Ryan J. Suto's Blog

17 September 2013

A Constitution Day Plea against NSA Surveillance

This was posted on the Tully Center for Free Speech's blog Free Speech Zone, and can be found here.

Today is Constitution Day, which marks the 226th anniversary of the ratification of the document which forms the legal outline of our society. This document includes values such as limited government powers, inter-branch checks and balances, and the personal right to be secure in one’s effects. Today is the day to reflect on how poorly we have done to maintain these values.
While government surveillance and opacity are not wholly new, the recent revelations of NSA metadata collection and activity exceeds the scope of all previously known examples of government overstepping. The National Security Administration (NSA)  routinely engages in the compilation of information on both domestic and foreign communications, acting inconsistently with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). More importantly, in October 2011, U.S. District Judge Bates wrote that the NSA acquires information with “substantial intrusions on Fourth Amendment protected interests.” To do this, the NSA has not only created an array of data collection technologies, but has also co-opted private data collected by complicit corporation. The NSA has hacked into the United Nations and has given your private information to the Israeli government. How can any American feel secure in his or her personal effect?
One might respond that we are in a time of war, exempting us from Constitutional limits on the grounds of necessity. However, the horrors of war were just as real to those who fought the Revolutionary War and created our founding documents as it is now for those who witnessed the horrors of 9/11 and face endless threats to domestic tranquility. We must remind ourselves that those documents originate from the cauldron of war by people who surely faced death if their revolution proved unsuccessful. Their values remain as true today as they did over two hundred years ago.
Any law is only as good as its enforcement, and the Constitution is no exception. We must  stand and assert our fundamental rights if we fear their erosion. Earlier this month the Associated Press reported that nearly 60% of Americans oppose the NSA’s metadata program. But without constituents in the streets and anger in their inboxes, our representatives have no incentive to challenge the current national security structure. As such, action is required to show Congress our disagreement of these programs. I call on all Americans to join the Stop Watching Us Coalition and Restore the Fourth in Washington, D.C. during  the weekend of October 26th for a day of action against the NSA’s mass surveillance. This day marks the anniversary  of the USA PATRIOT Act, legislation passed in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks aimed at shaking our great nation’s strong foundation.
America is indeed an exceptional nation, full of amazing people and unthinkable potential. But if we the people don’t hold our government to its Constitutional limits of power, our liberty will be irreparably eroded by the fear of a possible enemy at the gates. As such, we must realize now that the true enemy of liberty comes from within–our own complacency.

04 September 2013

Seven Mistakes of English that make me instantly stop listening or reading

Insensitive? Possibly. Arbitrary? Maybe. Steeped in privilege and arcane notions of propriety? Sure. But regardless, for some elitist reason I cannot get past these commonly made mistakes in English. Whether others have the same rules and pet peeves as I, everyone will judge you in some way for how you speak. And believe it or not, you judge them, too.

1.       Pronouns are for back-up. Only use ‘it’, ‘they’, ‘them’, etc. when that which is being referred to is explicitly clear.

2.       Proper verb conjugation. There’s two? No, there are two. This one is so simple, I really don't understand the issue here.

3.       Adjectives v. adverbs. He didn’t run slow. Don’t grab your coat quick. He ran slowly. Grab your coat quickly. File ‘well v. good’ under this, too.

4.       Their and They. These words always refer to more than one person. They are NOT gender neutral singular pronouns.

5.       Correct plurals. Criteria are many, criterion is one. Media are plural. Data are too. Alumni are as well. (Bonus: ‘alum’, unless you’re discussing chemistry, is not a word. Never use it. Ever.)

6.       Sentence subjects. ‘Checked the door’. ‘Wasn’t there’. Uh, what checked the door? What wasn’t there? Even if you think the subjects of these incomplete sentences are made clear by previous reference, they are not. You need a subject here.

7.       I and Me, Who and Whom. I and Who are subjects, Me and Whom are objects. Use them as such.

Now of course I have made all of these mistakes at some point in my adult life, but once I notice I feel dirty and embarrassed. How can one notice mistakes and thereby improve one’s English? There are two ways to notice mistakes: having an ‘ear’ for correct English, and knowing the formal rules of English. The former simply means having your Colbert-gut attuned to recognize mistakes, while the latter is the nerd version which will note that a coordinating conjunction should only be used to join two independent clauses. If you didn’t grow up with parents who used near-perfect English (I love my parents but they know nothing of grammar), the best way to develop and ‘ear’ for it is to read it and listen to it. If you didn’t have grammar education in high school (I must admit I did), buy this. 

Regardless of what technological advances come (except perhaps direct thought propagation) language will continue to be important. And until human nature changes, people will continue to judge others on how they speak. The criteria, though, will change, of course. Like education in general, language is a lifetime process that requires constant attention, but for me it has been well worth the effort.

03 September 2013

Who's to Blame For the Surveillance State? Here's the Hard Truth

This post appears on PolicyMic.com and thus can be found here.

Americans are told that the United States is a nation governed by laws, not men. We praise our peaceful transitions of power and our checks and balances. But while we are not ruled by the arbitrary whims of individuals, our laws are not actually what dictate our government’s actions. Instead, we are a nation governed by fear of terrorism. This has led us down a foggy road, opaque with tactically questionable and illegal National Security Administration (NSA) surveillance. Now, our best chance of bringing transparency back to the U.S. is to work within the political system to bring real change to law and policy.
Recent leaks, information releases, and other revelations have shown that Americans have no information about the actions of our own government. Specifically, the NSA’s "metadata’" program of compiling massive databases of information on both domestic and foreign communications is inconsistent with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was passed to prevent the executive branch from engaging in over-broad domestic surveillance. In order to achieve such a database, the NSA has co-opted complicittelecommunications companies, as well. All the metadata collected could not possibly be relevant to any specific investigation, allowing the executive to unlawfully engage in the collection of personal information on U.S. citizens.
FISA itself is flawed as well. The U.S. legal system is designed to be adversarial: two opposing parties attempting to point out holes in the other’s arguments. In theory, this process allows for the truth to be discovered by the judge or jury. The FISA court does not generally work this way, however. The government presents classified information to the court, with no effective oversight beyond that the government has “simply dotted its i’s and crossed its t’s.” Thus, with no opposing counsel or public scrutiny, the nation’s national security apparati are allowed to operate unchecked by any truly independent body or individual. We now know that in October 2011, U.S. District Judge Bates wrote that the NSA acquires information with “substantial intrusions on Fourth Amendment protected interests.” Internal executive branch checks are not constitutionally or democratically sufficient oversight for programs such as surveillance and drone operations.
Those who point out the dangers of this lack of transparency and public scrutiny of our surveillance programs are not simply clinging to outdated notions of rights and liberties. In the name of the American people, the NSA has also hacked into the United Nations and the European Union. Along with these supra-national organizations, our spying programs have strained our relationship with Germany, a key economic ally. Perhaps more troubling, the very structure of these surveillance programs give officials no sufficient ability to separate purely domestic communications from those which involve non-U.S. citizens. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is using NSA-like legal tactics to collect NSA-like metadata for domestic law enforcement purposes.
America is now living in a time period when citizens are being knowingly surveilled. This is Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon — an institution with a ubiquitous and controlling gaze. Michel Foucault pointed out that living in knowing surveillance leads humans to internalize the institutional rules — that is to say, we begin to act as our surveillers wish us to act. We grow numb to the invasions of personal privacy and accept our role within the state apparatus. This does not sound like a democracy where citizens exert ultimate control and authority over the functions and actions of the government.
I wish to alter Julian Assange’s statement, “privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful,” to say instead, privacy for the people and transparency for the state. This statement reflects a truth which can be inferred by the philosophy, structure, and very texts of our Constitution. Regarding privacy for the people: the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and the Ninth Amendment protection of personal freedoms. Regarding transparency for the state: the First Amendment freedom of the press, the president’s Article II duty to report on the state of the nation, and the democratic requirement that the people must make informed decisions when voting for or against government officials. Privacy for the people and transparency for the state are requirements to ensure government is subservient to the people who established it.
Whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou, and others have taken extralegal steps to bring government abuses to the attention of the public. These revelations have not yet inspired mass action in the American people — save, perhaps, for the Restore the Fourth movement . Thus, the American people must be mobilized in order to create a sustained push for sufficient transparency in governance to ensure the protection of our constitutional rights. As Congress returns to work for the fall session, citizens must exponentially increase our activism toward forcing a revolution in how the government conducts its surveillance activities. Without constituents in the streets and anger in their inboxes, our representatives have no incentive to challenge the current national security structure.
But we cannot continue to only work on the outside looking in. We must work within the political system in order to effectively bring change to the U.S. The wholesale structural change needed in the federal government to roll back the privacy abuses of the past cannot come without more allies within the halls of power. Think to yourself, which movement has brought more change to the U.S. political landscape: the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street? The Tea Party did, by recognizing how to play the game of politics to get what they want. As such, formalized organizations which can either put forth or endorse political candidates for federal office must be created and supported broadly.
Walking down the opaque road of secretive governance and diminished liberty should strike each of us as inherently un-American. But you can’t challenge the government unless you challenge yourself. You can’t change the country unless you change yourself. As Cory Booker said in a speech in Washington on Saturday, democracy is not a spectator sport. We each must materially support nationwide organizations which have the structural ability to move Washington toward a more perfect America. In the words of Lt. Ehren Watada, this is an obligation, not a choice.