Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ponsonby Britt; or, A Matter of Perspective

Narrator: Well, today we find our heroes flying along smoothly...
Rocket J. Squirrel: Flying along smoothly?
Bullwinkle J. Moose: You're just looking at the picture sideways!
Rocket J. Squirrel: Actually it's like this! [screen turns 90 degrees]
Narrator: Oh... OH GOOD HEAVENS! Today we find our heroes plunging straight down toward disaster at supersonic speed!
Bullwinkle J. Moose: That's better.

Here is a current headline and subhead from CNET:

Microsoft: U.S. Constitution is 'suffering' from NSA secrecy

A strongly worded letter from Microsoft's general counsel to Attorney General Eric Holder says secrecy about National Security Agency surveillance is harming fundamental "constitutional principles."   link

The "news" in this headline should be obvious if you have read any of the Microsoft articles of the past week. They were all like this.

Yet this week is somehow different and CNET has the distinction of showing both sides of the story in their article while at the same time putting both sides under an attention grabbing statement that shows only one side of the story.

Before today, most of the media's Microsoft headlines and articles simply told the "evil" NSA side of the story, just like this CNET headline does. Actually, I don't think the media had the second side of the story yet. All of last week there were articles with headlines just like the one above, with Rocky and Bullwinkle plunging to their death!

Yet, here is today's "business" version of events from PC World (emphasis mine):

Microsoft: We don't give NSA direct access to email

Microsoft does not give the National Security Agency direct access to its customers’ email or instant messages, contrary to previous news reports, a company executive said.

News reports last week suggested that Microsoft has helped the NSA circumvent the company’s own encryption in order to conduct surveillance on email accounts through, but company General Counsel Brad Smith said Tuesday that’s not true.
“We do not provide any government with direct access to emails or instant messages,” Smith wrote in a blog post. “Full stop.”

The company does not help government agencies circumvent its encryption, he added. “To be clear, we do not provide any government with the ability to break the encryption, nor do we provide the government with the encryption keys,” he wrote. “When we are legally obligated to comply with [government] demands, we pull the specified content from our servers where it sits in an unencrypted state, and then we provide it to the government agency.”

Microsoft on Tuesday asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to permit Microsoft and other communications providers to share “more complete information” about how they handle national security requests for customer information, Smith added.

“We believe the U.S. Constitution guarantees our freedom to share more information with the public, yet the government is stopping us,” he said. The U.S. government has not responded to a June 19 request Microsoft made to publish the number of national security requests it receives, and the company hopes Holder will step in, Smith said.

Microsoft provides government access to data stored in its SkyDrive service and to Skype calls when presented with a legal order to do so, such as a search warrant or national security letter, Smith said. If asked for customer data in enterprise email or document storage, Microsoft attempts to redirect the requesting government agency back to the customer, he said, “and we notify the customer unless we are legally prohibited from doing so.”

Microsoft has never provided any government with customer data from any business or government customers for national security purposes, he said. In 2012, the company complied with four law enforcement requests related to business or government customers, he added.   link

All of the things Microsoft says it does not do are actually things we assumed they did after reading the articles last week. The secret that Microsoft was pulling out all of the plugs to reveal was that all communication is NOT being monitored. All along, Microsoft only wanted to communicate THIS to it's business customers. Microsoft wanted them to know that Microsoft was not looking in on their business goodies or sharing their secrets. 

It is probably tough running an email/search service (where the public probably matters a little) while at the same time selling secure data services to businesses (where the public matters very little.)

So, last week there were headlines and stories that reported Microsoft to be jumping on the bandwagon against secrecy in government. Yippee, even Microsoft agrees with us that the NSA is too secretive and spying on all of us. Everyone assumed that meant Microsoft was criticizing the NSA in the same way we have heard ad nauseum from the far left. Violating our rights, they were! Reading all of our emails at will, tapping our phones at will.

Today, a quick screenshot of Google News stories now shows only CNET still going with the Rocky and Bullwinkle plunging to their death scenario.

Well actually no... of course, the Guardian walks that middle path of insinuation. The Guardian is not one to give up on the plotline of the great service their Snowden scoop has done for us. They have done us a great favor by revealing the ways we find terrorists, regardless of the consequences to possible future victims of terrorist attacks.

Just to summarize: last week Microsoft was using heavy weaponry to attack the administration over secrecy. They were saying the Constitution was the issue! They sounded like Fox News in reverse. (Incidentally, the far left is beginning to have a penchant for going with their gut instead of facts these days as well.) However, in fact, all Microsoft wanted to tell us about was that there is no grand conspiracy to tap our phones and read our email. Obviously, there was a concern among their business customers and Microsoft risked losing the big bucks. 

I can see a few potential things to consider:

1. Edward Snowden has been exaggerating to upvote his creds. I have been saying this all along. I'm sure there might be some unpleasant moments at the NSA over the need for secrecy and the need for constitutionally warranted search. But I'm guessing their activity is nothing near the scale of what Edward Snowden has been orally describing. I'm sure there are problems when confronting congress with secrets, but I also think congress is a sieve with the sad lot that are in there. I hold to this idea. Snowden looks like a little pissant, going with my gut. :)

2. Perhaps Microsoft has schizophrenia. Microsoft is possibly lying about the conspiracy it has with the NSA and at the same time is risking everything by actually accusing the NSA of being too secretive about said conspiracy....maybe to throw us off track?  (cough, cough, I had to note this possibility.)

3. Secrecy is important to catching criminals and terrorists. It hardly works if you tell Al Capone "We are tapping your phone and we are going to do a search of your house this coming Wednesday. Be prepared. We will be looking in the drawers and behind the sofa."

4. Keeping secret things the NSA is not doing is just as important as keeping secret the things they are doing. For instance, in wartime, the first thing we now do is take down communications with bombs. We can can also guess that it is extremely difficult to take aggregate data (which the NSA admits to doing) and deduce who the terrorist is. Sharing any methods our nation uses will show our limits and venerability.

 I can really only show this by example: Let's say that you want to communicate from terrorist headquarters to terrorist cell. Well, you could call them on the cell phone (oh yes I love puns) or use a land line. But if you believed that every call was being monitored you might have to nix the phone idea and send someone in person to relay the message. Satellites can actually see people traveling from here to there. Despite the fact that we did not monitor their phone, terrorists believing that we were monitoring it had to limit their communication and thus possibly causing them just enough trouble to force their hand. I just made that scenario up but you can see that sharing information of our methods and the limitations of our methods only helps the bad guys.

And the bad guys are quite possibly capable of doing far more than we have so far experienced. The risks are virtually astronomical with the weapons that might be used. This fact, though you may have thought Bush Jr. overplayed it to become king, is logically correct.

5. I also guess that the silence of the Obama administration (which makes them look weak) must be there to protect our safety. Historically, I have hated hearing words like  "it is a matter of national security" especially when those words were coming out of the mouths of Nixon and Bush Jr. Yet, I don't hear these words from the Obama administration. I just hear silence. To me, this is kind of like Obama taking it on the chin for the gipper, our security.

6. A totally off the wall guess is that Microsoft had the corporate power to break the wall of silence. The story about how the NSA does not have direct access to emails must have been recently vetted by the NSA. While this hard won angelic Microsoft image wasn't going to effect Microsoft's long lost battle with Google over public emails and public searches, it WAS going to help the business enterprise side of Microsoft's fading empire. 

7. And it is possible that the NSA can read every email and tap any phone call without the help of any telecommunications company. For phone calls, I know very little about the process, but there are a lot of telephone lines. For emails, somehow they can track all those bits of data following multiple paths and decrypt them without knowing the decryption key. They are possibly hacking Microsoft, I cannot quite imagine them doing this and am sure they do not likely have the staff necessary to make listening to all of this traffic viable. Still, what do I know...and thankfully, what do the terrorists know? 

Microsoft has no intention of taking it on the chin and remaining quiet like the people who actually care about our security. The first shots across the bows of the Obama administration were designed to intimidate and threaten. The media did their part in "misinterpreting" the story. Will Microsoft be given permission to say all the things about what the NSA is secretly NOT doing. Stay tuned next week for Full Court Press Assured; or, Microsoft Gets Hacked Into Micro Pieces.


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