Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Counter Surveillance Society

Image Source: NSA Observer.

This past month saw a public push against the growing threat of a total Surveillance Society. On that issue, Xplode, makers of anti-adware, must be running across a lot of tracking junk files on people's computers. Xplode works under the French parent software team General Changelog, which appears to be supporting or developing a project called NSA Observer.

NSA Observer provides a summary of all public knowledge about the NSA online spying apparatus. The NSA Observer cites sources, including the Snowden leaks and public reports. Their site shows users the names of NSA-sourced spyware which may end up on private computers; it also shows the web of matrices by which these programs relate to one another. These programs have florid Millennial tech names, some of which hint at their functions, if you give them a little thought: Chewstick; Cineplex; CobaltFalcon; Ambulent; DogCollar; DistantFocus; MailOrder; MoonPenny; Ocelot; OrangeBlossom; RoyalConcierge (traces international diplomatic hotel and car reservations); OnionBreath (a GCHQ program); SurlySpawn; TalentKeyhole (a control system for space-based collection platforms); WealthyCluster; YachtShop; CottonMouth; EpicFail; EgotisticalGiraffe; FeedTrough; FlyingPig; GodSurge (provides software application persistence on Dell PowerEdge servers by exploiting the JTAG debugging interface of the server's processors); Hemlock; IrateMonk; PeddleCheap; OlympusFire; QuantumCookie; SlickerVicar; Trinity; Validator; WagonBed; WistfulToll; and ZestyLeak. If you read each entry carefully, you start to understand the nature and alarming extent of Internet monitoring. Take for example TreasureMap:
a near real-time, interactive map of the global Internet. It is a massive Internet mapping, analysis and exploration engine. It collects Wi-Fi network and geolocation data, and between 30 million and 50 million unique Internet provider addresses. The program can map “any device, anywhere, all the time.” Intelligence officials say "it only maps foreign and Defense Department networks".
The NSA Observer describes NSA programs as:
Programs are multimillion dollar projects that involve countries, companies, individuals and various technologies in the making of software, hardware and network manipulations used by NSA teams. Programs gather, handle and analyse data in order to determine how to collect more data. Most of the time, this data is gathered through invasive means. 
The site also lists NSA Attack Vectors:
Attack vectors are malicious tools executed on targeted individuals and/or organizations in order to gather more data on them. These attacks are most of the time directly aimed at individuals who have been identified as worthy targets.
And NSA Compartments:
Compartment is "jargon" that describes a team of persons, companies or countries. For higher security, the structure of intelligence agencies uses teams who are ignorant of the identity of the other teams. Should a compartment be compromised, other compartments should remain safe.
Fledgeling Metadata. Critics equate the NSA's collection of metadata with notorious secret police corps such as the East German Stasi: "Click here to explore a hand-drawn graphic, made by the East German secret police, that appears to show the social connections the Stasi gleaned about a poet they were spying on." Image Source: Stasi via ProPublica.

Three photos of NSA HQ buildings, submitted to the public domain by Gen X artist Trevor Paglen on 10 February 2014. From top: the NSA; the NRO; the NGA. Image Source: Trevor Paglen via The Intercept and Creative Time Reports.

On 17 January 2014 President Obama announced some small limits on the National Security Agency's surveillance practices. Any oversight of this body is welcome. The NSA turns down all requests from individuals to find on whether or not it has records on them. Earlier this month, at least Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google published some information on NSA data requests made to them about their users.

Even the NSA headquarters and affiliated agencies are barely known. Above are the first recent public photos of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in Chantilly, Virginia; the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in Springfield, Virginia; and the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Maryland. On 10 February 2014, The Baltimore Sun reported that these buildings were secretly photographed at night last fall; this brings the total number of public photos of NSA-related headquarters to four. This does not include the NSA data center in UtahRecently, a Republican legislator from Utah floated a bill to cut off that data center's water supply - the compound uses 1.7 million gallons of water per day to cool its servers:
Marc Roberts, a first-term Republican lawmaker ... plans this week to begin a quixotic quest to check government surveillance starting at a local level. He will introduce a bill that would prevent anyone from supplying water to the $1bn-plus data center the NSA is constructing in his state at Bluffdale. The bill is about telling the federal government “if you want to spy on the whole world and American citizens, great, but we’re not going to help you,” Roberts told the Guardian.
That ironic scarcity of information about the NSA is a remarkable achievement in today's networked, info-loaded world:
Two news websites Monday [10 February 2014] published images of the three of the most secretive U.S. agencies including the Maryland-based National Security Agency.
Outside of a single undated image provided by the NSA — which has been used repeatedly by The Sun and other media outlets for years — the agency's Fort Meade headquarters has not been extensively photographed.
Under the cover of darkness, artist Trevor Paglen used a helicopter last fall to photograph the National Security Agency in Fort Meade; the National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Va.; and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in Springfield, Va.
"My intention is to expand the visual vocabulary we use to 'see' the U.S. intelligence community," Paglen wrote of the project. "Although the organizing logic of our nation’s surveillance apparatus is invisibility and secrecy, its operations occupy the physical world."
First posted on The Intercept and Creative Time Reports, the images are now being made available to the public via sources such as Wikipedia Commons and Flickr.
The Intercept is Glenn Greenwald's new digital journalism venture. Greenwald was the reporter who first wrote about Edward Snowden's leaked information from NSA for The Guardian newspaper. In his article on Creative Time Reports, Paglen says the project was partially inspired by Snowden's disclosures.
The Intercept is already getting some attention, not surprisingly, from the Guardian, which reported on 10 February 2014 that the NSA has a role in American drone attacks and US assassinations:
The site, called the Intercept, reported Monday that the National Security Agency has used cell phone geolocation to help pinpoint targets for US drone strikes overseas, and published previously unseen photographs of major US intelligence facilities.
The Intercept is part of a suite of planned sites to be published by First Look media, founded by eBay chairman Pierre Omidyar. Its editors are Greenwald and fellow journalists Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill.

The Intercept will focus on reporting based on documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the site’s editors said in an introductory statement. “Our focus in this very initial stage will be overwhelmingly on the NSA story,” the statement said.

The involvement of the NSA in the drone program was previously reported, based on information found in the Snowden documents. However, the Intercept story, written by Scahill and Greenwald, appears to add significant new sourcing from inside the drone program itself, citing an unnamed “former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA.”

The story quotes the former operator as saying that innocent people have “absolutely” been killed in strikes based on geolocation techniques that can find a mobile phone but cannot verify who is holding it.

The NSA declined to respond to questions for the article, the Intercept said.

The editors accelerated the launch of the site, their statement said, to fight intensifying attacks on journalists working on stories about government surveillance and other secret programs.
First Look Media from First Look Media on Vimeo.

The role of the Guardian in the Snowden case and the subsequent establishment of The Intercept provide more food for thought. Can the Counter Surveillance Society remain free of the spying taint already exhibited by the Internet's biggest Websites? Will the call for independent voices and free press reports on a burgeoning online surveillance system paradoxically create new media behemoths, which have only temporarily-comforting indie branding? Beware the knee-jerk response, so common among online users, which assumes that anything that is anti-establishment is viable, morally watertight and automatically defensible, by virtue of simple contrast with the alternatives.

The New Yorker reported, also on 10 February 2014, on the sudden migration of top major mainstream media reporters and editors to the Internet. They are leaving the MSM en masse to take up blogging. Or they are setting up - with millions of dollars of private funding - their own online media outlets in the name of independent 'public interest journalism.' The New Yorker asks some  questions about how these new outlets are funded; whether they bring agendas - political or otherwise - to these endeavours; and whether they will bring their MSM problems with them to online publishing, which is a very different animal to the MSM. Indeed, this stampede into indie Internet journalism startup territory has initiated what Poynter referred to as, "the online publishing wars."

That quotation from Poynter about online publishing wars came from Felix Salmon in a November 2013 Reuters article about MSM journalistic tactics brought to online publishing as a form of 'content economics.'  Salmon interviewed Henry Blodget and Gawker Media’s Nick Denton. Blodget, also a Gen Xer, is seeking the “digital equivalent of Time Inc.”; he believes all the smaller independent online information outlets with any substance will be absorbed into these new post-MSM startups:
I do think that over the next five years, what you’re going to see is a lot of consolidation. The fact is, there are way too many digital news and media organizations out there right now. There will be a lot of consolidation. As they come together, you will get huge economies of scale on the sales side, on the tech side, and on some of the other areas as well. And then you’re going to see these companies produce good profits…

Right now there are 30? 50? 100? news organizations online that are effectively just general news sites. Do all of those brands have to exist? I would say no. I would say a lot of them could be combined under a big brand. We like brands. And I think ultimately companies like Huffington Post, or maybe it’s BuzzFeed, maybe it’s CNN, will build a global news organization that is vastly larger than anything that’s out there now. Now, basically, if you don’t have 100 million uniques as a general news organization, you might as well mail it in, because that’s the size that most of them are now. Over time, that will be 500 million uniques. It will be just inconceivably large audiences. Because they will bring a lot of what other sites are doing onto their one platform. They will be much easier for advertisers to deal with, because advertisers don’t actually want to do deals with 75 tiny little sites: they’d actually much rather work with a big site with much more reach…
This shows the mentality behind something like The Intercept, which is using Snowden's leaks to build a readership and public notoriety. It seems like this is a site that takes its whistle-blowing values seriously, until it becomes evident that it is just one small part of a big monster taking shape.

According to Salmon's Reuters article, the alternative to mega digital branding is micro digital branding. In the latter case, there is still just one brand behind a giant loose community of tiny actors, but the brand remains unseen, even as it makes money off its actors, who provide content:
Which brings me to the company which has been executing the publisher-as-a-platform strategy more successfully than anybody else for longer than anybody else: Glam Media. Glam is the publishing behemoth that non-insiders are least likely to have heard of, because it does a good job of hiding its own light under a bushel. Instead, it allows the sites on its network to build their own followings.
Glam started out as an ad network, basically. It would find publishers, mainly in the women’s-lifestyle space, and would do deals with them whereby it would sell ads on their sites. By aggregating a large number of sites, and starting a few of its own, Glam managed to achieve the kind of scale which advertisers demanded.
Along the way, Glam acquired an enormous stable of bloggers and writers — who were not only micro-publishers in their own right, but who were also creating some great content which deserved to be placed in front of a much larger audience. So Glam created a system whereby writers, photographers and other content providers could see their work appear on sites throughout the Glam network — and get paid every time that happened.
The difference between the Glam view of the world, which comprises thousands of publishing brands, and the Blodget view of the world, which involves only a relative handful, is that while it’s true that consumers like brands, it’s no longer true that one big brand is going to beat thousands of small brands. Smaller websites can feel much more targeted and personal, and can build up a much more loyal following, than sites which have millions of users. If advertisers can get their ads onto that kind of site, and reach just as many people as they would buying one huge site, they’re better off for it.
Glam, then, turned publishers into curators: they could produce their own content, or they could source content from elsewhere within the Glam network. If they hit a nerve and managed to gain serious traction with a niche audience, they could make good money from what they were publishing — and then they could make even more if their original content was used on other Glam sites. Best of all, none of the publishers had to worry about technology or ad sales — all of that was taken care of by the Glam mothership.
Do we want a Surveillance Society as a potential framework for a totalitarian police state? No, not on any account.

But do we want a Counter Surveillance Society, fueled by the worst greed Internet investors can muster, and dominated by a small number of ultra-powerful data platforms, which are married to equally powerful marketing corporations?

Maybe a 'third way' will emerge from projects such as NSA Observer, fashioned from the nuts-and-bolts programming world.

This is the central paradox of the Internet, one that urgently needs a solution. The most innovative online designs often begin with idealism, high-minded commitments to openness, freedom, democracy, renewed communities and a healthy debate on ideas and values. In short: liberty, equality and fraternity! The Internet has immense potential to build new, better economies and institutions. But again and again, these efforts are consolidated in projects which become the antitheses of the Internet's founding values.

The Web fosters unparalleled creativity, hope and inspiration. But it eats its young.

The Day We Fight Back (11 February 2014), an online anti-spying campaign supported by NSA Observer. Image Source: The Day We Fight Back.

Alan Moore took this line from the Roman poet Juvenal: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (Satires, Satire VI, lines 347–8). Image Source: MTV.

For my earlier posts on the rise of a Millennial surveillance society, see:

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