Welcome to fascism

If there were times when I questioned the usefulness of twitter, believe me, they’re long gone. First I got this video of yet another interview with Assange. It’s overall very interesting, but here’s the real nice bit: “Facebook is the most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented” (1:50 minute mark on the video).

Besides Facebook, he talks about his extradition case, Wikileaks’ relationship with mainstream press (viz. The Guardian and the NYT), but the most interesting bit is the final one: when he’s asked what is his greatest enemy, he replies “ignorance”. For in his view, peoples don’t like wars, so the only way to go to war, is to “fool the people” into going to war. I think he just revealed the true seed behind Wikileaks.

Moving a bit back to Facebook, also via twitter comes this pearl: Facebook’s form to law enforcement. In my most humble opinion, if this shows anything, it is that to Facebook at least, handling data to the authorities is no longer (if it ever has been) an exceptional event; rather, it has become commonplace, a routine task if you will. Adding the fact that this kind of disclosures do not add any value to Facebook’s shareholders, it is then an annoyance that has to be dealt with, preferably with the minimum amount of hassle. And thus Facebook becomes “the most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented”.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention today’s main news piece: the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. I’d have much preferred to see him brought to justice and tried according to the rule of law, but then again, he is a (US-)trained Mujahideen, who probably doesn’t really fit the “come peacefully” type. But all that notwithstanding, given all the cheerful and sometimes outright extatic reaction to the death of a human being, one cannot stop and wonder: have we (and US people in particular) become that which we set out to fight against in the first place?

EDIT TO ADD: not even on purpose, Facebook deletes “We’re all Osama Bin Laden page”. I do not wish to moralize on merits or lack thereof of such page (which I have not seen), but just think about the fate of all the data related to it (e.g. the identities of all those who “liked” it). Chilling thought!


More two videos

Given the shortage of time, I am yet to finish writing about a bunch of posts that are on the way. But despair not! I leave you with two videos, both muy awesome! 🙂

First here’s a great TED talk by none other than Salman Kahn, the man behind Khan Akademy.

Next, for all the privacy nuts out there, here’s the very nice survey on the evolution of the crypto-wars of the 90’s, the current state of affairs, and pointers to future directions. Kudos to Kenny for showing me this!

The inhumane conditions of Brad Manning’s detention

In case you’ve been living in a cave for the last few months, US Army Private Bradley Manning, the alleged source behind Wikileaks’ release of the Collateral Murder video[1], and the 250 000 US diplomatic cables[2], is being held in a US Marine brig, in Quantico, Virginia. For the last 7 months, he was the subject of solitary confinement in a cell small enough to keep him from exercising, suffered sleep interruptions, denied even simple things like bedsheets, and more[3] (emphasis added):

Despite that, he [Manning] has been detained at the U.S. Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia for five months — and for two months before that in a military jail in Kuwait — under conditions that constitute cruel and inhumane treatment and, by the standards of many nations, even torture.

So extreme was Manning treatment—and all this before being tried, let alone convicted!—that a former commander of Marine Headquarters in Quantico, David C. MacMichael, wrote to the commander of the Marine Corps, objecting to the way Manning has and still is being treated[4]. I reproduce it here, in its entirety, adding emphasis to the more relevant parts.

[1] – http://www.collateralmurder.com/
[2] – http://wikileaks.ch/cablegate.html
[3] – http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/12/14/manning
[4] – http://warisacrime.org/content/former-commander-headquarters-company-quantico-objects-treatment-bradley-manning

General James F. Amos
Commandant of the Marine Corps
3000 Marine Corps Pentagon
Washington DC 20350-3000

Dear General Amos:

As a former regular Marine Corps captain, a Korean War combat veteran, now retired on Veterans Administration disability due to wounds suffered during that conflict, I write you to protest and express concern about the confinement in the Quantico Marine Corps Base brig of US Army Pfc. Bradley Manning.

Manning, if the information I have is correct, is charged with having violated provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice by providing to unauthorized persons, among them specifically one Julian Assange and his organization Wikileaks, classified information relating to US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and State Department communications. This seems straightforward enough and sufficient to have Manning court-martialed and if found guilty sentenced in accordance with the UCMJ.

What concerns me here, and I hasten to admit that I respect Manning’s motives, is the manner in which the legal action against him is being conducted. I wonder, in the first place, why an Army enlisted man is being held in a Marine Corps installation. Second, I question the length of confinement prior to conduct of court-martial. The sixth amendment to the US Constitution, guaranteeing to the accused in all criminal prosecutions the right to a speedy and public trial, extends to those being prosecuted in the military justice system. Third, I seriously doubt that the conditions of his confinement — solitary confinement, sleep interruption, denial of all but minimal physical exercise, etc. — are necessary, customary, or in accordance with law, US or international.

Indeed, I have to wonder why the Marine Corps has put itself, or allowed itself to be put, in this invidious and ambiguous situation. I can appreciate that the decision to place Manning in a Marine Corps facility may not have been one over which you had control. However, the conditions of his confinement in the Quantico brig are very clearly under your purview, and, if I may say so, these bring little credit either to you or your subordinates at the Marine Corps Base who impose these conditions.

It would be inappropriate, I think, to use this letter, in which I urge you to use your authority to make the conditions of Pfc. Manning’s confinement less extreme, to review my Marine Corps career except to note that my last duty prior to resigning my captain’s commission in 1959 was commanding the headquarters company at Quantico. More relevantly, during the 1980s, following a stint as a senior estimates officer in the CIA, I played a very public role as a “whistleblower “ in the Iran-contra affair. At that time, I wondered why Lt. Col. Oliver North, who very clearly violated the UCMJ — and, in my opinion, disgraced our service — was not court-martialed.

When I asked the Navy’s Judge-Advocate General’s office why neither North nor Admiral Poindexter were charged under the UCMJ, the JAG informed me that when officers were assigned to duties in the White House, NSC, or similar offices they were somehow not legally in the armed forces. To my question why, if that were the case, they continued to draw their military pay and benefits, increase their seniority, be promoted while so serving, and, spectacularly in North’s case, appear in uniform while testifying regarding violations of US law before Congress, I could get no answer beyond, “That’s our policy.”

This is not to equate North’s case with Manning. It is only to suggest that equal treatment under the law is one of those American principles that the Marine Corps exists to protect. This is something you might consider.


David C. MacMichael

Firefox addons

After mentioning in a previous post three apps, I know mention two (IMHO must have) Firefox addons:

  • HTTPS Everywhere forces the use of HTTPS during all the session (as opposed to just during login) of several sites, such as WordPress and Facebook, to name just two. This is of paramount importance specially to those that browse the web using wi-fi in public places (and if you don’t believe me, just google for “firesheep”).
    EDIT: it seems this addon breaks Facebook Chat. Bummer!
  • Textarea Cache saves what you write in forms in cache, so that in the event of a browser crash or, vastly more likely, session expiration, you can still recover what you’ve written. I ought to have for a long time, but just searched for it now, after losing a rather lengthy text I meant to post in the ArchLinux forums (the session expires rather quickly…).

Paranoid tip of the week: ScroogleSSL

Scroogle is a sort of “web-wrapper” of Google. It essentially acts as an interface, that performs ordinary google searches while (literally) detaching the client executing the search from google’s prying eyes. To make this even better, it allows (unlike google) for searches to be done with https, and not only plain http (accessing https://google.com will just redirect you to the normal unencrypted google page). And now for the fun part: how to add SSL enabled Scroogle to Firefox search bar. First download the “Add to Search Bar” Firefox extension, then restart Firefox and go to the SSL Scroogle page, right click on the search form, and select “Add to Search Bar”. Select a name for the new search engine, and you’re done!

Privacy: Don’t be evil

Virtually every single time I’ve mentioned online privacy related concerns to anyone—even computer engineers—the reaction I get is similar: a shrug, followed by comments like: “yeah right, like that’s ever going to be a problem…”.

I don’t think this is because people stopped valuing their privacy. Rather, most people don’t seem to realize the extent of the lack of privacy they experiment when going online. This is hardly surprising: after all, in the comfort (and privacy!) of your homes, using a computer is not an experience likely to be perceived as privacy threatening—in fact, it may well happen the opposite, because you’re not interacting with actual people, but sitting comfortably behind a screen. This must be the reason, I’m led to surmise, why so many people on Facebook will happily provide their personal details—i.e. accept an invitation to befriend—pretty much anyone else, including a green plastic frog. The meagre and dwindling online privacy we have now is perceived to be higher than that which we enjoy in our “away from keyboard” lives.

But it gets better—or rather, worse—than that. How? When the bulk of your online activities, be those web browsing, email, calender schedule, and even DNS queries(!) are all done by the same corporation, viz. Google. And I know that for instance in the case of Google Public DNS, they state that “In the permanent logs, we don’t keep personally identifiable information or IP information.”. But if they wanted to do that (say, they got a subpoena from law enforcement), they could do that. That’s a fact. And history shows us, time and time again, that whenever power can be abused, it will be abused. But it gets even worse.

How? Well, everything I mentioned so far about Google, are all potential problems. Right? Well, that potential came a lot closer to reality when Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, uttered these words:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place

Now think for a second: it’s Google’s CEO who said that! If that does not wake us up against the danger of anything remotely resembling online privacy disappearing into oblivion, then I don’t know what will.

Oh by the way, a couple of years ago, some folks over CNET did this little experiment: they used the Google search engine to search about Schmidt himself; the results of said search having pissed the hell out of him. By his own twisted logic, he was doing a lot of things he shouldn’t be doing…

So what is the average computer user suppose to make out of this? The interview in The Register, where the quote comes from, ends like this:

CNBC asks Schmidt: “People are treating Google like their most trusted friend. Should they be?” But he answers by scoffing at those who don’t trust Google at all.
Not that you’d expect anything less. As always, Schmidt’s holier-than-thou attitude is wonderfully amusing. Except that it’s not.

The way I see it, he’s acting a whole lot like a drug dealer: he knows better than to use the stuff he sells. Continuing with the analogy for a little bit, when CNET forced his own drug onto him, he exacted revenge on them. But what are those of us that don’t head a multi billion dollar company supposed to do, when that same drug is so overwhelmingly forced upon us? That is a question still left open.