Happy Mother’s Day Mom!

Thanks Mom, for everything.  You may not be an imposing figure walking down the street, but you’re far tougher than the average tiger.  No matter how much life surprises you and tosses you things you weren’t planning on, you find a way to pull it all together and make it all right.  And it’s important you realize your contributions and sacrifices do not go unnoticed or unappreciated.  Your strength is inspiration to us all.  I’m proud of you, and I hope you have a wonderful day.

The Dangers of American Exceptionalism

American ExceptionalismSean Hannity often says that America is the greatest best country God has ever given man on the face of this Earth.  It’s an oft repeated mantra, which if taken in the spirit of national pride and unity would be just fine.  However, it is more often interpreted as some sort of birthright that America should rule the world… militarily, economically, intellectually, spiritually, and well hey… did I mention that we’re number one?

The trouble, of course, is that when you view everyone else as subordinate, you tend to believe they have nothing to teach you.  I’ve written before about how there are countries out there with proven successes in achieving exactly the goals we’re trying to achieve in healthcare and education, but we are not even seriously studying or talking about these foreign models.

Now comes evidence that Iceland has done wonders in solving their housing market issues as well as getting their financial system back in order following the 2008 meltdown of both.  In a nutshell, Iceland took over its banking industry rather than just bailing it out as we did here in the US.  It then forgave any mortgage debt above 110% of a home’s value for all its citizens.   This dramatically reduced the debt burden for most households and kept consumer spending from plummeting. It then instituted extensive new regulations on the banking industry to prevent another 2008-style catastrophe.  Further, it has actively pursued criminal charges against almost 300 banking executives who were directly responsible for decisions leading up to the crash.  The result?

Iceland’s $13 billion annual economy declined 6.7 percent the following year, in 2009, but has since rebounded and will expand by 2.4 percent this year and in 2013, the OECD estimated. Meanwhile, in the rest of debt-ridden Europe, the economy will collectively expand by a paltry 0.2 percent this year and only 1.6 percent the next, OECD estimates said in November.

Housing is now just about 3 percent below values in September 2008, just before the financial collapse. So improved is the nation’s economic and fiscal outlook that Fitch Ratings in February raised the country to investment grade with a stable outlook, stating the country’s “unorthodox crisis policy response has succeeded.”

By comparison, the US is projected to grow at 2.2% in 2012, the housing market remains underwater, and the banks are returning to many of the same policies that led to the crash in the first place.

It’s not clear that what happened in Iceland is directly applicable to the US.  Perhaps those programs and policies would not function here as well for one reason or another.  But the crime is that we are not even talking about it—not even trying to learn from their experience.  The mainstream press has given Iceland almost no coverage.  Politicians are not discussing what happened there and debating its applicability to our economy.  As far as the US is concerned, Iceland doesn’t exist.

Is this because we’re too proud to admit a bunch of foreigners have something to teach us?  Or is it because the special interests have a stranglehold on the media and the politicians and are suppressing stories that would lead to policies unfavorable to their moneyed interests?  It’s not clear.  But what is clear is that other countries are solving problems that we need to solve, and we’re idiots if we can’t find something to learn from them.

CISPA – Big Brother Never Sleeps

big-brother-posterIt’s likely you’ve never heard of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, also known as CISPA.  It is the latest round in the never-ending litany of SOPA-like bills designed to clamp down on the scourge that is the Internet.  And it just cleared the House last week by a pretty comfortable margin.  Comfortable that is, unless you’re a user of the Internet.

Much like the Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, CISPA cloaks itself with a title that’s hard to be opposed to.  Cyber-terrorism is a very real threat, and who in their right mind would be against a measure to protect us from a cyber-attack?  Ahhh… if only it actually achieved that goal.

What CISPA actually does is provide immunity to ISPs and online  service providers for responding to government requests for information about the cyber-activities of anyone related to cybersecurity, cyber crime, protecting people from harm, protecting children from exploitation, and national security.  Note that the bill does not compel companies to turn over such information, and because it’s a voluntary request, it requires no court approval or any other sort of burden of reasonable cause.  But keep in mind that during the post 9/11 illegal wiretapping scandals, AT&T, Verizon, and other companies were only too willing to hand over your data.  So much so that there were efforts to prosecute the telecom companies for violating citizen’s rights, which ultimately required that the telcos be granted immunity.  Under CISPA, they will have permanent immunity as CISPA explicitly states that companies may provide requested information “notwithstanding any other provision of law.”  In other words, CISPA trumps all other laws.

CISPA would “waive every single privacy law ever enacted in the name of cybersecurity,” Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat and onetime Web entrepreneur, said during the House debate. “Allowing the military and NSA to spy on Americans on American soil goes against every principle this country was founded on.”

Yet all this begs the question, will it make us safer?  After all, in the last decade Americans have repeatedly shown that they are willing to sacrifice considerable freedoms in the interest of domestic security.

The fundamental issue would seem to be that this is a bill about cyber-security. Yet the allowances to deploy the law for purposes such as protecting children from exploitation seem pretty hard to defend as essential to preventing cyber-terrorism.  Still, it’s hard to argue that protecting children is a bad thing.

Moreover, the issue would seem to be the relative ease by which potential cyber-terrorists could thwart the efforts enabled by CISPA.  VPN tunnels and anonymous proxy services are well known technologies, and would make it impossible for anyone monitoring network traffic to even determine who was talking to whom, much less eavesdrop on the conversation.  You could certainly argue that the average citizen might not have the geeky skills to set up such a secure Internet connection.  But certainly anyone with the mad tech skills to conduct cyber-terrorism is going to be able to handle an encrypted network tunnel.  Don’tcha think?

So who are we catching here?  One possibility is that this is all just more security theater.  We’ll spend a lot of money and politicians will use CISPA as a campaign slogan, but it will have very little net impact on security.  Another possibility is that CISPA will be exploited for less noble purposes, unrelated to cyber-terrorism.  Instead of hunting down Chinese hackers, it will be used to hunt down your spouse streaming an illegally broadcast Celtics game on her laptop.

The bottom line is that this bill will not accomplish what it purports to.  The bill is highly focused on domestic surveillance, and there is no evidence that we are at risk of a domestic cyber-attack from citizens with poor tech skills.  Further, there are ample laws on the books now that allow the government a pretty wide berth to eavesdrop on citizens when they can show cause.  And those laws have already been routinely circumvented in the name of national security.  If anything, we need to be shoring up the Fourth Amendment, not tearing it to shreds.

Just because technology provides the means to unobtrusively invade our personal privacy does not mean we should be surrendering those rights.

Fortunately, while CISPA started out with bipartisan support, it has become a partisan issue.  It may have been passed by the House, but its chances of getting through the Senate are slim, and Obama has already threatened a veto.  Yet this is no time for complacency.  These sorts of bills just keep on coming, and sooner or later, one of them will slip through.

Be vigilant.