Poitras and Greenwald Make Me Feel Naïve

public encryptionNew Orleans  Reading the New York Times magazine feature by Peter Maass on filmmaker Laura Poitras and reporter Glenn Greenwald’s interactions with Edward Snowden and the gyrations involved in handling his NSA documents, made me feel naïve and not paranoid exactly, but uncomfortable and almost scared in an oh-my-god-this-is-so-much-worse-than-1984-kinda-way. 

            Of course I had no clue what a “public encryption” key might be if someone wanted to send me a secure email or vice versa.   I’ve always assumed that if the government wanted something they could get it, and I’ve seen it happen of course, so I’ve lived accordingly by a run of the mill level of discretion rather than full blown paranoia.   Unfortunately reading all of this “I spy” stuff makes me wonder what world I thought we were really living in post-9/11?

            Here’s a good example.   These folks would not bring cellphones with them to meetings in Hong Kong because there is some way that conversations can be monitored and recorded through such devices even when they are turned off.   Are you kidding me?  How is that possible?

            I’ve traveled my share around the world, and like so many people I’ve gone through spates where I was put through secondary security and luggage checks upon reentering the United States, sometimes with my family stuck waiting for me or other colleagues and friends, but I’ve always bought the story from customs control that there was confusion about my name.  I’ve written Washington, gotten no reply, because they don’t ever admit anything, but was finally approved for Global Entry and eventually the problems stopped.  Reading about Laura Poitras constant harassment was unsettling, especially the fact that the government believes that they are bound by no laws, warrants, or privacy restrictions when it comes to their rights to keep  citizens – or anyone else – from coming into the country.   I recall a friend from Canada telling me about having to surrender his cellphone to customs agents when visiting the USA who then scrolled his email and texts to see if he had worked without papers in the country.  He could have not given them permission, but then they would simply have denied him entry into the country, so what choice did he have. Would we have any different options?

            Laura Poitras has a computer that is “airbagged,” which means that the computer has never been connected to the internet, so that she can read documents on that device without fear that anyone anywhere will be able to pick them up.  Wow!   She has to disable the GPS on all devices so that she can’t be tracked.   Heck, I thought it was enough that I never joined Foursquare or agreed to let Facebook pinpoint my location. 

            And, of course at this point while working on the NSA documents, she is in Berlin because somehow NSA can’t get her there and Greenwald is in Brazil, which is royally ticked about the NSA revelations giving him some safety, but clearly neither will be able to ever come back to the States until they have gotten rid of the NSA documents they are still holding.    They make a joke in the article about how much easier it is for people to deal with them, especially if Julian Assange and Wikileaks held these documents instead, but that’s gallows humor.

            They may not be in asylum like Snowden, but they are certainly in exile performing a service for all of us naïve to the ways of the new world of constant surveillance of all citizens.  We better get hip and get up to speed if this is what the new citizen journalism is going to be about.

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Hacktivists versus Tech Pioneers?

New Orleans  There was a fascinating and disturbing opinion piece in the New York Times by Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern University professor philosophy that burned some of the fog from my eyes about the disparate treatment between computer hacktivists (hacking activists) and hack-preneurs or hacker entrepreneurs.   It was not just the fact that Ludlow recited the old story about the now fabled Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Apple Computer founders, who started out their seminal partnership by making and selling boxes that allowed users to beat the phone company on long distance charges, but the excessive legal penalties being assessed to hackers or other internet activists who are sharing information about security or telling us about domestic spying involving our own government.

He cites the case of Andrew Aurenheimer who stumbled on the fact that AT&T had exposed private information on some of its customers out there on the web, basically for all who knew how, to be able to see it; he and a buddy wrote some simple code to collect it.  Unlike Jobs and Wozniak, he didn’t try to score money on this deal, but instead exposed the security breach to the Gawker blog website.  For his trouble he was sentenced to almost 4-years in prison and fined $70000.

In another example Ludlow offered, he put forward the case of Barrett Brown, a journalist who became obsessed with documents indicating that two private security companies, HB Gary Federal and Stratfor, were hired by the U.S. Government to come up with various schemes to undermine protestors and journalists.   Brown is now held in a federal pokey in Texas.  His alleged crime?  He reposted a web address that was publically available on the internet so he could get help “crowdsourcing” the reading of all the documents.  He did no hacking, just reposted what was put out by these two companies, but because some of what was available in the documents included credit card info, he was charged with 11 counts of credit card fraud.  Glenn Greenwald, who writes for Salon and was one of the journalists the companies were trying to bring down, was quoted saying that it was “virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to that journalism or his related activism.”    Amen!

Ludlow, the philosopher, makes the point better than I could hope to do, writing,

In a world in which nearly everyone is technically a felon, we rely on the good judgment of prosecutors to decide who should be targets and how hard the law should come down on them. We have thus entered a legal reality not so different from that faced by Socrates when the Thirty Tyrants ruled Athens, and it is a dangerous one. When everyone is guilty of something, those most harshly prosecuted tend to be the ones that are challenging the established order, poking fun at the authorities, speaking truth to power — in other words, the gadflies of our society.

It’s stories like these that make you ask yourself, what country am I living in?  South Africa, Russia, somewhere in Eastern Europe?  It is painful to grasp that this is an American story, and it doesn’t take a philosopher to understand the troubling moral issues involved in all of this.

Audio of Hackers Blog

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