Saturday, December 24, 2005

Gee, There Goes All Your Personal Information ...

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In my personal experience if you don't establish specific limits on something which you expect others to adhere to you'll rarely ever get what you specifically say you're striving to get. The easiest example that comes to mind is with my students and any given project that I may assign them. If I don't lay out specific parameters for what I want, what I get will vary from right on, to anything that falls into the cracks between what I did say and what I didn't. Students are extraordinary at finding those things that leave them with the option to say, "But you didn't say that in your instructions." Now you may assume that whatever you don't want was a given in some way, but you learn quickly to never make that point in a discussion with someone who's bent the expectations, nothing should be assumed or thought of as a given as the human animal will bend any situation to fit his or her comfort level. To be fair sometimes I haven't been entirely clear and a student's interpretation isn't deliberately self-serving, and that's fine, that's MY bad and I live to learn. I'm just amazed at the number of students who will bend and twist like Houdini in a strait jacket to get over when the instructions were indeed pretty darn clear.

Now in my experience in the Navy the situations you dealt with were a bit more complex, but there were common threads to what I see with students. If you tell someone or a group of someone's to do something you have to be very specific about what they should and shouldn't do. Here the problem isn't a matter of simply avoiding the path to least work, but rather there are situations where you don't want someone going too far. So you have to do two things: 1. make your instructions as clear and comprehensive as you can, and 2. given that you're human and can't possibly anticipate every possibility, check on what you have your people doing, and have those working for you regularly check as well. An extraordinary example of this line of thinking failing is Abu Ghraib. There you had military personal given great latitude in what they could or couldn't do, and no one apparently was overseeing what they were up to, at least not on a regular basis and those who were checking up on things appear to have been willing to look the other way when questionable, though not necessarily flat out illegal, situations arose.

Now what astounds me here it that I've learned these lessons in my life experiences, but we have a president who's a Harvard Business School MBA, not to mention a Yalie, and you'd think that they somewhere in that blue-blooded education that G.W. would have picked this up, I mean they have to at least teach this stuff at these places to make up for any lack of practical
experience. But no, it appears that G.W. was absent for those lessons - well, given his grades, maybe not. I mean how else do we explain his, "We don't torture" proclamation, which certainly sounds right, with the efforts by himself and his people to undermine any legislation which codifies that we don't, and otherwise would hold accountable anyone that did? Today we learn, for myself via Spy Agency Mined Vast Data Trove, Officials Report, that the NSA, like a huge electronic vacuum cleaner, is sucking up all manner of digital communication to sift through, in spite of the fact that G.W. proclaimed that we were only tracking a few hundred people and their electronic communications. Of course a lot of the information the NSA is actually capturing would normally require, at a mimimum, a court sanctioned directive to allow it to happen, but in G.W.s mind this falls out as somehow being approved under some far-sweeping post-9/11 congressional authorization which, unbeknownst to the rest of us, was giving away the farm of our personal privacy - but of course this is G.W.'s interpretation of said legislation and it doesn't seem that it's universally seen that way by everyone, thank God.

Maybe our privacy should be transparent when it comes to fighting terrorists, but it seems to me that this should involve a good number of checks and balances to ensure that there's no flat out violation of our privacy, and somehow G.W. doesn't see this. If someone isn't overseeing the NSA and what it's up to we have a situation akin to that with me and my students, i.e. a good number of them will try to get away with anything I don't specifically hold them accountable for. Do you want the NSA sifting through your personal communication without court or congressional oversight? G.W. doesn't have a problem with this, and he apparently doesn't think you should either. Frankly I think that's taking the power of the presidency a number of steps too far. When the man in office thinks it's ok to give away your privacy it begins to seem to me that we have a guy who somehow thinks he's the king. Congress and the courts were specifically set up to keep the president in check, they serve to oversee the process and, just as importantly, to make sure the process itself is legal. This isn't because the people we elect to the office are bad or wish to abuse their power (though a few were of this flavor, unfortunately), but because presidents and the people who work for them are human and sometimes don't fully appreciate the repercussions of what they're asking to do and congress and the courts are there to help instill a reality check. But G.W. and, just as importantly, Cheney, only seem to believe in their versions of reality, and they're no more interested in having it evaluated and kept in check than the rest of us would tend to be inclined to open up our telephones and computers to the NSA for some info vacuuming.

So let us keep in mind that under the present administration's way of doing business big brother is alive and well, and very likely sucking up your email and phone conversations, but don't worry, they're only interested in a few hundred of us and really aren't paying attention to what the rest of us are saying, thinking, or sharing with the world at large. Trust the president, for surely that's what he expects.

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