JEDI Mind Tricks: Amazon versus the Pentagon and Trump

Amazon is one of the largest companies in the world, boasting revenues of more than $230 billion last year. But last month the company sued the US Department of Defense over a paltry potential $10 billion spread over ten years.

Amazon lost out to Microsoft in bidding for the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (yes,  JEDI, because the most important part of a government program is coming up with a cool acronym) cloud computing program.

Amazon claims it lost the contract due to, well, JEDI mind tricks — “improper pressure” and “repeated and behind-the-scenes attacks” —  played by US president Donald Trump on the Pentagon to set its collective mind against his perceived political opponent, Amazon president (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos.

If so, Trump’s mind tricks pale next to the mind tricks used to justify the notion that the Pentagon needs a billion dollars a year to buy its own specialized, proprietary cloud computing system — one that the DoD’s own fact sheet boasts is  merely ” one component of the larger ecosystem that consists of different cloud models based on purpose” — from Microsoft, from Amazon, or from anyone else.

The great thing about cloud computing is that it’s a 50-year-old concept, generally available for years now in numerous off-the-shelf versions. The Pentagon doesn’t need its own cloud computing system any more than it needs its own brand of staplers.

Some JEDI knights might protest that the US armed forces need sturdier security than the everyday user, justifying a proprietary system. Per the fact sheet, “NSA, CYBERCOM, and the intelligence community provided input into JEDI’s security requirements.”

I suspect we’re talking about the same NSA, CYBERCOM and intelligence community we’ve listened to whine for the last 30 years about how civilian encryption technologies and other privacy protections are just too darn good and should be artificially hobbled to make them easier to crack.

Global Firepower lists 2019 defense budgets for 137 of the world’s countries. Of those countries, 61 — nearly half — spend less than $1 billion per year on their entire armed forces. That is, less than the Pentagon wants to spend per year on a single computing system.

It’s not Amazon who’s getting screwed here, it’s the American taxpayer. JEDI is Pentagon budget padding at one end and corporate welfare at the other, not an essential element of a robust national defense.

In other news, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper still hasn’t found the droids he’s looking for.

Open This Content

The USA PATRIOT Act: The Story of an Impulsive Bill That Eviscerated America’s Civil Liberties

The USA PATRIOT Act provides a textbook example of how the United States federal government expands its power. An emergency happens, legitimate or otherwise. The media, playing its dutiful role as goad for greater government oversight, demands “something must be done.” Government power is massively expanded, with little regard for whether or not what is being done is efficacious, to say nothing of the overall impact on our nation’s civil liberties.

No goals are posted, because if targets are hit, this would necessitate the ending or scaling back of the program. Instead, the program becomes normalized. There are no questions asked about whether the program is accomplishing what it set out to do. It is now simply a part of American life and there is no going back.

The American public largely accepts the USA PATRIOT Act as a part of civic life as immutable, perhaps even more so than the Bill of Rights. However, this act – passed in the dead of night, with little to no oversight, in a panic after the biggest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor – is not only novel, it is also fundamentally opposed to virtually every principle on which the United States of America was founded. It might not be going anywhere anytime soon, but patriots, liberty lovers and defenders of Constitutional government should nonetheless familiarize themselves with the onerous provisions of this law, which is nothing short of a full-throttle attack on the American republic.

What’s Even in the USA PATRIOT Act?

What is in the USA PATRIOT Act? In the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9/11then Rep. John Conyers cracked wise about how no one had actually read the Act and how this was in fact par for the course with America’s laws. Thus, before delving into the deeper issues surrounding the PATRIOT Act, it is worth discussing what the Act actually says. Here’s a brief look at the 10 Titles in the PATRIOT Act:

  • Title I: Enhancing Domestic Security Against Terrorism: This provision dramatically expands the powers of the President, the military and the intelligence community whenever the specter of “terrorism” is invoked. Bizarrely, it contains a provision condemining discrimination against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians, which seems to have very little to do with protecting Americans from terrorism.
  • Title II: Enhanced Surveillance Procedures: Title II contains the meat of the Act with regard to massive, industrial-scale surveillance on the American public. Beyond the simple spying on Americans and their communications, Title II increases the ability of federal intelligence agencies to share your private communications with one another.
  • Title III: International Money Laundering Abatement and Financial Anti-Terrorism Act: Not simply a section of the USA PATRIOT Act, Title III is an Act of Congress in its own right. You might have noticed how much more difficult it is to open a bank account or send a wire transfer after 9/11. You can blame this provision, which shredded banking privacy rights in the United States.
  • Title IV: Protecting the Border: Other than expanding the number of federal employees (of course), the provision of the USA PATRIOT Act charged with protecting America’s borders does little other than point toward paths for future action and study. It is worth noting that the weakest provision of the Act is the only one explicitly authorized by the Constitution — protecting the border.
  • Title V: Removing Obstacles to Investigating Terrorism: Title V authorizes bounties for the apprehension of alleged terrorists, broadens government power to conduct DNA analysis, allows for greater data sharing between law enforcement agencies and, perhaps most disturbingly, requires private telecommunication carriers to comply with government requests for electronic communication records whenever requested by the FBI. It also expands the power of the Secret Service to investigate computer fraud.
  • Title VI: Providing for Victims of Terrorism, Public Safety Officers and Their Families: Perhaps the most innocuous portion of the USA PATRIOT Act, Title VI provides for a victims’ fund for victims of terrorism and their families.
  • Title VII: Increased Information Sharing for Critical Infrastructure Protection: The subtitle of this section of the Act is a rather wordy way of saying that the United States federal government is allowing for law enforcement agencies to share information across jurisdictional boundaries in an easier fashion than was previously legal. To that end, the Bureau of Justice Assistance was given a $50,000,000 budget for 2002 and a whopping $100,000,000 budget for fiscal year 2003.
  • Title VIII: Strengthening the Criminal Laws Against Terrorism: Title VIII is where the rubber meets the road: What exactly is terrorism, according to the federal government? Unfortunately, this Title does little to clarify what terrorism is, instead focusing on declaring a number of actions (such as attacks on transit) as “terrorism,” regardless of intent.
  • Title IX: Improved Intelligence: The section subtitled “improved intelligence” largely expands the powers and responsibilities of the Director of Central Intelligence.
  • Title X: Miscellaneous: When the federal government titles a segment of a law “miscellaneous,” you know it’s going to include everything and the kitchen sink. And so it does: The definition of electronic surveillance, additional funds for the DEA in South and Central Asia, research on biometric scanning systems, a limitation on hazmat licensure and infrastructure protections are all addressed in Title X, which is a catchall for everything the federal government forgot to address in the first nine sections of the law.

Most of the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act were set to sunset four years after the bill was passed into law. However, the law was extended first by President George W. Bush and then by President Barack H. Obama. The latter is particularly scandalous given that, at least in part, a rejection of the surveillance culture that permeated the Bush Administration was responsible for the election of Obama in 2008.

Continue reading The USA PATRIOT Act: The Story of an Impulsive Bill That Eviscerated America’s Civil Liberties at Ammo.com.

Open This Content

Right to Know: A Historical Guide to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

Right to Know Day

Information has taken on a whole new meaning in the digital age, a time when sensitive data is either too easily accessible or not accessible enough. This issue of access to information encompasses fundamental human rights – specifically the freedom of speech as well as the right to privacy. Because it’s a primary means of maintaining transparency and accountability within government policies and decision-making in both the United States and around the globe, information is more valuable than ever to both government agencies and our individual lives. This guide takes an in-depth look at FOIA history and the importance of exercising your right to know.

International Right to Know Day: September 28th

September 28th marks International Right to Know Day. What began as a meeting between freedom of information organizations from 15 countries in 2002, has expanded to a global observance supported by more than 200 organizations worldwide. Each year, International Right to Know Day seeks to make people aware of the distinct rights they have to access government information that is essential to “open, democratic societies in which there is full citizen empowerment and participation in government.” Within the United States, those rights come in the form of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

Freedom of Information Act

July 2016, marked not only FOIA’s golden 50-year anniversary, a milestone in Americans’ rights to scrutinize government agency records, but also the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. Together, they remind us that FOIA’s guarantee of access to information was not easily acquired – nor was it a legally binding right. In fact, FOIA’s very creation was highly controversial. And since it has passed, its implementation and execution have continued to present challenges of their own.

1789 Housekeeping Statute

For more than 175 years, the United States relied on what was known as the 1789 Housekeeping Statute. As the U.S. Constitution does not specify policy or procedure for information sharing either among federal bodies or with the public, Congress’ 1789 statute authorized heads of departments to maintain records and to determine how those records would be used.

Although the legislation was considered simply a “housekeeping” measure for a growing nation, opponents of free access even today continue to invoke it in arguments to withhold information – even though a one-line 1959 amendment to the statute specifically states, “This section does not authorize withholding information from the public or limiting the availability of records to the public.”

Administrative Procedure Act of 1946

As the growing nation continued to create agencies and departments, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw the need to once again establish some additional housekeeping rules through the Administrative Procedure Act. According to the act, federal agencies had to maintain records and make them “available to public inspection” – except for “information held confidential for good cause.” Fraught with loopholes, the act gave more cause to withhold information than to share it. However, it did require that agencies:

  • Establish offices where the public could “secure information or make submittals or requests.”
  • Publish formal and informal procedures for information sharing.
  • Make available “instructions as to the scope and contents of all papers, reports, or examinations.”

FOIA Reaction to Cold War Secrecy

Post-World War II, however, conflict assumed new dimensions in the Cold War. Governmental secrecy increasingly frustrated journalists and the public alike. Open demand for information grew, spurred on by Harold Cross’ 1953 publication of The People’s Right To Know and ensuing congressional initiatives led by California’s Democratic Representative John Moss.

On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a signing statement to edify Congress’ fresh, new Freedom of Information Act with limitations. Although his statement asserted that “a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation will provide,” it focused heavily on the fact that “the welfare of the nation or the rights of individuals may require that some documents not be made available.” While reluctantly conceding the act as necessary, Johnson removed many of the act’s teeth exception by exemption. Even so, for the first time, a law had been written with the sole purpose of ensuring public access to federal agency records.

Continue reading Right to Know: A Historical Guide to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) at Ammo.com.

Open This Content

Photo ID is Obsolete and Unnecessary. Facial Recognition Technology Makes it Dangerous.

In mid-May, San Francisco, California became the first American city to ban use of facial recognition surveillance technology by its police department and other city agencies. That’s a wise and ethical policy, as a July 7 piece at the Washington Post proves.

Citing documents gathered by Georgetown Law researchers, the Post reports that at least two federal agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have — for years — mined state photo ID databases to populate their own facial recognition databases.

To put a finer point on it, those agencies have been conducting warrantless searches, seizing private biometric data on the entire population of the United States, most of whom are neither charged with, nor suspected of committing, a crime.

They’ve conducted these fishing expeditions not just without warrants, but absent even the fig leaf of legislation from Congress or state legislatures to lend supposed legitimacy to the programs.

The Post story, intentionally or not, makes it clear that Congress must follow San Francisco’s example and ban use of facial recognition technology, as well as repeal its national photo ID (“REAL ID”) scheme, and require federal agencies to delete their facial recognition databases. The states should either lead the way or follow suit by doing away with government-issued photo identification altogether.

Photo ID has always been marginally useful at best. Anyone who’s ever worked at a bar or liquor store knows that it’s unreliable on a visual check — and that its uses have been stretched far beyond its supposed purposes.

The most common form of photo ID is the driver’s license. States imposed their licensing schemes on a seemingly justifiable pretext: A driver’s license proves that the driver whose photograph appears on it has taken and passed a test demonstrating safety and proficiency behind the wheel.

There are ways to do that without a photo.  Three that come to mind are a fingerprint, a digitized summary of an iris scan, or a similar summary of a DNA scan.

Yes, those methods are more expensive and impose a slightly higher burden on law enforcement in identifying a driver who’s been pulled over or arrested (and on anyone else who wants to confirm an individual’s identity). But they’re also far more reliable and less easily used in pulling police-state type abuses like those described in the Post story. They can’t be used for easy warrantless searches via distant cameras.

In recent decades, and especially since 9/11, the conversation over personal privacy has revolved around how much of that privacy “must” be sacrificed to make law enforcement’s job easier.

The answer to that question is “none.”

It’s not an American’s job to make law enforcement’s job easier. It’s law enforcement’s job to respect that American’s rights.

Since law enforcement has continuously  proven itself both unwilling and untrustworthy on that count, we need to deprive it of tools that enable that unwillingness and untrustworthiness.

Photo ID is obsolete and unnecessary. Facial recognition technology makes it dangerous. Let’s take those tools away from their abusers.

Open This Content

Historically Hollow: The Cries of Populism

History textbooks are full of populist complaints about business: the evils of Standard Oil, the horrors of New York tenements, the human body parts in Chicago meatpacking plants.  To be honest, I haven’t taken these complaints seriously since high school.  In the absence of abundant evidence to the contrary, I say the backstory behind these populist complaints is just neurotic activists searching for dark linings in the silver clouds of business progress.  When business offers new energy, new housing, new food, the wise are grateful to see the world improve, not outraged to see a world that falls short of perfection.

Still, I periodically wonder if my nonchalance is unjustified.  Populists rub me the wrong way, but how do I know they didn’t have a point?  After all, I have near-zero first-hand knowledge of what life was like in the heyday of Standard Oil, New York tenements, or Chicago meat-packing.  What would I have thought if I was there?

If we’re talking about the year 1900, I’m afraid we’ll never really know.  Yet what I’ve seen with my own eyes during the last fifteen years has done much to cement my out-of-sample confidence.

During this time, I’ve seen the tech industry dramatically improve human life all over the world.

Amazon is simply the best store that ever existed, by far, with incredible selection and unearthly convenience.  The price: cheap.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media let us socialize with our friends, comfortably meet new people, and explore even the most obscure interests.  The price: free.

Uber and Lyft provide high-quality, convenient transportation.  The price: really cheap.

Skype is a sci-fi quality video phone.  The price: free.

Youtube gives us endless entertainment.  The price: free.

Google gives us the totality of human knowledge!  The price: free.

That’s what I’ve seen.  What I’ve heard, however, is totally different.  The populists of our Golden Age are loud and furious.  They’re crying about “monopolies” that deliver firehoses worth of free stuff.  They’re bemoaning the “death of competition” in industries (like taxicabs) that governments forcibly monopolized for as long as any living person can remember.  They’re insisting that “only the 1% benefit” in an age when half of the high-profile new businesses literally give their services away for free.   And they’re lashing out at businesses for “taking our data” – even though five years ago hardly anyone realized that they had data.

My point: If your overall reaction to business progress over the last fifteen years is even mildly negative, no sensible person will try to please you, because you are impossible to please.  Yet our new anti-tech populists have managed to make themselves a center of pseudo-intellectual attention.

Angry lamentation about the effects of new tech on privacy has flabbergasted me the most.  For practical purposes, we have more privacy than ever before in human history.  You can now buy embarrassing products in secret.  You can read or view virtually anything you like in secret.  You can interact with over a billion people in secret.

Then what privacy have we lost?  The privacy to not be part of a Big Data Set.  The privacy to not have firms try to sell us stuff based on our previous purchases.  In short, we have lost the kinds of privacy that no prudent person loses sleep over.

The prudent will however be annoyed that – thanks to populist pressure – we now have to click “I agree” fifty times a day to access our favorite websites.  Implicit consent was working admirably, but now we all have to suffer to please people who are impossible to please.  Yes, tech firms made a business decision to ramp up privacy protections; but this business decision is tainted by a barrage of thinly-veiled threats of government persecution.  In a functional world, we would have a few start-ups catering to privacy fanatics – and the rest of us could enjoy the bounty of the tech industry without this absurd digital red tape.

How, though, do I logically leap from the unreliability of populists on tech to the unreliability of populists on business in general?  After all, anyone can make a mistake.  My reply: Being negative about the tech industry isn’t just a small, isolated mistake.  Populists are applying massive intellectual energy to major issues and ending up painfully wrong.  This is strong evidence that their whole way of thinking is deeply corrupt.  They don’t deserve our trust or attention – not today, not yesterday, and not tomorrow.

Open This Content

Edward Snowden: The Untold Story of How One Patriotic American Exposed NSA Surveillance

I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom, and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building… the NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default… they are intent on making every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them.

-Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden might not yet be a historical figure, but he certainly is a hero. He is the whistleblower of all whistleblowers, the American who blew the lid off of Washington’s spying on private citizens. But Snowden’s leak revealed that it’s not just the U.S. government that is spying on virtually every American – big American telecommunications companies are also helping them to spy as well.

Snowden’s upbringing is largely uneventful. His maternal grandfather was a Coast Guard rear admiral and his father was also an officer in the Coast Guard. His mother was a U.S. District Court clerk. His parents divorced around the time that he would have graduated high school in 2001, but Snowden is a high school dropout. After a nine-month absence due to mononucleosis, he simply took the GED exam and then began taking community college classes. Despite a lack of a bachelor’s degree, he worked at a master’s online from the University of Liverpool.

Snowden had a keen interest in Japanese popular culture, and even worked for an anime company early on in his career.

Continue reading Edward Snowden: The Untold Story of How One Patriotic American Exposed NSA Surveillance at Ammo.com.

Open This Content