Internet Privacy, Corporatism and Tax Dollars

I had a discussion with certain family members over this past weekend about the subject of Internet privacy, anonymity, Facebook, corporations and governments.

I found that my kids (one late Gen Xer, two Millennials) have differing views about Internet privacy, which taken at face value, shouldn’t be too surprising.

While I found that my Late Gen-Xer son’s views most mirror my own (he’s 31 years old), I found that my Millennial daughters split into subgroups, even though they are only 22 and 19 years old respectively.

My daughters use Facebook quite a lot and post quite a bit of personal info, but my youngest daughter posts the most personal info and uses the message board to communicate with friends, her fiance and her fiance’s mother. Even though they text each other all day long on their cellphones!

These people don’t care who scans their personal info at all! They believe in the system’s ability to ‘protect’ them! Amazing!

Which leads me to today’s post about Big Brother, corporatism and raiding the taxpayer’s wallet:

Repression doesn’t come cheap, just ask the FBI.

As the securitization of daily life increase at near exponential rates (all to keep us “safe,” mind you) the dark contours of an American police state, like a pilot’s last glimpse of an icy peak before a plane crash, wobbles into view.

In the main, such programs include, but are by no means limited to the following: electronic surveillance (call records, internet usage, social media); covert hacking by state operatives; GPS tracking; CCTV cameras linked-in to state databases; “smart” cards; RFID chipped commodities and the spooky “internet of things;” biometrics, and yes, the Pentagon has just stood up a Biometrics Identity Management Agency (BIMA); data-mining; watch listing; on and on it goes.

Pity our poor political minders, snowed-under by a blizzard of data-sets crying out for proper “management”! Or, as sycophantic armchair warrior and New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, would have it, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist–McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15.”

So true; yet neither can an aggregate of repressive police and intelligence agencies function without an army of corporate grifters who guide that “hidden hand” and not-so-hidden fist into highly profitable safe harbors. Call it Big Brother meets market fundamentalism.

And so, the heat is on as America’s premier political police agency struggles to “modernize” their case file management system.

The FBI’s Case Management “Problem”

When circumstances (a massive up-tick in illegal spying since 9/11 courtesy of the USA Patriot Act) forced the Bureau to store a treasure trove of tittle-tattle of “national security interest” on decidedly low-tech storage devices, FBI agents and their all-too-willing helpers from giant telecommunications firms such as AT&T took to scribbling “leads” on post-it notes.

Communications Analysis Unit (CAU) eager-beavers did so in order to speed-up the process of obtaining dodgy “exigent letters” that smoothed over the wrinkles (your rights!) as the Bureau issued tens of thousands of National Security Letters (NSLs).

The secretive lettres de cachet demanded everything: emails, internet searches, call records, bank statements, credit card purchases, travel itineraries, medical histories, educational résumés, even video rentals and books borrowed from public libraries. The contents of such shady administrative warrants cannot be disclosed by their recipients under penalty of stiff fines or even imprisonment.

While such extra-legal missives are supposedly issued only in cases of dire “emergency,” the banal, ubiquitous nature of surveillance in post-Constitutional, “new normal” regimes such as the United States, all but guarantee that extraordinary “states of exception” are standard rules of the game in our managed democracy.

As the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General revealed in a heavily-redacted report in January, with all semblance of a legal process out the window, the FBI were caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar, repeatedly violating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Fear not, Obama administration legal eagles cobbled together a new theory justifying the practice and have created, yet another, accountability free zone for agents who violated the rules.

Neatly, seamlessly and silently Obama’s Office of Legal Counsel (John Yoo and Judge Bybee’s old stomping grounds) granted them, wait!, retroactive immunity for such lawbreaking. The trouble is, the OLC’s ruling is classified so we haven’t a clue what it entails or how far-reaching is its purview. So much for the new era of “openness” and “transparency.”

But I digress…

The New York Times reported March 18, that work on parts of the Bureau’s cracker-jack case management program known as Sentinel has been “temporarily” suspended.

While the “overhaul” was supposed “to be completed this fall,”Times journalist Eric Lichtblau disclosed that the system will not be ready for prime time until “next year at the earliest.”

Overall, American taxpayers have shelled-out some $451 million to an endless parade of contractors, Lockheed Martin being the latest. Delays are expected to cost “at least $30 million in cost overruns on a project considered vital to national security” Lichtblau wrote, citing Congressional “officials.”

But problems have plagued the project since its inception. Lockheed Martin, No. 1 on Washington Technology’s “2009 Top 100″ list of Prime Federal Contractors, secured some $14,983,515,367 in defense-related contracts last year and was brought on-board to revamp the troubled case management project.

This is all the more ironic considering that the defense giant was hailed as Sentinel’s savior, after an earlier incarnation of the program known as Virtual Case File (VCF), overseen by the spooky Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), crashed and burned in 2006.

No slouches themselves when it comes to raking-in taxpayer boodle, SAIC is No. 7 on the Washington Technology list, pulling in some $4,811,194,880 in 2009, largely as a result of the firm’s close political connections to the Defense Department and the secret state.

SAIC’s work on VCF began in June 2001 and was expected to be completed in 36 months. However, after shelling out some $170 million over four years the Bureau concluded the system wouldn’t work. Published reports fail to mention whether or not SAIC was forced to hand the loot back to cash-strapped taxpayers. Probably not.

Open-Ended Contracts: Hitting the Corporatist “Sweet Spot”

As with all things having to do with protecting their national security constituency from lean quarterly reports to shareholders, congressional grifters and secret state agencies alike are adept at showering giant defense and security corporations with multiyear, multibillion dollar contracts.

After all, high-end CEO salaries and lucrative remunerations for top executives in the form of handsome bonuses are based, not on a firm’s actual performance but rather, on the critical up-tick in the share price; just ask Lehman Brothers or other outstanding corporate citizens such as Goldman Sachs. Or SAIC itself, for that matter!

Unfortunately, effective oversight is not the forte of a plethora of congressional committees; nor are crisp, objective evaluations, better known as due diligence, conducted by outside auditors before scarce federal resources, which could be used for quaint things such as health care, education or other reality-based programs, pour into any number of virtual black holes.

Take VCF as an example.

In a post-mortem of the SAIC program, The Washington Post revealed back in 2006, that after spending months writing 730,000 lines of computer code, corporate officers proclaimed VCF’s roll-out “only weeks away.”

The trouble was, software problem reports, or SPRs, “numbered in the hundreds.” Worse for SAIC, as engineers continued running tests, systemic problems were multiplying quicker than proverbial rabbits.

As Post journalists Dan Eggen and Griff Witte disclosed, citing an unreleased audit of the program hushed-up by the Bureau, because “of an open-ended contract with few safeguards, SAIC reaped more than $100 million as the project became bigger and more complicated, even though its software never worked properly.”

Despite evidence that the system was failing badly, SAIC “continued to meet the bureau’s requests, accepting payments despite clear signs that the FBI’s approach to the project was badly flawed.”

Auditors discovered that the “system delivered by SAIC was so incomplete and unusable that it left the FBI with little choice but to scuttle the effort altogether.”

David Kay, a former SAIC senior vice president and Bushist chief weapons inspector in Iraq tasked with finding nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction,” told the Post even though top executives at the firm were aware the project was going “awry,” they didn’t insist on changes “because the bureau continued to pay the bills as the work piled up.”

“From the documents that define the system at the highest level, down through the software design and into the source code itself,” Aerospace, the independent firm that conducted the secretive FBI audit, “discovered evidence of incompleteness, lack of follow-through, failure to optimize and missing documentation.”

Even more damning, a report by computer experts from the National Research Council and SAIC insider, Matthew Patton, removed from the program by top executives after posting critical remarks on VCF in an on-line forum, found that the firm “kept 200 programmers on staff doing ‘make work’,” when a “couple of dozen would have been enough.”

SAIC’s attitude, according to Patton, was that “it’s other people’s money, so they’ll burn it every which way they want to.”

As a cash cow, VCF was a superlative program; however, the IT security specialist told the Post: “Would the product actually work? Would it help agents do their jobs? I don’t think anyone on the SAIC side cared about that.”

Why would they? After all, $170 million buys much in the way of designer golf bags, pricey Hawaiian getaways or other necessities useful for navigating the dangerous shoals of America’s “war on terror”!

As investigative journalist Tim Shorrock detailed in his essential book, Spies For Hire and for CorpWatch, SAIC “stands like a private colossus across the whole intelligence industry.” Shorrock writes, “of SAIC’s 42,000 employees, more than 20,000 hold U.S. government security clearances, making it, with Lockheed Martin, one of the largest private intelligence services in the world.”

As the journalist revealed, while SAIC “is deeply involved in the operations of all the major collection agencies, particularly the NSA, NGA and CIA,” failure also seems to come with the corporate territory.

“For example” Shorrock wrote, the firm “managed one of the NSA’s largest efforts in recent years, the $3 billion Project Trailblazer, which attempted (and failed) to create actionable intelligence from the cacophony of telephone calls, fax messages, and emails that the NSA picks up every day. Launched in 2001, Trailblazer experienced hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns and NSA cancelled it in 2005.”

Is there a pattern here?

Is there a pattern indeed.

It doesn’t really matter whether these corporations have cost overruns that run into the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

When one has no-bid cost-plus contracts that are paid for by the taxpayer, where is the need to do a job right the first time, or anytime at all?

The government contractor gravy-train just keeps rolling along, on the backs of the working poor and what’s left of the privately/self employed middle class.

And Internet privacy?

It’s just an archaic concept.

Big Brother and the Hidden Hand of the “Free Market”

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3 responses

  1. The Highwayman | Reply

    Yo, Leatherneck…

    If you’re going to participate in the asylum that is the Internet, you’ve already given up on a good deal of your privacy. WordPress (or Blogger) admins can access your personal shit anytime they wish, especially under coercion from the authorities. The trick is keeping the Busboy’s of the world out of your private affairs. It is amazing what you can glean from people’s conversations… information they give you that they deem irrelevant, yet, unbeknown to them, has importance to someone else. It’s really very easy to find something on someone if you lurk their sites long enough, paying attention to detail.

    In another incarnation, I tracked down the identity and whereabouts of a certain heckler and troll that was derailing all of my comments on other blogs. He was shadowing me everywhere I went, deriding and provoking me. Doing my research, I then posted a complete profile of him on my site, his history going back to his youth (he’s 55) when he was a derelict living on the streets in Washington State. Needless to say, this infuriated the psycho, (yes, psychological problems, suicide attempts, failed marriages, substance abuse, etc.) and he went ballistic. Even to the point of setting up a mock site of mine with the intention of intimidating me, (remember what they did to KIM?) only devoid of any real info on me other than his own tormented assessments.

    Point is, in his many ramblings, he left information he thought was benign. He even posted pictures of his favorite haunts that had certain information embedded in them (background objects, signs, etc.) that was traceable through search engines. After seeing pictures of his house (courtesy of Google Earth) posted on my blog along with hints that I sometimes travel through those areas, (and I do!) he began to sense this was one hombre he’d better leave alone.

    Bottom line? ZERO info about yourself or family posted! Stick with the blog issues and limit your opinions about anything. Trolls? Ignore them. Better yet, delete them.

    They’re not true life forms, anyway.

    1. Oh no doubt, I’m sure if the government wanted to coerce WordPress or any other blog building outfit for info, they’d give it up.

      My take is that the government can get at me anytime they want, I’m in the VA healthcare system. They have the most advanced personal computer info system on the planet.

      Besides, I’m already been dubbed harmless. If I wasn’t, I would no longer be on the InnerTubes!

  2. As someone who almost literally lives online (I’m online roughly 12-14 hours a day) I have thought long and hard about privacy issues. And yes, there really isn’t any total privacy. Even those who only occasionally use the internet are not doing so privately. But then of course there is a big difference between someone knowing what you searched for or where your IP pinpoints you, and extremely personal information about you and what you do ( a la Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, etc). I’ve never understood the need for people to constantly update their network of friends about everything they do each day. And I never understood how they cold so willingly open themselves up that far, for prying eyes to see.

    Then there are situations which are unavoidable. For me, as a graphic designer, it is pretty necessary to have a online portfolio and in many cases, work history. Also, I have info about me on Interstellar Housewife, and such. Of course, those are things I am willingly putting out there, and therefore have been tailored with that in mind.

    I believe most people feel the are unimportant enough to not suffer consequences of this. This usually works out ok, until it doesn’t — and therein lies the problem. Maybe you’re unimportant now, but someday maybe you will be important enough for someone to o sniffing through your online footprints to the past.

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