Belmont Club

The Broadband Empire and the Game of Drones

At a recent dinner with friends last month, some of whom were writers, I was asked for a developer’s opinion on the security of various cloud-based products. I told them that ultimately, they had no security at all.  We were so thoroughly spied on, I suggested that “you have to regard yourself as potentially sharing every keystroke, every search, every message with the NSA. If you want security, encrypt. Or better still, buy untraceable clothes and while disguised send one time messages via disposable or public devices.”

My answer elicited a nervous laugh, but I meant it. And besides, who’s laughing now? Recent revelations have shown that the Obama administration is collecting traffic analysis data on Verizon’s customer base (and by implication has similar arrangements with every other provider) and is mining data straight from the servers of companies providing Internet services. The Washington Post reports on codename PRISM:

That is a remarkable figure in an agency that measures annual intake in the trillions of communications. It is all the more striking because the NSA, whose lawful mission is foreign intelligence, is reaching deep inside the machinery of American companies that host hundreds of millions of American-held accounts on American soil.

The technology companies, which participate knowingly in PRISM operations, include most of the dominant global players of Silicon Valley. They are listed on a roster that bears their logos in order of entry into the program: “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” PalTalk, although much smaller, has hosted significant traffic during the Arab Spring and in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

Dropbox , the cloud storage and synchronization service, is described as “coming soon.”

For those who don’t know what this means, it means that the administration is able to draw a graph (like a network chart) of who is talking to whom. It is able to say what are the key nodes through which any business passes, find all its Internet ‘friends’ and interlocutors and potentially drill down into the comms themselves — in time series.

This would pick up every organization of significance, whatever its purpose. Medical associations, pedophile rings, prayer groups, Tea Party groups, lesbian sororities, gay date swapping groups, business networks, professional networks, spy rings and terrorist cells. The works. It picks up the civilians more easily than the players, because the players use encryption, buy untraceable clothes and while disguised send one time messages via disposable or public devices.

The civilians don’t.

Your only safety lies in being overlooked, that is to say, in not being part of an affinity group of interest to the Obama administration. Otherwise you become part of the result set of a query, or search pattern. The reason everyone must sooner or later fall into the toils of the data mining operation is something called Dunbar’s Number. It holds that no cell can grow beyond 150 members in size without resorting to communications and hierarchies.

So unless your organization wants to doom itself to insignificance, you will use email. You will use cloud apps. You will use IM. And you will wind up on the administration’s database.

The fact that you belong to a large group, for example the 50% of the US population that is conservative or Republican, does not give you safety in numbers. Within this large group of millions are a much smaller number of key leadership nodes. They are the nodes that matter, the top of the hierarchy mandated by Dunbar’s Number.

If you can control, corrupt or even bait those nodes you can reduce the entire group to impotence. You can effectively decapitate it, a strategy applied not only to al-Qaeda but apparently also by the IRS in its hunt of Tea Party and Republican fundraising groups. The virtual world let’s you dominate the virtual high ground. You don’t have to clobber all Muslims and Republicans. You just have to clobber the key nodes and the rest will mill around like leaderless ants.

What the IRS and AP wiretapping scandals demonstrated was the administration’s intent in action. They want to clobber key nodes.  What the FBI/NSA data mining operations show is capability. They can clobber key nodes. The Obama administration has demonstrated the intent to pick apart affinity groups with IRS. The Verizon and PRISM stories show how they have potentially been doing it.

From another vantage, the IRS actions and the drone program were loop closers. They were the shoot step in a look-shoot-look cycle that begins and ends in the virutal world. For conservatives the action step is the audit letter. For jihadis the end of the line is the Kill List.  This is where the Broadband Empire meets the Game of Drones.

It’s almost funny in a macabre sort of way, a kind of Second Life Universe which Jihadis enter via YouTube or some Islamic militant site run perhaps by an FBI webmaster and exit via a Hellfire controlled by a stream of bits. Call it the Jihadi Paradox, born by YouTube, died by GPS.

But what is most interesting about these breaking revelations is another question: “why now?” Why are all these programs, so long in gestation and so advanced in perversion now being brought to light?  The most reasonable conjecture is things have reached a tipping point in even the internal bureaucracy’s perception of their legitimacy.

For while there may be a difference of opinion over the initial character of these programs — the Bush started it versus the Obama did it debate — what cannot be denied is that the providers of these exposes to the media have decided that things have gone too far.

There must have been thousands of people who knew for a fact what I only gussed as a logical truth at that dinner party. The thousands or tens of thousands included those who worked for the data mining programs; or the legislators who had been briefed on the data collection efforts. Somewhere, somehow a critical mass of them said basta, enough, no mas, no more. For even the Broadband Empire and the Game of Drones are composed of people.  And so the leaks.

Why the change of heart? Take the established media which may known or suspected the existence of this control system for some time. To keep their friends or out of ideological conviction they long kept silent.  Well they are silent no more, a trickle that threatens to be a flood if only out of the fear that motivated Trotsky to speak out against Stalin.  They finally realized they too are in the cross-hairs, that what every Leftist fears in his DNA —  the purge — is coming.

Do you know why no hard-core Leftist ever publicly admits that he is?  It’s because he knows what membership in that club means.  A word about Purges. Once I was told that Leftists were smarter than conservatives, to which I retorted, “then how come they all wound up in the Gulag?” But they too can wise up.

By whatever process, the existence and operation of these vast data mining schemes have lost legitimacy within the establishment and even the bureaucracy itself. Perhaps it was because some saw these magnificent virtual machines perverted in ways they were never intended to serve, converted into political persecution machines, or worse taken over by an enemy who could bribe his way into anything.

Perhaps it was because some True Believer finally realized he was a True Chump. When he finally realized “it’s you they are talking about, your IM message they are hacking,  your email they’re analyzing, your phone calls they are tracing. You are not exempt.”

Well why would you be? But we should take luck as it comes. To those who’ve finally chosen put the questions out in the public space, welcome to the fight. And never say your part is small, for whatever you do may  prove more important then you think.

Yet things might have gone far otherwise and far worse. When you think of the Battle of Pelennor, do not forget the battles in Dale and the valor of Durin’s Folk. Think of what might have been. … ruin and ash. But that has been averted — because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring in Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth.

When we act in conscious freedom, there are no chance meetings in this or in Middle-Earth.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99
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