Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Hackers will be hackers


Guardian reporter Luke Harding has published some background material on the reporting for his new book The Snowden Files. Apparently someone in the security services decided to play with his mind while he was reporting on them. Not only did he and other reporters have laptops stolen (including from a locked hotel safe), not only did both the Guardian offices in London and in Washington, as well as the New York home of their US editor in chief suddenly have sections of pavement being dug up and replaced, but when Harding was texting his wife from Rio de Janeiro

“The CIA sent someone to check me out. Their techniques as clumsy as Russians.” She replied: “Really? WTF?” I added: “God knows where they learn their spycraft.” This exchange may have irritated someone. My iPhone flashed and toggled wildly between two screens; the keyboard froze; I couldn’t type.

And then, while writing the book at home in Hertfordshire,

I was writing a chapter on the NSA’s close, and largely hidden, relationship with Silicon Valley. I wrote that Snowden’s revelations had damaged US tech companies and their bottom line. Something odd happened. The paragraph I had just written began to self-delete. The cursor moved rapidly from the left, gobbling text. I watched my words vanish. When I tried to close my OpenOffice file the keyboard began flashing and bleeping.

Over the next few weeks these incidents of remote deletion happened several times. There was no fixed pattern but it tended to occur when I wrote disparagingly of the NSA.

Now, this isn’t the worst abuse of human rights in recorded history. It’s just a prank. But exactly for that reason, it underscores a point I made back at the beginning of l’affaire Snowden: Fear of the techniques the NSA and its confederates have been developing, and in the data they gather, depends not on their being villains with nefarious intentions. It depends on their being careless mortals who have no idea what use their techniques and their data will be put to.

I doubt that there was any senior official who thought that tipping off a Guardian reporter to their real-time computer manipulation capabilities would be a brilliant idea. My guess is, some bored hacker assigned to monitor Harding’s computer got cocky, and decided to show off his electronic muscles. (It’s pretty intimidating, though. Presumably it would be child’s play for them to remotely plant child pornography on the hard drive of someone they’re eager to shut down. At least in the old days, the spies needed to break into your home to plant drugs.)

GCHQ and the NSA can’t exist without hiring hackers, but getting hackers to work on your security problems is like the old lady who swallowed the spider to catch the fly. (She’s dead, of course.) I like hackers, by and large. But I like them as scrappy underdogs. The combination of arrogant macho hacker culture with essentially unlimited resources and military organisation is, to put it bluntly, terrifying. And if the leaders of our security services think they can keep the hackers under control, they’re delusional.

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