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Using Metadata to find Paul Revere

Here is a splendid explanation of why you really do not want to trust any government with wide un-targeted surveillance powers.

I mean, who knows where that might lead eh?

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24 comments to Using Metadata to find Paul Revere

  • Paul Marks

    Indeed.

    The standard approach has always been to apply for a warrant on the basis of evidence for suspicion.

    For example, one would say “Mr Jones keeps writing e.mails to this known member of X organisation – may we read what he is saying?”

    If one is not even allowed to find out who is writing to who (without a warrant) I am not sure how GCHQ or the NSA would proceed – as their standard operating procedure has been to gather “metadata” in general (and then see if anything stands out as odd – and then seek a warrant to read it).

    If one is Paul Revere this is clearly BAD THING – as one wants Paul Revere to win (and with modern methods of metadata collection he would have been picked up by British forces “this man is contact with known rebels – better read what they are writing to each other”.

    So it is a matter of PERSPECTIVE.

    If one is on the side of armed enemies of the current system then (yes) metadata collection methods are clearly a BAD THING.

    However, (at least back under Bush) most people were on the side of the government against the Islamists. On the grounds that large areas of London and New York blowing up was considered a bad thing (no one who is against metadata collection has any right to complain about large areas of Western cities being blown up – at least that was the argument).

    A libertarian revolt would be different.

    I would not advice it. But it would be different.

    I still think Clapper should be sent to prison – he clearly lied to Congress (a criminal offence).

    What he should have said was the following.

    “Yes of course we collect metadata on everyone – that is the basic method of the NSA and ALWAYS HAS BEEN”

    The real difficulty is to get all this metadata and to try and find something odd in it (the needle in the haystack).

    But I (and I have no technical knowledge or interest) have known the NSA and GCHQ collect metadata for many years – there have been many books on it (how the “Puzzle Palace” collects everything on everyone – but finds it very hard indeed to properly handle).

    There were casual references to all this in news and current affairs programmes – again for many years.

    So off to prison you go Clapper.

    Not for metadata collection.

    But for lying to Congress about it.

    Indeed as it was common knowledge that the NSA collected metadata on American citizens (and always has done) it is hard to see what Mr Clapper’s defence would be for his statements to Congress.

    An defence of temporary insanity is about the only defence that might work.

  • Regional

    Why’re we defending Yuppies?
    The terrestrial information exchange messages containers are now read by machines using OCR so the only safe way to communicate is face to face. In the old army before it became gentrified there was an axiom that when you see two men talking there’re planning mutiny.

  • So it is a matter of PERSPECTIVE.

    Nope, it really isn’t.

    It is a matter of “do you think any government can be trusted with that kind of surveillance infrastructure?”

    I say no, there has never been, and never will be, any government anywhere in the world, now or at any time in history, that could be trusted with that kind of capability. No matter how justified such capabilities are against The Bad People, it is absolutely as certain as night follows day that the same tools will, sooner or later, be used by these same institutions to do terrible things for completely different reasons… whereas you say yes, I trust the UK and US governments with that kind of capability.

    You trust state institutions vastly more than I do obviously.

  • Gareth

    Paul Marks,

    If metadata showing Mr Jones emailing a member of X was suspicious enough for a warrant wouldn’t that member of X have already come to the attention of the security services?

    Regardless of the public mood targets of further surveillance (Mr Jones) are self-selecting by being in contact with that member of X. No blanket harvesting of metadata is required.(And would provide too many false positives to be useful?)

    I can see similarities between metadata and CCTV footage. Useful for proving a crime. Potentially useful for discovering further plots and associates. Not so great at stopping the initial act. The metadata should remain with ISPs and specific data only be released with a warrant.

    The apparently unfettered and authorised access to metadata allows the security services to do something easily instead of properly.

  • I’m with Perry on this one. I trust SOME governments not to abuse the surveillance capability; but other governments (of the left-wing bent) have a long and not-so-distinguished history of waging war on their own populations rather than eeeevil furriners, at least for some of the time. So a “friendly” government adopts a policy, and an “unfriendly” one inherits it (e.g. gun control implemented by Weimar for perfectly logical reasons, then used by the Nazis to ensure that their prospective victims were disarmed).

    Far better not to trust either sort, and take away their power as much as possible.

  • @Kim du Toit:

    Since Obama is obviously a Marxist in all but name when will you acknowledge that there has been a takeover of the United States?

    Sure, if Obama actually came out and said “Hey Guys, I’m a raving Marxist and all that Obamacare crap is straight out of Das Kapital”, there would be a lot of pissed off people, but it wouldn’t make any material difference.

    Thus the agencies of the state, like the NSA and IRS are used against political enemies. This is not new and there is plenty of proof that its both real and deliberate.

    So these leftist states that you don’t trust, pretty much compactnesses the United States at the present time, doesn’t it?

  • So these leftist states that you don’t trust, pretty much encompasses the United States at the present time, doesn’t it?

    Bloody auto-correct!

  • James Waterton

    I suppose most have seen this article:

    Stanford Researchers: It Is Trivially Easy to Match Metadata to Real People

    From what I’ve heard, identifying terrorist activity from the incoming terabytes of data being received in real time is extremely difficult. However, if you know what you’re looking for, you can interrogate the stored metadata. So claims by NSA bigwigs that PRISM has foiled terrorist plots ring more than a little hollow. However, all that stored metadata is terribly useful if you have a name and want to find out what they’re up to. Thankfully, the US administration would never use the agencies it controls to target its political enemies.

  • Robbo

    Paul Marks said: “If one is on the side of armed enemies of the current system then (yes) metadata collection methods are clearly a BAD THING.”

    It is also a bad thing if you are on the side of the legitimate political opponents of the current office-holders. If it is no-holds-barred against the “bad guys”, whoever gets to choose who the “bad guys” are is in effect King. You did see that members of Congress are having their meta-data collected ? So if a legitimate whistle-blower within NSA rang his Representative to raise his concerns, that contact would be known to NSA ? I don’t think the executive branch is above using its powers to stifle political opposition, the only solution is to limit the powers it has to do so.

  • Mr Ed

    Since the Congress has given the power to the President to detain ‘enemies’ (presumably including its own members), and there seems to be little prospect of success for any arguments over whether or not such powers are Constitutional, it seems that any lack of concern over the power being used would arise from purely political considerations, would the (now unelectable) President care not to use them? No one could possibly be trusted with those powers, and no one should even want them.

    At least Stalin usually put on the pretence of a trial, even if you might be charged with murdering yourself and a defence that you are still alive was ignored.

  • Laird

    There has never been a tool which the government hasn’t eventually perverted for political purposes.

    No government, at any time or place, and for any purpose whatsoever, should be trusted with these powers. It is the nature of all governments, including representative democracies, for the worst among us to ascend to the senior ranks in their quest for power. The scum always rises to the top. This is why power must be disbursed as widely as possible, and should not be permitted to accumulate in one central location. That way lies only tyranny.

  • Deep Lurker

    “Since Obama is obviously a Marxist”

    Nitpick: It seems to me that Obama has much more in common with Benny the Moose. He’s a fascist, in the original classic sense of the term, rather than a Marxist.

  • Laird

    Oops, that last post from me should have said “This is why power must be dispersed as widely as possible.” My bad. I can’t even blame that one on autocorrect!

    And I agree with Deep Lurker.

  • Deep Lurker, indeed. I get annoyed when people call Obama a Marxist, when he is instead a classic Authoritarian Corporatist (he only misses being a proper Fascist because he doesn’t actually have a true movement to unite his followers). Corporatism is worse than Socialism in the democratic context, because it never, ever, goes away.

    NB: I am assuredly not using “corporatism” in the asinine Leftist sense of “rule by corporations”, but in its true sense of “incorporating” all individuals within larger collective masses, such as Labor, Business, Academia which can then be dealt with as units by the state, and turned to state ends. Crushing individuals in the process, of course.

  • bloke in spain

    A word on metadata, a tech buzzword the ignorant like to brandish without understanding it. It’s simply the routing information on communications. All communication services generate routing information. For the phone system, it’s the phone bills. The UK phone system was, for a long time, an arm of the State. No-one objected to the State having information on phone use. Like wise, the postal service has been an arm of the State. Many postal services require tracking info & there is a partially observed convention of putting return addresses on envelopes. In either of these cases has anyone ever objected to the security services processing this information the State has been freely given by the service users? Wasn’t the issue always the right to open envelopes or intercept calls?

  • Paul Marks is down in February. It will be interesting how many topics of controversy he can cover in one night:

    http://www.meetup.com/Libertarian-Meetups/events/140385772/

  • staghounds

    Magic, Ultra, and Venona were all products of governments’ ability to read someone else’s electric mail.

  • In either of these cases has anyone ever objected to the security services processing this information the State has been freely given by the service users? Wasn’t the issue always the right to open envelopes or intercept calls?

    Which is why the outside of letters and phone/internet meta-data are oh so very different qualitatively even if they are categorically the same. Posting a physical addressed letter does not track your movements by cell as you move around town. And monitoring internet meta-data is less analogous to looking at the outside of a letter and more analogous to constantly filming who you are talking to without recording the conversation itself.

    Given how deeply embedded mobiles and internet are in people’s lives now, it is vastly more intrusive and revealing than scanning an envelop ever was.

  • bloke in spain

    Sure Perry, it’s qualitative. But I’m not sure your analogy holds. By using the systems, we’ve always given our implicit agreement the data was available if they had a mind to use it. Filming conversations? CCTV enables that & we seem to have been generally welcoming of CCTV.
    It’s just I don’t think you can get anywhere on this issue from the direction of what powers the authorities have. They are given the powers when you consent to use the system. They’re intrinsic to the system. Like they say, information wants to be free & it’s free to find its way to their databases. On a minor key, if you shop in a shop, the shopkeeper knows what you buy. That information he’s free to do what he will with. Either you say, arbitrarily; “This thing you will not do.” Or don’t use the system. Or use the system in a way, doesn’t create information in a way can be collated.

  • By using the systems, we’ve always given our implicit agreement the data was available if they had a mind to use it. Filming conversations? CCTV enables that & we seem to have been generally welcoming of CCTV.

    Yes and no. The important things is not the CCTV but rather does the state have ‘press button’ access to it? I really don’t care of Marks and Sparks CCTVs me buying a cake at their food store. I don’t even mind if they receive a court order to give access to that footage because 5 mins later someone was shoplifting or some adherent of the religion of peace blew themselves up there .

    What I do mind is some scrote in a government department thinking “I wonder what that bastard de Havilland is up to” and simply accessing the information from the M&S servers without so much as a by-your-leave from anyone. I did not consent to that by going into M&S. Likewise if I deal with T-Mobile, I am not ‘consenting’ to anyone but me and T-Mobile getting that information and if the state wants it, I want them to have to jump through a few hoops to get it.

    The easier it is to access the information, the more rife abuses will be.

  • Paul Marks

    Having come back and read a bit of the thread (I do not tend to with posts on this subject – indeed with a lot of posts these days, as being chained to a computer was destroying what remains of my health) I see that Perry believes the real question is “do you think that any government can be trusted with that kind of survellance infrastructure?”.

    My answer would be “no they can not be trusted – that is why Mr Snowden should have gone to the Senate or House oversight committee, not to Mr Putin and the FSB (for which he should be sent to prison – as one really can not have people connected to the intelligence community running off to the FSB )”.

    I suspect that Perry’s answer would be that the NSA and GCHQ should not exist at all.

    Which is fair enough – after all the old American position used to be “gentleman do not open other gentleman’s mail” . This was the time when the American code for Secretary of the Navy was “Neptune” (but all of this has gone done the Memory Hole – even the massive Imperial German sabotage operation in New York City during World War One, and the Communist and “Anarchist” terrorist campaign after World War One, although the responding “Palmer Raids” are still remembered -as a Boo-Hiss thing).

    There would be a downside to such a policy – but I am not going to bother to explain the downside (and people may simply believe that the downside is worth it).

    I continue to suspect that Mr Obama is secretly pleased with all of this.

    “But Paul – Obama is the big loser from this”.

    Not really – no.

    There is no modern German style “Office for the Defence of the Constitution” in the United States – and no annual public reports on people (including politicians) with totalitarian links.

    Security checks on the Whitehouse cleaning staff yes, security checks on potential Presidents NO appears to be the American attitude.

    “Which makes the NSA a waste of time and resources Paul”.

    Yes – for the fundamental stuff I suppose it does.

    And also the “smart boys at the CIA” (as Comrade Barack openly sneered at them in “Dreams From My Father”). And the FBI also.

    When you have to say “Yes Sir” to someone you (in a sane world) you would be hunting down, then the whole “intelligence community” is a waste of time – indeed (as it can be directed against property owners, rather than in defence of property owners) worse than a waste of time.

    As the old saying has it “a corrupted police force is worse than no police force at all”.

  • My answer would be “no they can not be trusted – that is why Mr Snowden should have gone to the Senate or House oversight committee, not to Mr Putin and the FSB (for which he should be sent to prison – as one really can not have people connected to the intelligence community running off to the FSB )”.

    And the Senate or House Oversight Committees, packed with people who were RESPONSIBLE for the excesses of the NSA, would have… made sure Snowdon vanished faster than the morning dew and his revelations, and the political pressure for change they have produced, would have have vanished down the memory hole within a week or two.

    And as has been pointed out, not just by me but by others, he did not go to the FSB, he just went to one of the few places on earth the USA could not reach him and smother his ability to keep this on the front pages of the world. Seriously, you seem to have ‘Putin Derangement Syndrome’, Paul.

  • RogerC

    via Paul Marks:

    As the old saying has it “a corrupted police force is worse than no police force at all”

    This is spot on.

    From my own perspective, mass interception of communications traffic records and other metadata fails the “Jews in the attic test”. Any form of government interference fails this test to some degree, but creating such powerful tools for a mass dragnet fails it harder than most.