Kevin Drum - June 2013

Saturday Supermoon Blogging - 22 June 2013

| Sat Jun. 22, 2013 8:58 PM PDT

A quick break from work. Here is tonight's supermoon rising over the dome of the Greek Orthodox church across the street from me. Enjoy.

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Britain's NSA Is Listening to Your Phone Calls

| Sat Jun. 22, 2013 5:58 PM PDT

Yesterday, the Guardian revealed that GCHQ, Britain's version of the NSA, has been running a program called Tempora that taps fiber optic cables coming into the country. GCHQ claims that Tempora gathers more metadata than any NSA program, and provides access to 600 million "telephone events" each day:

The Americans were given guidelines for its use, but were told in legal briefings by GCHQ lawyers: "We have a light oversight regime compared with the US". When it came to judging the necessity and proportionality of what they were allowed to look for, would-be American users were told it was "your call".

...."The criteria are security, terror, organised crime. And economic well-being."....The categories of material have included fraud, drug trafficking and terrorism, but the criteria at any one time are secret and are not subject to any public debate....An indication of how broad the dragnet can be was laid bare in advice from GCHQ's lawyers, who said it would be impossible to list the total number of people targeted because "this would be an infinite list which we couldn't manage".

As far as I know, it's still an open question whether NSA does the same thing with fiber optic cables that make landfall in the U.S. Obviously NSA would like to. The fact that we dedicate an entire submarine to tapping underseas cables makes this pretty obvious. But I don't think anyone has ever produced any firm documentary evidence one way or the other.

I'm busy with other work today, so I don't have time to write anything lengthy about this. But I missed posting about it yesterday, so I wanted to make sure to get to it today.

Counting Down the Days Until Google Reader Dies

| Sat Jun. 22, 2013 9:10 AM PDT

I received a tweet yesterday asking me what I did to replace my beloved Google Reader, which ascends to tech heaven on July 1. Answer: After a vast amount of detailed research, I switched to NewsBlur. OK, maybe it wasn't a vast amount. Basically, Austin Frakt said it worked pretty well, and most of the other options wouldn't work for me (they were Mac only, Firefox only, etc. etc.), so I made the switch.

NewsBlur works pretty well. It has a few minor drawbacks and a few minor improvements over Google Reader, plus one major drawback and one major improvement. The big drawback is its lack of search. It's no surprise that Google would excel at this, and it was a feature I used all the time since I routinely forget where I've seen things. The big improvement is that it extracts full posts even from partial feeds, which is really nice. Overall, though, it works well enough that I anted up the $24 subscription fee, in hopes that it will stay around for a while.

And as long as we're talking tech, here are a couple of questions for you. First, is there any way to buy a Kindle e-book from Amazon UK? For reasons almost certainly due to unfathomable publisher politics of some kind, the book I want isn't available in the U.S. in electronic form. Since I work from a computer with an American IP address, and my Amazon account is linked to an address in California, I'm guessing this is basically impossible. But I'm open to suggestions.

Second, last night my mother got an iPad. Hooray! But it doesn't work. Boo! This means a trip to the Genius Bar, I suppose, but I have a lot of geniuses who read this blog, so I'll try you first. Here's what happens: when I connect it to my Wi-Fi network, it works for about five or ten seconds and then loses the connection. If I forget the network and reconnect, it works again for about five or ten seconds. Elsewhere in my house, I have two iPhones, another iPad, and an Android tablet that all connect fine (and stay connected). Anybody have a clue what's going on?

Apparently Edward Snowden Was Never a Big Fan of the NSA

| Sat Jun. 22, 2013 8:16 AM PDT

The LA Times reports on Edward Snowden:

A self-taught computer whiz who wanted to travel the world, Snowden seemed a perfect fit for a secretive organization that spies on communications from foreign terrorism suspects.

But in hundreds of online postings dating back a decade, Snowden also denounced "pervasive government secrecy" and criticized America's "unquestioning obedience towards spooky types."

At least online, Snowden seemed sardonic, affably geeky and supremely self-assured. In 2006, someone posted to Ars Technica, a website popular with technophiles, about an odd clicking in an Xbox video game console. A response came from "TheTrueHOOHA," Snowden's pen name: "NSA's new surveillance program. That's the sound of freedom, citizen!"

If you were applying for a job at Mother Jones, that wouldn't be a red flag. But for a job with the NSA? Kinda seems like it might be.

Friday Cat Blogging - 21 June 2013

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 12:05 PM PDT

We're back to quiltblogging this week. Unfortunately, Marian is gone and I forgot to ask for deets about the quilt. So I'm just going to say that it's....um, a patchwork quilt. It kinda reminds me of this. In other cat news, my sister draws my attention to a cat running for mayor in the Mexican city of Xalapa. His slogan: "Tired of voting for rats? Vote for a cat." The head of Veracruz's electoral institute is not amused. "It is important to vote for the registered candidates," she implores. "Please." However, since Xalapa's cat looks a lot like Inkblot, I think he's well qualified. Vota por un gato!

UPDATE: OK, I have the scoop. This is a Charm Square Quilt. Apparently, 5-inch squares of fabric are called "charm squares," and this quilt was made from a package of charm squares. So there you have it.

US Is More Involved in Syria Than You Think

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 11:52 AM PDT

David Cloud of the LA Times continues to provide some of the best reporting from Syria. A couple of months ago he reported that the Pentagon had deployed about 200 troops to Jordan, near the border of Syria, with instructions to help deliver humanitarian aid "and to plan for possible military operations, including a rapid buildup of American forces if the White House decides intervention is necessary." Today he has more:

CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons since late last year, months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming them, according to U.S. officials and rebel commanders.

....The training has involved fighters from the Free Syrian Army, a loose confederation of rebel groups that the Obama administration has promised to back with expanded military assistance, said a U.S. official, who discussed the effort anonymously because he was not authorized to disclose details.

The number of rebels given U.S. instruction in both countries since the program began could not be determined, but in Jordan, the training involves 20 to 45 insurgents at a time, a rebel commander said....The two-week courses include training with Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter anti-tank rifles, anti-tank missiles, as well as 23-millimeter anti-aircraft weapons, according to a rebel commander in the Syrian province of Dara who helps oversee weapons acquisitions and who asked his name not be used because the program is secret.

It's obvious that President Obama is genuinely hesitant to intervene further in the Syrian civil war. Unfortunately, it's also obvious that there's more intervention going on all the time, and it's happening in ways that can easily escalate. Cloud's reporting on this has been invaluable, and it deserves more attention than it's gotten.

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It's Amateur Hour (Again) in the House of Representatives

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 9:52 AM PDT

A friend emails me to provide today's media/political analysis:

So, I'm just waiting for the inevitable piece from Ron Fournier asking why and how Obama and the Democrats could have let the Farm Bill debacle in the House occur. Or, how this demonstrates a lack of leadership in Washington, particularly by Obama. Or, how the leaderlessness of the White House is infusing into the House through some osmosis-like process and corrupting John Boehner.

Or, just the typical "I don't know much about all this stuff, but I know that Obama is in the White House and the usually guaranteed bi-partisan Farm Bill died in the House, so there you go."

Most of the reporting on this has been he-said-she-said stuff about which party is to blame for the bill going down in the House. But what very few of these pieces point out is that Democrats weren't expected to produce more than 40 votes in the first place. In the end, they only managed to produce 24, thanks to Republican insistence on squeezing in one final gleeful, screw-you amendment at the last minute, courtesy of the GOP's tea party wing. If they'd left well enough alone, they probably could have kept all 40 Democrats on board. But so what? Even if Democratic support had stayed firm, the bill still would have lost. It didn't lose because of Democrats, it lost because the Republican leadership couldn't control the amendment process and then couldn't count noses in their own caucus. As Nancy Pelosi said, it was amateur hour.

A Quick Recap on NSA's Ability to Spy on Americans

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 8:56 AM PDT

I got some reactions to my post last night about NSA minimization procedures that I didn't expect. You can click the link for the background, but for now I just want to summarize things in a few quick bullet points:

  • For technical reasons, it's sometimes impossible to know with certainty whether a phone call or email is domestic or foreign. This means that even if NSA is 100 percent sincere about surveilling only non-U.S. persons, sometimes it will make mistakes. I think this point is uncontroversial.
  • On paper, NSA's procedures for dealing with inadvertent collection of domestic communications are fairly strict. They have to jump through a fair number of hoops to start surveillance in the first place, and if they make a mistake they're required to immediately stop the surveillance and destroy the information they've collected.
  • That said, there are several problems. First, even on paper there are plenty of loopholes. NSA is allowed to retain and disseminate content if they decide it has intelligence value, suggests a threat of harm, or contains evidence of a crime. That covers quite a bit of territory, as Alex Tabarrok points out here.
  • Second, in practice these loopholes might even be bigger than that. A lot of these decisions are based on the judgment of analysts, not judges, and oversight is very weak. There's essentially no outside oversight on a day-to-day basis, and the inspector general has specifically declined to investigate how many U.S. persons end up being spied on.
  • This all creates big problems with incentives. Glenn Greenwald tweets that incidental collection of US citizens may have been "a key point/objective" of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, and that's quite possible. The number of loopholes, combined with weak oversight, gives NSA an incentive to "accidentally" collect a lot of domestic surveillance so that they can trawl through it and keep the stuff allowed by the minimization procedures. Needless to day, other agencies, such as the FBI, would applaud this.

Glenn believes that the key takeaway from all this is that President Obama just wasn't telling the whole truth when he said that NSA programs "do not involve listening to people's phone calls, do not involve reading the e-mails of U.S. citizens." I think that's fair enough. Even if you grant some leeway for legitimate mistakes, the size of the loopholes and the lack of oversight make a mockery of that statement. Obama can accurately say that this doesn't happen without a warrant—a broad 702 warrant, but a warrant nonetheless—but he can't say it doesn't happen.

FAA Maybe, Possibly Getting Ready to Allow iPad Use During Takeoff

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 7:56 AM PDT

The Washington Post passes along some rare good news for travelers:

An industry working group assigned by the Federal Aviation Administration to research the use of electronics on airplanes is expected to recommend relaxing the ban on portable electronic devices during takeoff and landing.

One member of the group, who asked for anonymity because they were not allowed to speak publicly about internal discussions, said the panel is drafting a document that will recommend a wider use of devices, including tablets and smartphones used only for data (like e-mail) but not talking, during takeoff and landing.

Will this really happen? After TSA pulled the football away after promising to allow small pocket knives on planes, I have my doubts. I think these guys just like playing mind games with us. Besides, the third paragraph of the story says something about allowing devices to be on "in a limited 'airplane mode,'" which, as the reporter oddly fails to point out, is the current rule and is essentially the same as devices being in the state technically known as "off." So the whole thing is a little confusing.

But who knows? Maybe common sense will prevail. Cross your fingers.

The Surveillance-Marketing Complex, Coming Soon to a Computer Near You

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Here's a quote that should probably scare you:

"We are all in these Big Data business models."

Why scary? Because the "we" in this case is Silicon Valley and the American intelligence community. As James Risen and Nick Wingfield reported yesterday in the New York Times, the interests of tech companies and the NSA have been converging over the past decade in two ways. The first way is fairly prosaic: Lots of Silicon Valley companies are in the business of selling stuff to the NSA: storage hardware, sophisticated communications equipment, data analytics software, and more. But while this may have increased recently, it's not fundamentally new. It's just the latest high-tech twist on the good old military-industrial complex.

But there's a second way that the interests of Fort Meade and Santa Clara County have converged: These days, they're fundamentally in the same business. The NSA calls it surveillance, and all the rest of us just call it spying. Silicon Valley, conversely, wouldn't be caught dead calling it that. They call it "targeted advertising" or "monetizing the social network." But it's pretty much the same thing.

When your local grocery chain gives you a loyalty card, do you think they're doing it in order to make you a loyal customer? Of course not. After all, every other supermarket offers loyalty cards too. So why are they willing to offer such eye-watering discounts if you use one? Because it allows them to track every single purchase you make and dump the information into a gigantic database. That's useful to them, and, more importantly, it's valuable data to sell to others. That's why they want it so badly.

Online, of course, similar things are happening. High-tech marketing firms are busily figuring out ways to merge data from lots of different sources to build a profile of you that would probably put your own mother to shame. Why? Because it's worth a lot of money. Advertisers are willing to pay huge amounts of money to be able to target the 1 percent of prospects who are actually likely to buy their wares, instead of simply blasting their message out to everyone. Target, for example, figured out the shopping habits of pregnant women and used that to create highly effective advertising campaigns aimed at expectant mothers. That's a lucrative market.

Combine that with Facebook likes, Google searches, phone records, pharmacy records, and every other digital trail that all of us leave behind us, and what can't you predict? We don't know yet, but there are sure plenty of people beavering away to find out.

Needless to say, spy agencies have exactly the same goals. They might not be interested in whether you're pregnant—though, then again, they might be—but they're keenly interested in trying to predict future actions based on past events. So when Risen and Wingfield report that Facebook's chief security officer decamped for a job with the NSA a couple of years ago, should we be surprised? Not a bit. They're both in the same business, after all.

We can all decide for ourselves whether we think the NSA should have access to all our phone records. But the surveillance state doesn't end there. Keep in mind that DARPA's first crack at this stuff in the wake of 9/11 was called Total Information Awareness, and its goal was precisely what the name implied: a wide-ranging database that included personal emails, social networks, credit card records, phone calls, medical records, shopping records, travel data, and anything else that the marriage of high tech and modern marketing made possible. TIA got killed after public outcry, but it never really went away. How could it? The merger of public and private spying is just too powerful to ignore.

So even if you're not too worried about NSA's collection of phone records, you'd do well to think about where this is likely to go. There will be other terrorist attacks, and in their aftermath the public will be less likely to object to things like TIA than they were the first time around. After all, we're all used to Facebook spying on us these days. (There's no need to mince words about what they do, is there?) So as scary as a surveillance state may be, it's not the worst thing that could happen. That's because the private sector spies on us too, and they do it so charmingly that not only don't we object, we practically beg them to do more. Instead of a military-industrial complex, we're rapidly moving toward a marriage so perfect that eHarmony could only dream of it: the surveillance-marketing complex.