Hypocrisy on stilts

One of the more nauseating aspects of the US response to Edward Snowden’s revelations is the constant refrain about how he is supposedly damaging the national interest and giving succour to its enemies by revealing how the US does its surveillance. And yet, as TechDirt reports,

Over the weekend, the US government announced that special forces soldiers entered Syria to conduct a raid that killed an alleged leader of ISIS, Abu Sayyaf. In the process, anonymous US officials leaked classified information to the New York Times that’s much more sensitive than anything Edward Snowden ever revealed, and it serves as a prime example of the government’s hypocrisy when it comes to disclosures of secret information.

Here’s how the New York Times described how the US conducted this “successful” raid:

“The raid came after weeks of surveillance of Abu Sayyaf, using information gleaned from a small but growing network of informants the C.I.A. and the Pentagon have painstakingly developed in Syria, as well as satellite imagery, drone reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping, American officials said. The White House rejected initial reports from the region that attributed the raid to the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.”

Read that carefully and pretend it was Snowden who leaked this information, instead of nameless Pentagon spokesmen. US officials would be screaming from the rooftops that he leaked extremely timely and sensitive intelligence (it was literally only hours old), that he will cause specific terrorists to change their communications behavior, and most importantly, he put the lives of informants at risk. (Note: none of Snowden’s leaks did any of these things.)

Yet despite the fact that the ISIS raid was discussed on all of the Sunday shows this week, no one brought up anything about this leak. Contrast that with Snowden’s revelations, where government officials will use any situation to say the most outlandish things possible in an attempt to smear his whistleblowing—regardless of their basis in reality. Take former CIA deputy director and torture advocate Mike Morrell, for example, who is currently on a book promotion tour and has been preposterously suggesting that Snowden’s leaks somehow led to the rise of ISIS.

Why data is political

Intriguing piece in Slate:

Imagine visiting Yellowstone this summer. You wake up before dawn to take a picture of the sunrise over the mists emanating from Yellowstone hot springs. A thunderhead towers above the rising sun, and the picture turns out beautifully. You submit the photo to a contest sponsored by the National Weather Service. Under a statute signed into law by the Wyoming governor this spring, you have just committed a crime and could face up to one year in prison.

Wyoming doesn’t, of course, care about pictures of geysers or photo competitions. But photos are a type of data, and the new law makes it a crime to gather data about the condition of the environment across most of the state if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government. The reason? The state wants to conceal the fact that many of its streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause serious health problems, even death. A small organization called Western Watersheds Project (which I represent pro bono in an unrelated lawsuit) has found the bacteria in a number of streams crossing federal land in concentrations that violate water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act. Rather than engaging in an honest public debate about the cause or extent of the problem, Wyoming prefers to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. And under the new law, the state threatens anyone who would challenge that belief by producing information to the contrary with a term in jail.

Now, why would that be?

The reason is pure politics. The source of E. coli is clear. It comes from cows spending too much time in and next to streams. Acknowledging that fact could result in rules requiring ranchers who graze their cows on public lands to better manage their herds. The ranching community in Wyoming wields considerable political power and has no interest in such obligations, so the state is trying to stop the flow of information rather than forthrightly address the problem.

Ah! Why does this remind me of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People?

Magical thinking in surveillance circles

This morning’s Observer column:

The power of magical thinking – the notion that you can make something happen merely by thinking about it – has been much in evidence in the current election campaign. And that’s not entirely surprising, because as politicians get desperate, rationality goes out of the window. What is surprising, however, is when high government officials – for example, heads of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies – begin to show clear signs of the syndrome.

Exhibit A in this respect is James Comey, the current director of the FBI. Mr Comey has become so exercised by the decisions of Apple and Google to implement strong encryption in their devices and services that he appears to have lost his marbles. “I am a huge believer in the rule of law,” he told reporters last September, “but I am also a believer that no one in this country is above the law. What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.”

It’s good to know that the FBI director believes that nobody should be above the law. Except, of course, for his colleague, the former NSA director, James Clapper, who lied under oath to the US Congress about the existence of bulk data collection programs and yet remains at large. But we will let that pass: after all, as Oscar Wilde observed, consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, and Mr Comey is nothing if not imaginative….

Read on

Our fragile, incomprehensible networked world

This morning’s Observer column:

At first sight, it looked like an April Fools’ story. The US Department of Justice is seeking to extradite a day-trader from Hounslow to stand trial on charges that he brought the US stock market briefly to its knees on 6 May 2010. Navinder Singh Sarao is accused of using a computerised share-trading program to manipulate the market for S&P 500 futures contracts on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, thereby adding (so the prosecution alleges) to wider selling pressure that caused the Dow Jones industrial average to plunge briefly by 6% before bouncing back.

In that short interval, stocks in huge companies such as Procter & Gamble dropped by 25% and established companies such as General Electric and Accenture briefly traded as penny shares. The British courts, not to mention the rest of us, are invited to believe that this mayhem was caused by a 36-year-old geek in the bedroom of his parents neat semi-detached house under the Heathrow flight path.

There are, it seems to me, only two possible interpretations of this. One is that Mr Sarao is indeed responsible for the chaos. The other is that the US authorities have no real idea who is responsible, but need to make an example of somebody and Mr Sarao will do nicely. Either way, we are left with a really alarming conclusion, namely that we have constructed a world that is totally dependent on systems that are a) astonishingly fragile and unpredictable, and b) incomprehensible not only to the average citizen but to those who are supposed to regulate them…

Read on

Running out of options

Fascinating piece in Slate.

At 7.32pm on March 27, Dama Mattioli, a reporter on the Wall Street Journal, tweeted thus:

“Intel is in talks to buy Altera. Deal would be largest in Intel’s history. Scoop w/ @danacimilluca coming to http://WSJ.com $ALTR”

Seth Stevenson of Slate recounts what happened next:

Quicker than any human seemingly could have done it, someone—or rather something—bought $110,530 worth of cheap options on Altera, a company that makes digital circuits.* Over the next several minutes and until the end of the day, as humans digested Mattioli’s takeover rumor at human speed, Altera’s stock price rose. When all was said and done, those cheap options had resulted in a $2.4 million profit. Speculation immediately centered on the idea that an automated program (a “bot”) had scanned the tweet, interpreted its meaning, and instantly bought those options based on an algorithm. The robot had read the tweet and made a killing on it before anyone knew what was going on.

In fact a Reuters report found that the trade in question was made a full 19 seconds before the tweet appeared. In a way, though, that only makes the story even more interesting. The WSJ has a policy of putting news on its own newswire before it goes on Twitter and it turns out that the trades occurred a mere second after news of the possible deal appeared on Dow Jones Newswires, and before Altera’s shares were halted.

Yep. A second.

Which means — or at any rate suggests — that an algorithm ‘read’ the news headline and acted to buy short-term options on Altera shares. Which is yet another pointer to what it happening to stock exchanges.

Privacy: who needs it? Er, Zuckerberg & Co

Who said irony was dead? The tech zillionaires are so blasé about how their users are relaxed about privacy and what is quaintly called “sharing”. But they are not at all blasé when it comes to sharing information about themselves. Google’s Exec Chairman, Eric Schmidt, for example, believes that “privacy is dead”, but went apeshit when some enterprising journalist dug up lots of personal information about him simply by using, er, Google.

And then there’s young Zuckerberg, the Facebook boss, who is likewise relaxed about other people’s privacy, but paranoid about his own. See, for example, this Forbes report on his need to buy up an entire neighbourhood block in palo Alto to ensure that he isn’t overlooked:

So much for Zuckerberg only making a big digital footprint. Now the online empire maker owns nearly an entire neighborhood block, just because he can.

According to property records, the Facebook CEO has spent $30 million over the past year buying the pricy homes of four of his neighbors. It’s within his right, and within his budget, especially with Facebook stock finally starting to march up in value after its controversial and lackluster IPO.

Now the NYT is reporting that he’s updating a house in San Francisco, where even he might not be able to persuade his neighbours to clear out. But builders and tradesmen working on this nouveau palace find that they have to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements lest the world should know which kind of bidet the infant zillionaire favours.

Newspapers need editors, not ‘Directors of Content’

Great piece by Peter Preston about the ethical shambles at the Daily Telegraph. Sample:

It’s easy, in such murky circumstances, to lose sight of basic command structures. Much of Fleet Street, indeed, has planted “content” and “strategy” nametags across its digital garden. But the grisly lesson of HSBC is also a fundamental one.

Title inflation may make a paper look cutting-edge digital. It may impress advertisers and investors. It may seem a modern necessity in a world of “native advertising” and fast-flowing revenue streams. But serious newspapers, in whatever form, have a duty of trust: a duty not to be leaned on by pushy politicians, chummy bankers – or advertisers. For how can you put truth first if the truth is for sale?

That’s why the Oborne storm is so deeply damaging. It can’t be put right by appointing some “chief integrity officer”. What the Telegraph lacks, as it stinks and stings under pressure, is what it must now rediscover: a journalist who looks at the likes of HSBC and tells them to get stuffed as and when necessary. A human being, not a corporate assassin. An editor.


ALSO: This from Roy Greenslade:

According to Oborne, at a meeting with MacLennan, the CEO was unapologetic about the matter, suggesting that it was no big deal. But it is, of course. It is a very big deal indeed because it goes to the heart of a paper’s credibility. Readers will not trust a newspaper that withholds or censors stories to please advertisers.

Everyone in the newspaper industry knows that advertising is harder and harder to come by. We know also that TMG has been reporting a level of profits for several years that surpasses any other national group. How, we wonder, does it do that?

The implication of Oborne’s revelations is that part of its strategy involves pandering to big advertisers to the extent of curbing critical editorial content.

I imagine this is rare, but once one company gets away with threatening to pull its advertising unless negative stories are pulled then the word goes round. It opens the door to discreet deals. So other instances may have occurred that we know nothing about.

Oborne felt that the HSBC case was so blatant that it was impossible to ignore and it could have far-reaching implications. Frankly, I’m amazed that MacLennan would be party to such activities.

Many people throw mud at him, but there are very few newspaper managers who love the company of journalists as much as he does. He and I have fallen out several times down the years, but I haven’t lost my regard for him. This matter, however, is of a different order altogether.

So what happens next? One theory going the rounds is that the Barclay twins, the owners of the Telegraph, have decided that the way to extract the most value from the paper is to let it go the profitable way of pandering to advertisers, on the grounds that it might last another ten profitable years before it finally collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. So it’s possible they’re not unduly bothered by the fuss about “ethics”.

The Telescreen is here

Thinking about getting a ‘smart’ Samsung TV? Think again.


Thanks to Hannes Sjoblad for the tweet.

Footnote: In Orwell’s 1984 there was a ‘telescreen’ in Winston’s apartment.

“Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork.”

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?


That line from Alexander Pope came to mind time and time again last night as I watched a marvellous Storyville film about the short life and tragic death of Aaron Schwartz. At the end, I was left with the same mixture of anger and despair that I felt when news broke of his suicide, hounded to his death by a vindictive and disproportionate prosecution by the Feds for organising a massive download of scholarly articles from JSTOR.

I never met him, but I followed him through his writing and his work from the first time he surfaced on the Net. I vividly remember his blog posts about his reactions to Stanford, especially the way he tried to figure out why the world (and specifically that particular corner of it) was so weird and dysfunctional. And every day I use Markdown and RSS, two of the tools he helped to create. So like legions of others, I am in his debt.

I knew most of the story of his life. He and I shared a mutual friend (who was truly heartbroken by his death). What I hadn’t known — and the film revealed — was what he was like as a very young child. And the truth turns out to be that he was remarkable from the very beginning, one of the brightest, most engaging toddlers I’ve ever seen.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film was the way it managed to be deeply moving without being sentimental: that’s a hard balance to strike, but the film-makers pulled it off. In the end, as I said, it left one with a burning sense of injustice and anger. Two things stand out. The first is the hypocrisy of an administration (Obama’s) which vindictively pursues this idealistic young genius while failing to prosecute the criminals who wrecked the banking system. And secondly there is the thought that the real significance of Aaron’s treatment is that it heralds a future in which the established order will do whatever it takes to suppress uses of the Internet that challenge it. Aaron was, after all, well on his way to becoming a powerful political activist.