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: