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NSA Scandal: I Got Algorithm

9:17 am in Uncategorized by David Seaton

When separate streams of data are integrated into large databases — matching, for example, time and location data from cellphones with credit card purchases or E-ZPass use — intelligence analysts are given a mosaic of a person’s life that would never be available from simply listening to their conversations. Just four data points about the location and time of a mobile phone call, a study published in Nature found, make it possible to identify the caller 95 percent of the time. “We can find all sorts of correlations and patterns,” said one government computer scientist. New York Times

If the search for those planning terror attacks is like looking for a needle in a haystack, however, then first thing one needs is a haystack. Haaretz

Now that we are envisioning some guy in a National Security Agency warehouse in Fort Meade, Md., going through billions of cat videos and drunk-dialing records of teenagers, can the Ministries of Love and Truth be far behind? Maureen Dowd – NYT

Who Owns the Future cover

Who Owns the Future by Jared Lanier sheds light on the current NSA scandal.

Reading Jason Lanier’s important new book, Who Owns the Future, shortly before the NSA scandal broke, helped me to get a better understanding of what has happened.  Lanier says that we are giving away very valuable marketing information (data) about ourselves, our tastes, our ideas, our location from moment to moment, in exchange for free email, and places to meet others of similar tastes, etc. This is the significance of “Big Data,” the masses of personal information that Amazon, Google and Facebook gather from their users, which allows them to place an ad on the page you are reading, like the CIA places a Hellfire rocket from a drone.

And Lanier maintains that the most powerful individuals and companies in the near future will be the ones with the biggest servers, “Siren-Servers,” he calls them, those that amass and can process more data about their customer’s (just about everyone’s) lives. What the NSA has been doing naturally follows from that: the US government owns the biggest servers and they are milking the “Siren-Servers” like a herd of milch cows.

You thought that in the new Internet world that maybe Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg were going to be bigger swinging dicks than the head of the CIA? Think again.

What the NSA appears to be doing is to correlate almost all the big social data that American firms possess. I don’t know if at that point we really have a reason to complain, as Lanier points out in his book, we are giving all that valuable information about ourselves away for free to people like “don’t be evil” Google, in exchange for “free” email, cloud space, etc.

If you took the trouble (which nobody ever does) to read the lengthy texts that come above the “AGREE” button that we eagerly click on in order to get all the free stuff, you would probably find buried in it some lawyerly little clause where you agree to let them share it with the government. Therefore this marketing and location information (not the contents of the emails) probably IS public domain.

What we really have to investigate is how the government correlates what Haaretz calls the “haystack,” what are the algorithms that the NSA is using, how are threats defined, what the correlations might be. One thing is Amazon figuring out what books you might enjoy or Facebook thinking you might be interested in deep-dish pizza and quite another thing is the FBI thinking you are a threat to national security. In short we need to know how the system works, what criteria the government agencies are employing in processing all this data that we have given away for free.

What sort of results has it produced? What plots have been foiled? Whose lives have been saved? This information is essential for the public in a democracy to evaluate the tradeoffs involved. The resulting “safety” may not justify the loss of trust in those sworn to protect us.

It seems to me, with the meager information I possess, that this kind of data correlating might easily lead to discovering a network of child pornographers or cannibals, but I’m a bit skeptical about the value of what they are collecting if it is for catching serious terrorists, spies and criminals. The really serious ones are not that generous with their data.

Back at the turn of the century, I remember reading the legendary East German spymaster, Markus Wolf’s fascinating autobiography, Man Without A Face. Way back then, Wolf laughed at anyone who would digitize any serious information so that a “schoolboy in Kansas” could access it from his bedroom and he wrote that he kept the names of his agents in his head and didn’t even commit them to paper. We also know from our readings that capo mafiosi and Sea Org Scientologists do all their phoning from payphones and have masses of quarters on hand for this purpose. And who can forget that the greatest terrorist in history, Osama bin Laden probably managed to survive as long as he did after 9-11 because he only communicated using couriers.

So just to recap, we had better hurry and check to see that if “in a fit of absent mindedness ” we haven’t actually happily given Facebook and Google permission to give all our “secrets” to the security state. And then we should demand to know in detail what criteria are used in determining what minute flotsam in this endless ocean of data might cause any individual (presumed innocent till proven guilty) to be singled out for intense surveillance by the security forces of a democracy.

Cross posted from:

Boston and the dilemma of “homegrown” terrorism

10:50 pm in Uncategorized by David Seaton

As the Spanish and British can attest since the Madrid and London attacks of 2004 and 2005, homegrown terrorism is tougher to anticipate than plots from outside. Edward Luce – Financial Times

The word “homegrown” is not really applicable to Islamic terrorism. Islam even in its most benign manifestations is always “homegrown”: a simple, universally applicable, multinational, text-based, hierarchy-less, easy to understand, ideology that governs every aspect of life.

When, finally the worldwide Muslim community or Uma, using the essential, cheap and ubiquitous, communication tools of the Internet comes to a simple consensus as to who their enemies are, and there exist simple devices like pressure cookers filled with black powder for expressing their anger, no hierarchy in the shadows is needed. We can expect many individual actions similar to 19th century anarchism to follow.

What Americans need to pray for is that the millions of alienated, American born, young, black, men, who overflow their prison system, do not turn to Islam to express their anger and sense of oppression.

Cross posted from:

The bombs and bombers of Boston

8:54 am in Uncategorized by David Seaton

Federal investigators are hurrying to review a visit that one of the suspected bombers made to Chechnya and Dagestan, predominantly Muslim republics in the north Caucasus region of Russia. Both have active militant separatist movements. Members of Congress expressed concern about the F.B.I.’s handling of a request from Russia before the trip to examine the man’s possible links to extremist groups in the region. New York Times

It looks like this bombing was organized from Chechnya.

Why in Boston?

Because of their previous successes, planting a bomb in Moscow is very hard for the Chechens to pull off anymore and even if they are successful, killing dozens of Russians, as they often have before: that doesn’t even rate more than a line or two in the world press.

But set off a homemade Chechen bomb in the USA, where nobody is expecting it, one that only kills three people… and suddenly it will dominate the world media for many days on end, with exhaustive coverage, something which, in effect, puts Chechnya and the Chechen cause right back on the map.

Probably…  but it also could have been just as easily organized by Russian intelligence, who, tired of being ignored, used agents provocateurs posing as Chechen extremists to recruit Tamarlan Tsarnaev, who in turn recruited his little brother.

Why would Russian intelligence do something like that?

Because Chechen nationalism is a very big problem for the Russians, but hardly on America’s radar. Now instead of just being another tool for the Americans to potentially weaken Putin with, it has suddenly become a common enemy demanding intense cooperation with Putin. The Tsarnaev brothers would have been the last ones to know.

We will probably never know the truth either.

Cross posted from:

Bombs in Boston

10:36 am in Uncategorized by David Seaton

I live in Madrid, Spain, and at this moment we are enjoying a (momentary?) respite from nearly 40 years of constant terrorist attacks, mostly by Basque separatists, with the one monumental attack by Al Qaeda in March 2004 with nearly 200 dead.

I remember once, many, many years ago, being in an office meeting and hearing through the open window a very close by,  “ratatatatat” followed by a “boom“, followed by the most total of silences, followed minutes later by sirens, which was the machine gun burst and grenade chaser that killed a Spanish admiral, the direct descendent of  Christopher Columbus and his chauffeur, a poor recruit.

The daughter of a friend of ours lost an eye in an Eta bomb attack… she was just passing by.

The only consolation I can give the people of Boston is that if it goes on long enough, you finally get used to it… almost.

Cross posted from:




12:06 pm in Uncategorized by David Seaton

The first round of voting in Egypt shows a strong showing for the Islamic parties, both the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extreme Salifist party Al-Nour. At this point the Islamists appear to have taken two thirds of the vote.

This first round took place in urban districts where more western oriented parties were expected to make a good showing. The next round of voting will take place in rural areas, which are more traditional and conservative, so the final result will probably have the Islamists with clear, governing majorities. In the west there is now much wailing and gnashing of teeth at this turn of events. In my opinion, whether this is bad news or good news for the west depends much more on us than on the Egyptians. Read the rest of this entry →

Poor United States, so far from God and so close to… the USA

9:05 am in Uncategorized by David Seaton

The lesson of the past few years: Watch out for things that can go massively wrong. What could go massively wrong in 2011? Let’s start next door, with Mexico.  Mexico drug war a nightmare scenario – CNN

I put the quote above, one that I have taken at random from CNN, to avoid being accused of setting up a straw man — the idea that no one in the USA is worried about the Mexican drug war. Plenty of people are very worried, and for all the right reasons. All I want to do here is add some more reasons of my own to be worried.

Many people fear, and they have good reason to do so, that Mexico may be in danger of becoming a “failed state”, or may already be one to some extent. I am not that optimistic, I think that the real danger may be that the United States of America is in danger of becoming a “failed state” or may already be one to some extent and that Mexico’s dilemma is in great part only a symptom of America’s own dilemma. Read the rest of this entry →