Christmas Trees & Menorahs: No place on Public Property

In 1990 and 1991, an atheist organization filed suit against cities and towns in Illinois, including Rolling Meadows, Zion and Palatine. It argued that a religious symbol in the official city seal constituted government recognition of a religion and caused harm. A city seal appears everywhere that official business is conducted. It is emblazoned on permits, forms, stationery, recycle bins, police cars, and even street signs.

At first, the towns fought back, arguing that a Latin cross in the corner of a city seal, an angel or a reference to God represents an aspect of town heritage and history. In fact, some towns were settled for religious reasons during colonial times. They also pointed out that US currency displays the words “In God We Trust” and that religious motifs are enshrined in government documents, buildings, history and even cited by our founding fathers.

Although decisions were split, the plaintiffs won their case on most counts and in most cities. Religious icons were stripped from the seals and eventually the court houses of many towns. Some civic leaders considered appealing the decisions, but after losing hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the initial action, most towns gave up the fight and agreed to remove religious symbols.

How is it that a religious symbol can cause harm? For an atheist, I am a bit puzzled. To them, I would think that it should be no different than an artifact of fables and legend. But for people of other faiths, I certainly understand the problem. In one case that gained brief, national attention, the wife of a Rabbi covered the seal on her recycling bin and on an automobile windshield sticker. But this small act of protest had repercussions. The municipal government blocked her trash pickup and fined her for not displaying (or perhaps defacing) a required vehicle permit.

Before this post attracts all sorts of rants from the right, please consider this. Asking a devout Jew to display a crucifix in front of her home, even if it is small, is no different than asking a devout Muslim to wear a Star of David for the purpose of gaining access to the town dump. Preposterous! Even if the effect is unintended, the incorporation of religion into government – even if symbolic – is not harmless. It is intimidating, unfair and a form of bullying. It says that the town recognizes and serves this citizen, but not that one.

Some will argue that in a democracy, “Majority rules”. But this cliché is a bastardization of democracy. This type of thinking leads to Fascism. A true democracy protects the rights of individuals and never forces citizens into acts that benefit no one and isolate individuals. Rather, democracies actively protect diversity. For this reason, I stand with the Rabbi’s wife.

But let’s move forward 20 years. It is now Christmas 2011. Why, today, do most towns still decorate Christmas Trees on public property? I have no idea! Christians should be even more outraged than atheists and people of other faiths. Having government usurp a matter of family and personal faith is trite, insulting and nauseating. It is far worse than the commercial exploitation of faith that we see in malls and on television.

The issue is reaching a boiling point in the town of Evergreen Colorado, in which I have a friend. The town offered local Jews “equal access” by placing a giant menorah next to the town Christmas tree. The pendulum is swinging wildly this week. Early this week, newspapers reported Evergreen Bans Menorah, Keeps Christmas Tree, but just as abruptly, the two sides reached an accommodation. Now they are again saying “Let’s drape our court house in both faiths.”  If I were a local Jewish leader in Evergreen, I certainly wouldn’t want a symbol of a minor children’s holiday placed next to a Christmas tree. For God’s sake, get rid of both!

Do you really want equal time and equal space for Jewish symbols amongst Christian symbols?! Doesn’t that open a can of worms? What about Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto and Wicca? Does each minority get a symbol on the front lawn of City Hall?

Rather than “Equal Time” for flaunting Jewish holidays & symbols. I would much prefer that governments get out of the religion business altogether! It’s trite, bigoted and incredibly insulting. I have never understood why governments like to erect Christmas trees. I would rather teach my children that faith is expressed by the faithful and within their respective communities. Let us please end state funding or any state recognition of religious holidays & events. Let the tree to Christ go up on private property and let the Menorah go up on Mr. Levine’s front lawn or in front of Weinstein’s Deli (I made up the names, but you get the point).

Why not display a religious alphabet soup to assuage all residents?

What about the The Salvation Army? Projects of missionaries, and some self-help groups. Should they be granted meeting rooms in schools or donation pots at the post office? Of course not! Let them find donors in a church parking or at the entrance of Wal-Mart. (I am not arguing against retailers making their own decision). But wait? Is the Salvation Army a religious organization? Many people believe that their motives are as benign as the Girl Scouts. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems reasonable to ask what the “Salvation” Army is trying to save?!

Should there be exceptions to my rule?

Sure! Every restriction should accommodate facts on the ground and be applied within reason. Even though Hanukkah is a minor children’s holiday blown out of proportion because of proximity to Christmas,  I accept that our national holidays include Christmas, Easter and the Gregorian New Year (I won’t even call that last one ‘religious’). The plurality of Christians is a fact and it seems reasonable that major holidays convenience the largest group. Likewise, I appreciate the fact that towns with a large Jewish population (like Brookline and Sharon in Massachusetts) structure the school calendar to accommodate Passover and Yom Kippur. I wouldn’t demand that the holiday be recognized (not even locally), but on the other hand, I bet families in these towns appreciate that teachers accommodate individual students who cannot attend on those few days.

What about the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts? Fortunately, the Girl Scouts are not religious at all (they are not affiliated with the Boy Scouts). However, the Boy Scouts credo and pledge includes an oath of anti-atheism, and of course, they tried hard to block gay scouts and leaders. Alas, this isn’t a perfect world. Personally, I overlook the subtle and non-pervasive remnants of intolerance and religion in the Boy Scouts as long as their regional outposts are inclusive and accommodating. Their record is mixed, but religion is certainly a very minor footnote in their activities.

I have no problem with a school giving after school meeting space to scouts, as long as the on-site affairs are completely nonreligious and as long as the donation of space and service is treated like any other non-profit (e.g. the Red Cross or a local food drive).

So Sayeth Ellery. Tell me what you think.

Big biz & Uncle Sam like Tor, sort of…

Oceans of Data
Try to visualize all the data about you that is recorded, stored or transmitted each day in one form or another. Consider every possible source, both public and private. What if it could all be put together, correlated with data about every other person on earth and sifted by detectives whose only task is to look for subtle patterns of behavior?

Let’s start with phone calls: In addition to the number dialed, the phone company knows your location, the caller of ID of incoming calls, and even has access to the actual conversation. (Believe it or not, your government is listening). Check the phone bill of both parties and we can figure out how often you call each other. If we then learn everything we can about the people that you talk to, we can probably learn a thing or two about you. And speaking about location, did you know that both iPhones and Android phones log your precise location every few seconds and then transmit your location history to Apple or Google several times each hour? An even more ominous program discovered this week is embedded in Android phones. It sends every keystroke to your carrier even if you opt out.

What about your health records, magazine subscriptions, tax filings, legal disputes, mortgage records, banking transactions including charge card purchases? Now add your internet use – not just the sites at which you are registered, but every site you have ever visited. Suppose we add videos from convenience stores, traffic enforcement cameras and every ATM that you pass. Don’t forget the snapshot at the toll booth. They have one camera pointed at your face and another at the license plate. Of course, there is also a log entry from the toll payment device on your windshield and the key chain FOB that you use when you buy gas.

What about the relationships that are revealed by your old high school yearbook, old newspaper articles or that 4th grade poetry contest your daughter was in. There was a handout that night and so it counts as information related to you. How about that camera in the elevator at work? Suppose that it could recognize your face immediately and match it up with your fingerprints from your last international flight and your phone calls, web visits, hotel reservations and TV viewing habits.

Whew! That’s a lot of information to recognize or sift through in any meaningful way. But for a moment, ask yourself “What If”… What if all that data from every transaction record, GPS device, tax return and historical log could all be accurately attributed, correlated, matched and analyzed. What could be accomplished with all of this? Who wants it and for what purpose? Would their goals align with yours?

Person of Interest
In the CBS Television series, Person of Interest, a government computer looks for clues to the next terrorist event by monitoring virtually everyone and everything. The project doesn’t require its creators to build a new surveillance network. Massive amounts of data are already floating around us every day.

Of course, the data is fragmented. It was gathered for different reasons – mostly for private commerce (banking, medicine, safety). Few people consider it to impact privacy or personal freedoms, because we assume that It is too disparate and unwieldy for analysis by any single entity. Yet, in Person of Interest, the computer taps into all of these sources and mines the data for suspicious patterns.

As patterns emerge from all of this data, the computer finds converging threads based on individual behavior. Taken alone, the data points are meaningless — someone in Oregon signs for a package; someone using a different name in Rhode Island makes a plane reservation; someone in Pakistan fitting both descriptions checks into a motel and visits a convicted arms smuggler. The mobile phone carried by the last person accepts a phone call at a number previously used by one of the other individuals. Normally, no one could have ever fit these pieces together.

Eventually, the computer begins to identify suspicious activity. Depending on the programming and based on past findings, it even predicts events. But wait! Many of the patterns it finds are unrelated to terrorism. It finds clues to likely mob hits, crimes of passion, kidnapping, guns at school, and regional crime. The results are irrelevant to the machine’s purpose and in this fictional drama, the government decide that analysis would constitute illegal domestic spying. So they order the programmer to purge “irrelevant data” by adding a software routine to periodically delete extraneous results.

Of course, if the “personal” results were deleted, we wouldn’t have a new and exciting television series (my personal favorite). So, the middle-age geek who gave life to the analytics, recasts himself as a vigilante. He teams up with a former special ops agent (in the mold of Harrison Ford) and together, they follow data-mined leads in hope of saving innocent individuals.

In the US, our government has such a program. In fact, there are many Total Information Awareness projects. Unlike the Hollywood version, there was never any intent to purge personal information. In fact, it’s collection and analysis is the whole point. Another difference with the television series is that our government is not satisfied to mine public data or even legally obtained data. Instead, The federal government adds new primary data mechanisms every month and builds enormous enterprises to spy on individuals. This results in voluminous information daily, all of it available for future data mining without anyone’s knowledge or consent.

Of course, information and videos of individuals are routinely recorded wherever we go. But typically, we assume that this information is not centrally gathered, compared or analyzed. Most people assume that they are “off the radar” if they are not being actively tracked as part of an investigation. But with data mining techniques, no one is really off the radar. Machines make decisions about patterns that should be flagged and escalated for additional scrutiny.

Mixmaster: An Innocent Tool or Antiforensics?
In the 1990’s, despite a background in cryptography and computer science, I wasn’t aware of these programs. In the fields of political science and sociology, I was a ninnyhammer. It is either coincidence or perhaps prescience that I proposed and then participated in a project called a Mixmaster more than a decade ago…

The idea was simple: As you surf the web or send mail, your digital footprints are randomized so that an interloper or investigator could not piece together the participants in an internet exchange, nor determine the habits of an individual user. Well, they’re not really random, but the IP address reported to the email service or web page you visit is substituted by one associated with another participant in the project. That’s because each data leaving your PC is relayed through internet services associated with the others. We added a few simple facets to further obscure tracks:

  • Recognizing that a rogue participant might keep a log on the individuals who hand off data through his own relay (or may be compelled to do so in the future), our code automatically increased the number of ‘hops’ in relationship to the number of available peers. Anonymity was enhanced, because an unfriendly investigator attempting to trace the source of a web visit or email would need cooperation from a larger pool of participants.
  • Data between participants ware encrypted and randomized in length and even timing, to thwart possible forensic analysis.
  • A backward channel was added, but with very tight rules on expiration and purging. This allowed packet acknowledgement, web site navigation, and even two-way dialogue while still preserving anonymity.

Privacy & Politics
For most of us involved in the project, we had no endgame or political agenda. We simply recognized that it is occasionally comforting to send email, browse the web or post to a public forum without leaving a traceable return address. To those who claimed that our work might aid money launderers, terrorists or child molesters, we explained that identification and authentication should be under control of parties involved in a conversation. The internet is a new communications medium. But it was not designed to undermine the privacy of every conversation for the purpose of facilitating future forensic investigation. Investigators – if their purpose is supported by judicial oversight –have many old school methods and tools to aid their detective work. The growth of a new communication medium must not become a key to suppression or compromised privacy.

Vacuum-cleaner surveillance

Anonymous, but authenticated
There is a big difference, between identification and authentication. In a democracy, citizens are authenticated at the polls. But they enter a private booth to cast their vote and they turn in a ballot without a signature. They are identified (or even better, authenticated without identification) for the purpose of verifying eligibility. But their identity is not carried over to their voting decision. The real business is effectively anonymous.

This isn’t to say that all authorized entry systems should allow anonymous access. Of course not! Access entry systems typically might asks “Who are you?” (your User ID) and then ask for proof (typically a password). Your identity is not always required, but proof of authorized access can come in 3 forms. Very secure systems (such as banks) require at least 2 of these before allowing access:

  • something you know: A password or challenge
  • something you have: Evidence that you have a token or card
  • something you are:    A fingerprint, recognizable face, or voice match

In each case, it is the person behind the door that needs your identity or authorization and not your government.

Anonymity and encryption go hand in hand. Both technologies are used to ensure that internet communication is private and does not become the affair of your friends, employer, former spouse, or government overseers. So where, exactly, does your government stand on the use of internet encryption or anonymity? In most of the world, the answer is clear. Governments stand for propaganda and crowd control. They are against any technology that enhances privacy. But this is not a universal axiom: In Germany, they stand on the side of citizens. Your data and your identity belong to you. Very little of your affairs are open to the government. But in the United States, the answer is very murky…

The NSA conducts vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all data crossing the Internet–email, web surfing… everything!  –Mark Klein

Under George W. Bush, every bit of information was Uncle Sam’s business. With oversight by Dick Cheney (and hidden from legislative or judicial oversights), the executive branch concocted mechanisms of blatant domestic spying. Of course, the ringleaders realized that each mechanism violated the US constitution protection from unreasonable search, and so it was ordered and implemented covertly until a technician working for AT&T blew the whistle. Suddenly stories were surfacing that Uncle Sam was implementing a Reagan era project that had been shelved during the Clinton era. This launched a scramble to win public support for The Patriot Act, an absurd euphemism which attempts to whitewash illegal snooping as the patriotic duty of each citizen (talk about ‘deceptive’! Our leaders must think that we are sheep. Not just your garden variety grass-eating sheep, but really, really dumb sheep that feed on bull chips!).

       -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-   (writing in progress)

… until  and  (including preemptive data mining with programs like Dick Cheney’s “total information awareness”), back doors built into encryption chips, “deep packet” data sniffing installed at  major switching center, satellite interception of phone calls, and national security letters (a euphemism for warrantless snooping).

Before the Obama administration, the answer was clear. These technologies are barely tolerated for banking, medicine and commerce. But they are to be weakened, subterfuged or thwarted when used by private citizens. In each case, the government sought to block the technology or insert a back door into the programming code (and into actual data centers) for use during any future investigation. Of course, in a bold era of predictive behavior modeling, authorized investigations often gives way to fishing expeditions for the sole purpose of information gathering.

But something has changed in the past 2 years. As news spread about Internet censorship in China, the Arab spring, and covert schools for girls in Taliban controlled regions of Afghanistan, the US government began to recognize that uncensored and even untraceable Internet use sometimes coincided with foreign policy objectives. Imagine the conundrum this revelation must have generated within the state department! On the one hand, the Patriot Act sanctions blatant acts of domestic spying (including preemptive data mining with programs like Dick Cheney’s “total information awareness”), back doors built into encryption chips, “deep packet” data sniffing installed at  major switching center, satellite interception of phone calls, and national security letters (a euphemism for warrantless snooping). Yet, they also support freedom of speech and privacy for anything that supports US policy amongst our friends.


Today, this model has been widely adopted and greatly enhanced by an open source project called Tor. In this blog, I won’t try to justify the need for robust anonymous relays. Better writers and social philosophers than me have explained why free and anonymous communications channels are central to a free and democratic society. Better writers than me have chronicled the abuse of the Patriot Act, Echelon, TIA and numerous other abuses of government forms of overreach. Better writers than me have explained how open and free communication leads to increased safety even if it sometimes facilitates communications among terrorists, digital pirates or pornographers.


Turn of Events: Government as Advocate

  • Obama lends support to Tor
  • Tor to users: Use Amazon Cloud as bridge to anonymity  (this section under development)

Additional Reading

  • Carrier IQ (CIQ): A secret routine is embedded in Android phones sends every user keystroke to the network carrier, even when you opt out of every single connectivity feature. It cannot be uninstalled and cannot be uninstalled nor even shut down!
  • Surrounded by Surveillance: Is Everything Spying On You?

    Pigeons aren’t the only ones listening. The light pole itself broadcasts conversations.

    Even municipal light posts send conversations to government agencies, supposedly to aid first responders in an emergency. But wait! The manufacturer “proudly contacted DARPA” to suggest a more sinister use for the data collected from hidden microphones?

  • Wikipedia entry: Information Awareness Office (introduction & overview)
  • Official DARPA site: Information Awareness Office
  • The Smoking Gun: Discovery of Massive “Vacuum Sweep” Domestic Spying
    Leads to Patriot Act (euphemism for act of Profound Anti-Americanism)