Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fighting Back against Surveillance

This site's been silent for too many months, due to apparent lack of an audience. But as I predicted many months ago, this issue will not simply evaporate and be forgotten. It affects everyone, it impacts almost everything we do in this digital age. This issue isn't going to go away. So today, somebody-or-other has called a "Day of Resistance" against electronic surveillance. I might as well join the festivities, since I've been working on this issue for the better part of a year.

Conversely, in another example of fighting back against surveillance, let's consider the actions of the people that the surveillance is supposed to catch.

I heard the well-worn canard just a couple of days ago: "Edward Snowden ought to be shot, because he revealed our tactics to our enemies. That's treason, and that's a capital offense."

Guess what, my friend, everybody else -- most especially including our enemies -- already knew about our tactics, besides apparently you. The people whom these tactics are used against, figure them out pretty quick.

Many Drone Strikes Selected By Surveillance Metadata
One problem, he explains, is that targets are increasingly aware of the NSA’s reliance on geolocating, and have moved to thwart the tactic. Some have as many as 16 different SIM cards associated with their identity within the High Value Target system.
Some top Taliban leaders, knowing of the NSA’s targeting method, have purposely and randomly distributed SIM cards among their units in order to elude their trackers. “They would do things like go to meetings, take all their SIM cards out, put them in a bag, mix them up, and everybody gets a different SIM card when they leave,” the former drone operator says. “That’s how they confuse us.”
...What’s more, he adds, the NSA often locates drone targets by analyzing the activity of a SIM card, rather than the actual content of the calls. Based on his experience, he has come to believe that the drone program amounts to little more than death by unreliable metadata.

I see it in my regular job every day: We Americans think that we know, or can find out, all information perfectly -- just because our computers and spreadsheets will produce a printout down to the umpteenth decimal place. Just because a computer prints something out to the eighteenth decimal place, doesn't mean the number is right in the first place.

This blog right here has documented all manner of abuses where the people in charge of the surveillance systems, used them to carry out their own personal biases, and targeted people simply because of errors that we have been assured couldn't happen. Just this week we had another high-profile example of simple error being enshrined in State secrecy at the expense of an innocent woman, just to cover somebody's professional @$$:

How Obama Officials Cried ‘Terrorism’ to Cover Up a Paperwork Error
After seven years of litigation, two trips to a federal appeals court and $3.8 million worth of lawyer time, the public has finally learned why a wheelchair-bound Stanford University scholar was cuffed, detained and denied a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii: FBI human error. FBI agent Kevin Kelley was investigating Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2004 when he checked the wrong box on a terrorism form, erroneously placing Rahinah Ibrahim on the no-fly list. ...Instead of admitting to the error, high-ranking President Barack Obama administration officials spent years covering it up. Attorney General Eric Holder, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and a litany of other government officials claimed repeatedly that disclosing the reason Ibrahim was detained, or even acknowledging that she’d been placed on a watch list, would cause serious damage to the U.S. national security. Again and again they asserted the so-called “state secrets privilege” to block the 48-year-old woman’s lawsuit, which sought only to clear her name. Holder went so far as to tell the judge presiding over the case that this assertion of the state secrets privilege was fully in keeping with Obama’s much-ballyhooed 2009 executive branch reforms of the privilege, which stated the administration would invoke state secrets sparingly.

If it's possible for a prosecutor to convince a jury of 12 peers out in public, with evidence, that a person committed a crime, when that person did not...

Exonerations on the Rise, and Not Just Because of DNA
Only one-fifth of the exonerations last year relied on newly tested DNA. More than 30 percent occurred because law enforcement agencies reopened a long-closed case or handed over their records to someone else who wanted to take a look. Gross says that's a sea change from just 10 years ago. "The sharp, cold shower that DNA gave to the criminal justice system has made us realize that we have to re-examine other cases as well," he says. "That was a serious wake-up call, because that showed we made mistakes in a lot of cases where it never occurred to anybody that a mistake had been made."

...Then how much easier is it to make false convictions when the evidence is kept secret and never exposed in public? Yet that is the direction this country is apparently going.

Predator Drone helps convict farmer in cow theft case
Forbes reported the use of drones for police missions is on the rise. Between 2010 and 2012, law enforcement agencies used CBP Predator drones for 700 missions, the media outlet reported.

The Exoneration article fails to mention one possible reason that more verdicts are being overturned: over-zealous pursuit of wrongdoers. The more desperately our law enforcers think they can crack down on All Bad People Everywhere, the more we inevitably create false convictions and engage in the crime of police brutality.

Just because our files have the data, does not mean the data is correct. It's the classic mistake of "confusing the map for the territory". Despite our high-tech electronic snooping, gathering up metadata, and all our electronic precision, we have arrived at the worst of both worlds. We have enough data to mistakenly convict innocent people, yet our real enemies find ways to avoid detection -- as in the article at the top of the page -- partly because of our own arrogance that we know all the answers.

Continuing on the theme of whether Edward Snowden is guilty of treason... as I pointed out elsewhere, the exact same accusations were leveled against Bradley Manning, and after ten months and $6 Million in taxpayer budget spent, the Federal prosecutors could only identify one concrete instance where he damaged national security by revealing an informant, and they didn't want to identify that informant's name. Rest assured, the exact same thing will happen when and if an assessment is done about Edward Snowden's leaks.

Meanwhile, the New York Times this week noted that Snowden used a pretty common, simple program to mine the "secret" data he copied and then leaked:

Snowden Used Low-Cost Tool to Best NSA
The findings are striking because the N.S.A.’s mission includes protecting the nation’s most sensitive military and intelligence computer systems from cyberattacks, especially the sophisticated attacks that emanate from Russia and China. Mr. Snowden’s “insider attack,” by contrast, was hardly sophisticated and should have been easily detected, investigators found.

So if these ultra-classified secrets he revealed could be accessed by the type of web-crawler bot that any Madison Avenue ad agency uses to target an advert, do you really think our enemies weren't already familiar with this stuff? Yeah, yeah, Snowden was using that program from behind the government firewall; from the outside of the firewall, you can't just break into the same databases Snowden did with impunity. But do you think any of our enemies might have also conquered that same firewall hurdle before too?

The quote from my friend in question, about Edward Snowden, seemed to me nothing more than the utterly stereotypical right-wing fallacy about government: the people who believe that the government absolutely cannot do anything right and screws up everything it touches, are the same people who assume that same government somehow achieves 100% perfect accuracy, clarity, and efficiency whenever that same government's task is to kill people, punish them, or spy upon them. As I have said on this blog before, I have worked for the DOD, and if there's any Federal agency that most resembles the clueless and wasteful bureaucracy of the DMV, that'd be the DOD.

One of the biggest reasons to distrust all the government secrecy around this Surveillance issue, is because the all the secrecy and the need-to-know classifications seem very much to be designed to keep the American public from finding out exactly what the government is doing, rather than our enemies. This suggests that the surveillance systems themselves are intentionally designed to target the American public, rather than (or in addition to) our enemies.

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