Military secretly developed mobile app games that spied on users, report says

The NSA, FBI, and CIA are infiltrating and spying on multi-player role playing games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life, according to an NSA document leaked by Edward Snowden and published jointly by The Guardian, New York Times, and ProPublica.

According to the reports, the various intelligence agencies have so many undercover players inside these games that they established a “deconfliction” group to ensure that they weren’t spying on one another or interfering with the other agents’ missions. And true to NSA form, there’s zero evidence these spy games are worthwhile for counterterrorism purposes. The NSA document describing the efforts to spy on the private communications and activities of gamers does not include even one instance of the programs producing useful information for spies.

And it isn’t just World of Warcraft or Second Life. The NYT report cites anonymous sources who claim the Department of Defense has for years worked secretly with mobile app developers to create games that serve as intelligence collection streams for the NSA. We’ve known for some time that app developers often siphon sensitive information from users, who are kept in the dark about what exactly that free flashlight is doing on their phone. But now we have reason to believe the government is in on the app snooping:

The Pentagon’s Special Operations Command in 2006 and 2007 worked with several foreign companies — including an obscure digital media business based in Prague — to build games that could be downloaded to mobile phones, according to people involved in the effort. They said the games, which were not identified as creations of the Pentagon, were then used as vehicles for intelligence agencies to collect information about the users.

And it wouldn’t be a real spy story if the billion dollar global spy industry didn’t get a piece of the action. Unsurprisingly, war and intelligence contractors took notice of the government’s interest in infiltrating and spying on gaming networks.

Eager to cash in on the government’s growing interest in virtual worlds, several large private contractors have spent years pitching their services to American intelligence agencies. In one 66-page document from 2007, part of the cache released by Mr. Snowden, the contracting giant SAIC promoted its ability to support “intelligence collection in the game space,” and warned that online games could be used by militant groups to recruit followers and could provide “terrorist organizations with a powerful platform to reach core target audiences.”

It is unclear whether SAIC received a contract based on this proposal, but one former SAIC employee said that the company at one point had a lucrative contract with the C.I.A. for work that included monitoring the Internet for militant activity. An SAIC spokeswoman declined to comment.

In spring 2009, academics and defense contractors gathered at the Marriott at Washington Dulles International Airport to present proposals for a government study about how players’ behavior in a game like World of Warcraft might be linked to their real-world identities. “We were told it was highly likely that persons of interest were using virtual spaces to communicate or coordinate,” said Dmitri Williams, a professor at the University of Southern California who received grant money as part of the program.

After the conference, both SAIC and Lockheed Martin won contracts worth several million dollars, administered by an office within the intelligence community that finances research projects.

Did the government get any measurable intelligence benefit from those millions of dollars it gave to private corporations for research into players’ behavior in online games? Not exactly.

It is not clear how useful such research might be. A group at the Palo Alto Research Center, for example, produced a government-funded study of World of Warcraft that found “younger players and male players preferring competitive, hack-and-slash activities, and older and female players preferring noncombat activities,” such as exploring the virtual world. A group from the nonprofit SRI International, meanwhile, found that players under age 18 often used all capital letters both in chat messages and in their avatar names.

Those involved in the project were told little by their government patrons. According to Nick Yee, a Palo Alto researcher who worked on the effort, “We were specifically asked not to speculate on the government’s motivations and goals.”

While it may seem silly that the NSA, FBI and CIA are all up in your virtual world, the fact that the government is investing significant time, money, and energy into unmasking and understanding players is not a game.

NSA Surveillance Wouldn’t Have Prevented 9/11 And It Hasn’t Foiled a Single Terror Plot

Perpetual NSA cheerleader Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday arguing that if we had had the NSA spying program prior to the 9/11 attacks, “we would have detected the impending attack that killed 3,000 Americans.” Therefore, systematic violations of the Fourth Amendment as a matter of policy is justified.

Well, I’m sold!

Feinstein’s primary piece of evidence for this argument is that NSA Director Keith Alexander says so. The problem is that NSA Director Alexander says a lot of things that aren’t true. Back in June, he claimed that NSA’s bulk collection of call records and Internet activity disrupted 54 “terror plots.” Early this month, the Senate Judiciary Committee got Alexander to admit that this claim was wrong and misleading.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) said the NSA dragnet call data program, which is what most people are up in arms about, “played little or no role” in the disruption of these terrorist plots.

So far, there is only one case that government has cited to justify the vast surveillance both at home and abroad. And no, it by no means foiled a second 9/11. The case is that of Basaaly Moalin, a Somali immigrant who was living in San Diego when he decided to send al-Shabab $8,500. Somehow, the surveillance programs narrowed the search for Moalin, who could have easily been caught through more traditional law enforcement procedures.

As Yochai Benkler explained at the Guardian, “this single successful prosecution, under a vague criminal statute, which stopped a few thousand dollars from reaching one side in a local conflict in the Horn of Africa, is the sole success story for the NSA bulk domestic surveillance program.” If you ask me, this doesn’t count as an argument in favor of these NSA programs.

The Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez writes today that Feinstein’s argument “is simply an attempt to exploit the tragedy of 9/11 to deflect criticism of massive domestic surveillance that would not have been any use in preventing that attack.”

I think it’s safe to say Dianne Feinstein is engaging in hyperbole…or, to put it less generously, dishonesty. The NSA is under more scrutiny now than it has ever been, and they can’t come up with a single example of its utility (never mind legality). The failure to come up with evidence of the programs’ utility itself provides the answer to the question: NSA surveillance doesn’t keep Americans safe from terrorists, period.

Soon, Drones May Be Able to Make Lethal Decisions on Their Own

Scientists, engineers and policymakers are all figuring out ways drones can be used better and more smartly, more precise and less damaging to civilians, with longer range and better staying power. One method under development is by increasing autonomy on the drone itself.

Eventually, drones may have the technical ability to make even lethal decisions autonomously: to respond to a programmed set of inputs, select a target and fire their weapons without a human reviewing or checking the result. Yet the idea of the U.S. military deploying a lethal autonomous robot, or LAR, is sparking controversy. Though autonomy might address some of the current downsides of how drones are used, they introduce new downsides policymakers are only just learning to grapple with.

The basic conceit behind a LAR is that it can outperform and outthink a human operator. “If a drone’s system is sophisticated enough, it could be less emotional, more selective and able to provide force in a way that achieves a tactical objective with the least harm,” said Purdue University Professor Samuel Liles. “A lethal autonomous robot can aim better, target better, select better, and in general be a better asset with the linked ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] packages it can run.”

Though the pace for drone strikes has slowed down — only 21 have struck Pakistan in 2013, versus 122 in 2010 according to the New America Foundation — unmanned vehicles remain a staple of the American counterinsurgency toolkit. But drones have built-in vulnerabilities that military planners still have not yet grappled with. Last year, for example, an aerospace engineer told the House Homeland Security Committee that with some inexpensive equipment he could hack into a drone and hijack it to perform some rogue purpose.

Drones have been hackable for years. In 2009, defense officials told reporters that Iranian-backed militias used $26 of off-the-shelf software to intercept the video feeds of drones flying over Iraq. And in 2011, it was reported that a virus had infected some drone control systems at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, leading to security concerns about the security of unmanned aircraft.

It may be that the only way to make a drone truly secure is to allow it to make its own decisions without a human controller: if it receives no outside commands, then it cannot be hacked (at least as easily). And that’s where LARs, might be the most attractive.

Though they do not yet exist, and are not possible with current technology, LARs are the subject of fierce debate in academia, the military and policy circles. Still, many treat their development as inevitability. But how practical would LARs be on the battlefield?

Heather Roff, a visiting professor at the University of Denver, said many conflicts, such as the civil war in Syria, are too complex for LARs. “It’s one thing to use them in a conventional conflict,” where large militaries fight away from cities, “but we tend to fight asymmetric battles. And interventions are only military campaigns — the civilian effects matter.”

Roff says that because LARs are not sophisticated enough to meaningfully distinguish between civilians and militants in a complex, urban environment, they probably would not be effective at achieving a constructive military end– if only because of how a civilian population would likely react to self-governing machines firing weapons at their city. “The idea that you could solve that crisis with a robotic weapon is naïve and dangerous,” she said.

Any autonomous weapons system is unlikely to be used by the military, except in extraordinary circumstances, argued Will McCants, a fellow at the Brookings Saban Center and director of its project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. “You could imagine a scenario,” he says, “in which LAR planes hunted surface-to-air missiles as part of a campaign to destroy Syria’s air defenses.” It would remove the risk to U.S. pilots while exclusively targeting war equipment that has no civilian purpose.

But such a campaign is unlikely to ever happen. “Ultimately, the national security staff,” he said, referring to personnel that make up the officials and advisers of the National Security Council, “does not want to give up control of the conflict.” The politics of the decision to deploy any kind of autonomous weaponry matters as much as the capability of the technology itself. “With an autonomous system, the consequences of failure are worse in the public’s mind. There’s something about human error that makes people more comfortable with collateral damage if a person does it,” McCants said.

That’s not to say anyone is truly comfortable with collateral damage. “They’d rather own these kinds of decisions themselves and be able to chalk it up to human error,” McCants said. Political issues aside, B.J. Strawser, assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, says that LARs simply could not be used effectively in a place like Syria. “You’d need exceedingly careful and restrictive ROEs [rules of engagement], and I worry that anyone could carry that out effective, autonomous weapon or not,” he said.

“I don’t think any actor, human or not, is capable of carrying out the refined, precise ROEs that would enable an armed intervention to be helpful in Syria.”

By Joshua Foust, Defense One

Is the FBI a Criminal Organization?

Last week, in a piece I wrote for The Huffington Post on the hypocrisy in the Bradley Manning trial, I argued that “The law is for the powerful to defy with impunity, and for the weak to be punished with.” As evidence, I mentioned several high crimes committed by the Bush and Obama administration, crimes for which they will never be prosecuted.

And then in yesterday’s USA Today I saw this remarkable article reporting that government documents show that the FBI committed 5,658 crimes in 2011 alone. That amounts to 15 crimes a day, on average, that FBI agents explicitly authorized. And far from being part of a rogue, covert program kept hidden from a judge, this is standard operating procedure on which the Department of Justice provides oversight.

The FBI gave its informants permission to break the law at least 5,658 times in a single year, according to newly disclosed documents that show just how often the nation’s top law enforcement agency enlists criminals to help it battle crime.

The U.S. Justice Department ordered the FBI to begin tracking crimes by its informants more than a decade ago, after the agency admitted that its agents had allowed Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger to operate a brutal crime ring in exchange for information about the Mafia. The FBI submits that tally to top Justice Department officials each year, but has never before made it public.

Agents authorized 15 crimes a day, on average, including everything from buying and selling illegal drugs to bribing government officials and plotting robberies. FBI officials have said in the past that permitting their informants — who are often criminals themselves — to break the law is an indispensable, if sometimes distasteful, part of investigating criminal organizations.

Let that last sentence sink in for a moment. The government must break the law in order to catch and punish lawbreakers. Does that not offend even the most superficial understanding of the rule of law this country was supposedly founded upon?

According to the USA Today report, this number of 5,658 crimes in one year barely scratches the surface:

USA TODAY obtained a copy of the FBI’s 2011 report under the Freedom of Information Act. The report does not spell out what types of crimes its agents authorized, or how serious they were. It also did not include any information about crimes the bureau’s sources were known to have committed without the government’s permission.

Crimes authorized by the FBI almost certainly make up a tiny fraction of the total number of offenses committed by informants for local, state and federal agencies each year. The FBI was responsible for only about 10% of the criminal cases prosecuted in federal court in 2011, and federal prosecutions are, in turn, vastly outnumbered by criminal cases filed by state and local authorities, who often rely on their own networks of sources.

“The million-dollar question is: How much crime is the government tolerating from its informants?” said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School Los Angeles who has studied such issues. “I’m sure that if we really knew that number, we would all be shocked.”

If you read Trevor Aaronson’s meticulously reported book The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism, you’ll get a glimpse into how the thuggery at the FBI works in the war on terror. Aaronson thoroughly documents all those “terror plots” that the FBI has “foiled.” By and large, the FBI uses untrustworthy delinquents as informants in order to entrap unsuspecting halfwits that never would have been able to carry out a terror attack without  FBI encouragement and facilitation.

By John Glaser

Far be it from me to prejudge, but Antiwar.com has been requesting FBI documents on this website through the Freedom of Information Act since 2011, to no avail. Thankfully, the ACLU is suing on our behalf. Requesting surveillance of this website and its founders, as the FBI did, and suspecting we may be an agent of a foreign power – all for exercising our First Amendment rights- seems like it fits perfectly within the Bureau’s modus operandi.

The sky darkens for American journalism

The future of the American media is being decided in a military court, writes Chase Madar.

Bradley Manning released hundreds of thousands of government documents and files to Wikileaks, most famous among them the unclassified video Wikileaks dubbed, “Collateral Murder”, a harrowing gun-sight view of an Apache helicopter slaughtering a couple of armed men and a much larger group of civilians on a Baghdad street in July, 2007.

The court-martial of Pfc. Manning, finally underway over three years after his arrest, is likely to cause a great deal of collateral destruction in its own right. In this case the victim will be American journalism.

Contrary to widespread panic, massive leaks of classified material tend to enhance national security as the new information can prevent the kind of reckless, poorly-informed decisions that have squandered so much blood and money, from Southeast Asia to Iraq

The most serious of the charges against Manning is the capital offense of “aiding the enemy.” (Team Obama has made it clear it won’t seek the death penalty, but a life sentence is possible.) The enemy that the prosecution has in mind is not Wikileaks or the global public but Al Qaeda; because this group had access to the internet, the logic goes, they could read Manning’s disclosures just like everyone else.

The government does not have to prove Manning’s conscious intent to help Al Qaeda, but must only meet the squishier standard of proving the defendant had “specific knowledge” that the terrorists might benefit from his cache of documents.

If this charge sticks, it will be a serious blow to American journalism, as it puts all kinds of confidential informants at risk of being capital cases. A soldier in Afghanistan who blogs about the lack of armoured vehicles – a common and very public complaint from the ranks in the Iraq War – could be prosecuted for tipping off the Taliban.

Whoever leaked Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s long cable on the futility of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan could also be conceivably be put away for life, even executed. As Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union has explained, the use of this charge against sources, leakers and whistleblowers – like Bradley Manning – will criminalise a great deal of essential journalism – and not just the kind practiced by Wikileaks and various bloggers.

The Manning prosecution has asserted more than once that they would have pressed the Aiding the Enemy charge even if the private had passed his cache to the New York Times or the Washington Post (as the leaker had attempted).

This jolted the editorial classes, who do not much like imagining themselves as being implicated, however hypothetically, in terrorist acts. Op-eds in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times have blasted the Aiding the Enemy charges brought against Manning, explaining that they would not just “chill” but freeze a great deal of essential journalism.

The news media has always relied on leaks of classified material, from the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, to the preemptive disclosure of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate holding that Iran had no nuclear weapons program, a transparent attempt by the military brass to block Bush and Cheney from launching a third war.

And contrary to widespread panic, massive leaks of classified material tend to enhance national security as the new information can prevent the kind of reckless, poorly-informed decisions that have squandered so much blood and money, from Southeast Asia to Iraq.

Who is a journalist and who gets to decide?

Aiding the Enemy is of course not the only charge against Private Manning. One of the charges, “wanton publication,” hinges in part on whether Wikileaks is a bona fide journalistic entity. But who gets to decide who is and who isn’t a journalist, and how?

Defense witness Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and expert on press freedom and the internet, provided an answer earlier this month. Benkler, who has published penetrating studies of the 21st century media landscape, took the stand July 11th to address the matter of who is and who isn’t a journalist.

Wikileaks is absolutely a media organization, one perfectly emblematic of the “networked fourth estate”, in which traditional news outlets like the Guardian and Der Spiegel collaborate with smaller non-profit and for-profit entities to produce news coverage. Supporters of Manning found Benkler’s testimony to be lucid, supremely well-informed and compelling – but will it convince Judge Denise Lind?

As for traditional news media, they have been largely AWOL, with the New York Times sending a correspondent to a few hearings, only after a shaming by the newspaper’s public editor. But a handful of independent correspondents, notably Kevin Gostzola of FireDogLake, independent journalist Alexa O’Brien and Bradley Manning staffer Nathan Fuller, as well as court artist Clark Stoeckley – have covered every breath of the legal proceedings.

And even as more established media have leaned heavily on these reporters for all manner of factual and logistical assistance, gracious acknowledgement of the professional debt has not always been forthcoming. Last month the New York Times rather snottily described O’Brien as a mere “activist” before being embarrassed into a correction.

Although smug torpor is Big Media’s default setting, a recent barrage of sucker-punches has shaken the Fourth Estate’s generally cosy partnership with the political class. The Obama administration has named James Rosen of Fox News as a co-conspirator in its case against State Department leaker Stephen Jin-Woo Kim; the government has also announced that it had been sifting through two months of the Associated Press’s phone records to hunt down the source of a leak.

Obama’s poison gift to journalists

Affecting a chastened air, the Obama administration now says it wants to make nice with journalists.   To strike a finer “balance” between press freedom and security, Team Obama has offered to pass a Press Shield Law-a slightly revamped version of the same bill the White House threatened to veto back in 2009. (Senator Obama had been a liberal champion of just such a bill before). This Press Shield Law is intended as conciliatory basket of fruit, sent to the media as an apology for all those investigations.

If the Aiding the Enemy charge sticks, Pfc. Manning faces a possible life sentence – and the outcome might be only slightly less calamitous for American journalism

The government’s gift to journalists is poison, and should be rejected. The Press Shield Law would be more accurately titled the Media Prosecution Enhancement Bludgeon – as Trevor Timm of the Press Freedom Foundation has warned, the statute would override and erase many common-law protections currently enjoyed by reporters.

Just as with our whistleblower protection laws, the statute includes a cavernous carve-out for any leak-based reporting that affects “national security”, a term that is infinitely elastic in the hands of official Washington. (The law would not have “shielded” the Associated Press from the government’s investigation of their phone records, nor would it have protected Fox’s Rosen).

But wait: that’s not all that the new law won’t do! As the law’s primary author, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has crowed, the law would specifically exclude Wikileaks and other internet-based groups that he and his colleagues do not believe to be proper media organizations. (Bear in mind the average age in today’s United States Senate is 61). The language defining who is and who isn’t “a member of the media” is marvellously supple, to be loosened and tightened as the government sees fit.

Meanwhile, the State onslaught against American journalists continues: the dependably conservative Washington DC circuit court has ruled that James Risen of the New York Times must testify as to his sources in a story about CIA disruption of Iran’s nuclear program. (Risen has pledged he will go to jail first).

Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden has casually called Glenn Greenwald a co-conspirator with NSA leaker Edward Snowden. With this roiling in the background, military judge Denise Lind announced on July 18 that she would not dismiss the Aiding the Enemy charge against Bradley Manning but will instead weigh that momentous accusation on its merits.

This is not necessarily a disaster for Manning or for American journalism: if Judge Lind rules against this charge, it will establish common law precedent protecting journalists from similar legal attacks, and Bradley Manning will likely serve (a little) less time in prison. (The Judge’s verdict is expected by next Tuesday, July 30th).

On the other hand, if the Aiding the Enemy charge sticks, Pfc. Manning faces a possible life sentence – and the outcome might be only slightly less calamitous for American journalism.

 

Chase Madar is a civil rights attorney in New York and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower.

Follow him on Twitter: @ChMadar

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