Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Reading An Article On NSA Materials Very Carefully

Edward Snowden has said that his objective in stealing an enormous number of classified documents from the NSA was to let people know about the invasions of privacy by that agency. He says he has handed over all his materials to several journalists, and it is up to them to decide what is newsworthy and how to write their stories.

The Guardian, Der Speigel, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ProPublica all have parts or all of the stolen files. Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, now part of Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, also have files.

The stories have been coming out a few a week. The material is not easy to report on, some of it highly technical and all of it embedded in a highly secret context. Confirmation, for which most newspapers require at least two independent sources, is difficult.

Reporters like to follow a narrative, and Snowden’s claim that he wants to open a discussion of how Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights may have been breached is an attractive one. Many of the articles have followed that narrative, although it often misleads. The David Sanger and Thom Shanker article “NSA Devises Radio Pathway Into Computers” in the New York Times starts misleading with the headline (which an editor, rather than Sanger and Shanker, probably wrote).

The headline sounds like NSA is reaching out toward computers, even your computer, with radio waves to snatch your data. The article says otherwise, although you have to read carefully to know that.
Continuing the headline, the first paragraph says that the NSA “has implanted software in nearly 100,000 computers.” The second paragraph hurries by the fact that physical access is required for that implanting to focus on “a secret technology that enables it to enter and alter data in computers even if they are not connected to the Internet.” The third paragraph finally mentions that the radio waves are coming from the altered computers, into which hardware has been installed.

The headline and first two paragraphs set up the idea that the NSA is using radio waves to get into computers not connected to the internet to implant software. Sanger and Shanker, I’m sure, would point out that that is not what they said. And that is correct. But figuring that out takes a much more careful reading than most people give newspaper articles.

The article goes on to another subject: why the NSA wants to be able to tap computers not connected to the internet. That allows the initial mistaken impression to settle into one’s brain. We think of the connected internet and wifi in ways that make it easy to continue thinking that the NSA can reach out by radio waves to MY computer.

Then the targets of this technology are enumerated: units of the Chinese Army, Russian military networks, systems used by the Mexican police and drug cartels, trade institutions inside the European Union, and Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan. Oh.

Next is a graphic titled “How the N.S.A. Uses Radio Frequencies to Penetrate Computers.” NSA, reaching into your computer. But the graphic itself shows that a piece of hardware, barely mentioned until then, is required to transmit signals from the bugged computer to a field station. “Penetrate,” however, still sounds like those radio waves/frequencies are reaching out from the NSA.

And then…

No Domestic Use Seen
There is no evidence that the N.S.A. has implanted its software or used its radio frequency technology inside the United States…

“N.S.A.'s activities are focused and specifically deployed against — and only against — valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements,” Vanee Vines, an agency spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We do not use foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of — or give intelligence we collect to — U.S. companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line.”

The article goes on to other issues – President Obama’s speech, encryption – and then a confusing paragraph on internet cables that implies, without saying, that these radio devices have been planted on the cables. This ties back, for those of us who have been following the many Snowden-related articles, to something about tapping cables. Is this how it was done? Or is this something else? Sanger and Shanker don’t tell  us. This information comes from a map that they don’t show.

And then we are told that the United States has two centers in China from which “it can insert malware into computers.” So the Chinese are sweeping their computers for radio emissions and trying to find where those emissions are being picked up.

The article refers to radio waves, once to radio frequencies. This sounds, to a technically trained person, a bit tinfoil-hatty. A technical person would more likely talk about radio transmissions. Radio transmissions are used for a great many things: garage door openers, wifi, Bluetooth, cell phones, microwave ovens, traffic radar, GPS. The phrase “radio waves” is no-fault: it doesn’t say where the waves are coming from. “Radio transmissions” would implies a transmitter, the existence of which, in the bugged computer, the article seems to want to avoid.

The relay station is said to “attack” the computer, although its function seems to be the passive one of picking up transmissions. It may also send malware back to the transmitting computer. The article is unclear about this.

If this article were structured honestly, it would start with something about a technology that the US was using in response to Chinese attempts to penetrate US computer networks and that could even be used to get computers not on the internet to “report back” to the NSA. But that would not follow the narrative of damaged Fourth Amendment rights.

The article winds up with the assertion that the “The hardware in the N.S.A.'s catalog” was the means for inserting Stuxnet into Iranian computers controlling their centrifuges. No source or confirmation is given for this assertion, which seems to be a connection Sanger and Shanker have made. The story of the rock in Iran that exploded into circuit boards is repeated. Was that in FARS news, which is mentioned in the last paragraph? The outlet that just told us that Edward Snowden revealed that the Earth is run by tall aliens?

Other stories from the Snowden material have followed a similar narrative and have been equally misleading. Many, like this one, reveal techniques that are used against other countries. Many, like this one, are inaccurate: although the impression is given that NSA is reaching into computers with radio waves, the fact is that the computer must be equipped with a special transmitter. And only 100,000 computers have been so equipped. That seems like a big number, but there are over one billion personal computers in use in the world. That’s .01% of all personal computers. And even this article says that none of them are in the United States.

It’s necessary to read the articles on the Snowden material very carefully. Like Gwen Ifill doesn’t do in this interview of Sanger. The job of reporters is to make complex things understandable. When they tie themselves to Snowden’s narrative, they add complexity and confusion. We shouldn’t have to read their articles like legal documents. But that’s what I’ve found necessary in every article I’ve read on the Snowden material.

First posted at Nuclear Diner.

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