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05.22.20

How Surveillance Works: A Primer

Posted in America, Law, Security at 12:37 am by Guest Editorial Team

Article by figosdev

Echelon radar

Summary: “We are expected to carry around devices that violate our rights and deprive us of liberty, against our wishes and despite reasonable and valid protest. These devices take something sacred from us — they are an attack on our humanity, and they make us live more like livestock.”

First, there are years of protests against unfair treatment by governing bodies — kings, queens, dictators, corrupt legislatures, fascist landholders, slaveowners, whatever.

Then everybody with a stake in the corrupt system comes out to make excuses: they’re just doing their job, it isn’t easy to make everybody happy; the people are unreasonable and don’t know any better, it’s all for the better good of safety and being fair; it’s only because of these enemies of ours, etc.

Some details will differ of course, they always do. Some won’t.

For years, enough people are convinced to shut up by the media, and by friends and family. Someone always sides with the rulers — it feels safer. Others don’t have enough information or energy to say differently. Many are cautious, due to political pressure from whomever they have to answer to in life. Lots of people find their own ways to protest the injustice. Some lose all faith in government and become anarchists.

Over time, the government ratchets up surveillance more and more. This is how governments tend do to things — when something doesn’t work, do it more until it falls over. Increased surveillance leads to an increase of laws and an increase in prosecution.

It also leads to the realisation that no matter what laws and consequences you throw at people (even torture and death) that controlling them in theory (that’s the point of systems of control, after all) and controlling them in practice are different things. As in Chrichton’s “Jurassic Park”, chaos and unintended consequences increase until the system collapses or is significantly breached.

Sane systems reform, though “Power doesn’t listen”, and arrogance doesn’t listen either. Systems that are built on details without a bigger picture, judgement without sufficient mercy, and passion without any principles ultimately self-destruct, but they produce many people who are willing to help. Opposite systems, which are built on a big picture without sufficient details, mercy without judgement, or principles without passion, never quite get off the ground.

“Sane systems reform, though “Power doesn’t listen”, and arrogance doesn’t listen either.”Sustainability comes through the balance of these things — the Third Reich, as Mike Godwin’s favourite example, was bound to fall under its own unsustainable nature. But it did plenty of harm before that finally happened.

Eventually, a revolution takes place. The government becomes so overbearing or impoverished that the political squalor representing the best it has to offer is no longer worth living in, and people decide they would rather fight at all costs than continue in the same way. By now, the system has taken too much of everything, and only strained, fallacious benefits (“If you comply, we will beat you less!”) remain.

Revolutions either fail and postpone the next revolution, kill off everyone interested in fighting, or they succeed and put new people in charge of figuring out what the hell to do afterwards.

In a rare ideal, “The People” are put in charge to somehow “rule themselves”. Some details will differ of course, they always do. If the revolution was truly successful, then the next regime (assuming there is one) will be kinder to the rights of people than the previous. This is not always what happens, though it is in many ways an ideal.

Over the decades or even centuries, tragedies happen. Each tragedy causes everyone to regroup and try to figure out how they can minimise the current tragedy, or the next one like it.

Some plan whatever they’re able while doing their best to respect ideals and freedoms — others seem to invariably throw that out the window and blame “excess freedoms” for whatever disaster took place.

In light of the current disaster, I’ve already said that being free doesn’t need to negate responsibility or sanity. People can get together and decide that everybody would do better to stay indoors. How they go about enforcing it and other details make all the difference.

Whether the precautions are reasonable or not really is a matter for a debate. But if they get it wrong, more people die. (Most of us would like to minimise that). I haven’t come to any conclusions on the best course of action — freedom and safety both matter, and they are going to be in tension with each other at times. Freedom is lost when its importance is forgotten.

Conspiracy theorists love the Reichstag fire, because it was a situation where it’s historically accepted that authorities attacked their own “side” to justify extreme action. The fact that false flag attacks exist means that whenever there is a tragedy, some people are going to try to prove that it was deliberately caused by the same people charged with responding to it.

Other historical tragedies that led to changes in authority (or wartime status) include the Twin Tower attacks, Pearl Harbor and the Titanic disaster. I’ve personally heard people crediting the formation of the FCC with the Titanic sinking — the details differ slightly.

“A name you don’t hear as often as Assange, Manning or Snowden is William Binney. Binney is also an NSA whistleblower, but he has taken extra care to only speak out about things that he can legally get away with saying.”The FCC was a replacement for the Federal Radio Commission, itself established by the Radio Act of 1927, which succeeded the Radio Act of 1912, which brought the United States into greater accordance with other radio experts shortly after the Titanic disaster.

My hope is that people interested in history and standing against authority will continue to look for the real causes of authoritarian power grabs. As I’ve said before, the difference between journalism and conspiracy theory is usually how shallow or careful the methodology is.

Instead of getting too excited about finding mere connections, my hope is that people would then continue to test their theories, like science does. You can put your wild findings into a feedback loop, where plain noise gets louder and louder until it turns into a deafening but meaningless signal — or you can keep checking your findings to see if they really hold up to logic.

When science finds something strange or wonderful, it doesn’t stop there. It keeps checking, to be sure it’s right — not to “prove” it, but to be sure a mistake wasn’t made. To some extent, journalists do this as well. Academic historians are generally required to. People don’t always agree, because it is an ongoing process of discovering new evidence and putting it through the wringer.

Though tragedies and attacks are not likely all false flag events, the Reichstag fire was certainly not the only example of its kind. A quick trip to Wikipedia brings up the creation of the state of Manchukuo, after the seize of Manchuria was justified as a response to a pre-planned railway explosion.

Overreaching power grabs do happen, whether as a response to “faked” events or genuinely unexpected ones. While a false flag event certainly adds to the intrigue and the gall of those making the grab, overreaching power grabs and freedom are at odds regardless of the nature of a tragedy. The tragedy is the excuse, but the grab succeeds in part because people are too hasty to reconsider giving up their own rights in the middle of a disaster.

Invariably you will have historians, educators and activists, such as Richard Stallman speak out against such power plays. You’ll have whistleblowers like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden or Reality Winner to expose the hypocrisy that often underlies the real nature of such power and corruption.

A name you don’t hear as often as Assange, Manning or Snowden is William Binney. Binney is also an NSA whistleblower, but he has taken extra care to only speak out about things that he can legally get away with saying.

Binney has spoken out against illegal, mass surveillance along three different lines of critique: it’s less effective, it’s more expensive (or more profitable for contractors) and it’s unconstitutional. The fact that it’s unconstitutional means that what they’re doing is illegal — but as many lament, in order to prove it’s illegal it has to be possible to prove it, and with everyone with sufficient authority to prove it with testimony being forbidden from talking about it, it’s nearly impossible to prove.

Nonetheless, when asked what the people should do, Binney has responded “I think we should indict them. What they’re doing is illegal.” When asked why they’re doing mass surveillance, Binney responded “Population control.” He could have meant the reduction of the population, as some will assume, or he could have meant controlling the population in the way a prison population is controlled. Either way, to borrow a phrase from a certain American president, it’s “Not nice”.

“When asked why they’re doing mass surveillance, Binney responded “Population control.” He could have meant the reduction of the population, as some will assume, or he could have meant controlling the population in the way a prison population is controlled.”So after a glimpse of how surveillance works politically, how does it work technically?

Traditionally, it comes from people watching targets and overhearing their conversations — and from learning about their routines. This can be done in person or electronically, using various types of microphones or tapped lines. Just like any creepy stalker, spies can learn a lot about a person’s routines from a simple pair of binoculars. But some people under state surveillance are followed closely enough that binoculars aren’t always necessary.

Some forms of line tapping can be heard, due to changes in current on the line. Today, most telecommunications go through either radio transmission or fiber optic transmission at some stage — which are less likely to produce an audible effect (especially when the transmission of such data is digital). Well over a decade ago, the USS Jimmy Carter was modified to tap undersea cables. I won’t ever do business with AT&T, because of how readily they assisted the government in illegally tapping American communications in room 641A.

Although you have to be important enough to have someone assigned to you, people still do surveillance the old-fashioned way, like the Stasi did in East Germany or the CIA or James Bond are known to do.

Although I strongly disagree with what’s being done to most of the population, I don’t have a problem with the fact that spying exists. I love James Bond. When it’s easy to tell who the bad guys are (the ones trying to kill us) and who the good guys are (the ones trying to stop them) it’s not hard to love a spy — especially a fictional, charming and amusing one like James Bond. When the “good” guys are doing all the things the bad guys are doing — and they’re doing it to all of us, then appreciating it becomes a lot more difficult. Richard Stallman adds this text to his emails:

    [[[To any NSA and FBI agents reading my email: please consider]]]
    [[[whether defending the US Constitution against all enemies,]]]
    [[[foreign or domestic, requires you to follow Snowden's example.]]]

Of note is that the NSA are not acting like James Bond — they’re acting more like the Stasi. This link claims you need JavaScript, but it’s lying.

“Perhaps we’ll need to zoom out a bit to get both buildings side by side in order to compare them properly and visually.”

“We obviously need to keep zooming out. The scale of what the NSA is doing compared to the “old, evil Stasi” is slowly starting to come across.”

“Zoomed out to cover large parts of the German countryside, and it’s still just NSA archives. How big is this thing anyway?”

“The way surveillance works, is by simply collecting random pieces of data. That’s it — random pieces of data. And the more you have, the more you can piece together.”Maybe comparing them to the Stasi is an understatement.

The way surveillance works, is by simply collecting random pieces of data. That’s it — random pieces of data. And the more you have, the more you can piece together. Of course if this is your job and the purpose is to stop terrorists, you actually don’t want a dataset the size of a continent. You want it narrower than that. This is easier to work with, and nicest of all it’s more constitutional. But it’s also more cost effective, which means that somebody profits less.

Although I think the EFF has sold out, their older work with browser fingerprinting really helps you understand the bottom line of all this. You have little bits of data sloughing off everything you do, which traditionally nothing is done with — the reason you don’t have someone from the government trailing you all the time is that you aren’t worthwhile to them.

It’s nice when (like James Bond) they only intrude like this on the lives of the real bad guys. After all, surveillance routinely brings innocent civilians closer to the line of fire — and too often leads to raids where someone completely uninvolved is killed:

“The police in New York City
They chased a boy right through the park
In a case of mistaken identity
They put a bullet through his heart”

Rolling Stones, “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” (1973)

But they don’t only do this to the bad guys — Hoover’s take on American “subversives” in the 1940s for example, greatly exaggerated the problem and coincided with excessive and illegal wiretapping. Much more recently, The Occupy movement was under enough government surveillance that it should not be considered entirely paranoid for an activist to think it’s possible they are being watched or followed (though I would imagine it’s more likely their phone conversations and GPS movements are being scrutinised). Martin Luther King, Jr. — not exactly a bad guy — was under surveillance, for his activism and also his anti-Vietnam-war stance.

But however ridiculous it may get, we already know the amount of surveillance already being used is unconstitutional. It’s a matter of fact — what is failing to happen is that it’s not ruled against.

While few people are important enough to be assigned their very own FBI buddy, the politics do change a bit when there are enough spies (like with the Stasi) or enough electronics, like with the NSA or Google. Even in the 1940s, you had Census tabulation machines being used by the Germans to sort through groups of people more efficiently than they could ever do going through all those files by hand.

“The data is in your hair colour, name, age, operating system, web browser, screen height, favourite pizza, GPS coordinates, Wi-fi signal strength, SIM card, IMSI number, MAC address, typing speed, habitual typos, mouse movements, sleep patterns, eye movements, breathing patterns, gait, CPU clock, installed plugins, contact lists, holiday schedule, knowledge set, music preferences, browser history, the time you spend on each page on Google books, router brand, open ports, heat signature, scent, radio fingerprint…”Today, we have privacy advocates and data-mining experts doing the actual math of how many variables it takes to narrow things down to a single person — maybe there’s location data, maybe it’s just gender and first name — here’s a fun game you can make up with your friends.

How many people do you know named Bill? Let’s say it’s five. Now suppose that something happens — let’s say Bill took a flag. It doesn’t matter whose flag it is, you’re just trying to narrow it down. You consider that one or two of them were asleep at the time. One was too far away, unless he took a rocket. You’re already close enough, but you can keep playing.

People assume this only works with names or faces — it doesn’t. The narrow-it-down game which turns “unidentifiable data” into a single person on earth works with literally all kinds of data — every person on earth has a unique fingerprint. Just like famous cryptologist Fred Rogers used to say: “You are the only one like you”.

The data is in your hair colour, name, age, operating system, web browser, screen height, favourite pizza, GPS coordinates, Wi-fi signal strength, SIM card, IMSI number, MAC address, typing speed, habitual typos, mouse movements, sleep patterns, eye movements, breathing patterns, gait, CPU clock, installed plugins, contact lists, holiday schedule, knowledge set, music preferences, browser history, the time you spend on each page on Google books, router brand, open ports, heat signature, scent, radio fingerprint:

“…each transmitter (cell phones are just one type of radio transmitter) has rise time signature when first keyed caused by the slight variations of component values during manufacture…”Wikipedia on radio fingerprinting

Whether remotely or (more easily) in person, everyone is unique along so many different lines, that if like Agent J in “Men in Black” we all had a single letter “name” and removed our (literal) fingerprints, there would still be a countless number of axes along which our identities could be determined. The precise speed and direction you begin a walk with can be fed into an algorithm to determine your destination with frightening accuracy.

We are fortunate, as a society striving to be free — that no matter how frighteningly good these algorithms are, they also fail frequently. But that fact can help or hurt us, like it hurt the guy whose bicycle went through the wrong area when a crime was being committed. People who use algorithms heavily tend to rely on them increasingly, and trust them excessively. This excessive reliance and trust in algorithms can lead to great injustices, no differently than racism or sexism can lead to accusing or convicting an innocent person.

“It’s better to work towards privacy, not away from it.”But as better informed (more expert) people will tell you, the idea of “unidentifiable data” or “metadata” is incredibly misleading. “Metadata” is data, and identification happens when various islands of two or more variables are cross referenced to first narrow the possibilities down to a few people or single person, and it finally comes in contact with a piece of real-world data like location, name or physical features. If you’re 195cm tall, people don’t need your name to narrow it down to you; they just look for the tall guy. But they will need to know your geographic region.

With enough databases, we can track more people than ever before. So why isn’t it perfect? That’s just math and luck. But it’s a problem, when people have less freedom than ever before. It’s a problem when spies violate the rights of hundreds of millions of people. And William Binney is right.

Things can be done to take some of the axes of identification out of the equation. There is debate about whether this helps, though from Stallman to Snowden to Binney, the near consensus among activists is that it’s better to not give away what you don’t need to. It’s better to work towards privacy, not away from it.

On the other hand, you have people like the owners of Google, Facebook and Microsoft. They tell you it’s better to give up — it helps society, it’s pointless to try.

It’s very easy to tell which side respects your freedom, and which side profits from literally selling you out. You might be an anti-war activist like MLK or David Zucker, a digital rights activist like Richard Stallman or Mathieu Gauthier-Pilote, or you might just be some kid going to university that wants to be able to speak freely online without being threatened or harassed offline.

The lines between pro-privacy and anti-privacy are pretty clear. The importance of being pro-privacy should be as well. If we don’t stand for it, we lose too much of what belongs to us. And as people are saying, without privacy you begin to lose part of yourself.

Things will get worse, then people will get tired of it, and someday they will overthrow the oppression. But you don’t have to wait for that day, there are always some on the side of The People — from the easiest, less problematic times to the very darkest, most oppressive days. You get to choose who to support — and who you abandon. May we humbly suggest you stand against GIAFAM and mass surveillance?

We already know that most people aren’t going to yet. Look around, very few are resisting it. But it’s much more than no one.

“Robot surveillance will increase as well — not just from a room full of laser optics in an AT&T basement, but from the skies.”First, there are years of protests against unfair treatment by governing bodies — Then everybody with a stake in the corrupt system comes out to make excuses. Some details will differ of course, they always do.

Someone always sides with the rulers — it feels safer. Some lose all faith in government. Over time, the government ratchets up surveillance more and more. This is how governments tend do to things — when something doesn’t work, do it more until it falls over. Increased surveillance leads to an increase of laws and an increase in prosecution. Robot surveillance will increase as well — not just from a room full of laser optics in an AT&T basement, but from the skies.

The increases also lead to the realisation that no matter what laws and consequences you throw at people (even torture and death) that controlling them in theory (that’s the point of systems of control, after all) and controlling them in practice are different things. As in Chrichton’s Jurassic Park, chaos and unintended consequences increase until the system collapses or is significantly breached.

Some plan whatever they can while doing their best to respect ideals and freedoms. Freedom and safety both matter, and they are going to be in tension with each other at times.

Privacy is hard. Resisting surveillance is a little bit easier. Every step brings us closer to a culture of freedom, and every tiny bit of resistance takes us farther from a culture of mass surveillance. It’s not enough today — but if we keep trying anyway, it will help the world tomorrow.

This year we are still slaves — slaves of government surveillance, slaves of the people watching us, slaves of their ever-increasing expectations. We are expected to carry around devices that violate our rights and deprive us of liberty, against our wishes and despite reasonable and valid protest. These devices take something sacred from us — they are an attack on our humanity, and they make us live more like livestock. They are historical instruments of global war and international oppression, and they are not justifiable by any means. Next year, we hope that we will be truly free.

Long live rms, and happy hacking.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

(Except for a few lines in quotes).

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