Had you noticed? Germany’s government is trying to curb parliamentary oversight

The bad news with the good: “Alternative Nobel” vs lack of discussion, investigation, or reform

So, the good news, as everyone will have heard by now, is that Edward Snowden and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger have been jointly awarded the 2014 Right Livelihood honorary award. Snowden is also, apparently, emerging “as a cult hero in Germany”.

As to the former, show of hands who believes that this also means Snowden will not be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After all, Sweden’s foreign minister has already waded in to stop Snowden from travelling to Sweden to accept the honour of the Right Livelihood Award.

As to the latter, according to his German lawyer, Wolfgang Kaleck, Snowden isn’t exactly happy with being “hero-worshipped.” Unsurprisingly, he views it as a “distraction” from the substance of his revelations which, as Snowden has insisted from day one, should be the actual subject of interest.

Of course, he is right. Revelations like recent ones about New Zealand, where the GCSB apparently

worked in 2012 and 2013 to implement a mass metadata surveillance system even as top government officials publicly insisted no such program was being planned and would not be legally permitted

should be the real story. After all, even NZ premier John Key admitted that Snowden ‘may well be right’ about the NSA spying on New Zealand, even though he denies that the GCSB was feeding Kiwi data into the NSA’s xKeyscore. Be that as it may, Key doesn’t seem to be particularly worked up about the NSA potentially spying on millions of innocent New Zealanders either. Just saying.

Meanwhile in Germany, the foreign intelligence chief has made similar denials about xKeyscore after it was revealed earlier this month that the NSA has hacked German telecommunications provider Deutsche Telekom, as well as satellite providers like Stellar. I commented last week on the implications of this.

Needless to say that Snowden is right that revelations like these should absolutely be the primary topic of discussion. However, this is also where the bad news starts because there still seems to be far too little discussion going on. Granted, people “in the know” flood to events like Moments of Truth and HOPE and that’s great.

Still, despite Snowden and Rusbridger being awarded the “alternative Nobel”, one cannot help but wonder how effective the Snowden revelations really are with the more general public. Without seeking to diminish the importance of what Snowden has revealed, I have commented on multiple occasions on how muted the debate is in some countries. Not to mention that governments from Germany to the UK and the US have shown little or no interest in serious investigation or reform.

Or, take New Zealand. By now we know that Kim Dotcom’s election campaign failed pretty abysmally and that neither his Moment of Truth event, nor The Intercept’s revelations about mass spying in New Zealand stopped Prime Minister John Key from securing a landslide victory. It may be taking things a little too far to conclude that this means that “the people of New Zealand think that [mass surveillance is] appropriate” or that they “want to sacrifice a certain measure of their liberty …” but it is worrying just the same. Just like revelations of mass surveillance and systematic infringements of civil rights have done little to affect the German and European elections, so they seem to have had little effect on the New Zealand election. To an extent, that isn’t surprising: given the muted reaction Snowden’s revelations have received from certain general publics in certain Western democracies, they could hardly be expected to topple governments (whether or not, in an ideal world, Snowden’s revelations should topple governments is another matter).

Still, this is a problem.

 

Curbing parliamentary oversight: Germany

For one thing, what Snowden said at the Moment of Truth event has lost nothing of its importance: he stressed once again the significance of metadata –

as an analyst I would prefer to be looking at metadata… because it’s quicker and easier and it doesn’t lie

– and the need for informed public debate about mass surveillance.

Consent,” Snowden said. “Has to be informed to be meaningful.”

Obviously, informed, meaningful consent is hardly possible when mass surveillance is kept secret or when governments go to great lengths to ensure that crucial information is kept firmly under wraps.

In this context, something that is happening in Germany at the moment is interesting. I have commented on various occasions on the German parliament’s NSA investigative committee and how it is doing very little to properly examine the extent of NSA spying in Germany or the involvement of Germany’s own foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendiesnt (BND). I have also repeatedly criticised the German government’s apparent unwillingness to call Edward Snowden as a witness in the inquiry, let alone to grant him asylum. Basically, the German government, much like the Swedish government or, in fact, any government apart from perhaps the Swiss, is fighting tooth and nail to keep Snowden out of the country.

In Germany, though, the government also seems to be obstructing the investigation. Members of the German NSA committee have previously complained about files and other materials being blackened so much that they are of little or no value. As German newspaper DIE ZEIT reports this week, the German government seems prepared to go even further.

Germany’s data protection commissioner seems is an obvious witness to the NSA inquiry. Yet the German government is currently working on a new law that would allow the commissioner to testify only with previous consent by the government in investigations pertaining to the government – of which an inquiry into the BND would be very much an example. Without government consent, the commissioner would not be allowed to tell anyone, not even the German parliament, if he found anything wrong with the way an agency like the BND went about its business. What a law like this effectively does, of course, is to curtail, if not remove, parliamentary oversight. This after it has been criticised time and again that existing oversight mechanisms aren’t effective in curbing indiscriminate spying in most countries anyway. It is telling that the German government apparently is working to curb parliamentary oversight rather than strengthen it. It is also telling that the data protection commissioner’s files, according to the NSA investigative committee, are amongst the most informative the committee has seen so far – more informative, in fact, than those provided by the German government. Exactly why the German government should be working to implement this law, while also refusing the NSA investigative committee its most important witness (Snowden) should give us much food for thought.

 

The Opposition vs The Government: taking Merkel to court

The one item of good news is that opposition MPs on the German NSA committee are unwilling to put up with any more government shenanigans and are now taking the German government and the NSA investigative committee itself to court for what they see as an obstruction of the committee’s work, more specifically for violating Article 44 of the German constitution, according to which the government is required to support any inquiry of this kind. Support which, according to the plaintiffs, would include making it possible for Edward Snowden to testify in Germany. Looks as if it is now up to Germany’s Federal Constitution Court (the highest court in Germany) to decide whether or not an investigation into NSA surveillance takes precedence over US-German relations. If the court even accepts the lawsuit that is. Even if it does, the matter could take months, if not years, to be resolved.

So while it is good news that Snowden and Rusbridger are being recognised for

courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights (Snowden)

and ahttps://morethanannie.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=2579&action=edit

role in “building a global media organisation dedicated to responsible journalism in the public interest, undaunted by the challenges of exposing corporate and government malpractices” (Rusbridger),

it should also be obvious that more needs to be done to keep the discussion alive, to communicate the importance of Snowden’s revelations and, in doing so, to make sure that our governments do not fall short of their obligations to us.

Let us be clear: we elect our governments to protect our rights, not infringe them. So far, as government responses to mass surveillance revelations go, we are not seeing enough protection and too much infringement. Another way of honouring Snowden would be to get a little more worked up about that – and to then shout our indignation from the rooftops. Or vote accordingly. Or get encryption. As solutions go, there really are a couple out there. It’s actually not that difficult.

Update

Following some queries, I feel I may need to make a few things a little clearer. The law I mention above that the German government has proposed is not *new* as such but an amendment to the existing Federal Data Protection Law. If passed, the amendment would, according to DIE ZEIT, curb the powers of the data protection commissioner to give evidence in certain cases, even to MPs – which, as I understand it, would effectively mean to curb parliamentary oversight. One such case might well be the investigation into NSA spying. For those who understand German, there is a link in the ZEIT article (second paragraph from the top) to a PDF with the full amendment proposal.

There be pirates: NSA builds Treasure Map aka its own Google Earth for all devices, everywhere, all the time.

“The Perfect Storm of Risks to Privacy”

Feel free to freak out:

Newly exposed Snowden documents reveal the NSA’s in-depth plan to “map the entire Internet — any device, anywhere, all the time.

So summarises Hackread, referring to recent revelations by Germany’s der Spiegel that NSA and GCHQ have hacked Germany’s main telecommunications provider Deutsche Telekom and several others. Amongst them, satellite companies like “Stellar, Cetel and IABG. Such providers offer satellite Internet connections to remote regions of the world.”

Apparently, the NSA and the GCHQ were able to obtain passwords for central servers of important Stellar customers (one of them was identified by Stellar employees from the documents Der Spiegel journalists showed them) which means that Stellar “and some of its customers, have been penetrated by the U.S. National Security Agency and British spy agency GCHQ.”

Just to stress how important this news is:

The significance of the theft is immense…. The information…. could allow the agencies to cut off Internet access to customers in, for example, Africa. It could also allow them to manipulate links and emails (emphasis added).

Granted, neither this, nor Treasure Map is exactly news.

In March, SPIEGEL reported on the large-scale attack by the British agency GCHQ on German satellite teleport operators Stellar, Cetel and IABG.

And the New York Times first reported on Treasure Map in November 2013, mentioning the “300,000 foot view of the Internet” the map apparently provides. That, in itself, is scary enough but looking at it in more detail should give anyone a sinking feeling.

The plan, it seems, is to “map routers, smartphones, fondleslabs and computers” which effectively, according to der Spiegel, means the agencies are building “a kind of Google Earth for global data traffic, a bird’s eye view of the planet’s digital arteries.

The NSA’s presentation on Treasure Map, published online by The Intercept, reveals the grandiose intention behind the programme. It describes Treasure Map as a “massive internet mapping, exploration and analysis machine” and also simply says “It’s huge.

[T]he map has close to real-time tracking abilities, allowing intelligence agencies belonging to the so-called “Five Eyes,” the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, unprecedented access to devices that consumers take with them every day.

Now, wait just a minute! Does that mean that just like users of Google Earth can zoom in on every place on the planet and have a snoop around, the spooks could zoom in on any of our devices for a good nosey? Er, yes. According to der Spiegel by tapping into Deutsche Telekom and “smaller German carrier Netcologne [NSA and GCHQ have] – by extension – [also tapped into] the end devices of those companies’ subscribers,” aka us.

Greg Nojeim, Senior Counsel and Director of the Project on Freedom, Security & Technology at the Center for Democracy & Technology, calls it “the perfect storm of risks to privacy,” warning that it “seems that almost no computer is secure from it.”

And yes, this absolutely includes you or, as the NSA documents put it, “anyone, anytime, anywhere,” despite what the NSA has previously said about using Treasure Map only “to map foreign and U.S. Department of Defense networks in an effort to better understand computer networks.

Importantly, the NSA “is [also] hacking into corporate servers and attacking global ISPs” and “lacing under surveillance the CEOs and other employees at telecom companies it considers vital to the infrastructure of the Internet”.

The infrastructure of the internet, i.e. the very groundwork of it – that’s what the agencies have got access to. And we already know, of course, that they have also undermined critical internet infrastructure by weakening encryption.

It gets even scarier when taking into account that, as der Spiegel writes: “Treasure Map can also help with “Computer Attack/Exploit Planning. As such, the program offers a kind of battlefield map for cyber warfare.”

Great, so after building SkyNet, which may launch the virtual equivalent of a missile without human intervention, and their own Google search engine, which makes information about us conveniently available to everyone with access (i.e. far too many people), the NSA and friends are now also building a Google Maps that allows them to see every device on the planet and plan cyber warfare. I cannot be the only one to whom this sounds a tad imperialistic?

I have previously commented on mapping and why it was such a big thing in colonial times: essentially to map a space is to assert control, to establish hegemony. Which, essentially, is what this is about. Again, this isn’t news. It’s not like they haven’t done this before: As der Spiegel reported on in the summer of 2013, “the GCHQ Network Analysis department [previously] penetrated deeply into the… network [of Belgian bank Belcacom] and that of its subsidiary BICS by way of hacked employee computers. They then prepared routers for cyber-attacks.”

But it having happened before makes it more rather than less concerning.

 

Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo!

In fact, “Fuck!” as Stellar’s CEO Christian Steffen exclaimed, seems to be the appropriate response to the “scope of…Treasure Map”. The Intercept in its article features a short video documenting the reactions of Stellar employees when confronted with Snowden’s documents – seriously, look at their faces when they realise that they are being surveilled.

Importantly,

Steffen… said he considers the documents to constitute proof that his company’s systems were breached illegally. “The hacked server has always stood behind our company’s own firewall…The only way of accessing it is if you first successfully break into our network.

Illegally being the term of note here, of course.

What is also interesting about the Intercept video is what Stellar’s people say about how in regions where you cannot lay cable, internet access is via satellite. Sounds as if, after intercepting traffic from transatlantic cables, the agencies are now intercepting traffic from their satellite equivalents as well. After all, in addition to GCHQ tapping undersea cables in the UK, “includ[ing] transatlantic cables that carry internet traffic between the US and Europe,” it was revealed last week that New Zealand’s GCSB – a Five Eyes partner – has been tapping New Zealand’s

main undersea cable link, the Southern Cross cable. This cable carries the vast majority of internet traffic between New Zealand and the rest of the world, and mass collection from it would mark the greatest expansion of GCSB spying activities in decades.

(More on New Zealand and Edward Snowden’s appearance at “Moment of Truth” in a separate post once I have time to watch the full video.)

Ironically, the Deutsche Telekom story comes after Germany cancelled its contract with Verizon earlier this year to allow the Telekom to pick up where Verizon left off, spy-free. Clearly, this constitutes what the Twitter community would refer to as an #epicfail.

Finally, Treasure Map not only “allows for the creation of an “interactive map of the global Internet” in “near real-time”, but

[e]mployees of the so-called “FiveEyes” intelligence agencies from Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which cooperate closely with the American agency NSA, can install and use the program on their own computers (emphasis added).

Tl;dr

So basically, with Treasure Map, the NSA and the GCHQ are building an all-encompassing Google Maps of the Internet, enabling them to see all our devices, everywhere all the time, their employees can play around with it on their home computers – and they have potentially obtained some of the information they need for that by illegal means.

Instil confidence? No, not in me either.

As befits pirates, I suppose. And pirates, it seems, is what the Treasure Map inventors fancy themselves to be. Once again, the NSA’s demonstrates its flair for drama when it comes to naming its programmes – and designing logos: “a skull superimposed onto a compass, the eye holes glowing in demonic red.” To complement that they also have programmes called BLACKPEARL and JOLLYROGER – what more do you need to know?

NSA-Untersuchung nach der Sommerpause: Alles beim Alten

So. Die Sommerpause ist vorbei. Der NSA-Untersuchungsausschuss im Bundestag kommt wieder zusammen – und macht genauso weiter, wie vor der Sommerpause. Derweil späht die NSA offenbar fleißig die Telecom und Netcologne aus. Natürlich ist kein Mensch überrascht. Gruselig ist die Sache aber schon: eine Art Google Earth für Smartphones wird da angeblich gebaut, um „”jedes Gerät, überall, jederzeit” sichtbar zu machen“. Man entrüstet sich: „Ein solcher Cyberangriff ist nach deutschem Recht eindeutig strafbar“, sagt Stellar-Geschäftsführer Christian Steffen. „Der Zugriff ausländischer Geheimdienste auf unser Netz wäre völlig inakzeptabel“ – Telekom-Sicherheitschef Thomas Tschersich.

Da käme doch ein bisschen Aufklärung ganz gelegen, oder nicht? Edward Snowden müsste doch erst recht wieder ein begehrter Zeuge sein, jetzt, wo just zum Ende der Sommerpause neue Enthüllungen aus den von ihm gestellten Dokumenten den Angriff der NSA und des GCHQ auf das deutsche Telekommunikationsnetz offen legen. Eigentlich müssten doch „alle“ Snowden hören wollen.

Tun sie auch, schreibt Marcel Fürstenau, die Frage ist „Nur wie?” „Alle wollen Snowden hören“, klingt optimistisch. Oder vielleicht ironisch. Vor allem das inklusive „alle“. Denn diejenigen, die Snowden wirklich hören wollen, sind ja eben ganz und gar nicht „alle“, sondern die Minderheit, die Opposition. Die Mehrheit der von der Koalition gestellten Mitglieder des NSA-PUA folgt nach wie vor brav der Linie der Regierungskoalition: Snowden hören, ja. Snowden in Deutschland hören, nein. Somit ist dann auch schnell klar, dass die Frage nach dem „Wie“ schlicht die falsche Frage ist. Denn das „Wie“ ließe sich sicher lösen, wenn denn nun wirklich alle Snowden hören wollten. Wollen sie aber nicht. Stattdessen geht man lieber sofort wieder zu den alten Vermeidungstaktiken über: Streit um den Zeugen, statt Anhörung des Zeugen. Meta-Untersuchung, gewissermaßen: man redet über das Problem, anstatt es direkt anzugehen – oder eben den Zeugen direkt anzusprechen.

„So wird das nie was mit dem hehren Anspruch, Licht ins Dunkel des Geheimdienstdschungels zu bringen“, schreibt Fürstenau und: „Das kommt denen gelegen, die wenig zur Aufklärung beitragen.“ Recht hat er. „Wenig zur Aufklärung beitragen“ trifft es allerdings auch nicht so ganz. Das würde schlicht bedeuten, man lege die Hände in den Schoss und verhielte sich passiv-abwartend. Was ja zur sonstigen Merkelschen Politik bestens passen würde. Im Fall Snowden vermeidet man allerdings durchaus aktiv und sagt ausnahmsweise mal ganz klar „nein“. „Nein“ zu freiem Geleit für Snowden, zum Beispiel. Aber „Ja“ zu der dummen und bereits abgelehnten Idee, Snowden in Moskau befragen zu wollen. Grüne und Linke wollen klagen, Kiesewetter spricht daraufhin von „Klamauk“. Flisek seigt sich unterdessen enttäuscht, vom Bundesgeneralanwalt nicht genug Neues erfahren zu haben und legt diesem die Kontaktaufnahme mit den USA nahe.

Handle es sich hier um eine wirkliche kriminelle Untersuchung könnte man sich wohl kaum dilettantischer anstellen: den Kronzeugen nicht holen, aber stattdessen die Täter um Hilfe bitten. Das ist übrigens auch nichts Neues. Neu ist lediglich die Art und Weise. Aktuellste brillante Idee: ein “Konsultationsverfahren”, angekündigt von Geheimdienstkoordinator Fritsche:

würde…bedeuten, dass die Dienste der “Five Eyes”-Staaten entscheiden, welche Akten in welcher Form im NSA-Untersuchungsausschuss vorgelegt werden, wenn ein Bezug zu ausländischen Stellen existiert.

Ach so. Wir bitten nun also nicht nur die Täter um Hilfe, sondern lassen sie auch entscheiden, welche Beweise wir sehen dürfen. Na, dann wird’s ja jetzt endlich losgehen mit der Aufklärung. Wer braucht dazu schon einen Snowden?

Daher auch keine Antwort auf das „Wie?“ Die Bundesregierung will Snowden nicht. Sonst könnte man es schlicht so machen wie die Schweiz: „Die juristischen Voraussetzungen für freies Geleit sind erfüllt“, heißt es da. „Jetzt steht einer Befragung nichts mehr im Weg.“ Geht also vielleicht doch mit dem „Wie“.

Und nur nochmal zum Mitschreiben: Snowden tut Recht daran, eine Befragung in Moskau abzulehnen. Die Verantwortung dafür, eine Umgebung zu schaffen, in der er durch eine freie und offene Aussage zur Aufklärung beitragen kann, liegt nicht bei ihm. Sie liegt bei denjenigen, die diese Aufklärung anstreben. Leider scheint die sogenannte NSA-Aufklärung in Deutschland nach der Sommerpause genauso weiterzugehen wie vorher: als Schau-Verfahren, ohne den wichtigsten Zeugen mit der völlig aberwitzigen Hoffnung auf Hilfe durch die Täter. Übrigens genauso eine Schau wäre ein Verfahren gegen Snowden in den USA. Da käme er nämlich auch nicht zu Wort.

Impartiality in journalism: does it even exist?

The Guardian in its comments section last week ran an interesting op ed. by Kellie Riordan titled “Does journalism still require impartiality?”

In it, Riordan describes people like

blogger/journalist Glenn Greenwald, data guru Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, Julian Assange of Wikileaks, and now the increasingly popular lo-fi documentary makers at Vice News

as

story-tellers for a digital age that come less from the tradition of straight, impartial news gathering and instead embrace a new style of journalism which favours transparency, strong analysis, opinion, a subjective standpoint, and at times, flat-out advocacy for one side of a debate.

She then goes on to ask the question if we “really need impartiality anymore,” considering that, as she puts it, “younger audiences in particular are turned off by traditional news”.

Indeed, studies – for example in New Zealand – seem to confirm that “music audiences and the young are leading the charge to digital platforms.”

Similarly, Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Centre said earlier this year that younger audiences are “interested in the world, but [don’t] feel a strong need to tap traditional news sources.”

In fact, a survey from Pew Research Centre shows that traditional news consumption has been in steady decline – this is true for newspapers (despite their availability on mobile devices), as well as TV. Internet consumption of news has increased proportionately amongst certain age groups.

As for impartiality as opposed to digital age storytelling: arguments could certainly be made for – and against – both.

For example, Riordan quotes media scholar John Pavlik who wondered in 2001 whether

by moving outside the ideology of objectivity, alternative news sources may help to put the facts into a more complete context and perspective. Perhaps society collectively will then be able to triangulate on the truth in a way that traditional journalism cannot, because of its objectivity ideology.

There is much to be said for that. You could argue, of course, that people are perfectly capable of forming their own opinions and that impartial news would allow them to do that much better than news which too strongly reflects the ideas and ideology of the journalist or news organisation behind it. Then again, an argument could also be made that opinions are hardly ever made in isolation and that perhaps much more informed and better-reflected opinions could be formed if people considered multiple points of view. These, in turn, could be provided through different opinions from journalists or, if you will, “storytellers”.

In addition to that, transparency, rather than objectivity, according to “proponents for a post-impartiality world,” can “give[] the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

Now, the idea of transparency as a means of counter-acting “ever-present biases” in an interesting one. It seems particularly pertinent in light of another issue that arises with the idea of impartiality or with what former BBC News boss Richard Sambrook has called “a neutral voice”: does such a thing as a neutral voice or impartiality even exist? Granted, some news may seem more impartial to us than other news does – because some news organisations have been founded upon an ethos of impartiality and objectivity that we assume makes their news equally impartial and objective.

However, just because the opinions of journalists are not reflected in their reporting and it may seem to us that we are being given “the facts”, that does not necessarily mean the news is unbiased. Rather, such news runs the risk of veiling the fact that it is still very much the product of a decision-making process of the people behind a news organisation.

For example, there was much criticism of the BBC earlier this year for its “unbalanced” coverage of the conflicts in Gaza and its subsequent choice not to report on any of the protests outside its Broadcasting House.

The BBC’s statement in response to the criticism:

Many of our programmes focused on detailed reporting and analysis of the latest developments in the Gaza conflict rather than a protest about our reporting, although this was included in our coverage on some outlets. There were also a number of bigger news stories yesterday including a significant cabinet reshuffle and the implications of a sharp rise in inflation.

Whether or not implications of yet another inflation rise or a cabinet reshuffle constitute bigger news that protests outside the UK’s national broadcaster’s venues against its editorial choices is in itself debatable, reflecting clearly that programming is very much a matter of choice and not necessarily neutral and unbiased.

By contrast,

sites such as Politico, Ezra Klein’s Vox and Silver’s FiveThirtyEight are publishing content with many of the same editorial standards upheld by legacy media, but they’re also being transparent when they cannot give a full picture or when information is rapidly shifting.

This seems to be almost a form of meta-journalism, as it draws attention to the very issue that journalism and news reporting, especially in a world of rapidly shifting information, can hardly ever be neutral, wholly impartial or in fact in possession of all the facts, even if it attempts an “impartial and independent approach which examines the facts and draws conclusions based on the weight of evidence.” The evidence, after all, may be – wittingly or unwittingly – weighed very much in favour of a certain point of view and the danger with impartial and independent-seeming media is that it may veil its own limitations.

Equally, it seems justified and necessary to demand that “writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts”.

This is especially important if

[a]udiences still rely on journalists to distill complex facts, filter through information to pull out the important aspects, and to contract lengthy arguments into consumable stories.

Yes,

[t]ransparency must still be coupled with the hallmarks of solid journalism: checking facts, attributing accurately, uncovering new information, and exposing falsehoods.

The problem these days seems to be – and this may be one of the reasons why younger audiences are turning away from traditional media – that these hallmarks of solid journalism sometimes seem to be disregarded precisely by those media we – and they themselves – consider impartial.

Not to mention the fact that as “old media” sought to “achieve [impartiality] with objective methods,” it has always been questionable how “objective” such methods even were.

Riordan is right that “audiences [may still] need a journalist to de-code the news or contextualise the facts” – the NSA reporting is a perfect example of that. No one could or should be expected to make sense of the trove of Snowden documents on their own. Which is why the idea of complete transparency as advocated by WikiLeaks I debatable: it doesn’t seem to make much sense to mass-dump information anywhere and then leave people alone with it.

However, perhaps advocacy journalism also has a place in this new media landscape – next to a blend of new and “traditional” approaches – simply to offer several opinions up for review and discussion so that a multitude of sounder, more informed individual opinions can be formed through active engagement and debate – whether that debate take place on the virtual plane or at the dinner-table in the real world.

It may be high time for audiences to become more active researchers and debaters of opinion rather than mere passive consumers and advocacy journalism may have a part to play in achieving that.

The not good, the bad and the ugly: NSA, metadata and the World According to Brandis

So here is my round-up of things that caught my attention this week.

 

The future of the US Intelligence community: economic espionage – the Intercept

We do not engage in economic or industrial espionage, they said.

We are not like China, they said, China is spying “to advantage state-owned companies and other interests in China,” which “is a tactic that the U.S. government categorically denounces.”

Or as an NSA spokesperson put it in an email to the Washington Post last August:

The department does ***not*** engage in economic espionage in any domain, including cyber.

Basically they lied, then. News about NSA economic espionage kept coming out:

on the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras; economic summits; international credit card and banking systems; the EU antitrust commissioner investigating Google, Microsoft, and Intel; and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Okay, they admitted, we do

engage in economic spying, but unlike China, the spying is never done to benefit American corporations.

Said James Clapper:

It is not a secret that the Intelligence Community collects information about economic and financial matters…. What we do not do, as we have said many times, is use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of—or give intelligence we collect to—U.S. companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line.

Shame on you, Mr Clapper, if you fooled us once (by lying to Congress), shame on us if…

Basically, they once again weren’t being quite truthful as the Intercept’s most recent article reveals:

stealing secrets to help American corporations secure competitive advantage is an acceptable future role for U.S. intelligence agencies.

So says a report leaked by Edward Snowden. A particularly revealing graphic accompanies it that speaks of “clandestine approaches” to break up corporate research partnerships and of assessing intelligence for its value to U.S. industry.

Tld;dr – they lied. Again.

 

Metadata is creepy: How your innocent smartphone passes on almost your entire life to the secret service

This is probably my read of the week for its sheer creep-factor. While not revealing anything that surprising to anyone familiar with the subject matter of metadata or avid followers of the Snowden revelations, it is still pretty spooky to read in black and white exactly how much can be inferred from a person’s metadata records – and with what level of accuracy.

The article describes an experiment during which one person tracked all his phone’s metadata over the course of one week. Basically, whoever has access to that data can know almost everything about him – including us as readers of the article. Again, this isn’t exactly news (we have been hearing that this is possible for ages). But the article scary, even if you know what metadata can do.

Consider that the research and analysis

done for this article is child’s play compared with what intelligence agencies could do. [It] focused primarily on metadata, which [was] analysed using common software.

The intelligence community is capable of far more and has access to a lot more data.

And for anyone who doesn’t care about their own privacy (“I have nothing to hide”), do your friends and loved ones a favour and consider that they might not want their privacy compromised just because you cannot be bothered to pay even the slightest attention to your security settings.

The article can be read in English here. And in German here.

Tl;dr – if a week’s worth of metadata reveals that much about you to a lay investigator using common software, think of what it reveals to the agencies. And then think about other people besides yourself, thanks.

 

The risk of trusted insiders: from Judas Iscariot to Edward Snowden

George Brandis, the Australian Attorney general – you’ve got to love him. Or at least grudgingly respect that he clearly isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself. Repeatedly and publicly.

Previous manifestations of his propaganda genius included calling Edward Snowden an “American Traitor” who “put Australian lives at risk by leaking confidential surveillance documents.” Brandis, of course, refused to back up that claim.

That didn’t stop him from calling Snowden a traitor again this week. Only this time, he did it with even more panache.

“Treacherous” Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning (to whom he refers as “Bradley” and “he”), in the world according to George Brandis, are dangerous “trusted insiders” posing an “enduring threat” due to human nature’s “endemic” treachery.

Wow. So basically we’re all potential Judases (just like we’re all suspects in the eyes of the intelligence agencies and our governments). Judas, by the way – according to the Gospel of George Brandis – “is one of the historically best-known examples of a trusted insider.” Yes, this is Judas Iscariot, the guy notorious for betraying Jesus.

To minimise the danger posed by such an “insidious enemy”, Brandis seems to think it is a good idea to establish a general culture of mistrust where everyone reports on everyone else and leakers and journalists go straight to prison for disclosing classified information.

The Australian government clearly isn’t entirely in disfavour. All hail secrecy!

Tl;dr – Australian attorney general repeats previous unfounded allegations, only this time evoking the Bible, Guy Fawkes and Shakespeare (yes, he really did that) and calls for a culture of secrecy to be perpetuated by new legislation. Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are both Judases, as are we all.

 

Basically, we’re screwed.

Summary: the IC has been caught lying – again, JB has been propagating his worrying view of the world (and the people in it) – again, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and the rest of us have been branded (no pun intended!) traitors and suspects – again. And because metadata is so revealing, the (disingenuous) IC can know everything about our lives, just in case the treachery endemic to our human nature ever gets the better of us and we turn into yet another “trusted insider” out to do everyone else harm.