If you wondered, is the US a Police State? The answer is – yes.

Over the last few months, the citizens, residents, and visitors to the United States have been regaled with stories of how the Government of the United States has been invading their privacy, opening their mail, listening to their phone calls, and generally monitoring their daily lives.  Of course, this is all in the name of security and to protect the public from the bad guys.

Up to this point in time, the revelations have been about how the National Security Administration are capturing your metadata, but not actually listening to your calls or reading your mail in real-time – they claim. But we have always suspected that other aspects of our life were under scrutiny.

Today, we got our answer:

The Transportation Security Administration is expanding its screening of passengers before they arrive at the airport by searching a wide array of government and private databases that can include records like car registrations and employment information. (New York Times)

What starches my socks is not that the TSA is doing this.  We pretty much knew they were doing this, even if we did not know they were doing this. No, what really galls me is that the TSA has a new program, called TSA Pre, which:

…allows select frequent flyers of participating airlines and members of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler programs who are flying on participating airlines, to receive expedited screening benefits. Eligible participants use dedicated screening lanes for screening benefits which include leaving on shoes, light outerwear and belts, as well as leaving laptops and 3-1-1 compliant liquids in carry-on bags.

And to get this benefit, you have to fill out an on-line application, have an in-person interview and, most importantly, pay the TSA for the privilege every five years!  Currently the fee is $85.  Now some frequent flyer programs include this in the ticket price, but for the average Joe Flyer, you are on the hook.  Yet the TSA is already doing a complete scan before you board for free!  OK, so it is not really free.  I have already paid for it with my taxes, fees, and other departure costs rolled into the ticket.

So what is the point?  Already, the United States has more secure screening processes in place, compared to the rest of the world.  I can leave my shoes and belt on in Europe and Canada.  The x-ray machines can already pick out my laptop.  And frankly the screening outside the US is much better than what the TSA is doing.  So why should I be paying the TSA?  They already know more about me than I do.  I have already paid the fee, several times over, and they already have done the in-person interview, every single time I fly.

I am opposed to the police state the United States has become.  There are a number of reasons for this. But to charge the flying public to go through security is really taking the cake. As the saying goes: There’s a sucker born every minute. Clearly the American public is the sucker, and their own government is taking advantage.

“Winging It” is not an emergency plan

As much as I mock the generally inept Department of Homeland (In)security, their sub-agency, FEMA is quite often on the mark with their Ready.gov projects.  The newest push, during National Preparedness Month (that would be now, September), is suggesting you make an emergency plan with your kids.  And really, when was the last time you checked your emergency plan.  September 10, 2001?

Worrying about terrorism is not going to help. Instead you should worry about a local disaster, such as a gas tanker exploding in your neighbourhood (Gainesville, VA in July), or a propane tanker overturning near volatile oil lines (Sudley Manor Road in 2012). Snow storms, earthquakes and severe weather (Sandy, Katrina, Ivan, Floyd) are more likely to cause a disaster, and result in serious damage to your home than any random act of terrorism.

And yet, most people have not done much to prepare. And worse, as the echos of the last storm (in this case Sandy), fade, and the real pressures of day-to-day life take over, the desire and focus on preparation fades.  When was the last time you checked the water in your basement?  How about that canned food? Do you have any emergency cash? Updated your document cache with all those new forms? What about that new pet?  If you had to evacuate now, would you be able to? Would you know where to go? Could your family reunite? Where? How? When? Under what conditions?

If the answers to the above questions start with “…umm…” then you are not prepared. Take sometime this weekend and look at your kits, your plans, and ensure your tools are ready.  Because you might not get a second chance.

On Snowden

Whether or not you think Edward Snowden is a hero or a villain, he is getting the politicians to say a number of interesting things.  Take for instance, this blurb from Paul Ryan (R-WI) that was replayed on the CBC news on Monday evening:

If we are not able to convince our allies or other countries to help us with this, that doesn’t speak very well to how we are being viewed in the world, it does speak well to our credibility.

Let me highlight one part of this: …it does not speak well to our credibility.  What Mr. Ryan does not understand, or at least does not seem to grasp, is that the credibility of the United States is pretty much a joke in the rest of the world.  And the Snowden leaks are only the latest example of why the United States is the butt of the world’s jokes.

There have been several reports, reported by the BBC, and the CBC, but surprisingly not by any US news outlet of how trade with the EU and the United States is in rough shape because of US policies, public or not, on issues like transparency of government, crime and punishment, climate and environmental issues,  and of course, privacy.  The Snowden revelations are only the latest bit of glass being thrown into the international communities eyes.

This is a global economy.  Information is, for the most part, is available with a few key strokes, not just the unclassified, but much of the so called classified information, if you have the time and patience to sort through the minutia to find it.  Big data sifting can be done with almost any server today, so if you want to know what is going on, it is not hard to find out.

Yet there are many in the United States that do not want to know what is going on and see all of this as a great blow to the efforts and image of the United States.  To these individuals, Mr. Ryan included, I say this.  The image of the United States was irreparably damaged when the United States invaded a sovereign nation with little more provocation that they might have had weapons of mass destruction, and, having found nothing, did not so much as say sorry. Further, has left the country in worse shape economically and socially than when they invaded it.  And that is only one of many events I can point at.

I cannot help but laugh at the politicians and other pundits that are worried about the credibility of the United States.  You should worry more about other, more critical things.  This one is a tempest in a tea pot, designed to distract from the fact that these same politicians are the same ones that allowed the NSA to do this in the first place.

The NSA is listening – quelle surprise!

Through a top-secret program authorized by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data. Documents describing the previously undisclosed program, obtained by The Washington Post, show the breadth of U.S. electronic surveillance capabilities in the wake of a widely publicized controversy over warrantless wiretapping of U.S. domestic telephone communications in 2005. These slides, annotated by The Washington Post, represent a selection from the overall document, and certain portions are redacted. (Washington Post)

I am trying hard not to laugh. No really, I am. Someone, and I am not sure who, has suddenly decided to release (sorry, a document was leaked) information that via FISA, under the Patriot Act, the National Surveillance Agency is listening to phone calls made by Americans, to Americans, within the United States, as well as filtering ISP pipes, social media sites and reading your email. What I find funny is the absurd level of outrage being vented by Congress (who knew all along about this) and the American public, who, despite having a short memory about things, should know better by now that the United States is one nation under surveillance.  And this is all to protect us from terrorists. Whatever that means.

If you find this offensive, well, the horses are well gone and the barn has burned down, the ashes already scattered to the four winds.  If you find this offensive, it really is too late to do much about it.

But if you want to keep most of your traffic safe, use encryption.  At least that way you are not publishing everything on a postcard and they have to at least work at it.

Feel free to use my PGP key for any correspondence.  The fingerprint is: 2428 CE82 2E0C E6B7 E1E3 8D84 85BD BF93 B6CF CE1B


Deja Vu all over again

The average American has a very short attention span.  Fortunately, there are some who remember what has gone before.  A talking head this morning pointed out that the Oklahoma City Bombing occurred on April 19, 1995.  The bombing in Boston occurred on the celebration of “Patriot’s Day,” the third Monday in April, but the official day is…April 19.

Neither Oklahoma or Boston is the first act of domestic terrorism, nor will it likely be the last.  And yes, I fully expect, once the officials in charge have sorted the mess, they will find it was an act of domestic terrorism.  What concerns me is not that it happened, but that there are Americans that feel this is an appropriate way to protest their government. And calling it terrorism really gives it more of a spotlight than it deserves.  It is murder, pure and simple, and the perpetrators are murderers.  Nothing more. They are not patriots or freedom fighters, they are murderers, slimy, bottom feeders that should be put out of our misery and not given any more of a platform than a swift drop and a sudden stop.

Sadly, this will only make the police state that has evolved since September 11, 2001 only worse.  And in that regard, we all lose.

Inconceivable! I do not think you know what this word means.

The quote, from the movie The Princess Bride was uttered after several, so called inconceivable events had occurred.  I had similar thoughts this morning when I read in USA today, this quote by Mohammad Umma:

I see the US government allowed the Web to spread this link all over the world without limiting freedom, without banning it…America tells us they are the country of freedom, democracy, and tolerance…

The link he is referring too is a short video that apparently paints the Islamic prophet Mohammed in a vulgar, insulting manner, which, as we all know by now is a no no, at least if you are the least bit Islamic.  I have not seen the video, nor do I really care about the video.  But I need to point out to Mr. Umma that he might want to pick up a copy of a dictionary since he clearly has some misconceptions about what  freedom, democracy, and tolerance mean.  One thing it does not mean is that the government, or anyone else on the Internet, would ban or otherwise impinge on the distribution of any link, video, document, or picture, regardless of who it made fun of, up to and including her own President.  In fact there is a small cottage industry devoted to mocking the President, various religions, and radical groups out to better the world.  To think that the United States would block the distribution of a video mocking Mohammed is in fact counter to all of the foundations of the words democratic and free.

If you put yourself on the public stage, you are going to be subject to ridicule.  If you do not wish this, you have two options: 1) Get off the stage, or 2) Get a better message.  Clearly Mr. Umma, and others of his ilk do not like those options because they have chosen what is behind door number 3: Violence.  And unfortunately for Mr. Umma, and the band of thugs that follow this path, it only puts them forward on the public stage, and subjects them to yet more, well deserved ridicule.  Inconceivable! 

TSA, not here to protect you

I have illustrated the lapses in the so called increased security at airports lately.  But in case you have been living under a rock or actually think being strip searched, fondled, and irradiated are good for you and mean that the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) is there to keep you safe and ensure that the bad guys are not going to blow up or hijack your aircraft should think again.

This morning, this article was in our local news.  Drinks Bought Inside Airports Tested (WTOP).  Lest you think that is a typo and should read Drinks Brought Into Airports Tested, no, it is not.  The TSA is testing drinks, purchased inside the secure area for explosives because:

Vendors and employees at airports are not screened every day

As George Carlin would say: “Let me say that again, because it sounds, vaguely important.” Vendors and employees at airports are not screened every day. I can understand that there is a certain level of expectation of, oh, call it goodness in those that run the airport.  FAA air traffic controllers, airport management, and life safety officials (police, fire, rescue) are all subjected to numerous, one would hope, rigorous background checks.  They have access to areas of the airport that the average person would never get to go (like the runways for example).  But to extend this assumption to the vendors, many of whom are not US citizens – at least here in DC, and I am sure in other places – is ludicrous.  Worse, to think that they are more trustworthy than the traveling public, which includes numerous people with higher clearances, and more intense background checks than those who are working at the airport is just absurd.

The TSA’s job is to protect the traveling public.  Their focus, since their creation, has been on improving the perceived weaknesses in air safety. They have failed.  Utterly.  This is only the latest example of their short comings.  How many more are we, their paymasters, going to allow?

TSA, your tax dollars at work.

I have left no rock unturned in my derision of the Department of Homeland (In)security, and its security arm, the Transportation Security Administration.  Today, the Los Angeles Times posted the following article:

By Mary Forgione Los Angeles Times Daily Travel & Deal blogger October 31, 2011, 12:32 p.m. “Get your freak on girl.” That phrase written by a Transportation Security Administration baggage screener might get the worker fired. (L.A. Times)

The worker’s offence?  Writing a note on that form letter TSA put in your luggage when they riffle through it looking for your valuables…er…checking it for explosives.  In this case, the agent discovered a vibrator.  Way to jump right on that dangerous weapon there TSA, but why is it that you missed the loaded .38 not a week earlier?

TSA has argued that they are looking for explosives, not firearms, and clearly a pair of batteries placed end-to-end are more important to check out than a firearm with rounds in the chamber, because the super-sensitive detection equipment that cannot tell the difference between plastic explosives and peanut butter means you have to open the suit case, but clearly shows you that there are rounds in the chamber of a firearm!  And let’s face facts, if a gun discharges in the uncompressed baggage compartment, it will only make a hole in the aircraft.  At least that is probably what the folks at TSA are hoping anyway.  Never mind that they do not bother to actually check the airframe for explosives, which is a blessing for our friends in Columbia who continue to successfully smuggle drugs around the United States every day.

The bare facts are that the highly trained and background checked employees of the Transportation Security Agency are no better than the Keystone Kops they replaced in most airports.  I say that with a certain degree of derision because I do remember going through airports where the security was much better under the private companies because the private companies hired people that actually cared about what they were doing, which is protecting the flying public.  The TSA is only paying lip service.  And if you do not believe me, just look up the number of them that have been disciplined for doing little to protect you versus the number of times they have stopped a real incident from happening.

Personhood Amendment

I used to think that Ireland was the most backwards of all the developed nations.  It only recently allowed birth control and certainly has issues with such common place things as divorce and homosexuality.  I say used to because the United States just passed them on the slide down the hill.

This morning in the New York Times, they were discussing the Personhood Amendment that is on the November ballot in Mississippi and gaining strength in Florida and Ohio.  Now you can argue that Ireland is probably more developed as a nation than Mississippi, but what really made my jaw hit the floor was this statement:

Mississippi Personhood is an initiative to define a person as a person from the time they are conceived. The initiative is a response to what some perceive as loosening abortion laws nationwide.  If this constitutional amendment passes, Mississippi will have one of the strongest pro life laws in the nation.

We all understand that this is nothing less than an end run around Roe vs. Wade and yet another attack on women, but what is leaving me scratching my head is the line strongest pro life laws in the nation.  Did I miss a memo?  Did they manage to repeal the Second Amendment in Mississippi?  Perhaps the people pushing this so-called Personhood should take a look at the number of children murdered by firearms in Mississippi than abortions conducted.

If this organization really is pro-life (and they are not, they are simply anti-abortion, which is a  different mind set entirely) they they would be lobbying for stronger gun laws, rather than criminalizing a medical procedure.

Replacing a Dictator

News out of Libya is joyous.  Especially if you are a Libyan.  The death of Moammar Gadhafi is being celebrated by the people of Libya as it should be.  And like the removal, and death, of other dictators over the last few months, there is a certain sense of release and relief spreading around the globe.  But before we get too swept up in the euphoria, we should take a few moments and recognize that the downfall of a dictator, even if it is something that is desired, is not a panacea.

For the most part, I suspect that the people of Libya, or Egypt or Iraq are very much like those of us in the United States.  They get up, they go to work, they do their job and they come home.  Under a dictator, unlike us, there is the added fear of being picked up by the secret police for simple crimes, like thinking or trying to better themselves without paying off the right people, or just because their neighbour does not like the colour they painted their house.  These are very real fears.  Fears that hopefully now they are able to put behind them.  We will see how that pans out over the next 8 to 10 months as these countries move towards free and open elections.  You will note that I am not convinced that these elections will be either free nor open.  Time will tell.  I certainly hope that they will.  But as we have seen, many of these nations have been rebelling against western ideas for years, and I am afraid that now that their leaders are less western, in both education and vision, will revert to more religious mannerisms for rule.

But that scares me less than not knowing who is in charge.  Moammar Gadhafi was a nut job.  Flaky, I believe President Reagan called him.  But at least he was in charge.  You could follow the money in and the weapons out.  This was true of most of the dictatorships.  You only had to watch one person.  Maybe two.  With the over throw of the dictator, you have a much bigger problem.  Who do you watch?  Libya was described by the BBC yesterday and the weapons bazaar of the Middle East.  But with only one merchant minding the shop, it was easy to know who you were dealing with.  Now there is a very serious question about who is minding the store and more importantly, who is buying and selling the weapons that many believe are not only there, but will shortly be making their way to individuals that make Moammar Gadhafi look sane, grounded, and fun to work with.  And these individuals want nothing more than the complete annihilation of the West, and the modern way of doing things.

This is not a complaint against the people of Libya or those who have been crying out for their basic human rights since the Arab Spring began.  They are fully entitled to those rights and privileges enjoyed by many around the world.  But I am concerned that with the rapidity of change, and the lack of real leadership in any of these countries that if we take our eye off the ball now, we may be regretting it later.

Are you paying attention?