Wednesday, January 15, 2014

It's not like we were using it anyway.....

Well, okay:
While most of the software is inserted by gaining access to computer networks, the N.S.A. has increasingly made use of a secret technology that enables it to enter and alter data in computers even if they are not connected to the Internet, according to N.S.A. documents, computer experts and American officials. The technology, which the agency has used since at least 2008, relies on a covert channel of radio waves that can be transmitted from tiny circuit boards and USB cards inserted surreptitiously into the computers. In some cases, they are sent to a briefcase-size relay station that intelligence agencies can set up miles away from the target.

I'm sure that the all-too-human, but curiously error-prone, heroes of our intelligence services will never misuse this power or, if mistakes are made, ironclad congressional oversight will protect us and, anyway, you had to know this was going on and Glenn Greenwald thinks he's sooooooo smart...
A)  This has been public knowledge since 2011.

B)  This is how the US got into Iraq's computers and screwed around with their abilities to process radioactive materials.

C)  The Chinese probably used this technology to hack into the computers of the New York Times recently.

D)  "miles away from the target" is about 8 miles, or roughly the distance an Amazon drone could fly to deliver a package.  If Amazon had distribution centers every 8 miles from all its customers; and the FAA let them send up drones like flocks of carrier pigeons before we wiped them out.

E)  this technology, which is usually software on a thumb drive or slipped into a laptop that becomes part of an "air gap" system (one that is wholly off line), is used on a targeted basis, not because Americans buy extra computers to keep their private thoughts on that aren't connected to anything because we really don't like Facebook and blogs and etc.

F)  This is the only subject on which I really want to tell Charlie Pierce to put a sock in it.  Snowden is a criminal, and Greenwald is a putz, and not every news story is "news" and not every action of the NSA means Big Brother is watching you through the flat screen TeeVee (which, I understand, are only going to get larger and larger.)  I don't fear the NSA and the eventuality of "1984."  I'm afraid Ray Bradbury was more prescient in 1953 (interestingly, just 5 years after Orwell).


  1. I think I am a little bit more concerned than you are about government spying, although not the "government" part per se. My main concern, as illustrated by the ease with which Snowden got his position and was able to get ahold of so much data, is that all the data government and businesses collect on us will get into the wrong hands. What if Snowden were an identity thief or working for a company bent on corporate espionage or a blackmailer looking for dirt?

    My bigger concern is not so much the spying but our addiction to secrecy in matters of national security. It is often strategically bad -- we WANT our enemies to know our capabilities in order to deter them from even trying anything. It also leads to sloppiness. And we know, e.g. from the Dreyfus case, that secret evidence is a good way to convict an innocent person while guilty parties remain free to commit more crimes. What if Snowden was married to a law enforcement official who saw part of Snowden's data got to use it as evidence against someone -- which evidence would, being sensitive, be secret? If the evidence were exposed to proper scrutiny, perhaps the defense could put it into context to demonstrate that no crime was committed, but as secret evidence? Who knows ...

  2. Oh yes ... another thing that bothers me. Somehow we have all this money to spend on what really amounts to national security theatre (if all of what the NSA did actually worked, they could provide us with statistics showing this instead of keeping even the effectiveness of their programs a secret ... why would you hide a success?) and, even if as you point out it's not the big deal Snowden et al make it out to be, does at some level go against any common-sense reading of the 4th amendment, and yet when it comes to actually improving our infrastructure (today we had yet another water main break, yesterday I almost blew out a tire on the Major Deegan from the potholes) or helping the poor -- somehow we don't have the money? How come the "guardians of fiscal responsibility" get worked up about programs that spend money to help the poor or even the middle class but are so silent about the very real costs of what isn't even effective national security? As Deutero-Isaiah asked (NIV translation): "Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?"

  3. I don't disagree with you.

    I've learned that far from being a sooper-genius who could access anything at NSA, Snowden apparently convinced a lot of his fellow employees to give him their passwords because he needed them for his job.

    So it was less a case of a computer hacker getting in, than of a bunch of idiots violating the most fundamental rules of security.

    And NSA is pretty much security theater, as you say. Nor am I wild about a government agency that says "We can't tell you what we're doing, but trust us. It's for your own good."

    I just want to put it in context. If all governments are guilty of this, and everyone spies on everybody else, to me that means "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," not "Nothing to see here, move along." Mostly what I'm tired of is the "OH MY GOD LOOKEY WHAT THEY'RE DOIN' NOW!!!!" reaction to whatever somebody publishes from what Snowden stole.

    We agree (I think; anyway, I agree with you) that the problem is fundamental, rather than an issue of what, exactly, NSA is up to. Some of it is plain old espionage, of the type LaCarre writes about. Some of it, like data mining every phone call and e-mail on the planet, is simply security theater, and unless we turn the entire planet into a prison where half are guards watching the other half as if they were prisoners, it is merely a blind faith in the magic of computer programs. I don't want to hack at the branches; I want to talk about this tree we've raised from a sapling.

    And why we spend our money on what is not bread, and our labor on what does not satisfy.....

  4. Oh, and the point about Snowden: why are we hiring people like that, except that we have to if we're going to make "Total Information Awareness" work.

    Has anyone figured out this problem is intractable, yet?

  5. Charlie Pierce has the experience of having, after decades of relative obscurity, scored a major place on the tight-wire of the national media at Esquire. Then he almost blew it by telling the truth about Snowden-Greenwald, against the trends of fashion, and he's got the distinct feeling that someone is going to start jiggling the string beneath his feet.
    Sort of makes me glad I don't have any danger of becoming popular so I've got nothing to lose in that way.

  6. Alberich, I'm concerned about government spying and have thought the court supervision of that at all levels, national right down to the local police, was inadequate. Snowden and Greenwald and their fan clubs are not going to do anything good in that area. They might get temporary measures adopted but those are likely to be impractical and will lead to problems for the left which will be blamed for the consequences. And neither of the are even on the left. I've got no problems with the American government spying outside of the country, as distinct from "operations" which intelligence agencies should be banned from doing -that should never be allowed except through the military. It's absurd that I'm supposed to get upset that the U.S. has spied on other governments and corporations, which I am absolutely sure spy on the American government and American corporations. And Charlie Pierce certainly knows that as do Greenwald and Snowden, though most of their fan base doesn't seem to know it.