The Ukrainian Putsch: NATO’s Imperialistic Expansion and the Role of the Mainstream Media

As I’ve written earlier, the position the main stream media is taking seems to be one of being an extension of the powers that be. Rarely are the critical questions asked, and for the most part, with rare exceptions here and there, there is a significant bias to the reporting done.

An excellent example of this bias is when you look at the reporting done on the current crisis in Ukraine. This is a case that I want to look into in a bit more detail, now that several more things have become clear. In the Western media, the opinion seems to be that Vladimir Putin is bad, and NATO is good. They call the Russian position in this case imperialism, but forget their own role in creating and supporting this crisis in the first place.

In this article, I’ll explain some history about NATO expansion, and then go on trying to place the Ukrainian crisis into that historical framework, and subsequently I’ll take a look at the role the (Western) media have been playing so far, and what improvements can be made, to both our own governments’ positions relating to the U.S., and to media reporting.

Regime change and broken promises

As the phone call between Victoria Nuland (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State) and Geoffrey Pyatt (U.S. ambassador to Ukraine) reveals, the U.S. had made a plan of regime change for Ukraine. Nuland specifically mentioned Arseniy Yatsenyuk as Yanukovich’s successor and talk it through (“Yats is our man!”, “Have the UN help glue this thing”, “If it does gain altitude the Russians will be working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it.”, “Fuck the EU”). How convenient then, that when  Viktor Yanukovich is ousted, and the dust settles in Kiev, Yatsenyuk is suddenly prime minister? And what is the first thing he does? Instead of attending to the problems in Ukraine and finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis, he flies off to the very people who put him in power, and visits the United States. No doubt to thank them, I would presume.

Meanwhile, Western nations have been trying to punish Russia for annexing the Crimea (which, by the way, was originally part of the Russian SFSR, before it was transferred to the Ukrainian SSR by Nikita Khruchev in 1954). The sanctions don’t seem to have a big effect on Russia, and Russia has signed a new $400 billion 30-year gas deal with China on 21 May to try and make itself less dependent on Western gas customers. Russia is currently the biggest supplier of natural gas to Europe, and without the Russian gas, nations like Germany and Italy, as well as the Baltic states will get into trouble. There has been movement from these nations to try and become less dependent on Russia, and similarly, Russia has now signed a deal with China to become less dependent on the Western market, thereby significantly weakening any effect the sanctions were aimed at having.

NATO’s broken promiseNATO Expansion

NATO has been steadily expanding, despite the promise made in 1990 to the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, who agreed that East- and West-Germany could be united and become a member of NATO, on the condition that NATO would not move one inch further east. Since then, NATO, mistakenly assuming that they had somehow “won” the Cold War, went on and happily incorporated 12  Eastern European nations into their fold, within Moscow’s sphere of influence, with the largest expansion eastwards taking place in 2004. Here’s an overview:

  • In 1999: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were added to NATO,
  • In 2004: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia,
  • In 2009: Albania and Croatia.

Just imagine what would have happened had 12 South American nations joined the former Warsaw Pact? Now that would be something the U.S. would not accept. Similarly, Russia does not accept the continued expansion of NATO into their sphere of influence.

It looked like Ukraine was all set on becoming a future member of NATO. The prospect of Ukraine becoming a member state of the U.S.-led NATO is understandably a threat to Russian national security. They operate a major naval base in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, which is the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and from Sevastopol, the Russian fleet has quick access to the Mediterranean Sea. The Russians used to lease the base from the Ukrainians. However, the future of the lease might have been severely compromised if Ukraine would become part of NATO.

That the Russians feel threatened by the continued expansion of NATO is understandable given the fact that the U.S. military-industrial complex and their partners in Europe have been busy for many years expanding the “Star Wars” missile defense system in Eastern Europe, ostensibly to protect against a missile launch from Iran. The “Star Wars” program was established by President Reagan on 23 March 1983 as Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and renamed to Ballistic Missile Defense Organisation (BMDO) by the Clinton administration on 13 May 1993, then later renamed to Missile Defense Agency (MDA) in 2002 by the George W. Bush administration. I wonder why all the name changes were deemed necessary? To obfuscate and redirect unwanted media attention maybe? But I digress.antimissile

The hypocrisy of U.S. policy amazes me, because as some people still remember, when the Soviet Union did a similar thing in Cuba in 1962 (hint: supplying weapons to the Cubans to counter a possible future U.S. invasion attempt in Cuba after the failed CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, and also sparked because the U.S. stationed nuclear weapons in Turkey), this in turn sparked anger from the United States and led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and subsequently, the Cuban Blockade.

A relic from the Cold War

In my opinion, NATO is a relic from the Cold War, which serves no purpose any longer and is now used as a way of furthering U.S. military hegemony in the world. With the revelations of Edward Snowden this last year, and hopefully with many more revelations to come, we should, as Europeans, ask whether we are still willing to continue to play the role of subservient lap dog of the U.S.. A role we’ve been playing since the end of the Second World War. We should start thinking about how we can safeguard the safety and security of European citizens, which by the way, is exactly what our governments, by definition, should worry about. Do we want to keep our own sovereignty? Because if we don’t, the game is up.

Instead, our governments seem more interested in giving our private data to U.S. corporations, and (by extension) their intelligence agencies. This in many cases significantly hurts European companies, for the powers of intelligence agencies are mostly used for industrial espionage purposes, not to combat terrorism. In fact, there has not been a single documented case of the NSA’s spying programs actually stopping any terrorists. President Obama claimed that 54 terrorist plots had been prevented (PDF, first page, 4th paragraph, published on 1 August 2013) thanks to the intel gathered by the NSAs metadata program, but this number is most likely pulled out of thin air, because there is no justification for this number, nor a way of checking that number independently.

The funny thing is, that the behaviour of the NSA is also significantly hurting U.S. companies, who see their European customers flee in droves for better alternatives that protect their privacy more. This is a negative economic effect the spying is having on the U.S. economy, as I’ve written about before, in November.

Our governments’ subservient attitude towards the U.S. is completely unjustified. For the people who claim that we would all be speaking German today had it not been for the Americans, they should retroactively get an F for history and re-take their history classes. For had it not been for the Soviets who suffered tremendous sacrifices combating Hitler (20 million Soviet civilians were killed during the war, not counting military personnel, more than 3 times the estimated 6 million Jews who died during the Holocaust), the Western allies would probably not have been able to land on the beaches of Normandy, as Hitler would not have to split his forces, and could then focus solely on the Western front.

America only got involved in the Second World War in 1941, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. Britain was left for years to fend for themselves, being bombed heavily by the German Luftwaffe. Massive kudos should be given to the Royal Air Force for keeping the British isles free of German occupation (with the notable exception of the Channel Islands just off the coast of France, as that was the only part of British soil occupied by the Germans during the war). To be clear, I don’t want to deny the American war effort, and I surely want to give credit where credit is due, but on the other hand, it wasn’t the “America saved the world” that many people think it is.

There simply is no further need for NATO to exist. The North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation was created on 4 April 1949 as a defensive alliance of Western countries to protect Western Europe from encroachment by the Soviet Union. However, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and modern-day Russia closely cooperates with Europe, despite the current diplomatic difficulties. With the increasing interdependence between Russia and Europe there’s less and less need for an organisation like NATO to continue to exist.

Nowadays, NATO’s only reason for existence seems to be to contain Russia, and further the U.S. military/industrial complex and the militarist hawks are trying to prove the necessity of NATO by means of the Ukrainian crisis. The United States sees the future of NATO increasingly as an offensive organisation that is meant to further U.S. interests, and will not only include former Soviet republics into their fold, but plans are already under way to expand NATO’s influence even further, and cooperate even more closely with the current “Partners across the globe,” namely Afghanistan, Australia, Iraq, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand and Pakistan. Why are we such willing accomplices in that scheme?

The Role of the Mainstream Media

What struck me when watching the Ukrainian crisis unfold was the total and utter complacency and subservient attitude towards the official Western “party line” when the mainstream media reported on the crisis. There were hardly any critical questions asked when the telephone conversation between Nuland and Pyatt become publicly available, and no questions were asked as to the legitimacy of the current Ukrainian coup-imposed government.

Dare to ask the critical questions!

I would gladly watch the mainstream media more if they start being a bit more critical to the establishment, and not always simply copy/paste press releases, and actually try to analyse the matter for themselves and dare to ask the tough questions to the people in power.

This is again so lacking when it comes to coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, where there seems to be a unanimous consensus in the West that Putin is an evil imperialist, and NATO/EU/US is good, without even considering what really happens in Ukraine and the strategic and national interests involved, let alone the role the U.S. played in organising the coup d’état.

Of course the media can be critical towards Russia as well, and in fact they should. Truth be told, Russia still has a lot of problems to deal with, as do Western countries. And the media’s job should be to keep people informed so that they can freely form their opinions about the world around them, not just blindly copy the official party line. As then I might start watching again, and the employees of these media organisations might one day earn the title of “journalist.”

Country X: The Country That Shall Not Be Named

On Monday, 19 May 2014, Glenn Greenwald published his report entitled Data Pirates of the Caribbean: The NSA is recording every cell call in the Bahamas, in which he reported about the NSA SOMALGET program, which is part of the larger MYSTIC program. MYSTIC has been used to intercept the communications of several countries, namely the Bahamas, Mexico, Kenya, the Phillipines, and thanks to Wikileaks we now know that the final country, redacted in Glenn Greenwalds original report on these programs, was Afghanistan.

MYSTICSOMALGET can be used to take in the entire audio stream (not just metadata) of all the calls in an entire country, and store this information for (at least) 30 days. This is capability the NSA developed, and was published by The Washington Post in March this year.

Why the Censorship?

The question however, is why Glenn Greenwald chose to censor the name of Afghanistan out of his report. He claims it has been done to protect lives, but I honestly can’t for the life of me figure out why lives would be at risk when it is revealed to the Afghani’s that their country is one of the most heavily surveilled on the planet? This information is not exactly a secret. Why is this knowledge that’s OK for the Bahamians to possess, but not the Afghani’s? The US effectively colonized Afghanistan and it seems that everyone with at least half a brain can figure out that calling someone in Afghanistan might have a very high risk of being recorded and analysed by NSA. Now we know for certain that the probability of this happening is 1.

Whistleblowers risk their lives and livelihoods to bring to the public’s attention, information that they deem to be in the gravest public interest. Now, whistleblowers carefully consider which information to publish and/or hand out to journalists, and in the case of intelligence whistleblowers, they are clearly more expert than most journalists when it comes to security and sensing which information has to be kept from the public in the interest of safety of lives and which information can be published in the public interest. After all, they have been doing exactly that for most of their professional lives, in a security-related context.

Now, it seems that Greenwald acts as a sort of filter between the information Edward Snowden gave him for publication, and the actual information the public is getting. Greenwald is sitting on an absolute treasure-trove of information and is clearly cherry picking which information to publish and which information to withhold. By what criteria I wonder? Spreading out the publication of data however, is a good strategy, given that about a year has passed since the first disclosures, and it’s still very much in the media, which is clearly a very good thing. I don’t think that would have happened if all the information was dumped at once.

But on the other hand: Snowden has risked his life and left his comfortable life on Hawaii behind him to make this information public, a very brave thing to do, and certainly not a decision to take lightly, and has personally selected Greenwald to receive this information. And here is a journalist who is openly cherry-picking and censoring the information given to him, already preselected by Snowden, and thereby withholding potentially critical information from the public?

So I would hereby like to ask: By what criteria is Greenwald selecting information for publication? Why the need to interfere with the whistleblower’s judgement regarding the information, who is clearly more expert at assessing the security-related issues surrounding publication?

Annie Machon, whistleblower and former MI5, has also done an interview on RT about this Afghanistan-censoring business of Greenwald, whistleblowers deserve full coverage. Do watch. Whistleblowers risk their lives to keep the public informed of government and corporate wrongdoing. They need our support.

Update: Mensoh has also written a good article (titled: The Deception) about Greenwald’s actions, also in relation to SOMALGET and other releases. A highly recommended read.

Persecution of whistleblowers and journalists

Chelsea ManningI was also honoured to be able to attend the Sam Adams Associates’ award ceremony in Oxford, United Kingdom last month, and Chelsea Manning is a truly worthy recipient of the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. Her leaking of the Collateral Murder video to WikiLeaks (a video showing how U.S. Air Force personnel shoots at several unarmed civilians, 2 Reuters journalists and a father with 2 small children) proved that the U.S. was committing war crimes in Iraq. It was incredibly brave of her to leak the footage to WikiLeaks. For obvious reasons, Manning sadly could not make it to the ceremony herself, so her friend Aaron Kirkhouse received the award and delivered her acceptance speech.

It is absolutely horrific that whistle-blowers are being persecuted (Manning received 35 years in prison) while the real war criminals (the crew who fired from the Apache attack helicopter, killing dozens of unarmed civilians) gets to live in freedom.

And this isn’t happening solely to Manning either, it happened to other whistle-blowers and the people who are brave enough speak truth to power as well. And now we’ve come to the point where journalists are prevented from doing their jobs, and are increasingly approached with hostility by the state. Especially the ones who ask the critical questions that need asking.

Julian Assange is still under what basically amounts to house arrest in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, because the Swedish authorities want to prosecute him. Assange fears that the Swedes will hand him over to the U.S. authorities because of his work for WikiLeaks. I think this is a very real fear, and Assange has offered the Swedish authorities the opportunity to send investigators to the U.K. to question him in person inside the Embassy. They have refused.

Just last week I’ve read the news about how the Dutch authorities have made up lies about the Dutch investigative journalist Brenno de Winter, that he had hacked facilities/infrastructure or committed burglary, etcetera. They then shared his personal information, including his address to government departments and the police. When he was having a lunch meeting the receptionist was startled and said that they had a ‘protocol’ for Mr. De Winter. A security guard was then sent to accompany him and watch his every move as he ate his lunch.

These are all classic cases of the government shooting the messenger, instead of heeding to the message and making serious inroads in making sure that war crimes and crimes against humanity, corruption, and abuse of power are stopped.

Whistle-blowers are incredibly important for society to keep power in government and corporations accountable to the people, to let the people know about what is going on. Journalists, and a free press in general, are likewise very important as well, and the second we lose a free press, that’s the second we’ve lost our freedom. The media are being used by the powers that be to influence public opinion. After all, to quote Juice Rap News: “If it’s not on “the News”, it didn’t happen, right?”

Gave Privacy By Design Talk At eth0

eth0I gave my talk about privacy by design last Saturday at eth0 2014 winter edition, a small hacker get-together which was organised in Lievelde, The Netherlands this year. eth0 organizes conferences that aim at bringing people with different computer-related interests together. They organise two events per year, one during winter. I’ve previously given a very similar talk at the OHM2013 hacker conference which was held in August 2013.

Video

Here’s the footage of my talk:

Quick Synopsis

I talked about privacy by design, and what I did with relation to Annie Machon‘s site and recently, the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence site. The talk consists of 2 parts, in the first part I explained what we’re up against, and in the second part I explained the 2 sites in a more specific case study.

I talked about the revelations about the NSA, GCHQ and other intelligence agencies, about the revelations in December, which were explained eloquently by Jacob Applebaum at 30C3 in Hamburg in December. Then I moved on to the threats to website visitors, how profiles are being built up and sold, browser fingerprinting. The second part consists of the case studies of both Annie Machon’s website, and the Sam Adams Associates’ website.

I’ve mentioned the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, for whom I had the honour to make their website so they could have a more public space where they could share things relating to the Sam Adams Award with the world, and also to provide a nice overview of previous laureates and what their stories are.

Swiss FlagOne of the things both sites have in common is the hosting on a Swiss domain, which provides for a safer haven where content may be hosted safely without fear of being taken down by the U.S. authorities. The U.S. claims jurisdiction on the average .com, .net, .org domains etc. and there have been cases where these have been brought down because it hosted content the U.S. government did not agree with. Case in point: Richard O’Dwyer, a U.K. citizen, was threatened with extradition to the United States for being the man behind TVShacks, which was a website that provided links to copyrighted content. MegaUpload, the file locker company started by Kim Dotcom, was given the same treatment, where if you would visit their domain, you were served an image from the FBI telling you the domain had been seized.

Privacy in danger, but there’s light at end of the tunnel

Last week I read an article about the plan by the National Police of the Netherlands to connect all CCTV cameras to the national camera network which is operated by the police.

SurveillanceThe upper echelon of the Dutch police is currently secretly writing their policy document entitled Sensing, in which the definite plans will be written out in further detail. It would be interesting to know the contents of this secret report, since I’m pretty sure all the standard, same old arguments about why this should be implemented will be brought to the table again. They will probably say that it’ll prevent crime and deter hoodlums, etcetera. We’ve read the arguments for it again and again, but fact of the matter is that more cameras doesn’t mean less crime, CCTV cameras have never stopped criminals from committing a crime, they are ineffective, and it’s an invasion to our privacy, especially when it’s all connected into a single, nation-wide network, recording all our movements. It’s the Panopticon!

This then gets stored indefinitely, because governments the world over only remember the ‘delete’ command (‘rm -rf’ if you will) when it’s in their interest to delete stuff. All other stuff (like these camera images, but also information stored by our various intelligence agencies, financial information, the sites you visit, your e-mail, call records, medical records, etcetera) never gets deleted. That’s why the NSA is building their new data-bunker in Bluffdale, Utah, to create more storage space so they get to keep storing all kinds of data about our lives that goes over a wire. And our intelligence agencies are all in on it.

Dutch Home Office Minister Ronald Plasterk had a bit of a row with parliament, with MPs being angry about a tiny parliamentary technicality, namely that Plasterk lied to them, claiming the NSA collected metadata on 1.8 million phone calls in the Netherlands, while it was in fact our own intelligence service, the AIVD, doing it. The sad thing of our political system is that they put all the focus on this tiny parliamentary technicality, when they totally forget about the big picture, namely that 1.8 million phone calls were being tapped, and that we should do something about this. 1.8 million is an enormous number for a country of 17 million people. Even more scary is that the parliamentary commission which is supposed to provide oversight over the intelligence community, the Commisie van Toezicht op de Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdiensten (CTIVD), also known as Commissie Stiekem, had no knowledge about this, and didn’t know that this was even happening. So much for oversight.

The problem with oversight over intelligence agencies is that because of the very nature of these agencies they keep their information a secret, and they can lie to our elected representatives with impunity, and there’s no way to check until someone brave enough to blow the whistle steps forward.

This House Would Call Edward Snowden A Hero: 212 yay, 171 nay

Edward SnowdenMeanwhile, at an Oxford Union debate last week in Oxford, United Kingdom, the Union passed a motion to call Edward Snowden a hero by 212 votes against 171. It was a lively debate, both from the members of the proposition and the members of the opposition, and I have to side with the proposition, because without people like Snowden, who has given up his previous comfortable life on Hawaii to blow the whistle, the world would have never known about the crimes of the spies. Eventually there comes a point where you’re asked to forget about it! so many times and about such egregious crimes that you can no longer look at yourself in the mirror any more, and something has to be done, the people need to be informed.

During the debate I heard the opposition say that Snowden “violated his oath”. This is an argument that popped up again and again in various articles I’ve read in which people vilified Snowden. In fact, he didn’t swear an oath to secrecy, no-one does. He swore an oath to the Constitution of the United States; to uphold the Constitution. He hasn’t violated the Constitution; the U.S. government and the NSA in particular violated it.

Yes spies spy, that’s not surprising, but they claim all is done in the name of national security, when it is in fact often corporate espionage that these intelligence agencies engage in. It’s about making sure the lucrative contract goes to Boeing instead of to Airbus; it has nothing to do with national security, but more with corporate profits.

And there’s no meaningful oversight whatsoever: these people lie with impunity. That alone is already endangering our very democracies, having people with absolute power without any form of effective oversight is very detrimental and damaging to our very democracies and free societies. Snowden mentioned that whilst working at Booz Allen Hamilton, he had the power to tap everyone, including the President of the United States. And he wasn’t the only one with that kind of security clearance either. In the United States, almost 5 million people have a security clearance, with more than 1.4 million people having access to TOP SECRET documents. Imagine what kind of information the intelligence community has about the private life of the President and his family, and how a less honest person might use that. It would be easy to blackmail the President into doing the spooks’ bidding! And in the United States, more and more tasks that used to be done by government exclusively (like intelligence), is now being done by companies like Booz Allen Hamilton, or Academi (which I like to call: the company previously known as Blackwater USA). This is a very scary development because these companies have profit as their basic motivation. They do not have our best interests at heart.

Lord Acton wrote in 1887:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great
men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and
not authority, still more when you super-add the tendency or the
certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than
that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Chelsea Manning Receives Sam Adams Award 2014

Also at the Oxford Union last week, the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence awarded Chelsea Manning their award for the year 2014, meant for people who display extraordinary integrity in intelligence. The group and award was named after Sam Adams, a CIA intelligence analyst, who in 1967 discovered that there were far more Communist forces under arms in Vietnam, roughly twice the number U.S. command in Saigon would admit to. This intelligence revealed that the Pentagon was vastly under-reporting the number of enemy forces. But I digress..

Collateral MurderChelsea Manning revealed, by releasing the Collateral Murder video to WikiLeaks, that U.S. forces were committing war crimes. This showed the crew of a U.S. Apache attack helicopter firing away at unarmed civilians, Reuters journalists, and a father who was bringing his children to school and stopped his van to help one of the Reuters journalists who tried to drag himself onto the curb, heavily wounded. The U.S. forces were yelling like it was some sort of snuff video game, it’s absolutely horrific, and these people should be brought to trial and charged with war crimes and
crimes against humanity. Because that’s what it is. Chelsea Manning displayed extraordinary courage in releasing these documents, and rightly deserves this award.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the day the U.S. government and the crew of the Apache helicopter in question, are indicted for multiple counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. At which point the United States will invoke the American Service-Members’ Protection Act (also known as the The Hague Invasion Act). But that’s another story.

The Rising Trend of Criminalizing Hackers & Tinkerers

There seems to be a rising trend of criminalizing hackers & tinkerers. More and more, people who explore the limits of the equipment, hardware and software they own and use, whether they tinker with it, re-purpose it, or expand its functionalities, are met with unrelenting persecution by authorities. In the last couple of years, the trend seems to be that these things, or things which humans have done for thousands of years, like sharing, expanding and improving upon culture, are persecuted. An example is the recent possibility of making violations of Terms of Service, Terms of Use and other Terms put forward by service providers a crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

The companies that are now (for the most part) in control of our collective culture are limiting the methods of sharing more and more, often through judicial and/or technical means. The technical means for the most part don’t work, thankfully. DRM is still a big failure and never got off the ground, although the content industry is still trying to cling onto it. The judicial means, however, can be very effective at crushing someone, especially in the litigious United States of America. In the U.S., about 95% of all criminal cases end in a plea bargain, because that’s cheaper than trial by jury. These people are forced by financial pressure to enter a plea bargain, even if they didn’t commit the crimes of which they are accused.

Aaron SwartzAaron Swartz

The late Aaron Swartz was persecuted heavily by the U.S. government for downloading millions of scientific articles from JSTOR at MIT, JSTOR being the closed-source library of scientific articles, access to which is commercially exploited by ITHAKA, the entity that runs it. Aaron believed that scientific research paid for by the public, should be available to the public for free. It’s completely logical that research paid for by the public belongs to the public, and not to some company which basically is saying: “Thank you very much, we’ll have that, now we are going to charge for access to the scientific results, and reap the financial benefits.”

It is sad that the world lost a great hacker and tinkerer, committing suicide, only 26 years old, unable to bear the pressure brought down upon him any longer, when in the end, according to his lawyer Elliot Peters, he probably would have won the case due to the fact that the U.S. Secret Service failed to get a search warrant for Swartz’s laptop until 34 days after they seized it.

The corporate world is seizing control of content creation

This trend is seen more and more lately. The companies in control of most of our content production, devices and systems don’t want you to tinker with them, not even if you own them. Apple is closing their systems by soon preventing you from installing your own software on OS X. Software installs will soon only be permitted through the Apple-curated App Store. Already there’s software in OS X, called Gatekeeper that’s meant to prevent you from installing apps that might contain malware. If you read between the lines in that previous link you’ll see that it’s only a matter of time before they’re going to tighten the reins, and make Gatekeeper more oppressive. Google is rapidly closing Android, and moving more and more parts of the once open-source system to its own Google Play Services app. Check the permissions on that app; it’s incredibly scary just how much of the system is now locked up in this closed-source binary blob, and how little the actual android system now handles. Recently, text messaging functionality was moved from the Android OS to the Google Hangouts app, so texting with an Android 4.4 (KitKat)-equipped phone is no longer possible without a Google account and being logged into that. Of course, Google will store all your text messages, for easy access by American intelligence and law enforcement agencies. If you now were to install Android, and remove the Google Play Services app, you might be surprised at how much stuff depends on that app nowadays. When you remove Google Play Services, your phone basically becomes a non-functional plastic brick.

These companies fail to see that any invention is made by standing on the shoulders of giants and working upon other people’s work, making it better, tinkering and modifying it, using it for other purposes not envisioned by the original author et cetera. This is what makes culture, this is what makes us. We are fundamentally social creatures, we share.

The same implementation of control systems happens with e-books as well. The devices used to read them usually aren’t open, like the Amazon Kindle for example, so that is a problem. We humans have been sharing culture for millions of years and sharing books for thousands of years, basically since writing was invented in Mesopotamia. It is as natural to human development as breathing. We are social creatures, and we thrive on feedback from our peers.

But there’s something worse going on in e-book land. In the Netherlands, all e-book purchases now have to be stored in a database called Centraal Boekhuis, which details all buyer information, and this central database will be easily accessible by Stichting BREIN, the country’s main anti-piracy & content industry lobby club. This was ostensibly done to prevent e-book piracy, but I would imagine that this database soon will be of interest to intelligence agencies. Think of it: a centralized database containing almost all books and which people read which books. You can learn a lot about a person just from the books they read. Joseph Stalin and Erich Honecker would be proud.

We reached a high water mark of society after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, but it’s sad to see that here in the Western world, we’ve been slipping from that high pillar of decency and humanity ever since. To quote V from V for Vendetta:

“Where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, we now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.”

The surveillance is now far worse than what George Orwell could have possibly imagined. We need to remind the spooks and control freaks in governments around the world that Nineteen Eighty-Four is not an instruction manual. It was a warning. And we’ve ignored it so far.

NSA is coming to town!

I just stumbled upon this funny video made by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). It fits perfectly, and it’s funny to see that when invasions of privacy gets really personal (Santa photographing your face, recording your conversations and rifling through your smartphone), people really don’t like this and some respond strongly, but when the exact same thing is done by some big, anonymous government agency it doesn’t get such a strong response, which in unfortunate. Anyway, without further ado:

Facebook records self-censorship

Recently I came across an article about Facebook, more specifically, that Facebook wants to know why you self-censor, in other words, why you didn’t click Publish on that status update you just wrote, but decided not to publish instead. It turns out Facebook is sending everything you type in the Post textarea box (the one with the “What’s on your mind?” placeholder), to Facebook servers. According to two Facebook scientists quoted in the article: Sauvik Das, PhD student at Carnegie Mellon and summer software engineer intern, and Adam Kramer, a data scientist, they only send back information to Facebook’s servers that indicate whether you self-censored, not the actual text you typed. They wrote an article entitled Self-Censorship on Facebook (PDF, copy here) in which they explain the technicalities.

It turns out this claim that they only send metadata back, not the actual text you type is not entirely true. I wanted to confirm whether they really don’t send what you type to Facebook before you hit Publish, so I fired up Facebook and logged in. I opened up my web inspector and started monitoring requests to/from my browser. When I typed a few letters I noticed that the site makes a GET request to the URL /ajax/typeahead/search.php with parameters value=[your search string]&__user=[your Facebook user id] (there are more parameters, but these are the most important for the purposes of this article). The search.php script probably parses what you typed in order to find contacts that it can then show to you as autocomplete options (for tagging purposes).Facebook sends data

Now, the authors of the article actually gathered their data in a slightly different way. They monitored the Post textarea box, and the comment box, and if more than 5 characters were typed in, it would say you self-censored if you didn’t publish that post or comment in the next 10 minutes. So in their methodology, no actual textual content was needed. But it turns out, as my quick research shows above, that your comments and posts actually do get send to Facebook before you click Publish, and even before 5 characters are typed. This is done with a different purpose (searching matches in your contacts for tagging etc.), but clearly this data is received by Facebook. What they subsequently do with it besides providing autocomplete functionality is anyone’s guess. Given that the user ID is actually sent together with the typed in text to the search.php script may suggest that they associate your profile with the typed in text, but there’s no way to definitively prove that.

When I read through the article, one particular sentence in the introduction stood out to me as bone-chilling:

“(…) Last-minute self-censorship is of particular interest to SNSs [social networking sites] as this filtering can be both helpful and hurtful. Users and their audience could fail to achieve potential social value from not sharing certain content, and the SNS [social networking site] loses value from the lack of content generation. (…)”

“loses value from the lack of content generation.” Let that sink in. When you stop from posting something on Facebook, or re-write it, Facebook considers that a bad thing, as something that removes value from Facebook. The goal of Facebook is to sell detailed profiling information on all of us, even those of us wise enough not to have a Facebook account (through tagging and e-mail friend-finder functionality).

Big Data and Big Brother

And it isn’t just Facebook, it’s basically every social network and ad provider. There’s an entire industry of big data brokers, with companies most of us have never heard of, like Axciom for instance, but there are many others like it, who thrive on selling profiles and associated services. Advertising works best if it is specific, and plays into users’ desires and interests. This is also the reason why, for this to be successful, companies like Facebook need as much information on people as possible, to better target their clients’ ads. And the best way is to provide a free service, like a social network, enticing people to share their lives through this service, and then you can provide really specific targeting to your clients. This is what these companies thrive on.

The bigger problem is that we have no influence on how our data gets used. People claiming they have nothing to hide, and do nothing wrong, forget that they don’t decide on what constitutes criminal behavior, it’s the state making that decision for them. And what will happen when you are suddenly faced with a brutal regime that abuses all the information and data they got on you? Surely we want to prevent this.

This isn’t just a problem in the technology industry, and business, but a problem with governments as well. The NSA and GCHQ, in cooperation with other intelligence agencies around the world are collecting data on all of us, but without providing us, the people, the possibility of appeal, and correction of erroneous data. We have no influence on how this data gets used, who will be seeing it, how it might get interpreted by others, et cetera. The NSA is currently experiencing the same uneasiness as the rest of us, as they have no clue how much or what information Edward Snowden might have taken with him, and how it might be interpreted by others. It’s curious that they now complain about this same problem that the rest of us have been experiencing for years; a problem that NSA partly created by overclassifying information that didn’t need to be kept secret. Of course there is information that needs to be kept secret, but the vast majority of information that now gets rubber stamped with the TOP SECRET marking, is information that is of no threat to national security if it were known to the public, but more likely information that might embarrass top officials.

We need to start implementing proper oversight to the secret surveillance states we are currently subjected to in a myriad of countries around the world, and take back powers that were granted to them, and subsequently abused by them, if we want to continue to live in a free world. For I don’t want to live in a Big Brother state, do you?

Economic Consequences of NSA Surveillance

(Note: A version of this article also got published on Consortium News)

In the last 6 months or so, Edward Snowden, former NSA contractor, came forward with revelations about the NSA, disclosing quite a few of the agency’s surveillance programs, and revealing that the agency has the most blatant disrespect for civil rights and spies on everything and everyone, all over the world, in a Pokémon-style “Gotta catch ‘em all!” fashion. The actions of the NSA are also having a real effect on the United States economy.

Let’s talk about the economic consequences the NSA’s surveillance programs will have on the United States economy, and, more specifically, its tech industry. The actions of the US administration, and more specifically what the NSA is doing with their surveillance programs, are having a big impact on the US economy, especially in Silicon Valley. Why would I store my data on servers in the United States, where this data is easily accessible by the NSA, among others, if I can just as easily store it in Europe or some other, more secure place?

A Positive Investment Climate

To understand the US hegemony when it comes to IT companies and services, it is good to have a look at the history of the investment climate. Why did these companies pop up in the United States? Why wasn’t Google invented in, say, Germany, or Finland?

The reason many of these cloud storage services and internet companies popped up in Silicon Valley as opposed to Europe, say, is because of the investment climate in the United States, which made it much easier to start an internet company in the United States. Large institutional investors, venture capitalists, are less likely to invest in a start-up in Europe. Also, bankruptcy laws are much more relaxed in the US as opposed to Europe. Whereas in the US, you can be back on your feet in a year or so after going bankrupt, in Europe, this is generally a much longer process. According to the Economist, it takes a minimum of 2 years in Spain, 6 years in Germany, and a whopping 9 years in France. In my own country, The Netherlands, it takes 3 years to be debt-free again after a bankruptcy, but if you go bankrupt in Paris, good luck, you’ve just ruined your future. This makes it far more risky to try new things and set up shop in Europe, because the consequences if things go bad are so much worse.

Unfortunately, this has left us Europeans in the position that we currently don’t really have a European ‘Silicon Valley’, we don’t have a lot of viable, easy to use alternatives, and these desperately need to get developed. We depend too much on American companies right now, and I think it’s good if we diversified more, so that we will get a healthy market with plenty of good alternatives, instead of what we have now, which is a US monopoly on web-mail (Gmail/Hotmail etc.), social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, etc.), internet search (Google), cloud storage (Dropbox, Microsoft, Amazon), and other things. Already, cloud storage providers in Silicon Valley currently see big drops in their revenues because of the disclosures of Snowden. Why would we store our data across the pond? This is the central question and this is having real economic consequences for the United States.

US Cloud Service Providers Face Economic Consequences

US Cloud Service Providers Face Economic Consequences Because Of NSA SurveillanceCloud providers based in the US were experiencing significant profit drops when the NSA revelations were made public. People outside the United States suddenly began to question whether their sensitive data was safe on American soil. All these companies are subject to the  PATRIOT Act, which requires them to hand over any information and data they have on their customers, and they are prohibited by the US government to tell their customers about it. So the conclusion can quite definitively be that no, your data cannot be trusted to stay secure if you send it over to the United States, by using ‘convenient’ cloud services like Dropbox, or Amazon, among others.

This is the critical criterion. It doesn’t matter that the company tells you that they use the most high-end military-grade encryption, it doesn’t matter that they thought of an interesting technical solution to try and circumvent surveillance, it doesn’t matter that they write glowing blog posts solemnly promising not to hand over your data, all that matters is that it is a US company, required to obey US law, and required to hand over your data. Few companies will be able to resist the pressure and forfeit their entire business model to protect your privacy.

This is also what strikes me as funny when I read about major US tech companies, like Google, Apple and Microsoft, who found out that their server-to-server connections were being intercepted by NSA. These intra-server connections were not encrypted, sent in the clear, probably on some private fibre optic cable. Of course this could be intercepted given the NSA’s technical competence. So now these companies are trying really hard to sell the story to their overseas customers that their intra-server communications are now fully encrypted. This is a feeble attempt to keep some of their customers from switching to alternatives (of which there are not many, unfortunately), as these companies are still US companies, with offices and infrastructure in the US, and the need to obey the laws over there. So it’s totally irrelevant that these tech companies are now encrypting their intra-server communications, as the US government can simply request the data via other, more official means.

But these companies aren’t just promoting irrelevant measures, they actively act against our interests. After the revelations done by Edward Snowden, Facebook is making data hand-offs to US authorities easier (fully automated, without judicial oversight). Facebook is also partnering with police to make protests harder to organise. And still we insist in using its social network. These are instruments of control and surveillance. We’re not their customers, we’re the product being sold. We have a distinct lack of viable alternatives which aren’t based in the US, and it’s important to remember that social networks have a social aspect. It isn’t enough for you to change over to a competitor, you have to convince your friends to switch as well. This is what keeps social networks afloat for so long, because this is indeed very hard to do.

March to Irrelevance

In October 2013, Congress raised the debt ceiling again, which will buy some time until January 2014. Then they will have the exact same problem. The United States is structurally spending more money than they have available, and current US national debt ($17 trillion dollars) can never be repaid. They are pretty much already in default. But since the financial system is based on trust and hearsay, smoke and mirrors, it takes a while for people to face the reality, wake up and smell the coffee. At which point the United States will be an irrelevant relic from the past.

Here in Europe, we need to protect our own citizens’ interests, and start developing viable alternatives for the US hegemony, because the US hegemony will be over one day.

Security Measures against Terrorism: Costs v. Benefits

Plasterk in Tweede KamerA few days ago, the Dutch Home Office Minister Ronald Plasterk said in a debate in parliament that he’s apparently OK with the American intelligence community, the NSA among others, to spy on the Netherlands. His reasoning is flawed from the get-go, and went somewhat like this (paraphrased): “I don’t want to say that Dutch citizens may never be spied upon. Because that Dutch citizen can also be a stone-cold terrorist. And it’s good if that terrorist can be found.” Here’s the full quote (in Dutch):

“Ik wil dan ook wel oppassen om in het woordgebruik bijvoorbeeld te zeggen: ja maar, er mag nooit naar Nederlandse burgers worden gekeken. Want die Nederlandse burger kan natuurlijk een keiharde terrorist zijn, en dan zijn we toch blij dat die op een gegeven moment ergens op de rader verschijnt, en dat moet natuurlijk volgens de wetten gebeuren, maar dat die op de radar verschijnt, en dat er vervolgens actie kan worden ondernomen.”

Plasterk later denied saying that, but he did in fact say this during the debate. More evidence can be found here.

Is No Price Too High For Security?

Benjamin Franklin once said something like “They who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” This quote has been used a lot, but it is applicable here. The question we need to answer is the following: When do security measures stop benefiting the greater good, and infringe on our privacy and liberty, which are values that used to define our very societies? When does the price we have to pay for that little extra security becomes too great?

Combating terrorism certainly seems like a very noble goal, and while I do agree that there are some people out there who aim to change our societal structures through violent methods (although one has to note that one man’s terrorist is the other man’s freedom fighter; the definition of the term is a bit in the eye of the beholder), there does come a point where the price we have to pay for a little increase in security becomes too great, compared to the potential benefits.

Terrorism is Really Rare

Chances Terrorist Attack

One thing we have to understand is that acts of terrorism on the scale of 9/11 or the London public transport bombings on 7/7, awful as they may be, are still very rare indeed. Extremely rare in fact. Even President Obama has said so, although he does have an interesting choice of words. The chance that you’re involved in a traffic accident tomorrow are several orders of magnitude greater than the chance that the next aircraft you are in will end up in a building instead of on the runway. This is also valid for other acts of terrorism, not just the ones involving aircraft. And even the TSA agrees now that terrorists are not plotting against aviation. So why do we still have to cope with all the draconian security measures then, if it’s clear that it didn’t help one bit?

You see the same thing happening with CCTV cameras. Governments and corporations put these things up everywhere, but there isn’t the tiniest shred of evidence that these cameras actually help prevent crimes.

But still the TSA and their European counterparts continue to tell people to leave their water bottles and baby food and butter knifes at the checkpoint. Bruce Schneier put a lot of thought into this problem, and he said that we currently try to protect against specific movie-like terrorist plots, instead of doing a thorough risk analysis and protect ourselves with more generic measures that may actually work against multiple types of plots. Terrorists bring down aircraft, so we increase security at airports; terrorists used box cutters, so we ban box cutters; someone brought a bomb on board hidden in his shoe, so we’re telling people to take their shoes off. These are all very specific actions taken against these types of movie-like plots. The security measures taken here are way too specific to work against anything other than the movie plot attack. As soon as terrorists modify their plan just one tiny bit, the entire strategy to combat them becomes ineffective.

Humans are unfortunately excruciatingly bad at evaluating risks, and if you give them a very specific, movie-like terrorist plot, they will rate the risk from that much higher than it is in reality, because of the specificity of the plot. We humans have evolutionary been conditioned to
consider specific threats a greater risk than a more general threat. On Wired, Schneier states:

If you’re a higher-order primate living in the jungle and you’re attacked by a lion, it makes sense that you develop a lifelong fear of lions, or at least fear lions more than another animal you haven’t personally been attacked by.

We are conditioned to think: it happened once, so it’s likely that it’ll happen again. And you see politicians using that knowledge to their advantage. It is insightful to consider that most measures we’ve currently taken against terrorism, would never even be considered had the events of 9/11 not happened.

Moving On..

With regard to the comments made by Mr. Plasterk: I think a lot of politicians still think that the United States is one of the ‘good guys’, when there’s more and more evidence coming out that politically speaking, it is not our ally, and certainly not our friend. They serve their own self-interests, just like any other nation on earth, and it’s important to never forget that.

I even heard some politicians say that we should demand that Dutch citizens shall be treated the same as Americans under US law. It is laughable to think that the Americans across the pond will say: “Oh no! We angered the Dutch! Quickly change our laws to treat them the same as we treat Americans before they start re-colonizing New York!” At most, what these politicians will get is a nice letter from the US Embassy in which they solemnly promise that it will never happen again, meanwhile not changing their laws or practices in the US. And the NSA happily continues to trample upon their NATO allies’ rights. And our politicians are apparently very happy to accept that.

We have to reconsider our position and alliances after the numerous disclosures of classified documents by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. For what good is a friend who spies on you behind your back? President Roussef of Brazil has taken decisive action by severing ties with the United States and even building new fibre optic cable connections that circumvent United States territory. Where is the outrage in Dutch society? Here, AMS-IX (the Amsterdam Internet Exchange, the second-largest Internet exchange in the world), sets up shop in the US, making it subject to the PATRIOT Act. Have these people been living under a rock these past months? Or are there other, commercial interests at play here? We need to start demanding answers while at the same time strengthening our own privacy protections. Privacy is a human right, nothing more, nothing less. We need to start using it, or risk losing it.