By: Jim Cooper and Alan I. Leshner, The Washington Post, September 9, 2012
An old journalism saw goes like this: Dog bites man, no story. Man bites dog, story. Allow me to update it. Government monitors e-mail and telephone calls for national security, no story. Government doesn’t do anything of the kind — now, that’s a story.
Clearly some awfully good newspapers and some awfully good reporters disagree. In the past week, it’s been raining stories about what the busybody government has been up to. The National Security Agency has been monitoring telephone calls and e-mails — and even social media stuff of the sort you shouldn’t have been doing anyway. To this, a whole lot of people have expressed shock. Oaths to the Fourth Amendment have filled the air. Unreasonable searches are simply unconstitutional, they assert — without asserting that anything has in fact been searched or seized. It has merely been noted and, if suspicious, referred to a court for the appropriate warrant.
The programs certainly can be abused. (So can local police powers.) But oddly enough, proof that this has not happened comes from the self-proclaimed martyr for our civil liberties, Edward Snowden, late of Booz Allen Hamilton, the government contractor that ever-so-recently employed him. (I assume he’ll be summoned to HR.)
In a remarkably overwrought interview conducted by the vainglorious Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian, Snowden cited not one example of the programs being abused. Greenwald wrote that Snowden “lines the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping” and that “he puts a large red hood over his head and laptop when entering his passwords to prevent any hidden cameras from detecting them.” Greenwald said that “Snowden will go down in history as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers.” I think he’ll go down as a cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood.
Greenwald likens Snowden to Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed the Pentagon Papers to The Post and the New York Times more than four decades ago. Not quite. The Pentagon Papers proved that a succession of U.S. presidents had lied about their intentions regarding Vietnam — Lyndon Johnson above all. In 1964, he had campaigned against Barry Goldwater for the presidency as virtually the peace candidate while actually planning to widen the war. As the Times put it in a 1996 story, the Pentagon Papers “demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.”
In contrast, no one lied about the various programs disclosed last week. They were secret, yes, but members of Congress were informed — and they approved. Safeguards were built in. If, for instance, the omniscient computers picked up a pattern of phone calls from Mr. X to Suspected Terrorist Y, the government had to go to court to find out what was said. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act established a court consisting of 11 rotating federal judges. These judges are the same ones who rule on warrants the government seeks in domestic criminal cases. If we trust them for that, why would we not trust them for other things as well?
Whenever I see “Hello, Richard” on my computer screen, I realize what’s happened: It knows me. It knows what I bought and when I bought it and where I was at the time. It knows my sizes and my credit card number, and if it knows all that, it knows pretty much everything. I long ago sacrificed a measure of privacy for convenience. One click will do it.
I also made the same sort of deal for security. I assumed the government was doing at least what Google was doing — and Google, I’m convinced, is the new Santa Claus: It sees you when you’re sleeping, it knows when you’re awake. It knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake. In 2009, Google’s Eric Schmidt put us all at ease by telling CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” See, not all billionaires are so smart.
Everything about Edward Snowden is ridiculously cinematic. He is not paranoiac; he is merely narcissistic. He jettisoned a girlfriend, a career and, undoubtedly, his personal freedom to expose programs that were known to our elected officials and could have been deduced by anyone who has ever Googled anything. History will not record him as “one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers.” History is more likely to forget him. Soon, you can Google that.
By: Richard Cohen, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, June 10, 2013
All the President’s Men, the movie made from the book that inspired my career in journalism, was on (very) late night TV the other night. What’s strikingly anachronistic about the film is not the sideburns and bug-eye glasses, but the rudimentary journalistic tactics of the reporters who broke the Watergate story.
They weren’t on Google, searching for information that may or may not be accurate, and using a research technique that is so easily tracked that pop-up ads related to the search will begin appearing almost immediately. They didn’t drive through toll booths with a convenient electronic device on the windshield that can (and do) track their movements and the specific time of the movements. They didn’t do email interviews, cell phone interviews or even many hardline phone interviews that could leave an electronic trail.
The movie shows the real, unglamorous shoe-leather work of being a reporter. It’s one scene after another of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein driving to a neighborhood, parking blocks away to avoid detection and then knocking on people’s doors, sweet-talking their way into living rooms for interviews. It’s Woodward finding ways to meet his source, “Deep Throat” – not by thumb-typing a text, but by signals that involved the moving of a plant on a balcony. This was how the duo managed to get people to talk to them – sometimes at great personal risk – and how Woodward managed to keep Mark Felt’s identity a secret until Felt’s family disclosed his role in 2005.
Journalists are concerned at the surveillance of their phone records. And many are also jarred by the disclosure that federal authorities have been monitoring certain activity on the web and collecting phone call data. But where would anyone get the idea that any communication attached to technology and electronic’s is really private?
We have a new Facebook generation which is remarkably willing to give up its collective privacy by posting their embarrassing photos and travel plans and insignificant “status” updates on what is the biggest billboard in the cyber-sky. And yet the same people live in the delusion that no one is monitoring it? That a potential burglar isn’t tipped off by someone’s Pinterest photos of the family currently on vacation, a sign that the house is unattended? That a potential employer might see a photo of an applicant with someone doing shots off his chest and think, “maybe this isn’t someone we want working here?”
True, the idea government surveillance has a different quality to it, from both sides. We expect our government to respect our privacy. The government, meanwhile, knows it is also expected to track the bad guys. The balance of those two goals will surely be debated yet again after the recent disclosure of surveillance techniques. But in the meantime, Americans might want to rethink our relationship with technology and the privacy we lose by using it.
This applies exponentially to journalists, who might want to get back to basics – especially when reporting sensitive stories. When I was reporting in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, almost no one would be interviewed on the phone. They had just ousted a communist regime, and they were convinced, still, that their phones were being tapped. They didn’t even talk openly on the subway, so well-trained they were to be discreet. It made it harder to report, but it also promoted some better work tactics. I had to actually go meet someone somewhere and do interviews in person. I was less likely to misinterpret, and came back with more information than I would have gotten in a quick phone conversation. Woodward and Bernstein did it. So should the rest of us.
By: Susan Milligan, Washington Whispers, U. S. News and World Report, June 10. 2013
“Who Watches The Watchers?”: The Government Wouldn’t Be Able To Accumulate Data On Citizens If Companies Weren’t Collecting It
Yesterday, President Obama for the first time publicly addressed the controversies surrounding the National Security Agency’s Internet snooping, noting that there’s an important discussion to be had about the balance between security and liberty in a free country. “I welcome this debate,” he said.
I wonder, though, whether this debate is too narrowly drawn: Is the nub of the problem too much government surveillance or too much surveillance, period? After all, the government wouldn’t be able to so easily accumulate all this data on private citizens if private companies weren’t collecting it first.
In case you live under a rock, the kerfuffle involves a pair of National Security Agency programs. In one the agency spent years collecting the nation’s phone records – who called whom when and from where. In the other, codenamed PRISM, it has reportedly mined data – emails, chats and photographs, for example – of ostensibly foreign targets from prominent Internet providers like Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL and Apple, to name a few. (For their part, these companies have issued various types of denials regarding their cooperation in the program.)
But as I said, the government surveillance, which is deeply unsettling, raises a larger question about corporate surveillance. Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center points out that none of the information in question would be sharable if Internet and telecommunications companies encrypted it to protect privacy. In other words, it’s not a given that corporations must collect vast amounts of information from and about us. But failing to do so wouldn’t be good for business.
Somebody’s watching you. As security technologist Bruce Schneier has written, “The Internet is a surveillance state.” The mere act of visiting websites means you’re being tracked whether you’re aware of it or not. “Click tracking is a huge source of personal data that most people aren’t aware is being collected,” says Stephen Wicker, a Cornell University professor and author of the forthcoming “Cellular Convergence and the Death of Privacy.” He adds that “sites that you would think are relatively benign are actually hosting third party click trackers that take this data and then resell it.”
Indeed, earlier this year The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal dug into the world of Internet tracking and discovered 105 companies that had tracked him in a 36-hour period of normal Web surfing. “Every move you make on the Internet is worth some tiny amount to someone, and a panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your Internet journey goes unmonetized,” he wrote. (Full – or at least partial – disclosure: I do not know whether and to what extent usnews.com employs click trackers.)
Or consider the big data kid on the block: Google. Many people probably view the company as a search engine, or a map provider, or a mobile phone company or a cloud repository for documents. What Google is, in fact, is a data collection company: It collects data on you 15 ways to Sunday, sorts it, chops it up and sells it. And as Robert Epstein pointed out on this site in May, it’s not just when you’re using the Google search engine or Gmail (though it is assuredly the case then).
The Internet behemoth is collecting information on you whether you know it or not and whether you’re using its products or not. Using Safari or Firefox? Both web browsers, Epstein wrote, use Google’s blacklist, “an ever-changing list of about 600,000 websites that Google’s bots have identified – sometimes mistakenly – as dangerous. No government agency or industry association ever gave Google the authority to maintain such a list, but it exists, and Firefox uses it.” So does Safari. If you’re visiting a website that uses Google analytics (and most major sites do) or is serviced by Google ads or has Google maps embedded in it then Google, as Epstein writes, has gotcha.
But Google’s the “Don’t be evil” company, right? (After all, they’ve just gotten Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson to star in a two-hour movie-cum-commercial.) And don’t all major social media platforms have privacy policies to protect consumers? Maybe. But in the last few years Google, Facebook and MySpace (remember that site?) have reached settlements with the Federal Trade Commission for charges related to how they handled users’ personal and private data.
The spy in your pocket. And that doesn’t even get into the personal, portable surveillance tools practically everyone in the country voluntarily carries around with them: mobile phones and other wireless devices. Pew Research reported this week that for the first time a majority of Americans own a smart phone of some kind, while fully 91 percent of the adult population now owns some flavor of cell phone. (The wireless industry lobbying group CTIA reports that wireless devices have now reached 102 percent penetration in the U.S. and its territories, which means that the machines now outnumber the people.)
And if you’re using your mobile phone, you’re being tracked. “I don’t think people realize they’re revealing their location to their carrier just by using their device,” says Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy researcher and consultant. A 2011 investigation by the Wall Street Journal (on which Soltani consulted) found that Apple and Android smart phones routinely send location information, including information about local Wi-Fi networks, back to Apple and Google. Separately, the Journal reported in 2011, Apple’s iPhone collected and stored location data even when users had turned off “location services” – which is to say when they thought they had opted out of being tracked.
Why? This information is a potential treasure trove for these companies. From the Journal:
Google and Apple are gathering location information as part of their race to build massive databases capable of pinpointing people’s locations via their cellphones. These databases could help them tap the $2.9 billion market for location-based services – expected to rise to $8.3 billion in 2014, according to research firm Gartner, Inc.
Google uses this information to help show on its maps where automobile traffic is especially heavy or light. Verizon sells aggregate location data to advertisers, according to Soltani, so they can know where to place billboards. The wireless companies’ viewpoint, according to Soltani, is “we got this information for free, let’s use it for this other use-case, which is the marketing data.”
And there are a lot of companies trying to get a piece of this financial pie. In another story, the Journal surveyed 101 popular iPhone and Android apps and found that “56 transmitted the phone’s unique device ID to other companies without users’ awareness or consent. Forty-seven apps transmitted the phone’s location in some way. Five sent age, gender and other personal details to outsiders.” As Soltani told a Senate subcommittee in 2011, “applications can access and transmit data which includes text messages, emails, phone numbers, contacts stored and even browser history stored on the device.”
So if you woke yourself up this morning with an alarm clock app on your phone, the instant it went off, says Soltani, not only did it transmit noise to your ears but location data back to people you don’t know. “There are times where there are 50 or 100 third parties – companies that you’ve never had a relationship with – who are able to monitor your … activities,” he says.
Not big on apps? Consider your next visit to the local mall. Carriers and other companies are installing sensors around shopping malls, Soltani says, allowing them to track where people are lingering, what’s popular and what’s not, analytics that then go to the mall.
Perverse incentive. All of this creates what Soltani calls a “perverse incentive that creates this worst case scenario for consumers.” Companies have an incentive to collect and keep user data; and that trove proves an irresistible target for the government in its ongoing war on terrorists.
Which brings us back to the current uproar over the NSA’s data collection and data mining. The outrage is justified, as is the broader concern about how the cult of secrecy has infected and distorted the government. But there is something somewhat comforting to the notion that government agencies are ultimately responsible to the voters, even if that process has become calcified and overly complex.
But the surveillance state is built upon its corporate counterpart. And who watches those watchers?
By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, June 8, 2013
“Non-Factual Facts”: Washington Post Hedges Claim That Google, Facebook, Gave The Government Direct Access To Their Servers
Yesterday, the Washington Post reported a shocking story about how the FBI and National Security Agency had partnered with Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies to spy on the tech companies’ hundreds of millions of users.
The government agencies, the Post said, were “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”
This surveillance program, the Post reported, had been “knowingly” facilitated by the tech companies, which had allowed the government to tap directly into their central servers.
The Post story described a “career intelligence officer” as being so horrified by the power and privacy intrusion of this surveillance system that the officer was helping to leak the news to expose it.
“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer reportedly told the Post.
Not surprisingly, the Post’s story created an instant explosion of outrage. The ire was directed at both the government and the technology companies.
The story also led to immediate, explicit denials from the technology companies. Google, Facebook, and Yahoo all said that the government did not have “direct access” to any servers. Apple said it had never even heard of the program it was supposedly partnering with.
So The Post’s claim that the companies had voluntarily given the government direct, open, un-monitored access to their servers quickly seemed suspect.
And now, 24 hours later, after more denials and questions, the Post has made at least two important changes to its spying story.
First, the Post has eliminated the assertion that the technology companies “knowingly” participated in the government spying program.
Second, and more importantly, the Post has hedged its assertion that the companies have granted the government direct access to their servers.
The latter change is subtle, but important. In the first version of its story, the Post stated as a fact that the government had been given direct access to the companies’ servers.
Now, the Post attributes the claim to a government presentation–a document that has been subjected to significant scrutiny and skepticism over the past day and that, in this respect, at least, seems inaccurate.
In other words, the Post appears to have essentially retracted the most startling and important part of its story: That the country’s largest technology companies have voluntarily given the government direct access to their central servers so the government can spy on the tech companies’ users in real time.
Specifically, here’s how the Washington Post story has changed…
Here’s the original first paragraph:
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.
Here’s the updated paragraph (our emphasis):
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.
That change is important. The direct-access claim changes from a fact asserted by the Washington Post to a claim made in a document the Washington Post has seen–a document that might be wrong.
The idea that Google, Facebook, Apple, et al, had voluntarily given the government direct unfettered access to their servers always seemed far-fetched.
This behavior would justifiably trigger the wrath of the companies’ hundreds of millions of users worldwide and exacerbate already existing concerns that these companies routinely trample all over their users’ privacy.
Furthermore, the government’s assertions that its spying programs are directed primarily at foreigners, not US citizens, would not be viewed as comforting to Google, Facebook, et al.
Because the vast majority of the users of these companies’ services are foreigners.
If the international users of Facebook, Google, et al, were to feel that the companies were opening their data centers in this way, the international users might revolt. So it’s hard to imagine that these companies would just voluntarily open their servers to the U.S. government (or, for that matter, any other government).
The Washington Post also broke the news about the existence of the vast government program Internet spying called PRISM, which other outlets have since confirmed. And the story illustrated how extensively the government uses Internet communications in its intelligence efforts and how important these communications are to national security.
But, a day after the Post story appeared, it seems likely that the following claims are wrong or at least need major qualification:
- that the NSA and FBI are “tapping directly into the central servers” of Facebook, Google, et al, and,
- that the government can “quite literally watch your ideas form as you type.”
By: Henry Blodget, Business Insider, June 7, 2013
Some policymakers, including certain senators and members of Congress, cannot resist ridiculing any research project with an unusual title. Their press releases are perhaps already waiting in the drawer, with blanks for the name of the latest scientist being attacked. The hottest topics for ridicule involve sex, exotic animals and bugs.
The champion of mocking science was the late William Proxmire, whose Golden Fleece Awards enlivened dull Senate floor proceedings from 1975 until 1988. His monthly awards became a staple of news coverage. He generated good laughs back home by talking about a “wacko” in a lab coat experimenting with something seemingly stupid. Proxmire did not invent the mad-scientist stereotype, but he did much to popularize it.
The United States may now risk falling behind in scientific discoveries as other countries increase their science funding. We need to get serious about science. In fact, maybe it’s time for researchers to fight back, to return a comeback for every punch line.
Toward that end, we are announcing this week the winners of the first Golden Goose Awards, which recognize the often-surprising benefits of science to society. Charles H. Townes, for example, is hailed as a primary architect of laser technology. Early in his career, though, he was reportedly warned not to waste resources on an obscure technique for amplifying radiation waves into an intense, continuous stream. In 1964, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov.
Similarly, research on jellyfish nervous systems by Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien unexpectedly led to advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment, increased understanding of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and improved detection of poisons in drinking water. In 2008, the trio received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this initially silly-seeming research. Four other Golden Goose Award winners — the late Jon Weber as well as Eugene White, Rodney White and Della Roy — developed special ceramics based on coral’s microstructure that is now used in bone grafts and prosthetic eyes.
Across society, we don’t have to look far for examples of basic research that paid off. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, then a National Science Foundation fellow, did not intend to invent the Google search engine. Originally, they were intrigued by a mathematical challenge, so they developed an algorithm to rank Web pages. Today, Google is one of the world’s most highly valued brands, employing more than 30,000 people.
It is human nature to chuckle at a study titled “Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig,” yet this research led to a treatment for hearing loss in infants. Similar examples abound. Transformative technologies such as the Internet, fiber optics, the Global Positioning System, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computer touch-screens and lithium-ion batteries were all products of federally funded research.
Yes, “the sex life of the screwworm” sounds funny. But a $250,000 study of this pest, which is lethal to livestock, has, over time, saved the U.S. cattle industry more than $20 billion. Remember: The United States itself is the product of serendipity: Columbus’s voyage was government-funded. Remember, too, that basic science, the seed corn of innovation, is primarily supported by the federal government — not industry, which is typically more interested in applied research and development.
While some policymakers continue to mock these kinds of efforts, researchers have remained focused on improving our quality of life. Scientific know-how, the engine of American prosperity, is especially critical amid intense budgetary pressures. Federal investments in R&D have fueled half of the nation’s economic growth since World War II. This is why a bipartisan team of U.S. lawmakers joined a coalition of science, business and education leaders to launch the Golden Goose Awards.
Federal support for basic science is at risk: We are already investing a smaller share of our economy in science as compared with seven other countries, including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Since 1999, the United States has increased R&D funding, as a percentage of the economy, by 10 percent. Over the same period, the share of R&D in the economies of Finland, Germany and Israel have grown about twice as fast. In Taiwan, it has grown five times as fast; in South Korea, six times as fast; in China; 10 times. In the United States, meanwhile, additional budget cuts have been proposed to R&D spending for non-defense areas. If budget-control negotiations fail, drastic across-the-board cuts will take effect in January that could decimate entire scientific fields.
Columbus thought he knew where he was going, but he didn’t know what he had found until many years later. He was searching for the Orient, but he discovered something even better: the New World.
Let’s honor our modern-day explorers. We need more of them. They deserve the last laugh.