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Horrors of Society: Surveillance

The government is listening to and watching you. Let's give them something to talk about! On this episode, the ghouls talk about how exactly the government watches us, why they get away with it and what's the deal with Edward Snowden, whistleblower or traitor? How does your Facebook friends count affect government surveillance and more! We watched Snowden (2018) and played Orwell, the video game. 


RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Kat's Facts - Why we should be afraid

So let’s start with the what: The government has been spying on us since technology gave them the means to do so. I remember being in 7th grade, we were talking about the Patriot Act in History class, and I remember this vividly cause it was one of the times that I got called on to answer a question, and actually had an answer. I had gone to Olive Garden with my Grandpa the night before, as we often did when I was younger, and he talked to me about current events, which happen to be about the Patriot Act at the time cause I was 12 and I guess that’s what you talk about. So our teacher asks us, What is the Patriot Act, and is it good or bad? And my 12 year old self stands up proudly and says “The Patriot Act is an abuse of our 4th Amendment rights.” Mind you the only reason I knew that was because my Grandpa told me about it the night before, but still I was like feelin myself feeling all politically woke or whatever. So moral of the story is, we been known, and we still are kinda just like eh the terms and conditions are really long, I think ima just scroll and agree, it’s probs fine. Ultimately I think it comes down to us not really getting the severity of it all, and not really grasping the true depth of power the government has through this action of essentially illegally tapping into our digital lives. It kinda ties back to that privileged thought that well if they have nothing to hide then they shouldnt mind being searched. It goes back to thinking people deserve what they get, and that like the great ol government wouldn’t search through nice peoples stuff. They’re looking for terrorists, so like why should I be worried right? Well we should 100% be worried. It gives the government the means and the control to influence us even further. Our last ep touched on how big money rich people fuel the government and thus control the populace. Imagine adding the fear that all your conversations and feelings that you’ve privately expressed could be manipulated and taken out of context to create the implication of guilt. Taking out of context information and using it as “evidence” to convict you of a crime, or to blackmail you. We easily could have our most private information, secrets, pictures, used against us because they live in our devices and we think that they are safe in there. Snowden and other whistleblowers lit it up when they let everyone know the true depth to which the US govn, NSA, and FISA have been spying on us. The use of phone and internet metadata, and communication logs, for domestic and foreign observation. The actions being taken without a warrant, and trials being held without public knowledge or a jury. Ultimately the Government acting extremely illegally and then being real butt hurt when they got caught. We’ll get into the details of Snowden when we get to our films though. Today though, according to the ACLU:

Congress has just decide on the fate of The Safeguarding Americans’ Private Records Act of 2020, introduced by a bipartisan group of members including Sens. Wyden (D-Ore.) and Daines (R-Mont.). The bill is a response to the spying abuses that seem to pile up by the day — the collection of over a billion call records, spying on a prominent Trump advisor based on flawed evidence, and use of extraordinary measures to prevent courts from judging the legality of the government’s practices.

  1. strong reforms to Section 215 of the Patriot Act — The bill puts a definitive end to the call record program, which was recently suspended by the NSA amid a cascade of reports revealing unauthorized record collections and legal violations. The bill also heightens the legal standard that the government must meet to collect records under Section 215 and rightly requires the government to purge those records within three years, with limited exceptions.

  2. The bill also attempts to rein in other national security authorities that the government has abused. For example, it inserts a sunset into the Justice Department’s “National Security Letter” administrative subpoena authorities, which the government has often misused to collect information in non-terrorism cases and pressure companies to turn over information that the government should only be demanding with a court-ordered warrant in hand.

  3. The bill takes a first step towards ensuring that individuals trapped in the government’s surveillance regime can better exercise their constitutional rights. In particular, the bill requires the government to notify individuals in cases where information “obtained” or “derived” from Section 215 collection is used against them. It also defines the meaning of “derived,” in FISA, to prevent the government from engaging in legal gymnastics and evading its notice obligations.

  4. the bill takes an initial step towards reforming the secretive, one-sided intelligence court. The Carter Page debacle brought the deficiencies of the court into stark relief: despite numerous omissions and inaccuracies, the FISA court approved an initial application and three subsequent renewal applications targeting the Trump campaign advisor for surveillance. To help prevent these types of abuses in the future, the bill would enhance the power of amici curiae — “friends of the court” whom the FISC currently appoint in a narrow number of novel and significant cases — to raise concerns in a larger subset of proceedings or to recommend a case review by a higher court. In addition, the bill would put in place several added transparency measures to give the public a better understanding of how the government is using the Patriot Act and other spying powers.

For one, the bill fails to fully protect the rights of defendants by ensuring they have access to FISA applications and orders in cases where intelligence information is used against them. If, like Carter Page, someone was improperly surveilled on the basis of government misstatements or omissions, they should have the ability to prove the government was wrong. Along the same lines, the bill does nothing to ensure that individuals who are spied on — but never prosecuted — are notified. Criminal statutes like the Wiretap Act have long required after-the-fact notice to surveillance targets, with provisions designed to protect ongoing investigations. There is no reason that a similar requirement should not exist in the intelligence context.

Second, Congress needs to place greater limits on the Patriot Act and other surveillance powers to strengthen First Amendment protections and ensure intelligence authorities are not abusing the laws to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, and other protected characteristics.



Gabe's Film Analysis - Surveillance in Film & Edward Snowden

OK, So a film we won’t be diving too heavily into but that jogged my memory in regards to Surveillance on screen is The Dark Knight. It's old and I’m sure you’ve heard it before but I specifically wanted to bring up the Cellphone Surveillance system Batman uses to try and find the Joker. His explanation for such a contraption and utter unethical invasion of Gotham City civilian privacy is that he needs to do this so he can protect them! It rings super close to home, eerily reminiscent of the Bush Administration and the heightened surveillance after 9/11 and the War Against Terrorism. I remember learning about this in school, we talked about how people would give up their privacy and securities (and historically have) in order to feel safe. Forgetting that we have a right to privacy and should be able to operate outside of the watchful eye of big brother. Remember that scene?

Anyway, let’s jump into our media right quick! First, we’ll tackle the super fun and stressful game, Orwell. It was a hard game to play for me because I continuously had to fight against my own, personal feelings against monitoring people and reporting to the government in order to do my job properly in the game.

Something that is brought up in the Snowden film and also interviews with Snowden himself, is the concept of a “relationship tree”. What this is is say the gov’t has a “good reason” to monitor one person - well they can then also monitor all the people that that person interacts with in case they’re in cahoots. But now they also have access to all the people those people know too! And on and on until you, Mr. I-Dont-Have-Anything-To-Hide who is now being monitored through their webcam. So no one is safe!

The thing I always found the most unsettling was that you could take certain phrases (out of context) and submit them as evidence to the machine you’re working for. So you could take someone saying a turn-of-phrase like, “I’d kill for one of those” and submit it. Without other information, the computer and higher ups interpreted that as the person literally wanting to kill for something! You do get to choose whether or not you give this information though.

I recently played another game that you can get on your phone or nintendo switch called, Normal Lost Phone. Essentially, you find a phone and you spend the game interacting with the phones interface reading text messages, checking emails and looking at the photos. Slowly, you unlock the passwords and get access to the person’s dating profile and later, online message boards. You find out a lot about this person and get their entire story, including why they just left their phone somewhere. There’s an option I saw when I was changing the screens orientation which gave you the ability to wipe the phone. The game was hard for me to play because I felt like a big ol’ snoop. I chose it because of this episode so I powered through. In the end, you can wipe the phone to protect the person you’ve been stalking. Which was a nice way to end an otherwise uncomfortable game of delving into someone’s most personal space.

The Guardian has a great article about the game, Hack, Spy, Swing an Election: Orwell Game Sums Up Life in a Tech Dystopia and it summarizes the game by saying, “George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four depicted an oppressive totalitarian state where civilians had no choice but to ignorantly obey its power structures. The Orwell games highlight that in real life; ours is a self-surveillance society with willing participants. With the growth of smart technology, we continue to grow more accustomed to being surveyed. We give our personal information away to social networks, phone apps, websites – and even though the extent of this information is now common knowledge, we aren’t stopping.” We already give away so much of our security - millennials having grown up in a post-9/11 world find the idea of existing without this surveillance a mythical past that seems impossible in today’s world. Even the idea of living off the grid seems foreign and impossible today.

The second series, Orwell: Ignorance is Strength, goes on to explore societal control. Here, the Orwell system has been upgraded and now includes an “Influencer” tool that allows you to create fabricated narratives you can leak on to social media, mainly through “Blabber”, the game’s equivalent of Twitter.

Here in Pennsylvania, a school was caught monitoring students through their webcams that the school district supplied to them. A kid was accused of “Improper behavior in his home.” Which reminds me of Kids for Cash, where a kid was sent to Juvie for saying something on her Facebook about her principal. Talking with my friend, Sergio about this he mentioend how he finds that absurd but looking for kids who say, might threaten their school (certainly a fear in today’s climate) would be within reason. But, in order to find those specific kids, we would need to be watching them all. Meaning this ridiculous case is justified - just like the government tried to do! Anyway, back to what we’re talking about - Snowden! That’s what we watched about Edward Snowden featuring the lovable Joseph Gordon Levitt.

In the Guardian, Edward Snowden NSA FIles: Decoded they mention, Cell phones, laptops, Facebook, Skype, chat-rooms: all allow the NSA to build what it calls ‘a pattern of life’, a detailed profile of a target and anyone associated with them.” and “Much of the NSA’s defence is that the public should be unconcerned, summed up by the dictum: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” But civil liberties groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union warn that surveillance goes well beyond what Congress intended and what the US constitution allows.”

Like in the game, “You don't need to be talking to a terror suspect to have your communications data analysed by the NSA. The agency is allowed to travel "three hops" from its targets.” For example, I have 365 friends on Facebook. Translating to this three hops idea then the second degree or second hop (friend of my friends) could equal up to 50,000 (or fill a colosseum) and the third hop, third degree (Friends of Friends of Friends) could be upwards of 9,745,339! Numbers thanks to Three degrees of separation by Kenton Powell and Greg Chen. If you have 955 friends then you could allow the government the ability to spy on as many people as the population of the continent, Australia!

Continuing with the amazing Guardian article which I strongly suggest you read, The first Snowden document to be published by the Guardian was a secret court order showing that the NSA was collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers. Early in October, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, wrote in USA Today: "The call-records program is not surveillance. It does not collect the content of any communication, nor do the records include names or locations. The NSA only collects the type of information found on a telephone bill: phone numbers of calls placed and received, the time of the calls and duration."

Which brings me to an interview we watched with Snowden on Joe Rogan’s podcast where he explains that even knowing just those details says a lot about you, where you are, who you talk to and how long you stay somewhere. It could be used in a court case to tie you to a crime! I am super indulgent in true crime and I’ve seen many ways this has been used.

In the film, Snowden which I found to be a bit...of a stretch in framing Snowden as this genius hero. I love what he did and am happy he did it. But he stayed for quite a long time, involved in this and returned time and time again. Throughout the film, he is asked why and he says things like, “I thought it’d get better.” so it wasn’t because he thought he’d make a difference inside. Anyway, it was a fun and scary watch. 100% a horror film. The one part that really spooked me was him explaining how the American Government was planting surveillance and devices at the power sources in Japan in case they were no longer allies and we would need to shut them down - like whoaaaa forget about them surveilling our facebook messenger but we can have literal cyber warfare going on!

There are scenes where Snowden’s girlfriend is like editing nude photos of herself and he’s like, No the cloud is dangerous and she is like ???? and then there’s the time when he is like putting tape and band-aids over the webcams and she’s like ??? and he’s like JUST TRUST ME! And I found it so interesting because I, myself, have tape over my webcams and we live in this world where celebrity nudes have leaked and other information that it seems odd to be surprised or confused by the inevitability of being watched.

Also, the cool scene with the rubiks cube is made-up for the film, sadly. In reality, Snowden has not revealed how he was able to get the information and documents out of the base. Apparently, the base was pretty open and easily accessible. No key cards and metal detectors.

In a scathing review of the film and Edward Snowden himself on, The Leaky Myths of Snowden by Fred Kaplan he highlights that Snowden released information that was more than simply the whistleblowing - americans being monitored rhetoric that follows him but also shared details about the NSA’s interception of email and cellphone calls by the Taliban in Pakistan’s northwest territories; an operation to gauge the loyalties of CIA recruits in Pakistan; intelligence assessments inside Iran; and NSA surveillance of cellphone calls “worldwide,”

Whatever one’s views of U.S. foreign policy in those parts of the world, these activities are legitimate aspects of the NSA’s charter, which involves intercepting communications of foreign powers. They have nothing to do with domestic surveillance or spying on allies. Exposing these intercepts is not whistleblowing: It’s an attempt to blow U.S. intelligence operations. And while Snowden has since acknowledged that other countries do this sort of thing too, not least China and his host at the moment, Russia, he never leaked documents revealing their hacking programs even though, in his job at the NSA, he would have had access to reports (and possibly raw data) about them as well.

[Business insider] Forrester seems to be based on another NSA whistleblower named William Binney, who initially offered high praise for Snowden when NSA documents revealed a mass spying dragnet. But Binney eventually shifted his view after Snowden leaked specific NSA hacking targets to a Chinese newspaper: He told USA Today that Snowden seemed to be "transitioning from whistleblower to traitor."

Kaplan also shines some light on Snowden’s positions, supposed genius and more -

  • Snowden was recognized as a very talented computer technician early on, but officials have told me that he didn’t quit the CIA; he was fired. One source says that Snowden and the agency “weren’t a good fit” (which could be consistent with the film’s story).

  • Snowden then went to Hawaii as an NSA contractor hired by Dell. For one-and-a-half years, he worked there as a systems administrator—basically a Mr. Fix-It for their computer networks. He had access to lots of files, but he wouldn’t have had any role in developing something like EpicShelter (which wasn’t invented by Dell in any case, though the contractor did use that program).

  • The film claims that the deputy director of the NSA (who is given a fictitious name in the movie) was so impressed by Snowden’s acumen that he sent him to this job. I emailed Chris Inglis, the man who really was the deputy director at the time. Here is what he wrote back about the claim, emphasizing that I could quote him on the record (“in all caps, if you’d like”): The claim is simply and utterly preposterous—both the claim that a Deputy Director would assign such a task to a low-level contractor (that just does not happen for many many reasons) and the idea that Snowden was working on some special project, separate and apart from his contracted duties to perform system administration and SharePoint server updates. If you want to know the ins and outs of a fighter aircraft squadron’s purposes, tactics and SOPs, you don’t get that from a contractor hired to refuel its airplanes.

    • Even more from another article on Business Insider says [One former hacker with NSA's elite hacker unit, Tailored Access Operations, put it this way: "I can't believe anyone listens to him," the source told Business Insider. "It's so infuriating. He was the help desk administrator for the government."]

  • In any case, Snowden spent less than two months with Booz Allen before fleeing to Hong Kong. Snowden later said in his South China Morning Post interview that he applied for the Booz Allen position because he knew it would give him “access to lists of machines all over the world [that] the NSA hacked” He flew to Hong Kong on May 20 after telling his bosses that he needed to undergo tests for epilepsy, and on May 21 checked in at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, where he later gave the documents to reporters Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald.* In other words, he stayed at this analytical post at the NSA just long enough to download the goods that he’d taken the job to get.

  • While he was still a Dell contractor, Snowden applied for a job with the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations office. TAO is where the agency’s super-elite hackers work. He failed the exam (no shame in that; it’s a famously brutal test). Then he took it again and passed. After Snowden fled and NSA security officials conducted forensics analysis of his computer to see what he’d downloaded, they discovered that, using his privileges as a systems administrator, he had stolen the questions and answers for the TAO exam; that’s why he aced the test the second time.



Media from this week's episode:

Orwell (2013) Developer: Osmotic Studios

Big Brother has arrived - and it’s you. Investigate the lives of citizens to find those responsible for a series of terror attacks. Information from the internet, personal communications and private files are all accessible to you. But, be warned, the information you supply will have consequences.

Snowden (2016) Director: Oliver Stone

The NSA's illegal surveillance techniques are leaked to the public by one of the agency's employees, Edward Snowden, in the form of thousands of classified documents distributed to the press.

  • I wonder if Edward Snowden ever imagined that a movie about him would feature a rather long sex scene?


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