Posted tagged ‘surveillance’

On the Right to Not Be Accosted

August 15, 2015

“The real war is not on terror, but on what ‘terrifies’ the System: the unpredictable spanner-in-the-works known as individuality.”
— John Kendall Hawkins, in a review of the book Technocreep, by Tom Keenan

There may well come a time not long from now when the Internet has outlived its usefulness, when the attractiveness of its original free and open spirit, of the amazing possibilities of interconnectedness that galvanized its beginnings has rigidified into an environment overwhelmed by corporate and governmental interests.

The relentless pursuit of monetization and surveillance even now threaten to make the Internet a platform which legitimizes all forms of corporate and governmental spying on its users.  (For just one example, see this article on potential upcoming collusion between large tech companies such as Google and the NSA becoming enshrined in legislation.)

One aspect of this is the conflict between the increasingly intrusive nature of advertising on the web, and the measures taken to avoid it, as should be anybody’s right.  Those measures themselves are increasingly coming under fire.

Many of us have become so annoyed by web page advertising that we’ve resorted to ad blockers of one kind or another to escape incessant pop-up ads, flashing banners, voice-overs and the rest.  Beyond the more petty annoyances, the ads are avenues for potential malware delivery (including by surveillance agencies) and incessant corporate tracking which nullifies any pretensions to privacy we might once have had.

The Pursuit of Ad Blocking

So those of us who surf the net and object to the annoyance and worse of the ads, there are browser add-ons like, for example, Ad-Block Plus.  This has become a very popular content filter to block ads, which is obtainable as an extension for most web browsers.

Unfortunately, this add-on is exhibiting similar symptoms for which it proclaims itself the cure — the makers of the add-on accept money from advertisers to be ‘white-listed’ (some advertisers say they’ve been extorted) and thus allow those ads to circumvent the block.

Many dedicated surfers of the web have now moved on to uBlock, which is free and open-source, as well as doing its job more efficiently.

These ad blockers and others are working well enough to be proclaimed a clear and present danger to the business models of many commercial sites.  A recent ad-blocking report says that ad blocking grew by 41% in the last year, and supposedly cost web publishers $22 billion.

A group of publishers in Germany was so upset this year that they took Ad-Block to court and lost. Twice. There are other business groups also working towards making ad-blocking illegal.  Although that doesn’t really seem technically feasible.

There are another group of extensions available that now are able to block most of the tracking that makes it possible, for instance, for Google to cater ads to you on the basis of your searches.  All of the major, and not so major, commercial and governmental entities are busy building profiles on who surfs the web for what by the use of tracking cookies and similar means.

Getting Tracked

So now, on my Firefox browser, I now have the following extensions to thwart this activity: Ghostery, Blur (formerly Do Not Track Me – Abine), and Privacy Badger (which is intended to detect patterns of tracking).  Of course I also rely on the extensions NoScript and KeyScrambler to block unwanted Java script and to encrypt keystrokes respectively.  In addition, I have another add-on that deletes cookies when I leave a site.  You may think me excessive, but I have a right not to be accosted.

As an experiment about tracking, let’s go to a genuinely informative website and see what one would imagine should be relatively innocuous — the Smithsonian.  This is the site of the venerable, educational and scientific Smithsonian Institute and the publisher of what amounts to an online magazine.

There’s some good information here.  But first I’ve got to temporarily allow many of about 50 scripts on the page with my handy NoScript options button.  But there are so many ad-related scripts on this page that they come in waves.  I allow one batch of scripts so I can click on various content, and then there appears another bunch I also temporarily allow.  And then I have to do it again.  (Although I am temporarily allowing scripts, my other blockers are taking care of the tracking cookies. I hope.)

Courtesy of Ghostery, let’s take a look at the trackers that I am blocking, which want to collect information about my presence and what I look at and sell it to whomever will buy as I browse the Smithsonian website.

  1. Rocket Fuel (or x+1):”Rocket Fuel delivers a leading programmatic media-buying platform at big data scale that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to improve marketing ROI. Rocket Fuel’s Advertising That LearnsTM technology empowers media teams to focus on strategy, not spreadsheets. Rocket Fuel was founded by online-advertising veterans and rocket scientists from NASA, Yahoo!,, and DoubleClick.”  Yikes.  Rocket scientists are involved.
  2. ChartBeat: “Chartbeat provides real-time data analytics and performance alerts for your website.”
  3. Crazy Egg: “Crazy Egg shows you where people clicked on your site. Our servers will create a report that shows you the clicks on the pages you are tracking.”
  4. DataPoint Media: “DataPoint Media specializes in audience data management and exchange-traded media. Our solutions help publishers and media companies take control of their audience data, increase targeting capabilities and extend their reach across the ad exchanges.”
  5. Google Adwords: “No matter what your budget, you can display your ads on Google and our advertising network. Pay only if people click your ads.”  Can’t see ’em; won’t click ’em.
  6. Google Tag Manager: “Google Tag Manager is free and easy, leaving more time and money to spend on your marketing campaigns.”
  7. Quantcast: “Quantcast measures and organizes the world’s audiences in real-time so advertisers can buy, sell and connect with the people who matter most to them.”  Advertisers are busy buying and selling us.
  8. Scorecard Research Beacon: “… a leader in the Internet market research industry.”
  9. Sharethrough: “Sharethrough is the only video distribution technology company built from the ground-up to maximize sharing of brand video content.”
  10. Taboola: “Taboola’s service is used by publishers to recirculate their own traffic by generating personalized on-site video recommendations.”  It’s all about the personalization.

Becoming a Commodity

Now it could be argued, and often is, that all this intrusiveness is the price of having content to look at on the internet.  This is the argument of people with very short memories who don’t remember, or never knew, the web before the onslaught of commercialization.  I have no sympathy for the idea that I am obligated to look at ads and be subjected to profiling and metadata marketing for the benefit of somebody’s business model.  I resent being anybody’s commodity.

I take the same view as Marco Arment does in a blog post called “The Ethics of Modern Web Ad-Blocking.”

He writes, “People often argue that running ad-blocking software is violating an implied contract between the reader and the publisher: the publisher offers the page content to the reader for free, in exchange for the reader seeing the publisher’s ads. And that’s a nice, simple theory, but it’s a blurry line in reality.

“By that implied-contract theory, readers should not only permit their browsers to load the ads, but they should actually read each one, giving themselves a chance to develop an interest for the advertised product or service and maybe even click on it and make a purchase.”

This is the ethics of ridiculousness, as Arment points out.  Web ads are something different than say a newspaper ad (which certainly has no ethical obligation on my part either).  They are software, and designed without your consent to “run arbitrary code on your computer, which can (and usually does) collect and send data about you and your behavior back to the advertisers and publishers. And there’s so much consolidation amongst ad networks and analytics providers that they can easily track your behavior across multiple sites, building a creepily accurate and deep profile of your personal information and private business.”

The book referred to at the beginning of this post, Technocreep, by Tom Keenan, has the subtitle: “The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy.”

Thou Shalt Not Accost

One day not long ago in the car I overheard a portion of a radio interview with Keenan on his book.  He commented that, increasingly, commercial and other interests feel entitled to use every empty vista, whether on the web, or in a stadium, or along the road to invade our mental, emotional and spiritual space.  The web advertising practices take this tendency to new degrees of invasiveness.

But we have a right to not be accosted.


Totally Benign State Surveillance

July 2, 2013

I read a lot of thrillers, even more than science fiction, and the recent revelations about the the spy agency NSA’s constant surveillance of American citizens and the rest of us have been described in many of them for years.

There have been quite detailed descriptions of the sophistication and methods of such spying in this pulp fiction.  Previously, one might have ascribed the described excesses to novelistic licence rather than of the actual state of affairs which the whistleblower Edward Snowden has now forced the mainstream to consider.

There is a subset of these thrillers that are written by Americans of a jingoistic bent.  They are full of righteous fervor about patriotism and treason, with a worshipful attitude towards The President and the over-riding importance of “national security.”  (These are two words that will in a future time be abandoned for their association with oppression in favor of some other euphemism to cloak abuses of power.)

These are spy and political novels written by blustering proponents of the right wing of American politics, people like Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, even that skilful self-marketer, Glenn Beck.

I picked up and read one of these thrillers recently, written in 2011-12 well before the recent NSA revelations.  It’s Black List by Brad Thor.  Mr. Thor is often a guest, apparently, on Glenn Beck’s show.

Secrecy, Spying and Technology

But I came to the novel with no preconceptions, and I picked it up because I was interested in how secrecy, spying, technology and “black lists” would be handled in his story.   What caught my attention was  his Author’s Note: “All of the technology contained in this novel is based on systems currently developed, or in the final stages of development, by the United States government and its partners.”

He begins with a quote in his preface:

“[America’s intelligence gathering] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left.  Such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.  There would be no place to hide.

If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictatorship ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny….”

This is US Senator Frank Church appearing and making a deliberate warning on a TV news show in 1975!  (That reference to telegrams probably gives the era away.)

Counterterrorist as Hero

The novel’s hero is a “counterterrorist” which seems to be an euphemism for a profession of torturing and killing anyone labelled a terrorist.   He embodies cool killing expertise, with an impressive array of weapons, coupled with naive beliefs that those pasting the labels are always right and that due process is a quaint notion.  These appear to be beliefs also shared by the author.

Due to one shadowy and nasty arm of the government plotting against another shadowy and equally nasty appendage, our hero ends up on the Black List.   This list is the official killing list for the government death squads.  The President is involved so it’s all alright.

The author rails against the arbitrary and manipulated nature of this list, and all of the technology brought to bear to fulfill its mission, such as that of the NSA which we’ve all recently learned about.  They’ve got the wrong guy, our hero!

However, when the shadowy limb of the government our hero favors finally prevails, our hero gets promoted to carrying out the requirements of the new slightly edited Black List, and is proud to do so.  The President is involved so it’s all alright.

This is a sad story, on so many levels.

Many know of President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech in 1961 about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.”  Apparently, he earlier intended to make it the “military-industrial-Congressional complex.”

Here’s how it’s explained by professor Melvin Goodman, a man knowledgeable of the history of American policies:

“The actual drafter of the speech, Ralph E. Williams, relied on guidance from Professor [Malcolm] Moos.  Milton Eisenhower explained that one of the drafts of the speech referred to the “military-industrial-Congressional complex” and said that the president himself inserted the reference to the role of the Congress, an element that did not appear in the delivery of the farewell address.

When the president’s brother asked about the dropped reference to Congress, the president replied: ‘It was more than enough to take on the military and private industry. I couldn’t take on the Congress as well.’

In addition to the Congress reference, an entire section was dropped from the speech that dealt with the creation of a ‘permanent, war-based industry,’ with ‘flag and general officers retiring at an early age [to] take positions in the war-based industrial complex shaping its decisions and guiding the direction of its tremendous thrust.’

The president warned that steps needed to be taken to ‘insure that the ‘merchants of death’ do not come to dictate national policy.’ “

In line with this and coming back to more current events, I was taken by this comment on the Edward Snowden affair and its aftermath by “mallius62” on a Canadian news site:

I don’t know why people aren’t in the streets screaming, fists in the air and fighting for their rights.

Oh wait… I do know.

People have been cowed. You read/watch/listen to the news and think, wow, that sounds serious. Then you go about your business believing that some entity within the government apparatus will kick in and make things right. After all, that’s what the government is for… right.

Well the government has been co-opted by the intelligence community that’s reliant on public money to exist. This massive apparatus lobbies the government for more funding to continue to show better profits. The lobbying comes in the form of warnings and dire predictions about the future.

A good warning can put their stock up a quarter point.

This part of the military industrial complex enjoys a circular flow of money/control/manipulation of and by elected officials.

All to dial in the American mind to draw specific parallels that keep the money rolling.

The purity of the soldier.

The perfection of the flag.

The glory of the Constitution.

The American security.

And of course, American exceptionalism.

To hold these (truths) as closely to their profits as they can while denying complicity to the heinous actions that accompany them is a careful web of deceit.

Thus goes the empire.  As they continue to take your rights, they will expand the system of control.  And the public pays to build their cage.

Cone of Silence

I always develop a rueful smile when I hear well-meaning citizens and spineless politicians who should know better say something like:  “Well, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have to worry.  I hope it helps the guv’mint catch all them damn terrorists out there.”

On the one hand, it sounds like such folks would not object to having a government camera in the polling booth to record their actions at the next election, purely for their own safety of course.   On the other, there is the myth of the ubiquitous terror network, like KAOS on the old Get Smart TV show.  (I think I may need a Cone of Silence as an alternative to my head in the sand.)

There are obvious nuts and bad people with vendettas, religious obsessions and greed causing violent havoc from time to time in North America.  But if there was a real, substantive well-organized group beyond the Mafia and drug gangs, our society would be in tatters, depending as it does on fragile and vulnerable infrastructure around water, pipelines, transportation and electricity.  But terrorism is constantly being raised as a bogeyman justifying the cage.

Snowden himself outlines the danger:

“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded. …it’s getting to the point where you don’t have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life.”

Given that the United States is willing to imprison its own citizens at a higher rate than anyplace else in the world and has created and expanded the secret functions of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI (which now runs drones in the US), the CIA and JSOC to name only a few, what kind of place would you say it is now?

I’ve long thought this quote summarizes the issues well:

“In a free society, citizens are entitled to know more about the government than it knows about them; in authoritarian regimes the reverse is true.”

— JR Finlay



Additional notes:

I’ve written about some of this in a more general way before, in the post Subversive Fiction.

For more detail on the National Security Agency’s plans to make its surveillance even more penetrating, check out this article from Wired earlier this year:  Connecting the Dots on PRISM, Phone Surveillance, and the NSA’s Massive Spy Center.

This lengthy article outlines the development of the NSA’s new data centre in Utah and the history of deception by some of America’s top officials.

And finally, as another sad note, here is Barack Obama in 2007 about the Bush Administration:

“This Administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand… That means no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists… We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”