Posts Tagged ‘NSA’

In his short story, The Minority Report, Philip K. Dick predicted a future in which crime was non-existent, everyone lived in complete safety, and the government had established an all-encompassing social order. In this imagined future, society had devised a way to prevent all crime before it ever occurred by identifying, arresting, and prosecuting “perpetrators” before they could do any harm.

While we’re not there yet, we’re edging ever closer to that reality all the time.

Image courtesy of hyena reality /

Image courtesy of hyena reality /

On a national scale, you don’t have to look much further than the current NSA controversy to see this idea of safety-through-divination playing itself out in everyday life. The federal government, with its own cryptically named precogs, – PRISM, DISHFIRE, PINWALE, etc. – is earnestly striving to identify and predict the next terrorist attack. And, when they make a prediction, people will be detained, killed, or otherwise stopped before they can commit any crime.

That’s what society demands of its security-industrial complex at the moment.

And, why not? The idea of an entirely safe, crime-free society is a compelling one. In our safety-saturated culture, stopping crime completely – especially terrorism – is a goal that most people would heartily support. In fact, it would sound insane to argue somehow that a certain amount of terrorism is good or necessary. It’s definitely neither.

Terrorism aside, though, the idea of predicting criminality raises troubling questions about the relationship between a government and its citizens in a free democracy.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

When is the government justified to intervene in the lives of people who have not been charged or convicted of any wrongdoing? I’m not talking here about would-be terrorists conspiring to kill or maim the masses. I’m talking about people being profiled and labelled “high risk” and then subjected to government intervention and heightened surveillance in an effort to prevent them from engaging in criminal behavior.

Chicago, for example, has developed a “heat list” of people it predicts will commit a crime at some point in the near future:

With the help of mathematical analysis, Chicago police hope to home in on people it believes are most at risk of shooting someone or being shot themselves. The strategy calls for warning those on the heat list individually that further criminal activity, even for the most petty offenses, will result in the full force of the law being brought down on them. At the same time, police extend them an olive branch of sorts, an offer of help obtaining a job or of social services.

In a free society, is a mathematical algorithm – no matter how well crafted or intended – just grounds for “warning” people about their future behavior? Is it enough to single them out and subject them to the “full force of the law,” even for minor infractions? If so, what’s to stop the government from applying this same approach to the full spectrum of deviance? Should we send IRS agents out to warn those who match a certain “tax cheater profile” to report all their income, or FBI agents out to do pre-emptive audits of companies that are predicted to engage in fraud?

Image courtesy of MR LIGHTMAN/

Image courtesy of MR LIGHTMAN/

Would you want a police officer knocking on your door and telling you that a mathematical process had identified you, or someone in your family, as a potential criminal?

Some would argue that if Chicago’s approach saves even one person’s life, it’s entirely worth it. In the abstract, I would definitely agree. I don’t want to see anyone needlessly harmed in any way. But, as we carry that argument out to its potential endpoint, it becomes less and less palatable and more nonsensical.

To create perfect safety, we could establish government assessment units that evaluate every citizen on a regular basis, from childhood on, to determine their statistical probability of engaging in crime, and then provide customized interventions to prevent deviant behavior. Perhaps we could even develop a High Risk Person (HRP) registry that would map out where these future offenders live, work, and play, so that we could all keep an eye out for them. And, of course, if any of these HRPs balked and didn’t follow through with their prescribed interventions, we could arrest and incarcerate them for non-compliance. All in the name of safety.

Sounds like something out of a PKD novel, doesn’t it?

Chicago’s individualized approach to prediction is taking us in this direction. As a  society, we need to decide if that’s where we want our system to go. I would argue that we don’t want to tip the balance of power away from individual freedoms and toward more government intervention in our lives, even if doing so might give us an increased margin of actual or perceived safety.

What are your thoughts? Leave and comment and share your opinions!

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It’s been a great first year, and I want to thank all of you for taking the time to read, post, comment, share, and otherwise support this blog. I especially want to thank for all the reblogs of our content and the comments they’ve shared over the past months. Much appreciated, friends. You can read their blog here.

Image courtesy of jannoon028 /

Image courtesy of jannoon028 /

Our blog began simply as an information project, primarily to help my students. I referred them here for more info on topics that commonly came up in our discussions and the other work we were doing together. Not only was it helpful to them, and a springboard for further discussion and learning, but I soon found that other people were interested in these topics as well.

That lead to additional topics, some guest posts, experiments with different approaches, and even a shot at a podcast (I plan to revive that in the new year). We also upped the game with a new and improved research blog, also supported by the company that sponsors this blog – Æquitas Educational Services – and a new weekly news site for parents: Social Web Safety.

Our Blog — Æquitas Educational Services 2013-12-14 08-28-44

So, to wrap things up, I’ve pulled together the top ten posts from Crime & Justice in terms of views, comments, and reblogs for 2013. I look forward to another year of growth and experimentation in 2014, and we’ll continue striving to provide you with the types of content you’re seeking.

If you have suggestions, story ideas, or just some feedback you’d like to share, let me know. And, as always, please spread the word about our blog and what we’re up to.

Top Ten Posts of 2013
  1. How Many Innocent People are in Prison?
  2. Why do Non-violent Felons Lose the Right to Bear Arms?
  3. Female Sex Offenders – Hidden in Plain Sight?
  4. Compliance with Authority and The Strip Search Prank Call Scam
  5. What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
  6. The Legal System’s Non-Response to “Revenge Porn” (Updated 11/7/13)
  7. Friday Crime Vids – The Failed War on Drugs
  8. Why Therapeutic Jurisprudence?
  9. Does Privacy Still Matter?
  10. Kratom – Wonder Drug or Potential Health Threat?

Thanks again, and have a happy and safe holiday season!

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Some argue we don’t have a justice system at all.  Outcomes of the law, they say, are often not about what’s best for all involved, or even what’s fair and reasonable under the circumstances. Instead, what we have is a “legal” system. Any behavior is acceptable, as long as it comports with the letter of the law.

Nowhere is that more clear than in the recent debate over internet surveillance.

Mockup of Security Panel

I’ve posted before about Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding the NSA and how that has freshened the debate over the government’s ability to intrude into the lives of innocent citizens around the world. That debate doesn’t hinge on justice in any way, not that the concept has even entered the conversation as far as I know. Instead, it turns on the “legality” of surveillance.

The difference may seem slight, but it’s actually quite profound.


This is a guest post by Jessica Ruane, who blogs about crime, social media, and current events in her sunny hometown of San Diego, CA.

After Edward Snowden blew the roof off the National Security Administration’s (NSA) massive surveillance operation, the 29-year-old technical analyst for the NSA has been called everything from an anti-American traitor to a heroic whistleblower.

image description

Snowden publicly disclosed not one, but two large-scale, top-secret government surveillance programs, including the NSA’s mass collection of phone records of millions of Verizon customers, and its direct access to the servers of tech giants such as Apple Inc., Facebook Inc., Google Inc., and the Microsoft Corp.

What Did People Think?

One of the most intriguing aspects of this historic leak has been the wide range of public reactions. Some people were outraged, claiming that the American public could say “goodbye” to our rugged independence, freedom, and most importantly — our privacy. In the days following the leak, NPR reported that Amazon sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel,1984, (a story about living under an oppressive political regime) had jumped 6,021 percent in just 24 hours! Clearly the public was connecting the dots between these surveillance programs and the growing threat of Big Brother.

While some folks were preparing for doomsday, others. . . didn’t really care. Naturally after the story was leaked, the government busted out their big PR guns and quickly began pointing to examples where the surveillance efforts of these programs had paid off. ABCNews reported that the NSA told Congress that over 50 terrorist plots were successfully foiled because of these two programs.

After these reports started to surface, public opinion seemed to shift from “let’s all move to Canada” to “Meh. I guess that’s cool.” The Washington Post recently reported that according to a Post-pew Research Center Poll, the majority of Americans (56%) now consider the NSA’s accessing of telephone call records of millions of Americans through secret court orders “acceptable.” This recalibration of public opinion can most likely be attributed to the fact that the NSA was able to justify their actions “in the name of public safety.”

Majority say NSA tracking of phone records  acceptable    Washington Post Pew Research Center poll   The Washington Post

The Digital Age Gets Us Up Close And Personal

Perhaps one of the reasons that the public outcry over the NSA scandal lost steam so quickly was because we’re already so used to being on public display.

Social networking has arguably made us more comfortable with being exposed. In an age where we tweet what we had for breakfast, disclose relationship problems on Facebook, and share what music we’re listening to on Spotify, the idea that someone is collecting metadata from your phone is more palatable than perhaps it would have been 10 years ago. Even Mark Zuckerberg himself said “the age of privacy is over”. . . and that was three years ago!

Online Background Checks Rise In Popularity

Along with the overshares and TMI moments on social media, the public also seems to have embraced the idea of using electronic public records to look into someone’s past. Online background check sites, like Instant Checkmate  and, have exploded across the digital marketplace. Sites like these usually offer basic identifying information, arrest records, and location information about individuals in the U.S. These sites are among the most frequently visited sites on the Internet, so I think it’s safe to say that the majority of people don’t mind having their public records available online.

Instant Checkmate  Get A Background Check  Access Arrest Records

If someone doesn’t want their personal information to be made publicly available, these sites make it relatively easy to “opt out,” meaning that the company removes your information from the site. Although, if lots of people were opting out, there wouldn’t be a product to sell, so I’m guessing those opt out requests are few and far between.

Signs Of The Times

If you want to ensure that all your information stays private at all times, all you have to do is pay for everything in cash, stay far away from social networking sites (in fact don’t even go online), don’t go to the airport (unless you like full body scans), and apparently don’t talk on a cell phone. You get the point. It seems as if we’ve chosen modernity over privacy already.

What do you think? Is it worth sacrificing the convenience, connectivity, and safety that is offered by the very same things that expose us? Does privacy really still matter?

Author bio: Jessica Ruane regularly shares too much personal information about herself on Facebook. She blogs about crime, social media, and current events in her sunny hometown of San Diego, CA.

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While pundits, lawmakers, and talking heads quibble about whether Edward Snowden should be cast as a “hero” or a “traitor,” the NSA leak story raises a more fundamental issue for debate: The relationship between governments and citizens.


If media accounts can be  taken at face value, the PRISM program – while perhaps well intentioned – represents a significant threat to individual liberty and privacy, not only of U.S. citizens, but of law-abiding and peaceful people in countries around the world.

According to a follow-up article by Glenn Greenwald, it would appear that members of Congress were not fully aware of the extent or invasiveness of the NSA’s data collection, which raises the question of how any meaningful oversight could have been occurring, as some officials have claimed.

Regardless of where you come down on government surveillance in a philosophical sense, ask yourself this question: If the watchers are not able to watch those who are watching us, how can the public have any hope of engaging in reasoned debate on this issue?

What do we base our decisions about NSA intrusions upon? How do we evaluate what liberties we’re giving up and whether that’s acceptable to us or not?

This week’s videos feature a roundup of reporting from a variety of angles. Take a look and make up your own mind.

Edward Snowden’s interview with the Guardian

Marco Rubio’s response to the NSA leaks

Rand Paul responds to NSA’s testimony

Harry Reid: Lawmakers have had “every opportunity to be aware” of the NSA’s programs

Have a safe weekend and, for all the dads out there, have a Happy Father’s Day!

Want posts conveniently delivered to your email inbox? Just follow by clicking on the link in the left sidebar, or sign up for our monthly roundup of top blog posts.

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