edward snowden

14 Years of the Patriot Act

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Today (Oct. 26) marks the fourteenth anniversary of the passage of the Patriot Act, an initiative designed to strengthen the U.S. government’s ability to monitor and deter potential terrorist threats.

Though key provisions of the Patriot Act expired earlier this year, many of them were restored by the Senate via passage of the USA Freedom Act, and will be effective through 2019. At the same time, the Senate also voted overwhelmingly to end the NSA’s unmonitored mass surveillance and data collection of phone and email records, formerly justified under the language of the Patriot Act. 

Who's Watching? Brave New Technology, Same Old Fears

Image via scyther5/shutterstock.com

Image via scyther5/shutterstock.com

In 1990, my father and pregnant mother packed up their life in suburban Illinois, bundled their four young children (including me) onto a plane, and landed in Romania to teach on a grant at the University of Bucharest.  

The country was in the throes of revolution following the execution of ousted dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and the transfer of power was by no means tidy or complete. The Securitate — one of the most brutal secret police forces in the world — proved difficult to shut down. All our neighbors operated under the assumption that their every move continued to be watched (one friend had taken apart his typewriter by hand and hid it so he could answer honestly that he did not keep a typewriter in the house). Being American, my parents were told to expect our apartment to be bugged.

Freedom had come, but the systems of omnipresent control proved psychologically hard to shake.

The specter of surveillance is an insidious tool. In the 1790s, British philosoper Jeremy Bentham developed a centralized prison model called the panopticon, in which every occupant is visible to a single guard. Most models, since adapted by prisons and schools around the world, leave open the possibility that there is no supervisor watching after all. Whether there is isn't the point — the mere promise of one is enough to coerce significant behavior change. Being constantly observable is the trap.  

These days, Americans don’t need a formative year spent in post-soviet Romania to feel uneasy about omnipresent surveillance. Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive secret surveillance programs operating under the NSA, with enormous access to private data from citizens not suspected of terrorism or criminal wrongdoing, rocked our understandings of data privacy and civil liberty. Now, as then, it’s reasonable to worry that we’re being watched.

And if it’s not the state watching us, it’s corporations after our money. Uber tracks our movements and fires drivers for sharing links to bad reviews on their personal media, unless it doesn’t. Facebook uses emotional manipulation to collect behavioral data, but insists it’s no big dealGoogle compiles secret profiles through wiretapping but swears it would never.

So are we being watched or aren’t we? And do we care?

Will Pope Francis Win the Nobel Peace Prize?

Pope Francis during a homily he delivered in Sibari, Italy, on June 21, 2014. Creative Commons image by Christoph Wagener/RNS.

Pope Francis is tipped to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, according to some of the world’s leading bookmakers.

The Argentinian pope is currently the 5-2 favorite to win the award, which will be announced by the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, on Oct. 10, according to British bookmaker William Hill. Irish bookmaker Paddy Power also considers him a leading contender.

The pontiff’s odds have fallen from 11-4 in a sign of his worldwide popularity.

“When the odds get shorter, that’s when you sit up and pay attention,” said Jon Ivan-Duke, spokesman for William Hill. “Maybe there’s some divine inspiration at work.”

Nevertheless, Francis is facing stiff competition from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

Civil Rights Groups to Feds: Purge Your Anti-Muslim Training Materials

Woman wrapped in an American flag. Image courtesy Rob Byron/shutterstock.com.

Woman wrapped in an American flag. Image courtesy Rob Byron/shutterstock.com.

Civil rights and religious groups say efforts to rid federal agencies of anti-Muslim bias have faltered and prejudice against Muslims persists, particularly in the training of anti-terrorism officers.

On Thursday, 75 groups—including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Auburn Seminary, and the NAACP—sent a letter to the White House urging an audit of federal law enforcement training material.

“The use of anti-Muslim trainers and materials is not only highly offensive, disparaging the faith of millions of Americans, but leads to biased policing that targets individuals and communities based on religion, not evidence of wrongdoing,” the letter reads.

A National Security Council representative said the letter will be reviewed and a response issued.

“As we said when these news reports first came to light, the use of racial or ethnic stereotypes, slurs or other similar language by employees is both unacceptable and inconsistent with the country’s core values,” said Caitlin Hayden, National Security Council spokeswoman.

The groups point to a reference to “Mohammed Raghead” in a memo and the claim by a former FBI official that the CIA’s director is a “closet Muslim.”

Weekly Wrap 5.30.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds 
Self-identified nerd Arthur Chu provides piercing analysis on the recent shooting in Santa Barbara, examining how rape culture and recent sitcoms have instilled a sense of entitlement for “nerds” when it comes to “getting the girl.”

2. Why #NotAllMen Misses the Point
#NotAllMen is a flawed response to the twitter trend #YesAllWomen: "Avoiding blame isn’t enough to heal us. Distancing ourselves won’t end cycles of injustice, whether in the form of sexism, racism, or any other division. #NotAllMen can’t break an oppressive culture towards women."

3. Maya Angelou Knew How To Inspire As A Writer, Teacher, and Great Human Being 
Sojourners board member Joshua DuBois reflects on the life of Maya Angelou: "The African American author, dead at 86, led an extraordinary life and wrote about it in extraordinary ways."

4. Maya Angelou Is Not in Heaven 
"Angelou is not in heaven 'now.' Her writings show a joyful person who was never not in heaven. To me, an ongoing theme of her remarkable work has always been its full-on, all-in commitment to living life in the kingdom."

5. Slavery Is Still Thriving And Is More Profitable Than Big Oil 
The International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nation's agency focusing on labor issues, this weekreleased a report on the global "forced labor" industry. The results are staggering.

6. Inside the Mind of Edward Snowden 
After months of behind-the-scenes contact, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams sat down with Edward Snowden, a man wanted for espionage here at home, for his first American television interview. Nothing was off limits.

7. This Film Will Change How You See Immigration
The Stranger is a new 45-minute documentary created to introduce Christians to the stories and lives of immigrants living in this country. Interviews with pastors, Christian leaders, and policy experts provide a biblically based context for the immigration challenges that face our country today.

8. Palestinian Refugees Welcome the Pope: The Story Behind the Iconic Photo at the Separation Wall 
In an effort to resist the Bethlehem Municipality’s efforts to beautify a section of the Apartheid Wall where Pope Francis was scheduled to pass, Local activists from Aida Refugee Camp gathered to paint slogans both against Israeli occupation and welcoming His Holiness, on the eve of his arrival, on May 24th 2014.

9. The Wrong Way to Approach the Poor
Before we rush in with righteous vigor to help the helpless, so to speak, we would do well to dispense of some archaic lenses through which we view poverty.

10. The Record for the Most Expensive Starbucks Drink Has Been Broken By a $55 Frappuccino 
On a lighter note, someone really took advantage of those free birthday drinks that accompany a Starbucks Gold Card membership — 60 shots of esppresso should be enough to wake you up, right?

The NSA's Need to Know, Your Privacy, and Jesus' Path

Rena Schild/Shutterstock

A sign displayed during a rally against mass surveillance. Rena Schild/Shutterstock

I was encouraged by the findings of U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon on Monday who granted an injunction to plaintiffs Larry Klayman and Charles Strange that will temporarily stop the National Security Agency from continuing their data-gathering program that mines information from our mobile phone calls.

The injunction was issued because the judge believes that Klayman and Strange likely will win their lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that the phone record collection practice is an unconstitutional violation of personal privacy.

The whole storyline is made that much more dramatic since the otherwise secret program was leaked to the public by former NSA contract Edward Snowden, who is now on the run, seeking asylum in exchange for shared intelligence. And while some perceive Snowden as a hero of individual liberty, others vilify him as an enemy of the United States, much like any other terrorist. Interestingly, people’s opinions about the NSA — and, frankly, the Obama administration and the government as a whole — diverge in similar ways.