Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: The United States of Surveillance?

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  • Rich Lock, in reply to B Jones,

    It was a story about some US army war games, in which they were running some Total Information Awareness system through its paces, against one of their more experienced generals. The general came up with a bunch of simple low-tech workarounds so that his side weren’t reliant on the technology the Total Information Awareness was all over, and ran circles around it.

    Are you thinking of the story doing the rounds before Gulf War 2 about the US general who 'sank' a large number of the Navy support boats out in the Gulf by using swarms of human-guided explosive-packed small boats as a substitute for guided missiles?

    There used to be a saying in some circles in the military that there's still no substitute for the Mk 1 human eyeball.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel, in reply to Kumara Republic,

    flow my tears thru a scanner darkly…

    Minority Report could be de-fictionalising sooner than we think.

    Worse, we could be heading towards a Phillip K. Dicktatorship….

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7950 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __,

    Greenbacks have a pyramid with an eye on top. It's one side of The Great Seal of the United States . While still creepy and weird, it may seem fairly usual symbolism to many Americans.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3891 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh, in reply to Russell Brown,

    I ran out of time to work in a Huawei mention.

    How's this instead?

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • Caleb D'Anvers,

    Is anyone else getting a sense from that logo that there may be other startling revelations about PRISM waiting to be deciphered in certain Lady Gaga music videos?

    London SE16 • Since Mar 2008 • 482 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel, in reply to Lilith __,

    Masonic Couth?

    While still creepy and weird, it may seem fairly
    usual symbolism to many Americans.

    All part of the rich Masonic underpinnings and heritage of their upper power echelons - in the current climate of simmering fear, verging on a rolling, roiling boil, there will be many of the cognoscenti out in the littoral zone, digging just below the high water mark for that age old delicacy - tongueless whistleblowers...

    ...there are times when I think the world needs just one good global EMP, to get the planet back to factory settings - but then no PAS, so I'll be careful what I wish for...

    These are more than interesting times, more like testing times...
    ...there is no control, and we are the lab!

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7950 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    This seems appropriate given the discussion some science about studying social media

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4460 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to BenWilson,

    Just laying my own credentials on the table

    Not doubting your experience.

    Just saying that the datasets we access, genomic data, are very similar to the kind of large datsets of metadata that are being described. To give an idea of scale the bioinformatacists routinely describe genome datasets as the second largest datasets in existance (behind marketing datasets). The data is also mostly uninterpretable by humans, meaning humans don't naturally "read" sequence data. You can't stare at sequence and recognise any content, it is essentially a language nobody is native in. That's probably the biggest difference to spam.

    I've sat and listened to morons in suits spouting off about what this data will provide and they are full of shite. Not because the data doesn't contain information but because they usually have no understanding of biology and hence propose things that are biologically implausable. They also lack imagination. Those are your technocrats.

    But meanwhile the biologists and the bioinformaticists are developing methods/algorithms to extract information. Faster and faster. Complex systems are being understood because with sufficient data and good algorithms it's possible to extract and see patterns, patterns that are NOT visible by any human. Not only can't humans read the languages those patterns are written in but we can't hold all the connections in our heads. No team of spam searchers can do this, it simply is not possible for a human. And yet it is happening, right now, in my field of research, in the journal papers I read, in the conference talks I attend.

    So to imagine that smart folks can take large datasets of communication traffic and extract patterns is an easy thing to believe. Whether those patterns reveal criminal or terrorist activity has less to do with the ability to extract patterns, than with the presence of patterns in that dataset. In other words the only reason it won't work is if the biology is wrong.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4460 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Sacha,

    Agreed. Lack of respectful relationships with other agencies seems a bigger barrier in cases like Boston and 9/11 than lack of data.

    Again by analogy to the science I work in - it is when groups collaborate that progress is made. Research groups working in isolation rarely make breakthroughs. That collaboration is becoming something we take for granted, very few biologists work now without access to a team of bioinformaticists to help.

    That need for collaboration is not intuitive and has taken time to learn.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4460 posts Report Reply

  • David Hood,

    About a decade ago, I was doing reasonably clever work in its day on linking together late 19th century/ beginning of 20th century historical records to build pictures of peoples lives. What you can know about from tracking relationships (or as it is being called "metadata") is huge.
    For a walk through of some of the current techniques and what they do, this is not a bad blog post (that doesn't seem to have been added to the thread yet).

    Tracking Paul Revere

    Dunedin • Since May 2007 • 1445 posts Report Reply

  • Ross Mason,

    @ David Hood: Beautiful!!! But.....scarily so simple...........

    Upper Hutt • Since Jun 2007 • 1590 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    It's no reflection on the action Snowden decided to take, but Farhad Manjoo has a point:

    Edward Snowden sounds like a thoughtful, patriotic young man, and I’m sure glad he blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance programs. But the more I learned about him this afternoon, the angrier I became. Wait, him? The NSA trusted its most sensitive documents to this guy? And now, after it has just proven itself so inept at handling its own information, the agency still wants us to believe that it can securely hold on to all of our data? Oy vey!

    According to the Guardian, Snowden is a 29-year-old high school dropout who trained for the Army Special Forces before an injury forced him to leave the military. His IT credentials are apparently limited to a few “computer” classes he took at a community college in order to get his high school equivalency degree—courses that he did not complete. His first job at the NSA was as a security guard. Then, amazingly, he moved up the ranks of the United States’ national security infrastructure: The CIA gave him a job in IT security. He was given diplomatic cover in Geneva. He was hired by Booz Allen Hamilton, the government contractor, which paid him $200,000 a year to work on the NSA’s computer systems.

    Let’s note what Snowden is not: He isn’t a seasoned FBI or CIA investigator. He isn’t a State Department analyst. He’s not an attorney with a specialty in national security or privacy law.

    Instead, he’s the IT guy, and not a very accomplished, experienced one at that. If Snowden had sent his résumé to any of the tech companies that are providing data to the NSA’s PRISM program, I doubt he’d have even gotten an interview. Yes, he could be a computing savant anyway—many well-known techies dropped out of school. But he was given access way beyond what even a supergeek should have gotten.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22848 posts Report Reply

  • Nick McBride,

    <g>In part, this may be down to Greenwald himself. His dreadful invocation of a rape metaphor to respond to his critics over the weekend fell well short of the conduct we might expect of a public-interest journalist.<g>

    The link you posted is dated 2 January 2012 and doesn't appear to be related to Greenwald's recent activities.

    Have you got better evidence that he used a rape metaphor over the weekend?

    Very cheap shot.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2013 • 2 posts Report Reply

  • Rob Stowell, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    I’ve sat and listened to morons in suits spouting off about what this data will provide and they are full of shite.

    viz Hekia and JK on National Standards. Yes,it's data. But both how accurate it is and what exactly it measures are murkier than Murkwood.
    Sadly, 'standards are up' makes a good soundbite, and perhaps that's enough.

    Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 2110 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Nick McBride,

    The link you posted is dated 2 January 2012 and doesn’t appear to be related to Greenwald’s recent activities.

    Have you got better evidence that he used a rape metaphor over the weekend?

    Very cheap shot.

    My mistake, absolutely, and I had corrected it before I saw your comment. It was being discussed so widely yesterday I assumed it was new and didn't clock the date. It was still pretty vile.

    But I'm still perplexed by The Guardian's help us build a profile of Glenn Greenwald exercise.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22848 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz,

    I wonder whether our rulers actually *wanted* to release this stuff. The rationale would be that by letting the fact of their access to corporate data into the public domain, a row will ensue, and unless legislators move to prevent this, that access will become the "new normal". In the same vein would be the NZ government's response to the Dotcom illegalities of substantially widening GCSBs powers.

    Once the fact of the data collection's become accepted, it becomes a lot easier for government to apply: tracking down minor drug offenders by linkage to known dealers; providing traffic police with the information that the driver in front is a regular high-velocity cellphone caller; vetting job or visa applicants against their networks of friends.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to David Hood,

    What you can know about from tracking relationships (or as it is being called “metadata”) is huge.

    That's what those of us who do genealogy live for ;-)

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2935 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Whether those patterns reveal criminal or terrorist activity has less to do with the ability to extract patterns, than with the presence of patterns in that dataset.

    That's a good way of putting it. Currently, on the success rate of apparently nothing whatsoever, I don't rate their chances of finding patterns that are useful to them in preventing terrorist attacks, and if they do, those patterns will be ephemeral. But it's a lovely problem, rather like the millenium bug that kept us IT guys rolling in it for ages - you can't prove that it won't be a problem. You can't prove that there isn't a pattern in random data. This is an information theory result, as I understand it. So the thing can go on forever. It's wonderfully self justifying.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Tom Pullar-Strecker voices doubts in his column today:

    Those snooping powers themselves, while controversial, have never been secret however. There is a gulf between them and the implications of the original reports concerning Prism, which strongly suggested the NSA could simply help itself to whatever it wanted, whenever it liked.

    Prism is simply a boring internal tool used to analyse the results of such legal searches, according to Clapper’s explanation. That ties in with the fact that Snowden, clearly a relatively junior defence contractor (and there’s some clue there surely), had access to information about the program.

    Could US spooks use Fisa to spy on your emails and internet searches if they wanted to? Very likely, if they could be bothered, but they would need to first have a specific interest in you. Nothing has changed in that respect.

    Have they been harvesting our emails and internet records en masse, sticking them in an NSA datacentre and then scanning them to fish for evidence of any illegal activity?

    There is no evidence to suggest that. If they have, Prism doesn’t appear to be the tool they are using.

    That would fit in with what Boundless Informant appears to be – an internal data-viz tool to depict surveillance activity. It’s not the surveillance itself. I’m still wary about elements of these reports.

    Again, it would help if Greenwald had asked better questions of Snowden in Hong Kong.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22848 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to David Hood,

    That's brilliant.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    More on what Prism probably is and isn't:

    So, if PRISM doesn't give the NSA unfettered access to all our online files, Gmail messages, Facebook posts, and tracking metadata, what does it do?

    Basically, "PRISM is a kick-ass GUI [graphical user interface] that allows an analyst to look at, collate, monitor, and cross-check different data types provided to the NSA from internet companies located inside the United States," says Marc Ambinder at The Week. That data is stored on U.S. servers, but "a lot of foreign intelligence runs through American companies and American servers."

    Here's the 2007 Rand paper for the US Air Force which calls PRISM "web-based collection management software".

    I'm starting to think there are substantial errors in these stories.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22848 posts Report Reply

  • Nick McBride, in reply to Russell Brown,

    I really don't think an off-colour (or vile, if you like) comment made 18 months ago has any bearing on anything raised in your wider post. Classic playing the man, not the ball. Greenwald is a talented, ideological and very prolific writer and there would be many out there motivated to take him down a notch, especially given the major boost to his profile over the last few weeks and even more so because he is highly anti-establishment (it is telling he is writing a book about Chomsky and he goes out his way to defend the likes of Assange). Your flick of dirt in his direction is nothing compared to what he will be up against, but disappointing all the same. It's telling and somewhat encouraging that those exploiting his "rape a nun" metaphor couldn't find something more recent.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2013 • 2 posts Report Reply

  • David Hood, in reply to nzlemming,

    That's what those of us who do genealogy live for ;-)

    I did once get an enquiry to the effect of "My great grandmother and great grandfather seem to be listed as living in separate parts of town" and all I could do was agree that yes, they were.

    Dunedin • Since May 2007 • 1445 posts Report Reply

  • Richard Aston, in reply to David Hood,

    Thanks for that link David a great eye opener

    Northland • Since Nov 2006 • 510 posts Report Reply

  • Richard Aston, in reply to David Hood,

    I did once get an enquiry to the effect of “My great grandmother and great grandfather seem to be listed as living in separate parts of town” and all I could do was agree that yes, they were

    That's a nice little example of the limits and issues with metadata.
    What do we take from that information. Of course we assume they were divorced, separated or having marital difficulties but I could think of many other possibilities.

    Northland • Since Nov 2006 • 510 posts Report Reply

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