Big brother : “Those shall not fear who are righteous”

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft on Aug 20, 2015 9:48:52 AM


Big brother: “Those shall not fear who are righteous”

I have recently read “Now place to hide” which reveals the build up to and short aftermath of the developments in 2012/13 around Snowden and the extent of the intrusions in the online activities of private citizens all over the world by the American National Security agency (NSA). The following article sums up my takeaways in short mixed with personal opinion for all who want to have a short wrap up. All in all I am not shocked by what the NSA can do, but rather what they are being allowed to do without hesitation and how criticism around this is being dealt with.

Uncomfortable facts which are not as bad as they made out to be

      You are being tracked when you use technology

Whether you like it or not businesses, governments and private citizens can and will collect data about how and where you move, what you buy, when you buy it, how long you rest, what you eat or which medicine you are taking on a daily basis. This might happen with or without your knowledge, but increasingly it will happen without you knowing or understanding the full extent of the intrusion into your life from a technological or legal point of view.

This is based firstly in the fact that in practical life almost no one reads the full fine print of their contract, and even if they did, would be limited in their ability to understand them and negotiate better terms and conditions accordingly. Secondly the technology to enable all of this tracking becomes cheaper, easier to implement and more commonly available as we speak. Even your toaster is nowadays able to track how long and often you toast and can be hooked up to the internet where some smart mind could deduct how many people are in your household and whether or not you suffer from sleep deprivation by looking at the unfolding pattern. I won’t even start what can be done if you were to hook up your entire house to the system, which funnily enough is one of the favourite pet projects of Bill Gates.

Especially for Europeans who grew up as one of the generations which lived through one or both world wars (although this is becoming very rare these days) and were born up to the early nineties this can be a very uncomfortable thought. It seems to me that Chinese and especially the Americans do not seem to bother that much. The former just do not want to be too nosy as they know which dangers this might entail living in present day China, while the latter group seems to have bought into the dogma of “Though shall not fear who are righteous”.

The good news is that for most of your life, if you are an obedient citizen whose opinions align with mainstream, this all does not matter to you. It might even help you to live your life better, faster, cheaper within the environment that has been created for you. This is not meant to be cynical. In most cases the scaremongering around data privacy for the average Joe is being blown way out of proportion. Simply speaking, most people in modern society are no thread to anyone and therefore will be left alone. Also keep in mind that more often than not in the past and in present day scaremongering was just a smokescreen for those in power to hide their real intentions of their actions and lull you into approval. Think about the Iraq War and the weapons of mass destruction. Keep calm if you watch Jimmy Kimmel or read Fifty Shades of Grey. I think you are save. 

If you are in big business it is likely that you are being tracked

If you are a smart Web Administrator who thinks their data is safe behind a nice firewall and several layers of supposedly secure technology think again. If your software and hardware has been purchased through US channels (which is basically unavoidable if you are a big business still turning a profit) than chances are high that NSA will and can tamper with it to collect your data if they are interested.

A simple example are cisco switches which are installed in almost any data centre in the world. You can inject a piece of software which sends data to the NSA by opening the box in customs and, injecting the code, repack the switch in the box and send it on. This challenge is only aggravated by cloud computing as the data of more businesses becomes less distributed and concentrated locally in one spot. Therefore you just need to infect one central node to collect necessary data.

If your data is being send across the Atlantic it is also very likely that someone will listen in, as the central fibre cables going in and out of the US have been enabled to be listened in to.

But in all fairness, if you are a savvy business owner you already know that industry espionage is and always has been a given and counter intelligence / data protection have been on your agenda ever since. Especially as “big business” is usually in areas which are relevant for wars and national security anyhow (manufacturing, communications, technology, chemistry), you will speak to your local government anyway for lobbying purposes and to know your role in case of war / emergency. So even though it is not openly stated in the newspapers I personally think you have been well aware and prepared for these threads even beyond the openly available sources anyhow.

The most valuable Research and Development projects, secret sauces and formulas are still being kept in blueprints, notebooks and off grid computers, unless your business is careless.

 Most countries have intelligence services and they cooperate

This article might compel you to let out an inner scream of disgust while sipping on your tea and start googling like a maniac if I got my facts straight. Next thing will be to start an internet reign of terror against the US, boycott all their products and TV channels and sign a petition in your local neighbourhood to get on the all so comfortable high horse of self-righteousness.

While you are at it also take into consideration that most countries have an intelligence service. They only lack the resources and approval from their government to intrude in the same manner into your private life. If given the chance they would and they also cooperate with the United States on a certain level. That is the very nature of intelligence work, where alliances form and break on a daily basis based on the perceived, I say perceived on purpose, threads which are lurking behind the next bush in some far away country.

Last but not least I think every administration in the world will think twice to deny a request from the United States for data which pops up on their screens. Usually these requests will never see the light of day as they are top secret and they come from the guys with the biggest sticks around.

 A blanket for the chosen handed out by toothless tigers through revolving doors

I personally think of myself as a pragmatic person and if you are too it is likely that you won’t be too shocked by what you have read so far. I would have thought that there is thorough consideration going into who to track, when, how and why and that an independent court would oversee these procedures. Unfortunately that is not the reality. The security measures for the chosen which have access to these databases is negligible and there is nothing keeping them from tapping into anything they want, whenever they want, as blanket approvals are in place and the stated goal of the NSA is to collect everything at any time which they are horribly close in achieving. Technology companies take an active part in this development.

This blanket could be taken away be authorities but these courts sit in private settings which deems all their rulings as top secret and they seem to be the ultimate rubber stamp for the needs of the agencies which should be scrutinised to the bone in these hearings for justification of their actions. This does not necessarily stopping them in their path, but making sure that common sense and commonly accepted moral rules are being applied to the procedures.


Arguments around surveillance

Crime / Terrorism is being prevented

One argument that is being brought forward in favour of surveillance is that crime /terrorrism is being prevented. One common example is that attacks and robberies are going down once cameras have been installed at stadiums and innocent people have been protected by keeping them out of line of hooligans.

For the very specific case of violence and crime in public spaces I can see this work and personally also see no problem with that. It is the public dominion anyway and as a citizen you know that you are in public and therefore you will behave in a different way anyway. This is why some people run around naked all day in their own home and put clothes on when they go out. They already know they are being watched and have to live up to the standards their society has established.

Installing cameras in public places in my opinion is a cheap, effective alternative of increasing reach of the already existing police force without hiring more bodies in uniform. It even can protect law enforcements by being able to check a situation and decide what equipment and how many people are needed, because sending a force out which could be overpowered by the other party is dangerous to the ones who do their duty.

Also for this example there is already enough evidence in place to have an informed suspicion that something will happen. Major sport events, concerts, public spaces with a lot of tourists, train stations and airports are breeding grounds for crime and violence once they fill with people and emotions.

The major differences to the kind of surveillance the NSA does are that it is easy to detect, it happens in public, it is only directed towards citizens of the same country and the procedures for installing these measures are being done out in the open.

If you take a closer look this is a hard argument to pass on for approval to have all empowered surveillance of everyone around the world to prevent terrorism, even though in a heated debate charged by emotions after 9/11 a lot of people would nod in agreement that this is a good idea.

The nature of terrorism is to operate in secret and concealed. They also operate very focused and targeted due to their limited resources. Whenever a cell is activated they risk death or imprisonment for life so each hit has to count for them. They are not an angry mob chanting in the streets are a desperate pickpocket who is stealing from tourists to get the next fix. Also they operate internationally, preferably out of sight of the public eye. The conclusion which has been drawn by the NSA is that this only can be adressed by tapping into everyone at any time to prevent terrorism.

This means in my book that everyone is a potential terrorism thread and kind of contradicts the idea of everybody should be deemed innocent until proven otherwise. Furthermore this extends the area of surveillance from the public to the private realm and from knowing that I am being tracked to me not knowing I am being tracked. Also the measures mushroom from being national to being international.

There still is evidence missing, even though NSA has been frequently asked to provide it, how this all-encompassing collection of data helped to prevent even one of the major terrorism acts we have witnessed since 9/11 around the world.

This does not mean that actions against terrorism should be stopped, but they should not assume that everyone in the world is a possible thread.

My question is, what would happen if we took all of that personnel, machinery, money and influence that is currently being used to collect a heap of data of which 99.9% is useless and apparently does not even prevent acts of terrorism and direct it towards something different. Go to the root cause of terrorism which is people in impoverished areas who are angry and therefore welcome anyone who gives them someone they can blame their miserable circumstances on. Hate preaching is a lot harder when the receiving end is at peace with themselves, has money in their pockets and their children are not in danger to be blown apart or starve any given day of the week.

Of course you would only do that, if you were actually interested in stabilising an area which therefore would become harder to exploit for resources or access…

Different departments act more coordinated when given access to the same set of data

This argument is interesting and relates back to the reports that if the different services of the US would have had all the data that was available at the time they could have prevented 9/11 if they had connected the dots.

Already writing this down it has a lot of ifs and coulds. This is a very easy argument to bring forward after the fact of 9/11 had been established. Of course it is easy to connect the dots looking backwards, but it is almost impossible to connect the dots looking into the future (to paraphrase Steve Jobs here).

In my experience coordination comes from focus and the less moving parts you have in a machine the more likely it will be that it operates coordinated. Google uses this technique to great efficiency and effectiveness by giving certain groups within the company only access to the information which is relevant to achieve the task that they have been given.

I personally can’t see how keeping all of the different departments (FBI; NSA; CIA etc.) and starting to collect everything at any time creates the focus which is needed to make an operation coordinated. In my opinion this only makes it harder to decide which information is noise and which is a signal.

The impression I got from the recently released movie “Zero Dark thirty” on how Osama bin Laden was found and killed gave me the impression that a highly focused operator who majorly used detective work separating & interpreting the right signals from the noise without being able to look into the private communications of the targeted person and a highly focused special operations team did the job. The job was not done by people listening into calls of western Europeans or American citizens calling their parents.

So in my opinion the approach to ensure coordination is smaller groups, collection of relevant data based on facts and following leads with a clear defined purpose rather than keeping all of the legislation and big institutions and creating on even bigger swamp to coordinate.

Unless of course your interest is actually not stopping terrorism(because that will be hard to achieve anyway), but rather checking what public opinion is, how it trends and can be influenced and to destroy private individuals who could be a thread to government interests by smearing their names…   

We only collect Metadata, do not worry

Another argument which is sometimes being brought forward is that the collection of Metadata is not as intrusive as collecting the actual messages themselves, therefore citizens should not worry.

Metadata is the collection of call logs which shows which numbers you called when, lists of GPS coordinates or lists of how many times you shopped in Lidl without actually tracking what has been in the cart, what has been sais on the phone call and what you actually did at these coordinates.

On the surface and If spun in the right way this looks a lot less intrusive than collecting what you have actually said to your mistress. Still if I was someone who wants to spy on you I would take the metadata over the actual messages any given day, if I had to make choice between the two.

Metadata enables an operator a lot easier than the collection of actual messages to identify you usual patterns of behaviour. The interesting bits are the ones where you actually do not behave like you usually would, because this indicates that you are about to do something out of the ordinary.

So metadata collection over a long period of time in my opinion is even more intrusive than collecting the exact content of messages, as it will be hard to make sense of my personal messages without putting them into context. Context is usually more important than content. If I say “Go fuck yourselves” in a bar with my best friends after we had of couple of drinks and someone told a story about I peed my pants in high school this will be met with laughter. If I said that in a meeting negotiating a million dollar contract it would mean something entirely different.

Those shall not fear who are righteous

A really compelling argument in favour of a big brother like state surveillance is that if you don’t do anything wrong or illegal it does not matter whether you are tracked or not. If you behave according to the rules nobody will bother you.

I believed in this also for a very long time and it is definitely correct. The only flaw with it is that the average citizen usually has little to no influence on what is being deemed illegal, right or wrong in the eye of the law or even in the eye of the ones who are spying on you.

Political circumstances can change rather quickly and all of sudden you find yourself in a pickle even though you behaved according to the rules for years just because a certain type of your persona is not up to scrutiny anymore.

The Jews in the Germany of the 1920 until the end of the Second World War spring to mind or all people in the eastern bloc before the fall of the iron curtain who advocated for more choice of parties which they could elect. There is a reason why your vote is protected by being a secret vote in most modern societies so that the members of the opposing party cannot harass you for your opinions. The movie Gangs of New York is a good movie to watch to understand that concept.

More recently look at what happened to the reporters around Edward Snowden. In just a few weeks they had been turned from well-respected journalists into political agitators who in theory could be prosecuted in the states for high treason and therefore can face a death sentence only for exposing methods which should be debated in public anyway, in my opinion.

Just by writing this article, I will most likely pop up in some system and put into some kind of surveillance program for expressing my viewpoints.

Security is your friend

Security has always been your friend if you are part of the group who is in the majority or has more money and therefore is enabled to control the security and surveillance apparatus. It is not your friend if you are part of the minority which viewpoints are being viewed as a thread to the established powers.

The balance between security and freedom has been debated in democracies since they were founded. I tend to the viewpoint that where security measures have been increased someone in power tried to hold on to their crumbling base of support and scare people into complying and not rocking the boat. Civil wars or wars between countries were just lurking around the corner when efforts in to surveillance increased.

Wars are usually the outcome of nationalist interests where emphasis is being put on the differences between the two groups rather than their common interests to fuel conflict and force the will of the physically stronger party on the weaker one. I hope that two world wars have taught the international leaders that this is the less prosperous alternative to negotiations. But the further we move away from these days the more the cries of the killed will be remembered by worldwide leadership and the more it will become an acceptable alternative until another generation gets wiped of the board.

The quality of a democracy should be judged by how it protects the interests of the monitories living in it. With great power comes great responsibility. In a more connected and globalised world with even more potential for disaster than in two former world wars, I personally think this responsibility knows no countries boundaries anymore and. As a world leader you have to look at the minorities of the world, rather than only your own electorate, because your decisions will affect everyone.  

The most shocking revelations

Reading “No place to hide” about the revelations which were made around the Snowden case helped me to understand better how the current apparatus works. I did not check whether there was any action taken from the international outcry after the EX NSA official went public and went into hiding in Russia.

One shocking revelation for me was not necessarily the extent of the possibilities of the NSA, but how the Obama administration uses them to go after private citizens. The fact that more journalists have been prosecuted under the Obama administration than in several other before makes me think how liberal this democratic leadership really is.

The other realisation for me was that the line between agitator who can be brought to court for treason and journalist seems to be very thin even in perceived democracies like the US. The only protection you have is to be part of a newspaper which protects you and will put you under legal control. Speaking your mind and sharing your knowledge seems still to be a very dangerous business.

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