March 23, 2014

QotD: Woodrow Wilson

Filed under: History, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:59

The fraudulence of Wilson is now admitted by all save a few survivors of the old corps of official press-agents, most of them devoid of both honesty and intelligence. No unbiased man, in the presence of the revelations of Bullitt, Keynes and a hundred other witnesses, and of the Russian and Shantung performances, and of innumerable salient domestic phenomena, can now believe that the Doctor dulcifluus was ever actually in favor of any of the brummagem ideals he once wept for, to the edification of a moral universe. They were, at best, no more than ingenious ruses de guerre, and even in the day of their widest credit it was the Espionage Act and the Solicitor-General to the Post Office, rather than any plausibility in their substance, that got them that credit. In [Theodore] Roosevelt’s case the imposture is less patent; he died before it was fully unmasked. What is more, his death put an end to whatever investigation of it was under way, for American sentimentality holds that it is indecent to inquire into the weaknesses of the dead, at least until all the flowers have withered on their tombs. When, a year ago, I ventured in a magazine article to call attention to Roosevelt’s philosophical kinship to the Kaiser I received letters of denunciation from all parts of the United States, and not a few forthright demands that I recant on penalty of lynch law. Prudence demanded that I heed these demands. We live in a curious and often unsafe country.

H.L. Mencken, “Roosevelt: An Autopsy”, Prejudices, part 2, 1920.

Isn’t it Ironic: Government Surveillance Version (with Remy)

Filed under: Government, Humour, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Published on 20 Mar 2014

Remy updates the Alanis Morissette hit for a certain senior senator from California.

Approximately 2 minutes.

Written by Remy. Video and animation by Meredith Bragg. Music performed, produced, recorded, mixed and mastered by Ben Karlstrom.

For full text, links, downloadable versions and more, go to: http://reason.com/reasontv/2014/03/20/remy-isnt-it-ironic.

A Senator lady
Got the news one day
The country’s being spied on
by the NSA

So she went out defending
on each TV set
but when she found out she’d been snooped on
she got all upset

And isn’t it ironic?
I mean, don’t you think?

It’s like you’re at Chris Brown’s
and there’s punch in the fridge
or if The Bachelor
passed a geography quiz

Learning Ted Kennedy
happened to be good at bridge.
And who would have thought?
It figures.

Senator, this may surprise you
and the irony bites
but Congresspeople ain’t the only ones
with 4th Amendment rights

It’s like a minimalist
who does their laundry
with All
or if Woody Allen liked to watch
Kids in the Hall

it’s like FDR
got locked in a Honda Accord
a cheap healthcare plan
that you just can’t afford

If Oscar Pistorius
really hated The Doors
and who would have thought?
It figures.

I heard the government
is sneaking up on you.
Life has a funny, funny way
of calling you out
calling you out.

March 12, 2014

Senator Dianne Feinstein versus the CIA

Filed under: Government, Law, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:52

In Mother Jones, David Corn shows the state of play between the Central Intelligence Agency and the senate committee that is responsible for oversight of the CIA:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, took to the Senate floor and accused the CIA of spying on committee investigators tasked with probing the agency’s past use of harsh interrogation techniques (a.k.a. torture) and detention. Feinstein was responding to recent media stories reporting that the CIA had accessed computers used by intelligence committee staffers working on the committee’s investigation. The computers were set up by the CIA in a locked room in a secure facility separate from its headquarters, and CIA documents relevant to the inquiry were placed on these computers for the Senate investigators. But, it turns out, the Senate sleuths had also uncovered an internal CIA memo reviewing the interrogation program that had not been turned over by the agency. This document was far more critical of the interrogation program than the CIA’s official rebuttal to a still-classified, 6,300-page Senate intelligence committee report that slams it, and the CIA wanted to find out how the Senate investigators had gotten their mitts on this damaging memo.

The CIA’s infiltration of the Senate’s torture probe was a possible constitutional violation and perhaps a criminal one, too. The agency’s inspector general and the Justice Department have begun inquiries. And as the story recently broke, CIA sources — no names, please — told reporters that the real issue was whether the Senate investigators had hacked the CIA to obtain the internal review. Readers of the few newspaper stories on all this did not have to peer too far between the lines to discern a classic Washington battle was under way between Langley and Capitol Hill.


So here we have the person assigned the duty of guaranteeing that the intelligence establishment functions effectively and appropriately, and she cannot get information about how the CIA meddled in one of her own investigations. This is a serious breakdown. And by the way, Feinstein has still not succeeded in forcing the CIA to declassify her committee’s massive report on the interrogation and detention program.

Here is how she summed up the current state of play:

    If the Senate can declassify this report, we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted. But, Mr. President, the recent actions that I have just laid out make this a defining moment for the oversight of our intelligence committee. How Congress and how this will be resolved will show whether the intelligence committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.

What Feinstein didn’t say — but it’s surely implied — is that without effective monitoring, secret government cannot be justified in a democracy. This is indeed a defining moment. It’s a big deal for President Barack Obama, who, as is often noted in these situations, once upon a time taught constitutional law. Feinstein has ripped open a scab to reveal a deep wound that has been festering for decades. The president needs to respond in a way that demonstrates he is serious about making the system work and restoring faith in the oversight of the intelligence establishment. This is more than a spies-versus-pols DC turf battle. It is a constitutional crisis.

March 10, 2014

When we do it, it’s “intelligence gathering”, when they do it, it’s “cyberwar”

Filed under: China, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:48

Bruce Schneier on the odd linguistic tic of how we describe an act depending on who the actor is:

Back when we first started getting reports of the Chinese breaking into U.S. computer networks for espionage purposes, we described it in some very strong language. We called the Chinese actions cyber-attacks. We sometimes even invoked the word cyberwar, and declared that a cyber-attack was an act of war.

When Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA has been doing exactly the same thing as the Chinese to computer networks around the world, we used much more moderate language to describe U.S. actions: words like espionage, or intelligence gathering, or spying. We stressed that it’s a peacetime activity, and that everyone does it.

The reality is somewhere in the middle, and the problem is that our intuitions are based on history.

Electronic espionage is different today than it was in the pre-Internet days of the Cold War. Eavesdropping isn’t passive anymore. It’s not the electronic equivalent of sitting close to someone and overhearing a conversation. It’s not passively monitoring a communications circuit. It’s more likely to involve actively breaking into an adversary’s computer network — be it Chinese, Brazilian, or Belgian — and installing malicious software designed to take over that network.

In other words, it’s hacking. Cyber-espionage is a form of cyber-attack. It’s an offensive action. It violates the sovereignty of another country, and we’re doing it with far too little consideration of its diplomatic and geopolitical costs.

February 6, 2014

TAFTA/TTIP – The US is negotiating from a position of unassailable strength

Filed under: Europe, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:02

At Techdirt, Glyn Moody explains why the EU is insane not to demand that the negotiations with the US government over TAFTA/TTIP be made fully public:

On the one side is the US, on the other, the 28 nations that go to make up the European Union. Because they have differing views on the TAFTA/TTIP negotiations, it’s necessary to pass around many documents conveying information about the current negotiations, and seek to obtain some kind of consensus on future EU proposals and flexibilities.

In the wake of Snowden’s revelations, security will doubtless be much better than during the Copenhagen Summit, when supposedly secret messages were sent using unencrypted emails. But it only needs one weak link in the European Union’s security chain — somebody who forgets to encrypt his or her message, or who leaves it on a system that has been compromised — and the NSA will be able to access that information, and pass it on to the US negotiators, just as it did in Copenhagen.

The key point is that there is a profound information asymmetry in the TAFTA/TTIP talks. Although the spy agencies of the EU countries will doubtless be trying their best to obtain confidential information about US negotiating tactics, it will be much harder than it is for the US to do the same about EU positions. That’s because the NSA is far larger, and far more expert than the EU agencies. GCHQ is probably the nearest in terms of capabilities, but is so closely allied with the NSA in other areas that it probably won’t be trying too hard so as not to annoy its paymaster.

This more or less guarantees that the US will know everything about the EU’s negotiating plans during TAFTA/TTIP, while the EU will remain in the dark about the US intentions. That not only undercuts the European Commission’s argument that releasing documents is not possible because they must remain secret during the negotiations — they won’t be — it also gives the EU a huge incentive to insist on full transparency for the talks. That way, the EU negotiators would be able to see at least some US documents that currently are hidden from them, whereas the US would gain little that it didn’t already know through more dubious means.

January 15, 2014

The NSA’s rise to being the “centerpiece of the entire intelligence system”

Filed under: Government, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:06

In Wired, Felix Salmon explains that “Quants don’t know everything”:

By now, nearly everyone from the president of the United States on down has admit­ted that the National Security Agency went too far. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the rogue NSA contractor who has since gained asylum in Rus­sia, paint a picture of an organization with access to seemingly every word typed or spoken on any electronic device, anywhere in the world. And when news of the NSA’s reach became public — as it was surely bound to do at some point — the entire US intelli­gence apparatus was thrust into what The New York Times recently called a “crisis of purpose and legitimacy.”

It was a crisis many years in the making. Over the course of three decades, the NSA slowly transformed itself from the nation’s junior spy agency to the centerpiece of the entire intelligence system. As the amount of data in the world doubled, and doubled again, and again, the NSA kept up with it — even as America’s human intelligence capability, as typified by old-fashioned CIA spies in the field, struggled to do anything useful with the unprecedented quantities of signals intelligence they had access to. Trained agency linguists capable of parsing massive quantities of Arabic- and Farsi-language intercepts don’t scale up nearly as easily as data centers do.

That, however, wasn’t the computer geeks’ problem. Once it was clear that the NSA could do something, it seemed inarguable that the agency should do it — even after the bounds of information overload (billions of records added to bulging databases every day) or basic decency (spying on allied heads of state, for example) had long since been surpassed. The value of every marginal gigabyte of high tech signals intelligence was, at least in theory, quantifiable. The downside — the inability to prioritize essential intelligence and act on it; the damage to America’s democratic legitimacy — was not. As a result, during the past couple of decades spycraft went from being a pursuit driven by human judgment calls to one driven by technical capability.

December 11, 2013

Edward Snowden interviewed by Time

Filed under: Liberty, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:50

He may not have made the cover as “person of the year”, but he’s still very newsworthy:

For Snowden, those impacts are but a means to a different end. He didn’t give up his freedom to tip off German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the American snoops on her cell phone or to detail the ways the NSA electronically records jihadi porn-watching habits. He wanted to issue a warning to the world, and he believed that revealing the classified information at his fingertips was the way to do it. His gambit has so far proved more successful than he reasonably could have hoped — he is alive, not in prison, and six months on, his documents still make headlines daily — but his work is not done, and his fate is far from certain. So in early October, he invited to Moscow some supporters who wanted to give him an award.

After the toasts, some photographs and a brief ceremony, Snowden sat back down at the table, spread with a Russian buffet, to describe once again the dystopian landscape he believes is unfolding inside the classified computer networks on which he worked as a contractor. Here was a place that collected enormous amounts of information on regular citizens as a precaution, a place where U.S. law and policy did not recognize the right to privacy of foreigners operating outside the country, a place where he believed the basic freedoms of modern democratic states — “to speak and to think and to live and be creative, to have relationships and to associate freely” — were under threat.

“There is a far cry between legal programs, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement — where it is targeted, it’s based on reasonable suspicion, individualized suspicion and warranted action — and the sort of dragnet mass surveillance that puts entire populations under a sort of an eye and sees everything, even when it is not needed,” Snowden told his colleagues. “This is about a trend in the relationship between the governing and governed in America.”

That is the thing that led him to break the law, the notion that mass surveillance undermines the foundations of private citizenship. In a way, it is the defining critique of the information age, in which data is increasingly the currency of power. The idea did not originate with Snowden, but no one has done more to advance it. “The effect has been transformative,” argues Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who has been helping Snowden from the confines of the Ecuadorean embassy in London. “We have shifted from a small group of experts understanding what was going on to broad public awareness of the reality of NSA mass surveillance.” If Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is the sunny pied piper of the new sharing economy, Snowden has become its doomsayer.

November 14, 2013

How the internet was “weaponized”

Filed under: Government, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:45

In Wired, Nicholas Weaver looks back on the way the internet was converted from a passive network infrastructure to a spy agency wonderland:

According to revelations about the QUANTUM program, the NSA can “shoot” (their words) an exploit at any target it desires as his or her traffic passes across the backbone. It appears that the NSA and GCHQ were the first to turn the internet backbone into a weapon; absent Snowdens of their own, other countries may do the same and then say, “It wasn’t us. And even if it was, you started it.”

If the NSA can hack Petrobras, the Russians can justify attacking Exxon/Mobil. If GCHQ can hack Belgicom to enable covert wiretaps, France can do the same to AT&T. If the Canadians target the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Chinese can target the U.S. Department of the Interior. We now live in a world where, if we are lucky, our attackers may be every country our traffic passes through except our own.

Which means the rest of us — and especially any company or individual whose operations are economically or politically significant — are now targets. All cleartext traffic is not just information being sent from sender to receiver, but is a possible attack vector.


The only self defense from all of the above is universal encryption. Universal encryption is difficult and expensive, but unfortunately necessary.

Encryption doesn’t just keep our traffic safe from eavesdroppers, it protects us from attack. DNSSEC validation protects DNS from tampering, while SSL armors both email and web traffic.

There are many engineering and logistic difficulties involved in encrypting all traffic on the internet, but its one we must overcome if we are to defend ourselves from the entities that have weaponized the backbone.

November 6, 2013

Taiwan suffers espionage leak

Filed under: China, Military, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:17

Strategy Page on the most recent intelligence coup by the Chinese military:

Taiwan recently admitted that it had suffered some serious damage when it discovered that one of its air force officers (identified only as “Major Hao”) sold many technical details of the new E-2K AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft to China. Hao did it for money, and Taiwanese counterintelligence found over a dozen other Chinese intel operatives during the investigation that uncovered the E-2K leaks. Since the E-2K contains mostly American technology and is based on the E-2C use on American aircraft carriers, this intelligence disaster is going to cost America a lot as well. Since China now knows the details of how the E-2 electronics work, they can develop better ways to deceive and disrupt E-2 operations.

Earlier this year Taiwan received the last two of four E-2K aircraft from the U.S., where they have been sent for upgrading to the E-2C 2000 standard. The first two E-2Ks were sent in 2009. The upgrade cost about $63 million per aircraft. Taiwan bought two E-2Ks new in 2006 as well.

The Taiwanese E-2K is very similar to the American E-2C, which is being replaced with a newer model. In 2010 the U.S. Navy received its first E-2D aircraft. This is the latest version of the E-2 Hawkeye radar aircraft that was originally introduced in 1964. The two engine, 24 ton E-2 was never produced in large quantities (fewer than a hundred are in use). Six years ago the E-2 fleet reached a milestone of a million flight hours.


The U.S. usually does not export the latest versions of electronic equipment. Thus the Taiwan leak means the older American E-2C is compromised but not (to a great extent) the most recent E-2D model. But the Taiwanese are justifiably afraid that there will be even more reluctance by the United States to sell Taiwan the latest versions of anything because of the successful Chinese espionage efforts in Taiwan. Then again, maybe not. That’s because that espionage works both ways. The Taiwanese have been very successful using the same tactics (offering cash or using blackmail and other threats) against the Chinese. While the American and Taiwanese tech is more valuable (because it is more advanced) it’s useful to know the details of the best stuff the Chinese have.

October 7, 2013

CSEC’s sudden media prominence … in Brazil

Filed under: Americas, Cancon, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:50

If you haven’t heard of CSEC before, you’re certainly not alone. The signals intelligence service known as Communications Security Establishment Canada has been eager not to be in the public eye, but allegations are being made that CSEC has been spying on the Brazilian government’s mining and energy ministry:

The impact for Canada of these revelations could be equally grave: they come at a time when Brazil has become a top destination for Canadian exports, when a stream of delegations from the oil and gas industries are making pilgrimages to Rio de Janeiro to try to get a piece of the booming offshore oil industry, and when the Canadian government is eager to burnish ties with Brasilia. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird visited Brazil in August, and spoke repeatedly about the country as a critical partner for Canadian business.


While CSEC’s role in conducting economic espionage has been alluded to before, how it does this job has not. The significance of the documents obtained by Globo in Brazil is that they speak to how “metadata” analysis by CSEC can be used to exploit a rival country’s computer systems.

The CSEC-labeled slides about the “Olympia” program describe the “Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy” as a “new target to develop” despite “limited access/target knowledge.”

The presentation goes on to map out how an individual’s smartphone — “target’s handset” — can be discerned by analysis, including by cross-referencing the smartphone’s Sim card with the network telephone number assigned to it and also to the handset’s unique number (IMEI).

The “top secret” presentation also refers to attacks on email servers.

“I have identified MX [email] servers which have been targeted to passive collection by the Intel analysts,” one slide says, without explaining who the speaker is.

October 4, 2013

John Lanchester on the Guardian‘s GCHQ files

Filed under: Britain, Government, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:44

Novelist John Lanchester was invited to look at the trove of files the Guardian received from Edward Snowden:

In August, the editor of the Guardian rang me up and asked if I would spend a week in New York, reading the GCHQ files whose UK copy the Guardian was forced to destroy. His suggestion was that it might be worthwhile to look at the material not from a perspective of making news but from that of a novelist with an interest in the way we live now.

I took Alan Rusbridger up on his invitation, after an initial reluctance that was based on two main reasons. The first of them was that I don’t share the instinctive sense felt by many on the left that it is always wrong for states to have secrets. I’d put it more strongly than that: democratic states need spies.

And all’s well in the world and we’re worried over nothing?

My week spent reading things that were never meant to be read by outsiders was, from this point of view, largely reassuring. Most of what GCHQ does is exactly the kind of thing we all want it to do. It takes an interest in places such as the Horn of Africa, Iran, and North Korea; it takes an interest in energy security, nuclear proliferation, and in state-sponsored computer hacking.

There doesn’t seem to be much in the documents about serious crime, for which GCHQ has a surveillance mandate, but it seems that much of this activity is covered by warrants that belong to other branches of the security apparatus. Most of this surveillance is individually targeted: it concerns specific individuals and specific acts (or intentions to act), and as such, it is not the threat.

Few people are saying we don’t need intelligence-gathering organizations like GCHQ, but we do have a right to be concerned about what they are doing when they’re not watching actual, known threats. They have capabilities that we generally thought were just from the pages of James Bond novels or Tom Clancy thrillers … and they use them all the time, not just for keeping tabs on the “bad guys”.

In the case of modern signals intelligence, this is no longer true. Life has changed. It has changed because of the centrality of computers and digital activity to every aspect of modern living. Digital life is central to work: many of us, perhaps most of us, spend most of our working day using a computer. Digital life is central to our leisure: a huge portion of our discretionary activity has a digital component, even things which look like they are irreducibly un-digital, from cycling to cooking.


As for our relationships and family lives, that has, especially for younger people, become a digital-first activity. Take away Facebook and Twitter, instant messaging and Skype and YouTube, and then — it’s hard to imagine, but try — take away the mobile phone, and see the yawning gap where all human interaction used to take place. About the only time we don’t use computers is when we’re asleep — that’s unless we have a gadget that tracks our sleep, or monitors our house temperature, or our burglar alarm, or whatever.

This is the central point about what our spies and security services can now do. They can, for the first time, monitor everything about us, and they can do so with a few clicks of a mouse and — to placate the lawyers — a drop-down menu of justifications.

Looking at the GCHQ papers, it is clear that there is an ambition to get access to everything digital. That’s what engineers do: they seek new capabilities. When it applies to the people who wish us harm, that’s fair enough. Take a hypothetical, but maybe not unthinkable, ability to eavesdrop on any room via an electrical socket. From the GCHQ engineers’ point of view, they would do that if they could. And there are a few people out there on whom it would be useful to be able to eavesdrop via an electrical socket. But the price of doing so would be a society that really did have total surveillance. Would it be worth it? Is the risk worth the intrusion?

That example might sound far-fetched, but trust me, it isn’t quite as far fetched as all that, and the basic intention on the part of the GCHQ engineers — to get everything — is there.

August 15, 2013

MI5 – more Maxwell Smart than 007

Filed under: Britain, Government, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Britain’s counter-intelligence service, MI5, comes in for some unkind words on the BBC website from Adam Curtis:

The recent revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden were fascinating. But they — and all the reactions to them — had one enormous assumption at their heart.

That the spies know what they are doing.

It is a belief that has been central to much of the journalism about spying and spies over the past fifty years. That the anonymous figures in the intelligence world have a dark omniscience. That they know what’s going on in ways that we don’t.

It doesn’t matter whether you hate the spies and believe they are corroding democracy, or if you think they are the noble guardians of the state. In both cases the assumption is that the secret agents know more than we do.

But the strange fact is that often when you look into the history of spies what you discover is something very different.

It is not the story of men and women who have a better and deeper understanding of the world than we do. In fact in many cases it is the story of weirdos who have created a completely mad version of the world that they then impose on the rest of us.

I want to tell some stories about MI5 — and the very strange people who worked there. They are often funny, sometimes rather sad — but always very odd.

The stories also show how elites in Britain have used the aura of secret knowledge as a way of maintaining their power. But as their power waned the “secrets” became weirder and weirder.

They were helped in this by another group who also felt their power was waning — journalists. And together the journalists and spies concocted a strange, dark world of treachery and deceit which bore very little relationship to what was really going on. And still doesn’t.

And no retelling of MI5′s hits and misses is complete without the time they accused their own chief of being a Soviet spy:

The small group in MI5 now became convinced that their organisation was not just penetrated by the Russians, it was actually run by a Soviet agent. They knew they had to get the truth out somehow even if it meant breaking the law. So they found a friendly journalist called Chapman Pincher and told him the hidden truth.

Here is Chapman Pincher being interviewed on the Wogan programme about what then happened. Up to this point Pincher had been the Defence correspondent on the Daily Express. He was successful for getting “scoops” from “inside sources” — although the historian EP Thompson said that really Chapman Pincher was:

    “A kind of official urinal in which ministers and intelligence and defence chiefs could stand patiently leaking.”

What the dissident MI5 agents now told Pincher was like super high-grade piss. Or, as he puts it in the Wogan interview, “it was like walking into an Aladdin’s Cave”. But what Pincher wrote was going to open the floodgates to a new kind of conspiracy journalism that still holds sway over large parts of the media imagination.

Have a look at him and decide yourself — high grade toilet or investigative journalist? Or maybe often they are the same thing?

July 29, 2013

Why Germany is the venue for the loudest denunciations of NSA surveillance

Filed under: Europe, Government, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:14

Alex Harrowell explains the deep suspicions among Germans which long predate the NSA surveillance revelations:

Obviously, privacy and data protection are especially sensitive in Germany. After the Stasi, the centrality of big databases to the West German state’s response to the left-wing terrorists of the 1970s, and the extensive Nazi use of telephone intercepts during the seizure of power, it couldn’t really be otherwise. Privacy and digital activism is older and better established in Germany than anywhere else — in the US, for example, I consider the founding text of the movement to be the FBI vs. Steve Jackson Games case from 1990 or thereabouts, while the key text in Germany is the court judgment on the national census from ten years earlier. But the UK has a (strong) data protection act and no-one seems anywhere near as exercised, although they probably should be.

So here’s an important German word, which we could well import into English: Deutungshoheit. This translates literally as “interpretative superiority” and is analogous to “air superiority”. Deutungshoheit is what politicians and their spin doctors attempt to win by putting forward their interpretations and framings of the semirandom events that constitute the “news”. In this case, the key event was Snowden’s disclosure of the BOUNDLESS INFORMANT slides, which show that the NSA’s Internet surveillance operations collect large amounts of information from sources in Germany.

The slides don’t say anything about how, whether this was information on German customers handed over by US cloud companies under PRISM orders, tapped from cables elsewhere, somehow collected inside Germany, or perhaps shared with the NSA by German intelligence. This last option is by far the most controversial and the most illegal in Germany. The battle for Deutungshoheit, therefore, consisted in denying any German involvement and projecting the German government, like the people in question, as passive victims of US intrusion.

On the other hand, Snowden’s support-network in the Berlin digital activist world, centred around Jacob “ioerror” Applebaum, strove to imply that in fact German agencies had been active participants, and Snowden’s own choice of further disclosures seems to have been guided by an intent to influence German politicians. Der Spiegel, rather than the Guardian, has been getting documents first and their content is mostly about Germany.

In this second phase, the German political elite has shifted its feet; rather than trying to deny any involvement whatsoever, they have instead tried to interpret the possibility of something really outrageous as being necessary for your security, and part of fundamental alliance commitments which cannot be questioned within the limits of respectable discourse. The ur-text here is Die Zeit‘s interview with Angela Merkel, in which Merkel argues that she knew nothing, further that there was a balance to strike between freedom and security, that although some kinds of spying were unacceptable, the alliance came first. The effectiveness of this, at least in the context of the interview, can be measured by astonishingly uncritical questions like the one in which she was asked “what additional efforts were necessary from the Germans to maintain their competitiveness”.

H/T to Tyler Cowen for the link.

July 17, 2013

QotD: The war on general-purpose computing

Filed under: Liberty, Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

As we wait for dessert, I ask him about his recent speeches at technology conferences discussing the “war on general purpose computing”. He runs through the argument with practised fluency. Computers are by nature general-purpose machines. It’s impossible to make a computer that does all the kinds of things we want computers to do yet is somehow disabled from making copies of copyrighted material, or viewing child pornography, or sending instructions to a 3D printer to produce a gun.

“Oh my God, that’s good,” says Doctorow after his first mouthful of crumble. My peanut butter shortbread is fantastic too, if absurdly calorific. We are interrupted only by another waiter dropping a tray of glasses.

He continues with the argument. The impossibility of making limited-purpose computers won’t stop governments or corporations trying to put on the locks, or changing laws to try to make those locks effective. But the only way these limits can possibly work is subterfuge: computers therefore tend to contain concealed software that spies on what their users are trying to do. Such software is inevitably open to abuse and has often been abused in the past.

Digital rights management systems intended to prevent copying have been hijacked by virus-writers. In one notorious case, the Federal Trade Commission acted against seven computer rental companies and the software company that supplied them, alleging that the rental companies could activate hidden software to grab passwords, bank account details and even switch on the webcam to take photos of what the FTC coyly calls “intimate activities at home”. As computers surround us — in our cars, our homes, our pacemakers — Doctorow is determined to make people realise what’s at stake.

Tim Harford, “Cory Doctorow has Lunch with the FT“, TimHarford.com (originally published at the Financial Times), 2013-07-15

July 16, 2013

State of play in the surveillance state

Filed under: Government, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:38

If you’re just getting back from an extended vacation with no access to the news, “George Washington” at Zero Hedge has a cheat-sheet on spying that you might want to have a look at:

Lots more at Zero Hedge.

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