Tom Clyde: Keeping up with the NSA
June 5, 2015
There was high drama in the Senate this week. Several provisions of the Patriot Act were set to expire. It was a deadline that took everybody by surprise despite the fact that Congress wrote the expiration into the act when they passed it. That may have been a tacit admission that it went too far in the first place. But anyway, the provision that calls for the NSA to capture and keep all the communications "meta-data" was going to expire, right on schedule. It would be the end of the world as we know it.
So they were going to renew it. Some thought it was fine the way it was, and just wanted to extend the deadline. Others were a little queasy about the NSA doing all the collecting without any kind of warrant or oversight. So the House passed a version that said the phone companies would collect and retain the "meta-data," because if you can’t trust your cell phone carrier to do the right thing, who can you trust? When the Feds want to know when you called Aunt Marge and how long you talked, they now have to ask Verizon. They will have to go to a super-secret court that has almost never rejected a warrant request as being unreasonable. So under the House plan, things would be very different without anything changing at all, unless you are the phone company. Then you have to figure out how to store all that data.
Rand Paul didn’t like either approach, so he did what Senators do best, and obstructed until the Patriot Act expired. Then on Tuesday they passed the House version, and once again, we are sleeping soundly knowing that somebody is preserving our phone records. God only knows what kinds of heinous plots were hatched out during that gap between midnight Sunday and the passage of the new USA Freedom Act on Tuesday. I called several plumbers, and the NSA will never know.
Personally, any time they feel the need to cloak actions in names like the Patriot Act or USA Freedom Act, I get the sense that the legislation has nothing to do with either patriotism or freedom. There’s a whole lot of Orwellian double-speak there.
In other news we also learned this week that the FBI has a fleet of small planes that they have hidden behind false corporate names. They use them for aerial surveillance in major cities, but claim that they only do it in response to specific requests to look for specific suspects. The planes are equipped with cameras and cell phone tracking electronics. I’m sure it has a catchy name, but the news accounts haven’t said what it is. It’s probably something like the USA Liberty Plan.
So it’s a big, complicated world filled with all kinds of intractable problems and questionable responses. Should my meta-data be collected by anybody? If so, who? How long should it be kept, and for what purposes? And what the hell is meta-data anyway?
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All of which leads to the only news story that anybody is paying attention to: Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner. The Olympian who was idolized on the Wheaties box is now the woman on the cover of Vanity Fair. He/she/they is described as heroic, courageous, and inspirational. For people who feel their package doesn’t match their contents, Jenner is a role model, and on and on.
Some commentators have said the world is divided into people who can accept Jenner as "Caitlyn," and those who will always think of him as "Bruce." I guess I fall into a third category. I just don’t care about Jenner’s genitalia, either set. Not in the least. It would have been perfectly OK to watch TV while eating dinner last week without having that discussion. The only show I could find that was Jenner-free was the antique tractor auction.
If somebody goes through sex-change surgery, it is obviously a momentous decision for them. The misery of their lives being somewhere in limbo has to be terrible. So I guess it’s good that people are able to sort it out. But you really don’t need to share it with all of us. It’s none of our business.
It’s not Jenner’s transformation that bothers me. It’s the whole freak-show setting of it, with the Kardashian reality TV show. I suppose people would notice something different about Bruce in future episodes of the show, so something had to be said. Or maybe there doesn’t need to be a "Keeping up with the Kardashians" at all.
Technology has made it possible to share absolutely everything, whether we want to share with the NSA or not. But really, not everything needs to be public.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.