“You look way prettier in person than through your webcam”: #NSAPickupLines

In this week’s #IMWeekly news roundup, we reported that at least ten NSA officers have used the agency’s surveillance power to spy on their romantic partners over the past decade—a practice deemed “LOVEINT” by the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story.

Yesterday, NPR reported that Twitter users have taken the story and run with it, posting satirical pick-up lines and love poems under the hashtags #NSAPickupLines and #NSALovePoems.

Some of the most amusing tweets we’ve seen so far:

Via @samir

#imweekly: August 26, 2013

Chinese mobile app WeChat has a growing international presence, making it the fifth most popular mobile app worldwide. Within the country, WeChat is heavily monitored, and users are blocked from sending messages containing prohibited keywords. TeaLeafNation reports that TenCent, which owns WeChat, is now offering two versions of the app: a censored version for Chinese users, and an uncensored version for international use. The problem: the lines between the two are unclear, as shown by the suspension last week of a US-based WeChat account belonging to ChinaGate, a Chinese-language web portal hosted outside of China.

The Finnish Supreme Administrative Court ruled today that the country’s National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) was within its rights when it added an anti-censorship website to its secret list of blocked sites. The blocking took place under a 2006 law that enabled the NBI to maintain a secret blocklist of sites that distribute child pornography. The website lapsiporno.info (“childporn.info”) has been monitoring the bureau’s activities, criticizing the secrecy behind the blocklist and compiling a list of known blocked sites. When lapsiporno.info was blocked, operator Matt Nikki sued the NBI. The court ruled that even though Nikki’s site did not host any child porn, by listing blocked sites it was enabling users to find such sites, and therefore, the NBI’s blocking of lapsiporno.info was legal.

United States
Mark Zuckerberg announced last week that Facebook, along with a handful of tech companies, is launching an effort to bring Internet access to everyone on Earth. Zuckerberg told the New York Times that the project—Internet.org—is more about doing “something good for the world” than for profit, but many commentators disagree. The New Yorker’s Matt Buchanan notes that the project offers little in the way of infrastructure building, which is one of the biggest obstacles to Internet access. And The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal points out that the project heavily recuts a John F. Kennedy speech, stripping the original Cold War context and perhaps, Madrigal argues, changing the meaning entirely.

United States
The newest piece of the NSA surveillance scandal: LOVEINT. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that several NSA officers have used their power to spy on their romantic partners. Approximately ten cases of this type of abuse of NSA power have emerged over the past decade, and according to NSA officials, in each case, the employee responsible was punished and/or terminated. The LOVEINT discovery comes amidst the NSA’s admission last week that in the past year alone, the agency violated privacy regulations nearly 3000 times.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#imweekly: August 19, 2013

Earlier this year, Cuba’s government-owned telecommunications firm activated two undersea fiber optic cables and announced it would open 100 new public Internet cafés. Cuban citizens, heretofore largely cut off from the global Internet, are now beginning to go online. Access is not cheap—at $4.50 per hour, or roughly the average weekly salary for a state employee, using one of the cafés is still out of reach for many Cubans—and those who want to go online must first sign a statement swearing they will not do anything that might harm Cuba’s “economy, sovereignty or national security.”

The government of Thailand has announced its intentions to monitor conversations on the Line messaging app, claiming that surveillance is necessary to “safeguard order, security and morality of Thailand.” The national police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division has asked the Japan-based company to give access to Thai authorities.

United Kingdom
The partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been reporting on the NSA’s surveillance programs for the Guardian, was detained at Heathrow airport yesterday under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. David Miranda had been in Berlin to meet with a filmmaker who has been working with Greenwald on the Snowden files; he was returning to his home in Rio de Janeiro when he was stopped and questioned for nine hours—the maximum allowed by the law. His laptop, phone, and other electronics were confiscated. Greenwald has publicly stated that the detention was an “abuse of the law” intended to intimidate reporters writing about the NSA; Amnesty International has spoken out against the detention.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

Human Computing and the Gamification of Surveillance Analysis

Recently unveiled surveillance blimp; courtesy of Raytheon, via Slate

Since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the American military has worked to create a system of virtually continual real-time drone surveillance of the entire country. The system is not entirely automatic, however: in 2010, Marine Corps General James E. Cartwright noted that at least 19 analysts were needed to process video feeds from a single Predator drone. Looking through thousands of hours of collected video and audio recordings is particularly difficult. Cartwright described the work of analysis as sitting for hours watching “Death TV,” searching for single or valid targets, an activity he called “a waste of manpower [and] inefficient.”

To combat this inefficiency, researchers have experimented with building smarter cameras, capable of recognizing and reporting on suspicious activity, but the development of information gathering technology continues to far outpace the ability of computers to make sense of what has been collected. As an alternative, organizations have experimented with crowd sourcing the work of analysis to online volunteers; the US Air Force even asked ESPN for help looking through the footage. But what happens when the work becomes play, and the people involved don’t know they’re working as surveillance analysts?

courtesy of NASA

In 2000, NASA began outsourcing the tedious job of identifying craters on the moon and Mars by encouraging pubic volunteers, nicknamed “clickworkers,” to identify craters in photographs posted online. What would have taken a graduate student a year to accomplish was completed in only a week. In 2006, the state of Texas installed webcams along the Mexico border, streamed the feeds online, and encouraged the public to help monitor them for suspicious activities. One woman watching at 3:00 AM noticed someone signaling a pickup truck on the webcam and notified the police, which led to a high speed chase and the seizure of over 400 pounds of marijuana. Following the 2011 riots in London, police asked the public to look through thousands hours of CCTV footage and submit their own photos and videos to identify individuals who had participated in looting. Recently, a start-up in the UK began offering a service called “Internet Eyes,” which connects the country’s ubiquitous CCTVs to the Internet and offers the public rewards for identifying people committing crimes.

Important to note is that crowdsourced surveillance efforts don’t necessarily lead to results: following the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, police asked for assistance from online crowds and were led to the wrong person. Following the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, a similar call for crowd assistance interfered with investigations and led to the wrongful accusation of several innocent people.

While many of these projects use crowdsourced volunteers to handle tasks computers are not able to do, the volunteers participating are typically aware of how their work is being used. These projects attract volunteers willing to give up a little of their time to help with a project they’re interested in seeing succeed or help catch someone suspected of wrongdoing. In contrast, the next generation of surveillance analysis doesn’t require volunteers to know who they’re working for or even that they’re working.

In order to tell the difference between human users and computer programs designed to spam websites, computer scientist Luis von Ahn created CAPTCHA, which presents users with a challenge-response test, usually a simple mathematical operation or an image of obscured text not readable by a computer, which a user must answer or interpret to proceed. Researchers associated with Project Gutenburg realized that CAPTCHA “had unwittingly created a system that was frittering away, in ten-second increments, millions of hours of a most precious resource: human brain cycles.” They created a new system, reCAPTCHA, that could test for human users with images scanned from books that could not be read by a computer. Humans could decipher these scanned texts and, by entering them in as answers to the test, Project Gutenburg would be able to digitize enormous amounts of text. Since reCAPTCHA was acquired by Google in 2009, thousands of Google Books and nearly the entire archive of the New York Times have been digitized by millions of people who were not aware they were working for the project. In 2012, reCAPTCHA began using photographs of house numbers taken from Google’s Street View project. Last month, the ACLU compiled a report that found that police departments across the US were using automatic license plate scanners to track and retain the movements of millions of Americans. The “automatic” scanners are often able to read and convert the images of license plates into computer-readable text on their own, but reCAPTCHA has also been used to digitize the more difficult images.

Luis von Ahn noticed how many hours people spent playing Windows Solitaire and devised an online game called “ESP” in which two players would be randomly shown a pair of images and asked to guess the word that best described the pair. When both players made the same guess, they would win points. Playing the game also contributed to building a database of labels for graphical search engines. Without even knowing it, millions of people playing an online game were helping to build surveillance databases and were working for free helping improve the ability for computers to search images.

Big gaming companies and other groups are also taking note of the possibilities for “human computation” embedded in games. After researchers at the University of Washington led by David Baker successfully solved the puzzle of an AIDS-causing virus that had stumped scientists for 15 years in only ten days using an online game called Foldit in 2012, the gamification of tedious labor has been a popular concept. In early 2013, the Internet Response League launched a plugin that allows online gamers to help support disaster response operations. In Word of Warcraft, for example, gamers can receive disaster alerts and momentarily interrupt their play to tag images of disaster areas and rank them according to their severity. For the past four years, Ubisoft has been developing a new kind of game called Watch Dogs, set to be released in December 2013. As part of its marketing campaign for Watch Dogs, Ubisoft launched a website called WeareData that gathers and graphs real-world city data from London, Berlin, and Paris. Real-time data, including social network updates, the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots, and feeds from CCTV cameras, is streamed onto the site’s 3D city maps. The actual game will also include these streams and is built to connect with players’ Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media accounts to provide seamless integration of these networks with game play.

Ubisoft’s marketing website and eventual game highlights our visibility online (something we’re already acutely aware of since the revelation of PRISM and other government data surveillance programs), but also suggests an alternative future of surveillance and analysis than the kind popularized by George Orwell’s invention of Big Brother. It may not be long before someone like Luis von Ahn builds systems that rely upon the unwitting assistance of crowds to analyze CCTV feeds looking for criminals or someone like David Baker makes decrypting communications and files a fun game. Future players tagging photos in connected games like Watch Dogs might be helping to identify participants in riots while also collecting data on other players. People posting comments online, taking and tagging pictures for social networks, or simply drawing unlock patterns on their smartphone screens may help sort through the glut of gathered information. The surveillance analysts of the future may not be people wearing clipped on name badges watching hours of Death TV at the Pentagon. The work of watching and reporting may be done by all of us as we go about the everyday routines of digital life or escape for a while with a fun new game.

China’s Reactions to the Snowden Story

This is a guest post.

On June 9, Edward Snowden, an American former contractor for the NSA, revealed himself as the whistleblower in one of the biggest surveillance scandals in US intelligence history.

Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong in late May stirred a wide and active response on the Chinese Internet. Snowden’s name was one of the top-ranked topics on China’s Twitter-like microblogging website Sina Weibo in June. Vexed by the country’s long-standing and prevalent surveillance system, many Chinese Internet users have hailed Snowden as a hero.

“He is brave. He is a real fighter for human rights. Now he is in China, we should protect him,” wrote Xiaodong Wang, an Internet user based in Beijing. Another user wrote, “it doesn’t matter whether you can call Snowden a hero. What’s worth of praise about him is he chose to break the rules rather than to be one of ‘the Great Silent Majority.’ Few people have his courage.”

Several prominent Weibo users with millions of followers, known as “Big Vs” for the large letter V (signaling a verified user) next to their account names, also expressed their appreciation of Snowden’s actions. Lvqiu Luwei, a well-known journalist who has 2.7 million followers on Weibo, wrote:

To the public, Snowden is a hero. But if he leaked the information to other governments or did this simply for money, people would think of him as a spy. I asked a guest in the programs I recorded yesterday, ‘will there be a Snowden in China?’ And the guest responded with a quick answer, ‘there won’t be a Snowden-like person in China. If there were, the person will never get out of the country.

Another popular user with the nickname “Pretending to be in New York” (@假装在纽约) posted the following comment on June 25, which gained momentum when circulated on the social media. The humorous tweet makes fun of the Snowden’s story while criticizing the dire human rights conditions and heavy-handed Internet control in China:

If Snowden were a Chinese citizen, 1) Hong Kong would agree to hand him over to the Chinese government; 2) the US would hail him as hero and then try to rescue him immediately; 3) his name would become a ‘sensitive word’ on the social media in China and all discussions related would be banned; 4) Over a thrilling struggle, he would finally board the airplane to New York; 5) people would acclaim the escape on the social media in China; 6) New York University would invite him to be a visiting scholar (referencing to the Chen Guangcheng incident); 7) the state-run Global Times would post articles criticizing Snowden, and it would become the target of Chinese netizen’s besiege. 8) American talk shows making fun of the story would be translated into Chinese.

Still, many Chinese were disappointed at the seeming hypocrisy of the US government, which appears to be engaging in activities more typically associated with the Chinese government. Though Hong Kong—which has a long tradition of free speech—operates separately from Mainland China, it is under the political influence of a nation known for its restrictions on free political expression.

To some in China, the news badly undermined the US government’s criticism of China over cyberespionage. “It looks like Obama has been assimilated by a certain political party (Communist Party of China),” Sina Weibo user Leigh Chiang wrote in a sentiment shared widely across the site.

Somewhere between 300 and 900 Hong Kong residents marched in support of Snowden, despite the ambiguous attitudes from the SAR (Special Administrative Region) government.  

Snowden’s announcement came as China began an official three-day holiday for the Dragon Boat Festival. Still, it managed to catch the eyes of the country’s social media users.

The leak broke just ahead of the much anticipated “laid-back” Sunnylands Summit between Obama and China’s Premier Xi Jinping – where, among other issues, cyber-security was prominent on the agenda. There’s no lack of irony in the leak. The US government has been criticizing the Chinese government for Internet filtering, and a more recent accusation made by the Obama administration is that China has been hacking into American computers. Now it turns out one of the biggest threats to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the US may be the unbridled power of the government, according to a Chinese expert on American affairs. The country that seems to benefit most from Snowden’s revelations is China.

Bloomberg News reported that Lee Kai-Fu, the founding president of Google China, stated that Snowden’s revelation “seriously discredits” US claims about human rights and privacy. Lee, who has 49.3 million followers, is a Big V, also known as verified user on Sina Weibo. He wrote in a microblog post on June 11 that he admires Snowden’s “principles and values.”

Lee Kai-Fu’s criticism of the US government has invoked some criticism on social media, among which some netizens ridiculed him as turning his political stand to align with “Fifty Cent Party,” the people hired by the Chinese government to post comments favorable to the party to sway public opinions.

While Hong Kong-based media outlets are featuring Snowden in top headlines, the mainland Chinese media are not treating this like a big deal. Beijing has remained quite low-key towards the issue, with major news portals’ headlines saturated by the Obama-Xi meetings.

The Global Times, the tabloid-like subsidiary of The People’s Daily, which is the major state-run media outlet in China, ran an article about “the latest online spy game,” accompanied by a caricature cartoon of the NSA emblem, turning the bald eagle into a spy. The article said Snowden could offer intelligence that would help China update its understanding of cyberspace and improve its position in negotiations with Washington.

China’s largest state-run news agency, Xinhua, didn’t mention Snowden in the top 10 stories on its website’s front page. Xinhua has not published any specific reports on Snowden, though there is one video report on the NSA as a “spy agency.” It’s hard to tell whether the lack of reporting is a conscious decision to avoid stirring up a conversation that might come back to China again.

When the country’s media outlets constrained the urge to make the Snowden story headlines, news broke on June 22 that NSA targeted China’s top universities in extensive hacking attacks. Suddenly, reports began to emerge from repressed writers and editors; comments and discussions on the news overwhelmed social media in China.

“The U.S. Has Attacked Chinese Networks for 15 Years,” said a headline in The Yangtze Daily. “Snowden Leaks Information About Prism to Reveal the Hypocrisy of the U.S. Government,” added The Wuhan Evening News.

Tsinghua University was among the targets of NSA’s cyber-snooping activities, with at least 63 computers and servers attacked during a single day in January, according to information leaked by Snowden. The university is home to one of the mainland’s six major backbone networks – the China Education and Research Network (CERNET) – a hub from which Internet data from millions of Chinese citizens could be mined.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t have an immediate comment on Mr. Snowden’s comments. Professor Xu Ke, deputy director of the Institute of Computer Networks at Tsinghua University, has previously said that most data passing through network backbones was not encrypted and that most attacks on such networks were carried out by governments, as individual hackers would face ‘colossal’ amounts of information that would be extremely difficult to handle.

While the mainstream media in China remained silent towards the PRISM scandal, observers have noticed the subtle changes of its contents. In April 2013, China tightened its media’s quotations of information from foreign press, aiming to exert stronger control over domestic media outlets. Ironically, Chinese media began to include more quotes from foreign press as the Snowden story was revealed.