There Should Be No Sighs of Relief

The Manning Verdict: A Very Pyrrhic Victory

The Bradley Manning verdict may seem a victory of sorts for the defense — it’s certainly being treated that way in the mainstream media — but the decision handed down Tuesday by Court Marshal Judge Colonel Denise Lind is actually a devastating blow not only to Manning, who was convicted of unjustifiably serious charges brought by an aggressive administration seeking to make an example of him, but also to Internet activity in general and information-sharing in particular.

Judge Lind found the young Army private not guilty of the most serious charge he faced: “aiding the enemy”. But it was the most serious because he could have faced life imprisonment as a result. Now he faces a sentencing hearing on 17 charges of which he was convicted.

Much of the media reaction reflected relief:

“We won the battle, now we need to go win the war,” Manning’s trial lawyer David Coombs told a press conference. “Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire.”

Or as Marcy Wheeler wrote in Salon: “But the big news — and very good news — is that Manning is innocent of the aiding the enemy charge. That ruling averted a potentially catastrophic effect on freedom of speech in this country.”

Defendant, Trial and the Infamous VideoDefendant, Trial and the Infamous Video
(image courtesy of the Bradley Manning Support Network)

 

The relief may be misguided. We have not averted a catastrophe; we have experienced one. Manning’s convictions include five counts of “espionage” under the 1917 Espionage Act and therein lies the poison. The logic of that espionage finding means that any of us could potentially be convicted of the very same crime if we were to publish anything on the Internet that the government considers “dangerous” to its functioning or activities.

Hand in hand with the recently-revealed system of surveillance that effectively models a police state, this verdict is spectacularly pernicious.

Two different stories linked by one scary trend

Track and Truth: Manning and the 'Other' Surveillance System

The tumble of revelations and developments involving the Internet has produced a pastiche of truths that, when examined closely, show links between what might usually be considered separate news stories.

This week we encounter a stunning ruling by the judge in the Bradley Manning case while, in a totally different setting, the people who come as close to governance of the World Wide Web as we get can’t decide on a major Internet issue that significantly affects your freedom.

On Thursday, the Manning case’s presiding judge Colonel Denise Lind — who is also determining the verdict — announced that she is going to consider the government’s contention that Manning was “aiding the enemy” when he blew his whistle. The defense had moved that she drop that charge. Yesterday, my colleague John Grant wrote incisively on the social and political impact of this ruling. I want to say a bit about the view of the Internet that drives Colonel Lind’s decision.

Meanwhile, the W3C (short of World Wide Web Consortium), which is is as close as we come to a world “authority” on web browser standards, continues to grapple with a major issue popularly called “Do Not Track”. It’s an attempt by the Consortium to agree on “standards” (the do-and-don’t rules for web development) for tracking: the way that somebody you don’t know, have never heard of and have certainly given no permission to is recording your every move on the Web and doing whatever the heck it wants with that information.

The Elusive Don't Track Option and Judge Denise Lind (sketch by Clark Stoeckley, Bradley Manning Support Network)The Elusive Don't Track Option and Judge Denise Lind (sketch by Clark Stoeckley, Bradley Manning Support Network)
 

The two developments are linked by a profoundly perverted notion of the Internet and a destructive vision of what it should become. They highlight, taken in tandem, a truly frightening development.

Succintly put, if you have an Internet that acts as it’s supposed to, everybody is going to have access to whatever is published. Effectively, anything you publish on the Internet could, given the right circumstances, “aid” an enemy and you’ll never know it. That’s the character of the Internet — it’s open. On the other hand, it’s also supposed to protect your privacy: what you decide to publish is open, who and what you are isn’t…until they started tracking.

Are we reaching that "critical mass"?

Jay-Z's App and Obama's Criminal Enterprise

To gauge the real impact of a historic development like “the Snowden revelations”, it’s sometimes useful to examine how wide it’s being felt. An illustration: Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” Samsung cellphone app. I’ve a feeling some may not know what I’m talking about because, up until this past Friday, neither did I. But my May First/People Link colleague and office buddy Hilary Goldstein (who has often been the source of ideas for my writings here) sent me an email with a link to a story about the controversy and it got me thinking about how our society has succumbed to a massive crime and how this might be a kind of “critical mass”.

The story starts with a Tweet by a respected Hip Hop artist named Michael “Killer Mike” Render. The Atlanta, Georgia resident issued a tweet this week displaying a graphic of the registration screen for the Magna Carta Holy Grail App with the cryptic but powerful message: “Naw…I’m cool.” The app (a term used to describe small applications often used on hand-held devices) lets the user download a new album (called “Magna Carta Holy Grail”) by Hip Hop super-star Jay-Z.

The App and the ArtistThe App and the Artist
 

The meaning of the message (a bit more dismissive than “Thanks but no thanks”) is significant because over a half million people had already said “yes” to that App and had downloaded it to their phones. In the process, they gave Samsung their names, specific GPS location, approximate network location and the phone’s precies id and status as well as permission to “modify or delete contents” from their USB storage, stop the phone from sleeping and get full access to their network communications.

In other words, you give them a treasure trove of information about you in exchange for downloading a “pre-release” version of this album.

We let them do it and we can still stop them!

The Snowden Controversy and Our Legacy of Choices

In one of the most innovative uses of the bizarre rules of international travel, whistle-blower Edward Snowden sits in an airport transit lounge outside the customs barrier that is Russian enough to not invade but not Russian enough to claim the Russians are hiding him. He has now reportedly applied for asylum in Russia.

The coverage of his asylum applications and whereabouts, linked with a torrent of public attacks against him from politicians and pundits, have come close to derailing the discussion of the real issues his revelations raise: we are ruled by people who have no faith in democracy and they are able to spy on us because of choices about the Internet that we have made.

Those are issues worth discussing but, as usual, noise is making productive conversation difficult.

 "reminiscent of...the cold war."Dropmire Graphic and German justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: "reminiscent of…the cold war."
 

We got another glimpse of that late last week when several European governments erupted in outraged protest that the United States has apparently been conducting intense surveillance on their U.S. embassies and U.N. missions through phone taps and Internet data capture. The operations, with code-names like “Dropmire” and “Powell”, have reportedly targeted 38 nations’ U.S. and U.N. operations using all kinds of surveillance prompting some European officials to compare it to “the cold war”.

If the “outrage” were genuine, one could argue, these countries would be lining up to give Snowden asylum. After all, his revelations were of significant service to them in exposing what the US was up to behind their backs. Germany and France, two of the most vocal protestors, certainly have both the authority and power to do that and such an action would probably be very popular in their countries. It’s not advisable to hold one’s breath on this one. The torrent of rage and outrage seems to be as misdirecting as the anti-Snowden campaign in this country.

What the Government Doesn't Want You to Realize

Lesson of the Snowden Revelations: You're the Target!

If Edward Snowden’s goal in blowing his whistle was to spark a public debate about privacy and surveillance, he has marvelously succeeded.

Everybody’s talking about Snowden, his revelations and their significance. The talk, predictably, is contentious and divided. But government officials and their subservients in the mainstream media aren’t participating in a debate; they are attempting to avoid one. The amount of distracting, disingenuous and disinformative noise sparked by this story would drown out any serious debate.

Government officials and press pundits have already convicted young Snowden of treason because he’s “aided the enemy” by damaging our surveillance capability. Some confused (and perhaps frightened) “opinion givers” have walked a thin (and not very straight) line by supporting his whistling on U.S. surveillance but sharply, and nonsensically, denouncing his “revelations” on U.S. spying on China. A chorus of bloggers, talk show guests and pundits routintely toss up nasty, personal insults about Snowden’s education, girlfriend, sexuality and courage.

The Hero and the President -- Who's the Target?The Hero and the President — Who's the Target?

It’s all nonsense. The Chinese have been accusing the U.S. of spying on them for a long time, citing very specific evidence, so Snowden hasn’t revealed anything to them. As for the “wrecking our protections” argument: given the scope of this data capturing, any person looking to commit a crime knows his or her communications are going to be intercepted. The revelation is that the United States is capturing all the data on the Internet. What are terrorists going to do once they read that? Stop using the Internet?

In supporting this illogical contention, Obama reps are claiming PRISM has been effective in preventing terrorism but nobody can say how. In a Monday night interview, the President told Charlie Rose: “…you’ve got a guy like Najibullah Zazi, who was driving cross-country trying to blow up a New York subway system….” This is one of the main arguments being used to defend the NSA but it’s totally bogus. As the Associated Press reported Zazi, now a convicted terrorist, was discovered when British intelligence seized his computer and found an email that revealed his plot. That’s why the President was careful not to directly state that there was a connection. “In using Zazi to defend the surveillance program,” AP reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman wrote, “government officials have further confused things by misstating key details about the plot.” From President Obama’s carefully worded statement, it’s clear he’s very conscious of the confusion he’s creating; it’s his plan.

But why? What is the purpose of this forged confusion? It’s to hide the most important truth: we, the people of the United States, are the real target of this surveillance and the surveillance is part of a long-term strategy of control.

Recent Revelations are Worse Than Our Worst Nightmare

Privacy Disappears in a Prism

This past Thursday (June 6), The Guardian (the British newspaper) and the Washington Post simultaneously reported that the National Security Agency has been collecting staggering amounts of user data and files from seven of the world’s most powerful technology companies.

An information collection program called Prism has been routinely tapping the servers of these companies and collecting emails, articles, on-line searches, chat logs, photos and videos. There are no subpeonas, court orders or even clearly-defined investigations supporting this program. Traditionally, the government must establish that what they’re seizing is relevant to an investigation. With Prism, they seize everything, review it and then decide its relevance. It’s an information vacuum cleaner.

It’s also a key tool of the Obama Administration. Data gathered through Prism now accounts for almost one in seven intelligence reports, the NSA said in a statement.

 (The Guardian)One of the Slides from the Prism Presentation (reprinted from the Guardian): (The Guardian)

“Microsoft – which is currently running an advertising campaign with the slogan “Your privacy is our priority” – was the first (company in the program), with collection beginning in December 2007,” the Guardian reported. “It was followed by Yahoo in 2008; Google, Facebook and PalTalk in 2009; YouTube in 2010; Skype and AOL in 2011; and finally Apple, which joined the program in 2012. The program is continuing to expand, with other providers due to come online.”

Because these are the companies whose services comprise Internet life for most of us, the program signals the effective end of privacy as a right. If you use Google or Yahoo or Iphone or Skype, at least some of what you do, write, search, say in chat or put in your a video or photo on any of those services is being collected.

Companies use a progressive tool in very non-progressive ways

The 'Cloudy' Skies Corporations Want to Sell You

It’s the nature of the shallow, consumer-driven, dream-drunken culture our society tries to impose on us that we popularly adopt terms without knowing what they mean and, more often than not, they don’t mean much of anything.

Such is the case with “the Cloud”.

The Fictional Cloud with Pen and Coffee The Fictional Cloud with Pen and Coffee (from http://blog.allstate.com/what-is-the-cloud/)

Most people who use computers believe they know what it is except that everyone seems to have a different definition. From a satellite-based storage system to a virtually invisible network to a collection of hard drives all over the world to a new form of storage that doesn’t require computers to…whatever new definition pops up this week. In any case, you have heard of the “cloud” and probably aren’t sure what it really is.

This week, the Army announced it would be putting its Defense Cross-Domain Analytical Capability — a database storing various kinds of “security-relevant” information — on the Cloud. This surprising development indicates a level of maturity for Cloud computing that could be important for us all, in a contradictory way. We are closer than ever to being able to build a completely de-centralized and privacy-protected Internet network and that is a development we all should be actively supporting. Unsurprisingly, it’s a development corporations are frantically seeking to prevent or control.

To understand all this, you have to first understand what “cloud storage” actually is and to do that you have to divert your eyes from the sky. That’s not where you’ll find it — no satellites or “non-wired data transfer” or invisible storage devices. It’s not the complete break with previous Internet technology some think it is. In fact, it’s not even new.

Designing software, wings and your life

Yahoo's Tumblr, Google's Makani and Noah Cross's Future

Toward the end of Roman Polanski’s masterpiece “Chinatown” an exchange takes place between “hero” Jake Gittes and the super-rich Noah Cross when Gittes finally realizes that Cross has seized control of Los Angeles’ water supply.

“I just wanna know what you’re worth,” Gittes explains. “More than 10 million?

“Oh my, yes!” Cross says with a laugh.

“Why are you doing it?” Gittes asks incredulously. “How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”

Cross’s answer: “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.”

The “buzz” of the moment in tech circles is the purchase, by Internet colossus Yahoo, of a service called “Tumblr”. There’s also a bit of “burr” about Google buying a company that is trying to make wings that generate power.

Both acquisitions left pundits and analysts scratching their heads but, when probed under the surface, these moves give us a glimpse into these corporate giants’ intent and their thinking about our “future”.

Tumblr homepage and Makani wingsTumblr homepage and Makani wings

The $1.2 billion Tumblr purchase was announced by Yahoo’s Exec Marissa Meyer last week and the reaction from the tech media reflected curiousity and confusion more than anything else. Try as she did through press briefings and public fanfare, Meyer didn’t really answer the question in most analysts’ minds: Why in the world would Yahoo purchase something like Tumblr?

What We Know is Bad; What's Behind It is Worse!

The AP Seizures and the Frightening Web They've Uncovered

“Paranoia,” said Woody Allen, “is knowing all the facts.” By that measure, we’re becoming more and more “paranoid” every day.

This week, we learned that the Obama Justice Department seized two months of records of at least 20 phone lines used by Associated Press reporters. These include phone lines in the AP’s New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn offices as well as the main AP number in the House of Representatives press gallery, the private phones and cell phones belonging to AP reporters and a fax line in one AP office.

The government effected this massive seizure “sometime this year” according to a letter from the Justice Department to AP’s chief counsel this past Friday (May 10). The letter cites relevant “permission” clauses in its “investigative guidelines” and makes clear that it considers the action legal and necessary.

 AP's Gary Pruitt and Attorney General Eric HolderLocking Horns: AP's Gary Pruitt and Attorney General Eric Holder

In many ways, this is the most blatant act of media information seizure in memory. It affects over 100 AP journalists and the countless people those journalists communicated with by phone during those two months. It violates accepted constitutional guarantees, the concept of freedom of the press and the privacy rights of literally thousands of people. Predictably and justifiably, press, politicians and activists have expressed outrage.

But as outrageous as the admitted facts are, the story’s larger implications are even more disturbing. It’s bad enough that the Obama Administration has grossly violated fundamental constitutional rights, acknowledged the violation and defended their legality. Even worse is that likelihood that the intrusion will probably be ruled legal, that it has been ongoing against other targets for some time and that this is only the tip of the intelligence-abuse iceberg.

How do you 'like' that?

Social Networking Threatens the World Wide Web on its 20th Birthday

This Summer, a team at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has undertaken a remarkable project: to recreate the first web site and the computer on which it was first seen.

It’s a kind of birthday celebration. Twenty years ago, software developers at the University of Illinois released a web browser called Mosaic in response to work being done at CERN. There, a group led by Tim Berners-Lee had developed a protocol (a set of rules governing communications between computers) that meshed two basic concepts: the ability to upload and store data files on the Internet and the ability of computers to do “hyper-text” which converts specific words or groups of words into links to other files.

They called this new development the “World Wide Web”.

The Original Web PagesThe Original Web Pages
When you read Berners-Lee’s original proposal you get a feeling for the enthusiasm and optimism that drove this work and, since it’s all very recent, the people who did it are still around to explain why. In interviews, Sir Tim (Berners-Lee is now a Knight) insists he could not foresee how powerful his new project would be but he knew it would make a difference. For the first time in history, people could communicate as much as they want with whomever they want wherever they want. That, as he argued in a recent article, is the reason why it’s so critical to keep the Web neutral, uncontrolled and devoid of corporate or government interference.

In our convoluted world of constantly flowing disinformation, governments tell us the Web is a “privilege” to be paid for and lost if we misbehave, corporations tell us they invented it, and most of us use it without really thinking much about its intent. Very few people view the World Wide Web as the revolutionary creation it actually is.

Whether its “creators” or the vast numbers of techies who continue to develop the Web think about it politically or not, there is an underlying understanding that unifies their efforts: The human race is capable of constructive exchange of information which will bring us knowledge all humans want and benefit from and in collaborating on that knowledge, we can search for the truth. There is nothing more revolutionary than that because the discovered truth is the firing pin of all revolution.

Twenty years later, it’s painfully ironic that, when they hear the word “Internet”, most people probably think of Social Networking programs like Facebook and Twitter. As ubiquitous and popular as Social Networking is, it represents a contradiction to the Internet that created it and to the World Wide Web on which it lives. It is the cyber version of a “laboratory controlled” microbe: it can be and frequently is productive but, if used unchecked and unconsiously, it can unleash enormous destruction, reversing the gains we’ve made with technology and divorcing us from its control.