Monday, May 15, 2006

Re: Fascism: Are we there yet?

At is the question Fascism: Are We There Yet? Hmmm... I suppose if I'd taken more political science courses in college I might have an understanding of the meaning for fascism and totalitarianism but, like Democrat and Republican and Liberal and Conservative, these are just words which, to me, seem more like the name of a team rather than an ideological anything. I'd written before from the quest to understand what fascism is. There's a lot of people who'll declare Bush is a Fascist, but it doesn't seem to me they understand the meaning any better than I do. The Nazi party in Germany was Fascist, but what does that mean?

All that aside, the article linked above does make for an interesting (and alarming) case. There's clearly a growing capability within the U.S. Government to establish ubiquitous screening of all activities. Their justification is to find terrorists, and to find terrorists they'll capture records of all our activities and then deploy a zillion computers to sift through that data to find suspicious patterns.

When the plan was more public it was called Total Information Awareness ... while that project name was canceled and closed by the DoD, the individual projects were continued to be developed. For example document analysis, tracking telephone calls and more. Again the article linked above has other examples of TIA projects continuing onwards.

As he points out - the administration officials promised us they weren't spying on us. They've also said that revealing the existance of surveillance programs would give "the terrorists" too much information. And they promised the wiretapping that was revealed in 2005 was "it", and that the surveillance they were doing was targeted carefully and did not track domestic phone calls. But the most recent program revelation showed those were all lies. The most recently revealed program is tracking all phone calls, even domestic. Why are we not surprised they lied to us again?

The most interesting thing I found through the above linked article is a discussion of totalitarianism: Lecture 10, The Age of Totalitarianism: Stalin and Hitler ... this is part of a series of lectures about history, so it's mostly about events that happened in Eastern Europe and other European countries in the 1900's. There were many regimes during that period with brutal governments, brutal supression of the people, and which are called totalitarian.

What I gather is totalitarianism is a government practice of having total control over the people that are being governed.

Several times in the article it said totalitarianism required sufficiently fancy technology to make total control effective.

As I've discussed in other blog entries, what is enabling a vision like Total Information Awareness is the increasing capability of computer systems.

So, it's worth pondering how it could be that a database of phone calls leads to totalitarianism? The Fascism article makes a claim it does, but to understand what he's getting at lets try and reason it through.

It's clear that by itself a database of phone calls doesn't tell very much. Especially as, supposedly, the database doesn't have peoples names in it, just phone calls. The most you can do with just a list of phone calls is to build up a map of connections between phone numbers based on who is calling whom.

Building up a map of connections between phone numbers is interesting, but without a connection to people it's not terribly useful. You know phone A called phone B, but that carries little information. If you can add to that the names of the caller and callee, that adds a lot of information. If you can record the phone call, that adds even more, especially if you can automatically translate the voices to text.

By the way, one of the projects in the TIA was specifically to automatically translate any voice into text.

With that in hand you have information. Information about connections between people based on the phone calls between them. There are databases showing the owner name for a given telephone number, and since the phone companies are apparently willing to cooperate with the government to give them access to the phone calls being placed, it's not too far a leap to think they might also share with the government the owner names for each phone number.

But, where is the totalitarian control?

I think it gets to the stereotype of the totalitarian regime. That "spies are everywhere", and that there's a file of your activities being kept by the secret police. Except, in this case the ubiquitous spies are being built into the computer equipment that's running our society, and the files are being kept in a database.

I'm pondering away and keep coming back to this: Collecting data is one step. The totalitarian control comes when the government acts on that data.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

An example of likely legal U.S. spying inside U.S.

With the recent hubbub over domestic syping by U.S. spy agencies, here's an example that's probably legal.

Spy Agency Watching Americans From Space

The article is about the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Their work is described this way:

Geospatial intelligence is the science of combining imagery, such as satellite pictures, to physically depict features or activities happening anywhere on the planet. A part of the Defense Department, the NGA usually operates unnoticed to provide information on nuclear sites, terror camps, troop movements or natural disasters.


With help, the agency can also zoom in. Its officials cooperate with private groups, such as hotel security, to get access to footage of a lobby or ballroom. That video can then be linked with mapping and graphical data to help secure events or take action, if a hostage situation or other catastrophe happens.

Privacy advocates wonder how much the agency picks up — and stores. Many are increasingly skeptical of intelligence agencies with recent revelations about the Bush administration's surveillance on phone calls and e-mails.

Among the government's most closely guarded secrets, the quality of pictures NGA receives from classified satellites is believed to far exceed the one-meter resolution available commercially. That means they can take a satellite "snapshot" from high above the atmosphere that is crisply detailed down to one meter level, which is 3.3 feet.

In other words their job is similar to the Google Earth service. But it's likely that, because they're the military, the resolution on their images is much better.

The images available through commercial services are, by law, limited to a resolution of 1 meter. Meaning the smallest object that can be identified is 1 meter in size. So we wonder what their resolution is. For example if you have a habit of having sex in the back yard, the commercial images won't recognize what you're doing, but what about theirs?

The article raises a big question. Just what are they doing spending most of their effort looking inside the U.S. territory? What are they looking for? An obvious use leaps to mind, that this service could help locate marijuana fields and the like. It might also help locate illicit airfields, such as used by drug smugglers.

I expect one strategic service they provide is finding new construction. This would require some fancy image analysis, but with a whole world full of images detecting new construction would be very labor intensive. However a computer, with fancy image analysis, might be able to identify changes between pictures taken at different times. The tricky part of course is the pictures will never be at the same angle or lighting conditions, hence the required fancy image analysis.

My thought is that if "change" is detected in a series of pictures, then a flag could be raised to send those pictures to an analyst for further study. It may be benign, but it may be an illicit nuclear weapons construction facility.

In any case the current hubbub is over domestic spying. Earlier in this I suggested this is probably legal. My reasoning is pictures taken of the outdoors are, by definition, public spaces. A warrant is not required for anybody to take a picture of the outside of a building, nor is one required to take a picture from above. That's all they're doing.

Where it becomes a little tricky is they have made arrangements with building owners to incorporate video from surveillance cameras. Where are those surveillance cameras pointing? Inside or outside buildings? Are they pointing into private spaces or only public ones?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Massive privacy violation by U.S. government

The revelations of privacy violation by the U.S. Government keeps going on. The latest is news that the NSA has a huge database recording the "envelopes" of most telephone calls made in the U.S. This is following the wiretapping scandal from last year, and I see a lot of hubbub in the news.

NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls USA Today, May 11, 2006

Anger grows over NSA surveillance report C|NET News, May 11, 2006

NSA Sweep "Waste of Time," Analyst Says, May 12, 2006

"Every Call Ever Made" in NSA Database, May 12, 2006

NSA's data mining explained, CNET News, May 12, 2006

The system in the latest revelation relies on cooperation from the telephone carriers. The telephone carriers worked with the NSA to install equipment in their switching systems, and the equipment extracted certain information from the telephone switching systems, and transmitted that information back to NSA headquarters.

The claim is the data is simply the telephone numbers involved with every phone call. This is known as "envelope" information, as it is akin to the addressing on the outside of an envelope sent through postal mail.

The way I understand this, each individual telephone call doesn't give much information. But by collecting a huge number of phone calls one can build a map of associations between telephone numbers. That is, if person A at phone number N regularly calls person B at phone number Z, that's an association.

Each call sets up a relation between the phone numbers involved in the call.

If, by other means, the spooks have determined that phone number T is used by nefarious individuals, then any phone call to/from that phone number should be of interest to the spooks. Calls to/from that phone number associates the other phone number with those nefarious activities done by the owner of phone number T.

Since the system only records the envelope (supposedly) all phone calls have equal significance. Suppose the nefarious people at phone number T decide to make an innocent phone call? For example someone might come to their door saying "my car broke down, can I call my brother". Now the brother of this innocent bystander has now become associated with the nefarious people. Who knows what method the spooks have for detecting innocent bystanders and weeding them out.

This system is obviously a followon to the Total Information Awareness system. I recorded the status of the TIA back in 2002: DARPA's Information Awareness Office, The Total Information Awareness System; Or, Big Brother in-carnate

It's important to point out that the discovery by the public of the TIA caused a privacy hubbub, which then caused the Congress people to make enough hubbub that the Department of Defense "cancel" the program. What they actually did was cancel a couple of the programs, and then migrate the rest of the programs to other directors.

Among the TIA projects existant in 2002, there are two which are obviously related to this.

Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery (EELD) involved detection of interesting correlations and connections between specific elements in large sets of data. The discussion I wrote above about the relations between telephone numbers by tracking the calls between phone numbers would fit very well with EELD.

Genisys describes a data collection and storage system that would be very useful to EELD.

I think it's very important to interpret this relevation within the larger context. It's clear that the U.S. Government wants a very intrusive system that watches everything that we do. The revelations last year of wiretapping, and the current revelations of collecting the phone numbers of every phone call, these are not isolated incidents.

The prior existence of the Total Information Awareness system tells us what they are interested in. They will not have lost interest in their goal, instead they will have moved the projects around putting them behind cloaks of secrecy and more.

Again I find myself thinking -- is this the world we want to create? Does this match the core values of America? Or is this representing a government that has diverged itself from American values?

I think this is divergent from American values. If this is true, then why are we, Americans, sitting on our hands and not doing anything about this?

UPDATE: William Arkin with the Washington Post just posted Telephone Records are just the Tip of NSA's Iceberg which gives more details of the existing programs being developed by the government. Included in this posting is a list of 500 software tools that have been developed by government agencies for intelligence data gathering and mining.

Of course it makes sense for the government to be employing advanced software tools. As technology advances, shouldn't the government make use of it?

Well, okay. But, the issue is how often are they going to make mistakes, and whether the systems are intrusive or not.

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Disease Warning

32% of the population is still "infected" with this new strain of sure to read the whole msg....

ATLANTA The Center for Disease Control has issued a warning about a new virulent strain of Sexually Transmitted Disease. The disease is contracted through dangerous and high-risk behavior. The disease is called Gonorrhea Lectim and pronounced "gonna re-elect him." Many victims contracted it in 2004, after having been screwed for the past four years.

Cognitive characteristics of individuals infected include: antisocial personality disorders, delusions of grandeur with messianic overtones, extreme cognitive dissonance, inability to incorporate new information, pronounced xenophobia and paranoia, inability to accept responsibility for own actions, cowardice masked by misplaced bravado, uncontrolled facial smirking, ignorance of geography and history, tendencies towards evangelical theocracy, categorical all-or-nothing behavior. Naturalists and epidemiologists are amazed at how this destructive disease originated only a few years ago from a bush found in Texas.

Monday, May 1, 2006

The President ignoring the law?

In his Huffington Post blog, Cenk Uygur writes about The Shadow Government ... that is, he's claiming that President Bush has declared his administration will ignore over 750 of the laws that have been passed during his tenure in office. And further that we know his administration is ignoring FISA, a law passed long before his tenure in office, which raises the question of how many other laws the administration is ignoring.

Because the administration is engaging in wholesale ignoring of the laws of this country, he says the government we think we have governing us doesn't exist. In it's place is a shadow of the government we think we have.

So, what's he talking about? As always it helps to understand the facts behind the story that's being presented. Fortunately in this case we can get to them.

He's pointing to this Boston Globe article: Bush challenges hundreds of laws President cites powers of his office

That article discusses the practice known as "Signing Statement". I don't know how common signing statements were before G.W. Bush, but under Bush they are very common. The signing statement is published at the same time as when a new law is signed by the President. The law that's being signed comes from Congress, as always, but the signing statement comes from the Administration. The signing statements I've seen detail how the Administration will interpret the law the President is signing.

Unlike Cenk Uygur's hype about this, the signing statement does not commit the administration to ignoring the entirity of the law. Instead the signing statements I've seen discuss certain provisions in the law, and detail how that provision will be interpreted.

This might sound like a benign practice. After all, most laws are full of strange legalese and could stand for some interpretation help. But in actuality these signing statements are, in effect, rewriting the intent of the law in drastic ways.

This is one of the examples cited by the Boston Globe article:

March 9: Justice Department officials must give reports to Congress by certain dates on how the FBI is using the USA Patriot Act to search homes and secretly seize papers.

Bush's signing statement: The president can order Justice Department officials to withhold any information from Congress if he decides it could impair national security or executive branch operations.

The actual signing statement is on the site and is itself full of legalese. Including that troublematic "unitary executive" phrase.

In any case it's alarming that on the one hand Congress is requiring the Administration to hand over certain information, and the Administration is saying they'll decide what information they'll hand over. This is an administration which has repeatedly picked out select portions of intelligence reports, for example to "justify" the invasion of Iraq when the actual evidence to justify that invasion was nonexistant. Under their signing statement they'll be able to continue cherry-picking the data they send to Congress, to continue puffing out smoke to obscure what they're really doing.

As Cenk Uygur says: Wrong information equals wrong decisions. People can't be blamed if they don't know. It is the job of the press to let them know. The 2006 elections are the last chance to check this imperial presidency. If the press fails our democracy at this critical juncture and the electorate doesn't know what we know by the time they step into that voting booth, we will have done great damage to our country and its principles.

So, if the Administration is free to send select information to Congress, then how is Congress to have a clear picture of what's actually happening in the world? But, there's nothing new here. Wars have been launched before based on falsified evidence, the most infamous being the Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to the Vietnam War.

As I've kept coming to in my blog entries ... is this the country we want? Is this the country we thought we had? If not, then what are we going to do about this?

If we let these events continue without challenging them, then our country of freedom will become another dictatorship.

Notice Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to Iran

If you're like me, you probably didn't even know there was any special status between the U.S. and Iran.

According to Notice Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to Iran (A White House press release), in 1995 President Clinton declared a state of National Emergency towards Iran. And, on March 16, 2006, that order was extended.