Category Archives: Security

Tinker, tailor, techie, spy


Amidst the swirl of revelations this summer about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) prying eyes and ears, a quote stands out to neatly summarize the hoi polloi’s rising sense of panic and paranoia.

The NSA’s intelligence “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.”

In the wrong hands, this might even “enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.”

This sounds like the sort of thing a civil liberties advocate, an apologist for the Julian Assanges and Edward Snowdons of the world, or even a Tea-Party Republican might utter in these nervous tween years of the 21st century. But the words aren’t theirs. They belong to a Democratic senator from Idaho by the name of Frank Church, who issued them in 1975 after he had concluded an investigation of the agency.

I came across them in a 2005 New York Times story whose author made his own observations about the NSA. “At the time (of Sen. Church’s scrutiny), the agency had the ability to listen to only what people said over the telephone or wrote in an occasional telegram; they had no access to private letters,” wrote James Bamford. “But today, with people expressing their innermost thoughts in e-mail messages, exposing their medical and financial records to the Internet, and chatting constantly on cellphones, the agency virtually has the ability to get inside a person’s mind. . .Originally created to spy on foreign adversaries. . .The NSA s original target had been the Communist bloc. . .(it) was never supposed to be turned inward.”

All of which proves, if nothing else, that people’s memories truly are short. Experts and activists have been broadcasting warnings about the NSA and other supposedly super-secret spy masters for decades. Apart from a few Internet-enabled advances in the field of information gathering, the abuses – or potential for abuses – they worried about then are the ones they worry about today. That’s because while technology may change, human nature does not.

Still, technology can stack the deck and up the ante. Somebody writing on once ruminated that the Internet might contain one yottabyte of data. That’s roughly 1,208,925,819,614,629,174,706,176 bytes of increasingly worthless chum and chatter. But unlike an old-school telegram or piece of reel-to-reel audio tape, it never decays, never goes away. It just sits there in mines located around the world waiting for some government-empowered slob to make some other slob’s life sheer hell.

Technology is also an irresistible force for mischief. The NSA, for example, is prohibited by law from spying on the UN. And yet, according to Reuters this week, “The (agency) has bugged the United Nations’ New York headquarters, Germany’s Der Spiegel weekly said on Sunday in a report on American spying that could further strain relations between Washington and its allies. . .Der Spiegel said the files showed how the United States systematically spied on other states and institutions. . .Der Spiegel said the European Union and the UN’s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, were among those targeted by U.S. intelligence agents.”

History demonstrates time and again that the tools we craft to make our lives easier or more interesting inevitably lead many of us into some kind of moral turpitude. Privacy may be a basic right. But if it’s easy to curtail and no one gets hurt (that we know of), then what’s the harm?

About the only recourse we who do not belong to the ironically termed “intelligence community” have is to bang our drums loudly. Consider U.S. Congressman Alan Grayson who intends to introduce his “Mind Your Own Business Act” in short order. The legislation, part tongue-in-cheek and part serious, demands that “none of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2014 or any succeeding fiscal year may be used to collect any information generated by a citizen of the United States while located in the United States.”

He and his Bill may be doomed. But, at least, he’s not going quietly.

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Where did all the bad guys go?


Enamored as it is by the sound of its own panic alarm, the federal government will have a hard time justifying its contention that Canada is riding a crime wave in the wake of new data that show just the opposite.

“The police-reported crime rate, which measures the overall volume of crime that came to the attention of police, continued a long-term decline in 2012, falling three per cent from 2011,” Statistics Canada reported last week. “The Crime Severity Index (CSI). . .also decreased three per cent.”

In fact, the numbers-crunching agency says that the crime rate in Canada has “reached its lowest level” in 41 years. The CSI, meanwhile, was off 28 per cent from 2002, with 415,000 incidents of violence in 2012.

Still, one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s signature social policies is his “tough-on-crime” agenda, made manifest by omnibus Bill C-10 (now the Safe Streets and Communities Act), which places unusual emphasis on the so-called rights of victims.

A government website outlines the guts of the legislation, thusly:

“Part 1 creates a new act entitled the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act;

Part 2 amends the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) and the Criminal Code; Part 3 amends the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA), the International Transfer of Offenders Act and the Criminal Records Act; Part 4 amends the Youth Criminal Justice Act; and part 5 amends the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. . .Part 3 . . .makes changes to the CCRA’s principles (and) reforms in four main areas: Enhancing sharing of information with victims; increasing offender responsibility and accountability; strengthening the management of offenders and their reintegration; and modernizing disciplinary actions.”

One of the legislation’s features that continues to stick in the collective craw of community activists, family welfare advocates and even a few international observers is the unreasonably harsh treatment it metes out to young offenders. Last year, The Canadian Press reported, “The UN committee on the rights of the child has finished a 10-year review of how Canada treats its children and how well governments are implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In particular, the committee says Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act complied with international standards until changes were introduced earlier this year.”

Specifically, CP indicated, “Bill C-10 ‘is excessively punitive for children and not sufficiently restorative in nature,’ the committee wrote in a report. ‘The committee also regrets there was no child rights assessment or mechanism to ensure that Bill C-10 complied with the provisions of the convention.’ The committee also repeatedly expressed its concern that aboriginal and black children are dramatically overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Aboriginal youth are more likely to be jailed than graduate from high school, the report said.”

Flash forward to the present day, and here’s what Stats Can stipulates on the subject on youth crime in this country: “Police reported that just over 125,000 youth aged 12 to 17 were accused of a criminal offence in 2012, about 11,000 less than the previous year. The youth accused rate fell seven per cent while the youth CSI declined six per cent.”

What’s more, “The majority of youth accused in 2012 were involved in non-violent incidents. The most common type of youth crime was theft of $5,000 and under, committed by 18 per cent of youth accused. Common assault (level 1) was the most common type of violent offence committed by youth in 2012, accounting for 11 per cent of youth accused. Other relatively common offences committed by youth were mischief (11 per cent), administration of justice violations (10 per cent) and cannabis possession (10 per cent). In 2012, 44 per cent of youth accused were formally charged by police, the rest were dealt with by other means under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.”

All of which paints a somewhat more wholesome picture of Canadian society – one that is, in fact, broadly consistent with those of other developed nations, where crime rates are also dropping – than the red meat crowd in Ottawa would have us believe.

If course, power politics is about nothing if not inventing problems to solve.

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Spying minds really want to know

Is what lies beneath enough?

Who’s got the dirt on you?

Good morning, pipsqueak. This is your big brother calling. How are you doing? Feeling good and rested, ready to take on the world? Sure you are. You’re going to seize the day, follow your bliss, as they say – just as soon as you gulp down that happy pill your doctor prescribed for you last month.

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you junior? Remember that afternoon three weeks ago, when the paramedics had to scrape you off the pavement outside the grocery store, following your 19th nervous breakdown?

Didn’t think I’d find out about that, did you? Never mind. I know a lot of things about you and just about everybody else in this ridiculous country of fools and sleepwalkers who believe that just because I scrapped the long-form census, I give a fig about your personal privacy. What a joke, which is, at it happens, entirely on you.

How’s that new car working out for you? You know. . .the one you bought with four credit cards because your wife wouldn’t let you raid the kids’ college fund. I bet she was mighty cheesed off when you rolled up in that baby. In fact, I know she was because that’s what she told some guy named Hank, with whom she’s having an online relationship. Oops, have I said too much? Listen, pal, a word to the wise. . .what’s good for the gander is good for the goose. Just saying, is all.

Speaking of birds of a feather, you know that chum three cubicles over from you at work? He’s the one with whom you’ve been collaborating for months on that big presentation to your company’s brass. Don’t trust him. He’s planning to stab you in the back, take credit for your ideas and sell you down the river as a lazy no-nothing. Fact is, all he does all day is play computer solitaire when he’s not following Lindsay Lohan on Twitter. Hope that’s useful to you. Your welcome.

Truth is, I care about you bro’. I care about the fact that you lied on your resume where you claimed to have a degree from the University of Toronto whereas you actually have a diploma from the Community College of Tofino. I care about the fact that you list your hobbies as golf, marathon running and skydiving instead of tap dancing, gardening and ventriloquism. You really should be more circumspect.

Not that I plan to do anything with such information. In the scheme of things, you’re just not that interesting, let alone important. I’ve got enough work scrutinizing the “metadata” stemming from the Internet comings and goings and phone calls of millions of other citizens through the Communications Security Establishment Canada. Technically, I’m not “allowed” to listen in on actual conversations or surveil specific emails and text messages. But, well. . .you know. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat.

As my buddy Ronald Deibert might say: “Don’t kid yourself.” In fact, the U of T political science professor and expert on global security did sort of say that in a commentary he penned for the Globe and Mail on Tuesday, to wit: “What is metadata? Take my mobile phone. Even when I’m not using it, when it’s just sitting in my pocket or on my desk, it emits an electronic pulse every few seconds to the nearest wifi router or cellphone tower that includes a kind of digital biometric tag.”

So what, you might say. So, don’t be so stupid. Or, as Mr. Deibert notes, “Think metadata is trivial compared to content? Think again. MIT researchers who studied 15 months of anonymized cellphone metadata of 1.5 million people found four ‘data points’ were all they needed to figure out a person’s identity 95 per cent of the time. In 2010, German Green Party politician Malte Spitz and Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper requested all of the metadata from Mr. Spitz’s phone carrier, Deutsch Telekom. The company sent back a CD containing 35,830 lines of code.”

Anyway, goofball, try to take better care of yourself this summer. I notice you’ve been hitting of late for some reading material. Might I suggest you start with Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and end with George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Either or both are excellent field guides for the shape of things to come.

That’s it for now.

We’ll talk again soon.

That’s a promise, pipsqueak.

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