At a CATO surveillance event last month, Ben Wittes talked about inherent presidential powers of surveillance with this hypothetical: "What should Congress have to say about the rules when Barack Obama wants to know what Vladimir Putin is talking about?" His answer was basically that Congress should have no say: "I think most people, going back to my Vladimir Putin question, would say that is actually an area of inherent presidential authority." Edward Snowden, a surprise remote participant at the event, said the opposite, although using the courts in general rather than specifically Congress as his example. "...there is no court in the world -- well, at least, no court outside Russia -- who would not go, 'This man is an agent of the foreign government. I mean, he's the head of the government.' Of course, they will say, 'this guy has access to some kind of foreign intelligence value. We'll sign the warrant for him.'"
There's a principle here worth discussing at length. I'm not talking about the legal principle, as in what kind of court should oversee US intelligence collection. I'm not even talking about the constitutional principle, as in what are the US president's inherent powers. I am talking about the philosophical principle: what sorts of secret unaccountable actions do we want individuals to be able to take on behalf of their country?
Put that way, I think the answer is obvious: as little as possible.
I am not a lawyer or a political scientist. I am a security technologist. And to me, the separation of powers and the checks and balances written into the US constitution are a security system. The more Barack Obama can do by himself in secret, the more power he has -- and the more dangerous that is to all of us. By limiting the actions individuals and groups can take on their own, and forcing differing institutions to approve the actions of each other, the system reduces the ability for those in power to abuse their power. It holds them accountable.
We have enshrined the principle of different groups overseeing each other in many of our social and political systems. The courts issue warrants, limiting police power. Independent audit companies verify corporate balance sheets, limiting corporate power. And the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches of government get to have their say in our laws. Sometimes accountability takes the form of prior approval, and sometimes it takes the form of ex post facto review. It's all inefficient, of course, but it's an inefficiency we accept because it makes us all safer.
While this is a fine guiding principle, it quickly falls apart in the practicalities of running a modern government. It's just not possible to run a country where every action is subject to review and approval. The complexity of society, and the speed with which some decisions have to be made, can require unilateral actions. So we make allowances. Congress passes broad laws, and agencies turn them into detailed rules and procedures. The president is the commander in chief of the entire US military when it comes time to fight wars. Policeman have a lot of discretion on their own on the beat. And we only get to vote elected officials in and out of office every two, four, or six years.
The thing is, we can do better today. I've often said that the modern constitutional democracy is the best form of government mid-18th-century technology could produce. Because both communications and travel were difficult and expensive, it made sense for geographically proximate groups of people to choose one representative to go all the way over there and act for them over a long block of time.
Neither of these two limitations is true today. Travel is both cheap and easy, and communications are so cheap and easy as to be virtually free. Video conferencing and telepresence allow people to communicate without traveling. Surely if we were to design a democratic government today, we would come up with better institutions than the ones we are stuck with because of history.
And we can come up with more granular systems of checks and balances. So, yes, I think we would have a better government if a court had to approve all surveillance actions by the president, including those against Vladimir Putin. And today it might be possible to have a court do just that. Wittes argues that making some of these changes is impossible, given the current US constitution. He may be right, but that doesn't mean they're not good ideas.
Of course, the devil is always in the details. Efficiency is still a powerful counterargument. The FBI has procedures for temporarily bypassing prior approval processes if speed is essential. And granularity can still be a problem. Every bullet fired by the US military can't be subject to judicial approval or even a military court, even though every bullet fired by a US policeman is -- at least in theory -- subject to judicial review. And while every domestic surveillance decision made by the police and the NSA is (also in theory) subject to judicial approval, it's hard to know whether this can work for international NSA surveillance decisions until we try.
We are all better off now that many of the NSA's surveillance programs have been made public and are being debated in Congress and in the media -- although I had hoped for more congressional action -- and many of the FISA Court's formerly secret decisions on surveillance are being made public. But we still have a long way to go, and it shouldn't take someone like Snowden to force at least some openness to happen.
This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com, where Ben Wittes responded.
Less than a hundred of Finnish architect Matti Suuronen's sci-fi-inspired Futuro Houses were ever produced, and now less than 50 remain, making the odd spaceship vacation home crumbling away in a Royse City, Texas field more sought after than it would appear.
Designed in the late 1960s, the prefabricated Futuro Houses were meant to be a cheap, durable, and stylish little dwelling that could be placed in any environment. Made of fiberglass and plastic, the homes could be broken down into 16 individual pieces and bolted together wherever the owner wanted, from a snowy mountainside to a sunny beach. Unfortunately, the space age design may have been a bit too ahead of its time for most communities, which along with an oil shortage, cut the future of these bulbous vacation shacks short.
Almost from the installation of the first Futuro house in Suuronen's native Finland, locals seemed to decry the strangely shaped buildings. While almost a hundred of the pieces were created and placed around the world from America to New Zealand, a number of them were shot down by zoning laws, or demolished. The oil crisis in the 1970s made the use of plastic prohibitive and production of the houses was stopped. Despite the objections of some, architecture aficionados took to the buildings and were able to preserve many of them, while those without protection simply fell into ruin.
The Futuro House sitting in Royse City is unfortunately one of the latter. The interior has been gutted and is now covered in graffiti. The exterior has weather and stained with age, although as of late 2014, it seems to have received a fresh coat of bright orange paint. The inside however is still a mess. A far cry from the Futuro Houses which are well-preserved in private collections around the world, this vacation ship looks like it has crash-landed, but can still be located on Highway 276, approximately six miles east of Rockwall, Texas.
Right now, depending who you speak with, there is either a shortage or a glut of IT professionals in the USA. Those who maintain there is a shortage tend to say it can only be eliminated by immigration reform allowing more H1-B visas and green cards. Those who see a glut point to high IT unemployment figures and what looks like pervasive age discrimination. If both views are possible — and I am beginning to see how they could be — we can start by blaming the Human Resources (HR) departments at big and even medium-sized companies.
HR does the hiring and firing or at least handles the paperwork for hiring and firing. HR hires headhunters to find IT talent or advertises and finds that talent itself. If you are an IT professional in a company of almost any size that has an HR department, go down there sometime and ask about their professional qualifications. What made them qualified to hire you?
You’ll find the departments are predominantly staffed with women and few, if any, of those women have technical degrees. They are hiring predominantly male candidates for positions whose duties they typically don’t understand. Those HR folks, if put on the spot, will point out that the final decision on all technical hires comes from the IT department, itself. All HR does is facilitate.
Not really. What HR does is filter. They see as an important part of their job finding the very best candidates for every technical position. But how do you qualify candidates if you don’t know what you are talking about? They use heuristics — sorting techniques designed to get good candidates without really knowing good from bad.
Common heuristic techniques for hiring IT professionals include looking for graduates of top university programs and for people currently working in similar positions at comparable companies including competitors. The flip side of these techniques also applies — not looking for graduates of less prestigious universities or the unemployed.
The best programmer I know is Paul Tyma, 2014 alumnus of the year of the College of Engineering at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Paul later got a PhD from Syracuse University and that is what scored him an interview at Google where he became a senior developer, but it’s doubtful that would have happened had he settled for the U of T degree where he learned most of his chops.
It’s very common for the best programmer in any department to have a low quality degree or sometimes no degree at all. This person, this absolutely invaluable person, would generally not make the HR cut for hiring at their company today. Those interviewers from the IT department would never know they existed.
Same for the unemployed. Layoffs are deadly for IT reemployment. If you don’t know who to interview it’s easier just to decide you’ll only talk with people who are already working somewhere. A bad employed programmer is viewed as inherently superior to a very good unemployed programmer. This of course eliminates from consideration anyone who was laid-off for any reason. Speaking as a guy who was fired from every job I ever had (you’d fire me, too — believe me) if I was trying to find a technical job today I’d probably never work again.
It doesn’t matter why you lost your job. The company moved and you couldn’t move with it for some family reason. Your startup failed. Your boss was an asshole. You were an asshole, but a brilliant one. You were older and dumped (illegally I might add) to save money. It doesn’t matter how smart or skilled you are if HR won’t even put your name on the interview list.
One way around this is the moment you are fired or laid-off go back to school. When you graduate with that new degree or certificate you’ll be desirable again — in debt, but desirable.
And so we have the appearance of IT labor shortages at the same time we have record IT unemployment. And because the head of HR isn’t going to admit to the CEO that such bonehead policies exist, they are kept secret and the CEO urged to lobby for immigration reform.
Headhunters don’t help, either, because they see the source of their hefty commissions as luring working programmers from one company to another. Unemployed programmers don’t need luring and so don’t need headhunters.
There are exceptions to these trends, of course, but they are rare.
Those ladies down in HR are typically damaging their companies while simultaneously working very hard trying to do what they believe is good work. It’s a paradox, I know, and one that’s for the most part unknown by the rest of society.
The answer, of course, is to either improve the quality of HR departments, making them truly useful, or make them dramatically less powerful, maybe eliminating them entirely from hiring.
I’d recommend doing both.
Most businesses believe that technology can dramatically improve the way they operate. But they embrace technology with varying levels of enthusiasm.
The lowest level of enthusiasm is to adopt
technology made by other companies – email, customer services software, etc – and perhaps create an “IT department” to manage these technologies but nothing more. The next level of enthusiasm is to create an internal technology organization – a senior executive position like a CTO, a technology department, etc – and develop your own software. The highest level of enthusiasm is to have top management with technology backgrounds who see technology as core to every organizational function. For them, having a technology department would be like having a business department – redundant and strange. The first two levels of commitment subordinate technology to other functions. This leaves leaves the business vulnerable to competitors (usually startups) who make technology primary. Having a technology-centric worldview affects all aspects of businesses, but interestingly you can learn a lot within seconds of using a company’s product: These companies all spend tons of money on technology. The difference is that the companies on the left start with the job to be done and apply the best technology that exists to perform that job. The companies on the right start with business constraints and then try to shoehorn technology into the product where they can.
A lot of recent Silicon Valley startups look at first glance like non-technology companies, doing things like food delivery, home services, transportation, etc. The
way to understand these companies is that unlike their predecessors they don’t subordinate technology. The founders often grew up with technology, have backgrounds developing software, and can’t imagine anything other then a technology-centric worldview.