Rout of the Rebel Angels, by William Blake

A Dog Starv'd

A dog starv'd at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
      -- William Blake,
     "Auguries of Innocence"

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Subway Ad Semi-Colon Rocks News Media

Funny article in the New York Times yesterday and today (updated with an entertaining correction). My favorite parts (separated in the original by a couple of paragraphs):
Americans, in particular, prefer shorter sentences without, as style books advise, that distinct division between statements that are closely related but require a separation more prolonged than a conjunction and more emphatic than a comma.
One of the school system’s most notorious graduates, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, as the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver. (Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.)

An even longer sentence. Heh. The Times writer had fun writing that, I bet.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Third Front in the Surveillance "War"

Clip from faux artwork: 'If only I'd been more careful with my password...'The other day, I blogged about what can happen when we turn over our privacy to government for (ha ha) our "security."

This implies a sort of contractual relationship between citizens and government, analogous (say) to the contract we enter into regarding tax payments. We make something of ours available to the government, in exchange for which the government provides us (or so we trust) with certain services which we can't accomplish on our own, as individuals.

When it comes to Federal income taxes, we ourselves, by and large, do not do all the hard work of figuring out how much we owe, and then actually paying taxes. This is inevitable, I guess, given the complexities of the tax code(s). Instead we turn over responsibility for those two activities to outside parties:
  • Our employers do automatic tax withholding through their payroll systems, based on information we provide them about marital status, dependents, whatever.
  • If we prepare our own tax returns, we purchase tax-preparation software (e.g. TurboTax and its ilk) in whose development we ourselves played no part.
  • And of course, we can simply punt, turning the tax-return preparation over to individual or corporate tax professionals (e.g., CPAs, H&R Block).
Something similar happens with our privacy: very few of us run our own mail servers or host our own Internet domain. Instead, we turn over those activities to paid professionals -- ISPs -- who in exchange for our monthly payments, agree to keep us as anonymous as we want.

(Note, too, that even those who maintain their own servers and/or domains aren't wholly exempt from this network of trust. By definition, if they choose to participate in the public Internet they will be using infrastructure -- cable, routers, NAPs, satellites -- provided by someone, somewhere along the line, in a position to intercept their online communications.)

Just about every ISP, though, includes a disclaimer in their contracts, providing for exceptions in law-enforcement cases. Even if they agree not to turn our transactions over to legal authorities without a warrant, when presented with a warrant they will pretty much* all roll over and comply.

An article in today's New York Times describes what can happen, all too easily, as a result of an ISP's "compliance" with a criminal investigation's requirements:
A technical glitch gave the F.B.I. access to the e-mail messages from an entire computer network — perhaps hundreds of accounts or more — instead of simply the lone e-mail address that was approved by a secret intelligence court as part of a national security investigation, according to an internal report of the 2006 episode.

F.B.I. officials blamed an “apparent miscommunication” with the unnamed Internet provider, which mistakenly turned over all the e-mail from a small e-mail domain for which it served as host. The records were ultimately destroyed, officials said.

Bureau officials noticed a “surge” in the e-mail activity they were monitoring and realized that the provider had mistakenly set its filtering equipment to trap far more data than a judge had actually authorized. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because surveillance operations are classified, said: “It’s inevitable that these things will happen. It’s not weekly, but it’s common.”
Let's set aside for a moment all the conspiracy-theory musings on whether or not "the records were ultimately [actually] destroyed." Even if the FBI or other agencies are utterly blameless in this regard, the problem remains the same: your information online is never -- can never be -- entirely yours, end to end. You can take various precautions, depending on your level of paranoia and technical acumen and on how much convenience you're willing to give up. You can use overseas anonymizers; you can encrypt everything; you can run anti-keyboard-sniffing utilities; you can employ all sorts of even more exotic countermeasures, like steganography, to keep your information from being readily useful to unknown third parties (including government) should it fall into their hands by accident or intention.

But you cannot stop it from falling into their hands. If you don't want anyone else -- or even a particular someone else -- to know what you're doing online, the only measure you can take with 100% confidence it will work is... don't do it online.

* I myself don't know of any exceptions, at least for domestic ISPs. The "pretty much" is thus just a CYA qualifier.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Private Info = Government Property

Peeking out -- or in? -- through closed Venetian blinds
The "I Capitalism" subset of right-wing and libertarian noisemakers has a favorite hot-button issue in government's seizure of private property for what the government deems the public good. A typically inflammatory case was 2005's Kelo v. New London, in which the municipal government of that fair city unilaterally condemned over a dozen properties (out of 115 total) in the old Fort Trumbull neighborhood. The owners of the properties in question had refused to sell them to New London for development of a hotel and conference center, new housing, and so on. The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city.

I'm not going to get into the pros and cons of that decision. Let's say, though, that we accept the premise of its critics -- that what's private should stay private, unless its owner chooses to surrender it.

Isn't it interesting, then, that the squawks from that end of the political spectrum are much quieter when it comes to surrendering privacy itself?

The reason, of course, is "security" in an age of "terrorism." Bruce Schneier, in the February 15 issue of his valuable Crypt-o-Gram newsletter, reminds us that when national security trumps personal privacy, we're headed barefoot down a path paved with very jagged gravel:

In a Jan. 21 "New Yorker" article, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell discusses a proposed plan to monitor all -- that's right, *all* -- Internet communications for security purposes, an idea so extreme that the word "Orwellian" feels too mild.

The article contains this passage: "In order for cyberspace to be policed, Internet activity will have to be closely monitored. Ed Giorgio, who is working with McConnell on the plan, said that would mean giving the government the authority to examine the content of any e-mail, file transfer or Web search. 'Google has records that could help in a cyber-investigation,' he said. Giorgio warned me, 'We have a saying in this business: "Privacy and security are a zero-sum game."'"

I'm sure they have that saying in their business. And it's precisely why, when people in their business are in charge of government, it becomes a police state. If privacy and security really were a zero-sum game, we would have seen mass immigration into the former East Germany and modern-day China. While it's true that police states like those have less street crime, no one argues that their citizens are fundamentally more secure.

Schneier links to the on-line version of the New Yorker article. It makes for appalling reading, regardless of how you feel about capitalism and private property. Their fascination with pulling this kind of shit is what drives the ongoing calls for impeachment of the entire executive branch.

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