Friday, February 10, 2017

The "Warrant Canary"

After September 11, 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act with only a single dissenting vote in the Senate and only 66 Representatives out of 432 voting nay.  (The House is a strange creation--there can be up to 435 voting Representatives, but some entities have a seat but no voting power, such as Puerto Rico, so technically there are 441 Representatives.)  Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin was the only Senator voting against the Patriot Act on October 24, 2001.  When the Act was up for renewal in 2006, at a time when more level heads should have prevailed, 86 out of 100 Senators voted in favor.

Because of such sweeping consent by America's politicians, America in 2017 lacks privacy and is under more surveillance than East Germany at its peak.  The surveillance is so broad and so invasive, the law itself prevents companies from even disclosing cooperation with it. If an electronic communications company--and what technology company isn't involved in electronic communications these days?--receives a National Security Letter ("NSL") demanding records, the company cannot even disclose the governmental request under 18 U.S.C. 2709(c).

That whole "checks and balances" idea allowing America to claim it had more freedom and stability than repressive regimes?  It has not existed from 2001 to 2017, because law enforcement agencies like the FBI are able to send a form letter and demand reams of consumer and citizen data without needing to get judicial approval.

 In 2017, a few companies are trying to fight back through end-to-end encryption and now a "warrant canary."  Basically, companies that haven't yet received a National Security Letter publish something in their annual report indicating they've never received one, and if the statement is missing from future annual reports, the consumer can make an educated guess about what has changed.

While this type of protest is encouraging, it is still facile and futile in actually stopping governmental and law enforcement overreach. As such, someone caring about privacy is now better off moving to another country where taxes are spent more meticulously, preventing governments from expanding law enforcement resources at will.  A country that can issue whatever money it needs on the backs of future generations may not go bankrupt due to currently low interest rates, but the kind of society it can create is not necessarily a healthy or sustainable one.  Indeed, a government relying on debt to maintain the status quo has an interest in normalizing its use amongst its own citizens as it diverts taxpayer funds into increasingly questionable endeavors.  In today's topsy-turvy world, countries with less financial flexibility are more nimble psychologically and perhaps more financially sturdy because choices must be made.  When choices must be made with finite funds, at least a few people tend to think of the long term.  Not so in America, but at least it looks like a few are rebelling--11 and 16 years too late.

Trivia Fun: as of 2017, the six non-voting members are Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

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