ECHELON, PROMIS, PRISM: Global Interception to Global Deception

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The history of spying and being spied upon is as old as dirt, but lately there’s this feeling that, left unchecked for too long, it’s got out of hand. We have an equally long history of allowing previous chances to pay attention slip from our grasp. Looking back just a few years, ECHELON is one example:

Global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON)

Global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON)

From the European Parliament website Report (11 July 2001) on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system):

The system known as ‘ECHELON’ is an interception system which differs from other intelligence systems in that it possesses two features which make it quite unusual:

The first such feature attributed to it is the capacity to carry out quasi-total surveillance. Satellite receiver stations and spy satellites in particular are alleged to give it the ability to intercept any telephone, fax, Internet or e-mail message sent by any individual and thus to inspect its contents.

The second unusual feature of ECHELON is said to be that the system operates worldwide on the basis of cooperation proportionate to their capabilities among several states (the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), giving it an added value in comparison to national systems: the states participating in ECHELON (UKUSA states(8)) can place their interception systems at each other’s disposal, share the cost and make joint use of the resulting information. This type of international cooperation is essential in particular for the worldwide interception of satellite communications, since only in this way is it possible to ensure in international communications that both sides of a dialogue can be intercepted. It is clear that, in view of its size, a satellite receiver station cannot be established on the territory of a state without that state’s knowledge. Mutual agreement and proportionate cooperation among several states in different parts of the world is essential.

Possible threats to privacy and to businesses posed by a system of the ECHELON type arise not only from the fact that is a particularly powerful monitoring system, but also that it operates in a largely legislation-free area. Systems for the interception of international communications are not usually targeted at residents of the home country. The person whose messages were intercepted would have no domestic legal protection, not being resident in the country concerned. Such a person would be completely at the mercy of the system. Parliamentary supervision would also be inadequate in this area, since the voters, who assume that interception ‘only’ affects people abroad, would not be particularly interested in it, and elected representatives chiefly follow the interests of their voters. That being so, it is hardly surprising that the hearings held in the US Congress concerning the activities of the NSA were confined to the question of whether US citizens were affected by it, with no real concern expressed regarding the existence of such a system in itself. It thus seems all the more important to investigate this issue at European level.

(my emphasis)

As this excerpt illustrates, there is an established, ongoing programme of mutual cooperation, and individual citizens of their respective countries don’t make a fuss because they wrongly assume they are not targets. The hidden truth here is really sad: neither government or people are concerned about bad stuff happening in other countries. We’re fine with investing, trading, travelling, or studying abroad, but if there’s a problem, we want to scurry home and pull up the drawbridge.

More recently, we heard about “PROMIS” – for example, in this post from 2006 which states:

“National Security Agency (NSA) computers have been downloading financial and personal files of all American citizens as a result of upgrades to the Echelon satellite network and software program which is part of the Prosecutor’s Management Information System (PROMIS).

SOG says that NSA also has a “7-10 second lead time” which effectively affords the agency the opportunity to delay the release of currency, stock and bond sales transactions which permits a criminal advantage to agency officials and other high-level associates who game the system of the world’s financial markets”

(my emphasis)

These historic reports explain why so many people, myself included, maintain that the current media revelations about PRISM are not actually news. We have been aware for some time that nothing and no one is “safe” from prying electronic eyes. For most of us, this issue is not about having “something to hide”: it’s about exercising the right to go about your business and not have your private and personal life intruded on without good reason by anyone, and especially not the government that is supposed to serve you. Worse, and decidedly more underhand, is the notion of another country’s government spying on you, then sharing that information with your government in some shady secret information exchange deal. It is about being innocent until proven guilty in a public court of law, with the right to defend yourself. Basically, we don’t want our phone conversations, correspondence or bank accounts to be the target of extrajudicial electronic snooper drones. We don’t want government more loyal to its clandestine relationships with other countries than to the electorate.

Are4D7z - ImgurIf you were not previously aware, or not focussed on these risks, you can thank Edward Snowden and the media coverage of PRISM for bringing these concerns to the front page.The PRISM reports are being issued with exceptionally useful timing, coinciding initially with meetings between China and the US, and then just ahead of the G8 summit.  This inevitably leads to speculation over why non-news is being pushed so hard, and whether there is an alternative agenda. We can’t know for sure what the deal is with these PRISM revelations, we can only throw around a few guesses or wait for more information to come to light. There are several possibilities being mulled over, from diverting attention away from other news items, to inciting civil unrest and manufacturing dissent among grassroots movements on a par with the Occupy protests. Proponents of the latter point out that Edward Snowden’s story also contains some subtle, and not so subtle, messages targeting anti-establishment activists. For example, reports mention he had an Electronic Frontier Foundation  bumper sticker on his laptop lid, and his responses in the Guardian’s Q&A include a plug for an upcoming “Restore The Fourth Amendment” 4 July march. The main thing to keep in mind is that all news must be regarded with a critical if not cynical eye. There is enough evidence of news being used to misdirect and manipulate popular opinion; what matters is how, and if, we choose to react.

Photo: New York Daily News

Photo: New York Daily News

Who is Edward Snowden, and why should you care? He is being hailed as a hero by some, a traitor by others, and even an actor of sorts. Apart from establishing his credibility, there is really no good reason to form an obsession about Edward Snowden, especially if that diverts attention away from the far more important content of his message.

Did he really work for the US Government? Evidence that he did can be gleaned from a comment Snowden posted on the Ars Technica forum back in 2006, when he was considering his preferences for being sent overseas for two years on assignment:

“Although I’m not a diplomat, I work for the Department of State. I actually signed up because of the opportunity for foreign travel […] I also don’t see the allure of “Scandinavian” countries, but that’s simply because I don’t want to live in a country where warmth and comfort are only spoken of in bedtime stories. China is definitely a good option career-wise, and I’ve already got a basic understanding of Mandarin and the culture, but it just doesn’t seem like as much “fun” as some of the other places. Who knows where the “needs of the service” will actually end up placing me, though. Azerbaijan, anyone? Scared

Despite his preferences, Snowden was apparently posted to Geneva. Since he already knew some Mandarin, I think that makes Hong Kong a less surprising choice of venue for his initial exile. Snowden may not like cold countries, but a lot has changed since 2006. Perhaps global warming can take care of the rest.

Is he now a wanted criminal? Despite reports that US government is angered by Snowden’s whistleblowing, it has yet to issue an international arrest warrant, meaning he should be free to travel anywhere, with the possible exception of the United States.

*Featured image for this post is from a platoon page on the “Battlefield 3” gaming website for the Tom Clancy Splinter Cell MMO‘s “Third Echelon“.

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We Don’t Talk

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An anonymous statement was posted today with a link to NSA files which it is claimed, prove that the NSA is spying on people. Not only on American people, but citizens of over 35 different countries. My first thought, and I assume that of many others, was “how is this news?”. Do any of you really imagine that governments are not spying on us; what do you think all the biometric passport and identity card registrations are intended for? These schemes – passports in the “developed” world, ID cards in the rest (generously funded by stronger economies) – are presented as a means to “protect” our identity and to ensure freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It strikes me as like being told to have sex to protect your virginity.

Digression: My second thought, the one that crops up routinely these days, was “why do we always fall into the trap of talking about Anonymous as if it were a tangible entity, and not a concept?” For example “Anonymous releases  NSA files..” instead of “Files were released anonymously..” That is a trap I fall into regularly, and a fight I  know I am never going to win, so I don’t even try.

In the UK, there were and always will be concerns about these adventures which trespass into our private lives. Accordingly, beginning several years ago, we experienced a series of incidents, which were delivered to us as “data breach” revelations in the media, where government staff or contractors had somehow “lost” laptops, CDs, etc., which contained the records of millions of people or even entire families. Before too long, we could expect detailed information on every household in the UK to have been included on one or more of the “lost lists”. As far as I can recall, no one lost their job or was punished in relation to any of these events, and little news was published about what was being done to recover the missing items or data. What a fine strategy those “data breaches” would be for creating an independent database containing information on every person in the UK!

We also see reports in the media including the same major technology and service companies implicated in the NSA data gathering exercise – Apple, Amazon, Google – evading business tax. Between them, these companies also happen to collect data belonging to millions of individuals on identity, finance, movement or location, interactions and relationships. Is this corporate tax avoidance or a discount for services rendered?

Let us not forget the banks and financial institutions that are too big to fail or be adequately punished for misdeeds and “miscalculations“, the governments and super-governments that are too entrenched to be accountable, and the media’s own scandals, manipulation and scare mongering. What your bank doesn’t know about you these days isn’t worth knowing. But it’s worth something to agencies that like to spy on you. The new data centre for Lloyd’s Bank is constructed like a supervillain’s fortress.

Lloyds Banking Group's new IT data centre

Lloyds Banking Group’s new IT data centre

It has more safeguards and failsafes than any similar structure I have ever heard of. That is good news, as long as all they are concerned with is looking after their clients’ money and securing their data. What difference does data centre security make if the bank is willing, or can be coerced under some new law, to simply hand over the data?

Taken together, this paints a rather horrific image: a collage of corruption, criminality, and mismanagement on a “big brother” canvas. These days I see a growing divide, with ordinary citizens showing an interest in alternative currency systems like Bitcoin or bringing back bartering on the one hand, and institutions selling us out on privacy while frothing at the mouth and waging war on (other people’s) corruption and money laundering on the other.

Many of my recent conversations have broached these topics, and the consensus is that people in general are not, as the media tells us, too lazy and self-serving to take action, but rather are trapped in a demotivating pattern of unquestioning acceptance and compliance. The manufactured obsession with new-newer-newest devices and social media, with the latter a long-term offender with regard to suspicionsprivacy scares and scandals, has spawned a self-perpetuating meme-based ecosystem.

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Social media tells us that smartphones or selfies are phenomena, and without question we embrace them, thereby creating and sustaining them. Generally, the feeling is that people need to disengage from the brainwashing, shun the presstitutes, and start to have meaningful, authentic conversations again, to reconnect with the world and their own thoughts, ideas and opinions. It is increasingly evident that a better sleeping pattern wouldn’t go amiss, either.

What do you think? I do actually want to know, yet I have so little confidence that you will respond, beyond the less than one percent of those who read and click “like”. I feel the distance between us more sharply each day, as we drift on these social media currents. Most days, I can barely see the coastline of our conversation.

Kim Dotcom’s arrest & Anon’s attack. Just so.. Hollywood Capitalist

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Hollywood Sign

Image via Wikipedia

What I find truly scary is confusing “free” or “open” internet with making money out of sharing illegal content by breaking copyright rules, then launching attacks to defend that profit centre. Megaupload is a profit-based operation, same as a TV company, record label or film studio. Anonymous dashing to the rescue is just one type of enforcement battling against another, but with the same goals – to protect a capitalistic business model. They aren’t fighting over content or the right to access  and share it, they are fighting over making money out of content.

That the United States chose a time when major internet players and users were up in arms against the SOPA/PIPA legislation is an obvious ploy. They are showing the world that they don’t need more legislation than they already have. Why then are we all being riled up and distracted by the SOPA shenanigans? Probably so we don’t notice how incredibly awful the US presidential candidates are. Too late, we already looked, and are universally traumatized.

The organizations that are able to harness the power of international law enforcement to protect their profitability – New Zealand and Great Britain are only two recent examples – are the same ones who own and control the majority of international broadcast media – still the most popular and widely-used source of news and information in the world. Where they choose to shine their spotlight is where we all inevitably end up focusing our attention – regardless of the “power” of social media – we are being spoon-fed flavour-of-the-day of their favorite brand of manure, and lapping it up like day-old pups.

Quite often I feel suspicious when a new event strikes a chord in my memory of some other news item, which takes on a different meaning in the light of the event. In this case, it is the statement I read on Wired.com on 12 Jan by General Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, that the US defense network is currently “not defensible”. I thought at the time that was a rather strange admission from a senior member of the US Military. Why would anyone advertise your vulnerability to the world like that, much less the head of the NSA? Now I see it as one way to explain the apparent ease of “Anonymous” being able to DDOS the FBI website, in addition to other, as-yet unreported events, potentially of greater magnitude.

I think we should also ask ourselves, with the benefit of hindsight, and the recent experience of how much time and effort it took to enact a major online event like the internet blackout – is the speed of the revenge attack on US government and media industry websites really feasible? I know I was half-expecting that Anonymous would step into action on January 18 and implement an “enforced blackout” on sites that didn’t join in, by using DDOS or defacements. That didn’t happen. I am still puzzled by the apparent lack of interest in the blackout operation from the blackout masters of the interwebs; the very group who should feel most at risk from internet censorship and be first in line to defend it were as inconspicuous on the big day as they were super-evident around the Kim Dotcom arrest. Perhaps they had been planning a major DDOS attack for 18 Jan and couldn’t get it together in time, but were able to nimbly harness those reserves on 19 Jan so their efforts were put to some use. No one is ever going to know, and I wouldn’t trust anyone who pretended that they did know.

For some time, since the advent of groups claiming to be part of Anonymous started posting names, addresses, emails, and credit card information, I have considered that Anonymous as an entity or a concept can be so easily infiltrated, misrepresented, subverted or abused, it has long past the point of usefulness or validity within the original framework of “internet defenders for the greater good” and has inexorably devolved into “internet vigilantes for the lulz”. The whole central pillar of Anonymous is anonymity: there can be no identifiable individuals representing Anonymous. Ever. Once that happened, Anonymous was polluted as far as I am concerned.

Here’s that Hollywood-style arrest story:

New Zealand police on Friday seized a pink Cadillac and a sawn-off shotgun, and froze millions of dollars in cash, after a raid on the fortified mansion of an Internet guru accused of online piracy.

Armed officers swooped on an Auckland property occupied by “Kim Dotcom”, whose website Megaupload.com is alleged by US authorities to be involved in one of the largest cases of copyright theft ever.

Dotcom, also known as Kim Schmitz, a 37-year-old German [some say Dutch] citizen with New Zealand and Hong Kong residency, was denied bail with three other men on Friday when they appeared in an Auckland district court, police said.

According to New Zealand reports, Dotcom’s lawyer initially objected to media requests to take photographs and video inside the courtroom. But the accused said he did not mind “because we have nothing to hide”.

In a statement, police said they raided 10 Auckland premises, including the Megaupload founder’s property known as Dotcom Mansion, after liaising with US authorities.

In addition, police said NZ$11 million in cash held in New Zealand financial accounts was frozen pending the outcome of legal proceedings.

Detective Inspector Grant Wormald said the Megaupload founder tried to retreat to a fortified safe room when police arrived.

“Mr Dotcom retreated into the house and activated a number of electronic locking mechanisms,” he said.

“While police neutralised these locks he then further barricaded himself into a safe room within the house which officers had to cut their way into.

“Once they gained entry into this room they found Mr Dotcom near a firearm which had the appearance of a shortened shotgun — it was definitely not as simple as knocking at the front door.”

Dotcom and the three other arrested men — Dutchman Bram van der Kolk and Germans Finn Batato and Mathias Ortmann — were denied bail and are scheduled to reappear in court on Monday.

US authorities are seeking their extradition to the United States.

They accuse the Megaupload website, which allows downloading of large files, of generating more than $175 million in criminal proceeds and causing “more than half a billion dollars in harm to copyright owners”.

Its closure sparked retaliatory cyber-attacks from the “Anonymous” hacktivist group on the FBI and Justice Department websites, as well as music and recording industry websites seen as supporting the clampdown.

AFP

No mention of the many gigabytes of user-created content that has now been taken offline, or whether it will be released to the owners. All premium users of MegaUpload who used it to store their own content have effectively now had that material stolen by the FBI acting on behalf of the anti-piracy lobby.

In the wake of all this, don’t you sometimes feel like you are just being entertained in a rather patronizing – yet equally dramatic and titillating – way? Do take a look at the first link below, which surely offers a reasonably simple explanation for why MegaUpload was really shut down.