Sunday, June 8, 2008

Chatter, a Review

If I haven't posted for a while, it's a consequence of being in that "all but dissertation" phase and being between semesters. Expectations are high that I would get a lot of research done. Alas, blogging takes the back seat...

In any case, tonight I finished reading a book Hannah got me for the first of m 34th birthdays. (I'm planning to hang out at 34, an entirely respectable age, for as many years as I may before conceding to 35 for several more.) The book is by a high school classmate of hers named Patrick Radden Keefe and it's called Chatter:Uncovering the Echelon Surveillance Network and the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping. The title pretty much tells you what it's all about.
I suspect that the word Echelon in the title is a bit of an attention grabbing device, since the book is not really about Echelon so much as the NSA, its eavesdropping network, and a history of its sucesses and failures.
Most Americans, including me before reading this book, don't have much of a clue about the extent of listening in that our government does. Apart from some awareness about the recent warrantless wire-tapping done by the NSA, we really only have at vague sense of unease that our privacy may be just an illusion. Keefe goes to some lengths to describe in as much detail as possible through public domain sources all of the eavesdropping activity that we unwittingly finance through our tax dollars. In various chapters he describes the infrastructure of eavesdropping; our international security partnership with the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; the lives of several insiders who went public; the crusades of several outsiders who research the eavesdroppers and report on their activities; the responses of foreign governments to our eavesdropping; and some very insightful discussion about the benefits of signals intelligence as well as its shortcomings, failures, and the abuses it allows.
Keefe likes to point out that there has been remarkably little public will to discuss the trade-offs between security and liberty. There have been several remarkable failures of intelligence, including most notably September 11th, the attacks on our embassies, and the attack on the USS Cole. Amazingly, our usual response to these failures has been to not hold anyone accountable, and increase funding for the agencies responsible for the failures.
This was quite an eye-opening read, and thankfully, Keefe steers well clear of any paranoid raving. Much of what is written in the public domain about Echelon is unashamed paranoid raving. Just Google "Echelon" and count the references to Orwell to see what I mean. In my opinion Keefe does a good job of informing without opining too much. His main grief seems to be that we in the public seem too apathetic to have much meaningful discussion about where the line between liberty and security should be drawn.
I recognize that my skill as a book reviewer is falling somewhat short in this post, and this is a difficult book to do justice to. That said, it is quite readable and will not fail to keep you turning the pages. I would recommend giving it a read, especially in the run up to the elections since we are sure to hear a lot of rhetoric about security and freedom in the debates this fall. Click the cover shot below for a link to the Amazon page for this book.

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