AMITIAE - Sunday 16 June 2013

Cassandra - PRISM and the Mac User (2): The Devices We Use

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By Graham K. Rogers


There has been a lot of information - and some misinformation - flying about in the last week or so concerning a program called PRISM, with a lot of that information being damage-limitation by the very people highlighted as a result of the publicity: particularly the NSA and other security agencies. It now appears the the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, was right: these US agencies are spying on US citizens (and the rest of us of course).

Governments have long spied on their citizens: from the French Revolution to fascist Europe and the Communist regimes. Even the humble British bobby was part of an information network, but no one really knew it then. The policeman's localised data evolved into a "Collator" system (card indexes) and then onto a computerised system.

It is not simply the data that the authorities possess, but how it is used: the questions asked (or not asked), the analysis, and the conclusions that can properly be drawn. The problem with spooks is that they are spooks. They are looking for evidence of wrongdoing, or its potential, not for evidence of innocence.

Electronic means of communication mean that our devices are now transmitting data about us constantly unless we take steps to prevent this: from the content we access, to the location of the nearest carrier antenna and more. As a small example, a problem with my TV signal this weekend had me phone the company (TrueVisions) a couple of times and the helpful young ladies both addressed me by name. Their equipment had identified my mobile phone number and my account data had been pulled up ready to deal with my problem: as chilling as it is useful.

Recently, Tony Waltham whose idea it was for the Database supplement of the Bangkok Post and who was its editor for most of its life, sent me a part of a podcast. Adam Curry and John Dvorak discussed a theory by Glen Greenwald that the reason Steve Jobs refused to sanction the use of Adobe Flash on iOS devices was because of the amount of customer data that the software gathers: an idea that later created difficulties with newspapers and magazine publishers. He would not agree with giving up this user data to outsiders.

I am not sure if the conspiracy theories aired in the podcast hold up. Most Mac users complain bitterly about the poor way Flash uses resources; and running Flash is a sure way to test the fans on my MacBook Pro.

The podcast is worth listening to with the way Adam Curry links Glen Greenwald - whose article in the Guardian opened the PRISM can of worms - via Salon, and Adobe. William Hambrecht and John Warnock, former CEO and current co-chairman of Adobe, both bankroll Salon. Hambrecht has also had financial dealings at various times with Google, Apple, Netscape and Amazon.

There is no doubt that our computers (and mobile devices) send back a lot of data, much of it for legitimate purposes. While OS X has a firewall, turning on the additional feature to make the Mac invisible on a network, shows a high number of entries in the logs: probing from many companies and organisations. Most in my logs come from the internet provider, but there are others. Turning on Private Browsing in Safari, just will not allow access to work for some sites (e.g. PayPal) that need cookies and other probing to allow a user to work.

I also use Little Snitch that prompts me to authorise outgoing connections. Some are legitimate, such as Apple's diagnostics that I permit and iCloud connections. Google Tools needs two bites of the cherry every time I log in to the Admin account and others, especially Adobe and Microsoft are always trying. As I only have the Flash player and use MSN sometimes, this seems obtrusive.

From a number of reports, despite what has been denied, certain of the major IT companies have provided indirect access to data for the PRISM program. What, how much and why may never be known. If the companies were served with a FISA warrant, they would have had no choice, although some of the requests have been fought in the courts. Microsoft, for example, pointed out that they do not "voluntarily" share data.

Despite the outcry about the current situation (and there is much more to come), we may only expect more of the same, even if organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and many sites (e.g. TechDirt) exist to warn about the loss of freedom at many levels. Orwell wrote about this 55 years ago in 1984 and it appears we are still not taking any notice.

The British do not have a Constitution as such: there is a fragile balance between legislators, the courts and public opinion which had been working for a few hundred years but may be in need of a corrective nudge.

The United States should not need such adjustments with its written Constitution and the Amendments. The nudge, if needed, should come from one of the framers of The Constitution, Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety".

See also Part One: Background

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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