Watching You, Watching Me

The immense amount of spying on citizens by government agencies isn’t just a desecration of democracy. It plainly doesn’t work anyway. It didn’t help to prevent the most recent deadly terrorist crime to occur in the United States, the Boston Marathon bombing. In fact, the elder of the two brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who seems to have been the planner and instigator of the atrocity, was known to the FBI (and the Russian FSB) as an extremist. Even so, the authorities totally failed to detect the plot.

As I understand it, the US “PATRIOT” act of 2001, which the NSA uses to claim legitimacy for spying on every American, allows capture and analysis of “metadata” on phone and internet communication. That is, they can use sender, destination, time, duration, and location information and so on, but can not read or listen to the content without a wiretap warrant. That would be unconstitutional.

The British end of the operation though, at GCHQ, seem not to suffer from the same constraints. One operative was quoted in the Guardian newspaper as saying that they can scan the whole body of captured e-mails for keywords. You know, “bomb” and such terms.

That actually highlights one weakness of the programme: the huge amount of data. It’s completely impractical for a GCHQ or NSA investigator to manually peruse the database looking for suspicious activity. It has to be automated, and then you run up against the stupidity and inflexibility of computers. Still, scanning for “bomb” would definitely catch terrorists, wouldn’t it? Very, very stupid terrorists.

Anyone with the slightest clue would know better than to e-mail directly and clearly about their secret terrorist plot. Even medium-stupid terrorists who have been caught don’t do it, (such as the group who plotted to use liquid explosives against commercial aircraft). At the very minimum, they use a “word code” — “We are using your balti recipe.”, “The bridegroom is arriving tomorrow.”, “I’m sending you my holiday photos.”

cat & computer

There’s a steganographic message hidden in this file.

More sophisticated terrorists (and paedophiles and organized crime, apparently) are more likely to use real cyphers, which are widely available now and pretty tough to crack. Of course, if someone was searching for suspicious e-mails, then one with a block of random characters — encrypted text — would stand out. So if I wanted to evade GCHQ surveillance, I would disguise the message as well. One way to do that is a process called “steganography”, the art of hiding a message. For example, there is software that can subtly modify the photo of a cute kitten, or an MP3 by Beyoncé by digitally adding in the encrypted text. It can be stripped out and decrypted at the other end, but in between it’s virtually impossible to detect.

Although it may seem less concrete, the “metadata” which the NSA are legally and constitutionally able to investigate without a warrant (apparently) can be used to gain information about the activities of criminals and terrorists. Stupid ones. Again, it’s trivially easy to evade the surveillance once you understand the basic idea of it. You and I could go down to the catalogue store and buy, for cash, cheap phones with internet access and anonymously swap photos of kittens to our hearts’ content. Or just use the technique which spies and criminals have used since the invention of the telephone: calls between random public phones.

So: huge amounts of citizens’ tax money is being spent on snooping on those citizens. It can’t possibly be cost-effective (if effective at all) for its stated purpose of preventing terrorism. So what is it for? Why is it happening?

The conspiratorial answer is that our lords and masters lust after control of our every activity as a means of keeping us in our place. There may be a little truth to that, but my modest experience of governments and agencies and communications suggests another explanation. Call it “institutional inertia” or “project insatiability”. Some projects run on long after they should have been cancelled, and some projects expand gluttonously, devouring more and more resources. People’s careers, job security, and job satisfaction depend on “the Project”, so it can not be allowed to die. All organizations are prone to this kind of problem, and it takes good management at the top to stamp it out. The bosses at the NSA and GCHQ obviously aren’t up to the job; and their bosses, the elected politicians, weaker still.

Is it too much to hope that one day we’ll all vote for honest and competent leaders?


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