Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘national security

A call for greater limits on governmental surveillance of the population

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It feels like I cannot turn around without reading more news concerning surveillance of citizens by their own (or other) governments in various forms. This especially where computers are concerned, e.g. requests that the use of the infamous German “Bundestrojaner”* be expanded.

*A tool ordered and used by the German government to infiltrate computers in the same way that some illegal malwares do.

This is extremely unfortunate for a number of reasons, including (but likely not limited too):

  1. The contents of a computer can be extremely intimate and personal in many ways, some obvious, some not. If someone has access to the contents of a computer, this can* give insights into the owner in a manner that is usually not achievable e.g. through getting an ordinary search warrant and going through a house, top to bottom. Even a diary is typically less revealing, because a diary will be incomplete through factors such as limited self-knowledge, self-censorship (due to the fear that others do read the contents), and lack of time or space. A computer can contain personal notes, private correspondence, fan-fiction never intended for publication, … among the more obvious items; surfing habits, movie preferences, porn interests, sleeping patterns, … among the less obvious. This only passively reading the contents on or communications with the computer—install a surveillance tool and there is no limit to what can be found. A computer can simply give so much private information about someone that an intrusion can only very rarely, if at all, be ethically justified—we are on a completely different level from e.g. a (physical) search warrant, more comparable** to actually being in the head of the computer’s owner.

    *There is a great variation from person to person, but by now a majority would likely already be included in this “can”—and the proportion is rapidly increasing.

    **In some cases, myself included, there might actually be more to be deduced from the computer’s hard-drive than from the owner’s memory.

    If in doubt, Richelieu allegedly said If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.—imagine what even a far lesser conspirator could do with an entire computer… Indeed, there are a number of things on my computer that could give a very wrong impression, including e.g. materials that I have down-loaded according to the maxim “know your enemy”—but which a naive or hostile spy could misconstrue as support for the corresponding ideology or whatnot.

  2. Digital evidence is so easy to falsify that its actual value is far smaller than for physical evidence. Yes, physical evidence can be planted. Yes, photos and film clips can be manipulated or even, by now, generated through CGI. No, they are not comparable to e.g. claims about what was found on a computer. As soon as another party has the ability to write to the disk, all bets are off. If a knowledgeable entity like the NSA decided to frame someone, it would be a walk in the park, if they had digital access*—and so long as digital evidence is allowed in a court system that has yet to catch on to the uselessness of such evidence.

    *Note that this need not be a case of physical access. Tools like the aforementioned “Bundestrojaner” could equally well be used to plant evidence remotely.

  3. Many of the measures used by governments risk the security of computers from other parties*. Consider e.g. the ever popular idea of limiting the key length of encryption methods or forcing software makers to install backdoors in the software for use strictly by the government and strictly after a court order: The shorter key length still makes it far easier for other hostiles to attack the computer; at least some of the backdoors will be discovered or published sooner or later (probably sooner…), and even those that go unpublished can still introduce weaknesses. Or consider recent claims of the U.S. government keeping back information about discovered security holes (so that they can use them), which prevents the software makers from fixing the problems, which opens the door for independent discovery and abuse by e.g. computer criminals…

    *An interesting physical example of the same principle is the “TSA lock” often seen on luggage today: It is there so that the TSA (and only the TSA) can unlock a piece of luggage without damaging it—ostensibly, all in the interest of the travelers. In reality, most (all?) key patterns have been leaked to the Internet, are available as input files for 3D printers, and any Tom, Dick, Harry with a 3D printer can get a set of physical keys and unlock any “TSA lock”…

    Other problems can occur that are out of proportion in comparison to what used to be the case. For instance, if someone was suspected of preparing a bank robbery or a terrorist attack, hording child pornography, trying to subvert the government, …, in the past, there might be a thorough house search and possibly some temporary confiscations, but by-and-large the house was still usable, most of the contents would still be present, and (barring an actual find) life would go on as before, except for an emotional scar. Today, the computer(s) would simply be confiscated, likely including any backups, and the victim/suspect would be severely hindered, possibly to the point that he cannot complete important business communications on time, cannot access important personal data, …

  4. For a “democratic”* system to work, one of the main purposes of the constitution and laws has to be to protected the citizens from the government. The system must work even when the government is evil. If the current government happens to be good, the laws still has to protect the citizens, because there is a considerable risk that the government will be evil at some later time. To boot, the very concepts of “good” and “evil” can be very subjective, with the most evil regimes (by the standards of many others) often being convinced that they are the good guys, actually defending** the world against evil… To boot, even a more or less “good’ government can contain bad apples, e.g. a DA looking for re-election and willing fake evidence for a conviction with great PR value or a policeman who “knows” who the perp is and plants the evidence that “should” have been there. To boot, the machineries of bureaucracy, the incompetence of civil servants, and similar problems, tend to make even the most well-intended system fall well short of “good”.

    *I am always at loss to translate concepts like “Rechtsstaat”, but (strictly speaking incorrectly) variations of “democratic” are often used, as are “civic rights”. U.S. citizens often refer to the opposite with variations of “unconstitutional”.

    **One of the reasons that I tend to judge people, parties, countries, …, based on their actions rather than their opinions: Fascist is as fascist does.

    The current trends make a mockery of the principles behind a sound constitution. How can the citizens defend themselves when the government uses any and all means to circumvent security—including absurdities like requiring suspects to hand out passwords to investigators.

Correspondingly, I call for a complete reversal of course, where “digital trespassing” is considered a very severe crime, government surveillance of its citizens is reduced to the absolute minimum, tools like the “Bundestrojaner” are categorically and unequivocally forbidden, the citizen’s right to protection (including a very wide interpretation of “taking the fifth” and its equivalents) against the government is given priority, etc.

Two concluding remarks:

Firstly, while there may be cases so extreme that they do require or can justify at least some of the above methods (say, that someone is suspected of planning a bombing of a soccer stadium), these cases do not, can not, and must not justify the extension of these methods to more trivial suspicions. The “slippery slope” is a particular danger, where data is gathered or methods used today for the specific purpose of investigating terrorism, but where the police, certain politicians, …, will clamor for their use for less severe crimes tomorrow—and where the movie and music industry will demand their use for civil cases two days from now.

(And even with extreme cases caution must be used, because one of the things a good justice system should protect against is accusations raised out of malice. If standards become to different when the crime changes, the malicious party only has to alter the crime of the accusation in order to circumvent the protections. I have myself been torn out of sleep and forced to open the door to police in the middle of the night, because a mentally demented piece-of-shit landlord had claimed that I would keep a woman captive in my apartment. Because the alleged crime was so urgent, the police insisted that they did not even need a search warrant…)

Secondly, there is always a risk that data is spread to the wrong group of people or the wrong time, as soon as even a non-hostile entity gets its hand on it. (E.g. because someone hacks a police server with confiscated data, because an individual member of the police, deliberately or accidentally, takes data home, because some juicy piece of information is leaked to the press in exchange for money, …) For instance, what if an in-the-closet gay movie star or politician is the suspect of a crime, acquitted, but the fact that he is gay is discovered and eventually made public without his consent? At a minimum, this is severe violation of his privacy. In a less gay friendly era or a less gay friendly country than e.g. modern Germany, he could have a very severe problem, starting with a termination of his career.

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Written by michaeleriksson

May 24, 2017 at 12:27 am

A modest proposal

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Earlier today, I received a most disturbing communication from my good friend Jonatan Schnell. He has got his hands on a number of secret documents from various government agencies, and has asked me to publish the following excerpt:

This noble organization has been entrusted with two central tasks:

  1. Ensuring sufficient surveillance that unwanted transgressions of any kind are detected in a timely manner, ideally including the expression and formation of unsound opinions.
  2. Ensuring swift, accurate, and unavoidable corrective measures for such transgressions.

The last decades have seen many technological advancements and developments that raised our hopes of finally reaching success. Unfortunately, despite many partial successes, they have all eventually proved insufficient. I hardly need reminding you of how physical inspection of hard-drives has proved to be very fruitful, yet has far too often failed in the more important cases, through the use of high-grade encryption, often in conjuncture with the transgressor’s claim of “having forgotten” the passwords. Encryption in general, of course, has been a major obstacle, including not only hard-drives but also email communications and alternate networks like i2p and tor. Even HTTPS, although easy to circumvent, has caused considerable over-head, delays, and missed opportunities. Or take the unfortunate case of the aforementioned alternate networks: Left alone they risk nullifying our communication surveillance and de-anonymizing of Internet communication. (I stress again how important it is to continue our infiltration campaigns.)

The reason for failure is almost always that we are too far away from the immediate interaction, either in time or geographically. The best, but invariably most and often impracticability expensive, results are reached when we can apply direct surveillance, e.g. through camera and microphone monitoring or the installation of software directly on the computer of the transgressor. It is to be feared that even the most promising in-roads available, including the intended use of service providers such as Google, Facebook, and CloudFlare, will never suffice to meat our requirements, especially with the more surveillance-hostile elements.

The logical conclusion is to take this one step further, in a manner that ensures that all potential transgressors can be surveilled at a moments notice at no additional cost (after, admittedly, a high initial investment):

The enhancement of our citizens through physical implants to monitor their audio-visual input, including, indirectly, what they do, say, write, etc. In addition a GPS module might be added, allowing us to pin-point the location of any and all citizens at any given moment, as well as allowing us to track their movements and physical meetings over time. (Of course, some of the same benefits can be reached through tracking cell-phones. These have the weakness that they can be left at home, run out of batteries, or be temporarily shielded.) Long term additional surveillance of brain patterns, heart beat, and other biological signs can prove a valuable addition. For instance, if someone reacts negatively to a government message, we would immediately know that there is need for more dedicated surveillance; if someone reacts with arousal to another party of the wrong gender or below the age of eighteen, this can be registered and the corresponding warnings be issued to neighboring residents; and so on. The addition of the possibility to produce auditory or visual stimuli is particularly interesting. For instance, when a transgression is detected in flagrante the transgressor can be given immediate notification and instructions from law officers to stand down and await arrest.

To avoid removal or more temporary manipulations, these enhancements would regularly and automatically be in communication with a central controller (e.g. by radio or the cell-phone network). Any time an enhancement misses a check-in, this if filed as a violation and an APB is put out. After the transgressor has been apprehended, the enhancements are checked and/or replaced (at the transgressors cost) and corrective action is taken when appropriate. It would of course be made illegal to provide or use any structure or equipment that blocks the needed signals.

In the long term, the enhancements can be provided with the ability to directly incite an algesic response when the check-ins fail, as well as during any detected attempt at removal. This can be extended to a greater range of transgressions, like trying to enter or leave the country without using the official border crossings. Additional possibilities for aversion therapy are open: The wrong reactions to certain stimuli, the expression of unsound opinions, and other correctable transgressions of a similar nature can be swiftly and automatically handled by the enhancements themselves, causing the transgressors to associate such deviations with the algesic response.

Following this trail to its end (but here I fear that the political climate is not yet sufficiently matured) enhancements can be used for more conclusive corrective actions. Consider replacing the lengthy and costly procedures around e.g. a lethal injection by reaching the same result with a minor trauma in a suitable brain region. Or permanently incapacitating a hostage taker remotely, with the push of a button, through the same mechanism. Or removing a threat from a greater group (e.g. the Irish) of potential transgressors in one single action, including cases where large-scale incarceration or deportation would be the alternative.

A few practical details: Normally the enhancements would be added shortly after birth, ensuring that everyone is included from an early age (and as a positive side-effect reaps the benefits from the appropriate feedback to reactions and behavior even during childhood). Unfortunately, it would take several decades to reach a reasonable coverage in the adult population in this manner; while a single mass-enhancement in the entire adult population would be entirely impractical. A reasonable middle road is a two-pronged approach where high risk groups, notably convicts and those potentially engaged in subversive activities (including critics of our operations), are targeted with a mass-enhancement and the remainder of the population is enhanced at certain occasions where the necessary equipment can always be reliably made available, e.g. a driver’s license renewal or when first entering the country. This has the added advantage that enforcement can be kept high and voluntary through making the enhancement a mandatory condition for the government granting a driver’s license, letting someone into the country, and so on. Ideally, we will even be able to pass on the cost of the enhancement to the respective citizen.

While the costs of this might seem prohibitive in a first impression, there are considerable reason to believe that we can leverage these enhancements to not only cover the costs of the project but to allow additional financing of related projects, once a sufficient critical mass has been built. Our preliminary research indicates a great industry interest in access to selective gathered data for purposes such as targeted advertising and market research. Or consider allowing advertisers to send information directly to the ears and eyes of the subject, without having to use conventional devices that can be turned off or the advertising otherwise circumvented. The possibilities are endless.

Postscript: For those who have missed the allusions, the above is entirely fictional, specifically making a play on Jonathan Swift’s work by the same name, in which he suggests using Irish children as a food source. However, apart from the most extreme parts, the above is well in line with current developments with regards to e.g. governments cracking computers or smart-phones, engaging in unethical and often unlawful surveillance, etc. If the suggestions were viable today, at least some of them would be on the table with at least some politicians, law enforcers, and the like. This just looking at the modern West—in North Korea they would conceivably go all out.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 21, 2016 at 12:04 am