Archive for the 'Beyond belief' Category

Exclusive! NSA and Homeland Security lack sense of humour

[link] Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Photograph from CBS.

This comes to us via the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security have issued “cease and desist” letters to a novelty store owner who sells products that poke fun at the federal government.

Dan McCall, who lives in Minnesota and operates, sells T-shirts with the agency’s official seal that read: “The NSA: The only part of government that actually listens,” Judicial Watch first reported.

Other parodies say, “Spying on you since 1952,” and “Peeping while you’re sleeping,” the report said.

Federal authorities claimed the parody images violate laws against the misuse, mutilation, alteration or impersonation of government seals, Judicial Watch reported.

I particularly admire the crack about the NSA being “the only part of the government that actually listens”.

Brian, who told me about the first link, also pointed me to a fuller account about the artist, Dan McCall who came up with the tee-shirt.

What McCall meant as pure parody, apparently wasn’t very funny to bureaucrats at the NSA.

While he calls it parody they call a violation of the spy agency’s intellectual property.

“Because when you’re pointing straight at an organization or making fun at it, turning it on itself, that is classic parody,” he said.

The agency ordered him to cease and desist and forced his T-shirts off the market.

Hmmm… I’d have thought that he’d have a good First Amendment and Fair Use case. But maybe m’learned friends think not.

So Facebook thinks that videos of beheadings are ok, but exposed nipples are not

[link] Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Facebook has just made an idiotic decision — that videos of beheadings can be shown on the site. Jonathan Freedland explains why Zuck & Co have got it spectacularly wrong.

Which brings us to the nub of the matter. Facebook and the other social media giants are reluctant to be thought of as akin to news organisations or even publishers. They want to be seen as something looser and vaguer, a mere arena for others. There are good reasons for that: social media are indeed different.

But there is a less noble motive behind that reluctance too. Publishers are responsible for the content they publish and Facebook and the others don’t want that level of responsibility: for one thing, maintaining standards requires people, which costs money.

But it’s getting harder and harder to maintain the pretence that Facebook doesn’t make editorial judgments, including ones that have serious consequences. It does – and it’s just made a very bad one.

Personally, I’m baffled by the decision. Facebook isn’t a public space: it’s like a shopping mall — i.e. a space controlled by its proprietor. Would any sane such proprietor allow public executions — or representations of same — in its space?

The National Security State

[link] Monday, August 19th, 2013

Astonishing, chilling piece by the Guardian’s Editor, Alan Rusbridger.

A little over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian’s reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government’s intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK. But my experience over WikiLeaks – the thumb drive and the first amendment – had already prepared me for this moment. I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?

The man was unmoved. And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

Smart meters might not be so clever after all

[link] Sunday, August 18th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make credulous. In the case of technology, especially technology involving computers, that’s pretty easy to do. Quite why people are so overawed by computers when they are blase about, say, truly miraculous technologies such as high-speed trains, is a mystery that we will have to leave for another day. The only thing we need to remember is that when important people, for example government ministers, are confronted with what a sceptical friend of mine calls “computery” then they check in their brains at the door of the meeting room. From then on, credulity is their default setting.

In which state, they are easy meat for technological visionaries, evangelists and purveyors of snake oil. This would be touching if it weren’t serious. Exhibit A in this regard is the government’s plan for “smart meters”…

How to spot a terrorist (NSA version)

[link] Saturday, August 3rd, 2013


I’m not sure that this slide from the XKeyscore slide deck revealed by the Guardian has received the attention it deserves.

It says that one of the “anomalous” factors an NSA analyst might look for when deciding whether to drill down on someone is whether or not the person is using encryption (like PGP).

So… you can be a perfectly innocent, nay admirable, person like, say, Cory Doctorow, who encrypts his email simply to ensure that only he and the recipient can read it. But that fact alone might be sufficient to start an NSA check on all your communications.

This is one reason why the adjective “Orwellian” isn’t adequate for describing the mess we’re in. “Kafkaesque” is, if anything, even more apt.

Wagnerian crocs

[link] Friday, August 2nd, 2013

Anthony Tommasini has an hilarious review of the current production of the Wagner Ring Cycle at Bayreuth by the German avant-garde director, Frank Castorf. When Castorf appeared on stage at the end, he was treated to a ten-minute orgy of booing. He stood there, unmoved and perhaps gratified. (After all, one of the pleasures of being avant garde is that one can annoy the bourgeoisie.) But that’s by-the-by. What I really wanted to say is that this passage from Mr Tommasini’s review made me laugh out loud:

Mr. Castorf’s deeper fault, it seems, was cynically to undercut the musical drama during some of the most romantic, poignant and heroic scenes. My earnest attempt to be open-minded about this baffling “Ring” almost foundered for good near the end of “Siegfried” when (you can’t make this up) a monster crocodile swallowed the poor Forest Bird in one big gulp.

This last scene, of course, is the ecstatic love duet between Siegfried, our rambunctious hero (who, by the way, instead of forging a sword assembles a semiautomatic rifle), and the smitten Brünnhilde. In this production, at the most climactic moment in the music, the stage rotated to reveal two of those monster crocodiles busily copulating.

Looking hungry after sex, the squiggling reptiles, their jaws flapping, headed toward Siegfried and Brünnhilde, who were singing away.

As the reptiles crawled closer, the Forest Bird, presented here as an alluring young woman (the soprano Mirella Hagen), burst upon the stage to save the day. Of course, the Forest Bird was not supposed to be in this scene, but who cares what Wagner wrote? This fetching Forest Bird bravely fought off one crocodile by jabbing a pole down its throat. But the other one opened wide and swallowed her whole. Throughout, Siegfried and Brünnhilde seemed only mildly concerned. But then, in Mr. Castorf’s staging, they also seemed only mildly concerned with each other, a much bigger problem.

Well worth reading in full.


[link] Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

As readers of this blog will know, I have a low opinion of LinkedIn, which I consider to be one of the most annoying, intrusive and useless online services in existence. (See here and here, for example.) So today, after yet another of my hapless connections had “endorsed” me for something for which I had never requested an endorsement I finally got round to deleting my account. The ensuing dialogue box contained this interesting information.


The second bullet-point has a vaguely menacing tone. Does it imply that someone else can use my email address(es) to open a (fake) LinkedIn account in my name? Or is it simply saying that I can always think again and use my email address to get back in?

NSA can search your emails but not its own employees’ messages

[link] Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Who said satire was dead? The NSA Can’t search its employees’ emails.

The NSA is a “supercomputing powerhouse” with machines so powerful their speed is measured in thousands of trillions of operations per second. The agency turns its giant machine brains to the task of sifting through unimaginably large troves of data its surveillance programs capture. 

But ask the NSA, as part of a freedom of information request, to do a seemingly simple search of its own employees’ email? The agency says it doesn’t have the technology.

“There’s no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately,” NSA Freedom of Information Act officer Cindy Blacker told me last week.

The system is “a little antiquated and archaic,” she added.

I filed a request last week for emails between NSA employees and employees of the National Geographic Channel over a specific time period. The TV station had aired a friendly documentary on the NSA and I want to better understand the agency’s public-relations efforts.

A few days after filing the request, Blacker called, asking me to narrow my request since the FOIA office can search emails only “person by person,” rather than in bulk. The NSA has more than 30,000 employees.

Now the question is: do you believe the NSA’s answer?

It’s the metadata, stoopid – part 2

[link] Sunday, July 7th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

Over the past two weeks, I have lost count of the number of officials and government ministers who, when challenged about internet surveillance by GCHQ and the NSA, try to reassure their citizens by saying that the spooks are “only” collecting metadata, not “content”. Only two conclusions are possible from this: either the relevant spokespersons are unbelievably dumb or they are displaying a breathtaking contempt for their citizenry.

In a way, it doesn’t matter which conclusion one draws. The fact is that, as I argued two weeks ago, the metadata is what the spooks want for the simple reason that it’s machine-readable and therefore searchable. It’s what makes comprehensive internet-scale surveillance possible.

Why hasn’t there been greater public outrage about the cynicism of the “just metadata” mantra?

Plugging away

[link] Saturday, June 29th, 2013

This is just wonderful. Beyond parody — especially the “network hygiene” bit.

File this under “F” for futile: The Army is restricting access to the Guardian website to try to crack down on leaks, the Monterey County Herald reports. The Guardian was the first to write about the extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program earlier this month, and it reported details about a separate spying program yesterday. The Guardian’s reports are based on classified documents leaked by former government tech contractor Edward Snowden, who is now wanted by U.S. authorities.

The access restriction is part of the Department of Defense’s routine preventative “network hygiene,” Gordon Van Vleet, spokesman for the Army Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM), told the Herald. The censorship/network hygiene is meant to prevent the downloading of classified documents — like the kind the Guardian has linked to on its website and which presumably has already been seen by many people. “Until declassified by appropriate officials, classified information — including material released through an unauthorized disclosure — must be treated accordingly by DoD personnel,” Van Vleet wrote.