the real Eldorado is still further on

October 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

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The first thing I did after I heard about the highly classified NSA PRISM program two years ago was set up a proxy server in Peshawar to email me passages from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. A literary flight of fancy. I started sending back excerpts from Gerard Manley Hopkins poems.

The cantankerous Seymour Hersh was my inspiration. He had told me about the program in a clipped expletive-filled summary in the summer of 2011: “They’re scooping fucking everything, man! Phones, Internet, the whole works.”

I didn’t exactly believe him. He had also told me in 2008 that the Bush administration was close to authorizing airstrikes on Iran. So I treated his new pronouncement as a possibility, a sign from a questionable but often accurate oracle. I had wanted to rebel. The idea of esoteric poetry and prose in the NSA’s vaults appealed to me. “Yes,” I said to myself. “Yes I will.” And so I set out to tell Joyce’s story of a Chapelizod family, in a new way.

I acknowledge now, of course, that the venture was not the wisest idea. Certainly after I was indicted I regretted the hoax. My wife has had her regrets, too. Signing over your house to a law firm is a humbling experience, and for my wife, a clarifying one.

I will not acknowledge, however, that my actions were illegal. I admit only that the idea was pretentious.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Pavlina Tcherneva

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Repeat after me: banks cannot and do not “lend out” reserves

August 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Back in December 2012, we were bombarded with a campaign to save the free Internet. We were told that the ITU, the UN’s telecommunications body, was planning to take control over the Web during an intergovernmental meeting. A large coalition of private enterprises, activists and some governments (including the US government) came out in strong opposition to this move.

The story went something like this: the Internet is free and nobody owns it. Repressive regimes (Russia, China and Saudi Arabia were often mentioned) want to take control to make it easier for governments to keep an eye on their citizens. Any change to the current open state of affairs is bad.

The ITU-12 conference came and went, and it became evident that as far as evil takeovers went, this one had been a rather poorly organised one. Nothing changed. The Internet had been saved. As you were.

One of the things that always struck me about this campaign was the assumption that the Internet is free. While it is true that in theory anyone can create their own network and join the Internet, the idea that this makes the Web a free and open space seems to be an illusion.The problem is that we tend to think of Internet governance in the wrong terms. We concentrate on the existing multi-stakeholder institutions that have decision-making power over domain names and protocols as the governing bodies that exercise some level of control over the Internet. But we seldom think of the reality. The Web is more centralised than we would like to believe, few countries and a handful of private companies have a disproportionate amount of power with regards to the existing architecture. This is where the real power lies.

The distributed and open Internet is a worthy cause to support. Information wants to be free, but somebody has to pay for it. So besides the common fear of governments prevalent in online communities, we need to take a hard look at the way in which the Internet has become a sizeable business, and how some few companies command a disproportionate amount of power. These companies no longer respond to self-imposed promises not to be evil, their reason for existing is to make a profit. The NSA revelations have uncovered a public-private conglomerate of gigantic proportions, with the US government and many US-based companies at the centre. Each new revelation has uncovered layers of collaboration that many suspected, but the reality seems to surpass even the worst conspiracy theories.

The PRISM program unveiled collaboration at the service level. Most of the largest Internet services are based in the United States, so PRISM uses that fact by co-opting these companies into allowing surveillance of its users. One PRISM slide boasts that most communications pass through the US, while another chronicles the dates in which companies like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Skype were added to the program.

However, to me the most surprising (and chilling) revelation of all is XKeyscore, which implies a level of collaboration at the basic infrastructure level that few suspected. XKeyscore is a NSA program that allows intelligence agents to retrieve metadata and content about anything a user does online simply by providing an email address. Unlike PRISM, which relies on the service providers, there are strong implications in the XKeyscore presentation that lead me to believe that the US intelligence services are able to snoop on Internet traffic almost at the basic level. First there is the fact that XKeyscore is not centralised, it consists of a number of 500 Linux servers located around the world.

Then there is the fact that XKeyscore can be used to obtain an amount of data that cannot come from service collaborations.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Lee Jackson

Understand death? Sure. That was when the monsters got you

July 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

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An extraordinary fuss about eavesdropping started in the spring of 1844, when Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian exile in London, became convinced that the British government was opening his mail. Mazzini, a revolutionary who’d been thrown in jail in Genoa, imprisoned in Savona, sentenced to death in absentia, and arrested in Paris, was plotting the unification of the kingdoms of Italy and the founding of an Italian republic. He suspected that, in London, he’d been the victim of what he called “post-office espionage”: he believed that the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, had ordered his mail to be opened, at the request of the Austrian Ambassador, who, like many people, feared what Mazzini hoped—that an insurrection in Italy would spark a series of revolutions across Europe. Mazzini knew how to find out: he put poppy seeds, strands of hair, and grains of sand into envelopes, sealed the envelopes with wax, and sent them, by post, to himself. When the letters arrived—still sealed—they contained no poppy seeds, no hair, and no grains of sand. Mazzini then had his friend Thomas Duncombe, a Member of Parliament, submit a petition to the House of Commons. Duncombe wanted to know if Graham really had ordered the opening of Mazzini’s mail. Was the British government in the business of prying into people’s private correspondence? Graham said the answer to that question was a secret.

Questions raised this month about surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency have been met, so far, with much the same response that Duncombe got from Graham in 1844: the program is classified. (This, a secret secret, is known as a double secret.) Luckily, old secrets aren’t secret; old secrets are history. The Mazzini affair, as the historian David Vincent argued in “The Culture of Secrecy,” led to “the first modern attack on official secrecy.” It stirred a public uproar, and eventually the House of Commons appointed a Committee of Secrecy “to inquire into the State of the Law in respect of the Detaining and Opening of Letters at the General Post-office, and into the Mode under which the Authority given for such Detaining and Opening has been exercised.” In August of 1844, the committee issued a hundred-and-sixteen-page report on the goings on at the post office. Fascinating to historians, it must have bored Parliament silly. It includes a history of the delivery of the mail, back to the sixteenth century. (The committee members had “showed so much antiquarian research,” Lord John Russell remarked, that he was surprised they hadn’t gone all the way back to “the case of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who opened the letters which had been committed to his charge, and got Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put to death instead of himself.”)

The report revealed that Mazzini’s mail had indeed been opened and that there existed something called the Secret Department of the Post Office. Warrants had been issued for reading the mail of the king’s subjects for centuries. Before Mazzini and the poppy seeds, the practice was scarcely questioned. It was not, however, widespread. “The general average of Warrants issued during the present century, does not much exceed 8 a-year,” the investigation revealed. “This number would comprehend, on an average, the Letters of about 16 persons annually.” The Committee of Secrecy was relieved to report that rumors that the Secret Department of the Post Office had, at times, sent “entire mail-bags” to the Home Office were false: “None but separate Letters or Packets are ever sent.”

The entire episode was closely watched in the United States, where the New-York Tribune condemned the opening of Mazzini’s mail as “a barbarian breach of honor and decency.” After the Committee of Secrecy issued its report, Mazzini published an essay called “Letter-Opening at the Post-Office.” Two months after the Mazzini affair began, the Secret Department of the Post Office was abolished. What replaced it, in the long run, was even sneakier: better-kept secrets.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Derek Vincent

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