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Why I Don't Give A Rip About CISPA (and why you shouldn't either)

Date/Time Permalink: 04/25/13 12:21:48 pm
Category: General

Hey, stereotypically-enraged Internet mob! Pardon me, if you could put down your pitchforks and torches for a minute and direct your attention this way? I am about to write the first post on the Internet about CISPA that is not alarmist, panicky, sensationalist, or populist. Instead, we're going to take a look at what's really going on behind the scenes, examining the government not as some mythical hobgoblin, but the way it really works when people clock in in the morning.

Try it. I know you won't accept it, but try it just to give it a whirl.

TL;DR: I DO NOT SUPPORT CISPA. I DO NOT OPPOSE CISPA. It just DOESN'T MATTER.


What does CISPA do, exactly?

It would allow for the sharing of Internet traffic information between the U.S. government and technology and manufacturing companies. No, really, that's it in a nutshell! No new data will be collected. Corporations already have data about you. The government already has data about you. This would just open up a slightly wider pipe between the two.

Here's the PDF draft of the bill itself. Note that it only specifies classified intelligence. At the root, this will make it so that classified intelligence isn't so restricted on who can read it. It will not restrict Joe Public's access to web porn and LOLcats.


Why it doesn't make a difference: Washington Post peeks under the hood of government

Let me introduce you to a very important study and report by the Washington Post from a couple years back, which didn't get nearly the exposure it deserves: A hidden world, growing beyond control, about what an overwhelmed behemoth our security intelligence infrastructure is.

It's a 7-page article, a long read, and nobody has any business having an opinion about CISPA until they've read and fully absorbed every jot and tittle of it. If you don't have the time to read it, you don't have the time to scream about CISPA online.

Some choice quotes:

"Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate."

...

" The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 21/2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But the figure doesn't include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs."

"Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work."

...

"Leiter spends much of his day flipping among four computer monitors lined up on his desk. Six hard drives sit at his feet. The data flow is enormous, with dozens of databases feeding separate computer networks that cannot interact with one another."

"When hired, a typical analyst knows very little about the priority countries - Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan - and is not fluent in their languages. Still, the number of intelligence reports they produce on these key countries is overwhelming, say current and former intelligence officials who try to cull them every day. The ODNI doesn't know exactly how many reports are issued each year, but in the process of trying to find out, the chief of analysis discovered 60 classified analytic Web sites still in operation that were supposed to have been closed down for lack of usefulness. 'Like a zombie, it keeps on living' is how one official describes the sites."

"Two years later, Custer, now head of the Army's intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., still gets red-faced recalling that day, which reminds him of his frustration with Washington's bureaucracy. "Who has the mission of reducing redundancy and ensuring everybody doesn't gravitate to the lowest-hanging fruit?" he said. "Who orchestrates what is produced so that everybody doesn't produce the same thing?"

He's hardly the only one irritated. In a secure office in Washington, a senior intelligence officer was dealing with his own frustration. Seated at his computer, he began scrolling through some of the classified information he is expected to read every day: CIA World Intelligence Review, WIRe-CIA, Spot Intelligence Report, Daily Intelligence Summary, Weekly Intelligence Forecast, Weekly Warning Forecast, IC Terrorist Threat Assessments, NCTC Terrorism Dispatch, NCTC Spotlight . . ."

Do you know what CISPA is going to actually do? I can tell you what CISPA is going to do. CISPA will put another email in that inbox. It will put another report on that desk. It will add another redundant redundancy into the redundant system.


A recent, practical example: The Boston bombers

This story recently came up that Russian intelligence warned the FBI about the Boston bombers. And yet, if you read the text, there's disagreeing comments from government employees at all levels: "Yes they did." "No they didn't." "I saw that but I thought it was that other guy's job." Even more mind--blowing, is the headline Boston Bombing Suspect's Name Was in US Terrorism Databases!

What if CISPA had been in place? It probably wouldn't have helped much. Another stack of papers would have gotten shuffled around without getting read. Maybe it would have put the right dot on the right map. If it had, doubtless three other things that demanded attention would have been ignored instead.

Call it "Penguin Pete's Law of Surveillance": It doesn't matter how much data you collect. What matters is having the eyeballs to read that data.

Now in this case, doesn't it seem kind of freaky that the Department of Homeland Security knew about a threat, the FBI didn't, and neither organization acted on it anyway? Furthermore, there were restrictions in place between the FBI and the DHS being able to tell one another "Hey, here's a radical guy that may do something squirrely - keep an eye on him." Wouldn't you think they'd be able to just do that?


I've worked in government. Yes, it's that bad.

During my time in the California Conservation Corps, it was part of my contract to be loaned out to other state agencies. Lucky me, I got the warehouse spot for a state hospital. In that warehouse (which was the size of a Walmart by itself), at least two whole isles of shelving had nothing but forms on them. Yes, that was part of my job was to just issue forms.

There were actual scenarios where some state employee would have to fill out a form, take it to their department head, who would fill out a companion form and get it stamped and send two copies back to the first employee, who would then be granted permission to come to my warehouse and get... (*drum roll*) ANOTHER BOX OF FORMS! After they signed my form and I signed their form, of course. And this was just for the state hospital. There were no security clearances involved.


A small dive into United States intelligence agencies

Want to fully explore US intelligence agencies?

Sure thing. How many lifetimes do you have?

Here's the Wiki category, dive right in. Be sure to check out all the subcategories and the sub-subcategories.

There's the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, and the Office of Intelligence Support. There's the National Intelligence Board, the National Intelligence Coordination Center, and the National Intelligence Council.

And the National Counterterrorism Center, the CIA's Counterterrorism Center (yes, they're different), and the CIA's Counterterrorist Intelligence Center. And don't forget the FBI Counterterrorism Division, which is completely different from the FBI National Security Branch, the US Treasury's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

There's the Bureau of Intelligence and Research... Wait, within that branch, there's the Office of Research, the External Research Staff, the Current Intelligence Staff, and the Publications Staff, which probably sends more stacks of reports to desks. There's offices for analysis of each major continent. There's the Office of Intelligence Operations, the Office of Intelligence Resources, and the Office of Intelligence Coordination, all headed by (say it in one breath) the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence Policy and Coordination.

I might be going out on a limb here, but maybe some of these departments and agencies and offices are starting to sound a little bit redundant?

Believe it or not, we haven't mentioned the Defense Intelligence Agency yet, which has the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center, which is apparently competing with the oxymoronically-named George Bush Center for Intelligence.

We haven't started on the United States Department of Homeland Security, which, of course, has its own galaxy of sub-departments, including the Federal Protective Service, which deploys bomb-sniffing dogs - hey, we could have used some of those in Boston! The US DHS also now controls U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; now you would think that ICE would have no responsibilities beyond keeping people from jumping the fence and making sure nobody brings quarantined fruit through the airport, right? But they also have divisions for cyber-crimes and national security, too.

And don't forget, every branch of the US military has its OWN intelligence and counterterrorism departments as well!

We're just getting started. We could fill ten more blog posts this size with more US intelligence divisions and still just be getting started. Last year, I blogged on Mind--Blown about Intellipedia, A US government intelligence Wiki that mere mortals aren't allowed to view. And there's more than one US government intelligence wiki out there - and they're all classified!

So there you have it. Think of an idea to solve the problem, any idea at all. They've tried them all.

If you think this red tape is bad, you should see the story about the 13,712 empty bank accounts.


What should Obama really do about CISPA?

It appears Obama is aware of the problem of intel-bloat; he recently cut 8% from US spy agency budgets. I'm sure he'll get blasted for it - I can hear it on FOX news now: "At a time when the Boston bombing shows we need more intelligence gathering, blah blah blah."

Honestly, if I were his adviser, I'd probably just shrug about now and say "What the hell, pass it. It might not hurt." That's the best you can hope for. It's redundant on top of half a zillion intelligence and surveillance acts and bills and laws we've already had. But it will not affect a damned, damned thing.

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