A Police State Under Construction

The Marathon Bombings, Privacy and the Question "Why?"

One thing is clear amidst the shower of confusion and contradiction that bathes the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing: the legal and technological structure of a police state is in place and can be quickly activated. As if on cue, while the hunt for the bombers was ongoing, the House of Representatives obligingly enhanced that police state capability by passing the draconian Cyber Intelligence and Protection Act (CIPA). If approved by the Senate and signed by the President, it will greatly expand the government’s intrusion into all our lives.

It wasn’t a good week for freedom.

State of Seige? Scene from the Watertown InvestigationState of Seige? Scene from the Watertown Investigation
Images are always important. They frame our memories and memory is the sketch artist of our consciousness. Here’s an image. Boston — an enduring symbol of this country’s democracy, intellectual pursuit and progressive thinking — is deserted because the government won’t let people come out of their homes. Armoured vehicles cruise neighborhoods and people from at least four different agencies or mercenary companies walk the streets with military weapons stopping methodically to pull people from their houses at gunpoint and search them and sometimes their homes. All the while, broad sections of public street and gathering places are under camera surveillance and the government processes that footage and acts on it within hours.

We’re not yet in a police state but we can be with a single command. Last week demonstrated that.

Manning's Co-Defendant is the Internet Itself

Bradley Manning Update: How to Commit Espionage Without Trying!

If it wasn’t clear up to now, it was made crystal clear last week. The co-defendent in the Bradley Manning trial is the Internet itself.

In one of the case’s most disturbing pre-trial hearings, Judge Col. Denise Lind ruled last week that prosecutors can offer as evidence files seized from Osama Bin Laden’s computer as well as the testimony of a Navy Seal, part of the Bin Laden assasination team, who found them. His identity will not be revealed and the defense can cross-examine him only from a very specific and limited list of court-approved questions.

The ruling is important not only because it shows the almost unimaginable absurdity of the Manning case but because it reveals the true intent of the Obama Administration in pursuing it.
 

Bradley Manning and the Video -- fragment of a leaflet from the Georgia Green PartyBradley Manning and the Video — fragment of a leaflet from the Georgia Green Party
 
The hearing was about the “standard of proof” necessary to prove two charges: espionage and aiding the enemy. It also took up what kinds of evidence would be permitted in the trial to support those charges.

According to the prosecutors, Manning committed espionage and aided the enemy by giving them important intelligence and he did that by putting it on the Internet. That’s it; that’s the crime. His real intent is irrelevant. The government is arguing that, if you put something on the Internet that some nefarious rascal downloads, you are effectively aiding that person materially in any “relevant” crime he or she might commit. It doesn’t matter if there’s no evidence that the person read it and no need to prove that you intended for him or her to retrieve it. Effectively, it makes the use of the Internet a potential crime.

Judge Lind ruled that to prove “espionage” you have to show that the defendent actually intended for this material to be read by the enemy; that was a defeat for the prosecution. But, she ruled, the government can pursue its theory to support the “aiding the enemy” charge.

One up and one down for Pvt. Manning. Two down for the rest of us. The Judge’s decision is important for the trial but what’s most important for all of us is what the Obama Admininstration is thinking and doing. It’s now clear that the Administration believes that these very same acts and standards apply to both crimes. While the “aiding the enemy” charge only relates to military personnel, the “espionage” charge can be levelled at everyone and, while it failed to win the ruling in this case, it’s clear that President Obama believes he can charge any of us with “espionage” for using the Internet as it’s currently used.

Both Sides Agree: You Don't Have Privacy Rights

How Europe's Fight with Google Over Privacy Ignores Real Privacy

Last week the governments of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom fired a warning shot at Google and it appears they’re reloading the gun with real ammunition.

This past December, about a year after the Internet behemoth announced a new privacy policy, a working group of representatives from these countries called the policy grossly abusive of people’s privacy and said Google had four months to bring itself into compliance with European law. Google dismissed the ultimatum: “Our privacy policy,” it said, “respects European law and allows us to create simpler, more effective services.” The European countries response was that they will take actions, based on their national laws and in coodination with each other, by the Fall.

These government/corporation tiffs are frequent and their rhetorical fire normally turns into quickly dissipated smoke. This one could be different. It comes at a time when the world’s powerful are trying to decide how much privacy we people will have and what the term privacy actually means, and this squabble’s outcome will affect that and, of course, our freedom. That alone makes it worth watching.

But there’s something deeper here that transcends this conflict. Privacy is, in fact, a core component of democracy and any infringement on complete privacy is an obscene attack on the possibility of having a free and democratic society. As important as the outcome of this show-down might be, the most important and frightening development is that it’s taking place at all.

Google Maps and Eric SchmidtGoogle Maps and Eric Schmidt

The political shoot-out began a year ago when Google announced that it was unifying about 60 privacy policy agreements, covering its myriad services, into one big one. The company explained that lumping together these “agreements” (the things you’re asked to read before pressing the “I Accept” button on a website) was a matter of efficiency and transparency. There’s a logic to that: how many privacy policies have you read on the Internet? One would assume that if you don’t read one, you can hardly be expected to read 60.

That, however, is a corporate shell game. Google made this move not to make our reading easier but to make gathering information about us more efficient. Google is a marketing company and nothing makes a marketing company more powerful and valuable to advertisers than having pertinent information on hundreds of millions of people all over the world. Its privacy policy is fitted to that purpose. It says that, once you sign up and begin using these services as an identified user, you give up that right of refusal. So, because people don’t read that privacy policy, they don’t realize that it effectively eliminates their privacy.

Combatting Sexism in the Technology Community

The Day Adria Richards Said 'Not This Time!'

Sometimes a story breaks that touches so many issues that one is left with mouth agape. The recent news involving technology “evangelist” Adria Richards is one such story and it’s burning across all kinds of media and cutting an intense divide within the techie community. It’s about sexism, racism, techie culture, corporate “hide-from-accountability” amorality and the lack of job protection that jostles the ground under most techies’ feet.

Adria Richards is a prominent writer and consultant within the technology industry. She’s not a household name in the wider world but she’s known within that demi-universe that works for technology companies, attends conferences and workshops, and posts on message boards.

It was at a conference that this controversy began.

Richards, working for an email service company called SendGrid, was attending PyCon, a huge conference dedicated to the programming language Python and to issues and matters related to it. Python is one of several computer coding languages people use to tell software what to do. It’s a mature, powerful and challenging language and so the people who attended this conference were heavy-duty techies and folks who, usually for business reasons, need to reach them.
Adria Richards (r) and the photo she tookAdria Richards (r) and the photo she took
The short version of the story is that during a plenary session she was attending Richards overheard what she thought were sexual jokes being made by some men sitting behind her. By all accounts, they were silly “double entendre” jokes about “dongles” and “forking the repo” — widely used technical terms for a device (a dongle) and the development of slightly different code in a program (forking). The jokes, however, sounded offensively sexual to Richards, so she took the two guys’ picture and posted it on Twitter with a tweet asking that something be done about their offensive behavior. Conference officials were on the scene immediately. At their request, she pointed the fellows out to them and the conference organizers quietly asked the men, one by one, to come out to the hallway for a chat.

The Real Threat is Already Happening!

The Ugly Truth Behind Obama's Cyber-War

Last week, a top U.S. government intelligence official named James Clapper warned Congress that the threat of somebody using the Internet to attack the United States is “even more pressing than an attack by global terrorist networks”. At about the same time, Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, announced that the government is forming 13 teams to conduct an international “cyber offensive” to pre-empt or answer “Internet attacks” on this country.

This, as they say, means war.

 Starting a War? James Clapper (l) and Keith Alexander Starting a War? James Clapper (l) and Keith Alexander

Clapper issued his melodramatic assessment during an appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee. As Director of National Intelligence, he testified jointly with the heads of the CIA and FBI as part of their annual “Threat To the Nation” assessment report.

While undoubtedly important, these “threat assessment” appearances are usually a substitute for sleeping pills. The panel of Intelligence honchos parades out a list of “threats” ranked by a combination of potential harm and probability of attack. Since they began giving this report (shortly after 9/11), “Islamic fundamentalist terrorist networks” have consistently ranked number one. Hence the sleep-provoking predictability of it all.

But Clapper’s ranking of “cyber terrorism” as the number one threat would wake up Rip Van Winkle.

“Attacks, which might involve cyber and financial weapons, can be deniable and unattributable,” he intoned. “Destruction can be invisible, latent and progressive.” After probably provoking a skipped heartbeat in a Senator or two, he added that he didn’t think any major attack of this type was imminent or even feasible at this point.

So why use such “end of the world” rhetoric to make a unfeasible threat number one?

Pulling up the Ladder at Yahoo

Marissa Mayer’s Faustian Bargain

The recent order by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, forbidding Yahoo employees from doing their Yahoo work at home, might seem justified. After all, companies tell their employees what to do and Mayer might have good reasons for this edict. But the memo and its fallout raise serious and significant questions about technology, culture and women’s role in both.

Major technology corporations like Yahoo control so much of the information we have and how we exchange it that their policies find their way into our lives and help define our culture. This decision is a retrenchment in the collaborative way we work and the role of women in that collaboration. Its ironic that a woman who arises from collaborative culture would be an advocate for that retrenchment.

For many of us, life is like walking on a street of uneven pavement; at some point, you’re certain to stumble and fall. Marissa Mayer, in her 37 years of life, appears to have found an alternate route. Her profile reads like a fairy tale filled with corporate castles and technological blessings, begging the observer to search for some faustian bargain signed in computer code.

Mayer and MacalisterMayer and Macalister

Microsoft and Google's Pathetic, Revealing and Frightening War

Google, Scroogle and Bing

If it wasn’t so harmful, it would be funny: a marketing battle between the two technology giants Microsoft and Google over who lacks integrity and is exploitative. It’s been going on for a while and with every thrust and block the thing becomes more grotesque and more revealing.

First, by way of introduction, well…you don’t need an introduction.

If you’re using Windows, your computer lives Microsoft. If you don’t, you use a Microsoft product (like Word or some smaller program you don’t notice on your desktop) or someone sends you stuff using one. You can’t escape MicrosSoft if you use a computer.

Google is to your Internet life what Microsoft is to your workspace. Even if you don’t use its increasingly popular Gmail program, you have used Google Search at some point. So prominent is our use of this resource that, in English, “google it” is now an accepted phrase. No, there is no Google-less life in this country.

So a marketing duel between these two fills the air with the very loud clanging of the very large swords.

And the loser is...usAnd the loser is…us

Aaron Swartz and the Fight for Information Freedom

In the madness of our media-fed consciousness, the greatest threat to an informative news story is time. Given enough time, and the dysfunctional and disinformative way the mainstream media cover news, even the most important and revealing story quickly dies out.

That is, unless we who use alternative media keep that story alive.

So it is with the death of the remarkable technologist Aaron Swartz. It’s been only a month since Aaron apparently killed himself in his apartment here in Brooklyn and yet the story has pretty much disappeared from mainstream news. The threat is not only that the legacy of this remarkable young technologist will also disappear but that the analysis of his life and death and the policies they bring into relief will be frustrated.

During the brief spasm of mainstream coverage, the most prominent line being circulated was that he was a casualty of the sloppiness, pettiness and bullying of a federal government that went too far in its prosecution of him. The truth is that Aaron Swartz was a target of a deliberately vicious, sadistic government campaign in which the federal government wanted to make his pain an example to the entire progressive techie community. What’s more, his death was the outcome of a policy that is a threat to human freedom. That’s why we need to keep talking about Aaron Swartz.

To talk that talk, it’s important to be clear about what actually happened.

Aaron Swartz, casualty in the battle to defend freedom of informationAaron Swartz, casualty in the battle to defend freedom of information