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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

 
Casualties of secrecy

by digby

There are lots of excerpts of Greenwald's new book out there along with the usual reviews, critiques and character assassinations. You can find them if you're interested. I thought I'd just feature this one little bit here on the blog:
The NSA's treatment of Anonymous, as well as the vague category of people known as "hacktivists", is especially troubling and extreme. That's because Anonymous is not actually a structured group but a loosely organised affiliation of people around an idea: someone becomes affiliated with Anonymous by virtue of the positions they hold. Worse still, the category "hacktivists" has no fixed meaning: it can mean the use of programming skills to undermine the security and functioning of the internet but can also refer to anyone who uses online tools to promote political ideals. That the NSA targets such broad categories of people is tantamount to allowing it to spy on anyone anywhere, including in the US, whose ideas the government finds threatening.

Gabriella Coleman, a specialist on Anonymous at McGill University, said that the group "is not a defined" entity but rather "an idea that mobilises activists to take collective action and voice political discontent. It is a broad-based global social movement with no centralised or official organised leadership structure. Some have rallied around the name to engage in digital civil disobedience, but nothing remotely resembling terrorism."

Yet Anonymous has been targeted by a unit of GCHQ that employs some of the most controversial and radical tactics known to spycraft: "false flag operations", "honeytraps", viruses and other attacks, strategies of deception and "info ops to damage reputations".

One PowerPoint slide presented by GCHQ surveillance officials at the 2012 SigDev conference describes two forms of attack: "information ops (influence or disruption)" and "technical disruption". GCHQ refers to these measures as "Online Covert Action", which is intended to achieve what the document calls "The 4 Ds: Deny/Disrupt/Degrade/Deceive".

Another slide describes the tactics used to "discredit a target". These include "set up a honeytrap", "change their photos on social networking sites", "write a blog purporting to be one of their victims" and "email/text their colleagues, neighbours, friends, etc". In accompanying notes, GCHQ explains that the "honeytrap" – an old cold war tactic involving using attractive women to lure male targets into compromising, discrediting situations – has been updated for the digital age: now a target is lured to a compromising site or online encounter. The comment added: "a great option. Very successful when it works." Similarly, traditional methods of group infiltration are now accomplished online.

Another technique involves stopping "someone from communicating". To do that, the agency will "bombard their phone with text messages", "bombard their phone with calls", "delete their online presence," and "block up their fax machine".

GCHQ also likes to use "disruption" techniques in lieu of what it calls "traditional law enforcement" such as evidence-gathering, courts and prosecutions. In a document entitled Cyber Offensive Session: Pushing the Boundaries and Action Against Hacktivism, GCHQ discusses its targeting of "hacktivists" with, ironically, "denial of service" attacks, a tactic commonly associated with hackers.

The British surveillance agency also uses a team of social scientists, including psychologists, to develop techniques of "online HUMINT" (human intelligence) and "strategic influence disruption". The document The Art of Deception: Training for a New Generation of Online Covert Operations is devoted to these tactics. Prepared by the agency's HSOC (Human Science Operation Cell), the paper claims to draw on sociology, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and biology, among other fields, to maximize GCHQ's online deception skills.

The document then lays out what it calls the "Disruption Operational Playbook". This includes "infiltration operation", "ruse operation", "false flag operation", and "sting operation". It vows a "full roll out" of the disruption programme "by early 2013" as "150+ staff [are] fully trained".

Under the title Magic Techniques & Experiment, the document references "Legitimisation of violence", "Constructing experience in mind of targets which should be accepted so they don't realise", and "Optimising deception channels".

Such government plans to monitor and influence internet communications and disseminate false information online have long been a source of speculation. The GCHQ documents show for the first time that these controversial techniques have moved from the proposal stage to implementation.

All of the evidence highlights the implicit bargain that is offered to citizens: pose no challenge and you have nothing to worry about. Mind your own business, and support or at least tolerate what we do, and you'll be fine. Put differently, you must refrain from provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing.

This is a deal that invites passivity, obedience and conformity. The safest course, the way to ensure being "left alone", is to remain quiet, unthreatening and compliant.
In my mind, this is the stuff that poses the most immediate threat from these surveillance programs. (I should say non-Muslim citizens --- Muslims have far more to worry about than this.) The idea is that these government entities are taking it upon themselves, in secret, to use their power to ruin the lives and reputations of people they determine (again, in secret)  to be threats. A threat being also very loosely defined.

In secret.

It's the sort of thing that sends a shiver down my back. As someone who writes critical things on the internet and is one degree of separation away from some people who have been deemed to be traitors by important members of the government, I can't say that this hasn't crossed my mind. After all, I have no institutional support, no lawyers, no money.

What's scary about this is not that people have anything to hide although I suppose we all have some things we'd prefer to keep private. But this particular case isn't about privacy, it's about the government laying plans to frame people they see as a threat. And let's not forget they have made the case that they are allowed hide their tracks without revealing it to other authorities --- as if protecting their surveillance is the same as protecting a human informant. So that's no protection. Neither is the fact that some of this was done by GCHQ, the British service rather than the NSA. They both very conveniently farm out certain unpleasantries to each other in order to avoid flagrantly violating their own laws. It's what makes our relationship so very, very "special" these days. (And when it comes to internet surveillance borders aren't really relevant are they?)

Regardless of how you feel about hacktivists or dissidents being foolish and perhaps even threatening, it cannot be ok for a government to plant false evidence or seek to discredit someone and destroy their reputations with lies in lieu of due process. In fact, the very reason the US constitution exists is to prevent such things from happening.

The government has dealt with dissent in a variety of heavy handed ways over the years, from taping Martin Luther King to Cointelpro to more recently the handling of Aaron Swartz and Occupy activist Cecily McMillan. They are capable of doing this sort of thing.


Do you feel good about that? If you do then none of this will bother you and you can carry on. I just hope that you don't ever decide to say or do anything that might be considered a "threat." If fact, you probably shouldn't read political blogs. Who knows what some people in a secret meeting at a secret agency might secretly make of that. Best stick to sports and shopping. And church.

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