For all Obama’s problems, can communication in the ‘social’ era now ever mean ‘private’?

So Edward Snowden has unleashed a bit of a landslide of opinion. Opinion, apparently, that the POTUS is now welcomes. [Does that mean Edward Snowden will get time off for performing a public service? – Ed].

Mark Mardell makes an interesting observation, to the effect that this is as much the changing use of data as politics and it has been borne into the public domain by a new type of techie:

It is probable that as the technology changed, intelligence services had to hugely increase the number of fairly low-level experts they employ.

Possibly, their background checks were less rigorous than in the past. Maybe the type of person recruited was more committed to a technology that has gone hand in hand with a vaguely libertarian ethos than a commitment to national security, whatever the implications for privacy and freedom.

Politically, the President is taking the can for this. Although one of his toughest opponents in Congress John Boehner is rowing right in behind him. Yet, it is the president’s own politics that have been compromised. James Tarantino:

“As for our common defense,” Barack Obama declared in his First Inaugural Address, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. . . . Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

Last Friday the president said this: “I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

And, of course, Maureen Dowd:

Back in 2007, Obama said he would not want to run an administration that was “Bush-Cheney lite.” He doesn’t have to worry. With prisoners denied due process at Gitmo starving themselves, with the C.I.A. not always aware who it’s killing with drones, with an overzealous approach to leaks, and with the government’s secret domestic spy business swelling, there’s nothing lite about it.

As Karlin Lillington notes in the Irish Times, the nub of the matter is that “a secret US court order that has allowed covert organisations to sift data from millions of US phone calls for seven years.” She goes on:

People all over the world use the services — Facebook, Skype, Google, among others — pinpointed in the revelations. Europeans are supposed to have specific protections for their personal data, greater than those afforded US citizens.

But how European data is managed by international companies, on computer servers that can be located “in the cloud” anywhere in the world, is not clearly understood, and remains a legal grey area. So does the level of co-operation between American and other countries’ surveillance agencies. Yesterday, parliamentary debate in the UK focused on just such questions.

“The cloud” is where American corporates like to stuff their tax liabilities only for the US Congress to accuse small countries like Ireland of being a tax haven when they discover they discover they’re getting light returns in their own corporate tax incomes.

And it is now where it’s drawing down its latest sources of intelligence. But then again, whoever imagined that any genuinely form of communication in the digital (in which all our networking leaves readable data traces) was ever going to remain truly ‘private’.

Edward Snowden has done us all a favour in releasing these secret state actions (and their targets in the cloud), but he may only be telling us what we should already have understood.

These days, nothing that happens in Vagas, ever stays in Vagas.

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  • I recall back in the 70s it was claimed that MI5 were monitoring phone calls in N.I. and that a whole floor in the main PO building in Belfast was given over to opening, reading and resealing mail. Nothing new then but POTUS is a hypocrite.

  • Mister Joe is right.
    It was certainly assumed by my family that as one of two families in the street with a phone(and it was a shared line anyway) that it was tapped.
    Whether the voices we occasionally heard were voices in the PO Building were really spooks or simply crossed lines, we will never know…but simply put people in Norn Iron who lived thru the 1970s have a pretty relaxed view about this kinda thing.
    It seems to be American and British human rights organisations who are working themselves up into a frenzy.
    A State would be remiss NOT to use all the means at its disposal…and will certainly go along the fringes of the Law.

    The controversy seems to be “people like us” …its ok to monitor other people but not ourselves. Somehow the fact that we tell the world our life histories on Facebook and recoil with horror that the spooks might be monitoring us if we use the name of a country in which they are interested…makes no sense.
    There are a lot of people involved in GQCH (see what I did there??) and what exactly do they do?

  • Ruarai

    “unleashed a bit of a landslide of opinion”

    You sure about that?

    You sure the US public even oppose these programs?

  • Ruarai

    Social Media 101:

    You don’t have an account on Facebook. Facebook has an account on you.

    Browse wisely my friends

  • Mick Fealty

    After the IRS stuff, I can tell you first hand it has some ordinary respectable opponents of the administration very very freaked… And not without reason…

  • Ruarai

    In a country of 300 million plus you can find anyone you want. Whatever about the merits of objecting in whole or part of the practices that have been revealed, the question was whether you’re sure that these revelations have “unleashed a bit of a landslide of opinion” outside of the letters page of the Guardian?

    I see little evidence for such a landslide nor any structural reasons for expecting one. This is a country that reelected Bush in 2004 on the basis of more of the same please.

    If you’re privy to such a landslide do share…

  • Ruarai

    And what has the “IRS stuff” got to do with the Administration in the view of these “ordinary respectable” people you have your hands on?

    You get that the main argument against this Administration vis-a-vis the IRS auditing practices is that they didn’t, upon concerns being raised, interfere enough – though I think we can all guess what the headlines would have been had they jumped into a live investigation.

  • pauluk

    What’s all the fuss?

    We can be legally groped and body scanned at security checkpoints, and Google, Amazon and Facebook know as much about our habits, likes and dislikes, and political and religious persuasion as any government agency.

    Privacy is a lost ideal. (btw, thanks mainly to Islamic extremism)

  • Ruarai


    the fuss, surely, is that Google, etc, cannot send the cops, FBI or drone missiles to your door. You can opt out of using Google but you cannot opt out of a Global surveillance program. And Obama, specifically, was elected on a mandate to, in part, undo the executive excesses of his predecessor but has instead, in many instances like this one, treated all the powers available to him as irresistible rather than as opportunities to develop a set of protocols, restraints, conditions, oversight and laws that would leave as a legacy a more empowered citizenry and less lawless state. He’s normalizing many of the executive excesses and illiberal security state behaviors that he ran on a platform opposing. That’s not simply an act of betrayal, it’s an act of bad faith that makes is exponentially harder for future candidates to win the support of the public for an effort to row the tide back in.

    I think that’s some of the fuss.

  • Harry Flashman

    I love how all the Obamabots who were going into swivel-eyed, spittle-flecked rage about the oncoming Fascist state being created by George Bush and Dick Cheney are now so calm and insouciant about the fact that Obama is using the powers that Bush created not only to spy on foreign terror suspects but the entire US population and using federal agencies to harass domestic political opponents and journalists.

    Even Nixon didn’t try that on, but hey it’s Obama, he’s a good guy so everything is hunky-dory.

    Here’s a couple of quotes from Obama flunkies;

    Maxine Walters:

    “The President has put in place an organization with the kind of database that no one has ever seen before in life. That’s going to be very, very powerful. That database will have information about everything on every individual on ways that it’s never been done before and whoever runs for President on the Democratic ticket has to deal with that. They’re going to go down with that database and the concerns of those people because they can’t get around it. And he’s [President Obama] been very smart. It’s very powerful what he’s leaving in place.”

    Valerie Jarret:

    “After we win this election, it’s our turn. Payback time. Everyone not with us is against us and they better be ready because we don’t forget. The ones who helped us will be rewarded, the ones who opposed us will get what they deserve. There is going to be hell to pay.”

    Americans need to be afraid of this administration, very afraid.

    You might be cool with Obama sending the Feds into investigate his political opponents from the Tea party to Joe the Plumber, will you be quite so happy when a Republican president gets his hands on the machine Obama is now running?

  • We have probably more to fear from Google than the US Government.
    Google co-operates with China to block its citizens accessing western websites. The reason…Money.
    And Google cant co-operate with western governments to block people accessing child porn sites. The reason…Money.
    And of course Google doesnt exactly paŷ its way as a taxpayer.

    Im not enthused about spooks monitoring internet usage but its to be expected. But lets not get carried away with the notion that Tinternet is so “free”.

  • pauluk


    I know! I know!

    A common thread with all these Obama scandals: abuse of power.

    I think you lot own Bush a huge apology. At least Bush wasn’t a hypocrite.

  • Comrade Stalin


    And Google cant co-operate with western governments to block people accessing child porn sites. The reason…Money.

    Accusing Google of making money by keeping the door open to that kind of criminality is pretty serious. Where do you get this from ?

  • Comrade Stalin

    (it’s perhaps a symptom of the problem that I’m absolutely not going to try to search for Google’s policies on the subject and would recommend that nobody else does. Everything you type into Google’s search is logged and recorded, as is clear when you hear about serious criminals whose searches are read out in court .. and to the media ..)

  • Mick Fealty


    Who is genuinely surprised?

    This is: one, par for the course throughout US presidential history (think Eisenhower’s scepticism to the nuclear bomb and it’s proliferation under his Presidential rule); and two, the product of the kind of ‘false opposition’ engendered by the need to pull together a national coalition large enough to win a mandate in the electoral college.

    By and large that means demonisation of your opponent, and the generation of falst dichotomies in areas of policy (which is exactly the problem the current Irish government has). Reagan managed to avoid that by demonising an external the Russians, which brought him a landslide, and Nixon picked up one with the promise ‘peace with honour’ in Vietnam (no doubt with the help of ‘Hanoi Jane’…

    Most other presidential elections have been partial victories which have helped split the country, and hamstring the incumbent’s second term… What the US military ask for the US military generally get. But in this case, Obama’s inability to work with a Republican house has led him use his executive prerogative and has led him into some constitutionally murky waters…

  • pauluk

    Mick: ‘Obama’s inability to work with a Republican house has led him use his executive prerogative and has led him into some constitutionally murky waters…’

    ‘Inability’ is getting close. Unwillingness might be a better word.

    Obama and his supporters want to force through their agenda (with less than 51% of the electorate behind them – probably less now), and have been using every mechanism of the state at their disposal to undermine, discredit and get their revenge on their political opponents. Their sinister abuse of power is a very strong argument for less government control over the lives of the individual.

  • Ruarai

    “Who is genuinely surprised?”

    Well, indeed. Republicans are jumping up and down as though Democrats are shocked, shocked, shocked I tell ya – but where is all this shock? Perhaps there should be more shock.

    But we’re not talking torture, rendition and preemptive wars here.

    Perspective, please.

    Had it been business as usual that would be a surprise, of course.

    But this new business – massive drone programs, massive surveillance programs – while not necessarily surprising is certainly very serious and threatening to a liberal democracy (and pretty darn threatening to anyone living near a drone abroad); it’s in urgent need of debate and oversight.

  • pauluk

    Ruarai: But we’re not talking torture, rendition and preemptive wars here.

    As naive as ever, Ruarai.

    A matter of semantics, I would suggest.Have you not yet realised (or accepted the fact) that Obama always does the opposite to what he says?

    I’ve no doubt that practices very similar to Bush’s enhanced interrogation techniques and activities close to rendition still take place. We just haven’t heard about them yet.

    As for pre-preemptive wars, I suppose we should just dismiss Obama expanding the ‘War on Terror’ into Pakistan and Yemen and engaging in ‘regime change’ in Libya, and possibly Syria as mere apparitions.

  • pauluk

    As we are on the subject, an unintended consequence of one of Obama’s kenetic military actions (trans: undeclared wars/regime change action)…

    Gaddafi’s MANPADS in the hands of al-Qaida

  • Comrade Stalin


    Pretty much all the stuff you are describing would have happened irrespective of who got into power. Would Obama have invaded Iraq ? Probably, given that he voted for it. Is Obama going to dramatically change the direction that US foreign policy has been consistently travelling in throughout the postwar period ? No, probably not.

    Choosing which US Presidential candidate you prefer is generally a matter of holding your nose and picking the least worst.

  • pauluk

    CS, you are too cynical to be objective. btw, Obama didn’t vote for the Iraq war. He wasn’t even a US senator then.

  • Ruarai

    Can someone pass PaulUK a dictionary marked at the page explaining what the word preemptive means?

    As for the suggestion that nothing has changed under Obama vs. Bush – other than the carefree, anything goes, wild inaccuracy of the claim – this again misses an opportunity to focus on what many Republicans stress has changed but for the worse: The US has changed form a policy of lifting and imprisoning suspects in Gitmo to blowing suspects to pieces from the sky with drones. It’s one of Republicans’ more interesting arguments: “You guys called us war criminals for 8 years and shirked about the injustice of sending people to Gitmo. If we were still there we’re be sending some of the very suspects your administration now routinely kills on sight – what gives here”

    Comrade, I’m putting your Iraq war vote comment down to the late evening hour for you. The guy’s entire Presidential pathway was based on being a Democrat who could attack Clinton in the primaries for supporting the Iraq war. Had it not been for the difference between her registered vote in favor and his vocal opposition as an outsider, that 2008 race was done and dusted long before most people outside the US had heard of Barack Obama and the phrase “dumb wars”.

    You must recall CS, one of the more interesting anti-Obama arguments was that his opposition to the Iraq war from the position of the Illinois senate was irresponsible because he didn’t have access to the intelligence that the voting US Senators had. I didn’t buy that one but I appreciated the creativity behind it.

    There’s something about debating US foreign policy that often brings out a wildly confident streak in people that can be measured in inverse correlation to a basic grasp of widely available facts.

  • RepublicanStones

    This is one of those ‘known unknowns’ (to steal from Rumsfeld) – given the completely kneejerk reaction of the US to the horrific events of 9/11 i don’t think the scope of this snooping should come as a surprise to anyone. Particularly given the fact that the original Patriot act was rushed through Congress without anywhere near a sufficient amount of time to read it.
    You throw in it’s several reauthorizations since and the fact that no politician in the US wants to be seen to be ‘soft on terrorism’ – (which should be a consideration when we hear that there is oversight on these surveillance programs through closed committees) and you got yourself a recipe for an Orwellian nightmare.
    How these revelations go up against the Fourth Amendment will be very interesting, esp since the ACLU has now brought a case against the Govt over this very issue.

  • Comrade Stalin


    All you’re doing here is picking one side in a punch and judy show. You’re criticizing all the stuff that you would happily cheerlead if the same actions were taken by a GOP President.


    You are of course right, I was talking rubbish – I stand corrected. Somehow I had it in my head that Obama voted for the war but that, of course, was impossible. I think my brain short circuited with John Edwards, who voted for it and then came out in opposition to it.

    Yes, it is indeed idiocy to suggest that it was irresponsible to vote against the war without sight of the intelligence. We elect representatives in order to scrutinize things, not merely follow blindly whatever the government agencies put out there. Everyone knew at the time that the whole escapade was fabricated and it was shameful that so many Democrats chose not to show leadership at such a critical juncture.

  • Harry Flashman

    Actually CS you’re probably thinking of 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry whose biggest gaffe in his campaign was to claim that yes indeed he had voted for the Iraq war but then he had voted against it.

    The “flip-flop” ads of him windsurfing off Nantucket, tacking this way and then that, didn’t do his chances of election very much good.

    I return again to the marvelous barefaced cheek of Obama fans (and frankly nothing short of North Korean-style brainwashing is going to change their opinion that he is only a wee bit short of the Second Coming) whose defence is along the lines of “hey what’s the problem? Bush did this too you know”. Honest observers can only gape in slack-jawed disbelief at the hypocrisy.

    However I am coming around to the conclusion that wunderkind might not actually be responsible for all this stuff. Obama is perhaps one of the least involved presidents in recent times. Playing golf, appearing on late-night chat shows with rappers and going to Vegas fund-raisers (the morning after one his ambassadors and three other US citizens are dragged bloodily from the smouldering remains of a US consulate) seem to suit him more.

    I said before that getting elected president was an intellectual challenge for him and having achieved it the nitty-gritty of actually running the country is a crushing bore to him. He reminds me of Reagan in his second term, utterly disengaged, verging on senility the Gipper dozed while his aides and junior staffers made decisions that he didn’t need to know about, hence Ollie North and Iran-Contra.

    Obama is the same, he’s the ceremonial figurehead of the administration but the dirty stuff is being carried out by very sinister and devious characters with their own agenda and who learned their political trade in the mean streets of Chicago.

    Of course we will probably only learn about all this twenty years after. The same length of time it took an equally sychophantic US press core to reveal the seamy, sleazy, immoral core of the Camelot bullshit they had sold an unsuspecting US public.

    The US media have disgraced themselves with this administration, there is however a slim hope that some of them are now beginning to realise this, that’s why the administration is so keen to tap their phones and the phones of their families.

  • pauluk

    CS: you would happily cheerlead if the same actions were taken by a GOP President.

    I repeat myself, but it’s worth saying again:

    a common thread with all these Obama scandals: abuse of power.


    I think you lot owe Bush a huge apology. At least he wasn’t a hypocrite.

  • pauluk

    Ruarai and CS,

    A couple of days ago I said: I’ve no doubt that practices very similar to Bush’s enhanced interrogation techniques and activities close to rendition still take place. We just haven’t heard about them yet.

    I didn’t think it would happen so soon, but Mr Snowden’s most recent claims confirm my assertions, and, at the same time, expose your naivete, cynicism and misdirected sarcasm.