The National Security Sublime: On the Aesthetics of Government Secrecy

[Matt Potolsky's new book, The National Security Sublime, is a tour through the look-and-feel of mass surveillance, as practiced by the most unlikely of aesthetes: big data authoritarian snoops and the grifter military contractors who wax fat on them. This is a subject dear to my heart. -Cory]

The US National Security Agency is big, really big. But it’s unlikely that most people outside the government can (or would even try to) quantify its size or powers with any specificity. The agency is just massive, a quality that can produce in those who try to contemplate it the overwhelming sense of awe and wonder called the sublime. Triggered by an encounter with something grand (towering mountain peaks) or verging on the infinite (the number of stars in the universe), it describes a generally pleasurable feeling of cognitive breakdown, the sensation that you just can’t wrap your head around an object or idea so vast and boundless. Read the rest

UK cops are secretly harvesting all data from the phones and cloud accounts of suspects, victims and witnesses and insecurely storing it forever

Privacy International's blockbuster Digital Stop and Search report details how British police forces have quietly procured phone-searching tools (including mobile "kiosks" that let them probe devices in the field), often from companies with a track-record of abetting some of the world's worst human rights abusers, and they use these in secret to capture all the data they can from phones taken from suspects, victims and witnesses. Read the rest

Japanese Taxicab uses face recognition software to decide what kind of garbage to play on its seatback display

Rosa Golijan is a privacy engineer at Google. She snapped this photo of a seatback video display in a Japanese taxicab. The text says:

This taxi tablet is using a face recognition system with an image received by the tablet's front camera. The image data is used to estimate gender in order to deliver the most optimized content.

The gender estimation runs once at the beginning of the advertisement program and the image data is discarded immediately after the estimation processing. Neither the tablet nor the server records the data.

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In this Twitter exchange, jetBlue explains to a passenger how it got a photo of her face -- from the DHS

"Your Face is Your Boarding Pass" is the headline from a jetBlue press release from November 15, 2018. "JetBlue continues to lead the industry as the first domestic airline to launch a fully-integrated biometric self-boarding gate for international flights..."

Journalist MacKenzie Fegan had first-hand (first-face?) experience with the new procedure, and when she asked jetBlue about it on Twitter, the extraordinary correspondence resulted:

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Wyden to Trump: End NSA domestic phone spying program permanently.

The National Security Agency is reportedly considering ending the mass surveillance program that gathered data about hundreds of millions of telephone call records each year, including ones by Americans. Read the rest

The NSA has reportedly stopped data-mining Americans' phone and SMS records

Since 2001, the NSA has secretly ingested the calling records of virtually every US mobile phone subscriber, with the covert participation of the mobile carries; the program -- authorized by a secret order of then-president GW Bush -- remained secret until it was disclosed through documents provided to journalists by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. Read the rest

Electric vehicle makers serving up customer location data to China on a silver platter

There's been quite a bit of bad ink surrounding Tesla electric vehicles this year: delays in production, growing rumors about subpar customer service, former employees blowing the whistle on dangerous, indifferent working conditions in Tesla assembly plants and logistical woes to name a few. According to The Washington Post, Tesla owners in China can add in-car state surveillance to the list.

Apparently, the Chinese government has demanded that Tesla vehicles purchased in China send a steady stream of information concerning the vehicle's whereabouts and who knows what else to the Chinese government, in real-time. It's some greasy, invasive bullshit that comes at a time when China, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has been cracking down on dissent, privacy and freedoms in the country.

At the very least, Tesla isn't alone: other makers of electric vehicles are being forced to make their customers' information available to the Chinese government as well.

From The Washington Post:

More than 200 manufacturers, including Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mitsubishi and U.S.-listed electric vehicle start-up NIO, transmit position information and dozens of other data points to government-backed monitoring centers, The Associated Press has found. Generally, it happens without car owners’ knowledge.

The automakers say they are merely complying with local laws, which apply only to alternative energy vehicles. Chinese officials say the data is used for analytics to improve public safety, facilitate industrial development and infrastructure planning, and to prevent fraud in subsidy programs.

But other countries that are major markets for electronic vehicles — the United States, Japan, across Europe — do not collect this kind of real-time data.

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Which windowless American buildings are secret AT&T/NSA listening posts?

In 2016, Ryan Gallagher and Henrik Moltke published a long, Snowden-derived investigation into AT&T's secret NSA listening station in New York City, and AT&T's extensive complicity in mass, warrantless surveillance on Americans and foreigners. Read the rest

Supreme Court: no government location tracking without a warrant

The Supreme Court has ruled in the closely watched Carpenter v. United States case, which questioned the constitutionality of warrantless location surveillance, a widespread practice among US law enforcement and surveillance agencies. Read the rest

Spanish football app turns users into unwitting surveillance operatives

Spain's got a stiffy for football, or soccer, if you must.

When a football match is on, just about everyone in the country loses their minds. TVs are gathered round, siestas are forgone, and team songs, in any bar you chance, will be full of scarf-swinging loons banging on tables and screaming for every goal. It’s loud, chaotic and lovely. For many Spaniards, catching a game while on the go involves downloading a smartphone app fronted by Spain’s national football league, Liga de Fútbol Profesional. Available for iOS and Android handsets, the La Liga app is not only licensed to stream football games, but also lets users keep track of the stats for their favorite teams and players.

Oh, it also tracks your every move and taps your smartphone's microphone, supposedly in the name of helping to root out unauthorized match broadcasts in bars, restaurants and cafes.

From El Dario, via Google Translate:

The Liga de Fútbol Profesional, the body that runs the most important sports competition in Spain, is using mobile phones of football fans to spy on bars and other public establishments that put matches for their clients. Millions of people in Spain have this application on their phone, which accumulates more than 10 million downloads, according to data from Google and Apple.

All of these people can become undercover informants for La Liga and the owners of football television broadcasting rights. If they give their consent for the app to use the device's microphone (which is common in many applications), they are actually giving permission for La Liga to remotely activate the phone's microphone and try to detect if what it sounds like is a bar or public establishment where a football match is being projected without paying the fee established by the chains that own the broadcasting rights.

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Cops use backdoored WhatsApp photo to extract fingerprints and convict user

South Wales Police announced they were able to access a WhatsApp user's photos through a backdoor, then extract fingerprint data from a picture of a weed dealer's hand to help convict 11 involved people. Read the rest

The in-depth tale of Bylock, the Turkish messenger app whose 1x1 tracking GIF was the basis for tens of thousands of treason accusations

A group of exiled Turkish human rights lawyers have published an in-depth history of how Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkish government has described Bylock, an encrypted messenging app, whose 1x1 analytics pixel was used as the basis for accusing tens -- if not hundreds -- of thousands of Turks of treason, with consequences ranging from loss of employment and ostracization to imprisonment, to torture, to suicide. Read the rest

Appeals Court: Britain's Snoopers Charter is illegal mass surveillance and must be urgently reformed

Just over a year ago, the top court in Europe ruled that the Snoopers Charter, a mass surveillance regime created by the ruling Tory party, was unconstitutional. Read the rest

For a few thousand bucks, Detroit police will give a business higher 911 priority

If someone has been trashing your Detroit gas station for an hour, and cops still haven't responded, chances are your business hasn't enrolled in Project Green Light. Read the rest

Congressional Democrats have so little faith in Trump's leadership that they've awarded him the power to conduct limitless, warrantless mass surveillance of Americans

When Congress voted last week to renew the NSA's controversial Section 702 powers, which gives the spy agency the power to conduct mass, secret, warrantless surveillance on Americans, they also voted down a bipartisan amendment that would have limited the president's ability to abuse these powers, injecting the barest minimum of accountability and proportionality into a system that Republican and Democratic presidents alike have abused for decades. Read the rest

When Justin Trudeau was in opposition, he voted for Canada's PATRIOT Act but promised to fix it; instead he's making it much, much worse

Back in 2015, Canada's failing, doomed Conservative government introduced Bill C-51, a far-reaching mass surveillance bill that read like PATRIOT Act fanfic; Justin Trudeau, leader of what was then a minority opposition party, whipped his MPs to vote for it, allowing it to pass, and cynically admitting that he was only turning this into law because he didn't want to give the Conservatives a rhetorical stick to beat him with in the next election -- he promised that once he was Prime Minister, he'd fix it. Read the rest

Art installation includes drones that stalk and record all visitors

Hansel & Gretel opened this month in New York. The collaboration between artist Ai Weiwei and architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron is a noisy dystopian nightmare projected back to visitors and broadcast live to the internet. Read the rest

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