Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘espionage’

Defending the fraud

From the perspective of normal human psychology, everything about the Trump-Putin interaction seems off. As I remarked before, if Trump were really a Russian agent, you would expect Putin to advise him to be less conspicuous in advocating Russian interests, simply to preserve his usefulness.

On the other hand, imagine Trump as a naive businessman with generally russophile leanings. (I don’t know, maybe he read The Gambler at an impressionable age, and modeled his life on it.) He’s had no significant contact with the Russian leadership, but he once met Vladimir Putin at a beauty pageant, thinks he praised him (mistakenly), and thinks he could do some good for the world by relaxing tensions with the world’s second-largest nuclear power. He is convinced that he deserves to be president, but privately unsure the world will acknowledge his greatness. Now he receives intelligence briefings giving strong evidence that the Russians are attempting to interfere with the election in his favour. What would he do? Before the election maybe he keeps quiet and tries to suppress or discredit the claims. But you would expect him to be seething with fury, that the Russians threaten to taint his election. The help they’re giving is marginal, but the blowback is potentially enormous. It’s like a referee intentionally calling an unwarranted penalty in a football match. It probably won’t change the result, but it makes the favoured side look terrible. To do that without consent is an act of aggression against those you’re ostensibly helping. (more…)

The Deep State election

Maybe in 2020 we can clarify matters by dropping the Republican/Democratic mask and just let the FBI and CIA field their own candidates.


Against all odds, all political sides in the US are converging toward agreement. Here was a headline from the left-wing Daily Kos that seemed extreme three weeks ago:

Former spy reports Kremlin cultivated Trump as an asset for 5 years

And here is Donald Trump, speaking yesterday at a press conference:

If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what folks, that’s called an asset

Donald Trump is not a Russian agent

If he were, they would surely order him not to blow his cover by so blatantly promoting Russian interests.

I realise I’m clutching at straws here…

Confidence game: Growth mindset for the secret police

Powers that give MI5, MI6 and GCHQ a “dizzying” range of electronic surveillance capabilities will be laid out in the investigatory powers bill next month, in a move that will bolster the confidence of the intelligence agencies but pave the way for a row with privacy campaigners.

According to one headline announcing this report in the Times, the security services will get the “legal right” to hack into people’s computers and other electronic devices. Under must circumstances, “legal right” might be seen as redundant, but not here. They already do these things, they have the power to do these things, but what they lack, apparently, is confidence in their abilities.

Cue the Growth Mindset (TM). I suppose it was only a matter of time before education fads started sloshing over into spying: After all, aren’t GCHQ and the others supposed to be “learning things”? What they need is confidence. The standard critiques apply:

Confidence and motivation are crucial, but confidence without competence is simply hot air.

By their scandals you shall know them

I’ve always been impressed by German political scandals. More generally, I think that the quality of political scandals is an excellent indicator of the general health of a country’s political culture. More than 20 years ago I was in Germany during the Briefbogenaffäre, the “letterhead affair”, when the business minister and deputy chancellor Jürgen Mölleman was forced to resign after having used his department’s letterhead to tout a really banal business idea of his cousin (selling plastic chips to be used instead of one-mark coins to stick into supermarket trolleys as deposit), calling it a “pfiffige Idee” (clever idea). At the time I thought the whole thing seemed ridiculous, and simultaneously I was impressed at a political culture capable of being genuinely shocked by minor corruption. You couldn’t imagine an Italian minister being forced to resign over something like that.

Now there’s a new scandal, and Germany has again showed itself to be a country that takes democratic values seriously. About a week ago the blog netzpolitik.org, a major organ for German journalism about issues of internet freedom and privacy, received notification that the Generalbundesanwalt (GBA — basically, attorney general) that they were officially being investigated under suspicion of treason, for having published secret documents of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV — the “Federal Agency for Defense of the Constitution”, the somewhat Orwellian name that Germany has bestowed on its internal secret police) relating to its new plans for mass internet surveillance with a special secret budget. The letter says that the investigation was provoked by a criminal complaint issued by the Verfassungsschutz.

What happened next was surprising. The Verfassungsschutz and the GBA were both strongly criticised in the press, with accusations that they were trying to stifle public criticism. Comparisons were drawn to the 1962 Spiegel Affair, a crucial event in postwar German history, where the government imprisoned journalists who had revealed secret documents showing weaknesses in German military preparedness, but was then forced to back down. Then the circular firing squad began. The justice minister criticised the decision as improper. The GBA office said they were obliged to act on the complaint from the BfV. The BfV said they only reported the facts to the GBA, they had no responsibility for the criminal investigation. Then the GBA fired back at the justice minister, saying his comments were an “intolerable interference” in the independence of the judicial system. Whereupon the justice minister fired him and had the investigation stopped.

It’s hard to imagine any important political or judicial figure in the UK or US losing his job because he was seen as being too aggressive in protecting state secrets against press freedom.

Honour among spies

I’m genuinely perplexed by pretensions of morality among representatives of espionage agencies. Today various news outlets are reporting that Russia and China have gained access to the Snowden files, and so found details of western agents and methods. Now, a certain skepticism is required: No details are offered, only that “sources” “believe” this to be so. Even if this information has reached Russia and China, the US government has shown itself to be so inept at network security lately that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that they gained access through a different route.

That doesn’t stop the grandiloquent sermonising. According to the Sunday Times,

One senior Home Office official accused Snowden of having “blood on his hands,” although Downing Street said there was “no evidence of anyone having been harmed”.

Imagine if it were discovered that Edward Snowden were actually Eduard Snowdinsky, a Russian sleeper agent whose parents had been smuggled into the US to raise an agent with US background. Now that he has successfully completed his mission and returned to the motherland, what could American officials (and their running-dog lackeys) say but “Good on you. Impressive operation.” After all, everyone does it, if they can. That’s what they say when they spy on our allies, who (they say) are only putting on a show of saying they feel the Americans betrayed their trust. Or when they spy on their own citizens, who they say are simply naive in not recognising the force majeure. They wouldn’t say he had “blood on his hands”, or any such nonsense smacking of bourgeois morality that they’ve all moved beyond when they saw the higher purpose of spying on the whole world. So, are they just putting on a show?

Perhaps more to the point, should I be more appalled by the actions of a Snowden, who revealed US secrets in an attempt to defend universal principles of democracy and human rights, and the US constitution in particular; or by the actions of the NSA, who were so busy breaking into video-game chats that they couldn’t be bothered to make appropriate efforts to defend the US against having the complete set of US government security clearances hacked? That’s information that definitely puts people at risk of harm.

Is it a coincidence that these stories are coming out at the same time?

Keeping focus

Angela Merkel is caught in a political struggle over the German government’s relationship to the NSA. One element of the struggle is the government’s attempt to suggest, without explicitly saying so, that the US was open to negotiating a “No-Spy” treaty, whereas they knew that the Americans had made absolutely clear that no such treaty would be entered into. What I find fascinating in this affair is how blatant the US is willing to be about its contempt for the sovereignty of other nations:

Doch bereits im Juli 2013 hatte die Europa-Strategin im Weißen Haus, Karen Donfried, in E-Mails an Merkels Berater Christoph Heusgen trotz dessen nachdrücklichem Bitten vermieden zuzusichern, dass sich US-Geheimdienste in Deutschland an deutsches Recht halten würden. Die “SZ” zitiert etwa aus einer E-Mail vom 19. Juli 2013:

“Bei uns liegt der Fokus natürlich darauf, ob wir das US-Recht einhalten. Unsere Experten fühlen sich nicht dafür gerüstet, die Einhaltung des deutschen Rechts zu beurteilen.”

[Already in July 2013 the White House European-strategy expert Karen Donfried had refused to give assurances to Merkel’s advisor Christoph Heusgen, despite his explicit request, that US espionage agencies in Germany would follow German laws. Süddeutscher Zeitung quotes from a July 19, 2013 email:

Our focus is naturally on whether we obey US laws. Our experts do not feel qualified [literally, “adequately armed”] to evaluate our conformity with German laws.]

What admirable modesty! It’s only natural that their number one concern is whether they are obeying US law, and given their very limited success in achieving that goal, they have no excess capacity for anything as complicated as trying to simultaneously obey both sets of laws. The expertise budget is really not unlimited. Not to mention that the German laws aren’t even written in English!

I know I find it more than I can manage to decide, on any given day, whether I’m going to obey US or UK law. I imagine finding myself some day in court, having to say, “I’m sorry Judge, but my focus is on whether I obey US laws. I do not feel qualified to evaluate my conformity with UK laws.”

Of course, someone might say that representatives of the US government who feel themselves incapable of keeping within the confines of German law do have the option of staying out of Germany…

Just browsing

Among the first orders of business for the Conservatives, now that they have a majority, is to increase their ability to spy on the general public — for only the most noble of reasons bien sûr:

That law, labelled a snooper’s charter, would have required internet and mobile phone companies to keep records of customers’ browsing activity, social media use, emails, voice calls, online gaming and text messages for a year. 

It occurred to me that a reasonably effective defense against government snooping on your browsing history (and, indeed, Google snooping on your browsing history) might be to have a browser that is constantly active, and searches for random search terms whenever it is not being actively used.

Some ideas:

  1. The random browsing should not be completely arbitrary. It should include sufficient numbers of securityphilic keywords to make it difficult to search through.
  2. You don’t want the real searches to stand out as topically coherent. You’d want the choice of search terms to crawl through topic space.
  3. You might want to embed the real searches in the crawl. Suppose I type “David Cameron smashed restaurant” into my search window, when the browser, on its own initiative, has just searched for “spurious GCHQ bomb plots”. Instead of carrying out my search immediately, it interpolates thematically. Maybe a dozen searches like “spurious David Cameron bomb plots” and “spurious David cameron bomb restaurant”.

Is it better if they spy accurately?

There’s a fascinating article in the Guardian about how Berlin has become a centre for “digital exiles”, people — mainly Americans — whose online activism has put them in the crosshairs of various security services, leading to low-level harassment, or occasionally high-level harassment, such as this frightening story

Anne Roth, a political scientist who’s now a researcher on the German NSA inquiry, tells me perhaps the most chilling story. How she and her husband and their two children – then aged two and four – were caught in a “data mesh”. How an algorithm identified her husband, an academic sociologist who specialises in issues such as gentrification, as a terrorist suspect on the basis of seven words he’d used in various academic papers.

Seven words? “Identification was one. Framework was another. Marxist-Leninist was another, but you know he’s a sociologist… ” It was enough for them to be placed under surveillance for a year. And then, at dawn, one day in 2007, armed police burst into their Berlin home and arrested him on suspicion of carrying out terrorist attacks.

But what was the evidence, I say? And Roth tells me. “It was his metadata. It was who he called. It was the fact that he was a political activist. That he used encryption techniques – this was seen as highly suspicious. That sometimes he would go out and not take his cellphone with him… ”

He was freed three weeks later after an international outcry, but the episode has left its marks. “Even in the bathroom, I’d be wondering: is there a camera in here?”

This highlights a dichotomy that I’ve never seen well formulated, that pertains to many legal questions concerning damage inflicted by publication or withholding of information: Are we worried about true information or false information? Is it more disturbing to think that governments are collecting vast amounts of private and intimate information about our lives, or that much of that information (or the inferences that also count as information) is wrong?

As long as the security services are still in their Keystone Cops phase, and haven’t really figured out how to deploy the information effectively, it’s easier to get aroused by the errors, as in the above. When they have learned to apply the information without conspicuous blunders, then the real damage will be done by the ruthless application of broadly correct knowledge of everyone’s private business, and the crushing certainty everyone has that we have no privacy.

It’s probably a theorem that there is a maximally awful level of inaccuracy. If the information is completely accurate, then at least we avoid the injustice of false accusation. If the information is all bogus, then people will ignore it. Somewhere in between people get used to trusting the information, and will act crushingly on the spurious as well as the accurate indications. What is that level? It’s actually amazing how much tolerance people have for errors in an information source before they will ignore it — cf., tabloid newspapers, astrology, economic forecasts — particularly if it’s a secret source that seems to give them some private inside knowledge.

On a somewhat related note, Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has given concise expression to a reaction that I think many people have had to the revelations of pervasive electronic espionage by Western democratic governments against their own citizens:

 It isn’t long since the comprehensive surveillance of citizens… was emblematic of how communist states would trample on the inalienable rights of people in pursuit of state security. Today we know that our states do the same. I’m not making the argument that Western liberal democracies are “as bad” as those states were,… but I note that these kinds of violations were not seen back then as being impermissible because those states were so bad in other ways — undemocratic, dirigiste — but rather were portrayed to exemplify exactly why those regimes were unacceptable.


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