Cyberwars: ACLU and NSA ex-Director to Debate Tomorrow!

keith-alexander-nsa-flickrIn what is sure to be a barn-burner of a debate, the former head of the National Security Agency – General Keith Alexander – will be participating tomorrow in a with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. The televised, surveillance-themed debate, will take place tomorrow –  June 30th, 10:30am Eastern Time – on MSNBC. The subject: whether or not the NSA’s vast surveillance and data mining programs are making American’s safer.

While many would prefer that the current head of the NSA be involved in the debate, General Alexander is a far better spokesperson for the controversial programs that have been the subject of so much controversy. After all, “Emperor Alexander” – as his subordinates called him – is the man most directly responsible for the current disposition of the  NSA’s cyber surveillance and warfare program.Who better to debate their merit with the head of the ACLU – an organization dedicated to the preservation of personal freedom?

Edward-Snowden-660x367And according to classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, General Alexander’s influence and power within the halls of government knew no bounds during his tenure. A four-star Army general with active units under his command, he was also the head of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service, and the commander of the US Cyber Command. It is this last position and the power it wields that has raised the greatest consternation amongst civil-libertarians and privacy advocates.

Keith Alexander is responsible for building this place up between 2005 and 2013, insisting that the US’s inherent vulnerability to digital attacks required that he and those like him assume more authority over the data zipping around the globe. According to Alexander, this threat is so paramount that it only makes sense that all power to control the flow of information should be concentrated in as few hands as possible, namely his.

NSA_fort_meadeIn a recent security conference held in Canada before the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Alexander expressed the threat in the following, cryptic way:

What we see is an increasing level of activity on the networks. I am concerned that this is going to break a threshold where the private sector can no longer handle it and the government is going to have to step in.

If this alone were not reason enough to put people on edge, there are also voices within the NSA who view Alexander as a quintessential larger-than-life personality. One former senior CIA official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, claimed:

We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander—with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets. We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.

And it is because of such freedom to monitor people’s daily activities that movements like the February 11th “The Day We Fight Back” movement – an international cause that embraced 360 organizations in 70 countries that were dedicated to ending mass surveillance – have been mounted, demanding reform.

us_supremecourtIn addition, a series of recent ruling from the US Supreme Court have begun to put the kibosh on the surveillance programs that Alexander spent eight years building up. With everything from cell phone tracking to cell phone taps, a precedent is being set that is likely to outlaw all of the NSA domestic surveillance. But no matter what, the role of Snowden’s testimony in securing this landmark event cannot be underestimated.

In fact, in a recent interview, the ACLU’s Anthony Romero acknowledged a great debt to Snowden and claimed that the debate would not be happening without him. As he put it:

I think Edward Snowden has done this country a service… regardless of whether or not what he did was legal or illegal, whether or not we think the sedition laws or the espionage laws that are being used to possibly prosecute Snowden are too broad, the fact is that he has kick-started a debate that we did not have. This debate was anemic. Everyone was asleep at the switch.

One can only imagine what outcome this debate will have. But we can rest assured that some of the more predictable talking points will include the necessities emerging out of the War on Terror, the rise of the information revolution, and the dangers of Big Brother Government, as well as the NSA’s failure to prevent such attacks as the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Benghazi Embassy bombing, and a slew of other terrorist incidents that took place during Alexander’s tenure.

Do I sound biased? Well perhaps that’s because I am. Go ACLU, stick to Emperor Alexander!

Sources: engadget.com, democracynow.org

Hacker Wars: The Invasion Continues!

cyber-war-1024x843State-sponsored hacking has been a major concern lately. From Russia’s “Red October” virus, which spied on embassies and diplomats in multiple countries, to China’s ongoing intrusion into government and corporate databases in the US, it seems as though private hackers are no longer the only ones we need to worry about.

The latest incident in this invasion of privacy and airing of personal information comes again from Russia, where a mysterious website has been posting personal information about some rather high-profile American figures. These include First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, Jay-Z, Britney Spears, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Sarah Palin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the head of the FBI.

michelle-obama_fullIn addition to taunting messages and unflattering pictures, the site includes Social Security numbers, credit reports, addresses and phone numbers. No reasons are listed on the site as to why these particular people were selected, but it seems clear at this point that they were chosen due to their high-profile nature and/or positions of importance within the US government. As of last Tuesday, both the FBI and Secret Service announced that they were investigating the website.

Though it is not definitively clear where the hackers are operating from, all indications point to Russia. The first clue came when it was revealed that site bore the internet suffix originally assigned to the Soviet Union (.su), a practice which is not uncommon with Russian hackers these days. In addition, it is also connected to a Twitter account, which carried an an anti-police message posted in Russian.

hackers_securityAt the moment, neither the White House or the Secret Service is offering assessments or comments on the matter. But some thoughts have been offered by Los Angeles Police Commander Andrew Smith, who spoke on behalf of Chief Charlie Beck, who’s information was also posted. According to Beck, this is not the first time that top police officials have had their private information posted online:

“People get mad at us, go on the Internet and try to find information about us, and post it all on one site. The best word I can use to describe it is creepy. It’s a creepy thing to do.”

Frank Preciado, assistant officer in charge of the LAPDs online division, added that the information on the police chief was likely taken from what is supposed to be a secure database of city employees. And it might just offer some insight into this latest, sweeping act of inforpiracy. When all is said and done, it appears that this may simply be a case of a small but qualified group of misfits engaging in public mischief.

internetHowever, of greater concern is the fact that with this latest act of high-profile hacking, a trend that citizens were forewarned might be coming true. In December of 2012, internet security company McAfee warned of an impending attack by Russian hackers against American banks. Dubbed “Project Blitzkrieg”, the threat of the attack surfaced on a Russian hacking forum in the previous September, and McAfee was quick to advised that it was a credible one.

As of December 2012, Russian hackers had effectively infected 500 databases in the US with the promise of more to come. The cybercriminal known as vorVzakone – whose name means ‘thief in law’ – was identified as the head of the operation, whose plans called for the release of a Trojan horse virus that would allow him and his accomplices to seize control of banks’ computers to steal information and money.

cold_war

Clearly, all of these incidents amount to a major public concern. But of greater concern to me is the fact the lines being drawn in this new era of cyber-warfare are eerily familiar. Not long ago, China and Russia were locked in an ongoing feud with the US and its allies, a war fueled by ideology but based on the cultivation of technology and espionage networks.

Granted, only China’s case of cyberwarfare against the US appears to be government-backed. But between the “Red October” virus,  “Project Blitzkrieg”, and the fact that Russian hackers are in the habit of using a Soviet-era suffix to designate their activities, it seems that Russia is fertile ground for a renewed standoff with the West as well. And given that the targets have been western governments and financial institutions, would it be so farfetched to assume the government might be marginally involved?

The means may have changed, but the overall purpose remains the same. Infiltrate, destabilize, and steal information from the enemy. Are we looking at a renewed Cold War, or just the last gasps of an ideological confrontation that was supposed to have died years ago? Only time will tell…

Sources: cbc.ca, dailymail.co.uk

Lobby Congress to Illegalize the use of Surveillance Drones

X-47BCall me concerned, but some recent news items have made more than a few people frightened that unmanned drones could be peaking in their windows and watching them as they go to work very soon. The first came back in September when US Congress passed the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 which, among other things, required the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to accelerate drone flights in U.S. airspace.

A number of US law enforcement agencies have also adopted the use of drones for the sake of police work. Amongst them are the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the Alameda Sheriff’s Department is likely to follow. The Seattle Police Department also maintained a small fleet as well, but grounded them due to public outcry and concerns over privacy.

As it stands, the Obama Administration has already adopted legislation that prevents drones from being armed and would demand that law enforcement agencies register drones, adopt privacy polices, and only use them in criminal matters for which warrants would be required.

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/make-illegal-use-unmanned-aerial-vehicles-sake-surveillance-within-us/Fqq2C9Wb

RIP Hugo Chavez: Venezuelan Strongman and Master Troll

hugo_chavezThe death of Hugo Chavez, which took place on March 5th, has not only left a vacuum in Venezuelan politics, but deprived the world of one of its most prolific trolls. In his many years dominating South American politics, Chavez distinguished himself as more of a nuisance than a threat to US and western interests. But what a nuisance! And his tool of choice in this onslaught? Social media!

While he once thought Twitter was a tool of terrorism, Chavez became convinced it was an asymmetric tool to combat what he called a “conspiracy” of pro-American opponents. As a lover of hyperbole and over-the-top statements, how could he not take to a forum that rewarded such behavior? And like all good trolls, Chavez was evangelical in his vitriol, comparing his enemies to fascists and barbarians, making grandiose boasts, and dispensing exclamation points from a virtual pez dispenser!

And of course, his tweets kept pace with political intrigue, both domestic and foreign. In May 2011, when the U.S. State Department imposed sanctions against the Venezuelan state-run oil company PDVSA for selling gasoline reformate to Iran, Chavez’s cash-cow was blocked from receiving U.S. export licenses. In response, Chavez tweeted:

Sanctions against the homeland of [Simon] Bolivar? Imposed by the gringo imperialist government? Well: Welcome Mr Obama! Do not forget we are the children of Bolivar!

When Tripoli fell, the result of rebellions against Gadhafi and Coalition support, the long-time supporter of the Libyan dictator responded in the following way:

We must stop the unleashed imperial madness! World, good world, humane world, do not be overwhelmed by the barbarism!

And when Syria’s Alawite regime began to show signs of going the same way, also the result of uprisings from pro-democracy groups, Chavez moved quickly to declare his support for the Bashar Assad. In the midst of the regime using live fire to murder civilians, Chavez declared openly:

I talked a few minutes with the Syrian President, our brother Bashar. Syria is the victim of a fascist attack. God help Syria!!

And of course, he used Twitter plenty to disseminate plenty of self-serving propaganda at home. He dispensed advice on dealing with “traitors”, which amounted to a “raging socialist revolutionary offensive!” On accusations about poverty in Venezuela, he replied: “There is no poverty in Venezuela! Factory capitalism is poverty!” He also trolled an opposition primary debate: “The opposition is once again a fool!”

The US did not engage in flame wars with the former presidente, but the White House did release a statement offering condolences over his death. However a statement from President Obama on Tuesday evening was admittedly curt and seemed to hint that they were happy to be rid of his influence:

At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.

Without a doubt, Chavez’ successor will have his hands full with regards to Venezuela’s economy and its internal political divisions. And I have to say, regardless of Chavez’s ongoing and annoying bombastic personality, he did pull much of Venezuela’s working class out of poverty. And even if you hated him, you had to admit, the man was interesting! RIP Hugo Chavez, you annoying bastard! Can’t imagine how quiet it’s going to be without you…

Drone Wars!

X-47BThat’s the crux of Timothy Chung’s research, an assistant professor in the Systems Engineering department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. For the most part, he and the Advanced Robotics Systems Engineering Lab (ARSENL) have been working on a way to construct a series of low-cost, lightweight autonomous flying vehicles known as Aerial Battle Bots that will give the US and the western allies an advantage should a full-scale conflict involving UAV’s happen.

The aspect of cost is especially important, seeing as how drones cost on the order of several million dollars apiece. By supplementing reconnaissance and hunter-killers with dogfighting drones, the army and navy of the future will have a lost cost-option for keeping their big-budget fliers safe. What’s more, it’s extremely important that the drones work in tandem, since it’s highly likely other nations will be developing similar swarms of drones in the future too.

Chung_droneWith the help of a DARPA research grant, Chung and his associates have completed a small fleet of about a dozen drones. Each is a essentially a commodity radio-controlled flying machine, called Unicorn, that has been retrofitted with an onboard computer and other gear in order to take their places in the larger group. He hopes that by this August, he and his team will be able to get the vehicles flying and be able to start experimenting with getting them working together, as well as facing off!

In other news, questions relating to drone dogfights and the issue of autonomous drones were raised once again at the White House. Back around Thanksgiving, the mounting concerns from the human rights community led Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to sign a series of instructions that were designed to ensure that human oversight would always be a factor where drone strikes and UAV’s were concerned.

john-brennanThese concerns have since mounted with the recent announcement that John Brennan, the White House’s counter-terrorism adviser and the man known as the “Drone Godfather”, was nominated to become the next head of the CIA. For years now, he has been the man in charge of the US antiterrorism efforts in Central Asia, many of which have involved the controversial use of Predator and Reaper strikes.

These concerns were voiced in a recent letter from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore), a member of the Senate intelligence committee. In it, he asked Brennan pointedly when and under what conditions the president would be able to target American citizens using drones:

“How much evidence does the President need to determine that a particular American can be lawfully killed? Does the President have to provide individual Americans with the opportunity to surrender before killing them?”

Naturally, the questions were quite specific when it came to the authorization of lethal force and when such authorization would be given to target people within the US’s borders. But there were also many questions that highlighted concerns over how this same process of authorization has taken place in other countries, and how little oversight has taken place.

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)(Released)In short, Wyden used the occasion to express “surprise and dismay” that the intelligence agencies haven’t provided the Senate intelligence committee with a complete list of countries in which they’ve killed people in the war on terrorism, a move which he says “reflects poorly on the Obama administration’s commitment to cooperation with congressional oversight.” And given the mounting criticism at home that using killer drones against unspecified targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan has earned, not to mention the blowback happening overseas, he is not alone in thinking this.

Like it or not, it’s a new age where “umanning” the front lines is having an effect, albeit not the desired one. At one time, the predominant thinking in military and intelligence communities was that using automated aerial, land and sea vehicles, war could be fought cleanly, effectively, and without the loss of life – at least on OUR side. However, this thinking is coming under increasing scrutiny as it comes closer and closer to realization. And at the center of it all, the philosophical and existential questions are numerous and impossible to ignore.

For starters, war is and always will be a human endeavor. Just because you are not risking the lives of your own people doesn’t mean the fight is any more sanitary or bloodless. Second, even though none of your own citizens will be mourning the death of their loved ones doesn’t mean there won’t be mounting civilian opposition as conflicts go on. In a global community, people are able to witness and empathize with the plight of others. And finally, the increased use of machinery, be it autonomous or remote controlled, will inevitably lead to fears of what will happen if that same technology would ever be turned against its own people. No weapon is so safe and no government so trustworthy that people won’t fear the possibility of it being turned on them as well.

Source: news.cnet.com, wired.com

The White House’s Death Star Petition

Death-Star-thumb-550x373-109406Remember a few weeks back when the White House was petitioned to conduct a feasibility study on the building of the USS Enterprise? Well, as it turns out, it received another petition at that time, similar in theme, but bolder by several orders of magnitude. The petition, which was filed in November of 2012 and got 34,435 signatures, was for the White House to build a real-life Death Star by 2016.

You read that right, a real-life Death Star. Yes, the petitioners seemed to think that the USS Enterprise wasn’t a big enough project, and the 20 year window for completing it too long. So instead, they recommend the Obama administration commit to building a massive, planet-destroying space station and to do it within the next four years.

And as it turns out, the petition got a response. Since it met the minimum requirement of 24,000 signatures, the White House was obliged to let the petitioners know exactly what they thought of their idea. Their answer came in the form of a cheekily titled document entitled “This Isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For”, and listed some of many, many reasons why the US couldn’t commit to such a program. Here is the opening section of the reply, as made by Paul Shawcross, chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget:

“The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn’t on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:

  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?”

Not the cheekiness of the reply. He then went on to tout NASA’s accomplishments in the last few years, drawing attention to recent advances in robotics, the International Space Station, Curiosity’s Mission to Mars, commercial space flight, and the possibility of building an outpost on the moon. This, he claims, are evidence that “we are living in the future!”, after which he urges the petitioners to “Enjoy it,” and even encourages them to consider a career in science and space.

What’s more, the report was filled with many tongue-in-cheek Star Wars references. For example, at one point he states “Even though the United States doesn’t have anything that can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, we’ve got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we’re building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun.” Clever. If you ever want to draw attention to the Voyager spacecraft or the Solar Probe, just compared it to the Millennium Falcon.

He also mentioned President Obama’s hosting of the White House science fairs and astronomy events, where he playfully danced around with a toy lightsaber to the delight of the crowd, and how the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency work on robotics and bionic limbs would lead to the creation of “Luke’s arm”. And the sign-off line left no doubts as to the tone of this response, playful, yet stalwart and optimistic:

“If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star’s power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

Take that, frivolous petitioners! You just got poned! To read the entire response (trust me, its worth your time!), click on the following link and be glad there are civil servants like this out there!

Source: blastr.com, petitions.whitehouse.gov