A Matter of Trust

Trust is a hugely powerful thing and can color the way we perceive many of our experiences and relationships.  The same actions taken by someone we explicitly trust will not be met with feelings of suspicion or alarm as when done by a stranger - or by someone who has wronged us already. 

I've observed on more than one occasion that the difference between a fortress and a prison is whether you trust that the armed folks manning the towers will let you leave when you want to.  I'm also seeing that the difference between a clever and a devious bit of technology is whether we perceive that it will be used to further our interests or to limit us.

A prime example is the recently reported use of "DRT boxes," which have apparently been in use for almost a decade.  These devices are attached to simple fixed-wing aircraft such as the ubiquitous Cessna single-engine plane and then flown around metropolitan areas, essentially tricking cell phones into thinking they're legitimate carrier towers.  All calls in the area hit the fake tower.  Those belong to "non targeted individuals" are then passed to a legitimate tower; those belong to targets are then trapped, logged and recorded.  There is a ground-based system that operates the same way, called "Stingray."

Again, if you are working for the system and know yourself to be "a good guy," this doesn't alarm you.  You know you wouldn't abuse it so you don't consider it an intrusion.  But the rest of us are required to simply trust that we won't be on the receiving end, for the amusement of those involved, because we've done something wrong without being aware of it (see earlier stories on civil forfeiture), or simply because, well, "just in case."  We have to take on blind faith that our communications are secure and aren't being collected along with "the bad guys' stuff."

And that's a problem.

Police agencies are denying they are even using Stingray, in some cases not even telling judges - the folks who authorize wiretaps - that the systems were being used.  Earlier this year in Sarasota, Florida, the police even attempted to say they couldn't admit it due to a non-disclosure agreement tied to the purchase.  When that failed to sway a judge who sided for the ACLU's demand for disclosure of what was really being gathered, the U. S. Marshal's Service raided the police station, seizing all recordings and documents pertaining to the system, in order to prevent details from being released to the public.  Seriously.

Just this past week, a Baltimore detective faced contempt charges for flat-out refusing to divulge to a judge how a teenage robbery suspect's phone was located, resulting in his arrest for possession of a gun.  When it became apparent that the judge was not about to let this slide, the prosecutor went so far as to withdraw the key evidence of the phone and gun rather than admit that it was gathered by use of a Stingray.

Likewise, the use of "DRTBoxes" is defended by no less than the U. S. Department of Justice... except they won't admit the program exists.  Again, seriously.  This would be the same DoJ that ignores Congressional subpoenas and runs guns into Mexico by ordering Federally-licensed gun dealers to sell to known cartel members - then tries to blame America's "loose gun laws" for the discovery of American guns at Mexican crime scenes.  This is also the same Federal government that employed a Director of National Intelligence who lied during Congressional hearings about mass-gathering of citizens' private communication and then described it as "the least untruthful answer I could give."

It would be nice to think that those in charge of passing and enforcing our laws and those responsible for our national security are trustworthy public servants with our best interests at heart.  It would be nice to see technological advances in surveillance and threat detection as reassuring events that will allow us to live our lives in greater freedom.  But our trust in those offices and officeholders has been shaken by repeated abuses, betrayals, and dismissive arrogance.  And now many of us oppose any new use of technology for "national security" or law enforcement - even if we can intellectually acknowledge the potential benefit of it - simply because we have been repeatedly lied to in the boldest of ways and to the detriment of our liberty. 

Instead of reassurances and openness from those employing these tools, we simply see a repeating pattern:

  1. No, we're not doing that.  No one is.
  2. Well, someone is doing it but it's not us.
  3. Okay, we're doing it but not to Americans.
  4. Okay, we are doing it to Americans but not to good ones, like you.
  5. Well.... Why were you saying those things anyway?  You sound a little bit like a paranoid extremist with all these questions.  Do you hate your government?  How may guns do you own?  You don't have any kiddie porn and/or classified documents on your hard drive, do you?  Mind if we take a look?  If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear - right?

Until the public trust is repaired - if it can be repaired - any such technology must be eyed with suspicion and counteracted by anyone able to do so.  The boogeyman of "letting the bad guys get away" is no longer enough just justify treating us like larval criminals or thick-headed, troublesome cattle to be herded as needed.

As John Adams wrote, "It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, 'whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,' and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever."

For more information on DRTBox technology, see this excellent blog post.