Thursday, June 20, 2013

Looking at the world through a PRISM

David Seaton's News Links
There is no reverse gear on the machine of governmental power. If power exists, it will be seized and exploited. To do what? That will be revealed in the course of this power’s employment. Its potential uses will automatically be discovered by those who have it or seize it, and may provide surprises. William Pfaff
Many people are asking the following question: why has the United States government been massively spying on nearly everyone in the world?
The answer is very simple: because now they can, that's why.
What was once a labor intensive trade (spying) has been made affordable thanks to recent progress in the crunching of mega-data. More and more is being done in our world with fewer and fewer people. And of course a small number of people are making huge fortunes from all of this.
Thus we can see that PRISM is a metaphor for how technology is eliminating jobs in all the developed world and subcontracting what were once lifetime jobs of total commitment to an organization and its core competencies, pension included, to under-qualified temps of unknown and questionable loyalty, while creating wealth for those who manage all of it.
To get the sort of surveillance that NSA is trying to achieve, the East German Stasi had half of the population spying and informing on the other half and on each other and they had the ministries of the West German capital, Bonn, filled with handsome young East German spies that wooed and bedded the spinster typists of the West German ministers... all of this was very labor intensive.
You bet, but hey, with probably a smaller expenditure percentage-wise of their GDP on black arts than the USA, the DDR had full employment.
But what the godless communists who ruled the German Democratic Republic never figured out was how to get really rich doing this stuff. Here again, America leads the way.
Of the estimated $80 billion the government will spend on intelligence this year, most is spent on private contractors. It is highly doubtful, however, that American taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. The basic justification for outsourcing government work is to get a job done better and cheaper. Outsourcing intelligence does not appear to achieve either aim. Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, cited research from 2008 showing that the government paid private contractors 1.6 times what it would have cost to have had government employees perform the work. That may help reduce the government head count. But employing fewer government workers at greater cost to taxpayers is not downsizing. Such outsourcing simply shifts taxpayer dollars to private hands, where it can wind up in lavish executive pay packages and greater shareholder returns.(...) On top of all these problems is one that makes it hard to acknowledge, let alone solve, any of them: the revolving door between government intelligence agencies and private-sector contractors that conflates public and private interests and entrenches the status quo.   New York Times
Americans like to think of ourselves as the "good guys", a "light unto the gentiles", a "city on the hill", an example and a standard for all humanity to follow. This is getting to be much like an aging person, with eyebrows arched from botox, a dyed hairpiece and lips enhanced to ducklike proportions from injections of bovine collagen, gazing into the mirror and thinking how young they look. They are fooling themselves (which is the object of the exercise) but they aren't fooling anybody else.
Today the USA is a corporate-financial-military security state... in short a "regime".
Where is all this heading? What is to be done?
I opened with a quote from favorite international affairs commentator William Pfaff and I can think of nothing better than ending with another quote of his.
How is this system to be checked and reversed? It is a form of increasingly authoritarian state capitalism practiced by a government that rather than controlling it is controlled by it, because of the development in the past twenty years of an electoral system dominated by money and commercial television. Both parties must conform to their exigencies. All its decisive actors, government, corporate business, and communications industry, have a powerful interest in its perpetuation. Historically, such systems have fallen only to wars or revolution. William Pfaff
Will there ever be an "American Spring" like Turkey's or Brazil's? DS

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Edward Snowdon, China's American dissident

David Seaton's News Links
Snowdon's Hong Kong Judges
The real risk to our democracy is what this situation does to potential dissenters, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and anyone else who thinks that some aspect of government policy might be boneheaded, unethical, or maybe even illegal. If you are one of those people -- even on just a single issue -- and you decide to go public with your concerns, there's a possibility that someone who doesn't like what you are doing will decide to see what they can find out about you.(...) Unless you've lived an absolutely pristine online and cellular life, you might wake up to discover that some regrettable moment from your past is suddenly being plastered all over the blogosphere or discussed in the New York Times. Stephen Walt
The more we learn about PRISM, the more it seems like something dreamed up by Glenn Beck mainlining speedballs after dropping acid. And I'm sure that what we know now is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, or the proverbial drop in the proverbial bucket or the other shoe waiting to be proverbially dropped. And for me what is coming down the proverbial pipe explains what for many is a mystery: why Snowdon has gone to ground in Hong Kong.
It appears that Hong Kong's English-legacy legal system is very robust, with a lot of guarantees that Snowdon will get a full hearing of his case. If he wants all the information he has in his possession heard in an open court filled with journalists and all in the English language, he has gone to the right place. This and not escaping from American justice seems to be his apparent goal.
It may be a very shrewd strategy... The more we know about the nuts and bolts of "Big Brother" the more sympathy and gratitude Snowdon may garner. President Obama will be wondering, "world hero... profitable to martyr?"
Many commentators are saying that the Chinese will surely want to hand him over quietly to the USA to avoid "souring" relations...Why should they do that? Think about it... How would the US treat a famous Chinese "dissident" that appeared on its shores, if China demanded his extradition? Think about how much space the American media devote to any Chinese protest or dissident.
I imagine that the Chinese must be pissing themselves with laughter! Rubbing their hands together with glee. Especially when the US has recently been accusing them of all sorts of cyber crimes. I'm sure that having the Americans hoist by their own petard having their dirtiest laundry washed in English in China will prove irresistible to the Chinese. What will the Chinese man in the street think of it all? This is not for internal Chinese consumption, but rather to erode America's "moral" authority world wide, another reason for it to play out in Hong Kong.
So I think the Chinese are going to allow Snowdon to drag the US over the coals in Hong Kong courts and expose what for the Chinese must be America's endless hypocrisy. Also the US might do a deal... drop all charges against Snowdon in exchange for him not revealing all he knows in an open court. However I think Snowdon wants to reveal all and have the transcripts of his hearing available for the whole world to read public and online. That is why he got into this mess in the first place.
Being a hero is his best life-insurance policy, but just in case, I also imagine Snowdon has placed a copy of his information somewhere safe where it will all come out if something "nasty" happens to him.
Interesting character Edward Snowdon, I'd like to learn more about him. DS

Sunday, June 09, 2013

NSA scandal... I got algorithm

David Seaton's News Links
When separate streams of data are integrated into large databases — matching, for example, time and location data from cellphones with credit card purchases or E-ZPass use — intelligence analysts are given a mosaic of a person’s life that would never be available from simply listening to their conversations. Just four data points about the location and time of a mobile phone call, a study published in Nature found, make it possible to identify the caller 95 percent of the time. “We can find all sorts of correlations and patterns,” said one government computer scientist. New York Times

If the search for those planning terror attacks is like looking for a needle in a haystack, however, then first thing one needs is a haystack. Haaretz

Now that we are envisioning some guy in a National Security Agency warehouse in Fort Meade, Md., going through billions of cat videos and drunk-dialing records of teenagers, can the Ministries of Love and Truth be far behind? Maureen Dowd - NYT
Reading Jason Lanier's important new book, "Who Owns the Future", shortly before the NSA scandal broke, helped me to get a better understanding of what has happened.  Lanier says that we are giving away very valuable marketing information (data) about ourselves, our tastes, our ideas, our location from moment to moment, in exchange for free email, and places to meet others of similar tastes, etc. This is the significance of "Big Data", the masses of personal information that Amazon, Google and Facebook gather from their users, which allows them to place an ad on the page you are reading, like the CIA places a Hellfire rocket from a drone.
And Lanier maintains that the most powerful individuals and companies in the near future will be the ones with the biggest servers, "Siren-Servers", he calls them, those that amass and can process more data about their customer's (just about everyone's) lives. What the NSA has been doing naturally follows from that: the US government owns the biggest servers and they are milking the "Siren-Servers" like a herd of milch cows.
You thought that in the new Internet world that maybe Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg were going to be bigger swinging dicks than the head of the CIA? Think again.
What the NSA appears to be doing is to correlate almost all the big social data that American firms possess. I don't know if at that point we really have a reason to complain, as Lanier points out in his book, we are giving all that valuable information about ourselves away for free to people like "don't be evil", Google, in exchange for "free" email, cloud space, etc.
If you took the trouble (which nobody ever does) to read the lengthy texts that come above the "AGREE" button that we eagerly click on in order to get all the free stuff, you would probably find buried in it some lawyerly little clause where you agree to let them share it with the government. Therefore this marketing and location information (not the contents of the emails) probably IS public domain.
What we really have to investigate is how the government correlates what Haaretz calls the "haystack", what are the algorithms that the NSA is using, how are threats defined, what the correlations might be. One thing is Amazon figuring out what books you might enjoy or Facebook thinking you might be interested in deep-dish pizza and quite another thing is the FBI thinking you are a threat to national security. In short we need to know how the system works, what criteria the government agencies are employing in processing all this data that we have given away for free.
What sort of results has it produced? What plots have been foiled? Whose lives have been saved? This information is essential for the public in a democracy to evaluate the tradeoffs involved. The resulting "safety" may not justify the loss of trust in those sworn to protect us.
It seems to me, with the meager information I possess, that this kind of data correlating might easily lead to discovering a network of child pornographers or cannibals, but I'm a bit skeptical about the value of what they are collecting if it is for catching serious terrorists, spies and criminals. The really serious ones are not that generous with their data. 
Back at the turn of the century, I remember reading the legendary East German spymaster, Markus Wolf's fascinating autobiography, "Man Without A Face". Way back then, Wolf laughed at anyone who would digitize any serious information so that a "schoolboy in Kansas" could access it from his bedroom and he wrote that he kept the names of his agents in his head and didn't even commit them to paper. We also know from our readings that capo mafiosi and Sea Org Scientologists do all their phoning from payphones and have masses of quarters on hand for this purpose. And who can forget that the greatest terrorist in history, Osama bin Laden probably managed to survive as long as he did after 9-11 because he only communicated using couriers.
So just to recap, we had better hurry and check to see that if "in a fit of absent mindedness " we haven't actually happily given Facebook and Google permission to give all our "secrets" to the security state. And then we should demand to know in detail what criteria are used in determining what minute flotsam in this endless ocean of data might cause any individual (presumed innocent till proven guilty) to be singled out for intense surveillance by the security forces of a democracy. DS

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

A new angle on fracking

David Seaton's News Links
I had an interesting conversation about fracking today with a very knowledgeable Spanish executive in the energy sector.
We weren't asking ourselves about the ecological questions that arise with fracking, but more about the geopolitical-strategic factors of this technology.
This person remarked that there seemed to be a contradiction between fracking being a sort of silver bullet that was going to make the USA totally independent in energy and reduce the influence of the major producers of natural gas, which just happen to be Russia and Iran and the curious fact that most of this business is being carried out by smaller companies.
Contradictory, this person said, because energy is economically, politically and militarily strategic and if fracking is going to be the key technology in the sector, it is going to have to be tightly regulated and the government wants to have a very clear idea of who to call for quick action in an emergency: chief executive officers, associations, lobbyists, etc. This means big, multinationals, not a multitude of middle and small size outfits.
I asked what this might mean.
The executive replied that it might mean that fracking as America's "secret weapon" was all some sort of bubble created for propaganda purposes for dealing with Iran and Russia and the rapid disintegration of America's influence in the Middle East. 

In this person's opinion that would explain the multitude of small companies... because they are not "too big to fail", and when the crisis abates the government can pull the plug on them and send them crashing with none of the consequences of doing something like that to the "majors", whose leaders and shareholders would have the scalp of any politician that caused them to lose serious money in a geostrategic ploy.
This argument made a lot of sense to me and I thought I would pass it on to my readers. DS