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.


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