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Vault Seven: Panic of the week

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted March 13, 2017

It’s as if the news cycle had merged with mainstream television. Every week, a new drama sets the Internet ablaze. Last week’s episode featured Wikileaks’ revelation that the CIA has millions of lines’ worth of malware code. The most sensationally highlighted part is malware that can hijack a Samsung smart TV to make it appear off but act as a microphone.

Shades of 1984! Once again, George Orwell’s heirs and assigns thank the Internet.

Ostensibly, this revelation adds to the widespread suspicion that everyone everywhere is being spied upon. But in fact, it’s helped damp down the looniness about Vladimir Putin interceding in the last Presidential election to help President Trump. One of the secrets unearthed is that the CIA has the capability to spoof their hackers’ cyberspying so that it looks like a foreign power did the espionage. Heated heads have leapt to the conclusion that the hack of the DNC and Podesta’s Emails was a false-flag attack by the CIA. But there’s no need to make that leap; all this revelation demonstrates is that it’s hard to pin down who did what in cyberspace.

It’s also had the beneficial side effect of finally damping down the “Russia hacked the election” fooforaw. That narrative wasn’t all-that solid to begin with, as it rested on a crucial equivocation between “Russians” and “the Kremlin.” By the same equivocation, we can claim that President Obama ordered a secret mega-survey of Internet pornography. Now that it’s possible to claim that the hacks could have been carried out by the CIA, or ex-NSA employees, the “Putin did it” narrative is descending into one conspiracy theory duelling with another.

A fitting end. It dovetails well with the other bouts of nuttiness we’ve seen from Dems after President Trump won. Had Charles Mackay been living today, he’s be taking notes on the last election for a new chapter in his Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds.

As for the revelations themselves, there is reason to worry - but I suggest that the panic is overblown. Spying on us ordinaries is a lot harder than it seems, as you’re about to find out.

1984 And Santa Claus

“There is no Santa Claus.” It’s a well-worn rite of passage for a kid. Although often an older kid just telling a younger kid, it’s sometimes a milestone of critical thinking when a kid realizes that there’s no way that Santa Claus can visit millions of households in a single night. If he takes five minutes to bestow his gifts per living room, he’d be hard-pressed to deliver to 200 homes over the entire night. If you’re living in an isolated hamlet or very small town, this limitation can pass through your skepticism shield. Not so if you live in a city.

The same critical logic applies to 1984’s telescreens. In order for all subjects of Oceania to be watched 24/7, at least 50% of them have to be employed by the telescreen department of the Ministry of Love. Given overhead and the other...duties of the Ministry, a large majority of Oceanean subjects would have to be employed by the Ministry for full coverage. Any less, and the telescreen watchers have to pick their spots.

In other words, the telescreen snoops have to economize their time. They can’t watch everyone everywhere, else only a small minority of Oceaneans would be busy with productive labour (i.e., feeding everyone else.) Given this constraint, a telescreen spy focusing on Joe Ordinary is actually wasting a valuable resource.

Reading between the lines, the Ministry of Love economizes in three ways – one useless:

  1. They watch the proles lightly. "Proles and Animals are free". This economization is effectively useless: it symmetrically reduces the set from “all Ocenaians” to “all Party members.” The only way to make it effective is by hiring proles to watch the Party members, which the Oceanian government cannot do. You don’t need to spend much time guessing what would happen to the hierarchy if the Oceanian government gave crucially important responsibilities to “animals,” especially since said hierarchy depends upon keeping the proles benighted and powerless.
  2. They use ordinary gumshoe methods to focus in on suspicious characters. (If you’re a fan of paranoiac reasoning, you can make the case that Winston Smith was deliberately assigned a room with a hidden corner so as to bank him for a future show trial.) Despite the ominous omnipresence of the telescreen, Smith and Julia were nabbed by a pretty obvious mistake: they overslept after a crushing Hate-Week work spate and missed their shifts. They were absent without explanation. That’s an obvious sign that the pair weren’t conforming.
  3. They pick their spots in a random way as a bluff. Since true randomness is unpredictable, randomly barking at someone over the telescreen - "'6079 Smith W.! Yes, YOU! Bend lower, please!'" - rubs in the impression that everybody’s watched all the time.
Translating the above logic to the normal duties of the CIA and NSA, there’s very little reason for Joe Normie to fear being spied upon – even by his friendly smart TV. As spelled out above, doing so not only wastes valuable time but also diverts that time from watching truly dangerous characters. The U.S. government took a huge shellacking for being asleep at the switch in 2001. What agent, even if his keister is covered by agency secrecy, would risk ignoring the new Mohammed Atta to spy on law-abiding citizens?

Remember that notorious 2009 report from the FBI and SPLC? No domestic-terrorism arrests resulted from it. Even during President Obama’s terms, all the arrests were what you’d expect:

Meme

One of the criticisms of it was that it painted with too broad a brush: applying the stated criteria would sweep in millions of law-abiding citizens who posed zero risk. It was like a fisherman’s net that also caught dolphins, sharks, beer cans and space aliens hiding in the sea. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the “Domestic Terrorist – Sovereign Citizens” desk was quickly filled by canny middle-aged agents looking for a smooth coast to retirement. “Just remember to rile up the top bosses in your reports, and you can spend your whole day at the Free Republic! Hallelujah!”

With this in mind, the best defence against government snooping is strength in numbers. If your opinions are similar to millions of others’, then the government will have to waste a lot of resources keeping track of all of you – at the expense of keeping track of cats who could be the next Khalid Mohammad. This protective herding does also cover Muslims who want nothing to do with radical Islamism.

Remember, the foundation of justice in the United States legal system is individual rights combined with individual accountability before the law. Over and above the endemic Tammany-Hall payoffs, the U.S. has never had a tradition of “group justice.” It’s impossible to arrest a whole class of people and put them on trial as a group. Apparent exceptions do require a prosecutor to prove that each individual was a complicit member of a specified criminal group.

So long as this venerable tradition stands, any snooping is geared towards finding individual miscreants committing individual crimes. That’s all the feds can prosecute. Because of this, the chief risk of the so-called surveillance state is individual miscarriages of justice. Those do pop up from time to time, and are infuriating when they do. But thankfully, we’re on guard against them. That’s why Pizzagate has not led to any Buckey-McMartin scandals.

The most sensible worry comes from the drip-drip-drip erosion of rights. Since this erosion is a threat to us all, Wikileaks has done the Trump Administration a service in a way: its provided a justification for a wholesale housecleaning of the FBI, the NSA and even the CIA. Not only are Fourth-Amendment infringements repugnant to the Constitution, but they also evince a waste of time and talent that could let the next terrorist slip through. On both Constitutional and efficiency grounds, President Trump has good reason to drain the swamp at Langley.

He’d be wise not to wait.... ESR

Daniel M. Ryan, as Nxtblg, is shepherding the independently-run Open Audi Initiative Prediction Market Shadowing Project. He has stubbornly assumed all the responsibility and blame for the workings and outcome of the project.

 

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