The surveillance business model — and did the New York Times mean to say that Snowden ‘plundered’ or ‘got the best of’ the National Security Agency?

Drawing attention to the ‘surveillance business model’ is a little lonely, for writers with any grasp of technology, in the artificially-manufactured Snowden hullabaloo - photograph by MIL22

Pointing to the ‘surveillance business model’ is a little lonely, for writers with any grasp of technology, in the artificially-manufactured Snowden hullabaloo
– photograph by MIL22

A few spectators have begun to see why nonstop commercial spying is easily as threatening as state surveillance and, conceivably, worse. Marzia Faggin — whose talent for witty graphical compression is in her painting, ‘Willy Bonkers,’ gracing our last post — has jokingly raised a Kafka-esque possibility for the ‘surveillance business model’ resembling the grimmest consequences of our monitoring by government spooks. In an email exchange, she said,

I research things for my artwork that I often worry might bring the police to my door. I don’t just feel the unsettling lack of privacy online either! I’ve become mindful about what I buy while grocery shopping, lest I get dropped by insurance for buying too much junk food.

That might seem ludicrous unless you happened to read the suggestion of Bernard Stewart, an editor at the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, a few days ago: ‘Can we – and should we – make laws against cancer?’ He explained:

Some cancers cannot be identified with particular carcinogens, but still involve personal choice, like the multitude of minor everyday decisions we all make around food, exercise and lifestyle that can add up to obesity and poor fitness.

As the hue-and-cry about soaring health and medical costs grows louder, who would absolutely rule out a future collaboration between the health insurance and food-vending businesses?

Though the Stewart piece appeared on The Guardian site, both that newspaper and The New York Times keep harping on about what Edward Snowden did or didn’t do, paying merely token attention to commercial surveillance. The contrast between two headlines in the NYT last Sunday helped to create the most bizarre newspaper story we have read for a very long time. On the front page, directly beneath the masthead, the story was titled ‘Cheap Software Helped Snowden Plunder Secrets’. On page 4, where it continued, the headline read, ‘Snowden Used a Low-Cost Tool to Best the N.S.A.’ .

It was indeed a fascinating account of how Snowden had driven the software equivalent of a gigantic moving van into the centralised data store of the National Security Agency and automated the theft of vital treasures, to save him having to schlep them himself, one at a time. But there is quite a difference between ‘plunder’ – commonly used in combination with ‘pillage’ and ‘rape’, in records of especially brutal wars – and ‘get the best of’, defined by the Free Online Dictionary as ‘overcome, usually through no fault or weakness of the person that is overcome. “Heart disease can get the best of us”.’

There appears to have been an argument between the copy editors (sub-editors in the UK) on the NYT about whether Snowden more closely resembled a lawless marauding barbarian, in the way he went about getting the information he leaked, or was just a bit sly, like plaque building up in arteries. … But no, having mostly written about him as a hero, it was too much to expect the NYT to be objective.

The newspaper’s true sentiments were obvious from asking readers to wait until the twenty-sixth of twenty-nine paragraphs devoted to this story to say:

But that leaves open the question of how Mr. Snowden chose the search terms to obtain his trove of documents, and why, according to James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, they yielded a disproportionately large number of documents detailing American military movements, preparations and abilities around the world.

In his statement, Mr. Snowden denied any deliberate effort to gain access to any military information. “They rely on a baseless premise, which is that I was after military information,” Mr. Snowden said.

The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, told lawmakers last week that Mr. Snowden’s disclosures could tip off adversaries to American military tactics and operations, and force the Pentagon to spend vast sums to safeguard against that.

Snowden’s promoters and defenders keep mentioning the billion-dollar budgets of branches of the military financing the monitoring his leaks outline. But since those billions are sanctioned by American tax-payers for their protection, should that accusation about the theft of military secrets — by Clapper, the country’s highest-ranking official in charge of security, no less – have only been tacked on to the end of the piece, like an afterthought?

For good or bad reasons, the spooks have refused to supply details of why the 58,000 documents Snowden stole from them were ‘mission-critical’. But should that mean that the NYT effectively decides that they were not?

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When will the #TeamSnowden newspapers admit to using the same spying tools as the spooks at the NSA and GCHQ?

Power – wielded by government spooks or corporate surveillance specialists focused on us -- can be addictive - ‘Willy Bonkers,’ Marzia Faggin, 2011

Power – wielded by technology giants, NSA spooks or media surveillance specialists with sights trained on us — can be addictive
– ‘Willy Bonkers,’ Marzia Faggin, 2013

John Naughton http://memex.naughtons.org/

John Naughton

We offer, in this entry, links that will let readers draw their own conclusions about our belief that the Guardian and New York Times should soon supply full disclosures of their own use of Hadoop, the ‘spying tool’ that the UK and US secret services have been using in so-called ‘mass surveillance’. They must do no less if they wish to hang on to their reputations as great newspapers.

To put the Snowden leaks in proper context, the reporting and editorialising on them should have been shaped by John Naughton – who is not only the technology columnist for the Guardian’s sister-newspaper, The Observer, but an electrical engineer, vice-president of a Cambridge college, and emeritus professor for ‘the public understanding of technology’ at Britain’s Open University. As long ago as last July, he had a small blue fit about media coverage of the Snowden saga – in a column well worth reading, beyond these extracts:

Repeat after me: Edward Snowden is not the story. The story is what he has revealed about the hidden wiring of our networked world. […] This insight seems to have escaped most of the world’s mainstream media […] The obvious explanations are: incorrigible ignorance; the imperative to personalise stories; or gullibility in swallowing US government spin, which brands Snowden as a spy rather than a whistleblower. […] No US-based internet company can be trusted to protect our privacy or data. The fact is that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system.

We discovered his six month-old protest in a happy accident in which it came up with search terms we used in searching for our last post-Gutenberg entry. Reader, our eyes popped. How, we wondered, had The Guardian not merely buried what Naughton had to say – full fathom five — but marched on with personalising and puffing up the story to such a degree that …

• the technology giants got left out entirely as inventors, enablers and co-operators in surveillance

• newspapers using the identical surveillance techniques conveniently hid this fact behind the Snowden uproar they manufactured

How did The Guardian justify to its conscience avoiding any mention in editorials or reports on Snowden/NSA/GCHQ that in 2011, it actually gave Hadoop, the most powerful surveillance tool – the subject of last week’s post here – a coveted techie award? Curious readers should look up this record in that newspaper’s archive of technology coverage:

Apache Hadoop takes top prize at Media Guardian Innovation Awards

How was conferring that honour explained by the Guardian reporter, Marie Winckler? She quoted one of the software architects responsible for Hadoop: ‘Apache Hadoop pushes data management forward by empowering enterprises to make sense of their increasingly large and diverse collections of data.’ One of the first commenters on this asked sardonically, ‘So what does it do, translated from corporate-speak?’

Ah! He could have found the answer in a 2009 story in the technology section of The New York Times – also a heavy user of Hadoop, and The Guardian’s publishing partner and co-generator of the Snowden hullabaloo. These sections of the piece explained why newspapers find Hadoop so handy for studying their readers, when we click on their sites:

The core concepts behind the software were nurtured at Google.

[…]

[Hadoop] opened the possibility of asking a question about Google’s data — like what did all the people search for before they searched for BMW — and it began ascertaining more and more about the relationships between groups of Web sites, pictures and documents.

Some readers will be scratching their heads, by this point – thinking, but isn’t uncovering patterns and interconnections like these in our web searches and private behaviour  on the net the reason why Edward Snowden sentenced UK and US government spooks to the naughty corner? Yes indeed. This 2009 article in the computer magazine Infoworld answers a few more questions:

What’s the New York Times doing with Hadoop?’: A Times software engineer talks about how Hadoop is driving business innovation at the newspaper and Web site

Just innovating for commerce, then, nothing so disgusting as spying … Well, not exactly. Here is what the incredulous reader must study next – even if the verbing of the noun ‘surveillance’ brings on an attack of hives :

How The Guardian is Quietly and Repeatedly Spying on You

It was almost shocking when I first installed a browser add-on called Ghostery and began to click on various articles at The Guardian. With each click, I discovered that this news publication, which has been primarily tasked with reporting on Edward Snowden and top secret surveillance operations conducted by the National Security Agency, has been surveilling its own readers.

[T]hese publications, while taking on the pious, sanctimonious role of privacy purists, are using multiple third party resources to collect detailed information about nearly every visitor who reads one of the various posts about how the use of digital technology should be a completely private affair. … [ … continues …]