Screenshot of the message from WhatsApp to Nihalsing Rathod, a lawyer representing some of the activists accused of fomenting a protest last year in Bhima Koregaon, in India, and plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2017. The message is alerting him to the fact that WhatsApp suspect that his smartphone has been infected with NSO spyware.
This morning’s Observer column:
Last week, at a police convention in the US, a Florida police officer revealed he had obtained a warrant to search the GEDmatch database of a million genetic profiles uploaded by users of the genealogy research site. Legal experts said this appeared to be the first time an American judge had approved such a warrant.
“That’s a huge game-changer,” observed Erin Murphy, a law professor at New York University. “The company made a decision to keep law enforcement out and that’s been overridden by a court. It’s a signal that no genetic information can be safe.”
At the end of the cop’s talk, he was approached by many officers from other jurisdictions asking for a copy of the successful warrant.
Apart from medical records, your DNA profile is the most sensitive and personal data imaginable. In some ways, it’s more revealing, because it can reveal secrets you don’t know you’re keeping, such as siblings (and sometimes parents) of whom you were unaware…
This morning’s Observer column:
On 18 July, the House of Commons select committee on science and technology published an assessment of the work of the biometrics commissioner and the forensic science regulator. My guess is that most citizens have never heard of these two public servants, which is a pity because what they do is important for the maintenance of justice and the protection of liberty and human rights.
The current biometrics commissioner is Prof Paul Wiles. His role is to keep under review the retention and use by the police of biometric material. This used to be just about DNA samples and custody images, but digital technology promises to increase his workload significantly. “It is now seven years,” observes the Commons committee, “since the 2012 high court ruled that the indefinite retention of innocent people’s custody images was unlawful and yet the practice is continuing. A system was meant to have been put in place where any custody images were kept for six years and then reviewed. Custody images of unconvicted individuals at that point should be weeded and deleted.”
But they haven’t: photographs of innocent people remain on the police national database…
Nice investigation by The Intercept:
AN AMERICAN ORGANIZATION founded by tech giants Google and IBM is working with a company that is helping China’s authoritarian government conduct mass surveillance against its citizens, The Intercept can reveal.
The OpenPower Foundation — a nonprofit led by Google and IBM executives with the aim of trying to “drive innovation” — has set up a collaboration between IBM, Chinese company Semptian, and U.S. chip manufacturer Xilinx. Together, they have worked to advance a breed of microprocessors that enable computers to analyze vast amounts of data more efficiently.
Shenzhen-based Semptian is using the devices to enhance the capabilities of internet surveillance and censorship technology it provides to human rights-abusing security agencies in China, according to sources and documents. A company employee said that its technology is being used to covertly monitor the internet activity of 200 million people…
Usual story. When it comes to it, there is no technology that Western tech companies won’t sell to the Chinese.
Kai Strittmatter is a German journalist who writes for Süddeutsche Zeitung and is currently based in Copenhagen. From 1997 until recently, he had been a foreign correspondent in Beijing. Prior to those postings, he had studied sinology and journalism in Munich, Xi’an and Taipei. So he knows China rather well. Having read his remarkable book, it’s reasonable to assume that he will not be passing through any Chinese airport in the foreseeable future. Doing so would not be good for his health, not to mention his freedom.
We Have Been Harmonised is the most accessible and best informed account we have had to date of China’s transition from what scholars such as Rebecca MacKinnon used to call “networked authoritarianism” to what is now a form of networked totalitarianism. The difference is not merely semantic. An authoritarian regime is relatively limited in its objectives: there may be elections, but they are generally carefully managed; individual freedoms are subordinate to the state; there is no constitutional accountability and no rule of law in any meaningful sense.
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Totalitarianism, in contrast, prohibits opposition parties, restricts opposition to the state and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life…
This morning’s Observer column:
The headline above an essay in a magazine published by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) caught my eye. “Facial recognition is the plutonium of AI”, it said. Since plutonium – a by-product of uranium-based nuclear power generation – is one of the most toxic materials known to humankind, this seemed like an alarmist metaphor, so I settled down to read.
The article, by a Microsoft researcher, Luke Stark, argues that facial-recognition technology – one of the current obsessions of the tech industry – is potentially so toxic for the health of human society that it should be treated like plutonium and restricted accordingly. You could spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley before you heard sentiments like these about a technology that enables computers to recognise faces in a photograph or from a camera…
From The Inquirer:
The end result was the researchers had effectively found ways to hack and exploit WhatsApp.
“By decrypting the WhatsApp communication, we were able to see all the parameters that are actually sent between the mobile version of WhatsApp and the Web version. This allowed us to then be able to manipulate them and start looking for security issues,” the researchers explained.
As such, Check Point was able to then carry out three attacks against WhatsApp users, including changing the identity of a sender in a group chat even if they aren’t a member of said chat, changing a correspondent’s reply to effectively fake their response, and sending private messages to a person in a chat group but ensuring that when they respond the whole group sees the reply.
Basically, the attacks could enable malicious actors to sneak into group chats and manipulate conversations and cause communications havoc, and spread misinformation.
Hmmm… They had to do any awful lot of tedious stuff before they were able to pull off those tricks. On the other hand, this is what GCHQ and NSA do all the time, I guess.
Before publication, Harkaway wrote an interesting blog post about why he embarked on the book. Here’s an excerpt from that post:
I remember the days.
I remember the halcyon days of 2014, when I started writing Gnomon and I thought I was going to produce a short book (ha ha ha) in a kind of Umberto Eco-Winterson-Borges mode, maybe with a dash of Bradbury and PKD, and it would be about realities and unreliable narrators and criminal angels in prisons made of time, and bankers and alchemists, and it would also be a warning about the dangers of creeping authoritarianism. (And no, you’re right: creatively speaking I had NO IDEA what I was getting myself into.)
I remember the luxury of saying “we must be precautionary about surveillance laws, about human rights violations, because one day the liberal democracies might start electing monsters and making bad pathways, and we’ll want solid protections from our governments’ over-reach.”
I remember the halcyon days of April 2016 when I thought I’d missed the boat and I hadn’t written a warning at all, but a sort of melancholic state of the nation, and I really did think things might get better from there. Then Brexit came – I was half expecting that – and then Trump – which I was really not – and now here we are, with the UK boiling as May’s government and Corbyn’s Labour sit on their hands and clock ticks down and the negotiating table is blank except for a few sheets of crumpled scrap paper, and the only global certainty seems to be that this US administration will try to wreck every decent thing the international community has attempted in my lifetime, with the occasional connivance of our own leaders when they aren’t busy tearing one another to bits.
And now I’m pretty sure I did write a warning after all.
From an interesting parting shot by an American libertarian academic who has taught in China for some years and is now returning home.
China is a rising power but probably more importantly is a deeply illiberal, expansionist, authoritarian, police state opposed to human rights, democracy, free trade, and rule of law. Just as we need to consider the state, speed, and direction of change in the United States, China has been deeply illiberal authoritarian for many years, is becoming increasingly illiberal, and is accelerating the pace of change towards greater control. It both puzzles and concerns me having lived in China for nearly a decade as a public employee to hear Polyanna statements from China “experts” in the United States who talk about the opening and reform of China or refuse to consider the values being promoted. I was left mouth agape once when someone I would consider a liberal internationalist who values human rights informed me he was focused on business and would leave those other issues aside. The values represented by China cannot be divorced from its rise and influence. The rise of China represents a clear and explicit threat not to the United States but to the entirety of liberal democracy, human rights, and open international markets.
We see the world slowly being divided into China supported authoritarian regimes of various stripes that support its creeping illiberalism across a range of areas. The tragedy of modern American foreign policy is the history of active ignorance and refusal to actively confront the Chinese norm or legal violations. The Trump administration is utterly incapable of defending the values and assembling the coalition that would respond to American leadership as they face even greater threats from China.
The concern is not over Chinese access to technology to facilitate economic development for a liberal open state. The concern is over the use of technology to facilitate human rights violations and further cement closed markets. That is a threat for which neither the United States or any other democracy loving country should apologize for.
Even while making allowances for the author’s ideological position, some of his observations about everyday like in China are fascinating — at least to me. For example:
One of the most interesting thing to me was to see how my thinking evolved over time in China. Prior to coming, I was and still am a libertarian leaning professor. I had not given a lot of thought to human rights either in the United States or in China. While many are aware of a variety of the cases that receive attention, I think what struck me is how this filters down into the culture. There is a complete and utter lack of respect for the individual or person in China. People do not have innate value as people simply because they exist. This leads most directly to a lack of respect for the law/rules/norms.
One thing I began to realize over time is, while not German, how law, rule, and norm abiding Americans are with minimal fear of enforcement. Cutting in line [I think this means barging in] is considered extremely rude because there is a sense of fairness and that people have equal rights. In China, line cutting is considered nearly standard operating procedure. There is a common and accepted respect for others even if just it is as simple as standing in line.
In a way, I sympathize with Chairman Xi’s emphasis on rule of law because in my experience laws/rules/norms are simply ignored. They are ignored quietly so as not to embarrass the enforcer, however, frequently, the enforcer knows rules or laws are being ignored but so long as the breaker is not egregious, both parties continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance. Honesty without force is not normal but an outlier. Lying is utterly common, but telling the truth revolutionary.
I rationalize the silent contempt for the existing rules and laws within China as people not respecting the method for creating and establishing the rules and laws. Rather than confronting the system, a superior, or try good faith attempts to change something, they choose a type of quiet subversion by just ignoring the rule or law. This quickly spreads to virtually every facet of behavior as everything can be rationalized in a myriad of ways.
Before coming to China, I had this idea that China was rigid which in some ways it is, but in reality it is brutally chaotic because there are no rules it is the pure rule of the jungle with unconstrained might imposing their will and all others ignoring laws to behave as they see fit with no sense of morality or respect for right.
If it’s the case — and I believe it is — that American’s position as a global hegemon is eroding, and that China might be its successor, then it’s worth thinking about what that might mean. While many of us are sceptical about — or critical of — aspects of American dominance, we understand and to some extent share many of the values that the Republic embodies (or aspires to). Coming to grips with Chinese hegemony will be traumatic, unless the West has been softened up by generations of home-grown authoritarian rule. (Now a distinct possibility for some of our democracies, I fear). It will be like living in a parallel universe which has a different kind of gravity.
This morning’s Observer column:
The images of the moon’s surface coming down from the orbiters were of astonishingly high resolution, good enough to blow up to 40ftx54ft pictures. When Nasa engineers initially stitched the images together they had to hang them in a church to view them. Eventually, they found a hangar where they could be laid on the ground for astronauts to walk on them in stockinged feet in order to search for suitable landing sites. Sign up for Lab Notes – the Guardian’s weekly science update Read more
For decades, nobody outside of Nasa and the US military knew how good these images were. The few that were released for public consumption were heavily degraded and fuzzy. Why? Because the cameras used in the lunar orbiters were derivatives of the cameras used in high-altitude US aerial reconnaissance planes and satellites and the Pentagon didn’t want the Soviets to know the level of detail that could be derived from them.
In a way, we shouldn’t be surprised by this revelation. It’s an old story: powerful states have often possessed more sophisticated surveillance technology than their adversaries – or their citizens – knew or suspected…