Monthly archives of “March 2016

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The relationship between surveillance and censorship

Spying ProgramIn the online world, surveillance and censorship are two sides of the same coin, you can’t have one without the other.

When the government moots a ‘blogger registration’ act , we automatically infer it to be part of a wider censorship initiative, an attempt to control the narrative by subtlety telling bloggers “we know who you are, so watch what you say”.

We intuitively get that putting a whole community under surveillance is a bid to control expression within that community, and if someone was even ‘potentially’ watching you–your behavior would change.

But the internet has made the connection between surveillance and censorship work in reverse, not only does surveillance lead to censorship,  but censorship leads to surveillance as well.

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Hate Speech is defined by private companies

FirstAmendmentYou don’t have a right to freedom of speech.

Obviously true if you’re Malaysian, but even Americans only enjoy a liberty in freedom of speech and not an absolute right.

The difference is clear, liberties are protections you have from the government, while rights are something you have from everyone.

So if someone threatened your right to live, the government is obligated to intervene and protect that right, because your right to live is a protection you have from everyone, whether it be a common criminal, abusive husband or Ayotollah Khomeini.

On the other hand you only have a liberty in freedom of speech (at least in an American context), which means that the government can’t prevent you from speaking, or penalize you for something you said.

However, the government is under no obligation to ensure your speech gets equal ‘air-time’, a newspaper may decline to publish your article, an auditorium may elect to deny you their roster, and online platforms like Facebook may choose to remove your post–all of which do not violate your freedom of speech, because freedom of speech is protection only from the government (state actors) and not from private entities.

And like all liberties and rights, freedom speech is not absolute. Under strict conditions even the US government can impose limits to what they’re citizens can say, or penalize them for things they have said.

In the case of freedom of speech, a liberty defined in their first amendment, those strict conditions are very strict indeed. In order for the government to infringe on the freedom of speech, it must demonstrate a imminent danger that will result in a serious effect.

In other words the government must be able to prove that if the speech were given freedom, there would be an imminent threat of something serious. Both the imminence and seriousness must be proven, failing which the government cannot infringe on that speech. This is indeed a very tall hurdle to climb, and based on my cursory research no case has ever reached this limit.

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FBI vs. Apple : Everything you need to know part 2

broken-fence

The Apple vs. FBI story has evolved so much in the past weeks, I thought I needed to write a separate post just on the updates. Admittedly, the story is far more complex and nuanced that I initially presumed, and everyone wants to be part of the conversation.

On one side, we have the silicon valley tech geeks, who seem to be unanimously in the corner of Tim Cook and Apple, while on the other  we have the Washington D.C policy makers, who are equally supportive of James Comey and the FBI whom he directs.

But to understand this issue from a fair and balanced perspective, we need to frame the correct question, not just what the issue about, but who is the  issue really focused on.

This isn’t just about the FBI or Apple

Framing this as the FBI vs. Apple or The Government vs. Apple is wrong. This is Law Enforcement vs. Tech Companies.

The FBI is just a part of the The Government, specifically the part tasked with investigating federal crimes.James Comey, FBI director, is genuinely trying to do his job when he uses the All Writs Act to compel Apple to create a version of iOS that would allow them to brute-force the PIN code.

But there are other parts of The Government, like the NSA, who have the wholly different task of national security. To them, if a smartphone, is genuinely secured from FBI, then it’s secured from Russian Cybercriminals and Chinese State Sponsored actors too (probably!).

And because so much data are on smartphones, including the smartphones of federal government employees, the national security interest of America is better protected by having phones that are completely unbreakable, rather than ones the provide exceptional access to law-enforcement. Exceptional being defined as, no one has access except for law enforcement, and perhaps TSA agents, maybe border patrol and coast guard–you can see how slippery a slope ‘exceptional’ can be. Oh and by the way, exceptional doesn’t exist in end-to-end encryption.

Former NSA director, Michael Hayden, has openly said “I disagree with Jim Comey. I actually think end-to-end encryption is good for America”. So it appears the NSA has an interest of national security that competes with the FBIs interest of investigating crimes.

The Government isn’t a single entity with just one interest, rather it is a collection of agencies with sometimes competing objectives, even though they all ultimately serve their citizens.  Experts believe the NSA has the capability to crack the iPhone encryption easily, but are refusing to indulge the FBI, because–well it’s hard to guess why the NSA don’t like the FBI.

Susan Landau,  a member of Cybersecurity hall of fame (yes it does exist), detailed two methods the FBI could hack the iPhone in her testimony to House Judiciary Committee. Both methods involved complicated forensics tools, but would cost a few hundred thousand dollars (cheap!) , and wouldn’t require Apple to write a weakened version of iOS. If the goverment can get into the phone for $100,000 , that would mean it couldn’t compel Apple under the All Writs Act (AWA).

Remember, the FBI buy their spyware from the lowlifes at hacking team, which means they’re about as competent as the MACC and Malaysian PMO, but if Comey and Co. can afford $775,000 on shit from Hacking Team, I’m guessing $100,000 for a proper computer forensics expert isn’t a problem.

But maybe there’s an ulterior motive here, at the very recently concluded Brooklyn iPhone case, Magistrate Judge Orenstein noted that necessity was a pre-requisite for any request made under AWA, and if the FBI have an alternative for a reasonable price, then Apple’s support was not necessary, and hence outside the ambit of the AWA. So maybe the NSA isn’t providing the support to necessitate the NSA.

An this isn’t singularly about the FBI either. The New York A-G is waiting for this case to set precedent before he makes request for the 175 iPhones he’s hoping to unlock for cases that aren’t related to terrorism or ISIS. You can bet he’s not the only A-G waiting for the outcome, and it’s highly unlikely for the Judge to make her ruling so specific that nobody except the FBI could use it as precedent.

But it’s also not just about Apple. The legal precedent set by this case would apply not just to every other iPhone, but possibly every other smartphone, laptop, car or anything else we could squeeze into the definition of a computer. This is about more than Apple, and that’s why the tech companies are lining up in support of Mr. Cook, 32  such companies the last I checked.us vs. them

But now that we’ve framed the ‘who’ , let’s frame the ‘what’.