Category Archives: Privacy

Big Brother’s panopticon chills online searches


It’s no secret that we’ve long suspected that the revelations of NSA’s panopticon powers would result in self-censorship online, and now we have evidence in the form of an academic study published right here in Berkeley.

Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use [PDF] has just appeared online from the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, and it’s well worth a read.

Reuters sums up:

Internet traffic to Wikipedia pages summarizing knowledge about terror groups and their tools plunged nearly 30 percent after revelations of widespread Web monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency, suggesting that concerns about government snooping are hurting the ordinary pursuit of information.

A forthcoming paper in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal analyzes the fall in traffic, arguing that it provides the most direct evidence to date of a so-called “chilling effect,” or negative impact on legal conduct, from the intelligence practices disclosed by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Author Jonathon Penney, a fellow at the University of Toronto’s interdisciplinary Citizen Lab, examined monthly views of Wikipedia articles on 48 topics identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as subjects that they track on social media, including Al Qaeda, dirty bombs and jihad.

In the 16 months prior to the first major Snowden stories in June 2013, the articles drew a variable but an increasing audience, with a low point of about 2.2 million per month rising to 3.0 million just before disclosures of the NSA’s Internet spying programs. Views of the sensitive pages rapidly fell back to 2.2 million a month in the next two months and later dipped under 2.0 million before stabilizing below 2.5 million 14 months later, Penney found.

Here’s a chart from page 37 of the paper dramatically illustrating the decline:

BLOG Terror

More details from Abhimanyu Ghoshal of The Next Web:

In his paper, ‘Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use’, Penney looked at monthly views on Wikipedia pages for 48 topics that the US Department of Homeland Security said it tracks on social media, including ‘Al Qaeda’, ‘terror’, ‘weapons grade’, ‘Abu Sayyaf’, ‘Iran’, ‘extremism’, ‘Nigeria’ and jihad.

He noted that in the 16 months prior to Snowden’s first big reveal, the articles drew between 2.2 million views per month rising to 3 million. After Snowden went public, those figures fell below 2 million before stabilizing at just under 2.5 million 14 months later.

Penney’s paper highlights the ‘chilling effect’ of the government’s snooping programs, which refers to the discouragement of the legitimate exercise of legal rights by the threat of legal sanction – in this case, to seek information and learn about what’s going on around the world.

And the money quote from page 40 of the study itself:

Skepticism among courts, legal scholars, and empirical researchers has persisted about the nature, extent, and even existence of chilling effects due, in large part, to a lack of empirical substantiation. The results in this case study, however, provide empirical evidence consistent with chilling effects on the activities of Internet users due to government surveillance. And, to be clear, the activity here is not only legal—accessing information on Wikipedia—but arguably desirable for a healthy democratic society. It involves Internets users informing themselves about important topics subject to today’s widespread social, political, moral, and public policy debates. The large, statistically significant, and immediate drop in total views for the Wikipedia articles after June 2013 implies a clear and immediate chilling effect. Moreover, the broad and statistically significant shift in the overall trend in the data (e.g. the shift from the second results excluding outliers) suggests any chilling effects observed may be substantial and long-term, rather than weak, temporary, or ephemeral. This study also bolsters support for the existence of the chilling due to the data upon which it relies. It is among the first studies to demonstrate evidence of such a chilling effect using web traffic data (instead of survey responses or search), and the first to do so in relation both to the potential chilling effects on Wikipedia use, and, more broadly, how such government surveillance and other actions impact how people access and obtain information and knowledge online.

We leave the last word to Glenn Greenwald, writing at The Intercept:

The fear that causes self-censorship is well beyond the realm of theory. Ample evidence demonstrates that it’s real – and rational. A study from PEN America writers found that 1 in 6 writers had curbed their content out of fear of surveillance and showed that writers are “not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.” Scholars in Europe have been accused of being terrorist supporters by virtue of possessing research materials on extremist groups, while British libraries refuse to house any material on the Taliban for fear of being prosecuted for material support for terrorism.

There are also numerous psychological studies demonstrating that people who believe they are being watched engage in behavior far more compliant, conformist and submissive than those who believe they are acting without monitoring. That same realization served centuries ago as the foundation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: that behaviors of large groups of people can be effectively controlled through architectural structures that make it possible for them to be watched at any given movement even though they can never know if they are, in fact, being monitored, thus forcing them to act as if they always are being watched. This same self-censorsing, chilling effect of the potential of being surveilled was also the crux of the tyranny about which Orwell warned in 1984:

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

Well, not quite the last word. Undoubtedly, the net beneficiaries of the reluctance of the populace to look deeper into issues of terrorism serves the interests of a government with a vested interest in keeping secret many of its operations and deepest political motives. . .

Headline of the day II: More troubles in Mexico


From Gizmodo:

Mexico’s Entire Voter Database Was Leaked to the Internet

A database containing the personal information of millions Mexican voters was discovered online by a security researcher earlier this month on an unprotected server. The discovery represents a major breach in private information for upwards of 87 million Mexican voters.

Headline of the day III: Digital eyes on bedroom


From Hot Hardware [H/T to naked capitalism]:

Smart Mattress With Lover Detection System Will Alert You Of Illicit Shagging, Rat Out Cheaters

 Do you worry that your significant other is having mid-day romps in your bedroom while you’re stuck at work banging out TPS reports? There’s an app for that, and a smart mattress with built-in sensors to detect when between-the-sheet activities are taking place, with or without your participation. It’s part of what a mattress company in Spain is calling its “lover detection system.”

Headline of the day II: Big Brother, Tweet miner


From the Intercept:

The CIA Is Investing in Firms That Mine Your Tweets and Instagram Photos

  • Soft robots that can grasp delicate objects, computer algorithms designed to spot an “insider threat,” and artificial intelligence that will sift through large data sets — these are just a few of the technologies being pursued by companies with investment from In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm, according to a document obtained by The Intercept.
  • Yet among the 38 previously undisclosed companies receiving In-Q-Tel funding, the research focus that stands out is social media mining and surveillance; the portfolio document lists several tech companies pursuing work in this area, including Dataminr, Geofeedia, PATHAR, and TransVoyant.

John Oliver gives little credit to these reports


Know what’s the number one source of debt showing up on credit reports?

It’s debt from medical bills.

And know what your credit report is used for?

Damn near everything.

And how many credit reports contain errors?

About one in four — and if you’re that one, it could cost you a chance at a job. [And if you try to get it fixed. Good luck.]

Needless to say, there’s plenty more in the last web posting from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver:

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Credit Reports

Program notes:

Credit reports play a surprisingly large role in our lives, but even more surprising is how often they contain critical mistakes. John Oliver helps credit agencies see why this is a problem.

Is this the next Prime Minister of Iceland?


Birgitta Jónsdóttir. member of the Icleandic Althing [parliament] and founder of the Pirate Party. Via Wikipedia.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir. member of the Icleandic Althing [parliament] and founder of the Pirate Party. Via Wikipedia.

First up, while the media have reported that Iceland’s prime minister has resigned over the offshore banking scandal triggered by the massive leaks of documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, there’s a new twist.

From the McClatchy Washington Bureau [emphasis added]:

Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson said he was stepping aside following the largest anti-government protests in modern times in Iceland, a sign of the public anger over his family’s offshore holdings.

Iceland’s fisheries minister announced that Gunnlaugsson had stepped down, according to state broadcaster RUV.

In a statement late Tuesday, Gunnlaugsson’s office said he “has not resigned” and was merely stepping aside “for an unspecified amount of time” and would remain as chairman of his ruling Progressive Party. It said the party’s deputy leader, Sigurdur Ingi Jóhannsson, would take over as prime minister. Whether disgruntled Icelanders would allow Gunnlaugsson to return to the post in the future was far from clear.

But if his ouster becomes official, who’s his likely replacement?

Enter the poetician. . .

Here at esnl, we’ve been longtime fans of Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a poet and artist who cut her political teeth as a high-profile volunteer with Wikileaks, then moved on to electoral politics, forming two political parties and now heading the leading parliamentary power in the parliament that will soon meet to elect a new prime minister.

She heads the civil libertarian Pirate Party, one of the two she founded, and calls herself a poetician rather than a politician.

It’s fitting that the job is now vacant — ore nearly so — because of another leak, the massive document dump listing the clients of a Panamanian law firm specializing in setting up front to hide plutocratic wealth for government tax collectors.

From Judith Ehrlich, Oscar-nominated director of The Most Dangerous Man in America, Daniel Ellsberg & The Pentagon Papers, here’s a quick 2014 look at Jónsdóttir and some of her accomplishments:

The Mouse That Roared

Here’s what Jónsdóttir told the Sydney Morning Herald about the latest developments:

Birgitta Jonsdottir, ex Mullumbimby and Melbourne resident, former colleague of Julian Assange, now official ‘poetician’ for Iceland’s Pirate Party, admits with some surprise that she might be her country’s next prime minister.

“Statistically, that’s very possible,” she says. “But then, that is not my main goal.”

>snip<

Ms Jonsdottir, a member of parliament for the Iceland’s Pirate Party, says Mr Gunnlaugsson had taken his colleagues by surprise with his visit to the president.

“He had not consulted with anybody and they were like so pissed off,” she said. “They did not conceal it, they were just seething.” They had then forced him to resign, she says.

“It’s been a really long day… this whole day was totally bizarre in so many different ways.”

To get an idea of the man whose job she stands to inherit, here’s what hapopened when a Swedish television report held his feet to the fire with questions about those offshore companies incorporated by those Panamanian money hiders.

From videos hahaha:

Iceland’s prime minister walks out of interview over tax haven question

Program notes:

Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, the prime minister of Iceland, walks out of an interview with Swedish television company SVT. Gunnlaugsson is asked about a company called Wintris, which he says has been fully declared to the Icelandic tax authority. Gunnlaugsson says he is not prepared to answer such questions and decides to discontinue the interview, saying: ‘What are you trying to make up here? This is totally inappropriate’

If you’d like to learn more about Jónsdóttir, here’s a link to a TedX talk she delivered last June. Her Twitter account is here.

UPDATE: Newsweek has just posted an essay by Jónsdóttir on her party’s sudden change in political fortunes, in which she writes:

Currently we are experiencing similar events to that which Iceland experienced in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008. And yet we still don’t have a satisfactory system for holding those in power to account—other than standing outside the parliament and screaming it out loud.

The constitution we would implement was written by and for the people of Iceland in 2011 in response to the financial meltdown. It would include the separation of powers to prevent another economic collapse, while also reforming the way MPs are elected and judges are appointed. It is completely unacceptable that despite a referendum in 2012 that saw 67 percent of the electorate voting to put this new crowd-sourced constitution into law, it still hasn’t been.

It is difficult to say at this stage exactly what the complete ramifications of this scandal are, but it is obvious that our nation’s reputation will be severely damaged abroad, simply because we are the only Western European country with a sitting minister—let alone a prime minister—that has been directly implicated in this scandal.

If this was a comedy it would be funny but this is actually our head of state. This is not what Icelanders are like and this is not what Iceland is.

Headline of the day: You knew it was coming


From the Guardian:

FBI to help US law enforcement unlock iPhones, report says

Leaked FBI advisory tells state and local law enforcement that they are ‘in this together’ and federal agency will aid unlocking of iPhones where possible

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