Tuesday, 24 March 2015

What you need to know about modern spying

I can’t believe I have to go through this again. Most people will be feeling a bit of intelligence-fatigue at this point. Week after week, the exposure of spy actions has been unrelenting and not a little draining.

If we’re to believe the rumours, former National Security Agency (NSA) technician Edward Snowden could have taken delivered to journalists up to a million files stolen from the agency. Media outlets could dedicate an entire section to NSA leaks for the foreseeable future, and not miss a week.

Some of his documents have been heavily controversial, others – not so much. But the impact of the revealed information is clearly diminishing in the public eye, especially now that the leaks are built to hurt not inform.
Almost nothing in the latest series of files about New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) could be called a revelation for people who understand the dynamics and constraints of the international community. Civil libertarians throughout the countries of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand have seized on questionable evidence that the partnership known as the Five Eyes is consistently overstepping its legal and ethical boundaries. They are out for blood.

At every turn, their claims have proven false or drummed up as representing something they are certainly not. The NSA and GCSB are searching the cyber world for clues in defence of their nations, but the agencies are careful not to intrude on their fellow citizen’s communications.

In instances where the agencies have looked or listened to domestic citizen’s data, the agencies have been surprisingly effective at self-policing. Courts were informed, reparative measures enacted and more care was taken in the future. Without the leaks, it would have been entirely impossible to verify that the NSA or GCSB actually did adhere to laws. It was the files themselves - meant to be secret for 50 or more years - which confirm how careful the agencies are in respecting the twin values of security and privacy at home.

But the documents also show how difficult it is to conduct useful signals intelligence in the modern era. As I’ve written many times before, the realities of the internet mean collecting intelligence on threats can no longer be isolated to “only” those threats.

There isn’t a civil libertarian alive who’d complain about the GCSB or NSA intercepting Soviet electromagnetic signals bouncing over the permafrost across the Ural Mountains. The threat was known and geographically isolated. The agencies were looking for words such as “launch” to ascertain whether the Soviet threat was developing or not.

It can be almost guaranteed this vast signals intelligence apparatus during the Cold War intercepted and stored electromagnetic signals emitted by private citizens in an effort to monitor the Soviets. Although the quantity of signals – from radios both amateur and sophisticated - emitted by its own domestic citizens was real, it was not the primary means of communication for those people. The NSA gathered private information back then, but only as an ancillary action – not a primary action. The primary targets were the Soviet ICBM fields in Siberia, not the odd radio message from John Smith in the UK.

The major problem now is that all those easier-to-intercept electromagnetic signals one day suddenly switched to underground cabling. Everything switched - including the private communications of its citizens - to a new technology called the internet. The internet wraps everybody’s communications into the same fibre-optic wiring, launching it piecemeal across the globe through hundreds of different jurisdictions on its journey to whichever computer either sends or requests the data.

Often signals from terrorists or criminals are mixed with the emails of US or New Zealand persons who were only talking to relatives or business colleagues in other countries. The documents released by Mr Snowden actually expose how the NSA and GCSB agencies gather this private information, but they are quick to destroy or disregard it in the search for true nuggets of intelligence hidden in the larger pile.

This is simply the reality for intelligence gathering in the 21st century. And in order to conduct proper government of a modern state, its intelligence agencies needed to adapt to this new environment. Unfortunately, this adaptation has brought the agencies into tension with people who believe security and privacy are not equal values. They believe those values should compete in a zero-sum game. This is not a new tension - it dates back to the impact of George III’s excessive policies in Britain - but the current conversation has taken on a larger perspective with the invention of the internet and the resultant highly-evolved concept of privacy.

So if this is the way things are, how should we view the recent documents describing the GCSB’s foreign intelligence operations?

Again, I have argued previously that the documents chosen by Mr Snowden moved very quickly from exposing the NSA’s private communications intercepts, to revealing as much information about how the agency conducts its intelligence operations.

The documents were released to coincide with locally important political events (such as the New Zealand election, and recently the South Korean free trade deal) or as barely-veiled attempts to scuttle diplomatic and economic relations between large countries (US spying activities on Germany or China for instance).

All this information was surprising to people not familiar with international relations or intelligence matters, but the mere fact that the Five Eyes partnership spies on foreign nations isn’t unusual or overly damaging. What is damaging is releasing how those countries conduct its intelligence interception. Rather than informing the populace, almost all the documents released since late 2013 have been designed to break the worldwide intelligence partnership. The people involved are out for blood.

In truth, the concept of “leaks” is a misnomer. What Mr Snowden revealed was not a bucket or two describing disparate parts of the NSA or GCSB. He revealed the underlying plumbing chugging away behind the agency’s walls.

The NSA can’t say anything, but most of its operations will now be defunct after the entire world learnt how and where it spies. Everything must now be rebuilt as the agencies won’t know which operations or projects have been compromised. Most of this public and ideological anger comes from a misunderstanding. Ironically, this misunderstanding was exacerbated by the very governments now trying to defend the agencies.

The mistake was to assume the GCSB and the NSA exist for the sole purpose of keeping its citizens safe from harm. A common government refrain since 9/11 has been to prefer the nomenclature “security services” over “intelligence agencies” to describe the operations of its spies.

It fed a narrative that directly assisted in the expansion of operational and legal powers of spy agencies following 9/11 to better defend against the expanded terrorist threat. Yet that narrative has now led to absurd comments in 2015 by Labour leader Andrew Little about how the GCSB spying on the World Trade Organisation is “outrageous”.

“These actions are a massive misuse of an agency which should be focused on our security threats, not the future employment prospects of a minister,” Mr Little says.

Green co-leader Russel Norman has voiced similar objections that the GCSB spies on targets which are not clear security threats, and therefore should cease these operations. But this is a complete misunderstanding of intelligence processes and purposes. Not only is intelligence gathering an internationally accepted practice conducted by every country on the planet, it is an old practice dating to the beginning of civilisation.

What Mr Little and Mr Norman fail to understand is that assistance in governance and protection of its citizens shouldn’t limit an intelligence agency to watching for security threats. Strictly speaking, that’s the job of law enforcement. The GCSB can assist law enforcement, but its role is larger.

The GCSB doesn’t only spy on bad people, it spies on interesting people too. And more importantly, it spies on people who are making decisions which could affect New Zealand. To know what a negotiating partner is planning before the talks begin will always help New Zealand’s strategy. If this concept makes you queasy, perhaps international relations and trade discussions aren’t the best place for your efforts. While it might seem ethical to command the GCSB to cease intelligence gathering on trade negotiations, there is absolutely no compulsion for the other side to follow suit.

The GCSB is a modern intelligence agency operating to both protect and support the state-craft of New Zealand and its allies. That the agency spies on important and interesting people for the benefit of its leaders is not a nefarious activity. Far from it. On the contrary, they prove the GCSB is conducting its primary purpose: collecting intelligence. And we should be proud that the agency is so advanced, even though its intelligence couldn’t help Trade Minister Tim Groser gain the WTO director-general role.

Fresh document leaks show GCSB spying on WTO

A top secret two-page document purportedly shows a New Zealand spy agency monitored candidates running for the director-general position at the World Trade Organisation.

The supposed surveillance tasking document was active in 2013 and is called the “wto project”. The file lists is a group of keywords systematised as search terms to query a potential database.

The project could have been built to gather digital communications traffic (emails, messaging, files, etc) related to the World Trade Organisation’s attempt to hire a new director-general. At the time, New Zealand’s trade minister Tim Groser was one of nine candidates competing for the role. Mr Groser was ultimately unsuccessful in his attempt.

The document is referred to as a “fingerprint” used to “sort traffic by priority”. Search terms include: “WTO, director-general, candidate, Zealand” and others.

Some of the search terms include references to trade minister Tim Groser as well as the entire list of the surnames of the other eight candidates. The inclusion of Mr Groser in the file has not convinced the minister to comment on the documents.

"We do not comment on such leaks because they are often wrong, they are deliberately timed to try and create political damage and we do not comment on any of them," Mr Groser told media.

Both prime minister John Key and Mr Groser have released similar statements to those produced to respond to previous intelligence leaks. “The Government will not be responding to claims made from documents stolen by Edward Snowden,” the statement says.

It is not clear from the leaked documents what mission or operation the GCSB project was gathering intelligence to support, if any.

Mr Key is returning from a recent visit to South Korea to witness the signing of a new free trade deal with the country. A South Korean candidate, Dr Taeho Bark, was included in the search terms on the document, however Mr Key has refused to comment on whether the diplomat was under covert surveillance in 2013.

It is also not known whether the document is an official GCSB file or even whether it is part of a series of leaks stolen by National Security Agency (NSA) technician Edward Snowden.

The file is remarkably dissimilar to earlier files taken by Mr Snowden and neither the New Zealand Herald nor the news website dedicated to publishing Mr Snowden’s documents, The Intercept, mention the former NSA technician’s name as being the source of the leak.

Some media outlets are also speculating that the keywords listed are collated to refer to the NSA’s large database of digital communications traffic known as XKEYSCORE. The existence of such a database was revealed by other NSA documents.

Despite the media claim, no indication of the infamous NSA database XKEYSCORE appears on the latest WTO surveillance document, nor any mention of the NSA. Only two referred instances of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) appear on the document, the first as “SigDev support to GCSB Trade team- WTO DG Candidacy issues - focus on Indoesian [sic] candidate”.

This mention could refer to a team of analysts at the agency focusing on trade surveillance tasks or a special group created to monitor the WTO director-general candidacy or other reasons. A misspelling of the word “Indonesia” is also unusual compared to previous copywriting displayed in NSA documents released by Mr Snowden. The second reference is vague and preceded by a redacted word. It states: “Responsible sid [redacted]-gcsb”.

If the documents prove what some media outlets purport - that the GCSB was spying on WTO candidacy negotiations - then the alleged surveillance operation fits with the agency’s tasking requirements as part of the UKUSA agreement known more colloquially as the Five Eyes partnership.

The Five Eyes partnership includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States signals intelligence and other intelligence agencies. It also refers to a partnership between the members structured around mutual economic and security cooperation.

Individual members of the partnership share responsibilities for intercepting communications from different regions around the world. The intelligence collection is directed by surveillance tasking requirements given to the agencies.

The specific tasking requirements can come from other branches of government interesting in gaining particular intelligence about issues or processes. These people are known in the intelligence community as the “intelligence consumers”, and can range from the leader of a country to domestic law enforcement personnel. All tasking requirements from intelligence consumers is strictly controlled by the laws of intelligence collection recognised by the nation-state. Those laws are generally more constricted for domestic intelligence collection than for foreign intelligence gathering, which is the domain of the GCSB.

Some of this collected foreign intelligence - requested by the intelligence consumers - is sent by all members of the Five Eyes to a centralised database called XKEYSCORE situated in Maryland, West Virginia as part of the gigantic NSA complex at Fort Meade. The NSA XKEYSCORE database, according to previously-released documents from Mr Snowden, is available to query for the New Zealand GCSB as part of the Five Eyes agreement. It is unknown whether the search terms in the leaked document can be used in the database.

Some of Mr Snowden’s stolen documents show that the GCSB has apparently struggled to gain complete access to the database in the past, but it is understood the agency possesses at least a partial access to the database.

They have also revealed the GCSB contributes to the XKEYSCORE database by feeding the spy system its intercepted communications gathered from the New Zealand agency’s area of responsibility. The GCSB’s area of responsibility is known to be include the South Pacific, Antarctica and South East Asia, potentially extending as high as East Asia.

Oil prices could be in for second crash

Crude oil prices may be set for a second crash as US shale drillers continue churning out more oil while US storage tanks begin to fill up.

Although a double dip in global crude oil prices might help consumers, it will frustrate oil producers as some, like Italy’s ENI, are already slashing dividends.

The story is essentially the same as in mid-2014. Oil supplies are overwhelming global demand as US drillers and OPEC producers stubbornly churn out more crude despite ever-lower prices.
The disparity between supply and demand has already led investors to push down the price of US-traded crude on West Texas Intermediate to a six-year low. At the time of writing, the WTI registered at $US44.04 per barrel.

The Brent crude price remains resilient at $US55.61, but could fall in the near future, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

But predicting crude price is no longer simply a case of watching production. Hedge funds and major investors are noticing US storage tanks filling up and are pre-emptively selling oil contracts rather than sitting tight and waiting for prices to dip again below a healthy return.

While many investor’s oil storage fear is based on good data – the EIA reported that US storage capacity is pushing over 60% in many place - US tanks are not expected to fill anytime soon.

The current high level is worrying investors and media alike because it is being compared to a 48% capacity seen at the same time in 2014. However, the EIA dampened investor’s fears pointing out that many US refineries are regularly taken offline during the spring for maintenance. This, says the agency, sometimes forces crude to be stored for a few months.

In other words, the weekly storage capacity may be unsustainably high and entirely seasonal.

Potentially exacerbating the storage issue, the International Energy Agency (IEA) raised its forecast for US production this year, after being surprised that an almost universal drop in the number of active oil rigs hasn’t yet cut production as expected.

“Stocks may soon test storage capacity limits,” the IEA said in its monthly report. "That would inevitably lead to renewed price weakness, which in turn could trigger the supply cuts that have so far remained elusive.”

Challenging the IEA’s report is news that while crude production remains steady, it could decrease in the near term as low global prices begin to take effect on North Dakota shale fields especially.

Production of crude in the US state already slipped 3.3% in January, according to the North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources. However, it’s not all bad news in the oil market. Drillers in the United States are certainly being affected negatively and some are downsizing or scaling back production, as in North Dakota.

But the low prices - and the expected second price dip - offers governments around the world a strategic opportunity to buy oil for reserves at half the price compared to 12 months ago.

According to the US Energy Department, the US government is set to buy 5 million barrels of oil for its strategic petroleum reserve. Essentially, the government is buying back every drop it sold in March 2014 when prices were high.

The US taxpayer is set to make a profit on oil stockpiles for the first time in years. China and India are also indicating they will take advantage of lower oil prices by stockpiling millions of extra barrels this year.

The IEA says the two country’s purchases, if confirmed, will add to global consumption growth which would in turn decrease the disparity between supply and demand and hopefully raise crude prices.

Weak Asian demand, along with a stuttering European recovery, was partly the reason behind the first dip in prices last year.

“Since oil prices began their rapid retreat last June, the import bills of oil-importing economies have declined. This has assisted governments in many of these countries in either adding to their strategic reserves or putting in place firm budgetary provisions to increase oil holdings,” the IEA says.

China revealed in November for the first time data on its stockpiles. According to government figures, the country now boasts 91 million barrels tucked into existing storage tanks with more space being constructed.

India isn’t nearly as advanced in stockpiling potential. Yet it is expected to stockpile 6.5 to 7 million barrels this year. Data from the Indian government suggest it could increase the country’s capacity to 28 million barrels by the end of 2015.

Death of Singapore's 'enlightened dictator' leaves questions of legacy

Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew died yesterday morning at the age of 91.

A statement from the Singaporean government announced it was deeply grieved that Mr Lee “passed away peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital today at 3:18 am.”

The tiny Southeast Asian nation will reportedly hold a seven-day mourning period, rather than an expected 30 or 60 day period, as serious questions are raised regarding the future of Mr Lee’s political party, the People’s Action Party (PAP).

As the first prime minister of Singapore, Mr Lee transformed the island nation from a strategic but severely underdeveloped swampland to one of the most efficient and respected port cities on the planet.

Mr Lee was educated at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and retained an “Anglophone” worldview long into his tenure as leader of Singapore.

He served as prime minister from 1959 at the age of 35, after Singapore gained full self-government from the British, until 1990 when he stepped down.

His death marks the end of the original cadre of first generation leaders of the nation-state.

Mr Lee’s health had deteriorated over the last three or four years, but the former prime minister’s mental acuity only diminished in the last 12 months.

As a result, the founder was respected enough by the succeeding leaders to be consulted by the Singapore government long into his 80s. He was considered a “minister” and “mentor” to the second and third generations in power.

However, according to the Straits Times, which strategic analyst Paul Buchanan terms a “mouthpiece for the PAP”, the paper has unexpectedly, but perhaps wisely, referred to the former prime minister as “Mr Lee” in its reporting of the man’s death.

“They were no longer referring to him in the fawning tones of yesteryear when they used to include minister, mentor, founder of the nation in his title. This suggests the paper is trying to diminish him in terms of sending a message that Singapore can survive this event,” he says.

This decision to humanise Mr Lee, rather than treat his personality as integral to the continuance of the nation-state, is part of a decision to reassure Singapore’s citizens that the republic will continue regardless of whether the founder is alive.

But questions often arise after such a central and seminal leader dies. To what extent will the vision of the Singaporean state continue, if at all? While the state may endure, how much control over the country the PAP might now have has been unclear for some time.

Mr Buchanan, who lived in Singapore for a number of years, says the PAP could experience infighting and power-jostling for succession as the politics takes on a new dynamic with Mr Lee’s death.

“It’ll be up to this third generation to prove whether they can meet the standards that Mr Lee set for himself and everyone around him.

“Mr Lee was an enlightened despot. He was elitist and authoritarian at his core, but he had a vision for his society and he knew to capitalise on two things. One was the strategic location of Singapore as a major chokepoint and the second was the invitation for foreign capital investment,” Mr Buchanan says.

Mr Lee will likely be remembered as one of the better dictators in Asia due to his uniquely benign but still authoritarian leadership which considered the basic needs of Singaporean citizens as primary.

The past two generations laid in place an institutional apparatus – not just in terms of the political succession and pseudo-democratic governance, but economic as well – to protect Singapore’s security created by Mr Lee.

But its security has already begun to shake. Singapore has experienced significant unrest amongst its immigrant population over the last few years, coming to a riotous head in 2013 as uncharacteristic violence gripped the country.

Those tensions, after being somewhat tempered by authoritarian measures and band-aid policies, will continue plaguing the current administration as the country develops a significant ethnic diversity.

Essentially, the dynamics of public life are substantially different in the modern era than it was during Mr Lee’s rule.

“So long as Mr Lee’s successors continue to maintain the same securities for the broad base of the population, they could continue to rule for the next 50 years,” Mr Buchanan says.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Removing trauma with technology - what could go wrong?

It’s a curious thing to discuss memory like it’s retrievable when no one's sure how it was stored in the first.

The linked article outlines an emerging field of research, out of the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which apparently wants to have implantable brain computers in the...well...I guess it wants them for the future? The earlier the better, right? They don't exist yet (thank Christ), but they'll appear on a shelf soon. Or maybe you'll be the shelf? I dunno, I didn't read the research very closely.

From what I remember, the mere recalling of memory can change the nature of that memory – you can add or edit or delete or combine similar events/memories without even realising what you’re doing. I’m also sceptical to use the analogy of the harddrive in the story because in reality, how the brain works is still very much up for debate. They’re not sure even how or where memory is stored in the brain – the hippocampi is one area, but there’s been discussion of memory being distributed across the cortex also.
What's that? The cool-aid? Drink up, buddy.

I wonder if the troops whose memories they’re trying to improve also have memory losses for good reasons? Bear with me.

All those traumatic events they experienced may have been ‘dulled’ by loss of memory (for their survival) and the side effect is that other important memories were also lost with the 'dulling'. So it’d be interesting to see if regaining some memories turns out to be a worse thing for them in the aggregate?

Not that I’m totally against it – I mean, I wouldn’t know who I am without my memories, and I’d imagine it would be pretty painful for the brain-damaged troops and their families and friends. But I also know for example that there’s experiments where people (rape victims) have had the opposite treatment (a dulling of the memories) so they can cope in life.

The thing that excites/bothers me is the potential for near-human or pseudo-human brains. It’ll make us more-than-human in a way we’ve been attempting as a species through the use of stranger and stranger ideologies for hundreds of years. There wouldn't be any more “human condition” to worry about if you can just switch off the drive to murder, lie, hate, frighten, etc. I can see why they're chasing this.

But we’re already far too malleable from advertising and propaganda for me to think this is an unalloyed good for humanity. Let’s assume a liquid harddrive could be implanted in human brains to “help” them get over trauma (it’s odd that these are always sold as helping people, isn’t it?…), what would it take for someone to “train” a brain harddrive to make a that person a better person? Surely not much.

I have one question: better according to whom? A Nazi “better” might be very different to a Jain “better”. Jains don’t like any kind of violence (even, presumably, implanting a device what makes a person better in almost every aspect) which means this technology would only be used by the Nazi person in this scenario. So now you’ve got a problem where it doesn’t matter what it means when someone’s talking about “better”, only that we keep it out of the hands of people who’s concept of “better” is something we don’t already agree with.

Yeah…good luck with that…worked so well with nuclear weapons…  

And this is assuming the creators of the technology already know what “better” means! I’m pretty sure we don’t. And it assumes that the equivalent of Nazis don't beat the rest of us to the invention in the first place.

I reckon the good-enough-brain analogy is apt. I can’t really see any good reason to manipulate how a brain functions based on some company’s blue-sky theory that it’ll help trauma victims.

After all, what is trauma exactly? Is stubbing my toe trauma? I know it bloody hurts and now I’m scared of table legs. So would I qualify for a brain harddrive to resurrect my trust in furniture? If so, then we’re pushing the bar waaaay to close to the ground for my liking.

Also, if it’s not just trauma that’s on the table here (sorry, bad pun), what else would be acceptable in the grand scheme of implantable computers? Emotional pain? Repressed memories? Sibling rivalry? Hatred of the colour green? In fact, wouldn’t a more frightening question be: where does this whole enterprise stop?

I don’t trust humans a whole lot now. What makes the agency think I’m going to trust a bunch of humans with machines in their skulls programmed to make their every move more ethical than everyone else’s? Especially when no one’s ever come up with anything remotely resembling a universal theory of ethics. That's asking for problems. I still think that although we can advance technology, it'll take a lot more to advance humans - even with all this new technology,

In saying all that, the idea this technology may be teamed with prosthesis is a cool idea and might give people true freedom when they’ve lost limbs. Then again, all the arguments I’ve outlined already exactly apply here in the same format. We can trust the tech, we just can't trust the humans wielding it.

This is gonna take some serious philosophical ethics to figure out…

Monday, 16 March 2015

No Twitter if Islam wins? Think again

The philosophy which has had an enormous impact on my psyche discusses the idea of being against progress.

It’s not so much that the idea of progress can’t exist - it certainly does with technology – rather it’s that progress is impossible when it comes to the human animal. No matter how many times we try, there will always be a status-quo of humanity to which we revert. And whenever we try to progress the human animal, the path is always dripping with blood.

All this “progress” apparently leading us to be more-than-human, of creating new laws of inclusion for our weakest and marginalised, or liberties in politics, or insights into human cognition and philosophy could all be undone in a day or a year. We could each of us dissipate back to our true reality the moment the mask of society slips. Progress with humans is not inevitable and definitely not permanent.

But that doesn’t mean the lights get switched off or Twitter shuts down. I’m not the only person to see this.

Take the current form of the Islamic State for instance. They’re arguably the most “human” of all homo sapiens alive on the planet today. They are superstitious, tribal, brutal, hateful, narcissistic, capricious and hierarchical in the extreme. None of those traits are considered indicative of progress by enlightened people. In fact, those are precisely the traits the Enlightenment sought to expunge from the world.

But a bizarre thing is occurring inside that movement. Any time the Islamic State takes control of a city in Syria or Iraq, it doesn’t touch the cellphone or internet infrastructure. Its operatives feel nothing when they break centuries-old statues and destroy artwork. They do not hesitate to pull down the fa├žade of social cohesion and secular policy. Yet they leave the internet alone. Why is that? If the Islamic State is so anti-Western, why aren’t they getting rid of arguably the most Western invention since the printing press?

Why is it that the Islamic State have a superbly crisp social media presence and - as probably isn’t a surprise - an enormous capability to consume internet pornography? I’d suggest it is because technology truly is agnostic, as some people like to cheekily say about software and hardware.

It doesn’t matter if the user is Christian, Jew, Muslim, Zoroastrian or Atheist - anyone can, and does, use Twitter. What does this mean? I submit that if we think the world will be destroyed should a religion like Islam take control, then we may need to re-evaluate our assumptions. If in the very places where this religion is essentially universal, the internet has not been turned off, then it is not the internet that is the problem – it is we who are the problem.

So far, the only path towards progress we’ve discovered is the one that leads us to better technology. This comes from reason and logic. But that’s never proved enough to help progress the human animal. Every step since the enlightenment in the effort to use rationality to advance the species has been a trial and a struggle. We’ve had to claw our way, not so much towards progress as against the grip of reversion to our animalistic nature. Nothing we’ve discovered has ever worked to free us of our human (animal) nature.

The difference between a white-collar businessman in New York and an Islamic State militant is only their clothing and geographical position. They each congratulate themselves on their choices as if they individually had anything to do with them. That one uses Twitter to broadcast hate while the other broadcasts ideas proves nothing about their own progress.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The realities of spying on foreigners

Over the past 500 days or so since Mr Snowden, the spying issue has become so muddled it’s really hard to keep up for most people. Suffice to say, there's a big difference between domestic and foreign intelligence gathering.

The former is under heavy debate in Five Eyes countries for good reason. But the latter has never been up for debate. There is no other way to ensure that a country is safe without spying on friends and enemies. There is also no such thing as a friendly intelligence service. The GCSB’s interests are not at odds with the rest of New Zealand - the GCSB is New Zealand. The agency is full of Kiwis who do their job for the sole purpose of keeping this country safe.

What’s becoming more difficult with every leaked document is painting the Five Eyes group as a rogue or malicious enterprise. So far, the worst of Mr Snowden's documents have been of a programme that overstepped the extremely high regulations for individual privacy in the United States fewer than 100 times in more than a decade.

His documents outlining foreign intelligence collection simply show how clever the multinational group actually is in the task of gathering material outside the group. None of them break any domestic laws doing this, because they are spying on foreign countries with different laws, and because everybody spies on everybody.

Again, there’s a big difference between domestic surveillance and foreign surveillance. If the GCSB was spying on New Zealanders and Mr Snowden had documents proving it, wouldn’t you think he would have released those by now? The silence is deafening. Unless new info emerges, it really does appear that the partnership was doing its job the whole time - just on a scale we had no idea about.

One contact of mine recently talked about his days as a protester during the 1980s. During one of his group's jaunts, they attempted to hack (with actual shears) through the outer chainlink perimeter of the Waihopai satellite downlink base. He claims we was stopped by the base security force because "the GCSB sent the red squad against us and banned all media coverage of the break in. They were desperate that New Zealanders not find out about the base and its purpose."

The reason, I submit, that the security team didn’t want my contact breaking into Waihopai was not so that the New Zealand public wouldn’t know the base's function, but because everyone else on the planet - friends and adversaries alike - would likely know too.

Imagine how excited the Soviets would have been to see inside the base as the images ran on New Zealand television! My contact would have felt happy; the Russians would have been overjoyed. I’d suggest that the authorities couldn’t give two cents about the protest. There was a much bigger, and older, game being played.

Domestic surveillance is under debate in this country because the enemy is increasingly part of the citizenry (terrorism, criminals, etc) and uses the same communication paths that the innocent public uses. In order to catch these people, the GCSB and others need to be watching the same internet cables used by everyone else. This means they will be encounter private emails of citizens occasionally, there’s no way around it.

The debate is over how much we want the intelligence agencies protecting us in this way, and how much we want them respecting our privacy. These truly are good Kiwis looking for the balance between privacy and security in a highly changed communications environment.

I’m not saying all Kiwis are good, but I am saying there is a utility for the GCSB to monitor the communications travelling over the internet system, some of which may pass through New Zealand from time to time.

Again, there’s no proof that the GCSB or the NSA is gathering New Zealand internet traffic, but because they are not, that should be counted as a strike against good security. It's a sacrifice we're apparently willing to make to retain some arbitrary level of privacy.

It’s also really easy to say the GCSB is “in the pockets of the Americans”. But that’s simply not true. We cooperate on a project which aims to keep the members of the Five Eyes safe. It is a job we do together. Some members are more powerful than others, but that does not translate into bullying or “purchasing” of the other members to do the American's bidding. That’s a narrative that has been thoroughly disproven by the very documents Mr Snowden has released. He has no proof the US is bossing NZ, GBR, CAN and AUS around.

what about the privacy of the rest of the world's countries? The only people who deserve a reasonable expectation of privacy are the citizens of the Five Eyes countries. The ones covered by the constitution and laws of those Five Eyes countries. In the current system of international relations, there is no room for warm fuzzy feelings about how we’re all just humans at the end of the day.

There are people and nations out there that do not want to see the US and its allies succeed. This is the reality. This is why these spying programmes are in place. We have never needed a warrant to spy on foreign people. We only need warrants to spy on citizens of Five Eyes countries.

Lastly, New Zealand has not lied to its citizens about its spying programmes. Everyone knows this country spies on foreigners and, as Mr Snowden himself says, New Zealand doesn’t spy on its public. There are things the government can’t talk about, but that’s different from lying.

Reader reply: Isn't collection the same as surveillance?

I received an interesting reply about questioning whether there's a difference worth teasing out between "mass surveillance" (as the media loves to say) and collection of digital data. In my opinion, this is the central misunderstanding at the bottom of the question of modern intelligence gathering.

Re: your article, isn't it essentially the collection and analysis of every phone call and every email ever sent? They look for certain words and phrases in varying levels of detail. Sounds like mass surveillance to me! And they do it using the Waihopi spy Base.

That’s the interesting thing about the leaks from Mr Snowden. All they tell us is that the Five Eyes partnership collects digital data en masse. There’s some extremely sophisticated techniques involved in doing this and the public is right to be concerned about the potential for abuse of the system.

But none of the leaks detail what sort of analysis happens to the data once it’s caught in the net. It’s fairly common knowledge that none of the agencies in CAN, AUS, NZ, US, UK have the required peoplepower to view/listen to all that data to ascertain whether it’s useful or not. Neither do they have the funds to do that task if they wanted to. There’s no way they can process it all.

It’s becoming clearer each day that the NSA etc are drowning in data. There’s too much of it to deal with and the only thing they can do to cope is invent “google for spies” (XKEYSCORE) and other algorithms to search primitively for keywords and other tags. They know they’ll miss a whole swathe of useful information, but they hope that they’ll at least find some of it. The reality is - proven by Snowden’s documents - is that the Five Eyes simply cannot analyse the amount of data they are gathering.

Which means they are almost guaranteed not to be looking at your data, even if they gather it (which, if you’re a citizen in the Five Eyes countries is almost certainly not happening). So the question actually is: if the GCSB is “collecting it all”, what qualifies as analysis? Is the fact that your information may or may not be sitting on a server in Bluffdale, Utah – never to be seen again by yourself or a NSA analyst – proof positive that the NSA is spying on you? Is gathering data the same thing as spying? Or does spying only occur when an analyst actually looks at your information?

After all, that’s the way intelligence has always been done, right? I mean, given the possible amounts of information out there, spies have always wanted to “collect it all” just in case there’s something in the pile they need in the future. They may never need it and it could all be junk. But how will they know what the needle looks like if there’s no haystack to search? It’s both more important and more possible to do this in the age of the internet. That’s a plus and a minus for intelligence when it comes to balancing security and privacy in a modern world.

My concern is that there’s a huge undercurrent of narcissism in thinking that our personal information is both relevant and interesting enough to have a spy want to look at it. There’s this leap of logic we’re all doing going from, “they’re gathering all the internet data!”, to, “my personal life and privacy is therefore at risk!”. That’s never been the case. Spies look for bad people, sure, but they also look for interesting people. You have to ask yourself, what would the spies want with your information? Are you really interesting enough for them to spend their precious time looking at the conversation you had with your boss or partner?

Of course it isn’t. But while I understand the importance of oversight for these agencies, we have to be more cognizant as a society that the GCSB exists to benefit us, not hurt us. Spying has this negative ring to it that doesn’t always sound so good in the public ear. But that’s largely a fault of the media and fiction books. Sure spies have done some bad things in the past, but the majority of intelligence efforts is conducting for the defence of the country’s citizens. It would be a fallacy to judge an organisation on a minority of adverse events when a preponderance of evidence suggests it is doing good the majority of the time.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Disbelieving the spy who came in from al-Qaeda

A story posted on the BBC today purports to be talking to an al Qaeda (AQ) mole called Aimen Dean handled by the British foreign intelligence agency MI6. The story is riveting and it's already gathering discussion across the internet.

But I’m not sure how much I believe his account. The last section of the interview was almost complete fiction in my estimation. Firstly, al-Zawahiri deciding to call off a potentially highly successful chemical attack on an isolated New York subway system because he was “afraid of the ramifications”? It's unbelievable in the extreme. 

Al Qaeda tried to do everything it could to attack Western targets, right down to encouraging grassroots-style strikes by incompetent armatures. 

If the group had a viable plan to strike New York again, there's absolutely no indication they would have hesitated. Mr Dean makes it appear that he foiled the plan, only to have it called off by al-Zawahiri at the last minute.

Secondly, why would AQ leaders trust a guy who was heading “back and forth” to the UK and Afghanistan? That’s a huge mistake in terrorist tradecraft. The whole problem in targeting AQ for Western intelligence was the group's high competence in conducting good terrorist tradecraft. The top operatives and leaders knew what they were doing, they knew how to conduct counterintelligence and they knew what to watch for. That’s why the group stayed hidden for so long. 

For a “close” member of AQ to be travelling between UK and Afghanistan almost at will - as Mr Dean wants us to believe - without being pulled up by intelligence would have set off alarm bells for AQ leadership. No one gets away with that, so why him? 

He just doesn’t fit the profile for any of his claimed “access”. This guy doesn’t even sound like he ever was a competent terrorist with any high training.  The skills needed for warfighting and terrorism are almost entirely different. Tradecraft training is rare and only given to the most loyal members, which he clearly wasn't.

And he says he gave up the militant job in his late teens after only a few years fighting in a war after he became “disillusioned”. That’s another reason AQ leaders wouldn’t have trusted him to look at their plans years later after he returned from the UK and Saudi Arabia. No one in high-level AQ positions shows doubt (and there weren’t many operatives in those positions). He would have stuck out like a sore thumb.

I suspect this guy was a low level wannabe jihadist with limited or infrequent access to top AQ members. The real question is why MI6 would release his name if he was at all important as a long term asset? 

Remember: if you're hearing or reading about a "black" intelligence operation in the media, then it's not black. You're simply reading well-placed public relations.

Either all the people who could kill him are dead (not true) and he’s safe from retaliation, or he’s embellishing his access, or this entire article is bogus. 

If MI6 had assets as a top level AQ agent acting as a mole throughout the 2000s, they would keep in place for as long as possible or hide his existence. That would be an enormous resource.

You don’t just throw that away. what would be the point in even letting AQ know that they had been penetrated like this? It makes no sense to blow his cover even after his access had worn off. Islamic State might be the preeminent militant organisation today, but AQ still pose a threat.

I think it’s smarter to view this article in the context of an environment of deeply negative intelligence stories over the past two years. In fact, almost all intelligence stories before and after Snowden have been about failures rather than successes. That's just the reality of Intelligence work. 

Intelligence agencies can’t discuss successes for obvious reasons so they need to find other ways of sending their positive message out, even if that means faking or embellishing a high-level penetration of one of the most closed terror organisations in history. 

Western intelligence has been disastrously blocked from penetrating AQ at pretty much every turn. That’s one of the reasons the group evaded destruction for so long. Now we’re expected to believe they had an asset in top position for more than a decade? Give me a break.

Because it gets worse. By my reading the timeline he wants us to believe places him as a spy inside AQ during the crucial planning years of 9/11 (1999-2001). 

If he had such incredible access to AQ plans - as he boasts later in the article - why didn’t he know about that plan? Or if he did know about the plan, why didn’t he share it with his handlers? Either way, it doesn't feel right.

Why didn’t the journalist ask about this obvious hole? That would have been a much more interesting question making a far better story. Mr Dean said he was part of AQ during after 7/7 as well. That’s two strikes against his “access”. 

Where was the high-level source material fed to MI6 on the London attack? He’s either a liar, insane or extremely incompetent. I hope it’s the latter. Although he does talk about how difficult it was to "rely entirely on your memory". It sounds like everything was in his mind. 

I believe this guy was at best a low level AQ operative, assuming he was part of AQ at all. He obviously thinks a lot of himself, but this whole thing stinks like a PR job from MI6. 

Islam and Christianity: spot the difference - part 2

The first part of this short series ran before the New Zealand government’s official decision to join the US-led Iraq intervention.

It took a statement made by US President Barack Obama conflating Islam and Christianity’s historical violence.

While there are comparisons connecting the two, the variances are profound. In order to see why Mr Obama’s statement doesn’t explain today’s militant Islam and how difficult it will be to foment significant change in the Muslim world, it’s important to frame the issue coherently.

From an intelligence perspective (not a scholarly or rigorously academic perspective), the fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity is that only the latter travelled north out of the desert, collecting rationalism in Greece before it was subsumed into the Western system.

Christianity travelled along a specific arc towards eventually separating the secular from the sacred. The question today is whether this arc is unique to Christianity or whether it is the predictable arc along which all the great monotheisms will travel. In other words, will Islam get to the same place?

Islam doesn’t have to get to the same place, and it certainly doesn’t have to trace that arc in order for the world to be a safe place. But the question runs to the heart of the schism in the global system.

Islam began 600 years after Christianity as what Pope Benedict XVI once controversially described as a far more “transcendental” religion. The Pope was referencing the divergent paths of the two faiths: one towards eventual modernity with the other maintaining the human status quo. His was an extremely important point.

The religion was created by Muhammad first as used as a symbol painted on the armour of soldiers but primarily built as an extension of the common mysticism extant for tens of thousands of years among humans of the Middle East.

Islam went south into the Middle East where the marriage of Aristotelian logic with faith could not occur. Many of Muhammad's first battles were against idol worshipers and other animist groups. None of these nomadic populations in the deserts of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula were claiming overall authority.

Muhammad’s campaign amalgamated many of them under a coherent idea. The attention of the Roman Empire so distracted by its own civil wars that it couldn’t deal with a rising Islam. The last pieces of the Roman system survived until 1453 when the Islamic Ottoman Empire broke Constantinople and sacked the city.

Worldwide distribution of Islam (green) and Christianity (red)
The power vacuum created by a broken Rome was quickly filled by Islam. Unlike Christianity, which requires its adherents to work hard using logic and reason to believe the faith, Islam’s strength is in not changing the human status quo of basic superstition. It only changed the names of the anthropomorphised deity and propitiations. All a new Muslim must do is continue believing in mysticism in a slightly different (Islamic) direction.

It might not seem so, living as we are at the business end of 2000 years of a Western system, but Islam looms tall in our collective nightmares because it reminds us of something. It reminds us of how we used to be. Islam frightens us because it is us.

Islam continues to be successful because it mixes simple human superstition, a desire for community and an ever-present anthropocentrism. Islam represents the default worldview found in almost every human being on earth. Humanity’s fear of death - coupled with an overstimulated pattern-seeking human brain –defaults us to superstition as a basic worldview. Islam’s transcendentalism only gives humans a coherent plug-and-play quality which is so easily adopted.

Islam co-opted the weakening Roman political status quo in a region which had become used to operating under the thousand-year imperial project. Rome was disappearing, but the system was still in place.

Rome knew that the concept of light political control using satrapies and local elders - overseen by Roman officials – was the only workable power method in the Middle East. To keep them under control, Rome didn’t require the inhabitants to fully integrate into Roman civil life. Taxes and military loyalty were enough.

Muhammad took advantage of this ready pool of subservience and credulity by simply altering the destination of the taxes and military loyalty. The underlying Roman political system was too powerful to override. Islam as a fundamentally human idea was successful precisely because it added new layer of connective tissue holding the existing religious-political system together.

The religion “clicked” with humans by requiring no deep individual changes in mind-set. The transference to Islam as a repackaged status quo system also explains why the Muslim world has largely rejected technological and societal progress. What we see when we look at the Muslim world is a window back to before humans discovered reason and logic.

The brief period of Islamic science was a departure too far from the status quo. Without the legacy of Aristotelian rationalism, Islam’s immune system fought against the ideas of progress pulling it back to equilibrium. The opposite successes of Christianity and Islam is their incredible abilities to maintain the existing systems into which they entered.

However, the only arc humans have ever discovered to escape from default human superstition is one which encourages rationalism. So what can modernity look like for the Islamic world as we move into the 21st century?

That’s a big question. The Western and Middle Eastern systems have been split for so long, Islam’s task of separating of the secular from the sacred will not be driven from the outside by the Christianity’s legacy.

The conflict in Iraq is a microcosm of the war between and among Islam over whether the religion will mimic the path already trod by the West. Christianity took hundreds of years to achieve this goal using the booster of rationalism. How long Islam will take - or even whether it must follow the same process - is a question no one has the answer to.

Part 1 here