US Foreign Policy

Europe reacts to the ‘PRISM’ news

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Are Silicon Valley companies providing a ‘backdoor’ to the Federal Government to access consumer data?

The latest chatter in internet policy circles is the PRISM story.  PRISM is an alleged program in which the US National Security Agency obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other large internet companies.  All the internet companies have denied knowledge of the program (although there is speculation that even if they knew, they legally can’t admit it).

In the context of the current study I’m working on, I was curious to see what the European reaction to this would be, and the New York Times indicates that they are worried:

Privacy is an emotional issue in Europe, where memories of state-sponsored snooping by communist and fascist regimes still linger.

Privacy is an emotional issue in Europe, where memories of state-sponsored snooping by communist and fascist regimes still linger. And so the revelation Thursday that the U.S. National Security Agency had obtained routine access to e-mail, Web searches and other online data from many of the biggest U.S. Internet companies — whose users stretch far beyond U.S. shores — prompted hand-wringing about America’s moral authority.

“If the U.S. complains about foreign governments spying and then it turns out it is doing the same thing — well, what are you complaining about?” said Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University in Turkey, where anger over restrictions on civil liberties has fueled anti-government protests.

European privacy advocates said Friday that the disclosure of Prism could bolster the push for stricter data protection in the new laws, including a proposed “right to be forgotten,” which would let Internet users scrub unflattering online references to themselves.

There is that “right to be forgotten”  being mentioned again.  PRISM is the sort of thing that I imagine Europeans would think vindicates their position.  Here is the German Chief Data protection public official, giving voice to European worries:

“The U.S. government must provide clarity regarding these monstrous allegations of total monitoring of various telecommunications and Internet services,” said Peter Schaar, German data protection and freedom of information commissioner.

“Statements from the U.S. government that the monitoring was not aimed at U.S. citizens but only against persons outside the United States do not reassure me at all,” he said.

I for one cannot imagine that such news would give leverage to Silicon Valley organizations lobbying in Brussels against stringent internet data protection legislation.

Plan X and the new war playground

Today’s Washington Post has an article highlighting plans from the Pentagon to ramp up cyber-warfare capabilities. The idea is to move beyond spying, espionage, and subterfuge orientation, that the US should be better prepared to act decisively, incisively, and on a large scale.

An interesting rationale for this is offered:

Daniel Kuehl, an information warfare professor at the National Defense University’s iCollege, said the Air Force built its history around attacks on infrastructure — in Korea, Vietnam, Serbia and Iraq.

“In all of those conflicts,” he said, “we went after the other side’s electricity with bombs.”

Today, he said, cyberweapons could be more humane than pulverizing power grids with bombs.

If a cyberwarrior can disrupt a computer system controlling an enemy’s electric power, the system theoretically can also be turned back on, minimizing the impact on civilians.

First, this can turn out working the other way, if it makes military officials more trigger-happy (or click-happy). There may be temptation to engage in more preemptive coercive acts since ‘less civilians will be affected’.  This would in turn create a more aggressive military stance from the country, so the policy implications here are not very predictable.  Imagine an aggressive application of the Bush Doctrine in which one is armed with such cyber-warfare capabilities.

Second, unsaid in the article, is the issue of sovereignty.  It is one thing to target a nuclear energy factory in a rogue state…or to freeze bank accounts of known or suspected terrorist networks ….but what are the implications of attacking an electrical grid remotely via a computer?  It’s easy to make the case for going after Al-Qaeda or obvious terrorists in cyberspace, but what about going after states?  If the electricity grid in a city of millions is shut down and thousands are without electricity, there’s a real impact on civilian population.   Third, is the optics, which look too similar to totalitarian regimes shutting down political activists for comfort.   Lastly, there’s domestic implications.  Military technology always trickles down into the government, then into the private sector, and then into regular mainstream civilian life.

Read the entire source article here: With Plan X, Pentagon seeks to spread US Military might to cyberspace. 

President Obama, Zen, and Libya

There is a meme developing that Obama is a ditherer, that he’s indecisive, and that he stays on the sidelines too much. The latest cause of angst is what many feel is the USA’s slow movement into Libya. This is a misreading of the situation, and something which both liberal and conservatives get wrong.

Let me use two other examples as well as this Libya one, to illustrate a pattern that’s repeating itself for a third time, which makes me suspect that it is intentional.  It goes like this:

The population wants something done–>Obama encourages legislators to get something done–>Obama leaves it to Congress, staying out of the nitty gritty–> Sensing a political opportunity, opponents start whacking him for “voting present” or abdicating on leadership –> The media plays along, creating an echo chamber and the population starts getting restless. –> Obama steps in at what seems like the 11th hour –> Everyone (opponents and supporters alike), claim it’s too late! –> Obama manages to get finally push a definitive outcome over the hurdle–>  Obama gets branded a sellout by supporters for compromising, and a his opponents crow about victory (while simultaneously alleging he is a “radical”).

Lost in all of this, is that that definitive outcome that Obama pushes over the hurdle, is very near to what he wanted all along.   Use the model for Health Care Reform (HCR), and for the tax cut deal, and you will see that that is exactly what happened.  Obama campaigned on universal health coverage, and also it is no secret that many liberal economists feel spending is the way to stimulate the economy.  Lost on his opponents, as well as his supporters who are concentrating on alleged “betrayals” was the fact that in the end, healthcare, and along with it universal coverage is now the law of the land.  On the tax scuffle at the end of 2010, it is likely that he was able to quietly inject a second stimulus in exchange for preserving the status quo for the rich for two more years . How does this relate to Libya? Look at the leadership pattern I outlined, which Obama used on taxes and healthcare, it’s repeating.

Obama campaigned as the anti-Bush.  He campaigned on repairing America’s image and on charting a path of multilateralism.  In Libya, many were bewildered that Obama did not speak out more forcefully on the situation much earlier.   Now the Arab league approved a no-fly zone, after which the UN followed through yesterday.  As soon as this happened, already many have been quick to declare, “Too late!”   However, Obama has now made some very definite statements, which has the effect of putting teeth to the UN’s resolution.  And guess what? If there is military action in Libya, it would’ve been accomplished with France and other Arab states having been the most hawkish voices in all of this (!).  If military action happens, it will be a multilateral undertaking.  This would in fact be the exact opposite of how the USA went into Iraq–and again, like on healthcare and taxes, Obama would’ve ended up where he wanted to anyway.  Fool me once…..

In conclusion, he does often appear with a borderline  zen like style of leadership which can be understandably frustrating.  Sort of like NBA legend, Coach Phil Jackson, who has been known to call a timeout  and not say a word at all.  I think a lot of people misread him, because if you really look at the big stuff, generally:

1. Obama is very clear about who he is.

2. Obama more or less manages to gets what he wants.

Definitiveness of purpose, and accomplishing.  Is that not effective leadership?