One Thing They All Seem to Agree On


I’m naturally suspicious of governments, and the suspicion seems to be mutual. Since I’m not trying to do any harm, that annoys me more than a bit: they want to treat me like a criminal, even though I mostly want to be left alone to live out my life without being interfered with by their wars, walls, economic collapses, and oligarchs. Is that too much to ask?

Of course it is.

Because, if I have any kind of communications privacy I am potentially a threat. I may organize with others and that is simply unacceptable. Tools that might allow that kind of organization are inherently threatening to governments because governments are the only organizations that are trustworthy and responsible enough to keep secrets. Ha. Ha Ha Ha. Governments tell us they need secrecy, at the same time that they argue incessantly that we don’t because we’re apparently ready to turn into criminals and revolutionaries (your “terrorist” is my “revolutionary”) at the drop of a packet.

In the US, it’s complicated because the government, which has jurisdictional control over the core of the world’s IT software and service infrastructure, has quietly mandated backdoors in most of the systems: Twitter, Microsoft everything, Google, Apple everything, Facebook, Yahoo! SMS messaging and cellular systems. This is variously sold as being in order to prevent terror, hacking, and child pornography but it’s clearly being used to settle political scores, monitor dissent (my “dissenter” is their “terrorist”) and collect dirt on would-be dissenters. My theory of this is simple: governments don’t trust people to keep secrets from them, because they know the kind of shit that they get up to, themselves, when they can keep secrets. They get up to some nasty things, indeed, when they get the chance to work in secret; wouldn’t you too?

Lord Acton supposedly said, “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Let me reformulate that slightly: “Power is corrupt because it only exists where there is unfairness. Unfair, corrupt, power-hungry people assume everyone is like them, because that is the only eyes they have with which to view the world.” The power elites that run all of the great countries of the world are universally in agreement that you should not be able to operate in secret.

So, here are a few news stories from this last week that point out a general trend:

  1. England
  2. Russia
  3. China

In the wake of Saturday’s terrorist attack in London, the Prime Minister Theresa May has again called for new laws to regulate the internet, demanding that internet companies do more to stamp out spaces where terrorists can communicate freely.

“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed,” she said. “Yet that is precisely what the internet and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide.”

Her comments echo those made in March by the home secretary, Amber Rudd. Speaking after the previous terrorist attack in London, Rudd said that end-to-end encryption in apps like WhatsApp is “completely unacceptable” and that there should be “no hiding place for terrorists”. [new scientist][new scientist]

Note that, in reality, the services May is complaining about are probably already thoroughly controlled by the US police state. May is mostly complaining pro forma, because “more access is more!” appears to be the mantra of the police state, everywhere. And, why not? Their current level of access has not allowed them adequate control; therefore maybe more access will. It’s the control freak’s dilemma: the harder you squeeze the slipperier ‘your’ population gets, but they don’t realize that (or they wouldn’t be control freaks) and squeezing harder is the only thing they are capable of thinking of.

President Vladimir Putin has signed a law that prohibits forms of technology that grant access to banned websites in Russia, effective November 1st. The ban covers services that allow people to use the internet anonymously, such as virtual private networks and proxies, and internet providers will have to block websites that host these services.

Leonid Levin, Russia’s chairman of a parliamentary committee on information policy and communications, told news agency RIA Novosti earlier in the month that the law “only included the restriction of access to information that is already forbidden by law or a court decision.”

Russia’s Federal website blacklist, introduced in 2012, was originally meant to apply to sites that had content on illegal drugs, child pornography, and suicide, but a 2013 amendment expanded to any content “suspected of extremism.” The amendment allows for flexible interpretation, letting Russia ban any material that criticizes its views or appears to weaken the government’s power. [verge]

Squeeze harder, Vladimir!

Apple removes VPN apps in China as Beijing doubles down on censorship

  • Several VPN service providers saw their apps removed from the App Store in China
  • Beijing has doubled down on its crackdown of virtual private networks after making unauthorized connections illegal in January
  • VPN allows users in China to bypass strict censorship laws and access sites that are banned in the mainland [cnbc]

The Chinese don’t mess around, do they? Once you’ve publicly called in the tanks on protesters, you’ve pretty much got the ability to tell anyone to shut up, and expect it to stick. [hackernews]

[hnn]

Don’t kid yourself for a second that Apple has been sticking up for you and helping you protect your data. That whole kerfuffle about the FBI needing help to unlock Syed Rizwan’s iPhone [nyt] – that was an unusual circumstance because Rizwan appears to have been knowledgeable or lucky enough not to have iCloud backup turned on for his phone – otherwise they’d have been able to get the cryptobits from Apple’s iCloud servers; the FBI was wondering whether there was any data on Rizwan’s phone that hadn’t gotten into the cloud, yet. Otherwise, Apple would have served the bits to the FBI on a platter, like they are required to do by US law.

Tools like The Onion Router (TOR) and encryption apps are attacked and compromised literally as fast as they are developed. There attacks against TOR that allow someone who controls enough nodes to be able to piece together enough information to de-anonymize a user; the US intelligence community runs more TOR nodes than that threshold – it was no surprise when researchers started publishing papers about how to do traffic analysis of TOR traffic. The NSA invented traffic analysis; “well, duh.” [defcon] but it’s not simply the communications pipes that are being compromised, it’s the storage, application servers, and infrastructure, as well. The US FBI occasionally whines because their access isn’t as good as they’d like it to be, but that is mostly inter-agency pissing: the FBI is complaining that the NSA has better access than they do. The Chinese are complaining that the NSA has better access than they do, too.

The big powers in the world set the tone but every government in the world is dancing to the same playlist – the internet is an important communications channel, therefore it must be controlled: it must be theirs. And, it is.

While the governments of the world occasionally appear to be in disagreement about this, that, or the other thing, there is one thing that they are sure of: their data is not yours, but your data is theirs. They own you, they control you. You do not control them.

Comments

  1. Siobhan says

    My theory of this is simple: governments don’t trust people to keep secrets from them, because they know the kind of shit that they get up to, themselves, when they can keep secrets.

    Sounds plausible. That’s what I appreciate about your political writings; you don’t assume competence on the part of a massive organization, which is usually the point I cannot suspend my disbelief in conspiracy theories. It’s just “the people in charge are assholes and want to stay that way,” which is way easier to believe.

  2. cartomancer says

    I think we should recognise at least some differences in these three cases. In particular, we have to bear in mind that Britain is a much less repressive and totalitarian society than Russia or China at the moment, and thus the British government needs to use other means to get its agenda through. I think the additional surveillance machinery is a bonus for them, and may be put to nefarious use in future, but this is all about seeming to be concerned with terror attacks and fostering a culture where blame is deflected from them and strong-arm repressive policing tactics are painted as effective and morally justified.

    Theresa May’s pronouncements are obvious posturing about doing something to combat terrorism, when she knows full well that the reason Britain is the target of so many terrorist attacks is that we have been carrying on an unrepentant campaign of Imperialist and post-imperialist meddling in the Middle East for over a century. Her own government has been selling arms to the Saudis in recent weeks to perpetuate the Saudi war against Yemen. Not to mention our history in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and our supine collaboration with the US and Israel to further that colonialist agenda. In May’s case it is especially important to deflect attention away from that, given that Corbyn is an outspoken opponent of British military adventures in the Middle East, and military adventurism in general. For the first time in a generation we don’t have a situation where both sides of the political divide are agreed on the importance of the post-imperialist agenda – she desperately needs to promote a version of events where terrorism is unconnected to foreign policy – an issue of domestic policing effectiveness and nothing more.

    As for Russia and China – well, I don’t know what is on their immediate agendas, but I would hazard a guess that the America/North Korea situation has the Chinese somewhat worried, and that Russia is still trying to contain the fallout from both Chechnya and Ukraine.

  3. Dunc says

    I think the additional surveillance machinery is a bonus for them, and may be put to nefarious use in future

    Have you followed any of the stories about how much effort the various security agencies (and the ACPO, which was technically a private company) have put into infiltrating and surveiling environmentalists, peaceniks, and left-wingers? They’ve been putting all the surveillance machinery they can lay their hands on to nefarious uses since before I was born. My uncle was active in the SWP in his student days, and apparently couldn’t drive anywhere for years without being stopped by Special Branch and having his car searched… They’ve had undercover agents spend literally years embedded in environmental, anti-war, and anti-arms-trade protest groups (sometimes marrying and having children with the people they were spying on along the way) on the off-chance of gathering some actionable intelligence. They’ve had agents provocateurs instigate crimes when the people they’ve been spying on turned out to be too law-abiding.

    We know exactly how these powers will be used because we know how they’ve used similar powers in the past, and a great deal of it will be to suppress perfectly legitimate political activities and to intimidate law-abiding citizens.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    Here’s what I’ve never understood about any of this: May et al are complaining about end-to-end encryption in things like WhatsApp, in an apparent effort to make me think that international terrorist networks are using off-the-shelf gadgets from the app store to pass their messages back and forth. How fucking stupid does she think I am? Or put another way, how fucking stupid does she think I’ll believe they are?

    On some levels, I fit the profile of a terrorist. The most obvious one is a degree in engineering – apparently although not all engineers become terrorists, really disproportionate numbers of terrorists turn out to have educational backgrounds in engineering. However, since I’m *not* a terrorist (I don’t care about anything enough to do much more than vote) I have no particular interest in securing any of my communications from the government right now. Security through not so much obscurity as tedium.

    But here’s the thing – if I did have an interest in securing my communications from the government, elementary tradecraft of the type they teach in James Bond novels would steer me away from using frickin WhatsApp to plan operations. I guarantee every single person with an interest in keeping the government out of their affairs knows the name Paul Van Riper and how he ran rings round the Blue team in MC02 by NOT using the most up-to-date forms of communication available.

    The only people using those forms of comms are people for whom convenience is key – i.e. me.

    When they say they want a backdoor to WhatsApp to stop terrorists, just who do they think they’re fooling?

  5. Siobhan says

    @Dunc

    They’ve had agents provocateurs instigate crimes when the people they’ve been spying on turned out to be too law-abiding.

    Oh, that’s my “favourite” part about the operations you’re describing. Talk about throwing a dart and painting the target where you hit.

  6. says

    Shiv@#5:
    Oh, that’s my “favourite” part about the operations you’re describing. Talk about throwing a dart and painting the target where you hit.

    That’s the FBI’s favorite trick for catching terrorists. Find someone online, talk them into planning some kind of terror operation, then arrest them. After all, if you make your own terrorists, you’ve got a great load of evidence against them. They actually suck horribly at catching the self-starters (like the Boston Marathon bombers, or UNABOM, or Timothy McVeigh, or, …)

    In the cases where the intelligence service is inside the creation of a terrorist operation, they’re already inside the terrorists’ cryptography and communications, too. Surprise!

  7. says

    Shiv@#1:
    You don’t assume competence on the part of a massive organization, which is usually the point I cannot suspend my disbelief in conspiracy theories. It’s just “the people in charge are assholes and want to stay that way,” which is way easier to believe.

    Thanks. I don’t believe in conspiracies (in general) so I had to figure out a world-view that explains why conspiracy-like things happen, without competence or conspiracy required. As you know, I refer to that as “emergent conspiracy” …

    I first started formulating my idea of emergent conspiracies after I spent a day talking to conspiracy proponents in Dealy Plaza, on a trip to Dallas. I found myself simultaneously fascinated by the way all the pieces of their puzzles fit together, and confused by the obvious impossibility that so many people could be in on such a complicated conspiracy. Then I asked one of them, “couldn’t this all be an attempt to cover up some real incompetence on the part of the secret service?” That was when it all clicked together. Of course the secret service guys were going to be mighty hinky about the whole thing because they did screw up. But they didn’t plan it. Nor did anyone. But everyone had a piece of this historical moment of extreme incompetence and awfulness, and everyone’s desire to explain their role made it look like there was something going on. For example, now, after Oswald was shot, police are much more careful to protect suspects in high profile cases while they’re being moved around. It’s not that they let Oswald get shot as part of some conspiracy, it’s that they were incompetent and didn’t think of that, and afterward changed their procedures to fit the new reality – which means a conspiracy theorist looks at how they move prisoners now, and says, “why didn’t they protect Oswald?” The answer is they probably didn’t like Oswald much and it never occurred to them someone would shoot him, until about 2 seconds after he got shot, and then they realized they were going to be in a spotlight for a while.

    … anyway. I better not go into that. Some day I’ll try to do some postings about emergent conspiracy.

  8. says

    cartomancer@#2:
    In particular, we have to bear in mind that Britain is a much less repressive and totalitarian society than Russia or China at the moment, and thus the British government needs to use other means to get its agenda through. I think the additional surveillance machinery is a bonus for them, and may be put to nefarious use in future, but this is all about seeming to be concerned with terror attacks and fostering a culture where blame is deflected from them and strong-arm repressive policing tactics are painted as effective and morally justified.

    I agree. I do think, however, that there are similarities of agenda: notably the British government is tired of having to answer the question “why didn’t you do something about this terrorist before the attack?!!” and it’s a good way to be seen doing something – because it’s technically desirable even if it’s useless for that particular purpose. In the authoritarian states like China and Russia, they don’t have to care as much about their justification, though they still come up with a fig-leaf because it sounds better than “because, we can.”

    Theresa May’s pronouncements are obvious posturing about doing something to combat terrorism, when she knows full well that the reason Britain is the target of so many terrorist attacks is that we have been carrying on an unrepentant campaign of Imperialist and post-imperialist meddling in the Middle East for over a century. Her own government has been selling arms to the Saudis in recent weeks to perpetuate the Saudi war against Yemen.

    An excellent point. We should be replying to May that they ought to be worried about cracking the Saudis’ and Yemeni’s codes, not their fellow Londoners. But that would be injecting actual thought into the situation, and I don’t think that’s what’s going on: this is knee-jerk authoritarianism (same as in the US, China, and Russia) — it’s the authoritarian impulse that I believe is being shared between these governments.

  9. says

    sonofrojblake@#4:
    How fucking stupid does she think I am?

    In 2016 the US and Britain ran national-level IQ tests and determined that about half of each respective population are pretty fucking stupid. I’m not a fan of IQ testing, but with a big enough sample size … I think they can legitimately claim to be convinced that half the people will believe any bullshit, 100% of the time.

  10. says

    Dunc@#3:
    They’ve been putting all the surveillance machinery they can lay their hands on to nefarious uses since before I was born.

    Yep. Even before the FBI was founded in the US, the intelligence service was doing covert operations against “agitators” – by which they meant: people who are trying to organize unions to keep the capitalists from utterly trampling all over everyone. They have never played fair, and it’s silly of us to expect them to ever do so. The problem now is that they have created regulatory structures that say, in effect, “you must play by our rules” – which rules say “we win.”

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