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Review: “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, Neil Postman

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In “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman, he warns against the perils of television as a communication channel for serious content, and explores why typographic media should be preferred over visual in public discourse, especially in politics, education and religion. He gives examples of how “the medium is the message”, that is, how the channel a message is sent through shapes the message itself. He worries that visual media, television in particular, transforms every message into entertainment, void of context, serious content, or troubling information. He references the fiction in the dystopian worlds of “1984″ and “Brave New World”, to point out “the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right”. (The original foreword and the last chapter argues this eloquently). In other words, we are not suppressed by a surveillance state and dictatorship, but instead distracted by bread and circuses.

Postman’s argument has two main parts: The historical value and importance of the written word as a medium of communication for serious content and public discourse; and the distractions and lack of context in visual communication, especially with television tending to morph every message into brief bits of entertainment.

From typographic to visual media
In the first part of the book, he considers how politics in colonial and 19th century America was mostly conducted and presented through long public letters, or by today’s standards, very long public debates, stretching over many hours in front of local audiences. He is amazed by the attention-span the citizens at that time commanded, and how engaged they were in the politics and arguments of the various politicians. He claims many people at the time would have recognized famous politicians by their writing, but not necessarily by appearance, which is of course the opposite of today’s situation.

In further chapters, Postman looks at how first the telegraph and later the photography changed the media landscape, and how those media shaped the content they channeled through. He traces the beginning of the irrelevant and out-of-context news bits to the telegraph, where snippets from afar could awake as much emotion, if not insight, as local business and news. He continues with discussion about the photograph, and asserts that a picture contains no context but itself. Any additional context is from information surrounding it, or prior knowledge we inject into it.

The medium is the message
To illustrate how the medium shapes and constrains the message, he uses the example of smoke rings for communication: Although they can be used to send very brief messages, it is not possible to conduct a philosophical discussion through that medium. Similarly, Postman argues, television cannot be used to convey serious content, since the visual presentation demands most of the viewer’s attention, and the narration or discussion will tend towards short sound-bites. (As an example of this, look at a site like euronews.com, which transcribes the audio of most of their short video clips. It is surprising how little text, read in 10 to 20 seconds, which goes with a minute of video).

In addition, most public television is of course funded by advertisement. This directly interrupts and distracts any and all programming, but also dictates the content. The message must be optimized to maximize the number of viewers, and thus eyeballs on their ads. The result can only be one thing: entertainment. Thus, whether the content is news, politics, education or religion, the viewer can never be allowed to get bored, challenged nor offended, lest he skips to another channel.

Must-read

Postman’s book was first published in 1985. In the 2006 edition, his son, Andrew Postman, points out why his father’s book is even more relevant now. Today, we are surrounded by visual content and entertainment, through the Internet; mobile phones; computers; never-ending TV station streams. Had Neil lived to see our world, he would probably have been even more shocked than he was back then, when an actor was elected US president in 1980.

What makes the book so approachable and readable, is its timeless message about the relevance of the written word for serious communication. Thirty-two years ago, the strongest opposing force was television, while today the Internet brings the same visual entertainment to large parts of the Western population. In fact, the lack of context have gone even further, with services like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit centered around streams of completely random pictures of irrelevant content, often from people we hardly know.

Recent political communication has taken this to a sinister level, when messages are now tailor-made based on a user’s profile. As a result, we might vote for the same party and candidate, but based on different promises automatically designed to appeal to our emotions. The choice of policy is based on the entertainment value of the candidate, or whether he seems like a guy we’d like to sit down for a drink with.

Today, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” is a must-read.

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Expanding police and surveillance powers across Europe

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In January, two interesting and thorough reports on expanding police and surveillance powers across Europe were published: Amnesty International published a 70 page report which summarizes its research into expanding police laws across EU and the troubling consequences to innocent citizens. It was followed up by an opinion piece in The Guardian by one of its authors, John Dalhuisen.

The second report was by Privacy International (original), and analysed the expanded surveillance and data retention powers in UK, Germany and France.

Each report paints a grim picture of the state of human rights and privacy across the EU. Overall a somber picture emerges: The liberty and freedom we have enjoyed over the last quarter of a century is eroding. Add to that the sweeping wind of right-wing nationalist politics across the continent, and the alarm bells should be ringing.

Too often, the counter-argument in this debate is “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”, or the corollary “I’m too boring for the state to be interested in”. Glenn Greenwald does a good job of dispelling that argument in his book “No Place to Hide”. He points out that surveillance stifles self-expression, creativity and experimentation. On a state level, its very purpose is to hinder deviant and radical thought and action. As such, surveillance and lack of privacy is an obstacle to political and cultural progress.

Given that mass state surveillance harms us all, our individual relation with the state authority, and whether we personally feel we have anything to hide or not, is nonessential to the debate. It is irrelevant if you yourself is involved in politics, opposition groups, and protests. Surveillance harms everybody, depriving us of freedom, and hindering political, cultural, and human progress. It makes us complacent, unable or unwilling to question authority.

Dangerously disproportionate

In their report, titled “Dangerously disproportionate”, Amnesty International analyses events and laws passed in 2015 and 2016 in multiple EU member countries, including UK, Germany, France, Holland, Spain, Poland, Hungary and Austria. They look at new emergency powers; legality of laws and powers; the right to privacy; freedom of expression; right to liberty; freedom of movement; and stripping of nationality. In each section, Amnesty International specifically calls on EU member states to respect established Human Rights and the rule of law. They provide multiple examples from the various states where it is questionable whether the police and the executive branches have acted legally, against their countries laws or against basic human rights.

The report is well written, and comes with several insightful and well placed warnings. Amnesty International is ringing the alarm bells, and points out that the governments of Europe are now the biggest threats to their own nations and freedom of their people:

“Ultimately, however, the threat to the life of a nation – to social cohesion, to the functioning of democratic institutions, to respect for human rights and the rule of law – does not come from the isolated acts of a violent criminal fringe (…), but from governments and societies that are prepared to abandon their own values in confronting them.”

Terms like “the enemy” and “terrorism” have always been deliberately vague. This is now causing real problems when such vague and undefined terms are used as part of laws:

Because there is no universally agreed definition of “terrorism” under international law, states and international bodies have created their own. In that process, over the years, definitions of terrorism have become ever more vague and overly broad. This lack of clarity in many counter-terrorism laws has led, in turn, to a lack of certainty regarding what precisely constitutes an act of terrorism. If people can’t tell whether their conduct would amount to a crime, they cannot adjust their behaviour to avoid criminality. The consequences can be significant, ranging from the profiling of members of certain groups thought to be more inclined toward “radicalization”, “extremism”, or criminality based on stereotypes – i.e. guilt by association – to the outright misuse by states of laws that define terrorism loosely to deliberately target political opponents, human rights defenders, journalists, environmental activists, artists, and labour leaders.

Mass surveillance is still illegal and against Human Rights:

Any communications surveillance measure used must be strictly necessary and, to the extent that it interferes with people’s rights, must be proportionate in the particular circumstances of each case. The cornerstone of lawful communications surveillance is that it is individualized and based on reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

Indiscriminate mass surveillance, in effect a fishing expedition and “just-in-case” retention of people’s communications and data, is the antithesis of this. States may refer to indiscriminate mass surveillance practices by other names – “bulk” rather than “mass”, “collection” or “interception” rather than “surveillance” – but linguistic gymnastics do not make the practices conform to human rights standards.

When laws are vaguely defined and the state can monitor everybody all the time, this is causing a chilling effect on freedom of speech, thought and expression. Simply clicking on the wrong link can be enough to land somebody in trouble. The report points out how musicians and other artists have already been the target of discrimination and “terrorist” laws.

The right to freedom of expression has been under direct and sustained assault across Europe in recent years. Measures that seek to curb speech and other forms of expression, taken cumulatively, reflect a landscape where freedom to access information, offer opinions, exchange ideas, and engage in robust and challenging debate – publicly or online – is in rapid decline. The risk that a person could be labelled a security threat or “extremist” has had very real consequences for some people as the examples below illustrate, while the “chilling effect” that such measures creates has left the public space for free expression smaller and more impoverished than it has been in decades.

Finally, the report discusses freedom of movement, and the dangerous trend towards “preventive measures” and “pre-crime” initiatives without the rule of law:

Indeed the extent of the remove can be seen from the fact that states are criminalizing not just the preparatory act of travelling abroad with the purpose of committing a terrorist offence, but also acts preparatory to the preparatory act of travelling abroad with this purpose. The problem here is that acts such as browsing “extremist” websites and looking up the price of flights to Istanbul can all render people liable to prosecution, long before individuals may have made up their minds to commit a terrorist offence, or without their ever even having contemplated it in the first place.

Mass Surveillance in Europe

The Privacy International report is shorter, but just as interesting and worrying. It covers the British “Snoopers Charter” or Investigatory Powers Act (IPA); the German Communications Intelligence Gathering Act (“Ausland-Fernmeldeaufklärung des Bundes-nachrichtendienstes”); and the French International Electronic Communications Law (“mesures de surveillance des communications électroniques internationales”). For each law, the authorized powers, oversight, and power over privileged communication is examined.

Although the terrorist attacks in these countries over the last years are driving forces, many of the laws being passed now seems to have at least some relation to the EU Data Retention Directive, issued a decade ago, in 2006. Although that was annulled by the EU Court of Justice in 2014 for “violating fundamental rights”. Still, similar and broader laws are now in place in many EU member states.

The report concludes:

The leaders of Germany, France and the UK are setting a dangerous precedent which echoes within the European Community and far beyond it: Mass surveillance by governments has become the new normal.

No sanctuary in Switzerland?

Upon till recently, Switzerland was a sanctuary of privacy and secrecy of private information and financial information. The latter was shattered a few years back, when the US threatened to throw out the Swiss banks if they did not disclose account details on what US citizens held. The former came under attack in 2015 and 2016 when two separate data retention and surveillance laws were enacted and passed. The BÜPF – “Überwachung des Post und Fernmeldeverkehrs” (“Monitoring of post and telecommunications”) and the NDG – “Nachrichtendienstgesetz”, an extension to the existing national intelligence law. There’s a discussion of both here, and more details by ProtonMail.

The laws call for all communication channels and services to retain certain metadata about the communication for a year, which apparently includes any open wifi hotspots; IRC chat rooms; email and chat services; message boards and so on. Again, similar laws which were declared illegal for violating fundamental rights by EU Court of Justice in 2014 have become national law. Furthermore, the laws make state hacking and wiretapping legal.

Even though Switzerland is neutral, they maintain close ties to the US, including data sharing agreements through the Privacy Shield Framework, like the other EU countries. (The double-speak has really gone far when “privacy shield” is a name for business and government information sharing). Furthermore, regarding financial details, Switzerland is taking part in the Automatic exchange of information (AEOI) program, under the guise of detecting tax evasion.

An interesting note about the “Nachrichtendienstgesetz” extension is that it met strong resistance, and ProtonMail were amongst activists who gathered enough signatures for the 2015 proposal to go through a national referendum, as is required in Switzerland. The only problem: they lost. On 25 September 2016, the vast majority at 65.5% voted in favour of the law. Although only about 43% of eligible voters cast their vote, the outcome was similar across all cantons, and therefore we must assume representative of the opinion of the population as a whole. It goes to show, that even in Switzerland when the choice stands between privacy and security, people will give up their privacy.

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Review: “The Internet Is Not the Answer”, Andrew Keen

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Andrew Keen is a bitter man. He longs for the time when his family ran a tailor business in London and middle class people could afford to buy clothes from their store. He resents the fact that his own music Internet site failed, while seemingly similar sites like MySpace, Spotify came to be valued in billions. For some reason he mourns the demise of Kodak and its film roll processing centre in Rochester, NY. And most of all, he despises rich folk, but not any billionaire, just those who happen to have made their money through the Internet. Keen’s book “The Internet Is Not the Answer” reads a bit like a rant towards all these things, while blaming it all on Silicon Valley and The Internet. The solutions he favour are mostly based on government regulation: six strikes laws for copyright infringement; antitrust and monopoly busting; mixed with labor unions.

Even though Keen’s book has a bitter tone throughout, he does touch on important points regarding increasing wealth disparity, middle class jobs being replaced by automation and far fewer specialized jobs, monopolistic mega-cooperations, centralized services. He takes on Amazon, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp. He has done thorough research, and his book includes a substantial reference section. It is just that his conclusions doesn’t always align with actual causes and effects: Take the downfall of Kodak, where he spends a full chapter lamenting Instagram for the killing of film processing. Companies like Canon and Nikon which developed and sell high quality DSLR cameras and thus more directly caused the replacement of film are not mentioned.

Similarly, Keen reviews the history of the early days of the Internet, and its inventors and pioneers like Paul Baran, Bob Taylor, Bob Kahn, Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee and points out how altruistic and anti-commercial they were. He contrasts this to “winner-take-all” companies in today’s economy. However, he does not discuss the seemingly obvious conclusion that what we’re lacking from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter are common open standards and protocols, which is what made early technology successful and long-lasting. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) does not enter Keen’s field of view at all.

Maybe not worth it

If you already work in tech, and have good insight into these topics, Keen does not bring much new to the table. In fact, he disappoints in that regard. However, if you are interested in gentrification in San Francisco, Kodak in Rochester, or just want to hear a different point of view, give the book a try.

What Keen does have going for him, is that he is a very good writer. He writes almost poetically, albeit with great sarcasm, about topics like Internet economy, government regulation, and pretentious billionaires. Sound bites like the one below at least make the book entertaining.
While talking about the cult and praise of “failure” in tech-companies:

“Instagram actually represents the reverse side of Silicon Valley’s cult of failure. In the Valley, the rich and famous claim to be failures; on social networks like Instagram, millions of failures claim to be rich and famous”.

Finally, although it’s no way to be sure, it sometimes feels like the writes of Silicon Valley, the TV comedy series, have studied the book thoroughly and lifted several ideas from Keen onto the screen. What Keen scorns, like the double-speak; the feel-good big-company efforts and speeches; and the general Valley culture has made the TV series a hit. Keen’s book makes the series even more fun to watch.

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Review: “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror”, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan

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In their book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” from early 2016, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan give detailed insight into the Islamic State, its origin, key members, alliances, critical battles, and strategy of terror. The story begins with the early ties between Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, and the later split between them and the more radical and extreme Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Their disagreement on who are their enemies, crucially whether it includes Muslims or not, has underlined the split between al-Qaeda and ISIS / Islamic State. In later chapters, the rise of the current leader, theology professor Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, is investigated. The book goes into great detail about several key battles in Iraq and Syria, and analyses positions and outcome. Finally, some of the terror attacks on civilians in Europe and the US is put in context.

Sunni vs. Shia

There are a few important take-aways from the book: The divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims is usually at the core of most of the conflicts. Crucially, the numbers goes a long way to explain the various positions: Word-wide, Sunnis are in majority at around 85–90% while 10–15% are Shia. However, in Iraq and Iran this is reversed, where 80% and 95% are Shia respectively. An important point is the fact that Saddam Hussein was Sunni, and his mostly Sunni minority Baath party ruled over the Shia majority. When US invaded and ended their rule and tried to create democracy, the stage was set for bitter conflict. Furthermore, Paul Bremer (presidential envoy to Iraq) fired the mostly Sunni Iraqi army, along with most other official positions. So around 2003 a large part of the previous Iraq elite was suddenly jobless, but with plenty of military experience and even weapons on their hands. al-Zarqawi exploited these fault lines to his fullest, and ignited the ensuing civil war.

A similar setup, but again reversed has been the background for the civil war in Syria. There, Bashar Hafez al-Assad and his party are Alawites, a branch of Shia, but in a minority at around 13%. When the spring revolutions in 2011 swept other Muslim countries, al-Assad pitted themselves as under attack by the Sunni (74%) majority. al-Assad’s regime has support from Iran and Hezbollah who are also Shia. The opposition in Syria has many factions, and ISIS has time and again proved that they are experts at driving a wedge between opposing forces to divide and conquer.

Enemy of my Enemy

From small tribes, to national organizations and rebel groups and all the way to international alliances, the relationships network is extremely complex. A graph like this hardly scratches the surface. Furthermore, alliances shift frequently, and often the short term strategy is “the enemy of mine enemy is my friend”. This can be seen going far back, and characterizes much of US and Russian involvement in the various conflicts: During the Cold War; the US backing of Iraq against Iran in 1979; later US attacks against Iraq; US backing of the Kurds. Iran and Russia have tended to back the opposite groups, and Iran in particular has now infiltrated much of the Shia resistance and politics in Iraq.

The book goes into detail on several of these fluid alliances, and looks at the decisive battles and opposing personalities. The point is made many times over that in order to understand the conflicts, one has to understand the tribal politics. At a higher level, the relationships are often more pragmatic: Although ISIS is waging war across Syria, and also against al-Assad forces, they have a business relationship in the oil trade, where ISIS is selling back oil to al-Assad’s regime from the oilfields they have captured. al-Assad benefits since ISIS also fights the rebels in Syria. The enemy of mine enemy is my friend.

Read it

Weiss and Hassan have done plenty of research and interviews for this book, and it shows through all the details revealed. They have also done a good job of explaining the background history, religious underpinnings, and political motivations for the parties involved in the conflict. However, it can get somewhat tedious to go through all the nitty-gritty, and the writing style can be trite with the occasional odd analogies.

Overall, the book is definitively worth a read if you are interested in the current conflict, want to understand the terror attacks. Regional and international politics become more clear with the information provided by this book.

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Review: “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army”, Jeremy Scahill

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In journalist Jeremy Scahill’s exposé of the American private mercenary company Blackwater, he documents its origin, its founder Eric Princ’s life and family history, the early start as a North Carolina military and police training facility, later involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, its close political and military ties, and several of the controversial and deadly contracts and missions, including the infamous Fallujah ambush, Najaf siege, Blackwater 61 plane crash. He goes on to investigate some of the characters involved with the company, some right out dangerous like Cofer Black from CIA; while other more comically incompetent like Pentagon’s Inspector General Joseph Schmitz.

As an investigation and documented history of the company and its conduct, Scahill has done an extraordinary job in revealing all the details. Albeit it can get somewhat long when every bullet fired is included in the narration, as almost seems to be the case with the Najaf siege. Further details of the preceding contracts, and following lawsuits of wrongful death paints a picture of a company shrouded in secrecy and with deep far-right political and military connections.

It is perhaps in revealing these connections the book raises above a mere critic of the private mercenary company, and shines light on the power brokers of Washington and Pentagon. It is not a coincidence that the same names and the same circles always repeat: Donald Rumsfeld set the stage for privatization of the military; always working closely with Paul Wolfowitz. Of course Dick Cheney is there; as well as Scooter Libby. On the military and intelligence side, Paul Bremer (Presidential Envoy to Iraq) and Cofer Black (CIA) move through the revolving doors multiple times. Tying much of it together are the Council for National Policy (CNP) organization and the influential Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which William Kristol (son of Irving Kristol) and Robert Kagan founded. CNP in particular acts as a meeting point between conservative politicians, donors and activists. Here the Prince family huddles with prominent neoconservatism like Jerry Falwell (evangelical Southern Baptist pastor), Gary Bauer (1999 presidential nominee), Wayne LaPierre (NRA), and more. The focal points center around conservative politics, Christian evangelical and to some degree Judaist religion, and aggressive military foreign policy. As Scahill’s book shows, the military industrial complex is not an abstract entity or idea; rather it is a surprisingly small network of public and private figures who yield immense political and military power.

Scahill book is well worth a read, to gain insight into the private side of the US military industrial complex, its incredible cash-flow, and deep connections. Although he is clearly skeptical of both the mercenary company and several of the political figures involved, his presentation is factual objective and well written.

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PRISM – The political repercussions

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It has been about a month and half since the NSA and PRISM story broke, and we are now starting to see some of the political repercussions. As expected, they take longer to develop than news-headlines and knee-jerk Internet forum reactions, but the Snowden’s leaks will definitely have long term political effects.

Snowden

Up until now, very much of the media attention has been on Snowden himself, his whistle-blower status, and his escape from the US. Although not that interesting in themselves, his movements have drawn some very intriguing lines, more clearly showing who’s in bed with who, and which countries are willing to stand up against the US. Snowden was more or less escorted out of Hong Kong, China, and welcomed to Russia, or at least not kicked out yet. The problem is, even if he has been offered asylum from Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, he cannot travel there. First of all, because the US has cancelled his passport, but maybe more importantly, he risks being captured mid-flight. That was made clear when Bolivian president Morales’ flight was forced down in Vienna, because other European countries had blocked their airspace on suspicion that Snowden was on board the plane.

That incident very clearly showed which countries are aligned with the Americans, and is now confirmed by the fact they did apologize. The Bolivian Foreign Minister confirmed that they had received apologies from Italy, Portugal, Spain and France. However, he wants to get to the heart of the matter, even though it is blatantly obvious who was behind the request to force down the plane. Furthermore, as a reaction against these European countries, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Uruguay have resolved to withdraw their diplomatic missions. That is a pretty strong signal, even though it might be temporary.

Finally, on Snowden, it was interesting to note that he has been nominated for the Nobel peace prize by Swedish professor Stefan Svallfors who notes that “‘I was just following orders’ [can never be] claimed as an excuse for acts contrary to human rights and freedoms”. He continues; awarding the prize to Snowden would “help to save the Nobel Peace Prize from the disrepute incurred by the hasty and ill-conceived decision to award US President Barack Obama [the] 2009 award.” Ouch! That has to sting!

EU political effects

In addition to the four countries who closed their airspace for Morales’ flight, it is clear that more have been accomplices of the US and NSA. UK’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) have eagerly been collecting data from Internet fibre cables, and is now facing legal challenges from the UK charity Privacy International.

Signals have also been collected in Germany, although here it is less clear whether German intelligence organizations have been in on the game or not. Even the interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich is not able to explain exactly what has been going on, and apparently he has a gag-order from the US. Chancellor Angela Merkel seems more ambiguous, on the one side urging people to wait for US’ investigation, but also calling for stronger EU data protection laws, and at the same time bringing sanity and common sense to the discussion with the quote: “Just because something is technically possible doesn’t mean you should do it”.

Meanwhile, on EU level, the European Parliament has voted for a resolution to 1) let their Civil Liberties Committee launch an inquiry into the PRISM scandal (with a report due towards the end of the year); 2) warn other member states, including UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland, who have been running similar programs; 3) reconsider the data sharing of air-traffic passenger information and SWIFT banking transfer with the US; 4) and offer stronger protection for whistle-blowers like Snowden. Several of these points echo similar demands by the EU Pirate Parties about a month ago.

US political effects

On US side, we’ve also seen the start of some interesting cases: Several groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, have filled legal actions which seek to stop the NSA mass surveillance. In addition to the EPIC case, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a lawsuit, backed by an unusual coalition of rights activists, church leaders and drug and gun rights advocates. It will probably take a long time before we see any form of outcome, or even response to these cases, but they have at least made the required move. As an example of long it can take, EFF supported the filing of a class action lawsuit in 2008, and just recently did a federal court judge reject the U.S. government’s latest attempt to dismiss the case (so it is now finally allowed start).

Just as interesting was the recent US Congressional hearing and questioning of the NSA officials James Cole, Robert S Litt and John Inglis. They revealed that the PRISM program had the capability to analyse social graph relations as much as three hops away from every person. This is significant, first, because it was previously assumed that they only had data and capabilities to perform only one (your friends) or two hops (the friends of your friends). Secondly, in an massively networked “social” world, three hops will include a lot of people. When six degrees of separation was estimated to link any two people in the world some fifty years ago, they did not have Facebook where everybody had thousands of “friends”. Now, it is estimated that any Facebook user can be linked with less than five hops. In other words, within three hops, most of us will be linked to some “bad” people. If those links are to be used against us, we will all be found suspicious.

Also worth noticing from the hearing was the comment from congressman Frank James Sensenbrenner. He was the author of the controversial 2001 Patriot Act, which probably has enabled some parts of the PRISM program. He told the NSA officials that unless they rein in their spying efforts, they would risk losing the legal provisions which enabled it. Although it is hard to believe it will come to that, it is still a quote to take note of. (Or, depending on how cynical you feel, yet another proof that you can never trust a politician).

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PRISM – the effect

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Another week with NSA and PRISM news has gone by, and now the reactions and comments start to take on more substance and show that people have had to the time to reflect on the various issues, rather than just posting knee-jerk headlines.

John Naughton had an interesting comment in the Guardian, where he points out that you can check out, but never leave: We are simply too used to, too entangled with, maybe even addicted to the services provided by the big Internet actors. Between the companies mentioned in the NSA slide, pretty much everybody are somehow covered. (Maybe Richard Stallman has managed to escape, however, he is probably encrypting his e-mails, and thus is up for extra scrutiny).

Another interesting article, by James Risen and Nick Wingfield of New York Times, points out the revolving door between Silicon Valley tech companies and the surveillance industry. They give the example of Max Kelly, the chief security officer for Facebook, who got recruited by NSA, and also several Silicon Valley startups which are either funded by or selling to NSA/CIA.

Finally, and most welcome, is the Anti-PRISM campaign, a joint effort by the several European Pirate Parties. They clearly and concisely point out the dangers posed to privacy and democracy by government surveillance. The language and demands contain a certain irony towards the US, noting that Europe should be become “a worldwide beacon for digital rights and privacy protection, government transparency and whistleblower protection” (referencing America’s 19th century goal of becoming “a beacon to the world”).

Their demands are clear political and regulative goals. It’s a great opportunity for these parties to grow beyond the copyright infringement fight, show that they have a broader political agenda, and gain more mainstream support. I’m guessing the two main points to watch are: First the “uncovering of the facts”, which gives a concrete proposal to form a European Parliament committee to investigate the details of the PRISM program, and how it relates to EU states. Secondly, the point about repealing of the Data Retention Directive is interesting. It mentions that three countries have already rejected this 2006 directive in national courts. It will be interesting to see if the latest news and politics will have an effect on other EU countries as well.

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NSA surveillance – business as usual

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This week saw two interesting, and supposedly shocking, stories about the scale of the US government’s Internet surveillance. Starting Thursday with the news that the phone operator Verizon had been ordered to hand over all meta-data on its customers’ communications to the NSA. The following day, a different program was revealed, leaked by the means of a terribly amateurishly looking PowerPoint slide deck, which showed that the NSA had direct access to all customer data and content from all the major Internet service providers, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and more.

The reaction to the first story is interesting in that it involves only meta-data. The same type of data collection was enacted in law by the EU in the 2006 Data Retention Directive. This directive was no secret at the time, and the scrimmage in individual member countries which started to implement it a few years back was mostly around who would pay for it; the Internet and phone providers or the government. At any rate, by now any EU citizen should expect this kind of system to be in place. It is therefore somewhat ironic when the US press pretends that there are stronger privacy protections in place on their side. The last decade has for the most shown the opposite to be true.

The second story, around the full content access, should be no big surprise either. A similar story broke seven years ago, although it was and still is considered “warrantless”. Another example from the post-911 area is the Information Awareness Office, which despite heavy criticisms in 2002, still lives on. And even before that, it has always been speculated that the US government, through CIA, NSA, FBI or other TLAs, was listening in on phone and Internet communication. Take for example the ECHELON project, which probably has been around since the cold war area. It was investigated by a committee of the European Parliament, which amongst other things concluded: “the existence of a global system for intercepting communications, operating by means of cooperation proportionate to their capabilities among the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand under the UKUSA Agreement, is no longer in doubt”.

So why the outrage just now? We don’t have to look further than The Guardian’s summary: “Obama defends secret NSA surveillance programs – Insists surveillance is essential for national security.” In that light, it no longer seems like a coincidence that two completely separate NSA programs were leaked on two consecutive days. As a political cheap shot, it seems to have worked very well. What’s more, Obama took the bait, and swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

So even though these stories are akin to declaring water wet, from a privacy and security point of view, it is useful that more people are made aware of and start to ponder the risks of the information systems we surround ourselves with. We just have to make sure that the outrage is directed towards the right institutions, and that any change is implemented where users need it. Voting, joining a political party, and working for change within that system is definitely a noble goal, however, it will unfortunately not protect your data any time soon. Asking the various ISP and service providers to improve their security, encrypt our data, and not hand it over to the government is also appropriate. It’s just that they are required by law to hand over data, so we cannot trust that to not happen.

The only way to make sure your own data is secure from government hands, and be aware of any requests that might be made against it, is to store it yourself. If you are storing something they are after, that will of course not stop them from knocking on your door, but at the very least you will know.

The right response to these stories is not blind rage, resignation, or declaring defeat. Rather it should be to decentralize: Avoid large scale, single point of failure, services. Build and maintain your own systems, based on free and open source software, so you can be confident that no warrantless access is granted. Make sure data is encrypted, communication is encrypted and signed, and nothing flies in plain-text over the Internet. If you are dealing with sensitive information, maybe as a lawyer, as a doctor, or a secret business deal, anything else is simply incompetent, or possibly gross neglect.

The Internet Generation

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On his political blog, Rickard Falkvinge, shares an interesting opinion piece by Piotr Czerski, where the difference between the “Internet Generation” and older people is explored. Now, as many have pointed out, there is nothing new in a generation gap, and conflict between the young and the old; the cliche quote goes back to Socrates. What is different this time, is the topic of the conflict: Focused around sharing of information, and control of access, it goes beyond the petty differences of opinion, music tastes, clothes and perceived “correct” manners. Rather, it strikes at the heart of what it means to live in a free society:

What we value the most is freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of access to information and to culture. We feel that it is thanks to freedom that the Web is what it is, and that it is our duty to protect that freedom. We owe that to next generations, just as much as we owe to protect the environment.

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Pirate Party Enters Berlin Parliament

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From TorrentFreak:

“For the first time in history a Pirate Party has managed to enter a state parliament. With an estimated 9 percent of the total vote the Pirate Party exceeded the 5% floor needed to enter the Berlin parliament with several seats. For the international Pirate Party movement this is the second major success after the European elections of 2009.

piratenThe German Pirate Party has scored a massive win in the elections for the Berlin state parliament today. Two hours after the voting booths closed the first results show the Pirates achieving 9 percent of the counted votes. This translates into 15 parliament seats.”

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