Saturday, September 28, 2013

About This Proposal -- and What Do I Think Will Happen

I don't believe it is constitutional for the US government to be engaging in massive surveillance of its citizens. But most people seem to agree that the government is going to do this no matter what, and many people argue it's necessary for American safety. If it must be done, then, let's apply it equally. As I imply elsewhere, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If all 300 million of us Americans' private communications need to be monitored in order to protect our personal safety against a threat that is about as common as shark attacks, then it seems only fair and appropriate that our financial apparatchiks' communications should all be monitored too. In order to prevent a clear and present crime that is not only picking people's pockets directly, as well as depleting the budgets of our States and Cities and major retirement funds, but also sapping tens of billions of dollars from the world economy in a time of incredibly severe economic downturn.

I suspect our politicians and our financial elite share a common belief: that surveillance is for the "little people", that they themselves are above the law and above reproach. I don't believe the financial elites will want this high-tech scrutiny turned upon them, and I believe the financial elites have the power to make sure it doesn't happen.

So if we manage to insert this concept into the public political discussion -- and if we are successful to the point where perhaps some Senators start drafting legislation that would bring this about... it's going to be fun to watch...

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Latest Evidence, #1 in a series

Matt Taibbi's reports, "Everything Is Rigged", will obviously figure prominently on this blog. Matt isn't the only reporter covering this beat, but he aggregates everything conveniently. Scratch the surface of how our finances are handled by major players, mainly by private mega-banks like Goldman Sachs, but also including government agencies such as the Federal Reserve and Fannie Mae, and you quickly realize that the scale of the financial fraud that occurs every hour dwarfs the economy of some entire First World countries.

"Everything Is Rigged, Vol. 9,173: This Time It's Currencies"
Traders at some of the world's biggest banks manipulated benchmark foreign-exchange rates used to set the value of trillions of dollars of investments, according to five dealers with knowledge of the practice... Employees have been front-running client orders and rigging WM/Reuters rates by pushing through trades before and during the 60-second windows when the benchmarks are set, said the current and former traders, who requested anonymity because the practice is controversial. Dealers colluded with counterparts to boost chances of moving the rates, said two of the people, who worked in the industry for a total of more than 20 years. The $4.7-trillion-a-day currency market, the biggest in the financial system, is one of the least regulated. The inherent conflict banks face between executing client orders and profiting from their own trades is exacerbated because most currency trading takes place away from exchanges.
One after another, it's the same thing: Insiders rigging benchmark rates, shaving money from basically everyone on earth, systematically and over periods of many years. It's the ultimate taxation-without-representation story...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Cynicism in school and marriage

Taibbi writes an article about how a big new Education initiative from the President actually relates to the whole NSA and Wikileaks morass. Taibbi's point is that Obama is going into full-court press across the country over yet another rather nebulous plan for Education that won't take effect for five years, and the press is just lapping it up. Instead of having the press revisit the NSA and Manning scandals, which each had significant developments last week. Is that a cynical mastery of the 24-hour news cycle? Toss the press a new bone when you want to get their minds off of something bad you did last week?

>> Barack Obama is so frustrating. He can give quite a speech. He says just enough of the right things to give pause, and sometimes genuinely seems to be in touch with the pain of the vanishing middle class. He has the appearance, on occasion, of the politician of your dreams – intelligent, forward-thinking, even-keeled, just. You want to believe in him, you really do. But just taking this week for instance, there's just no way around the math... that the White House has been engaged all summer in a lunatic defense of a vast and apparently illegal domestic espionage program and tossed a young soldier in prison for three decades for exposing war crimes and torture.

Monday, August 26, 2013

We are all Chelsea

The Chelsea [née Bradley] Manning issue may be a bit of a tangent for this blog, but it's related, because Manning, like Snowden, helped us spy on the Powers-That-Be, which is what I recommend on this blog. I'm not recommending breaking laws to do so, and Manning's methods were against military code -- I'll get back to that.

Meanwhile, let's examine Manning's trial and his pre-sentencing apology...

A lot of my right-wing friends started wondering within hours of "Chelsea" (formerly Bradley) Manning's announcement, "How the hell could our government give top security clearance to somebody who's obviously bonkers?"

How Not To React

Well, thankfully my right-wing friends aren't making a living as psychiatrists, since a desire for gender re-assignment is not in and of itself evidence of mental problems. If it were, of course, Manning could likely have gotten off scott free with an insanity plea, so think about that for a moment before you make sweeping pronouncements, my friends.

Can't Be Overturned

So I got a comment [offline] that my crusade here is hopeless and ill-advised for two reasons.

#1, it's written into the Constitution that the Executive Branch can break any law it needs to, in the name of National Security. Since the surveillance is in the name of National Security, all this is perfectly legal and cannot be overturned.
On the other hand, wiretapping bank executives is not relevant to National Security, so I shouldn't open a can of worms and use the bulldozer of National Security on things that don't fall into that category.

#2, if I make a stink abut this, all I'm doing is helping the Opposing Political Party get elected, which will turn out much worse than the situation we have now. Especially if that Opposing Party gets to pick more Supreme Court justices.

Anyone who knows me, ought to know that argument #2 is one of my red hot-buttons.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Do Two Wrongs Make a Right??

I've read several people telling me that this campaign is pointless, and more recently I've read several people telling me that my proposal is immoral because it essentially is adding another wrong to the wrong already being committed. If we truly respect the 4th Amendment, people say, we can't in good conscience propose that we break the 4th Amendment, even if targeted against our political "enemies", in this case, the bankers and financiers committing illegal acts that threaten our entire nation.

Obviously, I disagree with this reasoning, so this is my soapbox to explain why.

In brief: The government is already promulgating the abuse, and my argument revolves around the fact that this abuse is one-sided. Proposing to share the abuse against those in power is, I believe, rectifying the abuse, not adding further abuse.

Recall, the government is already collecting, monitoring, and analyzing the financial data in question. I am not proposing to further the abuse by collecting new data -- nobody is -- that would not be possible, because the government is collecting all existing data. What we are talking about is a different abuse or crime: that of selective law enforcement.

If you acquiesce to selective law enforcement without any protest, you are laying the foundation for the establishment of tyranny. The NSA can get dirt on us, but _we_ can't get dirt on the powerful. In that situation, we are establishing a protected, privileged class who is not accountable. As the Founding Fathers knew, that is a recipe for tyranny of a few connected, privileged elites.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

More news roundup

I see I have a few hundred page views, but I don't know if anybody is hanging on waiting for me to update this blog anymore... Haven't received any comments.

But the basic issue continues to simmer on the back burner of our collective attention, at least, as reflected in the news media. I don't think this issue is going to go away. Every other day comes some new revelation that we are being spied upon to a degree that was never before technologically possible.

The one thing the news media does not do, as they report these revelations, is speculate about what is the motive and what are the overseers going to do with this information.

Because I mean, you can't really expect me to believe the Federal Government needs the passwords to my accounts, even as it is already intercepting and decrypting my messages.

Feds Tell Web Firms To Turn Over User Account Passwords

You can't really expect me to believe the police are monitoring all the movements of our automobiles in all our cities just in order to track terrorists.

The Cops Are Tracking My Car -- And Yours

You can't really expect me to believe that opening my safe deposit box is necessary to fight terrorism.

DHS Claims Authority To Open Safe Deposit Boxes Without Warrants

So yeah, terrorism terrorism terrorism, but I just don't see these steps as being a necessary part of the battle against terrorism.

Sure the concept of broad surveillance may have originated (long before 9/11) as a misguided idea to fight terrorism. But I don't think that's the true, ultimate purpose of it anymore. As the examples above show, it's really going beyond plausibility to think that our government urgently needs to do these things, all without a warrant or court oversight, in order to fight terror.

Of course part of it is just for the money. We're Americans, and what Americans have done for the past 100 years is to take serious, bloody, moral and ethical issues and find ways to make profits off them, profits which of course are amoral. It's easy to convince yourself that spying on your fellow citizens is moral if your salary is paid by people who are buying your surveillance cameras.

Lawmakers Who Upheld NSA Phone Spying Received Double the Defense Industry Cash

I wrote before, that surveillance is equivalent to pornography for people in positions of power. Because the surveillance isn't about monitoring anymore than pornography is about cinematography. Surveillance is ultimately all about control. You have to use this data for something, and as I wrote, if the actual thing you're fighting is pretty small and elusive, you as a government overseer are going to find new uses for the data. You're going to use it, in secret, against people you personally don't like or disagree with. It's not even a slippery slope, it's a highway directly to Hell. It's just how human nature works when granted social authority at the same time as technological miracles. You're just bound to abuse it, no question.

The actual incidence of terrorism is small, and obviously they make themselves hard to find. So those doing the surveillance find themselves going out on a limb and provoking the thing they claim to be defending us from.

Most Terrorist Plots in the US Aren't Invented by Al Qaeda -- They're Manufactured by the FBI [Sting Operations]

As other people have written, one of the major problems with permitting things like torture, assassination and surveillance against "foreign enemies" is that all those things inevitably return back home to be used against the citizens.

DHS confirms it's spying on 'anti-government' Americans

And so if there aren't enough real traitors and terrorists among the domestic citizenry to justify the massive, bloated security operation -- inevitably, the government starts to declare more and more people as enemies and terrorists. It's happened in every repressive totalitarian regime that I know of.

How the US Turned Three Pacifists [an 82-year-old Catholic nun and two elderly vegetarians] into Violent Terrorists

Yet again I have to repeat, this is how empires fall. When the government slowly convinces itself that the citizens are the enemy instead of their employers. That situation can't last for long, historically speaking. One thing or the other has got to change.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Corporate-Government Spying Nexus

When I write about the asymmetry in this electronic surveillance, and I say that "We ought to be able spy on _them_ like they spy on us," some readers may think I'm being glib. You may think I am mixing up or conflating the Government agencies who do the eavesdropping, the NSA, with purely financial players such as the big banks and investment brokers. Of course there's an indirect chain of logic there; the rich bankers and big companies make campaign contributions to the politicians who allegedly control the NSA, so one could make an indirect argument that there's a chain of influence and we could influence the politicians by inconveniencing the banks.

You may think I'm making a roundabout political point by lumping the banks along with the government as "The Powers That Be".

You'd be wrong. There is a direct connection and I'm making a direct argument.

The UK Guardian is right, I consider this stuff just as mind-blowing as Edward Snowden's revelations about PRISM and wiretapping. Bank of America can't possibly be the only corporate giant who considered assembling a mercenary cadre "Intelligence Team" to dig up dirt and _initiate_ smears against _political_ adversaries. And guess what? They retained Booz Allen Hamilton (the private contractor who employed Snowden on behalf of the NSA), Palantir, Stratfor, all the same contractors who do the spying for the government. If you think that we can trust big companies like Google and Bank of America with our personal data because they're private companies, but you also think the government shouldn't be monitoring your personal and financial data.... THERE IS NO DISTINCTION ANYMORE. If you think private companies don't have an incentive to engage in personal attacks, abuse your personal data or share it with government agencies, because there's no way it would help their bottom line... you got another think coming.

Barrett Brown's Revelations Every Bit As Explosive As Edward Snowden's

Brown made a splash in February 2011 by helping to uncover "Team Themis", a project by intelligence contractors retained by Bank of America to demolish the hacker society known as Anonymous and silence sympathetic journalists like Glenn Greenwald... The campaign reportedly involved a menagerie of contractors: Booz Allen Hamilton, a billion-dollar intelligence industry player and Snowden's former employer; Palantir, a PayPal-inspired and -funded outfit that sells "data-mining and analysis software that maps out human social networks for counterintelligence purposes"; and HBGary Federal, an aspirant consultancy in the intelligence sector.

The Team Themis story began in late 2010, when Julian Assange warned WikiLeaks would release documents outlining an "ecosystem of corruption [that] could take down a bank or two." Anticipating that it might be in Assange's sights, Bank of America went into damage-control mode and, as the New York Times reported, assembled "a team of 15 to 20 top Bank of America officials … scouring thousands of documents in the event that they become public." To oversee the review, Bank of American brought in Booz Allen Hamilton.

Spying: the Drunk Says The Light Is Better Over Here

It bears consideration to think about the day-to-day operations when people decide what to look for, amid the mountains of eavesdropped conversations collected by PRISM and other local or corporate surveillance operations.

When you consider the deadliest terror attacks, in terms of taking lives, in recent history -- from 9/11 to the Boston Bombings, from the Anthrax letters to Timothy McVeigh to the Spanish train bombings... they were generally perpetrated by a few individuals, at most small rogue groups, operating within a relatively small network. They didn't smear their plans all over communications systems. They relied on their own systems and networks, their own resources, because they already knew the US and other Western countries were pretty good at monitoring transactions within their own systems. So by traditional wiretapping methods, that made them hard to catch, and that was their plan. The surveillance authorities' response was, we have to Hoover up ever more information in order to catch the tiniest rarified interactions that these dangerous people have with the rest of our bigger System.

A much easier and more tempting target for eavesdropping authorities is, of course, the large networks of political dissenters working within the system. According to the logic of bureaucracy, well, it's difficult and expensive to try and ferret out these Black Swan threats like terrorists that come from nowhere. So we can show our paymasters much better results if we spy on publicly known organizations that our paymasters don't happen to like, e.g., political protesters. According to this chain of logic, if YOU contribute a few bucks to the Sierra Club every month, that means you're ecologically minded, which means there's a small chance you may have some connection to the Earth-First! people who burn SUV's in dealerships at night and set fire to unfinished apartment complexes. And then from those crimes, somehow we move from there to assuming there's a connection to political terror bombings that actually take lives. So therefore, because the real bomb-throwing political terrorists are hard to find, we can "show results" and "get promoted" if we monitor a lot of normal, peaceful citizens who might have some convoluted connections to a disfavored ideology. By the twisted logic of economics and statistics, if we just monitor a few hundred million Sierra Club fans, we're more likely to hit upon an actual terrorist, than by doing police work. Or at least, the electronic monitoring _costs_ less money, so let's go for it.

As you can guess, this logic ends up being pretty much equivalent to that old joke about the drunkard looking for his lost keys under a lamp-post. He probably dropped them over in the darkness by his car, but he's searching under the lamp-post because "The light is better over here". These wiretapping authorities keep expecting the next big terror attacks to emanate from Greenpeace or, to be fair to the other side of the aisle, they expect geriatric Tea Partiers to jump up off their Rascal scooters and bomb a Federal building. To the credit of both organizations, Greenpeace and the Tea Partiers keep disappointing the eavesdroppers.

So it makes you wonder, when the government says "PRISM has averted 50 terrorist attacks this year," how many of those supposed terror plots actually rose much above the level of environmentalists slashing SUV tires or Tea Partiers super-gluing the doors to an IRS building.

I've already touched-on, briefly, the fact that PRISM, gigantic as it is, is only a part of an even more massive data-gathering plan -- what else should I call it? A "culture" on the part of large agencies? A "movement"? A "lifestyle"?? -- where everyone from your local police to your ISP to your grocery store, seeks to amass your data and communications. And even if we believe the Federal Government when it swears it's only using your eavesdropped data for purposes of combating terrorism, the other agencies -- including your local police department -- may not be so nobly motivated.

Boston Police Accused of Spying on Protesters and Intimidating Dissidents

Sunday, June 23, 2013

First They Ignore You...

Well at least the meme is spreading! Even if it's spreading as satire. I am reminded of the apocryphal saying attributed to Ghandi: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

A piece just appeared in "Reader Supported News" which was labeled several times as "SATIRE". Problem is, I don't think most of this is satire. I thought this was important enough to devote an entire post to this article individually.

RSN: Make Big Brother Our Friend

Latest Evidence, #3 in a series

In this post I'm straying away from the evidence about the financial crimes -- the financial crimes including insider trading, front-running, currency manipulation, bid-rigging etc. being the reason for the proposal, so I'm straying from my original purpose.

But I'm bringing these things into the discussion because there is an equality aspect, which I will focus on in another post today.

With these articles, I am attempting to show that the PRISM surveillance operation is intrusive on people's lives, even if they think of themselves as not committing crimes. Now there is a special type of inequality involved here. When a government performs pretty much universal surveillance, and can keep all the data on every single citizen in storage indefinitely -- this has just been a sci-fi dystopian fantasy in the past, until now, until PRISM. But the implications of the inequality aspects have been thought out, as I mentioned in that book review post at the bottom of the list.

When all our data is collected and stored indefinitely, a future government can search back through it and begin causing problems for people based on things people had no idea would run them afoul of the government at the time they did them. Heck, even with present laws, this can happen.

Wired: Why ‘I Have Nothing to Hide’ Is the Wrong Way to Think About Surveillance

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Satire: About ready to destroy the world again [ONION]

There are often cases where people quote the satirical newspaper, "The Onion", by mistake, thinking The Onion is fact -- because it's so damn close to reality. With that in mind, I feel I should label this post clearly as satire.

"Financial Sector Thinks It's About Ready To Ruin World Again"

Representatives from all major banking and investment institutions cited recent increases in consumer spending, rebounding home prices, and a stabilizing unemployment rate as confirmation that the time had once again come to inflict another round of catastrophic financial losses on individuals and businesses worldwide.

“It’s been about five or six years since we last crippled every major market on the planet, so it seems like the time is right for us to get back out there and start ruining the lives of billions of people again,” said Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.

“Plus, it’ll be nice to finally wipe out the Euro once and for all this time,” Gorman added.

Latest Evidence, #2a in a series

Back to the Taibbi again...

Remember that "climategate" furor a few years ago, where somebody leaked 50,000 e-mails from a British climate science center, and out of the 50,000 e-mails they found about three or four showing that graphs on public presentations (not the data, just the presentations) had been fudged? For clarity of presentation, not for pay or whatnot? Well it turns out the financial ratings agencies, in a far more widespread manner, have been fabricating the actual ratings on your retirement investments, out of whole cloth. In exchange for pay. Will these scandals receive the same outrage as the "climategate" revelations?

"The Last Mystery of the Financial Crisis"

In incriminating e-mail after incriminating e-mail, executives and analysts from these companies are caught admitting their entire business model is crooked.
"Lord help our f*cking scam ... this has to be the stupidest place I have worked at," writes one Standard & Poor's executive. "As you know, I had difficulties explaining 'HOW' we got to those numbers since there is no science behind it," confesses a high-ranking S&P analyst. "If we are just going to make it up in order to rate deals, then quants [quantitative analysts] are of precious little value," complains another senior S&P man. "Let's hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of card[s] falters," ruminates one more.

Latest Evidence, #2 in a series

I bet you know people, at least friends-of-your-friends, who were foreclosed upon in a very rushed manner, who were in the middle of negotiations and trying to comply with their banks, but their own paperwork was going slow as molasses. That scenario happened to two of my best friends. The banks in the past few years have had perverse financial incentives such that they could pick up expensive real estate for pennies on the dollar just by rushing through foreclosures and throwing a few people out on the street. So, guess what? That's what the banks made to happen. By hook or by crook.

"We Were Told To Lie" -- Bank of America Employees Open Up about Foreclosure Practices

Employees of Bank of America say they were encouraged to lie to customers and were even rewarded for foreclosing on homes, staffers of the financial giant claim in new court documents. Sworn statements from several Bank of America employees contain a number of damning allegations, the latest claims entered as evidence in a multi-state class action lawsuit that challenges the bank’s history with foreclosures.
In one of the sworn statements, an ex-bank staffer said he would be directed to deny upwards of 1,500 loan modification applications at a single time with no apparent reason. “To justify the denials, employees produced fictitious reasons, for instance saying the homeowner had not sent in the required documents, when in actuality, they had,” William Wilson, Jr., a former underwriter for the bank, wrote in his statement.
Simone Gordon, a senior collector at B of A from 2007 through 2012, said, “We were told to lie to customers and claim that Bank of America had not received documents it had requested.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Multimedia -- Satire, "NSA Data Backup"

Just to lighten the tone a little, here's a brief two-minute spoof ad about the NSA and the PRISM program:

The above satire is a portion of the current episode of the "Extra-Environmentalist" podcast, a fascinating news analysis podcast focused on understanding the collapse of the current American culture from an outsider's point of view. Even though its producers and many listeners are Americans, we still think that trying to step outside of the current culture is key to understanding it.

Multimedia: Why The Distinction Between Collected And Analyzed Is Useless

To address one comment that many, including President Obama, have made about PRISM: They say that the PRISM system is not an unreasonable, widespread search and seizure of communications because it is only a computer that collects and aggregates the communications, and no NSA human employee listens to the conversations until such time as they have reason to believe the conversation is connected to terrorism.

"Nobody is listening to your phone conversations right now," the President said, in so many words.

I believe this is a distinction without a difference. No person is on your phone line tapping your conversations right now, but thirty seconds from now, somebody can order it up for whatever reason they can get past the bureaucrats. Or 10 seconds from now. Or 5 seconds from now.

Good science-fiction always attempts to address present concerns by cloaking them in a disguise about a compelling problem in some imagined future world. One thing science-fiction has taught us is, when it comes to digital surveillance, the past begins a fraction of a second ago. If you can store up complete and accurate records of the past, and call them to your ears or fingertips at any moment, that's effectively the same as if you are eavesdropping all the time. Because the "past" begins a fraction of an instant ago, as far as computers are concerned. There isn't any scenario in the real world where it makes a difference, between storing all records of the "past" starting a half a second ago and making them instantly available, versus sitting on the phone line in real time. There is no difference versus having somebody eavesdropping on your conversation right now since he could just as well be doing it a half a second from now.

That's one of the topics the following book review discusses: