The Greenwald Orbital Ion Cannon

Depending on how comprehensive this list is this latest release by Gleen Greenwald could effectively be the orbital ion cannon strike in the war against the National Security Agency (NSA):

Glenn Greenwald, one of the reporters who chronicled the document dump by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden via the U.K. press, now said he’s set to publish his most dramatic piece yet: The names of those in the United States targeted by the NSA.

“One of the big questions when is comes to domestic spying is, ‘Who have been the NSA’s specific targets?’ Are they political critics and dissidents and activists? Are they genuinely people we’d regard as terrorists? What are the metrics and calculations that go into choosing those targets and what is done with the surveillance that is conducted? Those are the kinds of questions that I want to still answer,” Mr. Greenwald told The Sunday Times of London.

I’m imagining a list a million names long and am really hoping my name appears somewhere in it. But the list will likely be much shorter than that and may just contain the names of the “important” people the NSA is spying on. Either way it will be interesting to see who’s one it and, hopefully, determine some of the criteria the NSA uses to select targets for espionage.

Technology Companies Defying the State By Reporting Law Enforcement Requests

Rebellion is a beautiful thing. Several major technology companies included Apple, Facebook, and Google have decided to notify their users when law enforcement agents request their data:

Major U.S. technology companies have largely ended the practice of quietly complying with investigators’ demands for e-mail records and other online data, saying that users have a right to know in advance when their information is targeted for government seizure.

This increasingly defiant industry stand is giving some of the tens of thousands of Americans whose Internet data gets swept into criminal investigations each year the opportunity to fight in court to prevent disclosures. Prosecutors, however, warn that tech companies may undermine cases by tipping off criminals, giving them time to destroy vital electronic evidence before it can be gathered.

Fueling the shift is the industry’s eagerness to distance itself from the government after last year’s disclosures about National Security Agency surveillance of online services. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google all are updating their policies to expand routine notification of users about government data seizures, unless specifically gagged by a judge or other legal authority, officials at all four companies said. Yahoo announced similar changes in July.

One thing I like about the technology field is that companies and individuals within it tend to have a greater problem with authority than most. Although I would have preferred to see this happen sooner I’m not going to gripe too much. Instead I want to congratulate these companies on doing the right thing.

It’s interesting to see the changes that have rippled through the technology market since Edward Snowden leaked those National Security Agency (NSA) documents. Security and transparency has traditionally been an afterthought for major technology companies but both have gained more prominence since we all learned that the NSA was unlawfully spying on each and every one of us. Google, for example, began encrypting data moving between its data centers. Experts in the security field boycotted the RSA conference because its namesake took $10 million from the NSA to use a knowingly weak random number generator in its BSAFE product. There has also been a race to develop more secure communication devices in an attempt to thwart the NSA surveillance apparatus. Basically the state royally pissed off the technology industry and it is now actively doing what it can to rebel.

I’m proud to work in a field that is actively giving the state a gigantic middle finger. Seeing companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google publicly change their policies to better inform their customers when the state is snooping makes me smile.

I’ll Scratch Your Back If You Scratch Mine

Fascism is basically circlejerk economics. Government officials are jerking off corporate cronies while corporate cronies are jerking off government officials. This system works very well if you’re at the top but most of us aren’t at the top so we get to suffer protected monopolies, inferior products, and shitty service.

Another side effect of fascism is that government will always swoop in to protect its corporate cronies. Right now the White House is demanding that its corporate partners who hand over customer data to the National Security Agency (NSA) received legal immunity:

The White House has asked legislators crafting competing reforms of the National Security Agency to provide legal immunity for telecommunications firms that provide the government with customer data, the Guardian has learned.

In a statement of principles privately delivered to lawmakers some weeks ago to guide surveillance reforms, the White House said it wanted legislation protecting “any person who complies in good faith with an order to produce records” from legal liability for complying with court orders for phone records to the government once the NSA no longer collects the data in bulk.

In other words the White House doesn’t want any actual reform. Unless entities handing over data to the NSA face consequences there’s no motivation for them to not do so even when they know a request is illegal. This is especially true when you consider how much money many companies make off of government data requests.

As an aside, it’s funny how the White House never demanded whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden received legal immunity for revealing government corruption. I guess our illegal secrets aren’t the same as the government’s illegal secrets.

Checks and Balances

Back in junior high school we spent a lot of time in civics class discussing the system of checks and balances that exists between the three branches of government. It was a wonderful fairytale about how no single branch of the government could ever attain absolute power because the other two branches would stomp it down. What wasn’t covered was the truth, which is that all three branches are playing on the same team. When the executive branch wants a law the legislative branch writes and passes it. When the legislative branch wants a law enforce the executive branch dutifully enforces it. When either branch want somebody to back their actions up they ask the judicial branch. It’s really just one big government circle jerk.

But the judicial branch has another option available to it. Instead of ruling in favor of the actions of the other two branches it can simple opt to not hear a case:

The Supreme Court declined Monday to resolve the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s bulk telephone metadata surveillance program, leaving intact what a lower-court judge described as an “almost-Orwellian” surveillance effort in which the metadata from every phone call to and from the United States is catalogued by US spies.

Surveillance state got you down? Are the people unhappy about being spied on? Is the executive branch demanding you rule its actions constitutional? Do you want to avoid a public relations nightmare but are stuck between a rock and a hard place? No problem, simply refuse to hear the case!

With the simple act of refusing to hear the case the Supreme Court managed to make the issue of phone surveillance somebody else’s problem, which likely saved it from the wrath of both the executive branch and the people being spied on. It’s a wonderful way to avoid being a check against abuses of power and tipping the balance of public opinion against you. Good job guys!

The Minnesota GOP Setting Itself Up to Fail Again

It’s nice to sit on the sidelines and observe the great political competitions as they play out. People often criticize those of us on the sidelines and claim that we’re not pulling our weight. But we see things from our vantage point that those playing the games do not. One example is the apparent inability of those playing for the Minnesota Republican Party (MNGOP) to see how ineffective their strategies are.

The MNGOP is currently putting its weight behind taking Al Franken’s seat. Considering Franken’s political track record this competition should be in the bag. Franken’s track record of supporting draconian intellectual property and Internet censorship laws and defending the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance apparatus should be enough ammunition to get young politicos fired up against him. At that point the MNGOP would only need to run a candidate who could stop himself from saying stupid shit in public, advocated Internet freedom, and demanded the abolition of the NSA to achieve victory.

But anybody with knowledge of Minnesota politics knows that the MNGOP can’t bring itself to use winning strategies. Instead one of the leading candidates for the MNGOP senate candidacy has decided to play the Democrat Party’s war on women strategy:

In a petition published on her Facebook page yesterday, Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Julianne Ortman says a recently released secret recording of Al Franken joking around in an Arizona driveway shows he “still doesn’t take women seriously.”

Here is the video in question:

Pro tip: never attempt to use your opponent’s strategy against them unless you actually understand it. The war on women strategy only works when the target has said something in a serious manner that makes him look misogynistic. It’s a strategy that works wonderfully against Republican candidates because they have a habit of saying very stupid shit in public. But Franken has never really said anything too misogynistic so using the strategy against him is foolish. In fact the video, which makes it obvious that Franken was trying to be comical, does more to humanize him than make him look misogynistic.

But the failboat doesn’t only dock at that harbor. Ortman also demonstrates that she’s not opposed to the NSA’s surveillance apparatus:

The FISA Court first was authorized in 1979 and operates in secret and ex parte (only the government gets to present its case). It makes sense that we don’t want our foreign enemies to know how we are gathering information to protect ourselves. However, I am deeply concerned that the court has migrated to granting orders authorizing the wholesale gathering of information about presumably innocent private citizens and residents of the United States under the guise of intelligence gathering against unnamed foreign threats. This is where there must be more transparency. To begin with, we should insist that the FISA Court’s analysis and legal justifications be reviewed and discussed publicly by policymakers, with the right of the general public to be heard and considered.

Justifying secret courts is something only a petty authoritarian would do. So that justification was the first mistake. The second mistake was asking for more transparency instead of complete abolition of the secret court. She could have said that the secret courts made sense at the time but now their time has passed and saved herself from looking like a complete authoritarian. But she chose to justify the establishment of the secret courts and then argue that they are still necessary but a little additional oversight would be nice. Franken’s campaign won’t be able to argue against secret courts due to its candidate support of the NSA surveillance apparatus. What it will be able to do is point out that Ortman also supports the NSA surveillance apparatus and render the issue irrelevant for the race.

To quote my friend, “This is why the GOP can’t have nice things.” The party is flailing in a desperate search for a life preserver. Franken’s seat would be pretty easy to snatch if the MNGOP would use an effective strategy. Instead it’s marketing a candidate who is little more than Fraken lite. I’m not aware of any races where an incumbent was removed from office by a candidate advertising him or herself as a lite version of the incumbent.

What’s even more pathetic is that the MNGOP will likely pull the same stupidity in the governor race. Mark Dayton has burned a lot of bridges and his seat could easily be taken but the MNGOP will likely run another lackluster candidate and use absolutely idiotic campaign strategies to ensure its defeat.

This is one hell of a game to observe but I sure am glad that I’m not playing it.

When Different Government Departments Have Mutually Exclusive Missions

Trying to unwrap every mission the federal government has tasked itself with is practically impossible. The beast as grown so large that no single individual can fully grasp it. There are many dangers inherit in such a massive system. One of those dangers is different departments holding mutually exclusive mission. Take the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for instance. One of its missions [Warning: link is operated by a dangerous gang of violent criminals] is to defend the nation’s communication infrastructure. This would imply discovering and notifying the public about potential security exploits. Now consider the National Security Agency (NSA). Its mission is to exploit vulnerable system of both domestic and foreign entities in order to spy on them. This mission is mutually exclusive to DHS’s:

WASHINGTON — Stepping into a heated debate within the nation’s intelligence agencies, President Obama has decided that when the National Security Agency discovers major flaws in Internet security, it should — in most circumstances — reveal them to assure that they will be fixed, rather than keep mum so that the flaws can be used in espionage or cyberattacks, senior administration officials said Saturday.

But Mr. Obama carved a broad exception for “a clear national security or law enforcement need,” the officials said, a loophole that is likely to allow the N.S.A. to continue to exploit security flaws both to crack encryption on the Internet and to design cyberweapons.

It is impossible for the government to both protect the nation’s communication infrastructure and not inform the public about major security flaws. When you discover a security flaw you cannot know for certain that you’re the only one who knows about it. Any number of people could have discovered it beforehand. That being the case you cannot assume that the flaw isn’t being actively exploited by nefarious individuals or organizations. Therefore the only way to protect the general public is to disclose information regarding the exploit so it can be fixed.

This is one of the reasons why any mission statement given by a government agency is meaningless. While one government agency may be tasked with a certain mission another agency is likely tasked with the exact opposite mission.

How Much Water Does the NSA Use

How much water does the National Security Agency (NSA) use? That’s classified. I’m not even kidding. According to the NSA the amount of water its new data center in Utah uses is a matter of national security:

The National Security Agency has many secrets, but here’s a new one: the agency is refusing to say how much water it’s pumping into the brand new data center it operates in Bluffdale, Utah. According to the NSA, its water usage is a matter of national security.

The agency made the argument in a letter sent to officials in Utah, who are considering whether or not to release the data to the Salt Lake Tribune. Back in May, Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle asked for local records relating to the data center, but when he got his files a few months later, the water usage data was redacted.

We live in an era where practically everything the government does is labeled classified, which makes the label meaningless. Furthermore labeling everything as classified makes oversight of any government agency impossible. The total lack of transparency is part of the reason elections are meaningless. How can the people know who to elect to take care of problem parts of the government if they don’t even know what those problem parts are?

If You’re Reading This Then You’re On the NSA’s Watch List

Good news readers, you’re officially on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) watch list! I know what you’re thinking, how can I be on the agency’s watch list when I haven’t done anything. It turns out that the NSA assumes anybody using encryption is a suspect and this very website employes encryption. Some time ago I switched this site over to using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and forced any attempt to access the insecure version of this site to the secure version. It’s bad news for government spies trying to snoop on your web traffic but good news for the NSA when it comes time to point out how many suspected terrorists it’s tracking:

AUSTIN, Texas — Glenn Greenwald, editor of the newly launched digital publication The Intercept, told attendees at SXSWi that the National Security Agency is wary of anyone who takes steps to protect their online activity from being hacked, such as using encryption tools.

“In [the NSA’s] mind, if you want to hide what you’re saying from them, it must mean that what you’re saying is a bad thing,” Greenwald said via a Skype video call. “They view the use of encryption… as evidence that you’re suspicious and can actually target you if you use it.”

Why stop at using encryption for just websites? Since you’re already on the watch list you might as well start encrypting your e-mail and other forms of communication. Those agents at the NSA get paid good money so we might as well make them work hard for it.

Keith Alexander is Planning His Move to a Cushy Private Sector Job

The bastard who spearheaded the massive National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance apparatus has unveiled plans to retire:

Army General Keith Alexander’s eight-year tenure was rocked this year by revelations contained in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the agency’s widespread scooping up of telephone, e-mail and social media data.

Alexander has formalized plans to leave by next March or April, while his civilian deputy, John “Chris” Inglis, is due to retire by year’s end, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

I’m sure a lot of credit for this retirement goes to Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. If it wasn’t for all the bad publicity provided by those two Mr. Alexander would likely continue is reign of spying. But this news is bittersweet. Being a higher up in the military, Mr. Alexander has probably received numerous job offers from politically connected defense contractors. Those offers likely include an absurdly high salary with very few job responsibility. Lockheed Martin, for example, would almost certainly love to hire Mr. Alexander to wine and dine his former military buddies to convince them to go with Lockheed’s solutions instead of Raytheon’s.

In other words, Mr. Alexander spend years illegally spying on us and his reward will almost certainly be a high paying career as a salesman for a defense contractor. That doesn’t seem like a very just outcome but it is a typical outcome when corruption within the state is unveiled.