Category Archives: Politics is everything

Life is ruled by politics. Understanding this will help resolve the question of whether you get trampled on or get to trample. And there’s no third choice.


Plausible Deniability

I’m generally sceptical about grand conspiracy theories due to one main flaw most of them involve: They don’t account for what’s known about human behaviour. People don’t conspire very well. There’s quite a lot of speculation about what the purpose of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs, for example, which is good. Because it also provides us with a great example of how something isn’t a conspiracy, and how there are far worse things than conspiracies in the world. Incompetence, outsourcing to save costs, efficiency targets, mindless bureaucratic processes can all create something that looks like a grand plan. And it’s not.

We’ve seen in countless examples that elected government officials don’t understand the technology they’ve supported the NSA using for mass surveillance. What been left off from the list of I-don’t-get-its (until just recently) are agency technocrats themselves. Here’s a statement from a 2009 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court order about how people using this spying  tech in ways “not authorized” because they didn’t really get what it was they were switching on.  You may choose not to believe this to be possible. Watch enough people using technology, and you’ll see that it is. How many know where the data they’re using actually is? How many know where it’s stored and how it’s archived?

“It appears that the NSA, or at least those persons within the NSA with knowledge of the governing minimization procedures, are still in the process of determining how the NSA’s own systems work. No one inside or outside of the NSA can represent with adequate certainty whether the NSA is complying with those procedures.”  FISA Court Judge Reggie Walton

Mass surveillance across multiple digital, analogue, radio, CCTV, and all the rest is an exercise  in immense and exponentially increasing complexity. Think about all the simple things we hear about people screwing up on a daily basis.

This isn’t a cop-out, or accepting some sort of plea of ignorance, but recognising something else: There’s no way that mass surveillance cannot violate U.S. law or basic human rights (or many other countries’ laws, but they don’t care about that).

You don’t know how Google runs, and yet you use it and it works. There’s a case officer in some random American government building running a search query that’s been handed down by someone higher up who claims to have done all the right paperwork to ask for it. She or he logs into a system and runs a report and sends it off. There’s probably more to it then that, but I’d bet those are the main headlines of the process. Knowing anything about how the data is actually being culled is probably something above their pay grade.

The wonderful world wide internet is a complicated system, and the result of several complex processes happening all the time.  Each process was developed by someone or some group of people, but no one knows how every one of these work. So we end up with bulk data package collection methods, and contractors like Edward Snowden, hired to sift through it on demand. There’s no reason to think this will either stop happening or get any easier.

So what we get are attempts to change or circumvent laws to accommodate what the technology does.  When James Clapper says spies used “legal authority to search for data related to US persons” to monitor foreigners” he’s telling us that there’s no way technology could weed out Americans from others, so Americans need to lose those privacy rights as a matter of process. Legal rights are subservient to technical capabilities.

It’s a chilling state of affairs because technical requirements can have horrible knock on effects for the humans. Consider the one above. James is telling us that, if you talk to foreigners, you stand a greater chance of being spied on. The implicit suggestion to Americans is that to maintain privacy in light of this, they should be wary of non-Americans. More xenophobia is not exactly what the U.S. needs these days if we want to look at things it already has in surplus.

Earlier this month,  two leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, introduced HR 4291 (PDF doc), the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act. As EFF points out, the bill could have stopped mass phone surveillance in as little as 17 lines.  “But it weighs in at more than 40 pages. Why? Because the “reform” bill tries to create an entirely new government ‘authority’ to collect other electronic data.”

the House Intelligence Committee was created to monitor the American government’s spying programs, but in the end, it serves to deliver agency requests to Congress to vote into law, sort of like how a client signs off a web developer’s functional specification. This isn’t as nefarious as it is expedient, but the end result is probably worse than anything a grand plot could devise.

Grand secret plots don’t produce too much in comparison. The Reagan administration was working around the clock simply to send a bit laundered cash to some anti-communist thugs in Central America. That was work. What we have now is auto-pilot, and it’s pretty freaking awful. Until people figure that out, things aren’t going to improve.

The phrase “plausibly deniable” was coined by a CIA director. It’s a process whereby withholding information helps protect various officials from being held responsible for things they’re supposed to be in charge of. It helped get Reagan off the hook for selling his weapons to Iran or sending the cash to the Contra rebels.

It’s also a concept used in privacy technology speak. Computer networks that don’t maintain logs or track users, software that keeps personal information from being recorded on other systems, hidden volumes of data in an encrypted file and other sorts of things qualify here. If you did want to pose a challenge to the mass surveillance thing, these have some promise when used right.

Mostly, it’s not how people use the web. You may think you’re beating the NSA by not banking online without realising that you actually are banking online every time you visit and ATM. Whether you shop at Amazon or go into a shop doesn’t matter (from a government monitoring perspective) if you’re paying with your card, use point cards, rebates, etc.; because that’s all still shopping online.

Finally There’s the government’s new plausible deniability: ‘We didn’t really get what we were doing with all this technology.’ It all comes down to bad tech support, in the end. But these people do now, of course. This one’s good though, because it’s really plausible. We know they don’t know how a lot of the stuff works or even how to use it very well. But they know what it does, and what the result is. That should be enough.


A futile consultation

I thought I was done with #thedaywefightback posts. I may be the last person on the inetrwebs still banging on about it. That’s some pretty niche SEO. But then I got an email from our MP, Joan Ruddock, the other day. So here’s how it started:

On the 11th of February, still full of piss and vinegar  from the day’s campaign, I used the UK participants’ site, to dash off  a note to Lewisham’s MP. The gist follows:

I've contacted you on this issue before. I'd be happy to meet with you to discuss it further as I realise it's quite complex, but we really need to address reform of GCHQ and the intelligence leaks that are being sent to the American agency the NSA which essentially gives access to classified information, including UK information, to independent contractors with little vetting involved.

I'm asking you to visit and check out the six modest principles to reform surveillance. Parliament needs an independent inquiry, to report before the next general election, to recommend legislative reform, and it must do a better job of holding the intelligence agencies to account.

I'm asking you to take this seriously, as it will be an issue that more and more voters will be using to decide which party leads this country.

GCHQ won't tell us how much data it is collecting or for what reason, but it's demonstratively not to do with combating terrorism or protecting British civilians, and there's no evidence to the contrary of that assertion.

It's also illegal. The international legal framework on this is clear. Mass or blanket surveillance contravenes Article 8 (the right to respect for private and family life) and Article 10 (the right to freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Supporting it this the same as supporting any human rights violation.

Flash forward a couple of weeks of no impact, and our MP has responded…

Thank you for your email about surveillance and the Open Rights Group’s six principles to reform surveillance.

You may be aware that the government have recently launched a consultation on Covert Surveillance and Covert Human Intelligence Sources Codes of Practice. While I appreciate that this is not the inquiry or parliamentary debate that you would like to see I hope that you will contribute to the consultation (if you would like to copy me into your responses I would be pleased to see them).

The consultation runs until 11:45 PM on 27th March and it can be found here:

It is not possible for every MP to contribute to every debate but of course I will consider it, if and when such a debate is scheduled.

How inspiring. No mention of the supporting the actual points in the original letter. There are three documents on the British government’s Open consultation on covert surveillance web page that Joan had sent me, each one about as tantalising as an OKcupid profile for Michael Gove :

  1. Covert surveillance and covert human intelligence sources codes of practice: consultation document
  2. Covert human intelligence sources code of practice
  3. Covert surveillance and property interference code of practice

To save you the trouble: There’s nothing on mass surveillance in any of these.  There are a handful of technical amendments to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (PIPA) that won’t really stop GCHQ from downloading and categorising people’s private sex videos from Yahoo. I don’t know how Joan saw this as useful.

“As technology becomes more and more complicated, it becomes necessary to have more and more elaborate organizations, more hierarchical organizations, and incidentally the advance of technology is being accompanied by an advance in the science of organization. It’s now possible to make organizations on a larger scale than it was ever possible before, and so that you have more and more people living their lives out as subordinates in these hierarchical systems controlled by bureaucracies, either the bureaucracies of big business or the bureaucracies of big government.” Aldus Huxley

But while I couldn’t really figure out why Joan would send me down this off-topic dead end,  looking at these documents in light of what we know about the depth of the government’s physical intrusion into your personal life is enlightening. They illustrate the slothful rate at which government processes and creates regulation. Consider that against the speed at which GCHQ and its Five Eyes allies can collect and store data. Policy can’t keep up with technology, but technology does dictate policy by becoming an indispensable part of the process.

It was disappointing that Joan didn’t seem that interested, and forwarded on a link to a trio of unrelated documents featuring technocratic text vomit when fundamental issues are at stake.

But it was helpful, in the end. It further cemented my thesis that policy debate is a futile exercise on this particular topic.  Slightly revised wording promising that investigations into noise complaints won’t violate what the government considers to be your right to privacy is nice to see. What does privacy mean and what are your rights to it is where a public consultation needs to be. Good luck with that.

And now I’m done with #thedaywefightback. Hope you enjoyed the series. See you next year in an even more monitored internet.


Negative convergence

One of the problems with which digital rights advocacy groups struggle is the public’s attention span. Politics is a battle of attrition. Most people don’t have much time for it. The week before last saw the quasi-stillborn campaign to save the internet from dragnet surveillance (hashtag branded as is the fashion), #thedaywefightback. It was inspiring, with cryptoparties popping up here and there and petition banners appearing sporadically on the odd website (yours truly inclusive). Heart warming. Until reality took hold again the following day, that is.

The latest leaked spy Powerpoint presentation comes from UK’s GCHQ trove, and bares the sinister title: “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations.” Actually, that’s more of a subtitle. The presentation is called “Pychology A New Kind of SIGDEV.” We won’t go into the details, except to highlight three points:

  1. GCHQ Powerpoint slides are only slightly better designed than NSA ones;
  2. This document lists pretty common strategies (hardly “new” ones as advertised) to defame, discredit, libel and slander activist groups, and it’s observably not Defence Against the Terrorists™ as the public is often is assured. The document is largely aimed at local dissidents.
  3. It also provides some of the first actual evidence that there actually may exist effective political activist groups. You know you’re hitting a nerve when some government lackey fires up a Microsoft Office product to start a campaign against you.

You can’t fight back against this sort of thing in a day. Yes, worse things do still happen elsewhere, and in more obvious ways. With prime examples in North Korea, Syria and other Russian allies, you’d think we’d pause to take stalk about our own institutions and how resilient they might be. You might, but then you’d be ignoring vast amounts of knowledge about how humans behave. The only difference between oppression levels in different places during any given period is timing.

The research results are in; governments  increase repression over time. They also often know how to game the internet to their advantage. Somehow the “internet shall set you free” meme survives. But each year, Freedom House reminds us that as technology reaches more people, governments crack down more, not less.

Again this year, “even as countries such as Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States see fast growth in Internet access, Freedom House rates them as becoming less free online. … As the Internet looms larger, so does authoritarian political interference with it. ”


There’s a consensus around this one. Three years after Arab Spring, says IFEX, “many of the region’s internet users conversely find themselves in more restrictive online environments than in January 2011.” When oppression is used to hold onto power, giving it up requires a corollary loss of control. If you want a government to do that, then you need to look toward the  Kiev approach. That’s not usually pretty or predictable.

But let’s briefly return  to the day the day the internet went shadow boxing, No rant about the internet optimism is complete without an Evgeny Morozov reference. This one is courtesy of The Week: “…Morozov argues that Big Data collection encircles us like invisible barbed wire, subtly persuading us to accept intrusions in our lives by private and public actors, which could jeopardize the project of democratic government itself. Big Data and the institutions that profit from its collection can reshape our social contract without any political deliberation.”

So aiming at policy makers is largely a wasted effort. GCHQ has caused UK press freedom to decline and policy is behind that. Concurrently across the Atlantic, the U.S. dropped further in the index due to the NSA, also a creature of policy. It’s not impossible for either the U.S. or UK to improve in the Reporters Without Borders ranking: The nations with greater press freedoms simply need to get worse at a faster rate. Blame Finland for wrecking the bell curve.

CIMA calls the result “negative convergence.” I enjoy this phrase, but I see it as simple, predictable entropy. Put another way: You can’t separate the milk once it’s poured into the coffee. You have to dump the lot and start over. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have an ideal. #TheDayWe FightBack flogged a couple, and I’m all for both:

Both of these aim to codify ‘Surveillance minimisation.’ I think they’re grand, but the campaigns behind promoting them are somewhat misguided.  #TheDayWeFightBack took place the year that UK’s premier civil liberties organisation, Liberty, turned 80 years old. We’d all be wise to look at it’s example of endurance. Technological methods of repression shouldn’t be seen as exceptional. Instead, we should look at them on a continuum of ongoing attempts. Liberty started after hunger marchers were attacked by Police while attempting to deliver a petition to parliament in 1932. Truncheons have changed little in that time. Technology just addresses the delivery method.

Just why is the U.S. government interested in collecting every scrap of data?

Bailing hay

President Obama made his speech on  reforming the National Security Agency today.  I started writing this post a while back, but when I learned this speech was going to happen, I started reworking it. I’m right now typing this text the day before the president’s speech. I’ll publish it after the speech. But the point of this isn’t to be another text rage about what the NSA is doing, but more of an explanation of why it’s doing it. The title may be a clue.

Now to make a quick prediction: In the president’s statement, he  will have had to somehow cope with two competing issues:

  1. The fact that his own White House advisory have concluded there’s no evidence showing NSA dragnet surveillance has ever  prevented a terrorist attack, contrary to the agency’s claims;
  2. That the the political establishment in the U.S., its allies and the specialised industries that benefit from all this desperately believe they need to keep mass surveillance going to stay in business.

I wrote the above before the events transpiring today. Here’s after:

“We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”  — President Eisenhower, in his farewell address,  17 January, 1961

Coming on the 57th anniversary of Eisenhower’s warning, President Obama’s speech felt sort of like that déjà vu moment people sometimes have when something happens that reminds them about a thing they once read in an Orwell novel.

As expected, the president floated some ideas that would require Congress and if put into action, would not reach the White House until he’s out of there.

As listed here, supposed reforms include…

  1. “new rules for use of signals intelligence collected overseas;”
  2. “review and possible declassification of Fisa court opinions, and the creation by Congress of a “panel of advocates from outside government” to participate in the court;”
  3. “new rules for the storage and use of information on US citizens collected ‘incidentally’;”
  4. “greater transparency for national security letters;”
  5. “reform of the bulk domestic phone records collection program.”

The short form: None of this will stop, but we’ll put different agency names and committee members on the letterhead. If any of this makes you feel remotely optimistic, then here’s your collective slap, courtesy of Holmes Wilson: “Obama just told the world, ‘We will continue using every hack available, to collect every electronic detail of your lives. But trust us. America won’t hurt you.’”

the short version for every speech.

The short version for every speech.

This speech comes just hours after the most recent revelation out of the NSA leaks;  UK’s GCHQ and the NSA partner on a program called Dishfire which downloads contacts, location information and phone call records and texts from millions of British mobiles (and mobiles used by Americans abroad as well). This arrangement provides both agencies with a nice loophole around pesky issues of accountability.  Technically, GCHQ is getting information from American spies, sort of like the arrangement in which American agencies can more easily monitor their own citizens through GCHQ’s Tempora.

Here’s a Guardian article about it. The point is this: Dishfire is only one example. Billions have been spent on other mass-spyware just like this, and there’s a whole cross-section of industries that can see trillions to earn from managing existing spy systems and creating new ones. The U.S. is digging a hole in Utah that can hold more internet user data than what currently exists on the planet. That’s not an incredibly strong sign of an  imminent U-turn.

This wing of the military industrial complex lobbies political parties and candidates and promises to give them the information they need to hold onto power as well as the cash. Governments, financial and defence industries, energy companies and even  entertainment companies support this kind of activity for the data it can produce. Please show me a politician’s incentive to shut off this tap.  Read more about the Bailing Hay effort by the NSA

How to (or not) deal with Religious Education in school

For the last few days I’d been trying to work out an op-ed on UK’s fixation with Religious Education as a school requirement, and how it doesn’t work. I have a 5 year old in school, and on occasion he comes home with fantastical tales of this character called Jesus who could apparently walk on water, come back from the dead and do all sorts of other things that would make him a good candidate for an X-Men character. These stories come from the same source he’s meant to rely on to learn maths, spelling and various facts about the natural world. How’s he supposed to be able to tell when the information being passed on is factual, or when the instruction session has deviated into the mythical?

The sticking point is that I can’t can’t seem to find any arguments that haven’t already been made by others, quite possibly better than I’d do myself. So I’m moving on and dumping some things I found here in the o’le blog. For example: Terry Sanderson asked (via the National Secular Society) earlier this year: “How do we keep religious education out of the hands of the evangelists?” The short answer is that you can’t. Slightly contextualized: You can provided you don’t have Religious Education as part of a school curriculum, but leave esoteric matters of a “soul” up to individuals. But this point has been made by others…

As Terry of the first paragraph points out: “Religious education so easily morphs into religious instruction and thence to religious propaganda and evangelising. Enthusiastic believers who are drawn to teaching sometimes cannot stop themselves. This week I was on a radio phone-in show in which parents told horror stories of their own experiences: how a five-year-old had been told by the RE teacher that if she didn’t believe in God she would go to hell, or how a nine-year-old asked in class ‘if God made everything, who made God?’ and was told to shut up.” (bold added by yours truly). “The only way to stop this kind of abuse of a child’s intellect is to abolish the concept of ‘religious education’ entirely.”

Religious Education can’t be reformed. As a member of the Pirate Party UK, I’m happy to be part of one political entity interested in scrapping it. Let’s briefly take a look at the trap and how it’s set: You have UK wide curriculum requirements, then how the different local authorities interpret them and how each school applies them. The requirements fluctuate based on which party is running each government at any particular time.

The Department of Education says Religious Education is compulsory in maintained schools for all students from age 5 to 18 and must include “a daily act of collective worship that should be broadly Christian”… or some other faith (if the school has applied for and received an exception). The caveat here is that it has to be a faith of some sort. The school must prove that there’s a broad interest in some other religion if they’re to substitute one for another. How does one go about determining which faith the majority of a primary school’s population requires in order for their little souls to avoid the alleged fires of hell as mentioned teachers like the one Terry references?

More locally, Lewisham Council muddies the the already swampy waters created by the National Curriculum. Here’s what it says under the heading “Why children have religious education”…

  1. Religious education encourages pupils to learn about different religions, beliefs, values and traditions while exploring their own beliefs and questions of meaning. (Except that it’s predominantly Christian, with a mostly Christian advisory committee. I haven’t heard any reports about tales of Vishnu’s battles with demons, or the Buddha’s transcendence.)
  2. It challenges pupils to consider and discuss issues of truth, belief, faith and ethics. (Children at age 5 want to believe that people can be magic and defy death. I don’t get any reports from school that these stories may in fact not be true.)
  3. Religious education encourages pupils to develop their sense of identity and belonging. It enables them to flourish individually within their communities and as citizens. (Peckham teacher Caitlin Prentice clearly illustrates how this is not the case. Religious Education highlights division and in-group/out-group thinking. Children are taught by their respective faiths that others are going to hell. Invited to talk about this at school, they quickly decide which of their classmates are saved, and which are damned. It’s incredibly distressing to children not yet burdened with this awful, and false, concept.)
  4. Religious education has an important role in preparing pupils for adult life, employment and lifelong learning. It enables pupils to develop respect for and sensitivity to others, in particular those whose faiths and beliefs are different from their own. It promotes discernment and helps pupils to combat prejudice. (Though, as we can see from Caitlin’s example above, it doesn’t do any of this. More troubling is mentioning the notion that it helps with employment. In a secular society, religion should have no baring on that at all. At some age children should become aware that some people believe things that may or may not be true. If they are to successfully navigate the world it’s in critically thinking about these beliefs and an understanding of how evidence and informed skepticism can help determine what’s real from what’s not.)

Children are defacto atheists until members of the previous generation start informing them they have a non-tangible appendage called a soul, that there is an unseen creator of things, and that unless they pray to this thing, their fragile little soul is in serious peril. How brilliant a time it is until they’re stuck with that kind of conceptual baggage from the past! It’s too much to expect that there would be a lesson that essentially said all that is false, kids, no worries. But it would be great if they just left it out of the classroom, where it has no observable place.

So the case has been made by others. I’m adding my bits to the movement here. This blog isn’t about bitching or pretending things are something other than they are, though. Schools still preach god. How to cope with that fact…

  • The direct approach seldom works. Talk about it when your kid brings it up, and be interested. Raise parallel, entertaining comparisons. Point out stories about other gods as well. Thor, for example. The goal is to embed the idea that there have been lots of gods people have believed in over the ages.
  • Find others working on creative ways to deal with it.
  • Encourage facts. When your kid learns a new neat factual thing, have a natter about it. If it happens to be the case, mention how it’s interesting that people held some other belief until that fact was learned (the earth being flat, etc.). It’s not directly related, but encourages interest in things that are real and observable.
  • Know time is on your side. Some schools are upping their RE sessions because Ofsted found the more than 50% of schools aren’t meeting the government’s required regular allowance of holiness. That’s happening because Christianity is declining in UK faster than previously expected and the Church of England is in a snit over that fact. Focusing on RE is an easy win for school’s Ofsted inspections, so when the scores are discussed at school meetings, attend and keep the focus on the non religious parts of Ofsted that actually matter.
  • Know what’s in the curriculum, what the law says and follow any campaigns challenging it.
  • Support changes to the requirements, such abolishing “collective worship” at schools as mentioned in the Pirate Party UK manifesto.

Always end on a pirate note.