Cyberwars: Massive Government Surveillance Uncovered!

wire_tappingOn Friday, Washington DC found itself embroiled in controversy as revelations were made about the extent to which US authorities have been spying on Americans in the last six years. This news came on the heels of the announcement that the federal government had been secretly cataloging all of Verizon’s phone records. No sooner had the dust settled on that revelation that it became known that the scope of the Obama administration’s surveillance programs was far greater than anyone had imagined.

According to updated information on the matter, it is now known that The National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI have been tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting everything from audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that would enable their analysts to track foreign targets.

prism3This information was revealed thanks to a secret document that was leaked to the Washington Post, which shows for the first time that under the Obama administration, the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing. Equally distressing is the names being named: U.S. Service Providers such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.

The document further indicates that all of this has been taking place since 2007, when news disclosures, lawsuits and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forced then-president George W. Bush to look for new authority to justify his program warrantless domestic surveillance. It’s continuance and expansion under Obama has created a great deal of understandable intrigue, and not only because of promises made that “illegal wiretapping” would not take place under his watch.

prism1The joint FBI-NSA program responsible for mining all the data is known as PRISM, and it may very well be the first of its kind. While the NSA and FBI have a long history of monitoring suspects via phone records and computer activity, and are both accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers, such a vast program has never before been possible. In the current information age, there is an immense wealth of information out there, and where better to access all of this than in Silicon Valley?

Not long after the news broke in Washington, London’s Guardian reported that GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, also has been secretly gathering intelligence from the same internet companies through an operation set up by the NSA. According to the same leaked information, PRISM appears to allow the GCHQ to circumvent the formal legal process required in Britain to seek personal material such as emails, photos and videos from an internet company based outside of the country.

prism2But perhaps worst of all is the fact that this process is entirely above board, at least for the companies involved. Back in 2007, Congress passed the Protect America Act, and then in 2008 followed it up with the FISA Amendments Act, both of which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S. intelligence collection against prosecution. And late last year, when critics in Congress sought changes in the FISA Amendments Act, the only lawmakers who knew about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues.

An anticipated, a bi-partisan amalgam of Senators came out to defend the initial reports of phone record monitoring shortly after it was announced. In a rare display of solidarity that cut across party lines, Democrats and Republicans from both the Senate and House came forward to say that the program was justified, only spied on terrorists, and that law-abiding citizens need not worry.

National Security Agency - aerial view
National Security Agency – aerial view

Once again, the argument “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear” finds itself employed by people who do not want to voice criticisms about a government spying program. Echoes of the Bush administration and McCarthy era all over again. Needless to say, all of this has many people worried, not the least of which are people opposed to government intrusion and the protection of privacy for the past decade.

Ever since it became possible to “mine data”  from numerous online digital sources, there has been fear that corporations or governments might try to ascertain the habits and comings and goings of regular people in order to effectively monitor them. For some time now, this sort of monitoring has been somewhat benign, in the form of anticipating their spending habits and using targeted advertising. But always, the fear that something more sinister and totalitarian might emerge.

government-surveillanceAnd with the “War on Terror”, the Patriot Act, domestic warrantless wiretapping, the legitimization of torture, and a slew of other crimes the Bush administration was indicted in, people all over the world have become convinced that “Big Brother” government is just around the corner, if indeed it is not already here.

The fact that such processes have continued and even expanded under Obama, a man who originally pledged not to engage in such behavior, has made a bad situation worse. In many ways, it demonstrates that fears that he too would succumb to internal pressure were justified. Much as he was won over by the Pentagon and CIA to continue the war in Afghanistan and UAV programs, it seems that the constellation of FBI and NSA specialists advising him on domestic surveillance has managed to sway him here as well.

Stealth-Wear1One can only hope that this revelation causes the federal government and the Obama administration to reconsider their stances. After all, these are the same people who were convinced to stand down on the use of UAVs in oversees operations and to take measures that would ensure transparency in the future. We can also hope that the NSA and FBI will be required to once again have to rely on the court system and demonstrate “just cause” before initiating any domestic surveillance in the future.

Otherwise, we might all need to consider getting our hands on some stealth wear and personal cameras, to shield ourselves and create an environment of “sousveillance” so we can spy on everything the government does. Might not hurt to start monitoring the comings and goings of every telecommunications and Silicon Valley CEO while were at it! For as the saying goes, “who watches the watchers?” I’ll give you a hint: we do!

Also, be sure to check out the gallery of artist Adam Harvey, the man who pioneered “stealth wear” as a protest against the use of drones and domestic surveillance. To learn more about sousveillance, the concept of a society monitored by common people, check out Steve Mann’s (inventor of the EyeTap) blog.

Sources: washingtonpost.com, guardian.co.uk, policymic.com, ahprojects.com, eyetap.blogspot.ca

 

North Korea’s Video Game Propaganda

nkvideogamesIt’s no secret that North Korea uses all means at its disposal to indoctrinate its citizens to share the same world view. Intrinsic to this is the idea that the West is evil, South Koreans are their pawns, and that the north is bastion of “proletarian freedom” that must triumph over them all. Even if it does find itself cornered, embargoed, run by loons, and wasting most of its GDP on displays of nuclear might.

And on tool which is coming to light is the use of cartoonish-style violent video games. Unlike the military parades and the cult of the leader, these are by comparison a bit crude. Actually, they are very crude, and will no doubt remind most westerns of their Nintendo or Sega gaming system, with a few exceptions where flash media games are concerned. But overall, the point is clear: when it comes to video games, North Korea is seriously behind the times!

uriminzokki-posterFor starters, there is Uriminzokkiri, a web portal that pushes North Korean propaganda from the country’s central news agency. It’s based in China, but is apparently controlled from the North Korean capitol of Pyongyang. So basically, the government was forced to outsource its web-based needs to a neighboring country that is ostensibly allied and far more advanced. A tell-tale sign for sure!

In any case, on Uriminzokkiri, there are a handful of flash games you can play on your computer. Some examples include “Treasure Key”, where the player navigates a crudely animated maze and is forced to deal with enemies such as George W. Bush (rendered as a rat) and Japanese politicians who are his monkeys. The ultimate goal is to collect all the keys and in so doing, unify Korea.

Then there is “Hang A Traitor”, where players attempt to hang a noose around the moving icon of South Korean conservative politician Lee Hoi-chang. That is rivaled by “Beating Up Rat LMB”, where players get to beat up the image of the current South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, apparently to death!  And that’s all topped off with games like “Fly Swatting” and “Hitting South Korean Politicians”, where players simply swat of hit (whack-a-mole style) images of South Korean politicians and George W. Bush.

twominuteshateI’m put in mind of the Two Minutes of Hate. Anybody else getting that vibe? What’s more, I’m wondering how often they choose to update these games. Are North Korea’s authorities aware that Dubya hasn’t been president for four blessed years? And of course, there’s the pathos I feel for all those souls who are forced to live in this kind of environment, where hate is fostered and the means used to do so are so very crude, ugly and transparent.

I look forward to the day when the last Stalinist regime on Earth joins its brethren on the ash heap of history and the people are permitted a look at how their southern cousins live. I also hope they have an easier transition that some of their Eastern European counterparts. But then again, after all they’ve endured, any change is likely to be painful!

Source: kotaku.com

Of Remakes and Smart People Making Stupid Arguments

In my position as a social sciences major, I have had many opportunities to witness dumb ideas argued intelligently; cases where the stupidest premises imaginable were made to sound respectable and even plausible by academics who were in the habit of injecting cool rhetoric or intellectual claptrap into weak ideas. If nothing else, it demonstrated to me that there are apologists and defenders who invest way more thought into their arguments than other people do into their work.

One case involved a Humanities Major (I assume) arguing that Brittany Spears song “I’m Not A Girl (Not Yet A Woman)” was a possible indication that the then starlet was a closet post-modernist Hegelian philosopher. Another had to do with the hidden genius behind George W. Bush’s many uses of inventive wordplay. And both were patently brilliant in the way they tried to make the completely mundane and painfully stupid sound smart. I tell ya, you have never heard so many smart argument employed in the defence of such stupid subject matter!

But this article really took the cake for me. Entitled “Why Remakes Are One of Our Greatest Achievements as a Civilization”, this article asserts that there is a connection between the many, many Hollywood relaunches of late and some of our most venerated cultural traditions as a species. And here too, I had to doff my cap the writer. Never have I heard so much thought dedicated to pure thoughtlessness, so much intellectual rhetoric employed in the defence of something so undeserving.

First, the author asserts that remakes are really a sublimated form of folk tales, resembling how cultures in ancient times would tell the same basic stories across vast stretches of space and time. Second, they deconstruct originality by claiming it is a largely 20th century construct that was invented by Modernists hoping to make a break with the past. The conclusion? That originality is a myth and that retelling the same story is a sign of organic creativity… I guess.

Ignoring the fact that we are talking about Hollywood remakes for just a second, I noticed two fatal flaws in this argument. One, Hollywood remakes are deliberate attempts to capitalize on old ideas by simply updating them with the latest in special effects, or by simply redoing an old idea which was shown to have worked in the hopes that it will again. Only in the most farfetched ways does that resemble the organic process of how stories spread across time and space, evolving in terms of detail but remaining similar in theme.

Second, originality may have been a Modernists obsession, but it’s hardly a recent invention. In fact, writers of all ages have lamented the lack of originality in their own  generation and wishing they had lived in earlier times, when writers of great renown established reputations by being the ones who left an indelible mark on their cultures literary traditions. Ancient Greece’s own Aeschylus said his tragedies were “composed of the crumbs from Homer’s table”. Shakespeare’s own works acknowledge a huge debt to Christopher Marlowe, the man who invented blank verse Iambic Pentameter and inspired many of The Bard’s own stories.

Granted, nobody is 100 % original in any time, but to say it’s a myth is both cynical and a rhetorical dead end. And that fact that I’ve even invested this amount of thought into this argument makes me think that the authors of this and other such articles have pulled one over on me. But really, I just have to wonder… are there really people out there, so educated yet so bored, that they have to employ their argumentative and rhetorical skills to subject matter such as this. Have they nothing better to do?

In any case, here is the article. Note the comment, by me (houseofwilliams) in the comment section. I did my best to argue my previous thoughts in as succinct a form as possible. Feel free to leave your own thoughts, or do the mature thing (which I could not), and not not dignify such arguments with a response. And believe me when I say that I will be commenting on the summer or reboots and remakes shortly, and not in a particularly kind way 😉

Why Remakes Are One of Our Greatest Achievements

COD: Modern Warfare 2

Welcome back to my ongoing series of video game reviews! Today, picking up from where I left off last time, is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Having just completed the entire series, I felt it was time to pay tribute to this series and tackle all that was right and wrong with it.

With COD: Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward essentially established a new standard of online gaming and first person shooters. Combining the best in AI’s, graphics, and gaming platforms, this game also had the honor of being the most high-profile “modern” first-person shooter of all time.

Prior to this, all the big name FPSs were either set in WWII or in the future, being either based in historical recreations or science fiction. Hence what was so interesting about this game, it incorporated up-to-date weaponry, tactics, and a storyline that boasted a great deal of socio-political speculation.

And much like the last one, it had its high and low points, which I shall get into now…

Plot Summary:
modern-warfare-russThe game picks up 5 years after the event of the first game (roughly 2016). According to General Shepherd, one the game’s pivotal characters, Russia has fallen to the ultra-nationalists and Imran Zakhaev is now considered a national hero, despite the fact that he very nearly unleashed WWIII on the populace. Meanwhile, a terrorist by the name of Makarov continues to fight Zakhaev’s fight, hoping to trigger another major conflict which will make his nation to force to be reckoned with once more.

The game opens with a Ranger Battalion in Afghanistan, where you are part of an attack (led by General Shepherd) into a contested town controlled by insurgents. After fighting your way across a destroyed bridge, you are required to fight your way to the center of town and clear a school which the insurgents are using as their forwards base. Upon completion, Shepherd alerts your character (PFC Allen) that you are being transferred to the CIA to do an undercover mission.

MW2_afghanistanNote: As I’m sure I’ve mentioned at least twice before, this entire mission was inspired by Generation Kill, specifically the footage of the 1st Recon’s assault on Nasariya and their passage through the town of Muwafaqiyah where Fedayeen were using a school as a fire base.

At the same time, Capt. John “Soap” McTavish has been promoted and is now the leader of the new international anti-terrorism squad known as Task Force 141. No mention is given as to the whereabouts of Captain Price, and given what happened in the last game, it appears as though he might be dead.

MW2_siberiaYour character for this portion of the campaign is Garry “Roach” Sanderon, another FNG with a delightfully absurd call sign. While the Marines are in Afghanistan, you and Captain Price are busy breaking into a Russian airbase in Siberia hoping to obtain the Attack Characterization System (ACS) module from a downed American satellite. After retrieving it, you and McTavish are forced to beat a hasty retreat using snowmobiles.

What follows next is the part of the game that warrants the big advisory at the beginning and which gamers have the option of skipping if they so choose. This inolves part of Allen’s “undercover assignment” where he witnesses first-hand Makarov’s monstrosity as he leads an assault on Moscow’s International Airport, where he and his thugs murder countless civilians with US-made guns.

When that’s over, Makarov shoots Allen (aka. you) and leaves him there for dead, knowing that the thousands of spent shell casings and the body of an American will make it look like the US perpetrated the attack. My advice: skip this mission! It’s gratuitous and frankly creepy. For the life of my I can’t imagine who thought putting this borderline psycho shit in would be entertaining or fun.

Immediately afterwards, Task Force 141 is dispatched to Rio de Janeiro to hunt down the weapons dealer who supplied Makarov. This takes you and your team through the “favella”, Rio’s most notoriously violent neighborhoods, where you are shot at by the local “militia”. Once you have your man, he indicates that he doesn’t know where Makarov is, but that there is one man he hates and fears more than anyone, and who just happens to be languishing in a gulag on the Kamchatka peninsula.

Meanwhile, back in the US, Russian forces get the drop on the Northeastern Seaboard. Having cracked the ACS, they are able to pass into US airspace without Norad noticing, and begin landing paratroopers and armored forces in Virginia, New York, and Washington DC. The second major thread in the game now opens, where you play as Pvt. James Ramirez, an Army Ranger in West Virginia who’s unit is deployed to a suburb to thwart a Russian attack and protect a HVI (high-value individual) who’s chopper was shot down.

After fighting off several waves, your unit is redeployed to Arcadia where you are tasked with retrieving another HVI who turns out to have been killed by Russian special forces. With assaults happening all along the Seaboard, the Russians are getting the upper hand on US forces by capturing key personnel, locations and intelligence.

MW2_gulagOver in Kamchatka, you and Task Force 141 assault the gulag and fight your way through defenders and Soviet-era electrical systems to find prisoner 141, the man who Makarov apparently wants dead. When you arrive at his cell, it turns out to be Captain Price, who is alive after all. He and McTavish have a brief reunion which is cut short as the Navy begins bombarding the gulag early to cover your escape.

Back in the US, you and your Ranger unit are redeployed to Washington DC which has become a smoking ruin. Your mission is to fight your way through the federal buildings on Capitol Hill and retake them from the attacking Russians. The fight takes you from the trenches, through the White House, and finally into the air. After your chopper is shot down, you find yourself cornered and about to be overrun…At the same time, Price makes contact with General Shepherd and proposes a bold plan. With Price alongside, you and Task Force 141 assault a Russian sub base not far from the gulag and seize control of a Russian missile sub. Though the plan is not altogether clear, you and McTavish manage to provide cover for Price long enough for him to get aboard the Russian sub, where he promptly unleashes a nuke bound for Washington DC! The nuke flies into orbit above the city, where it is detonated, taking out the ISS and unleashing a massive EMP.

Inside the city, the EMP knocks every piece of electronic equipment in the area, crippling the Russian assault. You and your unit, which had been cornered seconds before, now must run and find cover as countless jets and choppers come crashing down around you.

Once you resupply, you are tasked with advancing on Whiskey Hotel (aka. WH, for White House) and retake it in one last, desperate assault. Once this is done, you are notified by radio that the USAF is conducting “Hammer Down”, an emergency air assault that will level all capitol buildings that are still in enemy hands. You are then forced to run to the roof and pop green smoke to indicate that the White House is in friendly hands.

MW2_estate2With Washington DC saved, Shepherd is hailed a hero for his foresight in predicting that a war was coming. He is given a “blank check” and declares that he is going to use every cent reigning Makarov in. With this in mind, Task Force 141 splits into two forces, with Price and McTavish checking an aircraft boneyard in Afghanistan while you and the rest are deployed to a safehouse in Kazakhstan.

After taking down the house and downloading Makarov’s computer files, you are intercepted by an air rescue, where General Shepherd himself comes out and shoots you! He then shoots Ghost and his men dispatch the rest of your squad, leaving your burning remains in a ditch as he takes the files and flies off.

MW2_safehouseOver in Afghanistan, Price and McTavish get the words that Shepherd has killed the others and realize he’s been playing them all along. With Makarov’s information now in his hands, he’s effectively cleaning house and making sure he doesn’t get caught so the war can proceed.

At the same time, Shepherd’s forces are descending on the boneyard, looking to kill you and Makarov at the same time. After fighting your way the edge, you are rescued by an old friend – McTavish’s Russian contact Nikolai. Price is also able to contact Makarov and obtain the location of Price’s base in Afghanistan.

As McTavish, you and Price now assault Shepherd’s base and take down its defenders. After a lengthy chase, you manage to corner Shepherd and fight it out; unfortunately he gets a hold of your knife and stabs you in the stomach with it. Producing his gun, he explains his motivations.

MW2_shepherd_baseApparently, he was in command of the Marine assault force that was supposed to take down Al-Asad and lost 30,000 men when Zakhaev’s forces detonated the nuke. His bitterness inspired him to start a war in the hopes of shocking America out of its complacency, which he feels he’s now done. As he puts it, “tomorrow there will be no shortage of volunteers, no shortage of patriots.”

Before he can shoot you though, Price tackles Shepherd and the two begin to fight it out. Shepherd eventually gets the upper hand on Price, and you are forced to pull the knife out of your chest and toss into Shepherd’s face, killing him instantly. Nikolai then shows up with a chopper, in defiance of Price’s order that this be a “one way trip”, and he and Price begin to carry you (McTavish) aboard. The game ends with Nikolai warning you that everyone is now out to get you, but that he knows a safe place to put down and get medical help.

Summary:
I don’t imagine I need to say that this installment in the series has some kick-ass gameplay, but screw it, I still want to! It has kick-ass gameplay! In fact, when it comes to shear badassery, this game has got the first one beat. In addition to more and better guns for yourself, there are also some very cool added features. These include more claymores and the use of Stinger Missiles, but also Sentry guns, laser guided heavy weapons fire from armored vehicles, and even Predator drone strikes. This last aspect is especially cool, as you get to do overwatch on a target and then fire Hellfire missiles at targets.

In terms of the weapons you have access to, there are the usual M4’s, SAWs and M16’s that are standard US Army issue, but also SCARs, sniper rifles with thermal sights, FAMAS’, USAS-12 shotguns, and Steyr AUG’s. But in addition, the Russians also boast some new and impressive gear which you can use too. Of these, my favorites are the Tavor assault rifle and the Striker shotgun. There’s nothing like automatic shotgun fire to make you feel like a bad ass mutha!

And of course, all these features extend into the multiplayer realm which is even bigger, badder, and more detailed than the last. But even if you’re not feeling the mulitplayer community, there is the new Special Ops feature where you get the best of both world, the ability to conduct missions and earn points, but still as a single player. And I can attest that most of these missions, though some are hard as hell, are also fun as hell. And in many ways, they preview things which comes up in the third installments (such as Juggernauts).

As for the downsides… Well, in that respect, this game was much like the first. The storyline seems a bit unrealistic, and is kind of confusing in terms of who’s doing what and for whom. For instance, you’ve got Makarov who represents a continuation of Zakhaev’s agenda, but seems to be operating outside the realm of normal politics. Didn’t they say that the Ultra-nationalists took power? Why then is this man killing his own people? Isn’t that what you do when your kind is NOT in power? Or is he really that desperate for a nuclear war to take place?

And second, Shepherd’s motivations seem a bit flaccid. I get that he’s pissed about the loss of so many Marines int he first game, though they seem to have padded the body count because by my reckoning, most of the Marines got out. They had plenty of warning, but your own chopper turns back to rescue a downed pilot, hence why you die. Still, even if the body count is 30 or 30,000, risking total war with Russia seems like a bad way to stoke the fires of patriotism. As anybody is well aware, Cold War or not, any large-scale confrontation between the US and Russia would still involve their nuclear arsenals, and nobody would be walking away from that fight in one piece!

And another thing, so was he working with Makarov all along or just taking advantage of the man’s actions? This is never made clear. On the one hand, it was Shepherd who assigned Allen to infiltrate their group, so Shepherd DID give them the American body that they left behind to implicate the US. But at the same time, he is openly trying to track the guy down and have him killed, but quietly so the world won’t know the entire war is based on a lie. So what is it then? A collaboration between enemies, or two equally malevolent forces that just had happened to collide?

I for one would prefer the latter interpretation because it would be a fitting commentary on the “War on Terror”. In fact, throughout the game you have quotes from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, the ones which are notorious for being stupid or questionable, which flash across the screen when you die. In that war, we saw a neo-conservative agenda colliding with a Salafist agenda, where two mortal enemies were effectively feeding off each other to the point that some openly suggested collusion. Of course there was no real evidence to suggest such a thing, but it was interesting to note just how much George W and Osama Bin Laden benefited from each others presence.

Ah, but the biggest bone of contention with this game comes in the form of its controversy. In fact, this is such a big subtopic that it deserves its own heading…

Controversy:
For obvious reasons, the shoot-up scene involving the Moscow International Airport caused quite a stir in the gaming and consumer community. Why, many asked, was it necessary to include a scene where the player is forced to take part in what can only be described as Columbine-like behavior? I for one could not believe my eyes the first time I played this game and didn’t realize I could skip the whole thing. Who, I wondered, would actually want to play this mission? Was it really such a good idea to include it all, even if the option was there to skip it? Why not say that it happened between missions?

And would it be at all farfetched to think that some psycho person, who just happened to play the mission, might get the idea to shoot up a crowded public space? The scenes are far too visceral and real, which I found disturbing since the game makers would have had to do their homework on something like this, taking into account how crowded areas are death traps once armed men begin firing automatic weapons, how panicked crowds tend to bunch up, and how they become especially vulnerable when they all run into a bottleneck and become easy targets.

See what I mean? It’s disturbing! It’s the kind of sick freak stuff that made me seriously question the sanity of the game makers and the nature of the game itself. Some will naturally argue that it’s just a game and therefore harmless, bad taste notwithstanding. But I’d say that given the numerous mass shootings that have taken place, not just recently, but all over the US in the past decade, that this was in horrible taste and just plain risky!

Others also questioned the mentality of showing Washington DC burning, with its many monuments shown scorched and even the White House itself burning and full of holes. Personally, I didn’t see the big deal here. I mean, if we’re going to penalize this game for displaying this kind of disaster porn that we’ll have to round up Rupert Emmerich and every other movie producer who’s ever destroyed landmarks in their films. There’s a reason people like this stuff, and it’s not because they secretly fantasize about seeing them destroyed.

If anything, it lends some urgency and a sense of emotional involvement to the story by showing them how things they know and love, or at the very least are familiar with, are being overrun and must be saved. Now that’s just me and I could be wrong, but I found this aspect of the game very cool! How many games allow you to fight in realistically-rendered environments of actual places? This was something that they intensified with the third one and I appreciated it there as well!

So that’s Modern Warfare 2, in a nutshell. Great game-play, exciting and intense, but containing some questionable content. It was a good thing that they stayed away from that for the third game, at least for the most part. Granted there was plenty of violence and they still had to issue the content warning for anyone playing it for the first time, but at least there weren’t any mass shootings where you’re the bad guy and are supposed to be taking part in it! Seriously, Infinity Ward, what were you thinking? Bad software developer!