The Roundup for December 1-31, 2019 Edition

Alone Amongst Ghosts by Christopher Parsons

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


This month’s update is late, accounting for holidays and my generally re-thinking how to move forward (or not) with these kinds of posts. I find them really valuable, but the actual interface of using my current client (Ulysses) to draft elements of them is less than optimal. So expect some sort of changes as I muddle through how to improve workflow and/or consider the kinds of content that make the most sense to post.


Inspiring Quotation

Be intensely yourself. Don’t try to be outstanding; don’t try to be a success; don’t try to do pictures for others to look at—just please yourself.

  • Ralph Steiner

Great Photography Shots

Natalia Elena Massi’s photographs of Venice, flooded, are exquisite insofar as they are objectively well shot while, simultaneously, reminding us of the consequences of climate change. I dream of going to Venice to shoot photos at some point and her work only further inspires those dreams.

Music I’m Digging

I spent a lot of the month listening to my ‘Best of 2019’ playlist, and so my Songs I Liked in December playlist is a tad threadbare. That said, it’s more diverse in genre and styles than most monthly lists, though not a lot of the tracks made the grade to get onto my best of 2019 list.

  • Beck-Guero // I spent a lot of time re-listening to Beck’s corpus throughout December. I discovered that I really like his music: it’s moody, excitable,and catchy, and always evolving from album to album.
  • Little V.-Spoiler (Cyberpunk 2077) (Single) // Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the most hyped video games for 2020, and if all of the music is as solid and genre-fitting as this track, then the ambiance for the game is going to be absolutely stellar.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • 99% Invisible-Racoon Resistance // As a Torontonian I’m legally obligated to share this. Racoons are a big part of the city’s identity, and in recent years new organic garbage containers were (literally) rolled out that were designed such that racoons couldn’t get into them. Except that some racoons could! The good news is that racoons are not ‘social learners’ and, thus, those who can open the bins are unlikely to teach all the others. But with the sheer number of trash pandas in the city it’s almost a certainty that a number of them will naturally be smart enough and, thus, garbage will continue to litter our sidewalks and laneways.

Good Reads

  • America’s Dark History of Killing Its Own Troops With Cluster Munitions // Ismay’s longform piece on cluster munitions is not a happy article, nor does the reader leave with a sense that this deadly weapon is likely to be less used. His writing–and especially the tragedies associated with the use of these weapons–is poignant and painful. And yet it’s also critically important to read given the barbarity of cluster munitions and their deadly consequences to friends, foes, and civilians alike. No civilized nation should use these weapons and all which do use them cannot claim to respect the lives of civilians stuck in conflict situations.
  • Project DREAD: White House Veterans Helped Gulf Monarchy Build Secret Surveillance Unit // The failure or unwillingness of the principals, their deputies, or staff to acknowledge they created a surveillance system that has systematically been used to hunt down illegitimate targets—human rights defenders, civil society advocates, and the like—is disgusting. What’s worse is that democratizing these surveillance capabilities and justifying the means by which the program was orchestrated almost guarantees that American signals intelligence employees will continue to spread American surveillance know-how to the detriment of the world for a pay check, the consequences be damned (if even ever considered in the first place).
  • The War That Continues to Shape Russia, 25 Years Later // The combination of the (re)telling of the first Russia-Chechen War and photographs from the conflict serve as reminders of what it looks like when well-armed nation-states engage in fullscale destruction, the human costs, and the lingering political consequences of wars-now-past.
  • A New Kind of Spy: How China obtains American technological secrets // Bhattacharjee’s 2014 article on Chinese spying continues to strike me as memorable, and helpful in understanding how the Chinese government recruits agents to facilitate its technological objectives. Reading the piece helps to humanize why Chinese-Americans may spy for the Chinese government and, also, the breadth and significance of such activities for advancing China’s interests to the detriment of America’s own.
  • Below the Asphalt Lies the Beach: There is still much to learn from the radical legacy of critical theory // Benhabib’s essay showcasing how the history of European political philosophy over the past 60 years or so are in the common service of critique, and the role(s) of Habermasian political theory in both taking account of such critique whilst offering thoughts on how to proceed in a world of imperfect praxis, is an exciting consideration of political philosophy today. She mounts a considered defense of Habermas and, in particular, the claims that his work is overly Eurocentric. Her drawing a line between the need to seek emancipation while standing to confront and overcome the xenophobia, authoritarianism, and racism that is sweeping the world writ large is deeply grounded on the need for subjects like human rights to orient and ground critique. While some may oppose such universalism on the same grounds as they would reject the Habermasian project there is a danger: in doing so, not only might we do a disservice to the intellectual depth that undergirds the concept of human rights but, also, we run the risk of losing the core means by which we can (re)orient the world towards enabling the conditions of freedom itself.
  • Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: A GPS mystery in Shanghai // This very curious article explores the recent problem of ships’ GPS transponders being significantly affected while transiting the Yangtze in China. Specifically, transponders are routinely misplacing the location of ships, sometimes with dangerous and serious implications. The cause, however, remains unknown: it could be a major step up in the (effective) electronic warfare capabilities of sand thieves who illegally dredge the river, and who seek to escape undetected, or could be the Chinese government itself testing electronic warfare capabilities on the shipping lane in preparation of potentially deploying it elsewhere in the region. Either way, threats such as this to critical infrastructure pose serious risks to safe navigation and, also, to the potential for largely civilian infrastructures to be potentially targeted by nation-state adversaries.
  • A Date I Still Think About // These beautiful stories of memorable and special dates speak to just how much joy exists in the world, and how it unexpectedly erupts into our lives. In an increasingly dark time, stories like this are a kind of nourishment for the soul.

Cool Things

  • The Deep Sea // This interactive website that showcases the sea life we know exists, and the depths at which it lives, is simple and spectacular.
  • 100 Great Works Of Dystopian Fiction // A pretty terrific listing of books that have defined the genre.
Link

A Deep Dive Into Russian Surveillance In The Silicon Valley Area

Via Foreign Policy:

This focus on signals and technical intelligence persisted until much more recently, multiple former U.S. intelligence officials told me. “It was almost like everyone they had there was a technical guy, as opposed to a human-intelligence guy,” one former official recalled. “The way they protected those people — they were rarely out in the community. It was work, home, work, home. When they’d go out and about, to play hockey or to drink, they’d be in a group. It was hard to penetrate.” The same official also noted that San Francisco was integral to the discovery by U.S. intelligence of a new class of Russian “technical-type” intelligence officer, working for the rough Russian equivalent of the National Security Agency, before this organization was eventually folded by Putin back into the FSB. This group, which was not based at the consulate itself, was identified via its members’ travel patterns — they would visit the Bay Area frequently — and the types of individuals, all in high-tech development, with whom they sought contact. According to this former U.S. official, these Russian intelligence officers were particularly interested in discussing cryptology and the Next Generation Internet program.

But it was the consulate’s location — perched high atop that hill in Pacific Heights, with a direct line of sight out to the ocean — that likely determined the concentration of signals activity. Certain types of highly encrypted communications cannot be transmitted over long distances, and multiple sources told me that U.S. officials believed that Russian intelligence potentially took advantage of the consulate’s location to communicate with submarines, trawlers, or listening posts located in international waters off the Northern California coast. (Russian intelligence officers may also have been remotely transmitting data to spy stations offshore, multiple former intelligence officials told me, explaining the odd behaviors on Stinson Beach.) It is also “very possible,” said one former intelligence official, that the Russians were using the San Francisco consulate to monitor the movements, and perhaps communications, of the dozen or so U.S. nuclear-armed submarines that routinely patrol the Pacific from their base in Washington state.

All in all, said this same official, it was “very likely” that the consulate functioned for Russia as a classified communications hub for the entire western United States — and, perhaps, the entire western part of the hemisphere.

There is a lot to this very long form piece, including descriptions of Russian intelligence operations and communications patterns, how lawful Russian overflights of American territory might be used for a variety of intelligence purposes, and the Trump administration’s likely cluelessness about why closing the Russian consulate in San Francisco was so significant. But most interestingly, for me, was how the consulate likely functioned as an outpost for Russian signals intelligence operations, both due to the depth of analysis in the article but also for what it tells us about how Western-allied consulates and diplomatic facilities are likely used.1 In effect, the concerns raised by former FBI and other American counter-intelligence officers speaks to how America and her allies may conduct their own forms of surveillance.

  1. In a provincial sense, the concerns and opinions espoused by American counter-intelligence officers also raises questions as to the role of Canada’s significant number of diplomatic facilities scattered throughout China and other regions where the United States is more challenged in building out State Department facilities.
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Most fundamentally, is it in Canada’s interest to further normalize the growing use of CNA (Computer Network Attack) activities by states? Should CNA be classified as just another tool of statecraft? Should such capabilities be restricted to a deterrent role? Is cyber deterrence, whether through CNA capabilities or more conventional responses, even a practical goal, given difficulties of attribution and the inevitable overlap between CNE (Computer Network Exploitation) and CNA? Would improved defence and resilience be a preferable, or at least sufficient, response or are all three required?

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As effective encryption spreads, it may well be that the future of SIGINT lies increasingly in “end point” operations and other activities designed to cripple or bypass that encryption, and some of those activities could certainly benefit from HUMINT assistance. But there are also pitfalls to that approach. Using on-the-scene people in foreign jurisdictions can mean putting individuals at extreme risk, and such operations also have increased potential to go wrong in ways that could expose Canada to extreme embarrassment and even retaliation. If the government is contemplating going down that road, it should probably be open with parliament and the public about its intentions.

Informed consent. Because it’s 2017.

Link

Metadata in Context – An Ontological and Normative Analysis of the NSA’s Bulk Telephony Metadata Collection Program

Abstract:

In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, the National Security Agency (NSA) responded to fears about warrantless domestic surveillance programs by emphasizing that it was collecting only the metadata, and not the content, of communications. When justifying its activities, the NSA offered the following rationale: because data involves content and metadata does not, a reasonable expectation of privacy extends only to the former but not the latter. Our paper questions the soundness of this argument. More specifically, we argue that privacy is defined not only by the types of information at hand, but also by the context in which the information is collected. This context has changed dramatically. Defining privacy as contextual integrity we are able, in the first place, to explain why the bulk telephony metadata collection program violated expectations of privacy and, in the second, to evaluate whether the benefits to national security provided by the program can be justified in light of the program’s material costs, on the one hand, and its infringements on civil liberties, on the other hand.

A terrific paper from Paula Kift and Helen Nissenbaum.

Link

Covernames Versus Code / Strategy Versus Tactics

From the New York Times:

Mr. Snowden’s cascade of disclosures to journalists and his defiant public stance drew far more media coverage than this new breach. But Mr. Snowden released code words, while the Shadow Brokers have released the actual code; if he shared what might be described as battle plans, they have loosed the weapons themselves. Created at huge expense to American taxpayers, those cyberweapons have now been picked up by hackers from North Korea to Russia and shot back at the United States and its allies.

While the revelation of code facilitates a more immediate kind of repurposing and attack, I think that the Shadow Brokers have tended to reveal tactical information versus the strategic information released by Snowden. Few have done the requisite work to actually pull together the comprehensive narratives that emerge in the Snowden documents and, instead, have focused on specific programs or tools. Those few of us who have comprehensively analyzed his documents, however, now possess insights into strategic thinking, decision making, and resource allocation of the Five Eyes intelligence agencies. The long term value of such information is just as, if not more, valuable than code drops.

Link

Marking 70 years of eavesdropping in Canada

Bill Robinson at Open Canada:

Another new factor is the presence of Canadians in CSE’s hunting grounds. CSE was unable to assist during the FLQ crisis in 1970—it had no capability to monitor Canadians. In the post-2001 era, that is no longer true: the Internet traffic of Canadians mixes with that of everybody else, and CSE encounters it even when it is trying not to. When operating under judicial warrants obtained by CSIS or the RCMP, it deliberately goes after Canadian communications. CSE also passes on information about Canadians collected by its Five Eyes partners.

A special watchdog—the CSE Commissioner—was established in 1996 to monitor the legality of CSE’s activities. Over the years, Commissioners have often reported weaknesses in the measures the agency takes to protect Canadian privacy, but only once, last year, has a Commissioner declared CSE in non-compliance with the law.

Whether CSE’s watchdog is an adequate safeguard for the privacy of Canadians is a matter of continuing debate. One thing, however, is clear: As CSE enters its 71st year, the days when its gaze faced exclusively outward are gone for good.

Bill Robinson has done a terrific job providing a historical overview of Canada’s equivalent of the National Security Agency (NSA). His knowledge of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) is immense.

Canadians now live in a country wherein this secretive institution, the CSE, is capable of massively monitoring our domestic as well as foreign communications. And, in fact, a constitutional challenge is before the courts that is intended to restrain CSE’s domestic surveillance. But before that case is decided CSE will analyze, share, and act on our domestic communications infrastructure without genuine public accountability. As an intelligence, as opposed to policing, organization its methods, techniques, and activities are almost entirely hidden from the public and its political representatives, as well as from most of Canada’s legal profession. A democracy can easily wilt when basic freedoms of speech and association are infringed upon and, in the case of CSE, such freedoms might be impacted without the speakers or those engaging with one another online ever realizing that their basic rights were being inhibited. Such possibilities raise existential threats to democratic governance and need to be alleviated as much as possible if our democracy is to be maintained, fostered, and enhanced.