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State-Corporate Cybersurveillance Partnership Exposed

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
HAL 9001 - Icon of computer surveillance
HAL 9001 - Icon of computer surveillance

by Todd Howe
We Are Change Toronto

Public Service Announcement: If you object to warrantless state surveillance of your online activities, visit now and sign the petition to stop the Harper government’s forthcoming ‘Lawful Access’ provision.

“If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves.” – Marshall McLuhan

During a 1969 interview conducted during the dawn of the new age of electronic media, oft-cited futurist and tech critic Marshall McLuhan made the point that for our species, the market of information we call ‘culture’ is the frame we think within, a common set of ideas and symbols analogous to the air we breathe. Because this set of ideas is so all-pervasive and seemingly without boundaries, leaving us with little to compare and contrast it to, it slips into the background of our awareness.

One of the consequences of this reflexive inability to see the forest for the trees is that it’s precisely those technologies capable of causing social upheaval, of changing the ways people interact with their culture and with each other, that do much of their transformative work out on the liminal edges of awareness. And we tend to prefer it this way, McLuhan suggests — taking refuge in the familiar, numbing our responses to great change like trauma survivors might while technology extends the reach of our nervous system to new and unaccustomed horizons. All the while, we try bravely to take it in stride while the world is changed around us.

All of this is by way of introduction to a story that has largely slipped under the radar this past week, the exposure of a sprawling state-corporate intelligence complex unearthed in the emails of one US intelligence contractor HBGary Federal.

The story, as reported in the Guardian and Network World, began last year when a group of private contractors were discovered to have targetted US activist groups, Wikileaks, Anonymous, journalists like Glenn Greenwald over at, and presumably other official enemies. Upon bragging that he would out the leadership (if any such can be considered to exist) of distributed hacktivist group Anonymous, Anonymous responded to HBGary ex-CEO Aaron Barr’s challenge by dumping some 70,000 of the corporation’s emails on the web.

That was February. On June 22nd, Barrett Brown, a writer for Vanity Fair, Huffington Post, and his new ‘Project PM’ site was able to release the results of an investigation into those emails, exposing a classified US intelligence datamining operation called ROMAS/COIN and its upcoming replacement ODYSSEY. This massive operation would collate information from new media sources as diverse as social networks, the marketing information continually leaked by closed-source smartphone apps and online gaming platforms among others. Corporate team players listed in the emails include network infrastructure and online service platform giants Akamai, Google, and Apple.

According to Project PM, “the U.S. has been conducting a secretive and immensely sophisticated campaign of mass surveillance and data mining against the Arab world, allowing the intelligence community to monitor the habits, conversations, and activity of millions of individuals at once”, and that within this corporate intelligence complex, “Unprecedented surveillance capabilities are being produced by an industry that works in secret on applications that are nonetheless funded by the American public – and which in some cases are used against that very same public. Their products are developed on demand for an intelligence community that is not subject to Congressional oversight and which has been repeatedly shown to have misused its existing powers in ways that violate U.S. law as well as American ideals.”

It appears that these new information warfare capabilities are coming home to roost with a vengeance. In case anyone was under the impression that the era of intrusive state surveillance ramped up under POTUS George W. Bush, including the massive siphoning-off of communications at the service provider level has abated under the velvet glove of the current office holder, think again.

Introducing: Your Domestic Surveillance Network!

In light of the observations McLuhan was making about electronic media as an extension of the human nervous system over 40 years ago, perhaps it was inevitable that incentives to collate and cross-reference personal and public information would arise as individuals, institutions, and states all began jockeying for control of the new information technologies. Knowledge engenders power over one’s environment and in the realm of information this power struggle has had two discernible forks — the quest for measurement of available information and (subsequently) the control and suppression of publicly available information.

While a tension has always existed between the interests of the unlimited state and the individual, historic instances of state surveillance networks have relied extensively on the mobilization of compliant and traumatized populations to serve as the eyes and ears of state power. This is no longer a requirement for the effective measurement of public attitudes as automated filters and scripts now accomplish many of the same aims while requiring minimal resources in a turnkey environment. This capability has existed in some degree since the early 2000′s – in 2003, the US Congress shut down one attempt at an all-encompassing surveillance scheme known as ‘Total Information Awareness’, but the withdrawal of Congressional authorization for intelligence programs has not been known to stop the NSA in the past.

The buildout of this capability has to a large extent been hidden in plain sight, and is by no means limited to the United States. The Swedish wiretapping law case of June 2008 is just one recent example in which cross-border electronic state surveillance was unveiled with some fanfare to a Western public. As part of the ‘Echelon’ network, the Canadian wiretapping facility and SIGINT spook factory the Communications and Security Establishment (CSE) is being upgraded with a new $62 million dollar headquarters, with construction slated to be completed this year.

The ‘Vision 2015‘  and ‘Einstein‘ programs, also previously exposed by independent journalists as components in a warren of overlapping international and domestic surveillance systems, are just two further examples of moves by international intelligence networks towards a systemic, centralized ability to track attitudes in the way Google tracks websites.

Most pressingly for Canadians, the Harper government has made it clear that they will again be pursuing the benevolently-named ‘Lawful Access’ provisions we last heard of in 2009,  which would require Canadian ISPs to install backdoors on their systems for the warrantless access of citizen’s IP data upon request. This is an administration which has already been caught monitoring political speech online,  so it seems unlikely they will back down now after securing a majority in the house. For more on this matter, Michael Geist at the University of Ottawa and TVO’s Jesse Brown are good sources of information to follow as the issue develops.

Running through further examples would only be redundant this point, but there is ample open-source information on state surveillance available online at sites such as Techdirt, Cryptogon, Slashdot, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Munk Centre’s Citizen Lab, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Fencing Off the Information Commons

The purpose of measuring a system is to understand and control it, and in this arena we find that operational capabilities have also been advancing. Chinese-style Internet filters capable of blocking various sites deemed unsavoury have now been installed or are on the agenda in Australia, the UK, and the United States. A bill advanced by Joseph Leiberman in the US Senate advocates for a means to “shut down or limit internet traffic on private systems”, effectively calling for an internet kill switch. The emergency powers asked for are in this case advanced under the pretext of protecting ‘key infrastructure’, a line which has also been taken in Canada, a measure aimed at effectively nationalising the security of ‘critical’ private sector assets.

Such broad regulatory approaches to restricting the flow of information are not the only tools available to state and media interests when the two intersect as they do in the present political climate. Steps may also be taken to stake out expanded legal controls of cultural and intellectual content, concentrating the ‘ownership’ of ideas into fewer hands and creating a finer-grained control of information flow by delegating the role of gatekeeper to appropriate media partners holding copyrights in perpetuity.

It may be helpful to think of the sum total of information available to an individual or a culture online as being analogous to a vast open expanse, such as once existed prior to the colonization, subdivision, and parcelling out of property in the American ‘Wild West’. These days, the talk is of taming the ‘Wild West’ of the Internet instead as artificial barriers to access – paywalls, proprietary standards, DMCA takedowns, mass RIAA lawsuits – spring up to blunt the Internet’s utility as a great leveller of barriers to knowledge. The justification given for this ongoing ‘virtual’ land grab for the control of Internet properties is a respect for intellectual property, but a closer look at this burgeoning field of law suggests that this reasoning is disingenuous. For one thing, ‘intellectual property’ protection has ballooned out far beyond the original intent of copyright and patent law to grant a short state-backed period during which innovators could recoup investments without fear of competition from others, sometimes to decades past the death of the creator. Also, it is in the very nature of human economic and intellectual progress to collaborate and borrow ideas, reworking them to fit new situations. By the standards of intellectual property, even the most basic human innovations like the humble grain of rice may never have come into being, as such a valuable property today would doubtless be tied up in genomic patent lawsuits before seeing the light of day.

Of course this simple analogy breaks down on the crucial point that good land is a scarce resource while information may now be infinitely replicated, but that’s just the point. The discussion around whether one may or may not actually own an intangible must be set aside for later exploration, but with multiple international jurisdictions racing to introduce new laws further restricting the use and reuse of ideas (for two examples due to impact Canada see the failed bill C-32, due to be reintroduced posthaste by the present government, as well as the global ‘Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement’ or ACTA, a severely flawed document largely negotiated in secret meetings between media executives and international lawmakers) the practical outcome is to incrementally control and restrict information flows, putting out the eyes of the public by creating new barriers to the new forms of media McLuhan once envisioned as an external extension of our bodies and restricting new online platforms to the role of branded entertainment delivery. We can see this beginning to happen as eg; the New York Times online presence goes dark behind its new paywall and Youtube automatically pulls and/or restricts new videos containing incidental samples of copyrighted work.

Nothing to Hide?

As Barrett Brown notes in the conclusion to his Guardian column,

Altogether, the existence and nature of Romas/COIN should confirm what many had already come to realise over the past few years, in particular: the US and other states have no intention of allowing populations to conduct their affairs without scrutiny. Such states ought not complain when they find themselves subjected to similar scrutiny – as will increasingly become the case over the next several years.

To this it could be added that states very often have no intention of allowing themselves to be scrutinised in this manner. Upon learning of a simple application now available on smartphones that might allow an undetected recording to be made of police in situations where an abuse of power is in progress,  Arizona advised its police to troll through citizen’s phones to see what similar applications they may possess. The isolated destruction of journalist’s equipment during the recent Toronto G20 illuminates a similar reflex to disable uncooperative civilian media.

The apologetics trotted out by supporters of state surveillance typically include an argument along the lines of, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” While the argument is facile on its surface – there’s a reason we put curtains up in our homes – a lengthy article by George Washington law professor Daniel Solove does a good job of further demolishing the argument as bundling in the false assumption that privacy is a sort of craven or misguided need for secrecy. Solove writes

the computer-security specialist Schneier aptly notes, the nothing-to-hide argument stems from a faulty “premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong.” Surveillance, for example, can inhibit such lawful activities as free speech, free association, and other First Amendment rights essential for democracy.

The deeper problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is that it myopically views privacy as a form of secrecy. In contrast, understanding privacy as a plurality of related issues demonstrates that the disclosure of bad things is just one among many difficulties caused by government security measures.

He notes that privacy harms are not limited to ‘the disclosure of bad things’ but that unseen harms are introduced by, for instance, the vast resources of a state to centralize, aggregate and collate discrete bits of information about you that falls outside the normal expectation of how your public information may be used, raising the risk of false positives, the suppression of legitimate dissent, and other harms to fundamental rights.

While some countermeasures currently exist to help circumvent the ability of state and corporate actors to gather information about you online – the use of VPNs, encrypted email, anonymizing proxies such as the TOR network, web script blockers like the popular Firefox plugin Ghostery and others, there’s nothing to say that these and other similar personal safeguards will not be defeated or ruled illegal in future. Instead, the looming problem of state and corporate surveillance needs to be addressed as a matter of fundamental human rights, perhaps in some future Section 8 challenge in this country.

Until that day comes, the best defence against the expanding threat of online surveillance and its corollary, restricted access to information, is education on the issues and the will to help others in your community understand the threat to free expression posed by the architecture of surveillance being built into the very fabric of new media platforms.

Related, by the author: Be Seeing You: The Coming Surveillance Expansion

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tehowe (Todd Howe)
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