Category Archives: Wikileaks

The top 3 myths about the recent surveillance revelations

The recent–and still ongoing–revelations in the Guardian by their columnist Glenn Greenwald and his colleagues have already given rise to a number of dismissive myths.

Here are three of them, and my responses.

1. “It’s nothing new. We’ve known about this for a long time.”

For example, Senator Chambliss, ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee: “Everyone’s been aware of it for years.”

This is a common human reaction to any information that is presented as being important. It’s healthy and reflects a critical attitude. You may remember  similar responses to the WikiLeaks cables. But the latter turned out to be incredibly useful. So it’s worth recognizing what is new here, and what we’ve already known. (And there is a difference between “known” in the sense of known as a undisputed fact and “suspected.”)

In 2005 the New York Times revealed (after sitting on the story until George Bush was re-elected) that the NSA had been performing “warrantless wiretaps” in a program known as “Stellar Wind.” The story was reported by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau (see super-useful EFF timeline here) who later won a Pulitzer prize for their reporting. This was–and remains–genuinely new information, not least because it was not something rogue going on, but was done under the full direction of the Bush White House. It was a central plank in liberals’ opposition to Bush’s war on terror as it applied domestically (the Iraq war was the other, as it applied overseas). Risen was subpoenaed twice by the government as part of their still-ongoing investigation into one of his alleged sources (Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA employee) for a separate story (see case files here).

When President Obama took office he reportedly closed down this program. But note that it refers to “warrantless” wiretapping, or interception. What if you could get access without needing a warrant? And do so legally? This is, in large part, what is significant about the recent revelations. Yes, Sens. Udall and Wyden have been trying to publicly put on record information about this, as the latter tweeted yesterday:

But now this is confirmed by the Guardian’s Verizon story, rather than hinted or speculated at. So what is new is that we now know that:

The Guardian for the first time published an actual FISA Court order. This order revealed that the US is collecting information (specifically, metadata) on all communications by customers, both foreign and domestic, of the country’s biggest telecom provider. Specifically, Verizon’s business customers. Senator Feinstein, who is on the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee, said in a press conference on June 6, 2013, that as far as she was aware this was a routine 3-month extension of a program going back at least to 2006.

It was previously speculated or thought that this was going on (eg., see this USAToday story from 2006). But now we know.

As recently as March, 2013, DNI Director Clapper, when asked a direct question on whether the US was collecting information on millions of Americans, said “no.” Glenn Greenwald directly called this a “lie” on “Democracy Now” this morning.

Second, the Guardian and the Washington Post both revealed the existence of another program, known as Prism, that collects the actual content of communications from Yahoo, Google, Apple, Facebook and so on, of people (including Americans) overseas. According to the document, which the Guardian has authenticated, the NSA has had “direct access” into the servers of these companies on an ongoing basis since 2007.

2. “It’s just metadata, not content.”

This is a serious misunderstanding. The secret FISA court order published by the Guardian gives the FBI and the NSA access to all “transactional metadata” which defenders of the program immediately characterized as akin to reading the outside of an envelope, rather than your letter inside. But to conclude that your personal privacy has not been violated is to be ignorant of what you can do with metadata. Note that the metadata  includes phone numbers, location, length of the call, and who called who. From this, it is easy enough to build a pretty complete picture of what’s going on (and it may therefore be even more valuable than the actual content!). After all, according to the Wall Street Journal, it was metadata that revealed former CIA Director GEN. David Petraeus’ affair with his Mistress Paula Broadwell. Investigators were able to note her location and contacts in order to build a case against her before reading any of her messages’ content. Investigators then used the metadata as probable cause to obtain a warrant to read her emails, which led them to Petraeus. It is in the nature of “big data” that it can be extensively mined for significant patterns and findings, and can be leveraged against ancillary data (Crampton et al. 2013).

Locational metadata is by itself a critical insight into activity. Indeed there is a whole field of intelligence analysis known as Activity-based Intelligence” or ABI, that is a key part of intelligence, including geographical intelligence (GEOINT) that relies on geolocational data. A recent paper (pdf) by a joint team of investigators from MIT, Harvard and Louvain recently showed that they could uniquely identify an individual 95 percent of the time from a large, anonymized dataset, knowing just four pieces of metadata. So if I know where you are just four times, I can almost certainly uniquely identify you even if personal identifiers are stripped (as there are not in the Verizon order). Then I can track you, see who you interact with, for how long, and build a pretty good picture that will at least get me a subpoena (which, remember, requires less evidence than a warrant).

Also note that metadata are deemed by US law to have been “given” by you to a third party and so are not subject to warrant having probable cause (a la the Fourth Amendment) but only a subpoena, which is much easier to get.

3. “The leaks (and the leakers) threaten legal, approved measures that are designed to ensure the safety of Americans. We should prosecute/investigate/stop leakers.”

For example, during the same press conference yesterday, Sen. Feinstein was asked if the Verizon leak should be investigated. She replied “Yes, I think so” (video).

There are several points to be made here. First, it is part of the problem, not the solution, that these programs (Verizon and PRISM, as well as others we sometimes hear about, such as “Ragtime” a codename revealed in Marc Ambinder’s book, Deep State) operate within the law. It indicates that the laws are wrong, overbroad, and unconstitutional. This includes the Patriot Act.

Second, to say that “Congress in fully briefed” as both President Obama and Sen. Feinstein did, is irrelevant and untrue. Only a very small group of Senators (typically either the “Gang of Four” [CRS pdf], or “Gang of Eight” [CRS pdf]) get anything like regular national security/intel briefings (there was a separate one yesterday, to 27 interested Senators), but, since they can’t tell the public what’s going on, and Intelligence committees rarely hold publicly accessible meetings, this is not much good to US citizens, nor even to other Senators and Congressmen and women not included.

To the point that these leaks damage operational programs and even cost lives, and therefore we need to investigate and prosecute leakers. First, there is a deficit of publicly available information that would provide a basis for a conversation about these matters. Second, according to one (fully briefed) Senator, Ron Wyden, who is on the intelligence committee, he said yesterday regarding this blanket surveillance that “Based on several years of oversight, I believe that its value and effectiveness remain unclear.”

Third, the investigation of leakers is not only wrong but counter-productive. These “leakers” are not acting for financial gain (just think how much money Bradley Manning could have made, or how much Thomas Drake has lost) but as whistleblowers. Whistleblowing, which candidate Obama praised in 2008, is an act carried out to alert to government waste, inefficiencies, or malfeasance.  Prosecutions of these whistleblowers, especially under the World War I-era Espionage Act ( a favorite of the Obama administration) will suppress future whistleblowers and hence the public’s ability to know about government waste, fraud and mismanagement.

These are my top 3 myths. There are others, and feel free to add your own.

Is transparency enough?

Two recent events have got me thinking about transparency. Particularly whether demands for transparency of process, coupled with oversight, are sufficient to ensure good practice.

The proximate cause of these thoughts was Sarah Elwood’s excellent talk to the geography department “Activism, Civic Engagement and the Knowledge Politics of the Geoweb.” Sarah discussed NGOs and their use of geospatial and GIS technologies, and noted that they claimed these offered a benefit to the user (eg., to increase participation) due to their added transparency compared to previous NGO efforts. Sarah was careful to note that these were the NGO claims, and that they needed further assessment. Given the subject matter of her talk, the clear implication was that transparency alone (ie., access to knowledge about their activities) is no more sufficient than previous claims for transparency of the map were ever sufficient. (The map as a transparent window on to the real world.)

The original comments that started me on this however were a couple of posts on Derek Gregory’s blog (here and here) on covert killing through drone strikes. Here are the pertinent sections, first in the context of a recent report on the civilian impact of drones:

military protocols are indeed more public, even transparent, as the authors note, but the space between principle and practice is still wide enough to inflict an unacceptably heavy burden on the civilian population.

Derek had previously made a more developed version of his point:

Madiha’s root objection is to the way in which what she calls the Obama administration’s ‘theatrical performance of faux secrecy’ over its drone war in the FATA (and elsewhere) – a repugnantly teasing dance in which the veil of secrecy is let slip once, twice, three times – functions to draw its audience’s entranced eye towards the American body politic and away from the Pakistani bodies on the ground.  The story is always in Washington and never in Waziristan.  It’s a hideously effective sideshow, in which Obama and an army of barkers and hucksters – unnamed spokesmen ‘speaking on condition of anonymity’ because they are ‘not authorised to speak on the record’,  and front-of-house spielers like Harold Koh and John Brennan – induce not only a faux secrecy but its obverse, a faux intimacy in which public debate is focused on transparency and accountability as the only ‘games’ worth playing.

It is certainly true that the administration’s “now you see it, now you don’t” position on CIA drone strikes (as opposed to those performed by the military in Afghanistan) are hypocritical. On the one hand they issue the standard Glomar response (“neither confirm nor deny”) about drone use in countries with which the US is not at war (Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia). On the other they send out self-congratulatory announcements about killing suspected al-Qaeda members in Yemen, even when they hold American citizenship (such as Anwar al-Awlaki). (Glenn Greenwald has written the most informatively on this, eg here.)

I would also agree with Derek that “false transparency” is deceptive (as is the quest for total or full transparency). However, I would argue that the conditions of knowledge, or if you like the politics of knowledge, are currently in such an asymmetrical state that efforts to rebalance these asymmetries are meritorious. Not just the two recent reports on drones (which I haven’t read yet but plan to do so), but also efforts like WikiLeaks, which I wrote about recently in Geopolitics. The Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers has been truly unprecendented, and brave employees of the NSA, like Thomas Drake, and of the CIA, such as John Kiriakou (who revealed its practice of waterboarding and admitted it was torture) have been charged under the Espionage Act. Not to mentioned Bradley Manning, accused whistleblower, who allegedly provided State department cables to WikiLeaks. (The Drake case was dismissed but the Kiriakou case continues. Proceedings against Bradley Manning are also continuing today.)

While transparency is not enough, and false transparency is misleading, I think it’s important to continue to work for increased government oversight, and I know that it is effective. Things like FOIA and working on declassified documents in archives do yield plenty of information. The FAS Secrecy blog is also highly informational (not least in part because of their use of FOIA to obtain eg., the NGA Congressional budget justifications). In a paper I wrote this summer with two colleagues, Susan Roberts and Ate Poorthuis, we used information we obtained from  corporate filings with the SEC. The paper would not have been as empirically rich without it.

This issue has connections to the vexed problem of visuality, but my focus has more often been on knowledge, and, as here, access to knowledge and denial of access (secrecy). I have a blog post coming up on “the secret” so more on that soon.

WikiLeaks piece published

My contribution to a discussion forum entitled “Leaky Geopolitics” has just been published in Geopolitics 17: 681-711.

The idea behind this piece was to examine what WikiLeaks might mean geopolitically. The piece includes contributions by Simon Springer, Heather Chi, Fiona McConnell, Julie Cupples, Kevin Glynn, Barney Warf and Wes Attewell and was put together by Simon and Heather.

Here’s part of the Abstract:

The ‘Wikigate’ scandal thus represents an important occasion to take stock and think critically about what this case tells us about the nature of sovereign power, freedom of information, the limits of democracy, and importantly, the violence of the state when it attempts to manage these considerations. This forum explores a series of challenges inspired by WikiLeaks, which we hope will prompt further debate and reflection within critical geopolitics.

The only other discussion of WikiLeaks by geographers I’m aware of came from my colleagues here at UKY: Sue Roberts, Anna Secor and Matt Zook in Antipode earlier this year (we all seem to have liked the “leaky” metaphor!). What I think we were trying to do here was to explore alternatives to the state, and in my case, how the state “outsources” itself, especially (using Matt Hannah’s term) how there are emerging battles over “epistemic sovereignty.”

If the state is outsourcing itself in defense and intelligence contracting, the fact that WikiLeaks tried to play on the same ball field and got squelched reveals much about how the game is supposed to be played. A parallel I didn’t mention in the piece because it developed after we submitted it is the present “concern” about leaks, eg by Dianne Feinstein the Senate Intelligence Committee Chair. Over the past two months sher’s been all about stopping leaks of classified material, and yet when it suits her purpose she is apparently known to be a serial leaker herself.

This is my final paragraph:

An inescapable conclusion is not that sovereignty is being weakened or challenged, but rather that it is being outsourced and redeployed beyond the state. This is cause for concern, because there is less accountability in such arrangements, not to mention that contractors can work outside the military chain of command (for example, contractors are used to operate the CIA’s drone system). WikiLeaks is a minor but symbolically powerful figure operating among governmental outsourcing and acting as an outlet for whistle-blowers and providing oversight and transparency. Until (at a minimum) there is true participatory bi-directional dataveillance, we must continue to value WikiLeaks for these efforts.


It just became harder to support WikiLeaks, but we should still pursue its goals

With the release two days ago of the full, unredacted cables by WikiLeaks, it has become a lot harder to support WikiLeaks as it is currently run. However, we should not deviate from its mission of transparency, or of its goal of rebalancing knowledge assymetries where the state knows all about us but we know increasingly little about it.

There are plenty of WikiLeaks detractors right now who worry for example about confidential aid and human rights workers being named in the cables. There can and should be debate over whether revealing these names is consequential or whether those who cooperate with government should expect to become known.

But whatever the resolution of that debate it is both harder and more necessary than ever to focus on the goals of openness and transparency which are likely to be glossed over in the news and back and forth between WikiLeaks and the Guardian.

WikiLeaks cable: Turkey protests use of map of Kurdistan

Following the decision by WikiLeaks on Friday morning to release the full set of US State Department cables in unredacted, searchable form, a cable detailing protests by Turkey on the use of a map used in a NATO college class has come to light.

The unclassified cable, which was sent from the US Embassy in Ankara in September 2006, documents a complaint by Turkey over the use of a map by a retired Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters which redraws the boundaries of Turkey to show an independent Turkmenistan.

The cable continues:

This was Esenli\'s second call in six weeks on the 
\"Peters map,\" which appeared in the June 2006 edition of 
Armed Forces Journal together with an article entitled \"Blood 
Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look,\" that received 
extensive coverage in Ankara.  In late July, he and other 
Turkish officials complained about the map, with some 
suggesting that it depicted the U.S. vision of the \"new 
Middle East\" outlined by Secretary Rice.

The US tried to reassure Turkey that the map did not reflect official US policy, and notes how sensitive Ankara is to its borders and calls the whole thing a bit of a “map crisis.”

(NB this is not the same as the Peters projection.)

Major WikiLeaks developments

There have been some major developments by WikiLeaks over the past couple of days. WikiLeaks itself is pointing to this story as a good summary. In brief, it looks like the full WikiLeaks cables can be downloaded, and that the password is available in a book by Guardian journalist David Leigh. (A quick search yields a torrent magnet, but I have not downloaded them myself.) Although this has apparently been the situation for several months, it has only recently been widely realised.

Somewhat confusingly, WikiLeaks is holding a global poll asking whether the full cables should be released. (It may be they mean without redactions, since there is an issue with names of people appearing in the cables.)

WikiLeaks has an explanation on their site here. They accuse the Guardian newspaper of revealing the password, and of passing the cables to the New York Times in contravention of a signed Memorandum of Understanding.

In a statement, the Guardian denied responsibility for revealing the password:

“The paper utterly rejects any suggestion that it is responsible for the release of the unedited cables. The Guardian’s book about WikiLeaks was published last February. No concerns about security were expressed when the book was published or at any stage during the past seven months.”

They continue:

However, at a later stage the same encrypted file and at least one other encrypted with the same password was posted on the peer-to-peer file-sharing network BitTorrent. One of these files was first published on 7 December 2010, just hours before Assange’s arrest. In the days running up to his arrest, Assange had spoken of “taking precautions” in the event of anything untoward happening to him.

This file, it was later discovered, was the same file that had been shared with the Guardian via the secure server. It shared the same file name and file size, and could be unlocked using the same password as that given to Leigh.

If this is correct, that the same file was later put around with the same password, then we would need an explanation for that by WikiLeaks.

If the Leigh/Guardian book appeared after the file was distributed, however, that would appear to throw responsibility back to the Guardian.

Emails reveal cyber-surveillance

Writing in the Guardian, Barrett Brown provides an analysis of the Anonymous-hacked HBGary emails. The key para:

Last February, three of these firms – HBGary Federal, Palantir and Berico, known collectively as Team Themis – were discovered to have conspired to hire out their information war capabilities to corporations which hoped to strike back at perceived enemies, including US activist groups, WikiLeaks and journalist Glenn Greenwald. That such a dangerous new dynamic was now in play was only revealed due to a raid by hackers associated with the Anonymous collective, resulting in thedissemination of more than 70,000 emails to and from executives at HBGary Federal and its parent company HBGary.

More here.

Catching up

Sorry for the radio silence over the last couple of weeks. Things in real life have been very busy though, both on a personal level and professionally.

On the personal front I’ve gone under contract on my house and also gone under contract on a new house in Lexington! Spent a week in Lex. looking around with a great agent (references available!) and chose a Queen Anne era (1880s) house on W. 3rd St. About twice as big as my current one but not overly huge (2600 square feet). Will need some work for sure but can be moved in to. Even has a koi pond at back! Great location downtown.

Professionally I completed and submitted a chapter on space, territory and geography for A Companion to Foucault, edited by Chris Falzon, Tim O’Leary, and Jana Sawicki (Blackwell, 2012). There are some great contributors to this, including Colin Gordon, Richard Lynch on History of Sexuality Vol. 1, and Paul Alberts on Foucault and the environment. There’s also a translation of Defert’s Chronology from Dits et Ecrits.

I was also asked to write a short piece for an intervention on WikiLeaks being put together by Simon Springer and Heather Chi for Political Geography. The whole thing will be 11,000 words with mine being 1800 or so (I don’t know the other contributors as yet). I wrote this last week, basically arguing that WikiLeaks is part of a bigger political confrontation between government and the public’s access to and control of information. (Simon and Heather had asked me to situate this in terms of “political agency and governmentality.”)

I’m also just finishing a set of comments arising from the “Author Meets Critics” at the Seattle AAG session on Matt Hannah’s new book Dark Territory in the Information Age. Also for Political Geography. Some constraints here: I wrote over 4,000 words for this but the publication limit is 1750! Actually I probably overdid it originally, so compressing it will tighten it up. The other commenters are Neil Smith and Patricia Ehrkamp, with a reply by Matt.

After that I’ll be returning to tidy up a piece for Environment and Planning A on the geoweb, edited by my new colleague Matthew Wilson and Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute.

Then after that it’s a short sojourn in Paris (via London and the EuroStar) for the International Cartographic Conference (ICC). I fly out on the Friday July 1 and then will be staying at a nice flat on the Champs Élysées. My paper will be July 5 at 4:30 (or 16:30 as they say there).

When I get back on the 10th, it’s really straight up to Lexington, as the movers will have been on the 29th just before I leave. Not sure when I’m closing on the house up there yet, would obviously prefer the 12th, but these things have their own rhythms and delays.

It’s all go!

Joining the dots between Thomas Drake and WikiLeaks

‘Emptywheel’ (Marcy Wheeler) has an interesting post up, joining the dots between Thomas Drake, the former NSA employee facing espionage charges and the WikiLeaks cable leak. Drake, the subject of a great piece in this week’s New Yorker which Glenn Greenwald calls this month’s must-read, claims he is being prosecuted because he is a whistleblower who documented government waste and domestic surveillance. The key point is that he may have blown the whistle on lax security that led to the cables being leaked.

The Drake indictment claims that Thomas Drake served as a source for “many” of the Siobhan Gorman articles she wrote about NSA between February 27, 2006 and November 28, 2007.

Thereafter, between on or about February 27, 2006 and on or about November 28, 2007, Reporter A published a series of newspaper articles about NSA, including articles that contained SIGINT information. Defendant DRAKE served as a source for many of these newspaper articles, including articles that contained SIGINT information.

One of her articles from that period, published July 2, 2006, describes how the delay in implementing a new encryption management system for NSA and DOD computers exposed those networks to hackers.

A National Security Agency program to protect secrets at the Defense Department and intelligence and other agencies is seven years behind schedule, triggering concerns that the data will be increasingly vulnerable to theft, according to intelligence officials and unclassified internal NSA documents obtained by The Sun.


Encryption, which is an electronic lock, is among the most important of security tools, scrambling sensitive information so that it can ride securely in communications over the Internet or phone lines, and requiring a key to decipher.

Powerful encryption is necessary for protecting information that is beamed from soldiers on the battlefield or that guards data in computers at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters.

Read the whole thing here.

Parrhesia, the Greeks, and WikiLeaks

A philosophy professor ties it all together:

On March 10, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley committed the sin of speaking frankly. During a talk at MIT, he was asked by a researcher to explain the treatment of Bradley Manning. Though he did not think Manning’s treatment amounted to torture, as the questioner had alleged, and though he thought the commander at Quantico was acting within his legal authority, Crowley nevertheless saidthat the conditions of Manning’s detention were “ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid.” Three days later, Crowley was out of a job.

As a philosopher, I found his remarks fascinating. The ancient Greeks had a term for Crowley’s actions. They called it parrhesia, the ability to speak one’s mind even when doing so involves social risk. Crowley’s remarks were striking because parrhesia is rarely practiced in American politics, and almost never practiced, at least on the record, by government spokesmen. I wanted to know more about what Crowley had done, so I arranged to meet him for lunch in Washington.

More here.