Not even your amusing cat photos are safe….

Our resident techno geek James Eadon spells out the ugly truth of internet surveillance

The American Secret Police are watching you on Facebook (and everywhere else).

A journalist expressed dismay today when material they posted on Facebook was leaked to a popular magazine. The hack blamed this snivelling treachery on a FB “friend” (but didn’t know which). As a geek, I am able to point out that the hack is not being paranoid enough! There are many other shadowy figures than “friends” who could have perpetrated this violation of privacy.

On Facebook and other social networks, EVEN if you manage your privacy settings perfectly and lock everything down, that information you confide to friends via Facebook is permanently out of your control. Your information (data) now resides on foreign “servers”. Servers are specialised computers that do things like store information and provide it to other computers. These server computers reside in mysterious buildings called “Data Centres” that can be situated anywhere on the face of the Earth.

To get your Facebook posts (and all other Facebook activity) to those foreign Data Centres, your data travels over computer networks, where it can be intercepted by hackers and organisations such as the GCHQ (this is no whack-job paranoia, as I reveal later). Even if the data makes it to the data centres without being copied en-route, it can still end up in the wrong hands. Your data can be obtained either via more hackers cracking the Server computers, or dished out by Facebook themselves (either by a rogue employee or with the blessing of the Board).

Facebook gets your data. So do the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA are a secret police type organisation that spies on as many as six billion Earthlings, including you and me. To perform this snooping, the NSA runs the “PRISM” computer system: a surveillance computer system FROM HELL.

You may have seen the news stories about this scandal but the media underplays it. The revelations are SHOCKING. The NSA harvests your Facebook posts, relationships and activity directly from Facebook. But that’s not all. The way it works is that the NSA beseeches all major corporations that have Internet users (or mobile phone users) to hand over their information on those users (including you and me).

For example, Congress representative Jerrold Nadler admitted recently that the NSA could ‘listen to the phone’ without a warrant. The surveillance is ubiquitous.

Organisations cave in to NSA requests for data because of intimidation, legal argument or possibly by accepting payments or other favours in some capacity. Corporations are often campaigning for ever more draconian copyright laws and the like.

According to information leaked by former NSA insider, Edward Snowden, the first major software organisation to surrender our data to the NSA was Microsoft. Microsoft betrayed their users in 2007 and ever since. Should governments be running Microsoft’s software, can it be trusted? Yahoo followed suit the following year. Google and Facebook acquiesced in 2009, followed by Skype and AOL in 2011. Apple did not play along until 2012. There are others.

If you haven’t been following the Edward Snowden/NSA news closely, you may be thinking I am wearing a tin foil hat, but this is a conspiracy confirmed to be true. The PRISM project is in the newspapers and the NSA wants to extradite the Edward Snowden on espionage and theft allegations. An extraordinary cat and mouse chase around the world is under way. The US are furious that Snowden escaped Hong Kong to Russia after his passport was cancelled by the US. The escape was assisted by the Wikileaks organisation. Now Snowden is reportedly en-route to Ecuador, favoured by another digital fugitive, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange himself.

The latest revelations from Snowden, via Wikileaks, are evidence that the NSA was hacking China’s Tsinghua University (China are themselves notorious for hacking nations worldwide in acts of industrial and political espionage). Snowden also revealed evidence that the GCHQ collects more data than the NSA! The GCHQ are allegedly siphoning data from broadband fibre optic cables.

So what? Maybe you think all this surveillance doesn’t matter, after all, you suppose you have nothing to hide when discussing footie and recipes on Facebook. However, governments (and corporations) combine this internet data with mobile phone data, financial transactions data, marketing data and, not least, CCTV and traffic cameras data.

Governments home and abroad know far too much about you. They know who you are, where you live, where you go, when you’re doing things such as being online. They know who your family is and who your friends and acquaintances are and what they think of you and what you think of them. They know your personality, your hobbies, your relationships and your sexuality. Even if you think you are being secretive, data analysts can easily discover such information by spotting patterns in your habits, social connections or by combining your data with other people’s data. Facebook alone can accurately profile you even if you’ve never joined Facebook, even if you’ve never been on the Internet! They can glean information from your family and friends who are on Facebook. Another US corporation, Target, knew a teenager was pregnant before her parents did.

You may have heard of the “Cloud”. (This is a fluffy name for online storage of information that you can access from anywhere via the internet). All you need to know is this: If your documents, emails and other information are hosted online, in the “Cloud” then the US Government and other governments and organisations almost certainly have copies of them. If you want to keep anything private, then do not put it in the “Cloud”, or use strong encryption. Your user name and password are no defence as snoopers bypass them.

I see people half-jest that they do not care if governments spy on their cat photos and the like, but this is naïve. Even if you are nonchalantly indifferent about this abject surveillance of you and even of your family and friends, there are submarine dangers. What if a government goes rogue? Don’t laugh, it can happen. We all know how corrupt politicians have become, Gordon Brown’s desperate clinging onto power is evidence of that. Let us say a government declares itself a totalitarian dictatorship (temporarily at first, for the public’s own safety, say, against some threat) then the Dictatorship has enough information at its fingertips to accurately single out – and deal with – all would-be revolutionaries and other trouble makers. Just as in Orwell’s novel, 1984, there would be little chance of a revolution operating without being brutally crushed at the embryonic stage.

There are protests erupting since NSA spying has become public news. The US Government are in full blown damage limitation mode, finding some salvation in a compliant news media. An phoney war in Syria is being stoked up to create a diversion. The Internet itself is at stake. The US is the de-facto guardian of the Internet, running most of its essential organisation and infrastructure. The NSA leaks have shown the world that the US cannot be trusted.

So what can we do to protect our privacy? The answer is to take actions: get involved, learn about which groups are active in promoting privacy and support them, join them. Ironically complaining about the espionage on Facebook will spread awareness but will achieve little or no change: that is the nature of “slactivism” – where people fool themselves into thinking that preaching about an issue is doing their bit.
That’s what politicians want you to think.

We need to campaign to politicians and corporations and tell them to stop watching us, stop monitoring what we do, to stop eroding our rights to privacy and to bolster them instead. In the UK politicians are tirelessly pushing the Snooper’s Charter, aka The Draft Communications Data Bill. This needs opposing vigorously. Governments need to be beseeched to make snooping strictly illegal without a warrant.

Fight back. Spread the word. Support politicians that advocate privacy, shame those that do the opposite and vote with your cash when it comes to using corporate software and online services. Corporations notice when they lose customers and users.

On a techie level, a good defence of your privacy is to learn about encryption and use it. Another defence is to use and support free open source software (FOSS), because FOSS products are highly unlikely to spy on you. That is because the source code is available, and geeks quickly spot anything suspicious and remove it.

For example, instead of using Microsoft Office 365, Apple iWork or Google Docs, which are black box software and have online elements that are subject snooping by the NSA and other parties, use an open alternative office suite called LibreOffice. And the more adventurous of you can see if Linux computers work for you, in favour of Apple computers or Microsoft Windows systems. We can hit those that collaborate with the NSA where it hurts, in the wallet. Not least, we need government and school IT systems to run FOSS and not software products licenced from foreign corporations.

Next week:
Amongst other dark techie news: we divulge the horrors of the new XBox One CONSOLE FROM HELL.

11 comments on “Not even your amusing cat photos are safe….

  1. RobertC
    June 25, 2013 at 7:38 pm #

    1894? The book is 1984!

    Got that GCHQ?

  2. David
    June 25, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

    Good article James, could you recommend some sites and organisations to look at in order to stick two fingers up to these nosy bastards. They say all this surveillance is necessary, I just think it’s a gross infringement of civil liberties – they’re control freaks.
    I’m also dubious about the XBOX One – seems too much like the things from 1984 to me.

  3. Liz
    June 25, 2013 at 11:10 pm #

    Thanks James – your article has articulated exactly how I feel on this + have emailed link to various mates who feel the same.

  4. John Duffield
    June 26, 2013 at 7:35 am #

    I think you’re picking the wrong target here, James. The whole ethos of the internet is free speech and the free exchange of information, I don’t want to keep any secrets. Hence I don’t care if the NSA or GCHQ knows everything about me.

    IMHO the real problem is the other side of the coin, with interest groups who do want to keep secrets. And indulge in propaganda and censorship. And stifle the competition. The BBC want newspapers muzzled. Leveson didn’t want us to know that lawyers and blue chips are behind 80% of phone hacking. The police don’t want officers talking to the press. The newspapers are pushing for Internet control using pornography as a whipping boy. Secret courts will send you to jail for contempt. The CQC hides NHS failings. The NHS gags whistleblowers. The RSPCA kills thousands of animals and hounds its former operatives to suicide. And too many internet sites say “your comment is awaiting moderation”, and then they delete it. People like us need to push for openness, not for secrecy. And we’ve got to set an example.

  5. Simon Roberts
    June 26, 2013 at 7:44 am #

    In business or politics, people who wish to pursue a course of action have to justify it and have it subject to scrutiny and accountability. None of this applies to the security services.

    Every action is justified with reports of “threats” that are never detailed and no scrutiny is allowed because of “security”. The supposed accountability takes place in secret, which is of course no accountability at all.

    Human nature being what it is, are we really surprised that a group of self-appointed, self-regulating, unaccountable and extremely powerful people are behaving in this way?

    Snowdon is correct in his assertion that this is incompatible with democracy. The revelations that we’ve seen so far are shocking enough, but what else is going on that hasn’t yet been revealed?

    The fundamental problem is that people who have grown up in a free society haven’t had to fight for it and don’t appreciate it. A lot of the phrases that we used to hear during the Cold War and considered to be hackneyed and out dated (“freedom isn’t free”, “the price of freedom is vigilance” etc) are now seeming very relevant.

  6. James Eadon
    June 26, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    @David – an excellent starting point is the electronic frontier foundation, a donor-funded nonprofit who do great work, and I think we can trust them as much as anybody.
    European site:
    https://www.eff.org/issues/eff-europe
    US-centric site:
    https://www.eff.org/
    You can subscribe to receive emails that have details of horrible legislation and how best to fight it.
    Obviously, if you search the web with words like privacy and campaign then other organisations will crop up. You’ll also see a lot of soothing PR from corporations, government organisations and lobbyists etc in “damage limitation” mode.

  7. James Eadon
    June 26, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    @ Liz, thanks Liz, there’s way too much apathy about our privacy, the young don’t care about it at all and nor do the media do enough to promote privacy as important, perhaps for obvious reasons of conflicts of interest 🙂

  8. James Eadon
    June 26, 2013 at 10:40 am #

    @John Duffield fascinating comment. There’s someting a bit fishy about your argument that we should set an example by abandoning secrecy. What it comes down to, I think, is that your argument assumes Nothing to Hide Nothing to Fear, which is a fallacy.

    I discuss why Nothing To Fear is a fallacy in the main article, but, to give another example, people are vulnerable to criminals, stalkers and so on. Privacy is, in any case, a fundamental human right, without it we are exposed and we have to be very careful about what we do, in other words our freedoms are curtailed. That’s not a good thing, the worst prison is the panopticon prison, because you don’t need to lock people up, you control people by watching them. Even if it did reduce the crime rate does not justify this terrible loss of freedom.

    Whereas our privacy should be protected (or people will always abuse such information) governments should be open. The government serves us and we pay for it. The more open the government, the less the corrupt can operate.

    The grey area is defence: a country cannot defend itself if it does not keep some information confidential from our enemies or potential enemies (China, Russia, even our allies). The pendulum has swung too far, however, with defence agencies spying on its own electorate using the phoney war on terror as an excuse. Too much surveilance empowers Big Brother, which is against our interests. Also, who wants people working in the public sector, e.g. police, politicians, even councils snooping on us? This exposes us to risk from criminal abuse. Such things should be strictly illegal without warrants.

    In summary, I don’t think that our personal privacy and the privacy of governments and corporations can be conflated. They are different beasts.

    What you say about “interest groups” I am 100% in agreement with. As for sites that censor commenters, that’s the price we pay for the right run sites the way we wish to. There will always be special interest groups and regulaton will itself be corrupt.

    To conclude, personal privacy is necessary. Openness in government and official corporate/trading/lobbying/charity etc. organisations is also necessary, and where secrecy is required (defence) there needs to be pubic debate about the nature of that secrecy, to curtail abuse.

  9. James Eadon
    June 26, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    @Simon Roberts spot on. Kids are not taught how serious it is if our privacy gets eroded many fought and died to preserve our rights to privacy, to defend against tyrants.
    A superb movie about a Stasi agent, “The Life Of Others” (see it without reading reviews) nails it.

  10. Paul M
    June 26, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

    I wouldn’t be so confident about Free Open Source Software.

    Anybody can alter it, including hackers and its impossible for others to check and fully understand every line of code in a complex program.

  11. James Eadon
    July 6, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    @Paul M,
    But auditing source code (or having others do so) is much safer than dealing with a black box system, which is closed source. Furthermore, such back doors in open source (if they manage to into it in the first place) are usually discovered very quickly and expunged.

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