Sunday, October 27, 2013

Article in CounterPunch Magazine on NSA Encryption Follies

Also, Snowden Derangement Syndrome and Andrea Merkel’s Phone

I have an article in the current subscription-only CounterPunch magazine on the NSA encryption follies.  

The takeaway from the article is that, thanks to fiddling by the NSA and its corporate partners, Internet security is a jury-rigged omnishambles.  It’s as if the National Transportation Safety Board, with the garages and auto parts suppliers playing along, had undermined the safety standards for brakes and facilitated the insertion of multiple points of failure in the braking system, and then encouraged everybody to drive down the Information Superhighway at 120 miles per hour in order to give more business to the auto repair industry.

With the powers vested in me by the Internet, I command everyone to subscribe…now!  Here’s the link.

The piece has a different take on the NSA’s surveillance excesses than what readers are probably accustomed to.

Edward Snowden’s core concern, and the basis of a lot of the coverage, is anxiety over the massive scope of NSA surveillance.  It looks like the US government never abandoned the goal of Total Information Awareness, articulated during the George W. Bush era by John Poindexter, and simply decided to implement it clandestinely.  NSA wants it all: metadata, unencrypted data, encrypted data, the correlations, whatever.  

Even for those of us who have “nothing to hide and nothing to fear” a.k.a. nobody, this raises the specter of the Panopticon state, where the hidden eye may be everywhere and anywhere, and the subject is pre-emptively cowed into compliance by the fear of being observed.

I have to admit I already feel that way, to a degree.  I look at the computer on my desk and see it as a window in—to me—as well as a window out onto the WWW.

Not just for the US government which, quite frankly, I don’t think devotes a lot of time to worrying about me.  Also for Google.  For instance, the web ads aren’t mass advertising like TV commercials; they are targeted ads based on my Google searches.  Instead of telling me what’s out there, they are trying to get inside me and push my buy buttons based on what they think what’s in there.  Instead of surfing the web, I’m getting enmeshed in my personalized web of preconceptions and plans, spun courtesy of Google, Facebook, etc.  And for botnets.  I assume I’ve got one.  Maybe just one.  I hope so.  Recently, the FBI and Microsoft took down a botnet infecting 2 million computers.  I look at my computer as a device on loan to me from the botnet when it isn’t using the CPU cycles for its own nefarious ends.

The NSA and the US IT industry have a shared interest in exploiting me as a data asset.  The information, services, and connectivity benefits of the Internet is just the honey pot that lures us in.  Just like newspapers and magazines are advertising circulars with just enough journalism and entertainment to get us to crack open the pages.

If we want to restore our digital privacy, it’s going to take a new network: new hardware, new software, new protocols, and billions of dollars (without any government and corporate subvention!).
Good luck with that.

Short of that, enhanced transparency and accountability from the entities degrading the security functionality of the Internet might help.

It looks like the only way we’re going to get that is via whistleblowers.

When the Edward Snowden revelations hit, my first reaction was Wow.  Somebody’s really stuck it to the Man.

However, on some liberal and conservative sections of the Intertubes, something that I call Snowden Derangement Syndrome erupted.  It was as if Snowden had posted dirty pictures of him having sex with mom.  Some seemed to take the position of Don’t you understand?  We’re the Man.  Edward Snowden is sticking it to us!

Well, my general take is that Edward Snowden is a whistleblower, not a spy.  It’s not my job to help the Man sideline, discredit, silence, or incarcerate whistleblowers in order to make His job easier.

Of course, there has been a persistent bubbling of efforts to discredit Snowden along the lines of naif/narcissist/traitor.  Things quieted down when the carefully managed revelations of NSA domestic surveillance undercut the Snowden as hysterical dingbat narrative, but hotted up again with the reports on US spying on allies.  You know, hurts American interests, old news, everybody does it and, in Mike Rogers’ iteration, Europe should be grateful because Nobody Does It Better than the US of A.

These people obviously lost the Lord Acton memo about the corrupting nature of power—including the power bestowed on the NSA by an open-ended and generously funded mandate, secrecy, and sufficient legal impunity to initiate and perpetuate massive, compounded clusterfucks beyond the reach of congressional oversight.

Consider this revelation about the bugging of Andrea Merkel’s phone:

The Economic Times writes the “high-ranking” NSA official spoke to Bild am Sonntag on the condition of anonymity, saying the president, “not only did not stop the operation, but he also ordered it to continue.”

The Economic Times also reports the official told Bild am Sonntag that Obama did not trust Merkel, wanted to know everything about her, and thus ordered the NSA to prepare a dossier on the politician.

I don’t think that’s Edward Snowden talking.  Maybe it’s the Acela Babbler, Michael Hayden, passing on third-hand tittle-tattle.  Maybe Keith Alexander is sticking the boot in as he stomps off into retirement.  

In any case, that high level gossip, my friends, is probably more damaging to US diplomacy than the Snowden revelations, and also an indication of the culture of impunity and malice that seems to permeate the upper levels of the NSA and is now directed at President Obama for his equivocal defense of the agency.

Angela Merkel is probably seriously pissed that the NSA tapped her phone--and bragging about it.  In July, Merkel, an East German native who has tried to draw a clear, bright line between the security excesses of East Germany and practices in the West, had defended NSA surveillance as qualitatively different from the Stasi since the NSA was interested in protecting American security.  By that reading, Merkel has been considered a security risk for over a decade.

The revelation has done Germany the favor of alerting it to the fact that its communications security technology—in which it has reposed a high level of confidence—has been compromised.

As discussed in this article from Spiegel, German government communications were supposedly protected by world-class non-USA encryption and security products delivered by ex-Stasi technicians rolled into a company called Rohde & Schwarz.  The implication of the bugging of Merkel’s phone is that the US government has suborned and compromised Germany’s own data security apparatus.  Since Rohde & Schwarz is also a NATO supplier, perhaps the prospect of NATO contracts might have enticed them to hand over the goodies.  Or maybe the NSA hacked and fiddled its way in without corporate assistance from R&S.

For whatever reason, one can speculate that the NSA has done as good a job of fucking up German and NATO secure communications as it has done with overall Internet security.


Gorilla Radio Blog said...

So that's what happened to Michael Hastings' Mercedes!

Fred Zimmerman said...

This is a good article to the extent that it identifies the structure of the internet as the core problem. It's not just the NSA, it's all the commercial data miners, the Chinese, etc.

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