Monolithic corporations aren’t our saviors — they’re the central part of the problem.

Tech Companies Are Peddling a Phony Version of Security, Using the Govt. as the Bogeyman

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This week the USA Freedom Act was blocked in the Senate as it failed to garner the 60 votes required to move forward. Presumably the bill would have imposed limits on NSA surveillance. Careful scrutiny of the bill’s text however reveals yet another mere gesture of reform, one that would codify and entrench existing surveillance capabilities rather than eliminate them.

Glenn Greenwald, commenting from his perch at the Intercept, opined:

“All of that illustrates what is, to me, the most important point from all of this: the last place one should look to impose limits on the powers of the U.S. government is . . . the U.S. government. Governments don’t walk around trying to figure out how to limit their own power, and that’s particularly true of empires.”

Anyone who followed the sweeping deregulation of the financial industry during the Clinton era, the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999 which effectively repealed Glass-Steagall and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, immediately sees through Greenwald’s impromptu dogma. Let’s not forget the energy market deregulation in California and subsequent manipulation that resulted in blackouts throughout the state. Ditto that for the latest roll back of arms export controls that opened up markets for the defense industry. And never mind all those hi-tech companies that want to loosen H1-B restrictions.

The truth is that the government is more than happy to cede power and authority… just as long as doing so serves the corporate factions that have achieved state capture. The “empire” Greenwald speaks of is a corporate empire. In concrete analytic results that affirm Thomas Ferguson’s Investment Theory of Party Competition, researchers from Princeton and Northwestern University conclude that:

“Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

Glenn’s stance reveals a broader libertarian theme. One that the Koch brothers would no doubt find amenable: the government is suspect and efforts to rein in mass interception must therefore arise from the corporate entities. Greenwald appears to believe that the market will solve everything. Specifically, he postulates that consumer demand for security will drive companies to offer products that protect user privacy, adopt “strong” encryption, etc.

The Primacy of Security Theater

Certainly large hi-tech companies care about quarterly earnings. That definitely explains all of the tax evasion, wage ceilings, and the slave labor. But these same companies would be hard pressed to actually protect user privacy because spying on users is a fundamental part of their business model. Like government spies, corporate spies collect and monetize oceans of data.

Furthermore hi-tech players don’t need to actually bullet-proof their products to win back customers. It’s far more cost effective to simply manufacture the perception of better security: slap on some crypto, flood the news with public relation pieces, and get some government officials (e.g. James ComeyRobert Hannigan, and Stewart Baker) to whine visibly about the purported enhancements in order to lend the marketing campaign credibility. The techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley are masters of Security Theater.

Witness, if you will, Microsoft’s litany of assurances about security over the years, followed predictably by an endless train of critical zero-day bugs. Faced with such dissonance it becomes clear that “security” in high-tech is viewed as a public relations issue, a branding mechanism to boost profits. Greenwald is underestimating the contempt that CEOs have for the credulity of their user base, much less their own workers.

Does allegedly “strong” cryptography offer salvation? Cryptome’s John Young thinks otherwise:

“Encryption is a citizen fraud, bastard progeny of national security, which offers malware insecurity requiring endless ‘improvements’ to correct the innately incorrigible. Its advocates presume it will empower users rather than subject them to ever more vulnerability to shady digital coders complicit with dark coders of law in exploiting fear, uncertainty and doubt.”

Business interests, having lured customers in droves with a myriad of false promises, will go back to secretly cooperating with government spies as they always have: introducing subtle weaknesses into cryptographic protocols, designing backdoors that double as accidental zero-day bugs, building rootkits which hide in plain sight, and handing over user data. In other words all of the behavior that was described by Edward Snowden’s documents. Like a jilted lover, consumers will be pacified with a clever sales pitch that conceals deeper corporate subterfuge.

Ultimately it’s a matter of shared class interest. The private sector almost always cooperates with the intelligence services because American spies pursue the long-term prerogatives of neoliberal capitalism; open markets and access to resources the world over. Or perhaps someone has forgotten the taped phone call of Victoria Nuland selecting the next prime minister of Ukraine as the IMF salivates over austerity measures? POTUS caters to his constituents, the corporate ruling class, which transitively convey their wishes to clandestine services like the CIA. Recall Ed Snowden’s open letter to Brazil:

“These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.”

To confront the Deep State Greenwald is essentially advocating that we elicit change by acting like consumers instead of constitutionally endowed citizens. This is a grave mistake because profits can be decoupled from genuine security in a society defined by secrecy, propaganda, and state capture. Large monolithic corporations aren’t our saviors. They’re the central part of the problem. We shouldn’t run to the corporate elite to protect us. We should engage politically to retake and remake our republic.

 

Bill Blunden is an independent investigator whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis.

http://www.alternet.org/tech-companies-are-peddling-phony-version-security-using-govt-bogeyman?akid=12501.265072.yCLOb-&rd=1&src=newsletter1027620&t=29&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Every sci-fi movie since Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece has echoed the original in certain unavoidable ways

Kubrick’s indestructible influence: “Interstellar’’ joins the long tradition of borrowing from “2001’’

Kubrick's indestructible influence: "Interstellar’’ joins the long tradition of borrowing from "2001’’
“2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Interstellar” (Credit: Warner Bros./Salon)

When I first heard about Christopher Nolan’s new sci-fi adventure, “Interstellar,” my immediate thought was only this: Here comes the latest filmmaker to take on Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Though it was released more than 40 years ago, ”2001″ remains the benchmark for the “serious” science fiction film: technical excellence married to thematic ambition, and a pervading sense of historic self-importance.

More specifically, I imagined that Nolan would join a long line of challengers to aim squarely at “2001’s” famous Star Gate sequence, where astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) passes through a dazzling space-time light show and winds up at a waystation en route to his transformation from human being into the quasi-divine Star Child.

The Star Gate scene was developed by special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, who modernized an old technique known as slit scan photography (you can learn more about it here). While we’ve long since warp-drived our way beyond the sequence effects-wise (you can now do slit scan on your phone), the Star Gate’s eerie and propulsive quality is still powerful, because it functions as much more than just eye candy. It’s a set piece whose theme is the attempt to transcend set pieces — and character, and narrative and, most of all, the technical limitations of cinema itself.

In “2001,” the Star Gate scene is followed by another scene that also turns up frequently in sci-fi flicks. Bowman arrives at a series of strange rooms, designed in the style of Louis XVI (as interpreted by an alien intelligence), and he watches himself age and die before being reborn. Where is he? Another galaxy? Another dimension? Heaven? Hell? What are the mysterious monoliths that have brought him here? Why?

Let’s call this the Odd Room Scene. Pristine and uncanny, the odd room is the place at the end of the journey where truths of all sorts, profound and pretentious, clear and obscure, are at last revealed. In “The Matrix Reloaded,” for instance, Neo’s Odd Room Scene is his meeting with an insufferable talking suit called the Architect, where he learns the truth about the Matrix. Last summer’s “Snowpiercer,” about a train perpetually carrying the sole survivors of a new Ice Age around the world, follows the lower-class occupants of the tail car as they stage a revolution, fighting and hacking their way through first class toward the train’s engine, an Odd Room where our hero learns the truth about the train.



These final scenes in “2001″ still linger in the collective creative consciousness as inspiration or as crucible. The Star Gate and the Odd Room, particular manifestations of the journey and the revelation, have become two key architectural building blocks of modern sci-fi films. The lure to imitate and try to top these scenes, either separately or together, is apparently too powerful to resist.

Perhaps the most literal of the Star Gate-Odd Room imitators is Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 “Contact.” It’s a straightforward drama about humanity’s efforts to build a large wormhole machine whose plans have been sent by aliens, and the debate over which human should be the first to journey beyond the solar system. The prize falls to Jodie Foster’s agnostic astronomer Ellie Arroway. During the film’s Star Gate sequence, Foster rides a capsule through a wormhole that winds her around distant planets and through a newly forming star. Zemeckis’s knockoff is a decent roller coaster, but nothing more. Arroway is anxious as she goes through the wormhole, but still in control of herself; a deeply distressed Bowman, by contrast, is losing his mind.

Arroway’s wormhole deposits her in an Odd Room that looks to her (and us) like a beach lit by sunlight and moonlight. She is visited by a projection of her dead father, the aliens’ way of appearing to her in a comfortable guise, and she learns the stunning truth about … well, actually, she doesn’t learn much. Her father gives her a Paternal Alien Pep Talk. Yes, there is a lot of life out in the galaxy. No, you can’t hang out with us. No, we’re not going to answer any of your real questions. Just keep working hard down there on planet Earth; you’ll get up here eventually (as long as you all don’t kill each other first).

Brian De Palma tried his own version of the Odd Room at the end of 2000’s “Mission to Mars,” which culminates in a team of astronauts entering a cool, Kubrick-like room in an alien spaceship on Mars and, yes, learning the stunning truth about the origins of life on Earth. De Palma is a skilled practitioner of the mainstream Hollywood set piece, but you can feel the film working up quite a sweat trying and failing to answer “2001,” and early-century digital effects depicting red Martians are, to be charitable, somewhat dated.

But here comes “Interstellar.” This film would appear to be the best shot we’ve had in years to challenge the supremacy of the Star Gate, of “2001″ itself, as a Serious Sci-Fi Film About Serious Ideas. Christopher Nolan should be the perfect candidate to out-Star Gate the Star Gate. Kubrick machined his visuals to impossibly tight tolerances. Nolan (along with his screenwriter brother Jonathan) do much the same to their films’ narratives, manufacturing elaborately conceived contraptions. The film follows a Hail Mary pass to find a planet suitable for the human race as the last crops on earth begin to die out. Matthew McConaughey plays an astronaut tasked with piloting a starship through a wormhole, into another galaxy and onto a potentially habitable planet. “Interstellar” promises a straight-ahead technological realism as well as a sense of conscious “We’re pushing the envelope” ambition. (Hey, even Neil deGrasse Tyson vouches for the film’s science bonafides.) The possibilities and ambiguities of time, one of Nolan’s consistent concerns as a storyteller, is meant, I think, to be the trump card that takes “Interstellar” past “2001.”

But the film is not about fealty to, or the realistic depiction of, relativity theory. It’s about “2001.” And before it can try to usurp the throne, “Interstellar” must first kiss the ring. (And if you haven’t seen “Interstellar” yet, you might want to stop reading now.) So we get the seemingly rational crewmember who proves to be homicidal. The dangerous attempt to manually enter a spaceship. More brazenly, there’s a set piece of one ship docking with another. In “2001,” the stately docking of a spaceship with a wheel-shaped space station, turning gently above the Earth to the strains of the Blue Danube was, quite literally, a waltz, a graceful celestial courtship. It clued us in early that the machines in “2001″ would prove more lively, more human, than the humans. “Interstellar” assays the same moment, only on steroids. It turns that waltz, so rich in subtext, into a violent, vertiginous fandango as a shuttle tries to dock with a mothership that’s pirouetting out of control.

Finally, after a teasing jaunt through a wormhole earlier in the movie, we come to “Interstellar’s” Star Gate moment, as Cooper plummets into a black hole and ultimately into a library-like Odd Room that M.C. Escher might have fancied. It’s visually impressive for a moment, but its imprint quickly fades.

It’s too bad.” Interstellar” wants the stern grandeur of “2001″ and the soft-hearted empathy of Steven Spielberg, but in most respects achieves neither. Visually only a few images impress themselves in your brain — Nolan, as is often the case in his movies, is more successful designing and calibrating his story than at creating visuals worthy of his ambition. Yet the film doesn’t manage the emotional dynamics, either. It’s not for lack of trying. The Nolan brothers are rigorous scenarists, and the concept of dual father-daughter bonds being tested and reaffirmed across space-time is strong enough on the drawing board. (Presumably, familial love is sturdier than romantic love, though the film makes a half-hearted stab at the latter.)

For those with a less sentimental bent, the thematic insistence on the primacy of love might seem hokey, but it’s one way the film tries to advance beyond the chilly humanism of Kubrick toward something more warm-blooded. Besides, when measured against the stupefying vastness of the universe, what other human enterprise besides love really matters? The scale of the universe and its utter silence is almost beyond human concern, anyway.

So I don’t fault a film that suggests that it’s love more than space-age alloys and algorithms that can overcome the bounds of space and time. But the big ideas Nolan is playing with are undercut by too much exposition about what they mean. The final scene between Cooper and his elderly daughter — the triumphant, life-affirming emotional home run — is played all wrong, curt and businesslike. It’s a moment Spielberg would have handled with more aplomb; he would have had us teary-eyed, for sure, even those who might feel angry at having their heartstrings yanked so hard. This is more like having a filmmaker give a lecture on how to pull at the heartstrings without actually doing it.

Look, pulling off these Star Gate-like scenes requires an almost impossible balance. The built-in expectations in the structure of the story itself are unwieldy enough, without the association to one of science fiction’s most enduring scenes. You can make the transcendent completely abstract, like poetry, a string of visual and aural sensations, and hope viewers are in the right space to have their minds blown, but you run the risk of copping out with deliberate obfuscation. (We can level this charge at the Star Gate sequence itself.)

But it’s easy to press too far the other way — to personify the higher power or the larger force at the end of these journeys with a too literal explanation that leaves us underwhelmed. I suppose what we yearn for is just a tiny revelation, one that honors our desire for awe, preserves a larger mystery, but is not entirely inaccessible. It’s a tiny taste of the sublime. There’s an imagined pinpoint here where we would dream of transcendence as a paradox, as having God-like perception and yet still remaining human, perhaps only for a moment before crossing into something new. For viewers, though, the Star Gate scenes ultimately play on our side of that crossroads: To be human is to steal a glimpse of the transcendent, to touch it, without transcending.

While Kubrick didn’t have modern digital effects to craft his visuals with, in retrospect he had the easier time of it. It’s increasingly difficult these days to really blow an audience’s minds. We’ve seen too much. We know too much. The legitimate pleasure we can take in knowledge, in our ability to decode an ever-more-complex array of allusions and references, may not be as pleasurable or meaningful as truly seeing something beyond what we think we know.

Maybe the most successful challenger to Kubrick was Darren Aronofsky and his 2006 film “The Fountain.” The film, a meditation on mortality and immortality, plays out in three thematically-linked stories: A conquistador (Hugh Jackman) searches the new world for the biblical Tree of Life; a scientist (Jackman again) tries to save his cancer-stricken wife (Rachel Weisz), and a shaven-headed, lotus-sitting traveler (Jackman once more) journeys to a distant nebula. It’s the latter that bears the unique “2001″ imprint of journey and revelation: Jackman travels in a bubble containing the Tree of Life, through a milky and golden cosmicscape en route to his death and rebirth. It’s the Star Gate and the Odd Room all in one. Visually, Aronofsky eschewed computer-generated effects for a more organic approach that leans on fluid dynamics. I won’t tell you the film is a masterpiece — its Grand Unifying ending is more than a little inscrutable; again, pulling this stuff of is a real tightrope — but the visuals are wondrous and unsettling, perhaps the closest realization since the original of what the Star Gate sequence is designed to evoke.

Having said that, though, it may be time to turn away from the Star Gate in our quest for the mind-blowing sci-fi cinematic sequence. Filmmakers have thus far tried to imagine something like it, only better, and have mostly failed. It’s harder to imagine something beyond it, something unimaginable. Maybe future films should not be quite so literal in their chasing of those transcendent moments. This might challenge a new generation of filmmakers while also allowing the Star Gate, and “2001″ itself, to lie fallow for awhile, so we can return to it one day with fresh eyes.

It is, after all, when we least suspect it that a story may find a way past our jaded eyes and show us a glimpse of something that really does stir a moment of profound connection. There is one achingly brief moment in “Interstellar” that accomplishes this: Nolan composes a magnificent shot of a small starship, seen from a great distance gliding past Saturn’s awesome rings. The ship glitters in a gentle rhythm as it catches light of the Sun. It’s a throwaway, a transitional moment between one scene and another, merely meant to establish where we are. But its very simplicity and beauty, the power of its scale, invites us for a moment to experience the scale of the unknown and to appreciate our efforts to find a place in it, or beyond it.

http://www.salon.com/2014/11/22/kubricks_indestructible_influence_interstellar_joins_the_long_tradition_of_borrowing_from_2001/?source=newsletter

Amnesty International Releases Tool To Combat Government Spyware

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Human rights charity Amnesty International has released Detekt, a tool that finds and removes known government spyware programs. Describing the free software as the first of its kind, Amnesty commissioned the tool from prominent German computer security researcher and open source advocate Claudio Guarnieri, aka ‘nex’. While acknowledging that the only sure way to prevent government surveillance of huge dragnets of individuals is legislation, Marek Marczynski of Amnesty nevertheless called the tool (downloadable here) a useful countermeasure versus spooks. According to the app’s instructions, it operates similarly to popular malware or virus removal suites, though systems must be disconnected from the Internet prior to it scanning.

DIGITAL MUSIC NEWS

Federal Judge Rejects Sirius XM’s Call

For Summary Judgment In Pre-1972 Case

 

     The Turtles keep on rolling to copyright victory, as a federal judge in New York has ruled against Sirius XM in the ongoing battle to collect royalties on recordings made before 1972. Last Friday (Nov. 14) Judge Colleen McMahon of United States District Court in Manhattan rejected Sirius XM’s motion for summary judgment, saying the Turtles have performing rights to their recordings under New York State law. She gave Sirius XM until Dec. 5 to dispute the remaining facts in the case; otherwise Sirius XM will be ruled liable for infringement.

“General principles of common copyright law dictate that public performance rights in pre-1972 sound recordings do exist,” Judge McMahon wrote in her decision. The ruling comes after a separate win for the Turtles in September, when a federal judge in California found Sirius XM liable for infringement under state laws there. According to The New York Times, that decision was viewed as a major victory for artists and record companies, although its wider impact was unclear because it applied only to that state.

Judge McMahon’s decision strengthened the music industry’s position that pre-1972 recordings are covered under state laws. Still, recording and broadcast industry executives say the potential for widespread confusion over music licensing – for example, it may mean that thousands of AM-FM radio stations, as well as restaurants or sports arenas where music is performed, may have been infringing on recording rights for decades – likely will require clarification from Congress. 

YouTube Launches Music Key In

Already-Crowded Streaming Field

 

     After years of false starts and seemingly endless label negotiations, YouTube’s Music Key launched earlier this week to the ultimate question: will users actually pay $9.99 for something  they previously received free of charge? That’s the monthly rate Google set for its ad-free service that also offers offline functionality, with a company spokesperson telling Billboard, “The goal is more ways to play music on YouTube, giving artists more ways to reach fans and make money.”

So why create a subscription service, especially given the competitive landscape? As Billboard notes, Apple is certain to grow its share of the streaming market, Amazon is going after middle-of-the-road listeners with Music Prime, and Spotify has a head start of 12.5 million U.S. subscribers (28 million worldwide in 2013, according to IFPI).

Still, many industry executives hope Music Key will help YouTube clean up the metadata that often gets lost in uploads of master recordings and drives users to the original composer and purchase links. This has been a core asset of YouTube’s Content ID system, which has disbursed more than $1 billion in revenue to labels and content creators since 2007. 

YouTube Refuses To Remove Songs

By Artists Represented By Azoff’s GMR

 

     YouTube apparently has refused to remove songs composed by artists represented by Irving Azoff’s Global Music Rights (GMR), forcing a showdown between the 42 artists the music icon represents and the Google-owned video site. The dispute stems from YouTube’s claim that it has licensing deals in place with the record labels, while Azoff contends that in order to publicly perform those 42 artists’ songs, the company also has to pay the songwriters, which Azoff says are “massively underpaid” when it comes to digital services.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the primary question here is whether YouTube has a right to perform these songs until proven otherwise. GMR thinks the burden of proving a valid license is on YouTube, which reportedly says it has a multiyear license for the public performance of works represented by GMR. The licensors aren’t identified, but it’s possible that YouTube believes its covered by prior deals made with ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, or a foreign performing rights organization.

Howard King, an attorney representing GMR, says YouTube has failed to comply with demands to stop performing those 20,000 songs. “Obviously, if YouTube contends it has properly licensed any of the songs for public broadcast, a contention we believe to be untrue, demand is hereby made that we be furnished with documentation of such licenses,” he says.

By contrast, a spokesperson for YouTube told THR, “We’ve done deals with labels, publishers, collection societies, and more to bring artists’ music into YouTube Music Key. To achieve our goal of enabling this service’s features on all the music on YouTube, we’ll keep working with both the music community and with the music fans invited to our beta phase.” 

Music Key Could Thwart Apple’s Move

To Reduce Monthly Subscription Fee

 

     It’s no secret that Apple has been engaged in heated discussions with the major record labels to lower the price of on-demand music to $5 per month from the standard $9.99 currently charged by such subscription services as Spotify, Rhapsody, Google, Rdio, and its own Beats Music. According to Forbes, Apple is telling record labels that $5/month for all-you-can-hear on-demand music is the right price because the best iTunes customers spend about $60 per year on music downloads. The obvious thinking here is that this $60 annual revenue per user (ARPU) could be the best record companies can hope to get from those consumers who still actually pay for music.

This may be a convenient talking point for Apple’s negotiators, but – as Forbes points out – two important factors strongly counter that argument. First, for all the talk about monthly subscription fees (and Taylor Swift, below), the vast majority of users of on-demand music services don’t pay for them at all. Second, in 2011 Google introduced

a technology called Content ID that enables copyright owners to make money, if they choose, when users upload content to YouTube. The system detects users’ uploads of copyrighted works and gives copyright owners several options, including to block the uploads or monetize them through ad revenue sharing. By 2011, the major labels had opted to allow many user uploads of their content for monetization, and they also supply their own “official” music videos.

As a result, YouTube is a de facto on-demand music service and, as noted by Forbes, possibly is the biggest one in the game. Market research from Edison Research and Triton Digital suggests that, strictly as a music service, YouTube has about four times the U.S. user base of Spotify, Rhapsody, and Google Play Music All Access combined. No one pays for YouTube, although some may pay for its Music Key service, which will hit that same $10 monthly price point when it comes out of beta. 

Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta: Spotify

Paid Less Than $500,000 To TS Last Year

 

     The verbal fisticuffs between Spotify and Taylor Swift have not let up, with the streaming music service’s Daniel Ek insisting the pop music icon was on track to earn over $6 million in royalties this year. This claim came after a Spotify spokesperson said Swift had been paid a total of $2 million over the last 12 months for the global streaming of her songs. But Scott Borchetta (above left), CEO of Swift’s label Big Machine Records, says that’s nowhere near the truth, maintaining Swift earned less than $500,000 from Spotify streams over the last 12 months.

“The facts show that the music industry was much better off before Spotify hit these shores,” Borchetta told The New York Times. Noting that the amount Spotify paid out over the last year was “the equivalent of less than 50,000 albums sold, he said Swift actually earns more from her videos on Vevo than she did from having her music on Spotify.

While half a million dollars will cause few people to weep, it should be noted that Swift’s most recent album, 1989, became the first this year to sell more than a million copies in a week – a feat only equaled by 18 albums in history. Unlike most performers, she can make millions of dollars from traditional album sales, but by keeping her music away from Spotify even as it begs for her to come back, she and Borchetta say they’re trying to make the larger point that the service doesn’t pay its artists a reasonable fee. “[Taylor Swift] is the most successful artist in music today,” Borchetta says. “What about the rest of the artists out there struggling to make a career?” 

Sony Music Wary Of Ad-Supported

Streaming After Taylor Swift Move

 

     Taylor Swift’s claim that subscription streaming services hurt music sales has caused Sony Music to reconsider its own digital music plans. PC World reports that, during a recent company briefing, Sony Music CFO Kevin Kelleher questioned whether or not the free, ad-supported services are taking away from how quickly, and to what extent, the company can grow those paid services. “That’s something we’re paying attention to… It’s an area that’s gotten everyone’s attention,” he observed.

This is important because, as CD sales and digital music downloads continue to shrink, streaming services offer a potential ray of sunshine for the recorded music industry. Such companies as Pandora and Spotify routinely lose money due to a combination of high royalty fees and low revenue, an imbalance that appears to be due to poor ROI on ad-supported tiers and not enough premium subscribers to sustain a business model.

While Sony says the move by Taylor Swift (not a Sony artist) to pull her music from Spotify made the company sit up and take notice, it isn’t enough to make anyone want to change the dynamics of the digital music business. In fact, Sony says it’s “very encouraged with the pay streaming model.” Approximately 27 million people worldwide pay for streaming subscriptions, Sony says, and the company is focused on helping that number grow.

 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2014

The One Party Planet: an analysis of the world today

by James Wan on November 19, 2014

Post image for The One Party Planet: an analysis of the world todayHas the time come to revive the radical political pamphlet? /The Rules’ critique of neoliberalism as presented in The One Part Planet proves that it is.

Back when I was at university and feeling particularly idle one night, I had an idea to test my college magazine’s “we-publish-anything” policy and also have a bit of fun. I decided to make up a bunch of absurd ‘facts’ and submit them under the heading Did You Know?. Chuckling to myself, I made-up ‘facts’ such as: “Bhutan has two national flags: one for when it’s sunny, one for when it’s raining”, “In the Malay language, there are 4 words for ‘fridge magnet’ but none for ‘fridge“, and “There are no mice in Nicaragua”.

The whole thing was clearly silly and my intention was that readers might just about believe the first claim − that “pork is a mild aphrodisiac” − and maybe even the first few, but as the facts got increasingly ludicrous, they would realize the exercise had been a hoax all along.

Once the magazine was published the next week then, I was astonished to realize that barely anyone had got the joke. Everyone of course had instantly known that some of the facts were complete nonsense − the scientists, for example, knew full well that iguanas don’t have seven lungs, and I doubt any film buffs really believed the working title for Jaws had been ‘What a Big Shark!’ − but while they all discarded certain specific claims, very few questioned the validity of the list as a whole. The facts they knew to be false, they discarded; the rest they still took at face value.

 

 

 

 

 

I tell this story not just as a cautionary tale to any editors who receive submissions from me late at night, but to highlight one essential cognitive bias. Namely, that it is not particularly difficult to be skeptical towards individual details − the numbered ‘facts’ − but it is rare for that skepticism to broaden out into a questioning of underlying assumptions. In this case, the premise of the list as a whole. Sometimes all those trees just end up obscuring the wood.

It is this tendency that partly accounts for why so few people realized my list of made-up facts was complete bullshit, but which also helps explain one the conundrums of the progressive movement: that despite widespread acknowledgement of huge global injustices and inequalities, the underlying assumptions of the system tend to get an easy ride.

There is plenty of rightful outrage at corruption, endemic poverty and systemic exploitation, yet from most political discussions to mainstream media debates, and from well-meaning ethical consumerist actions to celebrity-sponsored charity campaigns, there appears to be an implicit acceptance that what we’re doing on a broad scale is basically fine. The problem, apparently, is that we need to do it a little better, tweak it here and there, or add something else on top.

It is well-known that workers’ rights in many places are systematically trampled on; that a billion people are chronically malnourished even though we produce enough food to feed the world one and a half times over; that the governments of developing countries lose at least $1 trillion each year through tax havens; that levels of greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating despite an apparent commitment from world leaders to decrease them; that the richest 1% of the world own half of all global wealth; and that, according to World Bank figures, 80% of the world’s population live on less than $10/day while 60% live on less than $5.

All this is acknowledged and provokes anger. But in the same way my college readers were skeptical of the claim that “Pope Benedict used to be a professional arm-wrestler” yet never questioned the integrity of the list as a whole, it is rare that outrage at global injustices translates into doubt at the efficacy of the system itself. It seems that no matter how extreme, numerous or engrained the inequality, poverty or oppression, the idea that large-scale change is necessary is still simply ‘too radical’ for most.

Of course, it is not just our cognitive biases that prevent a greater acceptance of progressive views. Advocates of market liberalism have been hugely successful in painting their ideology as non-ideological common sense. But the question remains: if knowledge of deep global problems is not enough to make people question the wisdom of the status quo, what can?

There are certainly many possible answers to this question, and any struggle of ideas has to be waged at several levels on several fronts. Some strategies will no doubt need to be smart and innovative, drawing on new forms of communication and technology. But at the same time, perhaps we also need to look back to older tried and tested tools: things like the humble political pamphlet for instance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is exactly what the activist organization /The Rules has done with The One Party Planet, a 60-page pamphlet that provides a detailed critique of neoliberalism and the unbridled power of the 1% (or rather 0.01%). We are essentially a “one party planet”, it argues, bringing together several different strands of reasoning and evidence, because the global political and economic elite all essentially hold the same worldview.

From American CEOs to Chinese party officials, and from African presidents to Russian oligarchs, there is an overwhelming consensus that unrestrained selfish competition is not only the best, but the only possible, way to organize society. This is not a conspiracy concocted in dark smoky rooms, and the individuals at the top don’t share some grand master plan. But the internal logic of their actions is one and the same, and this has contributed, the pamphlet argues, to a situation in which an unelected elite wield incredible influence over politics and inequality has reached outlandish levels.

In response to this, The One Party Planet culminates in a carefully argued call for a global uprising. This might seem like a contradiction − how can you carefully call for an uprising? − but that is perhaps where the power of the political pamphlet, and this one in particular, lies. Unlike books, which can be long and detached; newspaper articles, which can be brief and fleeting; and documentaries, which are received somewhat passively, the political pamphlet speaks directly to the reader with enough time and space to make a clear and detailed argument. It can make the apparently radical seem self-evident.

And perhaps this is one of the greatest weapons the progressive movement has right now. After all, the evidence and statistics about poverty, inequality and corruption are increasingly being understood and accepted − the facts have become mainstream. Maybe what we need first and foremost now then is fairly simple − something that will sit us down, talk us through it, and connect the dots. Something that can make the case that the foremost global problems of our age are not isolated but interconnected, not superficial but structural, and not inevitable but man-made. The One Party Planet does this with impressive depth, humility and conviction.

Download the pamphlet here

James Wan is the Senior Editor of Think Africa Press. His work has featured in a wide range of publications and in 2013 he was shortlisted for The Guardian’s International Development Journalism Competition. You can follow him on twitter at @jamesjwan

Google’s secret NSA alliance: The terrifying deals between Silicon Valley and the security state

Inside the high-level, complicated deals — and the rise of a virtually unchecked surveillance power

Google's secret NSA alliance: The terrifying deals between Silicon Valley and the security state
Cover detail of “@War” by Shane Harris

In mid-December 2009, engineers at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, began to suspect that hackers in China had obtained access to private Gmail accounts, including those used by Chinese human rights activists opposed to the government in Beijing.

 Like a lot of large, well-known Internet companies, Google and its users were frequently targeted by cyber spies and criminals. But when the engineers looked more closely, they discovered that this was no ordinary hacking campaign.

In what Google would later describe as “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China,” the thieves were able to get access to the password system that allowed Google’s users to sign in to many Google applications at once. This was some of the company’s most important intellectual property, considered among the “crown jewels” of its source code by its engineers. Google wanted concrete evidence of the break-in that it could share with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence authorities. So they traced the intrusion back to what they believed was its source — a server in Taiwan where data was sent after it was siphoned off Google’s systems, and that was presumably under the control of hackers in mainland China.

“Google broke in to the server,” says a former senior intelligence official who’s familiar with the company’s response. The decision wasn’t without legal risk, according to the official. Was this a case of hacking back? Just as there’s no law against a homeowner following a robber back to where he lives, Google didn’t violate any laws by tracing the source of the intrusion into its systems. It’s still unclear how the company’s investigators gained access to the server, but once inside, if they had removed or deleted data, that would cross a legal line. But Google didn’t destroy what it found. In fact, the company did something unexpected and unprecedented — it shared the information.

Google uncovered evidence of one of the most extensive and far-reaching campaigns of cyber espionage in U.S. history. Evidence suggested that Chinese hackers had penetrated the systems of nearly three dozen other companies, including technology mainstays such as Symantec, Yahoo, and Adobe, the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, and the equipment maker Juniper Networks. The breadth of the campaign made it hard to discern a single motive. Was this industrial espionage? Spying on human rights activists? Was China trying to gain espionage footholds in key sectors of the U.S. economy or, worse, implant malware in equipment used to regulate critical infrastructure?



The only things Google seemed certain of was that the campaign was massive and persistent, and that China was behind it. And not just individual hackers, but the Chinese government, which had the means and the motive to launch such a broad assault.

Google shared what it found with the other targeted companies, as well as U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. For the past four years, corporate executives had been quietly pressing government officials to go public with information about Chinese spying, to shame the country into stopping its campaign. But for President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to give a speech pointing the finger at China, they needed indisputable evidence that attributed the attacks to sources in China. And looking at what Google had provided it, government analysts were not sure they had it. American officials decided the relationship between the two economic superpowers was too fragile and the risk of conflict too high to go public with what Google knew.

Google disagreed.

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg was at a cocktail party in Washington when an aide delivered an urgent message: Google was going to issue a public statement about the Chinese spying campaign. Steinberg, the second-highest-ranking official in U.S. foreign policy, immediately grasped the significance of the company’s decision. Up to that moment, American corporations had been unwilling to publicly accuse the Chinese of spying on their networks or stealing their intellectual property. The companies feared losing the confidence of investors and customers, inviting other hackers to target their obviously weak defenses, and igniting the fury of Chinese government officials, who could easily revoke access to one of the biggest and fastest-growing markets for U.S. goods and services. For any company to come out against China would be momentous. But for Google, the most influential company of the Internet age, it was historic.

The next day, January 12, 2010, Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, posted a lengthy statement to the company’s blog, accusing hackers in China of attacking Google’s infrastructure and criticizing the government for censoring Internet content and suppressing human rights activists. “We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech,” said Drummond.

Back at the State Department, officials saw a rare opportunity to put pressure on China for spying. That night Hillary Clinton issued her own statement. “We have been briefed by Google on these allegations, which raise very serious concerns and questions. We look to the Chinese government for an explanation,” she said. “The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy.”

As diplomatic maneuvers go, this was pivotal. Google had just given the Obama administration an opening to accuse China of espionage without having to make the case itself. Officials could simply point to what Google had discovered as a result of its own investigation.

“It gave us an opportunity to discuss the issues without having to rely on classified sources or sensitive methods” of intelligence gathering, Steinberg says. The administration had had little warning about Google’s decision, and it was at odds with some officials’ reluctance to take the espionage debate public. But now that it was, no one complained.

“It was their decision. I certainly had no objection,” Steinberg says.

The Obama administration began to take a harsher tone with China, starting with a major address Clinton gave about her Internet Freedom initiative nine days later. She called on China to stop censoring Internet searches and blocking access to websites that printed criticism about the country’s leaders. Clinton likened such virtual barriers to the Berlin Wall.

For its part, Google said it would stop filtering search results for words and subjects banned by government censors. And if Beijing objected, Google was prepared to pull up stakes and leave the Chinese market entirely, losing out on billions of dollars in potential revenues. That put other U.S. technology companies in the hot seat. Were they willing to put up with government interference and suppression of free speech in order to keep doing business in China?

After Google’s declaration, it was easier for other companies to admit they’d been infiltrated by hackers. After all, if it happened to Google, it could happen to anyone. Being spied on by the Chinese might even be a mark of distinction, insofar as it showed that a company was important enough to merit the close attention of a superpower. With one blog post, Google had changed the global conversation about cyber defense.

The company had also shown that it knew a lot about Chinese spies. The NSA wanted to know how much.

Google had also alerted the NSA and the FBI that its networks were breached by hackers in China. As a law enforcement agency, the FBI could investigate the intrusion as a criminal matter. But the NSA needed Google’s permission to come in and help assess the breach.

On the day that Google’s lawyer wrote the blog post, the NSA’s general counsel began drafting a “cooperative research and development agreement,” a legal pact that was originally devised under a 1980 law to speed up the commercial development of new technologies that are of mutual interest to companies and the government. The agreement’s purpose is to build something — a device or a technique, for instance. The participating company isn’t paid, but it can rely on the government to front the research and development costs, and it can use government personnel and facilities for the research. Each side gets to keep the products of the collaboration private until they choose to disclose them. In the end, the company has the exclusive patent rights to build whatever was designed, and the government can use any information that was generated during the collaboration.

It’s not clear what the NSA and Google built after the China hack. But a spokeswoman at the agency gave hints at the time the agreement was written. “As a general matter, as part of its information-assurance mission, NSA works with a broad range of commercial partners and research associates to ensure the availability of secure tailored solutions for Department of Defense and national security systems customers,” she said. It was the phrase “tailored solutions” that was so intriguing. That implied something custom built for the agency, so that it could perform its intelligence-gathering mission. According to officials who were privy to the details of Google’s arrangements with the NSA, the company agreed to provide information about traffic on its networks in exchange for intelligence from the NSA about what it knew of foreign hackers. It was a quid pro quo, information for information.

And from the NSA’s perspective, information in exchange for protection.

The cooperative agreement and reference to a “tailored solution” strongly suggest that Google and the NSA built a device or a technique for monitoring intrusions into the company’s networks. That would give the NSA valuable information for its so-called active defense system, which uses a combination of automated sensors and algorithms to detect malware or signs of an imminent attack and take action against them. One system, called Turmoil, detects traffic that might pose a threat. Then, another automated system called Turbine decides whether to allow the traffic to pass or to block it. Turbine can also select from a number of offensive software programs and hacking techniques that a human operator can use to disable the source of the malicious traffic. He might reset the source’s Internet connection or redirect the traffic to a server under the NSA’s control. There the source can be injected with a virus or spyware, so the NSA can continue to monitor it.

For Turbine and Turmoil to work, the NSA needs information, particularly about the data flowing over a network. With its millions of customers around the world, Google is effectively a directory of people using the Internet. It has their e-mail addresses. It knows where they’re physically located when they log in. It knows what they search for on the web. The government could command the company to turn over that information, and it does as part of the NSA’s Prism program, which Google had been participating in for a year by the time it signed the cooperative agreement with the NSA. But that tool is used for investigating people whom the government suspects of terrorism or espionage.

The NSA’s cyber defense mission takes a broader view across networks for potential threats, sometimes before it knows who those threats are. Under Google’s terms of service, the company advises its users that it may share their “personal information” with outside organizations, including government agencies, in order to “detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues” and to “protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google.” According to people familiar with the NSA and Google’s arrangement, it does not give the government permission to read Google users’ e-mails.

They can do that under Prism. Rather, it lets the NSA evaluate Google hardware and software for vulnerabilities that hackers might exploit. Considering that the NSA is the single biggest collector of zero day vulnerabilities, that information would help make Google more secure than others that don’t get access to such prized secrets. The agreement also lets the agency analyze intrusions that have already occurred, so it can help trace them back to their source.

Google took a risk forming an alliance with the NSA. The company’s corporate motto, “Don’t be evil,” would seem at odds with the work of a covert surveillance and cyber warfare agency. But Google got useful information in return for its cooperation. Shortly after the China revelation, the government gave Sergey Brin, Google’s cofounder, a temporary security clearance that allowed him to attend a classified briefing about the campaign against his company. Government analysts had concluded that the intrusion was directed by a unit of the People’s Liberation Army. This was the most specific information Google could obtain about the source of the intrusion. It could help Google fortify its systems, block traffic from certain Internet addresses, and make a more informed decision about whether it wanted to do business in China at all. Google’s executives might pooh-pooh the NSA’s “secret sauce.” But when the company found itself under attack, it turned to Fort Meade for help.

In its blog post, Google said that more than twenty companies had been hit by the China hackers, in a campaign that was later dubbed Aurora after a file name on the attackers’ computer. A security research firm soon put the number of targets at around three dozen. Actually, the scope of Chinese spying was, and is, much larger.

Security experts in and outside of government have a name for the hackers behind campaigns such as Aurora and others targeting thousands of other companies in practically every sector of the U.S. economy: the advanced persistent threat. It’s an ominous-sounding title, and a euphemistic one. When government officials mention “APT” today, what they often mean is China, and more specifically, hackers working at the direction of Chinese military and intelligence officials or on their behalf.

The “advanced” part of the description refers in part to the hackers’ techniques, which are as effective as any the NSA employs. The Chinese cyber spies can use an infected computer’s own chat and instant-messenger applications to communicate with a command-and-control server. They can implant a piece of malware and then remotely customize it, adding new information-harvesting features. The government apparatus supporting all this espionage is also advanced, more so than the loose-knit groups of cyber vandals or activists such as Anonymous that spy on companies for political purposes, or even the sophisticated Russian criminal groups, who are more interested in stealing bank account and credit card data. China plays a longer game. Its leaders want the country to become a first-tier economic and industrial power in a single generation, and they are prepared to steal the knowledge they need to do it, U.S. officials say.

That’s where the “persistent” part comes into play. Gathering that much information, from so many sources, requires a relentless effort, and the will and financial resources to try many different kinds of intrusion techniques, including expensive zero day exploits. Once the spies find a foothold inside an organization’s networks, they don’t let go unless they’re forced out. And even then they quickly return. The “threat” such spying poses to the U.S. economy takes the form of lost revenue and strategic position. But also the risk that the Chinese military will gain hidden entry points into critical-infrastructure control systems in the United States. U.S. intelligence officials believe that the Chinese military has mapped out infrastructure control networks so that if the two nations ever went to war, the Chinese could hit American targets such as electrical grids or gas pipelines without having to launch a missile or send a fleet of bombers.

Operation Aurora was the first glimpse into the breadth of the ATP’s exploits. It was the first time that names of companies had been attached to Chinese espionage. “The scope of this is much larger than anybody has ever conveyed,” Kevin Mandia, CEO and president of Mandiant, a computer security and forensics company located outside Washington, said at the time of Operation Aurora. The APT represented hacking on a national, strategic level. “There [are] not 50 companies compromised. There are thousands of companies compromised. Actively, right now,” said Mandia, a veteran cyber investigator who began his career as a computer security officer in the air force and worked there on cybercrime cases. Mandiant was becoming a goto outfit that companies called whenever they discovered spies had penetrated their networks. Shortly after the Google breach, Mandiant disclosed the details of its investigations in a private meeting with Defense Department officials a few days before speaking publicly about it.

The APT is not one body but a collection of hacker groups that include teams working for the People’s Liberation Army, as well as so-called patriotic hackers, young, enterprising geeks who are willing to ply their trade in service of their country. Chinese universities are also stocked with computer science students who work for the military after graduation. The APT hackers put a premium on stealth and patience. They use zero days and install backdoors. They take time to identify employees in a targeted organization, and send them carefully crafted spear-phishing e-mails laden with spyware. They burrow into an organization, and they often stay there for months or years before anyone finds them, all the while siphoning off plans and designs, reading e-mails and their attachments, and keeping tabs on the comings and goings of employees — the hackers’ future targets. The Chinese spies behave, in other words, like their American counterparts.

No intelligence organization can survive if it doesn’t know its enemy. As expansive as the NSA’s network of sensors is, it’s sometimes easier to get precise intelligence about hacking campaigns from the targets themselves. That’s why the NSA partnered with Google. It’s why when Mandiant came calling with intelligence on the APT, officials listened to what the private sleuths had to say. Defending cyberspace is too big a job even for the world’s elite spy agency. Whether they like it or not, the NSA and corporations must fight this foe together.

Google’s Sergey Brin is just one of hundreds of CEOs who have been brought into the NSA’s circle of secrecy. Starting in 2008, the agency began offering executives temporary security clearances, some good for only one day, so they could sit in on classified threat briefings.

“They indoctrinate someone for a day, and show them lots of juicy intelligence about threats facing businesses in the United States,” says a telecommunications company executive who has attended several of the briefings, which are held about three times a year. The CEOs are required to sign an agreement pledging not to disclose anything they learn in the briefings. “They tell them, in so many words, if you violate this agreement, you will be tried, convicted, and spend the rest of your life in prison,” says the executive.

Why would anyone agree to such severe terms? “For one day, they get to be special and see things few others do,” says the telecom executive, who, thanks to having worked regularly on classified projects, holds high-level clearances and has been given access to some of the NSA’s most sensitive operations, including the warrantless surveillance program that began after the 9/11 attacks. “Alexander became personal friends with many CEOs” through these closed-door sessions, the executive adds. “I’ve sat through some of these and said, ‘General, you tell these guys things that could put our country in danger if they leak out.’ And he said, ‘I know. But that’s the risk we take. And if it does leak out, they know what the consequences will be.’ ”

But the NSA doesn’t have to threaten the executives to get their attention. The agency’s revelations about stolen data and hostile intrusions are frightening in their own right, and deliberately so. “We scare the bejeezus out of them,” a government official told National Public Radio in 2012. Some of those executives have stepped out of their threat briefings meeting feeling like the defense contractor CEOs who, back in the summer of 2007, left the Pentagon with “white hair.”

Unsure how to protect themselves, some CEOs will call private security companies such as Mandiant. “I personally know of one CEO for whom [a private NSA threat briefing] was a life-changing experience,” Richard Bejtlich, Mandiant’s chief security officer, told NPR. “General Alexander sat him down and told him what was going on. This particular CEO, in my opinion, should have known about [threats to his company] but did not, and now it has colored everything about the way he thinks about this problem.”

The NSA and private security companies have a symbiotic relationship. The government scares the CEOs and they run for help to experts such as Mandiant. Those companies, in turn, share what they learn during their investigations with the government, as Mandiant did after the Google breach in 2010. The NSA has also used the classified threat briefings to spur companies to strengthen their defenses.

In one 2010 session, agency officials said they’d discovered a flaw in personal computer firmware — the onboard memory and codes that tell the machine how to work — that could allow a hacker to turn the computer “into a brick,” rendering it useless. The CEOs of computer manufacturers who attended the meeting, and who were previously aware of the design flaw, ordered it fixed.

Private high-level meetings are just one way the NSA has forged alliances with corporations. Several classified programs allow companies to share the designs of their products with the agency so it can inspect them for flaws and, in some instances, install backdoors or other forms of privileged access. The types of companies that have shown the NSA their products include computer, server, and router manufacturers; makers of popular software products, including Microsoft; Internet and e-mail service providers; telecommunications companies; satellite manufacturers; antivirus and Internet security companies; and makers of encryption algorithms.

The NSA helps the companies find weaknesses in their products. But it also pays the companies not to fix some of them. Those weak spots give the agency an entry point for spying or attacking foreign governments that install the products in their intelligence agencies, their militaries, and their critical infrastructure. Microsoft, for instance, shares zero day vulnerabilities in its products with the NSA before releasing a public alert or a software patch, according to the company and U.S. officials. Cisco, one of the world’s top network equipment makers, leaves backdoors in its routers so they can be monitored by U.S. agencies, according to a cyber security professional who trains NSA employees in defensive techniques. And McAfee, the Internet security company, provides the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI with network traffic flows, analysis of malware, and information about hacking trends.

Companies that promise to disclose holes in their products only to the spy agencies are paid for their silence, say experts and officials who are familiar with the arrangements. To an extent, these openings for government surveillance are required by law. Telecommunications companies in particular must build their equipment in such a way that it can be tapped by a law enforcement agency presenting a court order, like for a wiretap. But when the NSA is gathering intelligence abroad, it is not bound by the same laws. Indeed, the surveillance it conducts via backdoors and secret flaws in hardware and software would be illegal in most of the countries where it occurs.

Of course, backdoors and unpatched flaws could also be used by hackers. In 2010 a researcher at IBM publicly revealed a flaw in a Cisco operating system that allows a hacker to use a backdoor that was supposed to be available only to law enforcement agencies. The intruder could hijack the Cisco device and use it to spy on all communications passing through it, including the content of e-mails. Leaving products vulnerable to attack, particularly ubiquitous software programs like those produced by Microsoft, puts millions of customers and their private information at risk and jeopardizes the security of electrical power facilities, public utilities, and transportation systems.

Under U.S. law, a company’s CEO is required to be notified whenever the government uses its products, services, or facilities for intelligence-gathering purposes. Some of these information-sharing arrangements are brokered by the CEOs themselves and may be reviewed only by a few lawyers. The benefits of such cooperation can be profound. John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, became friends with George W. Bush when he was in office. In April 2006, Chambers and the president ate lunch together at the White House with Chinese president Hu Jintao, and the next day Bush gave Chambers a lift on Air Force One to San Jose, where the president joined the CEO at Cisco headquarters for a panel discussion on American business competitiveness. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also joined the conversation. Proximity to political power is its own reward. But preferred companies also sometimes receive early warnings from the government about threats against them.

The Homeland Security Department also conducts meetings with companies through its “cross sector working groups” initiative. These sessions are a chance for representatives from the universe of companies with which the government shares intelligence to meet with one another and hear from U.S. officials. The attendees at these meetings often have security clearances and have undergone background checks and interviews. The department has made the schedule and agendas of some of these meetings public, but it doesn’t disclose the names of companies that participated or many details about what they discussed.

Between January 2010 and October 2013, the period for which public records are available, the government held at least 168 meetings with companies just in the cross sector working group. There have been hundreds more meetings broken out by specific industry categories, such as energy, telecommunications, and transportation.

A typical meeting may include a “threat briefing” by a U.S. government official, usually from the NSA, the FBI, or the Homeland Security Department; updates on specific initiatives, such as enhancing bank website security, improving information sharing among utility companies, or countering malware; and discussion of security “tools” that have been developed by the government and industry, such as those used to detect intruders on a network. One meeting in April 2012 addressed “use cases for enabling information sharing for active cyber defense,” the NSA-pioneered process of disabling cyber threats before they can do damage. The information sharing in this case was not among government agencies but among corporations.

Most meetings have dealt with protecting industrial control systems, the Internet-connected devices that regulate electrical power equipment, nuclear reactors, banks, and other vital facilities. That’s the weakness in U.S. cyberspace that most worries intelligence officials. It was the subject that so animated George W. Bush in 2007 and that Barack Obama addressed publicly two years later. The declassified agendas for these meetings offer a glimpse at what companies and the government are building for domestic cyber defense.

On September 23, 2013, the Cross Sector Enduring Security Framework Operations Working Group discussed an update to an initiative described as “Connect Tier 1 and USG Operations Center.” “Tier 1” usually refers to a major Internet service provider or network operator. Some of the best-known Tier 1 companies in the United States are AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink. “USG” refers to the U.S. government. The initiative likely refers to a physical connection running from an NSA facility to those companies, as part of an expansion of the DIB pilot program. The expansion was authorized by a presidential executive order in February 2013 aimed at increasing security of critical-infrastructure sites around the country. The government, mainly through the NSA, gives threat intelligence to two Internet service providers, AT&T and CenturyLink. They, in turn, can sell “enhanced cybersecurity services,” as the program is known, to companies that the government deems vital to national and economic security. The program is nominally run by the Homeland Security Department, but the NSA provides the intelligence and the technical expertise.

Through this exchange of intelligence, the government has created a cyber security business. AT&T and CenturyLink are in effect its private sentries, selling protection to select corporations and industries. AT&T has one of the longest histories of any company participating in government surveillance. It was among the first firms that voluntarily handed over call records of its customers to the NSA following the 9/11 attacks, so the agency could mine them for potential connections to terrorists — a program that continues to this day. Most phone calls in the United States pass through AT&T equipment at some point, regardless of which carrier initiates them. The company’s infrastructure is one of the most important and frequently tapped repositories of electronic intelligence for the NSA and U.S. law enforcement agencies.

CenturyLink, which has its headquarters in Monroe, Louisiana, has been a less familiar name in intelligence circles over the years. But in 2011 the company acquired Qwest Communications, a telecommunications firm that is well known to the NSA. Before the 9/11 attacks, NSA officials approached Qwest executives and asked for access to its high-speed fiber-optic networks, in order to monitor them for potential cyber attacks. The company rebuffed the agency’s requests because officials hadn’t obtained a court order to get access to the company’s equipment. After the terrorist attacks, NSA officials again came calling, asking Qwest to hand over its customers’ phone records without a court-approved warrant, as AT&T had done. Again, the company refused. It took another ten years and the sale of the company, but Qwest’s networks are now a part of the NSA’s extended security apparatus.

The potential customer base for government-supplied cyber intelligence, sold through corporations, is as diverse as the U.S. economy itself. To obtain the information, a company must meet the government’s definition of a critical infrastructure: “assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.” That may seem like a narrow definition, but the categories of critical infrastructure are numerous and vast, encompassing thousands of businesses. Officially, there are sixteen sectors: chemical; commercial facilities, to include shopping centers, sports venues, casinos, and theme parks; communications; critical manufacturing; dams; the defense industrial base; emergency services, such as first responders and search and rescue; energy; financial services; food and agriculture; government facilities; health care and public health; information technology; nuclear reactors, materials, and waste; transportation systems; and water and wastewater systems.

It’s inconceivable that every company on such a list could be considered “so vital to the United States” that its damage or loss would harm national security and public safety. And yet, in the years since the 9/11 attacks, the government has cast such a wide protective net that practically any company could claim to be a critical infrastructure. The government doesn’t disclose which companies are receiving cyber threat intelligence. And as of now the program is voluntary. But lawmakers and some intelligence officials, including Keith Alexander and others at the NSA, have pressed Congress to regulate the cyber security standards of critical-infrastructure owners and operators. If that were to happen, then the government could require that any company, from Pacific Gas and Electric to Harrah’s Hotels and Casinos, take the government’s assistance, share information about its customers with the intelligence agencies, and build its cyber defenses according to government specifications.

In a speech in 2013 the Pentagon’s chief cyber security adviser, Major General John Davis, announced that Homeland Security and the Defense Department were working together on a plan to expand the original DIB program to more sectors. They would start with energy, transportation, and oil and natural gas, “things that are critical to DOD’s mission and the nation’s economic and national security that we do not directly control,” Davis said. The general called foreign hackers’ mapping of these systems and potential attacks “an imminent threat.” The government will never be able to manage such an extensive security regime on its own. It can’t now, which is why it relies on AT&T and CenturyLink. More companies will flock to this new mission as the government expands the cyber perimeter. The potential market for cyber security services is practically limitless.

Excerpted from “@WAR: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex” by Shane Harris. Copyright © 2014 by Shane Harris. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Shane Harris is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State, which won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism and was named one of the best books of 2010 by the Economist. Harris won the 2010 Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He is currently senior writer at Foreign Policy magazine and an ASU fellow at the New America Foundation, where he researches the future of war.

http://www.salon.com/2014/11/16/googles_secret_nsa_alliance_the_terrifying_deals_between_silicon_valley_and_the_security_state/?source=newsletter

The Interregnum: Why the Future is so chaotic

The Interregnum:

Why the Future is so chaotic

“The old is dying,and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a diversity of morbid symptoms”-Antonio Gramsci

The morbid symptoms began to appear in the spring of 2003. The Department of Homeland Security was officially formed and despite the street protests of millions around the world, the United States invaded Iraq on the pretext of capturing Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction”. By summer it was obvious that there were no such weapons and that we had been tricked into a war from which there was no easy exit. Pollsters began to notice that a majority of American’s felt we were “on the wrong track” and the distrust of our leadership has gotten worse every year.

So while the citizens exhibit historical levels of anger with the country’s drift, neither the political nor the economic leaders have put forth an alternative vision of our future. We are in an Interregnum: the often painful uprooting of old traditions and the hard-fought emergence of the new. The traditional notion of an interregnum refers to the time when a king died and a new king had not been coronated. But for our purposes, the notion of interregnum refers to those hinges in time when the old order is dead, but the new direction has not been determined. Quite often, the general populace does not understand that the transition is taking place and so a great deal of tumult arises as the birth pangs of a new social and political order. We are in such a time in America.

For those of us who work in the field of media and communications the signs of the Interregnum are everywhere. Internet services decimate the traditional businesses of music and journalism. For individual journalists or musicians, the old order is clearly dying, but a new way to make a living cannot seem to be birthed. Those who work in the fields of film and television can only hope a similar fate does not await their careers. In the world of politics a similar dynamic is destroying traditional political parties and the insurgent bottom up, networked campaigns pioneered by Barack Obama now become the standard. And yet we realize that for all it’s insurgency, the Obama campaign really did not usher in a new era. It is clear that there is an American Establishment that seems to stay in power no matter which party controls The White House. And the recent election only makes this more obvious. But this top-down establishment order is clearly dying, but it clings to it privileges and the networked, bottom-up society is not yet empowered.

Since 1953 when two senior partners of a Wall Street law firm, the brothers John Foster and Allen Dulles began running American foreign (and often domestic) policy, an establishment view, through Democratic and Republican presidencies alike, has been the norm. As Stephen Kinzer (in his book The Brothers)has written about the Dulles brothers, “Their life’s work was turning American money and power into global money and power. They deeply believed, or made themselves believe, that what benefited them and their clients would benefit everyone.” They created a world in which the Wall Street elites at first set our foreign policy and eventually (under Ronald Reagan) came to dominate domestic and tax policy — all to the benefit of themselves and their clients.

In 1969 the median salary for a male worker was $35,567 (in 2012 dollars). Today it is $33,904. So for 44 years, while wages for the top 10% have continued to climb, most Americans have been caught in a ”Great Stagnation”, bringing into question the whole purpose of the American capitalist economy. The notion that what benefited the establishment would benefit everyone, had been thoroughly discredited.

Seen through this lens, the savage partisanship of the current moment makes an odd kind of sense. What were the establishment priorities that moved inexorably forward in both Republican and Democratic administrations? The first was a robust and aggressive foreign policy. As Kinzer writes of the Dulles brothers, “Exceptionalism — the view that the United States has a right to impose its will because it knows more, sees farther, and lives on a higher moral plane than other nations — was to them not a platitude, but the organizing principle of daily life and global politics.” From Eisenhower to Obama, this principle has been the guiding light of our foreign policy, bringing with it annual defense expenditures that dwarf those of all the world’s major powers combined and drive us deeper in debt. The second principle of the establishment was, “what is good for Wall Street is good for America.” Despite Democrats efforts to paint the GOP as the party of Wall Street, one would only have to look at the efforts of Clinton’s Treasury secretaries Rubin and Summers to kill the Glass-Steagal Act and deregulate the big banks, to see that the establishment rules no matter who is in power. Was it any surprise that Obama then appointed the architects of bank deregulation, Summers and Geithner, to clean up the mess their policies had caused?

So when we observe politicians as diverse as Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul railing against the twin poles of establishment orthodoxy, can we really be surprised? Is there not a new consensus that the era of America as global policeman is over? Is there not agreement from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street that the domination of domestic policy by financial elites is over? But here is our Interregnum dilemma. It is one thing to forecast a kind of liberal-libertarian coalition around the issues of defense spending, corporate welfare and even the privacy rights of citizens in a national security state. It is a much more intractable problem to find consensus on the causes and cures of the Great Stagnation. It does seem like we need to understand the nature of the current stagnation by looking back to the late sixties when the economy was very different than it is today. In 1966, net investment as a percentage of GDP peaked at 14% and it has been on a steady decline ever since, despite the computer revolution which was only getting started in the early 1970’s.

Economic growth only comes from three sources: consumption, investment or foreign earnings from trade (the Current Account). We have been living so long with a negative current account balance and falling investment that economic growth is almost totally dependent on the third leg of the stool, consumer spending. But with the average worker unable to get a raise since 1969, consumption can only come from loosened credit standards. As long as the average family could use their home equity as an ATM, the party could continue, driven by the increasing sophistication of advertising and “branded entertainment” to induce mall fever to a strapped consumer. And by the late 1990’s consumer preferences began to drive a winner take all digital economy where one to three firms dominated each sector: Apple and Google; Verizon and AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable; Disney, Fox, Viacom and NBC Universal; Facebook and Twitter. All of this was unloosed by the establishment meme of deregulation — a world in which anti-trust regulators had little influence and laissez-faire ruled. These oligopolies began making so much money they didn’t have enough places to invest so corporate cash as a percentage of assets rose to an all time high.

Here is my fear. That our current version of capitalism is not working. Apple holds on to $158 billion in cash because it can’t find a profitable investment. And because U.S. worker participation rates are only 64%, a huge number of people can never afford an I Phone and so domestic demand is flat (though very profitable) and the real growth in the digital economy will be in Asia, Africa and South America. There is not much the Fed lowering interest rates can do to alter this picture. What is needed is not more easy money loans; it more decent jobs.

But unlike our left-right consensus on military spending, there is a fierce debate raging between economists about the causes and solutions to this stagnation. Though both left and right agree the economy has stagnated, there are huge differences in the prospects for emerging from this condition. On the right, the political economist Tyler Cowen’s new book is called Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. Here is how Cowen sees the next twenty years.

The rise of intelligent machines will spawn new ideologies along with the new economy it is creating. Think of it as a kind of digital social Darwinism, with clear winners and losers: Those with the talent and skills to work seamlessly with technology and compete in the global marketplace are increasingly rewarded, while those whose jobs can just as easily be done by foreigners, robots or a few thousand lines of code suffer accordingly. This split is already evident in the data: The median male salary in the United States was higher in 1969 than it is today. Middle-class manufacturing jobs have been going away due to a mix of automation and trade, and they are not being replaced. The most lucrative college majors are in the technical fields, such as engineering. The winners are doing much better than ever before, but many others are standing still or even seeing wage declines.

On the left, Paul Krugman is not so sure we can emerge from this stagnation.

But what if the world we’ve been living in for the past five years is the new normal? What if depression-like conditions are on track to persist, not for another year or two, but for decades?…In fact, the case for “secular stagnation” — a persistent state in which a depressed economy is the norm, with episodes of full employment few and far between — was made forcefully recently at the most ultrarespectable of venues, the I.M.F.’s big annual research conference. And the person making that case was none other than Larry Summers. Yes, that Larry Summers.

Cowen forecasts a dystopian world where 10% of the population do very well and “the rest of the country will have stagnant or maybe even falling wages in dollar terms, but they will also have a lot more opportunities for cheap fun and cheap education.” That’s real comforting. He predicts the 90% will put up with this inequality for two reasons. First, the country is aging: “remember that riots and protests are typically the endeavors of young hotheads, not sage (or tired) senior citizens.” And second, because of the proliferation of social networks, “envy is local…Right now, the biggest medium for envy in the United States is probably Facebook, not the big yachts or other trophies of the rich and famous.”

Although Cowen cites statistics about the fall in street crime to back up the notion that the majority of citizens are passively accepting gross inequality, I think he completely misunderstands the nature of anti-social pathologies in the Internet Age of Stagnation. Take the example of the Web Site Silk Road.

Silk Road already stands as a tabloid monument to old-fashioned vice and new-fashioned technology. Until the website was shut down last month, it was the place to score, say, a brick of cocaine with a few anonymous strokes on a computer keyboard. According to the authorities, it greased $1.2 billion in drug deals and other crimes, including murder for hire.

From Lulzsec to Pirate Bay to Silk Road, the coming anarchy of a Bladerunner like society are far more vicious than a few street thugs in our major cities. The rise of virtual currencies that can’t be traced like Bitcoin only make the possibilities for a huge crime wave on the Dark Net more imminent—one which IBM estimates already costs the economy $400 billion annually.

So while both Cowen and Krugman agree that stagnation is causing the labor force participation rate to fall, they disagree as to whether anything can be done to remedy the problem.

In the early 1970’s the participation rate began to climb as more and more women entered the workforce. It peaked when George Bush entered office and has been on the decline ever since. As the Time’s David Leonhardt has pointed out, this has very little to do with Baby Boomer retirement. The economist Daniel Alpert has argued in his new book, The Age of Oversupply, that “the central challenge facing the global economy is an oversupply of labor, productive capacity and capital relative to the demand for all three.”

Viewed through this lens, neither the policy prescriptions of Republicans nor Democrats are capable of changing the dynamic brought about by the entrance of three billion new workers into the global economy in the last 20 years. Republican fears that U.S. deficits will lead to Weimar-like hyper-inflation ring hollow in a country where only 63% of the able bodied are working. Democrats hectoring for The Fed and the banks to loan more to business to stimulate the economy are equally nonsensical when American corporations are sitting on $2.4 trillion in cash.

But there is a way out of this deflationary trap we are in. First the Republicans have got to acknowledge the obvious: America’s corporations are not going to invest in vast amounts of new capacity when there is a glut in almost every sector worldwide. Secondly, that overcapacity is not going to get absorbed until more people go back to work and start buying the goods from the factories. This was the same problem our country faced in the great depression and the way we got out of it was by putting people to work rebuilding the infrastructure of this country. Did it ever occur to the politicians in Washington that the reason so many bridges, water and electrical systems are failing is because most of them were built 80 years ago, during the great depression? For Republicans to insist that more austerity will bring back the “confidence fairy”is exactly the wrong policy prescription for an age of oversupply. But equally destructive, as Paul Krugman points out are Democratic voices like Erskine Bowles, shouting from any venue that will pay him, that the debt apocalypse is upon us.

But the Democrats are also going to have to give up some long held beliefs that all good solutions come from Washington. If the Healthcare.gov website debacle has taught us anything, it is that devolving power from Washington to the states is the answer to the complexity of modern governance. While California’s healthcare website performed admirably, the notion of trying to create a centralized system to service 50 different state systems was a fool’s errand. So what is needed is a federalist solution for investment in the infrastructure of the next economy. This is the way out of The Interregnum. Investors buying tax-free municipal bonds to rebuild ancient water systems and bridges as well as solar and wind plants will finance much of it. But just as President Eisenhower understood that a national interstate highway system built in the 1950’s would lead to huge productivity gains in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Federal tax dollars will have to play a large part in rebuilding America. As we wind down our trillion dollar commitments to wars in the Middle East, we must engage in an Economic Conversion Strategy from permanent war to peaceful innovation that both liberals and libertarians could embrace.

The way to overcome the partisan gridlock on infrastructure spending would be for Obama to commit to a totally federalist solution to us getting out of our problems. The Federal Government would use every dollar saved from getting out of Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other defense commitments in block innovation grants to the states. Lets say the first grant is for $100 Billion. It will be given directly to the states on a per capita basis to be used to foster local economic growth. No strings or Federal Bureaucracy attached to the grants except that the states have to publish a yearly accounting of the money in an easily readable form. And then let the press follow the money and see which states come up with the most imaginative solutions. Some states might use the grants to lower the cost of state university tuition. Others might spend the money on high-speed rail lines or municipal fiber broadband and wifi. As we have found in the corporate sector, pushing power to the edges of an organization helps foster innovation. As former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano told his colleagues, “we have to lower the center of gravity of this organization”.

If it worked, then slowly more money could be transferred to the states in these bureaucracy free block grants. Gradually the bureaucracies of the Federal government would shrink as more and more responsibility was shifted to local supervision of education, health, welfare and infrastructure.

In the midst of our current Washington quagmire this vision of a growing American middle class may seem like a distant mirage. But it is clear that the establishment consensus on foreign policy, defense spending, domestic spying and corporate welfare has died in the last 12 months. The old top-down establishment order is clearly dying, but just how we build the new order based on a bottom-up, networked society that works for the 90%, not just the establishment is the question of our age.