat" that forces government employees in most federal departments and agencies to report suspicious behaviour of their working colleagues if it appears that these colleagues may "leak" information that could damage the government.  If you want an example of how paranoia now rules supreme in Washington, here's an example from the  controller of cows and hay, the United States Department of Agriculture and its online tutorial on Treason:

"Although antisocial tendencies or severe narcissism are associated with increased security risk, they do not necessarily lead to serious offenses. Three critical factors will usually have to fall into alignment before a previously trustworthy and loyal employee commits a serious crime.

First, there must be a personality or character weakness, such as antisocial tendencies or narcissism, that causes a predisposition to maladjusted, counterproductive behavior.

Second, a personal, financial, or career crisis puts an individual with these weaknesses under great stress, triggering more obvious counterproductive behavior often observable by friends, coworkers, or supervisor.

Third, the friends, coworkers, and supervisor fail to recognize the signs of a serious problem, decide they don't want to get involved, or assume that someone else will take care of it. As a result, no one intervenes to help resolve the problem, and the individual's behavior spirals out of control.

I don't know about you, but I suspect that there are many Americans that, since 2007, would consider themselves to be in a situation of "financial crisis" as they've watched the value of their home plummet and the value of their assets crash and statistically, it is likely that some of those are antisocial or narcissistic.  

Fortunately, it doesn't mean that they are all spies.  Unfortunately, in the current environment, it means that they are under Washington's finely ground magnifying glass.

If you look back at what happened to hundreds of Americans when the Espionage and Sedition Acts were first passed in the early twentieth century and compare it to what is happening today in Washington, it certainly appears that history is repeating itself, doesn’t it?  Paranoia appears to be reigning yet again in the hallowed halls of D.C.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Impact of Sea Level Change on Coastal America

An interesting interactive map by Climate Central provides us with a glimpse of the impact of global climate change on coastal states in America.  I happen to live in a coastal area and have already seen the impact of storm surges on our coastline; faster rates of coastal erosion and unprecedented damage to infrastructure are becoming more and more common.

Global sea level has risen about 8 inches since 1880.  This may not seem like much, but according to Climate Central, nearly 5 million people in 2.4 million homes live a mere 4 feet above high tide, a level that is lower than the one in one hundred year flood line for most areas.

The tool provided by Climate Central allows visitors to search out areas that will be prone to flooding and provides a timeline of the risks involved in flooding.  Here are a couple of examples:

Note that the areas in grey will be flooded if the level of the sea rises by four feet (i.e. a combination of sea level rise, storm surge plus tide), a scenario that has a one in six chance of occurring by 2020.  This will impact 181,000 people living in over 78,000 homes.

 Even a one foot rise in the aforementioned water level will have this impact on Manhattan:

Let's look at one other area as shown on this map which shows the impact of a four foot rise in water level on Miami/ Fort Lauderdale and surrounding area:

This scenario has a one in six chance of occurring by 2050 and will impact 59,000 people living in 35,000 homes.

The delicate balance between sea level and climate change is just that; delicate.  Unfortunately, the high concentration of Americans living slightly above sea level will find out the hard way just how painful the situation will be as the interaction between stormier weather and rising sea levels becomes more and more apparent.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

South Africa - The Post-Apartheid Dream

Updated December 2013

Sadly, South Africa has seen the passing of its icon of peace, Nelson Mandela.  His dream for a better South Africa has impacted the lives of millions.

South Africa truly is one of the world's most beautiful nations.  I spent some time there twenty years ago, travelling through the country by car from north to south and east to west and there are few nations on earth that can rival its natural beauty.  One of the most vivid scenic memories that I have seen anywhere in the world is coming through a mountain pass and seeing the valley containing Franschhoek open before my eyes.  Although apartheid was officially behind the nation, the remnants were still there; such mundane things as two sets of washrooms at many service/petrol stations were obvious signs of the former division of the nation.

At that time, it was fascinating to see the difference between the two South Africas.  One was extremely wealthy; living in either gated communities or behind high walls and the other, living in crowded townships under sheets of corrugated tin.  We stayed with one Afrikaner couple, very friendly people, who, at the time, owned one of the world's largest car collections with one vehicle alone valued at well over a million dollars.  We also spent time talking to black South Africans who were very anxious about their futures, assuming that the end of apartheid meant the automatic transition to a wealthy lifestyle that they so envied in their former taskmasters.

Unfortunately, the dream did not necessarily come true for many South Africans.  

Here is a graph showing South Africa's official unemployment rate since 2008:

Here is a graph showing the growing number of unemployed South Africans since 2002:

As in most nations, the unemployment rate only includes those who are actively looking for a job but cannot find work.  According to The Economist, the real unemployment rate in South Africa is likely closer to the 40 percent mark, putting it among the worst in the "developed" world as shown on this map where darker red nations have higher unemployment:

You may recall the Gini index.  This index measure the extent to which the distribution of income (or, in some cases, consumption expenditure) among individuals or households within an economy deviates from a perfectly equal distribution.  This means that a Gini index of 0 represents perfect equality, while an index of 100 (or 1 in some cases) implies perfect inequality.

Here is a graph showing South Africa's Gini index since 1993 just after the official end of apartheid:

Rather than getting better, South Africa's Gini index got worse over the long-term.  According to the CIA World Factbook, South Africa's Gini is the second highest in the world after Lesotho.

Here is a graph comparing the Gini index for South Africa to those of other developed economies showing how elevated it is:

While the end of apartheid has brought the degree of absolute poverty down to more reasonable levels, it is obvious that the dream of economic equality has not come true.  The gap between the rich and the poor in the nation is huge.  Many believe that this is the case because the South African economy relies on the mining industry for its wealth rather than diversifying into manufacturing, a move that would create additional jobs and end the massive unemployment problem in the nation.

Is the post-apartheid dream dead?  Perhaps not, but it certainly appears that it is on life-support despite the desires and the needs of the non-white population.