Ted Rall: My Fake French Birthplace and the NSA

I realized I was a bonehead the moment I turned the corner. Six lanes of traffic zoomed down the Champs Elysées. Toward me. I was facing the wrong way. Toward them. With the familiar trill of a whistle my seconds of terror transitioned into minutes of discomfort. A tall Parisian cop, daunting yet droll in his kepi, motioned me to pull my car to the side of the boulevard.

aNewDomain.net — Our Ted Rall realizes why the best way to keep big data safe is not to have any. 

I realized I was a bonehead the moment I turned the corner. Six lanes of traffic zoomed down the Champs Elysées. Toward me. I was facing the wrong way. Toward them.

With the familiar trill of a whistle my seconds of terror transitioned into minutes of discomfort. A tall Parisian cop, daunting yet droll in his kepi, motioned me to pull my car to the side of the boulevard.

“Qu’est-ce tu fais?” What are you doing? “Papiers,” he demanded.

I forked over my rental agreement and French passport. My dad is American but my mom is French, so I have dual citizenship. The cop, visibly disgusted as only a Frenchman can be, went to his car to run my documents.

The gendarme returned. “Perpignan?” he scoffed. “Monsieur,” he continued authoritatively, “you are not from Perpignan.”

This is true. I was born outside of Boston and grew up outside Dayton. Yet if a policeman or any other government employee in France — even an agent of the DGSE, the French equivalent of the CIA — runs my passport, their computer will tell them I was born in Perpignan. If you’re born overseas, the French government assigns you a birthplace of record in France.

Which, in cases such as mine, can cause confusion. My French, though decent, is heavily infected by my half-century of living in the United States. Many French natives guess I’m Quebecois. Perpignan, culturally part of Catalonia, is in the far southeastern corner of the country along the Spanish border.

Despite the weirdness — this is the equivalent of asking a Bostonian to pass as an Alabaman — there’s good reason for assigning fake birthplaces. During World War II, collaborationist French police turned over their census and residential registration records to the Gestapo, who used them to find people whose ethnicity was marked “Jewish” or “Gypsy,” and those who were born abroad. (Under the perverted logic of the Nazis and their Vichy allies, foreign-born Jews went to Buchenwald before those with French birthplaces.)

After the war, the French realized that data collected for innocent purposes during the 1930s under a leftist government headed by a Jewish president had facilitated the murder of thousands of people who might otherwise have escaped or stayed hidden.

So parliament decided to ban the government from collecting any information referring to “racial or ethnic origin.” As far as the bureaucracy is concerned, every French citizen is equally French, whether they were born in Marseilles or, like me, “Perpignan.”

Demographers don’t like not knowing, say, how many French of Algerian origin live in France. But you never know when the Germans, or another far right regime like Vichy, could come back to power. As a matter of fact, the neofascist National Front is now France’s most-popular political party according to recent polls.

Even without access to the kind of big data of interest to racists and xenophobes, nosy neighbors and random scoundrels would rat out victims to France’s future police state. Still, it’s nice to know, given France’s politics past and present, that people like me would have a few days to hit the road while the cops compiled their hit lists.

The French aren’t perfect, but they’ve learned some lessons from their fascist experience. Sadly, the United States not only hasn’t paid attention to what happened in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s; we seem intent on setting the stage for a dystopian future that would make the Holocaust look inefficient by comparison.

As we’ve learned from Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency is intercepting and recording every (previously) private email, text message, phone call metadata and yes, the phone calls themselves — and a breathtaking host of other “big data” — by everyone who lives in the United States. And the NSA isn’t alone. Other agencies, even local police departments, are investing hundreds of millions of tax dollars to spy on citizens they’re supposedly tasked with protecting.

On October 13 The New York Times reported that the City of Oakland, California, a desperately poor, nearly-broke municipality across the bay from San Francisco, blew nearly $10 million on “a police initiative that will collect and analyze reams of surveillance data from around town — from gunshot-detection sensors in the barrios of East Oakland to license plate readers mounted on police cars patrolling the city’s upscale hills.”

Despite previous high-tech big-data grabs, Oakland’s crime rate remains sky-high.

Oakland isn’t alone. “The New York Police Department, aided by federal financing, has a big data system that links 3,000 surveillance cameras with license plate readers, radiation sensors, criminal databases and terror suspect lists. Police in Massachusetts have used federal money to buy automated license plate scanners. And police in Texas have bought a drone with homeland security money, something that Alameda County, which Oakland is part of, also tried but shelved after public protest.”

Virginia cops compiled millions of license plate scans — including those of citizens attending political events.

The Times quoted Steve Spiker, research and technology director at the Urban Strategies Council, an Oakland nonprofit, who said public data is already available, so why not crunch those numbers for the “public good?”

Yet, Spiker worried aloud, “What happens when someone doesn’t like me and has access to all that information?”

Like France. Warm fuzzy 1930s Popular Front socialism lost to scary fascism in the 1940s. The U.S. isn’t totalitarian. The Obama Administration probably isn’t going to start rounding up “enemies of the state.” But the U.S. government is becoming increasingly authoritarian. No one can predict what’s coming. The only way we can mitigate abuses of big data in the future is to follow the example: prohibit its collection.

One day earlier NSA spymaster General Keith Alexander gave his most-extensive interview since he and his co-conspirator James Clapper were caught lying to Congress about the fact that No Such Agency views Americans not as U.S. citizens to protect, but as potential threats and thus as fair targets for espionage.

“The way we’ve explained it to the American people,” Alexander said, “has gotten them so riled up that nobody told them the facts of the program and the controls that go around it.” Americans are ignorant. No one can deny that. But NSA spying is a topic they don’t need a voter guide to understand. They don’t care about Alexander’s maybe-they’re-real-maybe-not-so-much internal “controls” limiting which government spooks get to look at their selfies and which ones don’t. (Though, as far as we can tell from Snowden, “only” millions of NSA employees and sub-contractors read your email.)

Screw limits and controls and phony safeguards. We don’t want anyone reading our stuff. Period. (Polls show that 55% to 59% of Americans disapprove of NSA spying on Americans who aren’t suspected of terrorism.)

Alexander told the Times that the NSA “had not told its story well.” He also said, “As an example the agency itself killed a program in 2011 that collected the metadata of about one percent of all of the e-mails sent in the United States. ” Later in the article he continued with, “We terminated it. It was not operationally relevant to what we needed.”

Awesome meta, a hilarious example of, well, not telling your story, well, well.

What you’d want to hear, as a suspicious victim of the NSA, is that the spooks decided to kill a program because it was too intrusive. Not that it wasn’t “operationally relevant.”

Privacy advocates worry that the media isn’t telling their side of the story, but they needn’t worry. Government officials are so damn creepy and evasive and trust-me that they’re doing an amazing job of turning the public against them. “I think we do a great job, and we do, I think, more to protect people’s civil liberties and privacy than they’ll ever know,” Alexander said.

More than we’ll ever know.

That’s the point, General. For aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.

Based in Boston, Ted Rall is a nationally-syndicated columnist, editorial cartoonist and war correspondent who specializes in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The author of 17 books, most-recently published The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt, Rall is twice the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Follow him @TedRall, check out his Facebook fan page and definitely follow his Google+ stream here. Ted’s upcoming book After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is due out in 2014.