Tuesday, May 16, 2006

phone companies respond to NSA record allegations

Finals are almost over. I'm just poking my head out of the hermitage during a quick study break.

It looks like Reuters is reporting on some interesting developments in the NSA domestic wiretapping and record collection issue. Apparently there's a multi-hundred-million-dollar class action suit forming against the long distance companies that have allegedly been turning over records to the NSA. From the Reuters article, it sounds like their responses are, paraphrased, "We didn't give them records. We won't say whether we let them come in and collect their own records."

It'd be a shame in this case to rely entirely on one news source. Here are direct links to the press releases:
  • Verizon (intereting URL -- I'm curious what the "PROACTIVE_ID" field means):
    Again, Verizon cannot and will not confirm or deny whether it has any relationship to the classified NSA program. Verizon always stands ready, however, to help protect the country from terrorist attack. We owe this duty to our fellow citizens. We also have a duty, that we have always fulfilled, to protect the privacy of our customers. The two are not in conflict. When asked for help, we will always make sure that any assistance is authorized by law and that our customers’ privacy is safeguarded.

  • BellSouth:
    As a result of media reports that BellSouth provided massive amounts of customer calling information under a contract with the NSA, the Company conducted an internal review to determine the facts. Based on our review to date, we have confirmed no such contract exists and we have not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA.

  • AT&T:
    We prize the trust our customers place in us. If and when AT&T is asked to help, we do so strictly within the law and under the most stringent conditions.
In the meantime, an ABC blogger has reported the government is using phone records to try to locate reporters' confidential sources, though it's not clear these phone records came from the same data collection program. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if it's a different program, since the NSA one seems to be more about broad spectrum data mining than individualized suspicion (which, I think, would allow a FISA warrant.)

The times are indeed getting interesting. But I need to get back to studying.

Update: this post from Schneier on Security appears relevant. It provides highlights from an EFF lawsuit against AT&T that seem to discuss an NSA-owned data collection system within AT&T's network: "In January 2003, Klein observed a new room being built adjacent to the room housing AT&T's #4ESS switching equipment, which is responsible for routing long distance and international calls. . . . Klein's job eventually included connecting internet circuits to a splitting cabinet that led to the secret room."

I think the bottom line on this wiretapping issue is to ask yourself what sort of world you would like to live in. I don't have time to write much more about this issue now, but a good starting point might be to think about whether it's really true that there's a necessary tradeoff between security and privacy. If you believe there is, then another question to consider is what we're trading away, exactly what we're gaining, and whether the exchange is worth it.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Al Gore on subjunctivision

Subjunctivision: a term from Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Subjunctivision is a sort of "what if" television: by twiddling the controls, you can watch TV as if things had gone differently.

Al Gore opened for Saturday Night Live this past weekend. I hadn't seen the opening sequence until tonight. It's a very funny bit of comedy subjunctivision where he addresses the country as if he were elected President in 2000. You can catch the Quicktime link here.

the President's immigration speech

Up to 6,000 national guard troops stationed along the Mexican border.

An estimated 6,000 soldiers in Santa Anna's army.

A President from Texas.

Now, it's probably just a coincidence, but maybe it wasn't such a good choice of numbers. I'm just sayin'.

So's Vicente Fox.

Monday, May 08, 2006

not the coffee

We had a minor earthquake an hour ago. Since I was the only one at the library table who felt it, I figured it must've been coffee and nerves during finals, or maybe a passing truck. I would still be thinking that if I hadn't checked the USGS web site during a study break. Now I'm blaming it on the 3.1 earthquake instead of the coffee. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

cost, worth, and externalities

The Daily Kos has an op-ed (they call them diaries) by VetGrl that discusses the concept of cost versus worth. It tries to distinguish between the market price of an item and its intrinsic worth.
Unless they're buying or selling, and assuming no financial calamity has struck, the value many people attribute to their homes has more to do with neighbors and community than with market value.
While it might give economists headaches and make modeling the process a real pain, there doesn't seem anything intrinsically wrong with saying the subjective valuation of an item can vary depending on circumstances. Certainly it can vary with new information, as we can see every day on the stock and commodities markets: if there's sabre rattling in Iran, the price of oil jumps up a notch. It's the same oil, but information regarding how available the next barrel of oil will be affects its valuation and therefore its price. An example closer to home might be the value you place on a piece of paper with a crayon drawing on it, which could vary depending on whether or not you believed your child was the one who created it.

The op-ed then goes on to consider valuations that change, not over time, but with the price of the item being valued.
The problem is that not enough people consider the worth of much more mundane goods, like cookware, clothing or linens. For these things, the consideration is no different than the environment to the GOP: What does it cost?
Here the opinion piece starts moving into something that sounds a lot like externalities. Take a cotton towel as an example. The market price of the towel might not accurately reflect the true cost to society of creating that towel, if you take into account the impact of the pesticides used to grow the cotton entering the food web, whether the land on which the cotton was grown is pulling more or less carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and whether the people involved in harvesting the cotton or manufacturing the towel would be better off if the towel had not been made, or created in a different way. An external cost is a cost whoever's making the go/no-go decision does not have to bear, a cost they can transfer to someone else, so that it never factors into that decision.

The interesting thing about recasting the language in terms of externalities is that it should open a fair bit of common ground across the political spectrum. If we assume the free market functions to maximize overall social benefit, then externalities get in the way of that function by distorting the go/no-go decisions. If the cost of gas at the pump is too low to adequately reflect its impact on the city's air quality (and therefore health care issues) or the cost to keep the roads in repair, I might take the car when the real cost, that takes those things into account, would normally convince me to bicycle. The market mechanics are working just fine, but they're maximizing the wrong thing because they're working from faulty premises, and free market advocates should have a problem with that.

Now, the language of externalities won't reconcile all relations across the political spectrum. A purely utilitarian approach says maximizing overall social wealth is good, but it doesn't care about the distribution of that wealth within society except as it affects wealth maximization. (Under that view, one Bill Gates plus a million people in hovels is the same as a million and one people with $50,000 each unless having money lets the million people build a secondary market and increase overall wealth even further.) In contrast, many folks on the left have an issue in principle with a system where a lot of people live in hovels. Still, it's a good starting point for finding common ground on many problems such as carbon and pollutant emissions and energy and transportation infrastructure.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

a brief interlude

Classes are turning into finals. I'm in one of those odd schedule gaps right now. It's half an hour before my last class starts. Since it's the last one, there's no homework, as such, to work on, just some big projects that require lots of reference materials and are a pain to get started. I'm waiting on the release of some questions for a take-home exam, and I can't bring myself to work on outlines at the moment. It's tough to relax, knowing what's coming down the pipe, but there's also no good way to use this time gap. Ah well. Soon things will be happening so quickly it'll be a blur.

On a totally different subject, I remember reading a reference to the "fortress king" in the Bible, maybe in Revelations. (I can't imagine why I would be having apocolyptic thoughts just before finals...) The phrase came back to me when I heard about the proposal to fence the entire border between the U.S. and Mexico: a United States-sized fortress is certainly big enough to fit a king. I haven't been able to find the reference, though, so I might be confused about it.