Entries Tagged "borders"

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Detaining David Miranda

Last Sunday, David Miranda was detained while changing planes at London Heathrow Airport by British authorities for nine hours under a controversial British law — the maximum time allowable without making an arrest. There has been much made of the fact that he’s the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter whom Edward Snowden trusted with many of his NSA documents and the most prolific reporter of the surveillance abuses disclosed in those documents. There’s less discussion of what I feel was the real reason for Miranda’s detention. He was ferrying documents between Greenwald and Laura Poitras, a filmmaker and his co-reporter on Snowden and his information. These document were on several USB memory sticks he had with him. He had already carried documents from Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro to Poitras in Berlin, and was on his way back with different documents when he was detained.

The memory sticks were encrypted, of course, and Miranda did not know the key. This didn’t stop the British authorities from repeatedly asking for the key, and from confiscating the memory sticks along with his other electronics.

The incident prompted a major outcry in the UK. The UK’s Terrorist Act has always been controversial, and this clear misuse — it was intended to give authorities the right to detain and question suspected terrorists — is prompting new calls for its review. Certainly the UK. police will be more reluctant to misuse the law again in this manner.

I have to admit this story has me puzzled. Why would the British do something like this? What did they hope to gain, and why did they think it worth the cost? And — of course — were the British acting on their own under the Official Secrets Act, or were they acting on behalf of the United States? (My initial assumption was that they were acting on behalf of the US, but after the bizarre story of the British GCHQ demanding the destruction of Guardian computers last month, I’m not sure anymore.)

We do know the British were waiting for Miranda. It’s reasonable to assume they knew his itinerary, and had good reason to suspect that he was ferrying documents back and forth between Greenwald and Poitras. These documents could be source documents provided by Snowden, new documents that the two were working on either separately or together, or both. That being said, it’s inconceivable that the memory sticks would contain the only copies of these documents. Poitras retained copies of everything she gave Miranda. So the British authorities couldn’t possibly destroy the documents; the best they could hope for is that they would be able to read them.

Is it truly possible that the NSA doesn’t already know what Snowden has? They claim they don’t, but after Snowden’s name became public, the NSA would have conducted the mother of all audits. It would try to figure out what computer systems Snowden had access to, and therefore what documents he could have accessed. Hopefully, the audit information would give more detail, such as which documents he downloaded. I have a hard time believing that its internal auditing systems would be so bad that it wouldn’t be able to discover this.

So if the NSA knows what Snowden has, or what he could have, then the most it could learn from the USB sticks is what Greenwald and Poitras are currently working on, or thinking about working on. But presumably the things the two of them are working on are the things they’re going to publish next. Did the intelligence agencies really do all this simply for a few weeks’ heads-up on what was coming? Given how ham-handedly the NSA has handled PR as each document was exposed, it seems implausible that it wanted advance knowledge so it could work on a response. It’s been two months since the first Snowden revelation, and it still doesn’t have a decent PR story.

Furthermore, the UK authorities must have known that the data would be encrypted. Greenwald might have been a crypto newbie at the start of the Snowden affair, but Poitras is known to be good at security. The two have been communicating securely by e-mail when they do communicate. Maybe the UK authorities thought there was a good chance that one of them would make a security mistake, or that Miranda would be carrying paper documents.

Another possibility is that this was just intimidation. If so, it’s misguided. Anyone who regularly reads Greenwald could have told them that he would not have been intimidated — and, in fact, he expressed the exact opposite sentiment — and anyone who follows Poitras knows that she is even more strident in her views. Going after the loved ones of state enemies is a typically thuggish tactic, but it’s not a very good one in this case. The Snowden documents will get released. There’s no way to put this cat back in the bag, not even by killing the principal players.

It could possibly have been intended to intimidate others who are helping Greenwald and Poitras, or the Guardian and its advertisers. This will have some effect. Lavabit, Silent Circle, and now Groklaw have all been successfully intimidated. Certainly others have as well. But public opinion is shifting against the intelligence community. I don’t think it will intimidate future whistleblowers. If the treatment of Chelsea Manning didn’t discourage them, nothing will.

This leaves one last possible explanation — those in power were angry and impulsively acted on that anger. They’re lashing out: sending a message and demonstrating that they’re not to be messed with — that the normal rules of polite conduct don’t apply to people who screw with them. That’s probably the scariest explanation of all. Both the US and UK intelligence apparatuses have enormous money and power, and they have already demonstrated that they are willing to ignore their own laws. Once they start wielding that power unthinkingly, it could get really bad for everyone.

And it’s not going to be good for them, either. They seem to want Snowden so badly that that they’ll burn the world down to get him. But every time they act impulsively aggressive — convincing the governments of Portugal and France to block the plane carrying the Bolivian president because they thought Snowden was on it is another example — they lose a small amount of moral authority around the world, and some ability to act in the same way again. The more pressure Snowden feels, the more likely he is to give up on releasing the documents slowly and responsibly, and publish all of them at once — the same way that WikiLeaks published the US State Department cables.

Just this week, the Wall Street Journal reported on some new NSA secret programs that are spying on Americans. It got the information from “interviews with current and former intelligence and government officials and people from companies that help build or operate the systems, or provide data,” not from Snowden. This is only the beginning. The media will not be intimidated. I will not be intimidated. But it scares me that the NSA is so blind that it doesn’t see it.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

EDITED TO ADD: I’ve been thinking about it, and there’s a good chance that the NSA doesn’t know what Snowden has. He was a sysadmin. He had access. Most of the audits and controls protect against normal users; someone with root access is going to be able to bypass a lot of them. And he had the technical chops to cover his tracks when he couldn’t just evade the auditing systems.

The AP makes an excellent point about this:

The disclosure undermines the Obama administration’s assurances to Congress and the public that the NSA surveillance programs can’t be abused because its spying systems are so aggressively monitored and audited for oversight purposes: If Snowden could defeat the NSA’s own tripwires and internal burglar alarms, how many other employees or contractors could do the same?

And, to be clear, I didn’t mean to say that intimidation wasn’t the government’s motive. I believe it was, and that it was poorly thought out intimidation: lashing out in anger, rather than from some Machiavellian strategy. (Here’s a similar view.) If they wanted Miranda’s electronics, they could have confiscated them and sent him on his way in fifteen minutes. Holding him for nine hours — the absolute maximum they could under the current law — was intimidation.

I am reminded of the phone call the Guardian received from British government. The exact quote reported was: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” That’s something you would tell your child. And that’s the power dynamic that’s going on here.

EDITED TO ADD (8/27): Jay Rosen has an excellent essay on this.

EDITED TO ADD (9/12): Other editors react.

Posted on August 27, 2013 at 6:39 AMView Comments

Attacking Fences

From an article on the cocaine trade between Mexico and the U.S.:

“They erect this fence,” he said, “only to go out there a few days later and discover that these guys have a catapult, and they’re flinging hundred-pound bales of marijuana over to the other side.” He paused and looked at me for a second. “A catapult,” he repeated. “We’ve got the best fence money can buy, and they counter us with a 2,500-year-old technology.”

Posted on July 10, 2012 at 4:33 AMView Comments

Switzerland National Defense

Interesting blog post about this book about Switzerland’s national defense.

To make a long story short, McPhee describes two things: how Switzerland requires military service from every able-bodied male Swiss citizen — a model later emulated and expanded by Israel — and how the Swiss military has, in effect, wired the entire country to blow in the event of foreign invasion. To keep enemy armies out, bridges will be dynamited and, whenever possible, deliberately collapsed onto other roads and bridges below; hills have been weaponized to be activated as valley-sweeping artificial landslides; mountain tunnels will be sealed from within to act as nuclear-proof air raid shelters; and much more.


To interrupt the utility of bridges, tunnels, highways, railroads, Switzerland has established three thousand points of demolition. That is the number officially printed. It has been suggested to me that to approximate a true figure a reader ought to multiply by two. Where a highway bridge crosses a railroad, a segment of the bridge is programmed to drop on the railroad. Primacord fuses are built into the bridge. Hidden artillery is in place on either side, set to prevent the enemy from clearing or repairing the damage.


Near the German border of Switzerland, every railroad and highway tunnel has been prepared to pinch shut explosively. Nearby mountains have been made so porous that whole divisions can fit inside them. There are weapons and soldiers under barns. There are cannons inside pretty houses. Where Swiss highways happen to run on narrow ground between the edges of lakes and to the bottoms of cliffs, man-made rockslides are ready to slide.


McPhee points to small moments of “fake stonework, concealing the artillery behind it,” that dot Switzerland’s Alpine geology, little doors that will pop open to reveal internal cannons and blast the country’s roads to smithereens. Later, passing under a mountain bridge, McPhee notices “small steel doors in one pier” hinting that the bridge “was ready to blow. It had been superceded, however, by an even higher bridge, which leaped through the sky above — a part of the new road to Simplon. In an extreme emergency, the midspan of the new bridge would no doubt drop on the old one.”

The book is on my Kindle.

Posted on June 20, 2012 at 7:27 AMView Comments

Computer Security when Traveling to China


When Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, travels to that country, he follows a routine that seems straight from a spy film.

He leaves his cellphone and laptop at home and instead brings “loaner” devices, which he erases before he leaves the United States and wipes clean the minute he returns. In China, he disables Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, never lets his phone out of his sight and, in meetings, not only turns off his phone but also removes the battery, for fear his microphone could be turned on remotely. He connects to the Internet only through an encrypted, password-protected channel, and copies and pastes his password from a USB thumb drive. He never types in a password directly, because, he said, “the Chinese are very good at installing key-logging software on your laptop.”

Posted on February 24, 2012 at 7:06 AMView Comments

Smuggling Drugs in Unwitting People's Car Trunks

This is clever:

A few miles away across the Rio Grande, the FBI determined that Chavez and Gomez were using lookouts to monitor the SENTRI Express Lane at the border. The lookouts identified “targets” — people with regular commutes who primarily drove Ford vehicles. According to the FBI affidavit, the smugglers would follow their targets and get the vehicle identification number off the car’s dashboard. Then a corrupt locksmith with access to Ford’s vehicle database would make a duplicate key.

Keys in hand, the gang would put drugs in a car at night in Mexico and then pick up their shipment from the parked vehicle the next morning in Texas, authorities say.

This attack works because 1) there’s a database of keys available to lots of people, and 2) both the SENTRI system and the victims are predictable.

Posted on July 25, 2011 at 5:59 AMView Comments

UK Immigration Officer Puts Wife on the No-Fly List

A UK immigration officer decided to get rid of his wife by putting her on the no-fly list, ensuring that she could not return to the UK from abroad. This worked for three years, until he put in for a promotion and — during the routine background check — someone investigated why his wife was on the no-fly list.

Okay, so he’s an idiot. And a bastard. But the real piece of news here is how easy it is for a UK immigration officer to put someone on the no-fly list with absolutely no evidence that that person belongs there. And how little auditing is done on that list. Once someone is on, they’re on for good.

That’s simply no way to run a free country.

Posted on February 4, 2011 at 1:35 PMView Comments

Crowdsourcing Surveillance

Internet Eyes is a U.K. startup designed to crowdsource digital surveillance. People pay a small fee to become a “Viewer.” Once they do, they can log onto the site and view live anonymous feeds from surveillance cameras at retail stores. If they notice someone shoplifting, they can alert the store owner. Viewers get rated on their ability to differentiate real shoplifting from false alarms, can win 1000 pounds if they detect the most shoplifting in some time interval, and otherwise get paid a wage that most likely won’t cover their initial fee.

Although the system has some nod towards privacy, groups like Privacy International oppose the system for fostering a culture of citizen spies. More fundamentally, though, I don’t think the system will work. Internet Eyes is primarily relying on voyeurism to compensate its Viewers. But most of what goes on in a retail store is incredibly boring. Some of it is actually voyeuristic, and very little of it is criminal. The incentives just aren’t there for Viewers to do more than peek, and there’s no obvious way to discouraging them from siding with the shoplifter and just watch the scenario unfold.

This isn’t the first time groups have tried to crowdsource surveillance camera monitoring. Texas’s Virtual Border Patrol tried the same thing: deputizing the general public to monitor the Texas-Mexico border. It ran out of money last year, and was widely criticized as a joke.

This system suffered the same problems as Internet Eyes — not enough incentive to do a good job, boredom because crime is the rare exception — as well as the fact that false alarms were very expensive to deal with.

Both of these systems remind me of the one time this idea was conceptualized correctly. Invented in 2003 by my friend and colleague Jay Walker, US HomeGuard also tried to crowdsource surveillance camera monitoring. But this system focused on one very specific security concern: people in no-mans areas. These are areas between fences at nuclear power plants or oil refineries, border zones, areas around dams and reservoirs, and so on: areas where there should never be anyone.

The idea is that people would register to become “spotters.” They would get paid a decent wage (that and patriotism was the incentive), receive a stream of still photos, and be asked a very simple question: “Is there a person or a vehicle in this picture?” If a spotter clicked “yes,” the photo — and the camera — would be referred to whatever professional response the camera owner had set up.

HomeGuard would monitor the monitors in two ways. One, by sending stored, known, photos to people regularly to verify that they were paying attention. And two, by sending live photos to multiple spotters and correlating the results, to many more monitors if a spotter claimed to have spotted a person or vehicle.

Just knowing that there’s a person or a vehicle in a no-mans area is only the first step in a useful response, and HomeGuard envisioned a bunch of enhancements to the rest of that system. Flagged photos could be sent to the digital phones of patrolling guards, cameras could be controlled remotely by those guards, and speakers in the cameras could issue warnings. Remote citizen spotters were only useful for that first step, looking for a person or a vehicle in a photo that shouldn’t contain any. Only real guards at the site itself could tell an intruder from the occasional maintenance person.

Of course the system isn’t perfect. A would-be infiltrator could sneak past the spotters by holding a bush in front of him, or disguising himself as a vending machine. But it does fill in a gap in what fully automated systems can do, at least until image processing and artificial intelligence get significantly better.

HomeGuard never got off the ground. There was never any good data about whether spotters were more effective than motion sensors as a first level of defense. But more importantly, Walker says that the politics surrounding homeland security money post-9/11 was just too great to penetrate, and that as an outsider he couldn’t get his ideas heard. Today, probably, the patriotic fervor that gripped so many people post-9/11 has dampened, and he’d probably have to pay his spotters more than he envisioned seven years ago. Still, I thought it was a clever idea then and I still think it’s a clever idea — and it’s an example of how to do surveillance crowdsourcing correctly.

Making the system more general runs into all sorts of problems. An amateur can spot a person or vehicle pretty easily, but is much harder pressed to notice a shoplifter. The privacy implications of showing random people pictures of no-mans lands is minimal, while a busy store is another matter — stores have enough individuality to be identifiable, as do people. Public photo tagging will even allow the process to be automated. And, of course, the normalization of a spy-on-your-neighbor surveillance society where it’s perfectly reasonable to watch each other on cameras just in case one of us does something wrong.

This essay first appeared in ThreatPost.

Posted on November 9, 2010 at 12:59 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.