Dear President Obama,
My name is Ben Adida. I am 36, married, two kids, working in Silicon Valley as a software engineer with a strong background in security. I’ve worked on the security of voting systems and health systems, on web browsers and payment systems. I enthusiastically voted for you three times: in the 2008 primary and in both presidential elections. When I wrote about my support for your campaign five years ago, I said:
In his campaign, Obama has proposed opening up to the public all bill debates and negotiations with lobbyists, via TV and the Internet. Why? Because he trusts that Americans, when given the tools to see and understand what their legislators are doing, will apply pressure to keep their government honest.
I gushed about how you supported transparency as broadly as possible, to enable better decision making, to empower individuals, and to build a better nation.
Now, I’m no stubborn idealist. I know that change is hard and slow. I know you cannot steer a ship as big as the United States as quickly as some would like. I know tough compromises are the inevitable path to progress.
I also imagine that, once you’re President, the enormity of the threat from those who would attack Americans must be overwhelming. The responsibility you feel, the level of detail you understand, must make prior principles sometimes feel quaint. I cannot imagine what it’s like to be in your shoes.
I also remember that you called on us, your supporters, to stay active, to call you and Congress to task. I want to believe that you asked for this because you knew that your perspective as Commander in Chief would inevitably become skewed. So this is what I’m doing here: I’m calling you to task.
You are failing hard on transparency and oversight when it comes to NSA surveillance. This failure is not the pragmatic compromise of Obamacare, which I strongly support. It is not the sheer difficulty of closing Guantanamo, which I understand. This failure is deep. If you fail to fix it, you will be the President principally responsible for the effective death of the Fourth Amendment and worse.
The specific topic of concern, to be clear, is mass surveillance. I am not concerned with targeted data requests, based on probable cause and reviewed individually by publicly accountable judges. I can even live with secret data requests, provided they’re very limited, finely targeted, and protect the free-speech rights of service providers like Google and Facebook to release appropriately sanitized data about these requests as often as they’d like.
What I’m concerned about is the broad, dragnet NSA signals intelligence recently revealed by Edward Snowden. This kind of surveillance is a different beast, comparable to routine frisking of every individual simply for walking down the street. It is repulsive to me. It should be repulsive to you, too.
wrong in practice
If you’re a hypochondriac, you might be tempted to ask your doctor for a full body MRI or CT scan to catch health issues before detectable symptoms. Unfortunately, because of two simple probabilistic principles, you’re much worse off if you get the test.
First, it is relatively unlikely that a random person with no symptoms has a serious medical problem, ie the prior probability is low. Second, it is quite possible — not likely, but possible — that a completely benign thing appears potentially dangerous on imaging, ie there is a noticeable chance of false positive. Put those two things together, and you get this mind-bending outcome: if the full-body MRI says you have something to worry about, you actually don’t have anything to worry about. But try convincing yourself of that if you get a scary MRI result.
Mass surveillance to seek out terrorism is basically the same thing: very low prior probability that any given person is a terrorist, quite possible that normal behavior appears suspicious. Mass surveillance means wasting tremendous resources on dead ends. And because we’re human and we make mistakes when given bad data, mass surveillance sometimes means badly hurting innocent people, like Jean-Charles de Menezes.
So what happens when a massively funded effort has frustratingly poor outcomes? You get scope creep: the surveillance apparatus gets redirected to other purposes. The TSA starts overseeing sporting events. The DEA and IRS dip into the NSA dataset. Anti-terrorism laws with far-reaching powers are used to intimidate journalists and their loved ones.
Where does it stop? If we forgo due process for a certain category of investigation which, by design, will see its scope broaden to just about any type of investigation, is there any due process left?
wrong on principle
I can imagine some people, maybe some of your trusted advisors, will say that what I’ve just described is simply a “poor implementation” of surveillance, that the NSA does a much better job. So it’s worth asking: assuming we can perfect a surveillance system with zero false positives, is it then okay to live in a society that implements such surveillance and detects any illegal act?
This has always felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t express a simple, principled, ethical reason for this feeling, until I spoke with a colleague recently who said it better than I ever could:
For society to progress, individuals must be able to experiment very close to the limit of the law and sometimes cross into illegality. A society which perfectly enforces its laws is one that cannot make progress.
What would have become of the civil rights movement if all of its initial transgressions had been perfectly detected and punished? What about gay rights? Women’s rights? Is there even room for civil disobedience?
Though we want our laws to reflect morality, they are, at best, a very rough and sometimes completely broken approximation of morality. Our ability as citizens to occasionally transgress the law is the force that brings our society’s laws closer to our moral ideals. We should reject mass surveillance, even the theoretically perfect kind, with all the strength and fury of a people striving to form a more perfect union.
Mr. President, you have said that you do not consider Edward Snowden a patriot, and you have not commented on whether he is a whistleblower. I ask you to consider this: if you were an ordinary citizen, living your life as a Law Professor at the University of Chicago, and you found out, through Edward Snowden’s revelations, the scope of the NSA mass surveillance program and the misuse of the accumulated data by the DEA and the IRS, what would you think? Wouldn’t you, like many of us, be thankful that Mr. Snowden risked his life to give we the people this information, so that we may judge for ourselves whether this is the society we want?
And if there is even a possibility that you would feel this way, given that many thousands do, if government insiders believe Snowden to be a traitor while outsiders believe him to be a whisteblower, is that not all the information you need to realize the critical positive role he has played, and the need for the government to change?
the time to do something is now
I still believe that you are, at your core, a unique President who values a government by and for the people. As a continuing supporter of your Presidency, I implore you to look deeply at this issue, to bring in outside experts who are not involved in national security. This issue is critical to our future as a free nation.
Please do what is right so that your daughters and my sons can grow up with the privacy and dignity they deserve, free from surveillance, its inevitable abuses, and its paralyzing force. Our kids, too, will have civil rights battles to fight. They, too, will need the ability to challenge unjust laws. They, too, will need the space to make our country better still.
Please do not rob them of that opportunity.