Belmont Club

Not Always What It Seems

JBS Haldane [corrected] once said “not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” History is full of surprises.

The Washington Post reports that the FBI has had the ability to secretly activate a computer’s camera “without triggering the light that lets users know it is recording” for years now, according to Gizmodo. The Post says:

The most powerful FBI surveillance software can covertly download files, photographs and stored e-mails, or even gather real-time images by activating cameras connected to computers, say court documents and people familiar with this technology.

But don’t worry. These techniques were only used “‘mainly’ used in terrorism cases or the ‘most serious’ of criminal investigations.” If you’re not any of these you have nothing to hide.  Back in 2006 the Register reported that Google was developing software to play the same game with your laptop microphone. “Technology Review said Google talked about this software in Europe last June, and that it breaks sound into a five-second snippets to pick out audio from a TV, reducing the snippet to a digital ‘fingerprint’, which it matches on an internet server.”

But there’s more in the “now it can be told” department. The “stealth probe” later identified as the RQ-170 which came to public prominence when one crashed, or was brought down over Iran is now discussable. David Axe writes its successor — something called the RQ-180 — has replaced it.  The old RQ-170 it turns out, has been flying missions against China and North Korea for over 10 years.

According to reporters Bill Sweetman and Amy Butler, the new RQ-180, built by Northrop Grumman, is a bigger, longer-ranged and stealthier successor to the Lockheed Martin-made RQ-170, which apparently entered service just in time for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The RQ-170 was famously outed in December 2009 after being photographed, years earlier, by a journalist at an airfield in southern Afghanistan.

The flying-wing RQ-170, known by its nickname “Sentinel,” spied on Osama Bin Laden’s compound during the May 2011 raid by Navy SEALs that killed the terrorist leader. In December 2011 a Sentinel crashed on the Iran-Afghanistan border and was seized by Iranian officials for display and study.

The true state of the world is often buried under layers of disinformation. Remember the 10 foot tall Soviets who have now been replaced by the 10 foot tall Russians? Published reports allege that the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is so decrepit that the Sixth Fleet actually feared she might come to grief.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet is based at Ukrainian ports along the Black Sea coast with the largest concentration of ships at Sevastopol. But this is a disadvantageous position, as the ports are vulnerable to political turmoil in Ukraine—the lease on Sevastopol expires in 2017, but it’s renewable.

Likewise, treaties dating to the 1930s regarding transit rights from the Black Sea through the Turkish-controlled Bosporus Straits are also a bit stifling. But the treaties limit tonnage, which is less of a concern for the kinds of modern, light and unarmored warships used today.

Otherwise, there’s the port of Tartus in Syria. But the Russian pier there has been variously described as little more than a minimally-manned and broken-down refueling spot incapable of supporting larger ships like Admiral Kuznetsov. But the port does have subjective and symbolic importance to the Kremlin.

A Taiwanese report, quoted mainland sources says the Liaoning’s first cruise showed it had inherited many of the defects of the Soviet systems. Focus Taiwan writes:

But it will be some time before the Liaoning is combat-ready due to five major weaknesses, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League of China said, listing them in order.

First, the Liaoning relies on Russian technology that limits the ship’s range and usefulness in open sea.

Secondly, the carrier cannot match the capabilities of U.S. aircraft carriers, which can launch unmanned fighters with a range of up to 200 nautical miles.

The electronics and weapons systems of the Liaoning and its J-15 fighter jets are far inferior to American carriers and their F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, and the U.S. carriers also boast E-2 Hawkeye early warning aircraft with a flying altitude and range that outclasses the Liaoning’s Kamov KA-31 helicopter.

Lastly, the paper said that China does not yet have a large-size battle group centered around the Liaoning, and the ability of its warships to take part in coordinated fighting is not yet mature.

Who knows if its true? Deception and self-deception is the handmaiden of state rivalry. The Russians might well be ten inches tall or a hundred. The Chinese may be stronger or far weaker than we suspect. The FBI may or may not be turning on your webcam now.  Who can say?  The true balance of forces may be unknown even to the official intelligence agencies themselves. Winston Churchill once wrote, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

Of course the world is not at war, but in a sense it always is, though at a level of low intensity.

Just recently the Associated Press reported that “the California health exchange says it’s been giving the names of tens of thousands of consumers to insurance agents without their permission or knowledge in an effort to hit deadlines for coverage.”

“You can’t do this,” Blatt, a technology consultant in Ventura County, told the newspaper. “For a government agency to release this information to an outside person is a major issue.” … Lee, the exchange chief … said. “But I can see a lot of people will be comforted and relieved at getting the help they need to navigate a confusing process.”

So many things are being done for your own good that one should either be grateful or very afraid. Maybe one should be both. Anyway if you’re innocent and have nothing to hide, here’s the perfect gift this Christmas. Why not try purchase the Eyebloc webcam cover from Amazon for only $6.99.

You may also wish to consider the Sony tie clip microphone, the pickup end of which can be packed in modeling clay while inserted into your laptop input port. They provide a tasteful way of obscuring your likeness and voice from people who aren’t watching anyway.

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