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October 8, 2010 10:04 PM   Subscribe

A mechanic noticed a strange device under the hood of a customer's car and offered to remove it for him. The customer, an Egyptian-American student named Yasir Afifi, shows his roommate, who posts pictures of it on Reddit to find out what the heck it is. Turns out it's an FBI GPS tracking device, and the agency turned up quickly demanding he give it back. The ACLU is reportedly getting involved.

An interesting blog post on Forbes connects the dots and points out that this confirms the US government is monitoring social media sites such as Reddit and Digg. (But surely not The Blue, as we're all patriots here!!1!)

Of special note is the rather prescient original post by Afifi's roommate, Reddit user khaled the gypsy, which may be the reason for the surveillance in the first place (though there is also speculation that Afifi's late father was the catalyst for the investigation).
bombing a mall seems so easy to do. i mean all you really need is a bomb, a regular outfit so you arent the crazy guy in a trench coat trying to blow up a mall and a shopping bag. i mean if terrorism were actually a legitimate threat, think about how many fucking malls would have blown up already.. you can put a bag in a million different places, there would be no way to foresee the next target, and really no way to prevent it unless CTU gets some intel at the last minute in which case every city but LA is fucked...so...yea...now i'm surely bugged : /
[emphasis added]
posted by richyoung (121 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
But surely not The Blue, as we're all patriots here!!1!

If they wren't before, they are now. Hi FBI!
posted by nathan_teske at 10:08 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's no way in hell I'm commenting in this thread.
posted by mazola at 10:08 PM on October 8, 2010 [38 favorites]


FFS, guys. He has an Arabic sounding name. Why do you even care about this?
posted by unSane at 10:11 PM on October 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


It seems completely insane that they would track someone based on posts like that.
posted by empath at 10:17 PM on October 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


This seems like it could be big, but I have a feeling it's only going to be big in places where privacy, datamining, and government intrusion into the net are already a big deal. Probably crickets and wind-chimes in the other 99.9% of America.
posted by codacorolla at 10:17 PM on October 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


I really love that we're at a point now where we're so accustomed to the idea that the Government is fucking with us that the FBI can just show up and be like "Duh, dude. Give us our spy stuff back, okay?".

Also, this is eerily similar to the The Wire, re: Fuzzy Dunlop.
posted by GilloD at 10:17 PM on October 8, 2010 [21 favorites]


It was pretty stupid to post photos of it on Reddit. The kid should have just taken the tracking unit and stuck it on a city bus, and whistled innocently all the way home.
posted by contessa at 10:18 PM on October 8, 2010 [8 favorites]


“We have all the information we needed,” they told him. “You don’t need to call your lawyer. Don’t worry, you’re boring. “

Of course, if you were of note, you shouldn't bother to call your lawyer anyway, after all, you'd be potential "enemy combatant" and we needn't bother with formalities like lawyers or habeas corpus or any of that stuff.

Who needs due process when you've got the patriot act?
posted by yeloson at 10:24 PM on October 8, 2010 [25 favorites]


He must be guilty of something, the FBI "A global intel and security agency…providing leadership and making a difference for more than a century."

Who you going to believe?
posted by pianomover at 10:30 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems completely insane that they would track someone based on posts like that.

It's only a matter of time before they engage in web surveillance jamming, really, making a hundred fake posts to drown out any real ones. In fact, some irate citizens might do that just out of spite.

(If they surveil me for this post, I just have to warn them, I'm really boring.)
posted by JHarris at 10:31 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


All other things aside, when the government says "you don't need to call a lawyer", you should probably call a lawyer.
posted by davejay at 10:33 PM on October 8, 2010 [82 favorites]


Contessa, to be fair, they posted the photos on Reddit to find out what it was. And what they thought it might be would be a very bad thing to put on a bus.
posted by richyoung at 10:35 PM on October 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Eh, I believe the NSA and various other 3-letter agencies are monitoring social media sites, but I don't think this incident is proof of that. The story was on the front page of Reddit for the past few days. I'm sure there are at least a few Reddit geeks who work at the FBI. They probably just noticed it and sent out some emails to an internal mailing list. Somebody inside followed up on that email. Or the agents in charge of this case noticed it.

Saying it was discovered via automated text analysis software that monitors social media sites ignores the incredibly hard problem that would be. Did the software actually parse the post and understand the meaning, instantly lighting up an alarm in FBI headquarters? That's some serious AI right there. Much more likely some FBI computer geek just saw it while drinking his morning coffee.

I had the same thought GilloD. Evidently this tracking device wasn't cut out for the urban crime-fighting environment.
posted by formless at 10:36 PM on October 8, 2010 [9 favorites]


Heh. I posted this as a comment earlier today. It's like that bit in "The Wire" where Herc wants his hidden camera back from Marlo.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:36 PM on October 8, 2010


I did not know, until now, that planting a GPS device on a vehicle is legal without a warrant, even if it's on private property.

That's messed up.
posted by triceryclops at 10:36 PM on October 8, 2010 [8 favorites]


(Especially if you get caught doing it and have a Muslim-sounding last name.)
posted by richyoung at 10:37 PM on October 8, 2010


The kid should have just taken the tracking unit and stuck it on a city bus, and whistled innocently all the way home.

...then he's jumped by the cops and several blocks are cordoned off because someone was spotted planting a black box attached to a battery and a transmitter on a city bus...
posted by Zed at 10:39 PM on October 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


Reddit, the hell?

eBay.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:43 PM on October 8, 2010 [9 favorites]


I would have happily returned it for $200. If they said no, I would have said, "you know what, I forgot, I already sold it, but if there any other tracking devices on my stuff, we can get those to you right now."
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 10:51 PM on October 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


Is it just me or does that thing seem so fucking huge it's almost embarrassing that it's considered a secret tracking device? Or maybe I just watch too much television.
posted by thorny at 10:57 PM on October 8, 2010 [15 favorites]


Is it just me or does that thing seem so fucking huge it's almost embarrassing that it's considered a secret tracking device?

I wonder how hard it actually is to hide a transmitter in a car, given that the car's body effectively functions as a faraday cage. Cell phones and GPS units work, thanks to their proximity to windows. However, any other obvious hiding place would either need to be externally mounted, or would be surrounded almost completely by metal.
posted by schmod at 11:02 PM on October 8, 2010


> Is it just me or does that thing seem so fucking huge it's almost embarrassing that it's considered a secret tracking device?

The Wired article mentions that it's an older device, and that many units in the FBI are deploying much smaller devices that wire into the the vehicle's battery. These guys seem like second string Feds who are just fishing around with leftover equipment.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:03 PM on October 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Saying it was discovered via automated text analysis software that monitors social media sites ignores the incredibly hard problem that would be.

We call it Voight-Kampff for short.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:05 PM on October 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


The former agent, who asked not to be named, said the device was an older model of tracking equipment that had long ago been replaced by devices that don’t require batteries. Batteries die and need to be replaced if surveillance is ongoing so newer devices are placed in the engine compartment and hardwired to the car’s battery so they don’t run out of juice. He was surprised this one was so easily found.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:06 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


An interesting blog post on Forbes connects the dots and points out that this confirms the US government is monitoring social media sites

Yeah, that.

Or, you know, it might just be somewhat conceivably possible that government agents could, from time to time, actually use the internet recreationally, or receive tips from people who do.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:15 PM on October 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


An interesting blog post on Forbes connects the dots and points out that this confirms the US government is monitoring social media sites such as Reddit and Digg. (But surely not The Blue, as we're all patriots here!!1!)
Huh? isn't it possible that these people just read reddit from time to time and or might find out about this normally. Besides, what kinds of keywords could they even have used to find this automatically?
posted by delmoi at 11:21 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's a shame he didn't wise up earlier and turn the device over to the ACLU before the feds showed up:
Feds: It's our device and we want, nay we demand you return it.
Yasir: Didn't have your name on it. How do you know it's yours? Can you describe it?
F: It was... look, just give it back. You don't have any legal right to it.
Y: I'd like to cite the case of Finders v. Keepers, 1923.
F: Pal, you are so fucked. Sooo fucked. Give it back or we're coming in to get it.
Y: I don't have it anymore. I gave it away.
F: You gave... what? What? You are sooo fucked. Do you even know how fucked you are? There are no words to describe the state of fuckedness you currently occupy. Who the fuck did you fucking give it to, you fucking miscreant?
Y: The ACLU. Here, they left a card.
F: We are so fucked. Soooo fucked...
posted by Ritchie at 11:22 PM on October 8, 2010 [72 favorites]


He was surprised this one was so easily found.

Right. Because mechanics are so unfamiliar with cars in general that they would typically fail to notice new and unfamiliar bits wired into the car when they pop the hood.

I'm surprised the FBI didn't accidentally drain his battery or make his headlights turn on and off randomly by botching the installation of this thing. I don't have a whole lot of faith in the intelligence community's, um, intelligence.
posted by fshgrl at 11:24 PM on October 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


I read "surpised" to mean he was surprised how amateur the FBI agents were in placing the thing.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:36 PM on October 8, 2010


Schmod, I have wondered this myself, and have arrived at this conclusion: Never underestimate the lack of observance, intuition or car-related knowledge of the average American.

My dad is the kind of person who would see anything amiss with a vehicle with the utmost immediacy. Due to the powers of "nurture," I would know if something grew out of my vehicle that wasn't there when I last saw it. Regrettably, we do not have a nation of future engineers here, and thus my guess is that it would be shockingly easy for the government to install bulky, outdated tracking devices on everyone's car who doesn't watch NASCAR and/or pay attention to anything. All they would have to do is stick it to the undercarriage somehow.

"My car grew a new exhaust pipe! That's awesome! I hope it saves a dolphin!"
posted by deep thought sunstar at 11:38 PM on October 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think he might have done exactly the right thing.

If the device was being tracked, having it parked in a city lot (the bus scenario) and then follow a bus route would have been pretty obvious fairly quickly. What might the FBI the imagine happened - someone was actively trying to avoid surveillance -this might have increased scrutiny (and suspicion on him).

Many other scenarios of him covertly ditching the equipment may have also increased scrutiny and increased suspicion of him.

What he ended up doing was letting a friend go public with a very innocent sounding story ('my friend found this when going to the auto mechanic - what is it?').

The current result of his decision (and his avoidance of what I would contend were a lot of bad but compelling possible decisions) is that he looks good in the media he's been portrayed (and a bit persecuted) - the FBI looks either creepy, incompetent or both, and the ACLU is involved.

So far, this seems very well played. There are other chapters forthcoming in this story (and I look forward to them).
posted by el io at 11:40 PM on October 8, 2010 [20 favorites]


Also, I'm curious if they let their last generation equipment be used on people they don't really consider to be a threat, but are merely interested in.

Also curious how the court decision indicating that a warrant isn't required for a GPS tracking device has impacted the deployment of such devices.... ("yeah, we're interested in your GPS tracking units. the latest gen? no, we don't need that, just send us the entire stock of your last generation device that you've discontinued, we'll take all of those")
posted by el io at 11:44 PM on October 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


“We’re going to make this much more difficult for you if you don’t cooperate.”

The standard LEO gangsterism.
posted by pracowity at 11:49 PM on October 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


OP here. A few folks are rightly calling into question the idea that this proves anything like "the government is monitoring social media for national security purposes." I agree that the task of monitoring all this noise seems daunting and far-fetched. But the Forbes post links to a press release announcing CIA investment in Visible Technologies that mentions, among other things, "features that enable real-time visibility into online social conversations regardless of where dialogue is occurring." And the agents who questioned Afifi did ask him about comments his roommate made online about bombs and malls, hardcopy of that post in hand.

So even though the government has essentially claimed to have the capability to watch what people say online everywhere, I'll willingly stipulate that "confirms" was the wrong word to use, and that it's more likely that some Fed saw it during his lunch break surfing. I'm not a conspiracy theorist by a long stretch.

The hypothetical automated monitoring of discussion sites is a little creepy, but it wasn't what I was most alarmed by. The real alarm here was the idea that the government can plant surveillance equipment on my car, on my property, without a warrant. As I wrote the FPP, I got distracted by the "OMG THEY'RE MONITORING MEFI" angle.

By all means, ignore the idea that the government might be keyword-parsing Reddit posts and focus on the fact that they are expanding routine, warrantless domestic surveillance (ineptly!). You have my blessing.
posted by richyoung at 12:01 AM on October 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


Saying it was discovered via automated text analysis software that monitors social media sites ignores the incredibly hard problem that would be.

Couldn't they also just hire 10 interns to browse the web all day? That seems like the type of quality monitoring that would lead to a situation like this.

Really though, I think the serious concern here is not about Afifi or the law or civil liberties or what. The real serious concern here is why is the FBI, a heavily funded supposed to be terrifying 3 letter government agency, doing such a shitty job at placing tracking devices. If anything, people ought to be demanding a senate bill for FBI tracking device placement reform. This is an area in which the agency is clearly lacking.

Seriously, FBI, what the fuck. A mechanic found your super secret tracking device because of a loose wire? What is this, amateur hour?
posted by tracert at 12:02 AM on October 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Saying it was discovered via automated text analysis software that monitors social media sites ignores the incredibly hard problem that would be. Did the software actually parse the post and understand the meaning, instantly lighting up an alarm in FBI headquarters? That's some serious AI right there. Much more likely some FBI computer geek just saw it while drinking his morning coffee.

The system doesn't have to have a sentient parser. Finding keywords is all the software has to do to rank hits, which are then probably parsed by some half-assed NLP system which is 90% wrong, and then read over by some human grunt to determine which ones to follow up on, which will then be 80% wrong based on the FBI's previous record. As far back as 1997 the technology existed to filter every email in the US against a big block of multilingual keywords in real time. Extending this to the web would be easy enough with taps in place at a few of the larger fiber trunks (AT&T anyone?).

The FBI does have a dismal record of technical savviness though, so I'd put even money on it being a tip from either the NSA or a dumb-ass right wing Redditor.
posted by benzenedream at 12:04 AM on October 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think that anyone catching on to FBI surveillance should win free surveillance and security for a year. Catch the FBI wiretapping? Agents have to chase raccoons out of your yard for a year. Suspect you're being followed via tracking device on your car, and bust the guy following you? The FBI replaces your car alarm with the agent of your choosing.
posted by Graygorey at 12:36 AM on October 9, 2010 [23 favorites]


"Duh, dude. Give us our spy stuff back, okay?".

I vaguely recall a story where the FBI did the same with some mobster in NYC. It was either Gotti or Gigante, can't remember. But basically they had installed this bug in the social club that the mafiosi hung out at and the mobsters found it. Later the FBI guy walks into the club, cold-cocks the bouncer/body guard guy (because how else was he going to get in) and then is greeted by a smiling mob boss. Boss is like, jeez you didn't have to jack that guy in the face, we'd have just given it back to you. FBI guy leaves with expensive electronic surveillance equipment in hand.

Just think if terrorism was a really huge threat. Monitoring people based on their internet postings etc? Talk about making the haystack unfathomably large.
posted by IvoShandor at 12:42 AM on October 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


Given the keyword-heavy nature of that reddit post, “monitoring social media” could be something as simple as, say, having a google alert for the words "FBI", "bomb", and "car".
web surveillance jamming, really, making a hundred fake posts to drown out any real ones. In fact, some irate citizens might do that just out of spite
Back in the '80s (at the time, the notion was that the NSA was monitoring the net) EMACS had M-x spook which would randomly choose a bunch of interesting keywords and salt your message with them. I suspect that kind of thing is easy enough to automatically tune out, though, so your NSA analysts don't have to spend all their time wading through UNIX patches and Heinlein flamewars.
posted by hattifattener at 1:20 AM on October 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


If it was my car, my mechanic would claim it was malfunctioning, "replace" it and charge me $1100.
posted by klarck at 1:40 AM on October 9, 2010 [32 favorites]


> Is it just me or does that thing seem so fucking huge it's almost embarrassing that it's considered a secret tracking device?

The Wired article mentions that it's an older device, and that many units in the FBI are deploying much smaller devices that wire into the the vehicle's battery. These guys seem like second string Feds who are just fishing around with leftover equipment.


My takeaway from this was that the FBI were probably just letting him (and his friends) know they could be watched. Maybe they expected it to end up on Reddit, maybe they didn't, but it doesn't really hurt their purposes that it did.

ASIO did a similar thing here at the end of 2001. They went knocking on doors. "Hello, how are you, I'm from ASIO, we're just checking you off our list, if you hear or see anything suspicious in your community, please give us a call."

It was just as intimidating to those people as ASIO intended it to be.
posted by Ahab at 1:41 AM on October 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


My takeaway from this was that the FBI were probably just letting him (and his friends) know they could be watched.
I don't know why they would go through the trouble of planting a fake device, and there is no way they could have predicted it would end up on reddit.
posted by delmoi at 2:03 AM on October 9, 2010


Couldn't they also just hire 10 interns to browse the web all day? That seems like the type of quality monitoring that would lead to a situation like this.

Man, you couldn't pay me enough to sit here and read reddit comments all day. Or Facebook status posts? Shoot me now.
posted by sbutler at 2:16 AM on October 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Not suggesting it was fake, delmoi. I do think the post discovery "woooooh woooooh flashing lights" response indicates a genuine fuck-up.

But I am suggesting that the intelligence gained from covert surveillance of this guy is probably going to end up being a whole lot less valuable to the FBI than the fact that some people (possibly many people) are going to modify their internet behavior as a result of the surveillance having become known.

Further, I don't see why an understanding of those two possible outcomes couldn't have been part of the planning process that led to the tracker being placed. This does seem like a situation where the decision to use an old, easily discovered, and not particularly valuable piece of equipment would pay off whichever way things went.

If it wasn't discovered, they'd get some (potentially valuable) intelligence into what the guy in question and his indiscreet friend were up to. If it was discovered, the likely effect would be a significant cooling of heels (despite some post discovery bravado).

In short, those being watched internalize the fact they are watched. Win/win for the FBI.
posted by Ahab at 2:49 AM on October 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


And when I say "potentially valuable" I think I mean "maybe but probably not."
posted by Ahab at 2:59 AM on October 9, 2010


I'd mail it back to the FBI office in Afghanistan.
posted by ouke at 3:00 AM on October 9, 2010


Seriously, FBI, what the fuck. A mechanic found your super secret tracking device because of a loose wire? What is this, amateur hour?

This surprises you?
When you live in an agency culture where secrecy is mostly used to cover up bungling, there are no consequences for incompetence and no motivation to improve. The secrecy also isolates its members from anyone not like themselves, everything just slides downwards.

Worldwide, almost all agencies that operate in secret, are shockingly incompetent.
And if you think about it, how could they possibly be otherwise?
posted by -harlequin- at 3:15 AM on October 9, 2010 [22 favorites]


Nobody seems to be making very much if the fact that they 1. Had the audacity to ask for the thing back; and 2. sent 20 agents to get it.

What am I missing?
posted by doublehappy at 3:21 AM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is one reason why there is a market for these things
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:12 AM on October 9, 2010


Most of us are carrying around a GPS tracking device anyway.
posted by Ella Fynoe at 4:28 AM on October 9, 2010 [22 favorites]


Nobody seems to be making very much if the fact that they 1. Had the audacity to ask for the thing back; and 2. sent 20 agents to get it.

If there's even a slight chance that the target is an actual well armed nut who would enjoy shooting FBI agents -- not impossible in the US, is it? -- their standard procedures might call for sending out a few agents with bullet proof jackets to cover the dolts trying to nonchalantly recover the device, just in case. Or... they wanted to be seen so they could intimidate the guy and maybe even cause a confrontation that would let them arrest him, interrogate him, search everything he owns, and take him out of the loop. Get him to throw the first punch. then knock him out.
posted by pracowity at 4:41 AM on October 9, 2010


Having had two semi-runins with the FBI (once where they were digging through my father's office and talking on their two-ways less than a yard from each other all because of a false revenge tip by a competitor, and the second where they were staking out my house after I married a foreign national - both decades before 9/11), I'm not surprised by the apparent bungling and intimation factor.
The point the guy made on reddit re: shopping bag is reminiscent of both Ted Kaczynski and Iraq IEDs.
The plausible scenario is that the FBI wanted to see if the kid had any ties to possible groups, didn't have any of the new trackers, and stuck the old one there, figuring he's just a dumb kid. That it was found by a mechanic with a funny last name (which I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned - wonder if the FBI has now probing him really good) is dumb luck.
Where he screwed up seriously is not first going to the ACLU once it was id'd as a tracking device. Leave it with them, and have the FBI deal with that.
As it is, he's now going to enjoy a lifetime of FBI watching him and his baggage being checked.

posted by Old'n'Busted at 4:53 AM on October 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


1. Putting that on my car would double its value.

2. One could make the argument that if you want to understand a terrorists movements and how they differ from a normal person, you would need to set a baseline and monitor normal people. Really, as patriots we should all be volunteering for these devices. Also, it would be a bad argument.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:58 AM on October 9, 2010


Hello, Onstar?

They're not going to need to install anything in another 5 years or so, when the last generation of vehicles without built-in GPS rolls of to the junkyard.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:59 AM on October 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I'm with Ella Fynoe here. Afifi didn't have a cell phone? Why risk the exposure if they didn't want an excuse to confront him in some fashion?
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:05 AM on October 9, 2010


Don't post anything anywhere on the internet (or really anywhere) that you wouldn't want the FBI to read - ever, because they might read it.

This common practice of monitoring citizens with dissenting opinions, tracking their movements and occasionally locking them up in super secret prisons has worked well for many regimes the US has maintained a self-viewed moral superiority over for a long time (North Korea, China, Iran and historically the USSR come to mind off the top of my head). With luck, we'll be able to have UN Sanctions levied against us within our lifetime!
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:10 AM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Speaking of which...
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:27 AM on October 9, 2010


People who think that intelligence agencies aren't monitoring the internet and "social media" spaces don't understand how computers (and telecommunications) work. They've been doing it for years, and they don't need rooms full of people to do it.

Echelon is real. It's not pie in the sky paranoid science fiction garbage, it's demonstrably provable that it works in theory, and would be very affordable compared to many other known projects - and this was twenty to thirty years ago. You can pluck radio, video, cellphone communication and any other digitized communication stream out of the ether and run it through a variety of commonly available (or secretly available) tools to convert it to machine-readable text. Voice, fax and images convert to text readily with consumer grade software. If it's already machine-readable text - it's even easier to scan for keywords and it costs nearly nothing to store.

Carnivore is/was real. It exists. Consider that the only logical reason that we now know it exists is because it's now obsolete. Carnivore was just a PC in a box with some network cards and some basic packet scanning and logging software. Imagine a dedicated cluster of multicore computers or a whole array of modern virtualized cloud-computing systems doing the same thing.

The NSA is doing it, too. Remember the AT&T wiretapping case in San Francisco? That actually happened. It's still happening. We're not talking about a couple of subnetworks - we're talking about a major internet backbone hub. We're talking about a major percentage of all telephone and internet traffic in the US and to points elsewhere on the globe all running through some very fast, very smart boxes. Read more about Room 641A.

Do you still think SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) is adequately encrypting your data? It's not! It's been broken for a while, with easily affordable commodity electronics. The money and processing power required is peanuts to an agency like the NSA or FBI.

If I can experiment with this stuff with a $200 used netbook and a handful of free software and I can read, scan and parse email or IM messages, scan files for known file types like JPEG or MPEG, automatically crack WPA/WEP wifi passcodes and worse - and I'm a total idiot and noob when it comes to network security - what makes you think that even an incompetent fool can't do a lot better when it's their full time job and they're more or less given a blank check to buy new computer hardware and software whenever they want?

Are you under the impression that the Federal Government doesn't understand the internet? Are you mad? They invented it! Your local congresscritter might not understand it, but they're not the ones throwing switches in the back rooms. They're not the ones with the contracts. Moreover, it's the intel community's job to keep this stuff secret even from elected officials. You didn't vote in the NSA, or the CIA, or the FBI. Don't be fooled into complacency just because of the visibility of a few bumbling idiots on the public-facing outside surfaces of the biggest anti-privacy juggernaut ever conceived in fact or fiction.

I promise you they're casting as wide of a net as they can, filtering and scanning as many packets as they can get their hands on. Your packets. Your phone calls. They're compiling databases about you no matter how boring you are, just in case. That's what the intelligence community does. They don't put on trenchcoats and sneak into buildings, they sit down at a terminal and write scripts and tap wires and fibers. They want your phone records. Your health related searches. Your porn searches. What you buy from Amazon. Your Google history. They want what books you check out from the library. They want all the data they can get on you. Yes, you. Data is their only real currency. If you're end up being trouble, or going into politics, or otherwise become a threat (real or imagined) they want your data so they can hold it against you. They don't care if it's in a court of law, or held over your head as a weapon of fear and control.

"But I'm boring... and I'm not doing anything wrong!" you may say. Yeah, you're not doing anything "wrong" for now. What happens if a theocratic government takes control and outlaws homosexuality? Abortions? Do you have mental health problems? Do you talk to a therapist? What do you talk to them about? Do you smoke? Have you ever viewed a subversive web page? Have you tried any recreational drugs? What prescription drugs do you take? What if you're a woman and "prime breeding stock" like A Handmaid's Tale, or a viable male who is a threat to the system? Suddenly all that boring data becomes a lot more scary and interesting if the political landscape and law changes. The data is still there, same creepy people collecting it and compiling it, but now it's suddenly worth a lot more power and money. You bet the intel community is going to protect valuable assets like that. It's like secret gold raining from the sky.

And if you think a political landscape can't change so fast that you don't notice it - remember the Third Reich. Political sea changes have happened very fast in the past, without the aid of an increased pace of life or technology. They did that one with paper and telegrams and bike messengers. Remember post-9/11 America. We're still going through a rapid political sea change where endless war and terrorism now seem frightfully normal, where the idea of planting a tracking bug on someone's car is just weird news of the day. How did that happen? When? Did you notice it?

Worse, the surveillance/intelligence community is a lifestyle and mindset. The "intelligence" community is fucking nuts. They're paranoid voyeurs with delusions of grandeur and a severe lack of human empathy. They don't care. They don't care if you care. The people who have worked in the intel community and who have later escaped are rare to none - because they're all compiling data on each other, too. You can check in, but God help you if you want to check out.

There's so many more things to be worried about then laughably outdated GPS trackers stuck to cars with magnets. The newer trackers are the size of small USB thumb drives. You can fit an entire GPS receiver and a broadband radio transmitter on a single chip with room left over for a lot of storage, camera, a mic input and a bunch of other toys. Hell, you could put a cellphone interception device on the same chip, throw in some WiFi to work on the data around your house, too.

In reality it's worse then any science fiction story you've ever read. Worse then anything Brunner, Dick, Sterling or Rucker could ever imagine. It's so bad it's rapidly becoming a very real panopticon and possibly an existential threat to civilized existence - possibly a worse threat to civility and democracy then nuclear war ever was because it's nearly completely invisible and precisely targeted. It's the information-technology equivalent of a neutron bomb in a convenient hand-grenade size, perfect for character assassination, blackmail or so much worse.

In practice you should safely assume that anything you send or receive over the internet, phone or any other telecommunications is actually monitored, if only by a lot of very fast, smart robots. You should assume your entire internet history is cached, stored and cross-referenced in more then one database from more then one agency. This isn't paranoia, this is an easy and conservative extrapolation of past actions mapped to current technology and the size of the budgets and type of mandate they're operating under.


I write a lot of hyperbole. In a sense, it's kind of my job. But I'm deadly serious about this. If there's one single message I want to tell MetaFilter in the strongest possible terms, this is it:

If you're not terrified, if you're not outraged - you're either not paying attention or you don't yet understand what's actually going on. Donate to the EFF and ACLU. Get involved. Demand (and practice) strong privacy laws before it's too late.
posted by loquacious at 6:32 AM on October 9, 2010 [158 favorites]


What's interesting is some of the reasoning of the Ninth in justifying that this sort of thing is "okay." Last time around, the lack of a gate or a posted NO TRESPASSING sign made it alright to amble onto someone's property and put the device on.

That's our Feebs. Digging through our trash. FLIR cameras pointed at houses. And the courts are willing to back them up all the way.

Myself, I would have locked the thing in a mu-metal box after setting some hidden webcams to stream video off to somewhere in Sweden, see what happened.
posted by adipocere at 6:35 AM on October 9, 2010


Donate to the EFF and ACLU. Get involved. Demand (and practice) strong privacy laws before it's too late.

And move from become boring to a real interesting target. Seriously, if any of what you write is remotely true and going on (hard to prove yay or nay) then this is what is going to happen.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 7:02 AM on October 9, 2010


For those who find social media monitoring implausible, I can tell you that it is possible with the technology currently available. There are services that provide content feeds from social networks (especially popular nowadays with marketing types); this feed can easily be fed to an indexer which could work in either simple keyword fashion or use semantic technology for a more sophisticated index. Then they have a software program that can run preset queries at stipulated intervals against this index (and these queries can be massively complex).
This isn't pie in the sky. I have personally, at various times, worked on different pieces of such software and yes, a certain large country was a customer.
Also, if the guy is under surveillance, his family, friends, roommate and roommate's friends are under at least minimal surveillance also. It's not at all implausible that in a system such as I describe above, a query is running that flags keywords/topics in the daily feed from that group's web presences.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:09 AM on October 9, 2010


::carefully jots down the names and IP addresses of everyone appearing in this thread::
posted by briank at 7:29 AM on October 9, 2010


In all seriousness, what if he did sell the device, or just threw it into a lake. Would the FBI then bill him for the device? Couldn't he claim that if the FBI planted it on his car, the FBI essentially "abandoned" it? I mean what if he totalled the car and thus totalled the device. Would the FBI go after his insurance company?
posted by xetere at 7:36 AM on October 9, 2010


"But I'm boring... and I'm not doing anything wrong!" you may say. Yeah, you're not doing anything "wrong" for now. What happens if a theocratic government takes control and outlaws homosexuality? Abortions? Do you have mental health problems? Do you talk to a therapist? What do you talk to them about? Do you smoke? Have you ever viewed a subversive web page? Have you tried any recreational drugs? What prescription drugs do you take? What if you're a woman and "prime breeding stock" like A Handmaid's Tale, or a viable male who is a threat to the system? Suddenly all that boring data becomes a lot more scary and interesting if the political landscape and law changes.

And yet we need to continue to live our lives, to deal with our mental health issues, to plan our families, to think and write about the rights we deserve (who to love/fuck/marry, if/when to bear children). I'm going to keep doing those things, and the internet will be part of that. Potential changes to the laws/political systems are part of why we need to keep these discussions going publicly. Advocacy can't happen in secret.
posted by heatherann at 7:38 AM on October 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


empath wrote: "It seems completely insane that they would track someone based on posts like that."

It seems completely insane to stick a tracking device on someone else's car because a guy made posts like that.

Being as ridiculously white-bread as I am, I would have felt perfectly comfortable telling them that they'd have to speak to my lawyer before I did anything. He's the sort of fellow who would happily tell them to go fuck themselves if he had any legal leg to stand on. Once the FBI left it on the car without a warrant, I'm betting that at best (for the FBI) it became lost property and therefore should have been turned over to the local police.

Devils Rancher wrote: "They're not going to need to install anything in another 5 years or so, when the last generation of vehicles without built-in GPS rolls of to the junkyard."

Thankfully, my 20 year old Honda still runs like a top, and even the newer vehicles my SO and I have don't have any sort of GPS device. That's not to say they couldn't get my position at any time from my cell phone, if they either have equipment stationed around the area to listen for it or they get a warrant or cooperation from my cell phone provider.
posted by wierdo at 7:40 AM on October 9, 2010


I watched "William Kuntsler: Disturbing the Universe" last night. This morning it's clear that in the USA nothing ever changes.
posted by klanawa at 7:41 AM on October 9, 2010


Another thing I just thought of relative to the GPS jammer linked above: It would be nice to know if the tracking device were single frequency or dual frequency. If the former, I doubt the jammer would do any good. Surely the FBI would be bright enough to get a GPS lock prior to attaching the device to the vehicle, in which case it would already be locked onto the L2 frequency and thus immune to jamming of the L1 frequency.
posted by wierdo at 7:46 AM on October 9, 2010


If the latter, I meant to write. :(
posted by wierdo at 7:46 AM on October 9, 2010


The FBI is more dependent on snitches than anything you might recognize as intelligence gathering. So this was most likely a complaint about some postings that turned into a break from donuts for the Fat Boys Institute. As well funded and as invulnerable to reform as the FBI is, they are surprisingly inept and non-productive.

I suppose there are alternatives, all of which are worse.
posted by warbaby at 7:48 AM on October 9, 2010


A few folks are rightly calling into question the idea that this proves anything like "the government is monitoring social media for national security purposes." I agree that the task of monitoring all this noise seems daunting and far-fetched.

Yes, the government is monitoring social media for national security purposes. If you are curious on where they are investing, check out In-Q-Tel. That's where the big VC money comes from, but given the deep pockets the intelligence agencies have, they can and will fund tech startups that aggregate and track social media data without as much fanfare as an A round.

re: the pipe bomb looking device on this guy's car. If a mechanic had put my car on a rack and pulled that tracking thing off, I would have asked him to put it on the ground and step away. Once the area was clear I would have called the police and report that someone placed a device that looked like a pipe bomb with a remote trigger on my car and a mechanic just found it, could you please send out the bomb squad. That would be followed up with a call to the local media about the police responding to a pipe bomb that was placed on a car and discovered by a mechanic. Hilarity ensues.
posted by ryoshu at 7:48 AM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


M-x spook: CDMA ANDVT assassinate Abu Ghraib Clinton Downing Street electronic surveillance enforcers Dateline Exon Shell Geraldton Venezuela Marxist MDA Telex
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 7:59 AM on October 9, 2010


He must be guilty of something, the FBI "A global intel and security agency…providing leadership and making a difference for more than a century."

Who you going to believe?


Ghostbusters 2?
posted by ericb at 8:02 AM on October 9, 2010


It seems completely insane that they would track someone based on posts like that.
posted by empath at 10:17 PM on October 8 [2 favorites +] [!]


beyond all the the "my mechanic would have..the guy should have" stuff, two points stick with me on this

1. Empath has a point, and yeah, maybe it's a little boo-scary that this can and is being done, and apparently done so badly.

2. The "What if?" factor. What if they were actually onto something, and either a. were able to prevent it, or b., missed it when it was sitting right in front of their faces, and something bad happened?

I think the chorus of people feeling violated by something like this, would be twice as loud had a mall blown up.

Intelligence services successes are rarely reported unless the spin cycle requires it, but their failures all almost alway front page news.
posted by timsteil at 8:12 AM on October 9, 2010


Most of us are carrying around a GPS tracking device anyway.

Yesterday I noticed my phone's GPS was running, even though I wasn't doing anything that should turn it on. Odd I thought, must be google maps stuck in the background, I'll just reboot. A few hours later, GPS turns on again. Turns out is was the app Shop Savy.
posted by nomisxid at 8:19 AM on October 9, 2010


They want all the data they can get on you. Yes, you. Data is their only real currency. If you're end up being trouble, or going into politics, or otherwise become a threat (real or imagined) they want your data so they can hold it against you.

J. Edgar Hoover would have loved the Internet!
posted by ericb at 8:20 AM on October 9, 2010


FLIR cameras pointed at houses. And the courts are willing to back them up all the way.

Not to nitpick too much, but you do know that the Supreme Court actually doesn't allow thermal imaging of houses without a search warrant, right?
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:37 AM on October 9, 2010


What I find funny is not that the FBI or any other agency is tracking so many Americans--that for me is a given--but that caught, instead of being a bit embarrassed, they resort to the child-like: It's mine and I want it back.
ps: so too my privacy is mine and I want it back.
posted by Postroad at 8:37 AM on October 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think it's fascinating that our comments range between two extremes, hyperbolically stated as:

1) The spooks are so disgracefully clueless and inept that there's no way they could write software that would effectively monitor internet discussion sites for potential threats. Their technology is 20 years out of date and they are so isolated that they have no clue what normal people think and feel.

and

2) They are astoundingly competent and well-equipped, and have been capable of monitoring the internet, cracking SSL and generally watching every US resident's every move online and in real life since 1950.

Clearly, the truth is somewhere in the middle. I'd love to know what that truth is - it would inform my reaction. As it stands, I have to choose between:

1) demanding that they do a better job protecting us from the real-life bad guys, or
2) demanding that they respect civil liberties.

Or the best option:
3) both.
posted by richyoung at 8:44 AM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


that part that infuriates me the most:
> Afifi, already heading out for an appointment, encountered a man and woman looking at his vehicle outside. The man asked if Afifi knew his registration tag was expired. When Afifi asked if it bothered him, the man just smiled.


The smug jerk is so happy that he'll have a reason to tow Afifi's car if he doesn't do the exact bidding of the team of FBI agents.
posted by mulligan at 8:57 AM on October 9, 2010


Not to nitpick too much, but you do know that the Supreme Court actually doesn't allow thermal imaging of houses without a search warrant, right?

Wouldn't the surveillance procedures section of the PATRIOT Act override this?
posted by elizardbits at 9:14 AM on October 9, 2010


richyoung: "I think it's fascinating that our comments range between two extremes, hyperbolically stated as: 1) The spooks are so disgracefully clueless and inept... 2) They are astoundingly competent...Clearly, the truth is somewhere in the middle."

I think that like any large corporation, the FBI (and other government agencies) has some extremely competent and motivated people, some lazy and unqualified people hiding under the radar, and a large group of people in the middle that adequately get the job done most of the time.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 9:16 AM on October 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Not to nitpick too much, but you do know that the Supreme Court actually doesn't allow thermal imaging of houses without a search warrant, right?

Seriously? Well, I guess this is the week for MeFites to be disappointed in Canada. (basically, current FLIR capabilities aren't an "unreasonable" search, though future more refined versions might be.)
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:56 AM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder if putting it on another car or even disabling it might be seen as interferring in a federal investigation, obstruction, etc.
posted by humanfont at 9:57 AM on October 9, 2010


I read "surpised" to mean he was surprised how amateur the FBI agents were in placing the thing.

it was an "open tail"- meant to be found, draw your own conclusions.

write a lot of hyperbole. In a sense, it's kind of my job. But I'm deadly serious about this. If there's one single message I want to tell MetaFilter in the strongest possible terms, this is it:

I AM REALLLY SCARED
posted by clavdivs at 10:07 AM on October 9, 2010


loquacious makes several good points but the depressing thing about his whole comment is that it is true and nothing anyone of you rah rah government oh it's not happening here apologists says can contradict the truth of his position. The technology is there and has been there for quite some time. They were doing it analog so it's a good bet they are doing it digital especially when it can be automated and filed for later use. Creeping incipient fascism is well on the way to becoming developed fascism. I've said it before and I'll say it again; the framework is all in place. Unfortunately for us it will not become apparent until it is too late. Gradualism is the name of the game and if done correctly the fascists will provoke no response until any response will be anticipated and/or allowed for within the constructed regime. I would argue that we have already passed the point of no return and that nothing short of a violent insurrection can remedy the situation. Being a non-violent person I am going to pursue the Carlinian path become a spectator. I think it will be an entertaining show.

I know I will probably get flamed like I did last time when I tried to point out that there are fascist elements in both political parties and that the problem is a systemic one not isolated to one party or the other. I will say that certain elements of the republican party (tea party) are already showing signs of a well developed fascism. The democrats on the other hand seem content to sit idly by and in some cases actively pursuing the fascist agenda. This pursuance of the fascist agenda has been illustrated over the past several weeks here on the blue: harassment of anti-war protesters, wiretapping, assassination of U.S. citizens, ...ect., and now this.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 10:25 AM on October 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


1) demanding that they do a better job protecting us from the real-life bad guys, or
2) demanding that they respect civil liberties.


In a country where you have rule of law, #2 is not optional.

An organization that protects you from other criminals while violating your civil rights is normally known as organized crime.

...

Well, hey, I guess with a shining history of CoIntelPro we should already know what to expect, right?
posted by yeloson at 10:27 AM on October 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


This pursuance of the fascist agenda has been illustrated over the past several weeks here on the blue: harassment of anti-war protesters, wiretapping, assassination of U.S. citizens, ...ect., and now this.

holy crap, thats why Quonsar is no longer here.
posted by clavdivs at 10:50 AM on October 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


The system doesn't have to have a sentient parser. Finding keywords is all the software has to do to rank hits, which are then probably parsed by some half-assed NLP system which is 90% wrong, and then read over by some human grunt to determine which ones to follow up on, which will then be 80% wrong based on the FBI's previous record.

Benzenedreams, are you me?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:51 AM on October 9, 2010


lession 1#

true story from Phil Kerbys book on his FBI carrer.

a bank manger in Michigan recieved a letter with detailed descriptions of his family, routine etc. The bank manager payed the extortion money, twice. Finally Kerbys crew tracked the criminal (using an airplane to track the drop).
Turns out it was a man in his 70s who said he did it to help his wife who DID have cancer. The extortion/terror letter said it was from the 'new republicans' hence opening up a political aspect, sans radical groups, to the case.

lession 1# outcome:di
version.
posted by clavdivs at 11:22 AM on October 9, 2010


Not to nitpick too much, but you do know that the Supreme Court actually doesn't allow thermal imaging of houses without a search warrant, right?

How reassuring. I'm sure the Feds will be taking down the surveillance plane that 's been over Oakland and Berkeley lately real soon now. Not holding my breath, though.
posted by Lexica at 11:27 AM on October 9, 2010


loquacious makes several good points but the depressing thing about his whole comment is that it is true....

We mustn't forget the governments use of data mining in its "War on Terrorism." Recent case-in-point: U.S. Special Operations Command's Able Danger program.

Previous MeFi FPPs
Operation Able Danger.

Able Danger WP Series.

No Book Burning Here. Just Pulping.
posted by ericb at 11:52 AM on October 9, 2010


I wonder how hard it actually is to hide a transmitter in a car, given that the car's body effectively functions as a faraday cage.

Having worked with someone who professionally installed some of the consumer versions of these devices, I can tell you that they are stashed behind the glove box or below the bumper. The glove box is trivial to remove (usually just a latch), and there is often convenient power and ground on the air conditioning harness there. The transmitter and receiver get a clear view of the sky via the windshield, just under the dash plastic.

Bumpers are all plastic/styrofoam and pose no issue for transmission or reception.
posted by fake at 12:09 PM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]




Of special note is the rather prescient original post by Afifi's roommate, Reddit user khaled the gypsy

A gypsy? Someone should alert the French authorities so they can add him to their gypsy database.
posted by homunculus at 12:27 PM on October 9, 2010


But, homunculus, wouldn't that be a violation of the 4th amendment to the constitution? Oh wait the 4th amendment doesn't mention GPS...imagine that. Nevermind then.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 12:30 PM on October 9, 2010


Do you still think SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) is adequately encrypting your data? It's not! It's been broken for a while, with easily affordable commodity electronics.

Um, that's not really what the linked article says. The article was about a hack that allows people to pretend a site is secure (and certified as such) when in fact it is not.

That might be handy in setting up a phishing attack, but it's fuck all use in decrypting messages between two parties that already know & trust each other, and have exchanged keys.

With 256-bit AES encryption, it'll be about another 200 years before computers might be powerful enough to even attempt a massively distributed brute force attack. That's assuming that Moore's Law continues to apply, and computers continue to increase in processing power.

Another measure I've heard is that it would take every PC in the world today (with current processing power) the amount of time that has passed since the big bang, just to decrypt a single email.

So unless the government is grabbing hold of communicating parties' public & private keypairs through some other attack, there's no way they could be listening in on encrypted messages en route. The numbers are just too big to crunch.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:25 PM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another measure I've heard is that it would take every PC in the world today (with current processing power) the amount of time that has passed since the big bang, just to decrypt a single email.

That's probably why governments are pouring billions of dollars into researching quantum computers. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find out that the U.S. military already has a rudimentary quantum computer.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:38 PM on October 9, 2010


Yes, exactly. That's what I find so fascinating about cryptography - that you can take a message & two strings of numbers, run them through a known mathematical algorithm, and then end up with something so garbled that it's practically impossible to reverse-engineer the message back to its original state, using brute force alone.

Lay people might imagine that it's only a matter of having enough processing power, and surely the government has that, right?

Ah, but what about the dreaded massively distributed cracking brute force method for attacking something like 128 bit RC5 encryption? There are massive zombie farms of infected computers throughout the world and some may have gotten as big as 1 million infected computers. What if that entire army was unleashed upon the commonly used 128 bit RC5 encryption? Surprisingly, the answer is not much. For the sake of argument, let’s say we unleash 4.3 billion computers for the purpose of distributed cracking. This means that it would be 4.3 billion or 2 to the 32 times faster than a single computer. This means we could simply take 2 to the 128 combinations for 128-bit encryption and divide it by 2 to the 32 which means that 2 to the 96 bits are left. With 96 bits left, it’s still 4.3 billion times stronger than 64 bit encryption. 64 bit encryption happens to be the world record for the biggest RC5 bit key cracked in 2002 which took nearly 5 years to achieve for a massive distributed attack.

Now, that's just for one message, and one pair of encryption keys. Imagine up to a couple of billion of internet users potentially with at least one set of keys each, multiplied by the number of communications daily, and it doesn't take long to realise that without some quantum shift (heh) in computing, that these messages simply cannot possibly be listened in on.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:41 PM on October 9, 2010


Not to nitpick too much, but you do know that the Supreme Court actually doesn't allow thermal imaging of houses without a search warrant, right?

So what? In practice, it just means that they evidence gained from using this technology isn't admissible in court. It doesn't mean that the FBI or other intelligence/enforcement agencies won't use the technology at all.
posted by 1000monkeys at 2:47 PM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


> I would know if something grew out of my vehicle that wasn't there when I last saw it.

Last summer, a passenger picked a maple sapling out of the windshield wiper well of my car.

Just saying.
posted by ardgedee at 2:50 PM on October 9, 2010


I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find out that the U.S. military already has a rudimentary quantum computer.
posted by clavdivs at 2:52 PM on October 9, 2010


I think it's fascinating that our comments range between two extremes, hyperbolically stated as:

1) The spooks are so disgracefully clueless and inept that there's no way they could write software that would effectively monitor internet discussion sites for potential threats. Their technology is 20 years out of date and they are so isolated that they have no clue what normal people think and feel.

and

2) They are astoundingly competent and well-equipped, and have been capable of monitoring the internet, cracking SSL and generally watching every US resident's every move online and in real life since 1950.

Clearly, the truth is somewhere in the middle. I'd love to know what that truth is - it would inform my reaction. As it stands, I have to choose between:



No, I think you've misunderstood, the extremes are not opposite poles. It is entirely possible to spend a lot of money to get a sophisticated computer system and training to use it, without gaining the competence to focus it on genuine potential threats instead of your own idealogical enemies and boogeymen, like peace activists. Or people who wear jeans.

I'm not making that up - an agency culture became so entrenched in it's own mono-culture, walled off from reality by secrecy, that a guy noticed that the only people he had ever encountered who wore jeans, were suspects. He wrote a memo that people who wore jeans should be considered suspicious.

Incompetence means that you having nothing to hide DOESN'T mean you have nothing to fear. It doesn't mean that money can't buy a panopticon, or that a panopticon couldn't be used. It means the panopticon will be purchased, and used in the most idiotic and ineffective ways such that risk to the rest of us is not simple that bad guys don't get caught, but that regular innocent people get caught in the dragnet, and have no recourse to defend ourselves or challenge that incompetence.

And in that category, I'm also going to put terrorist trials where the defendants are entitled to a fair trial to defend themselves, but are not allowed to know what they're accused of and what the evidence against them is.
We know some are innocent - victims of malicious tip-offs. We know some are terrorists. But with trials like that we'll never know which is which, and it appears we don't care.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:57 PM on October 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Not to nitpick too much, but you do know that the Supreme Court actually doesn't allow thermal imaging of houses without a search warrant, right?

Do you know that FISA warrants can be applied for after they've already gone fishing, scanning without a warrant and found something? And that the number of FISA warrants that get denied is less than a tenth of one percent? FISA warrants are a rubber stamping process rather than genuine court oversight.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:13 PM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


So I was all motivated by this thread to check my car to see if the FBI's Pimp My Ride team had been in town, but really as a way to trick myself into happily doing the long overdue chore of cleaning it and topping up fluids etc, that I've been avoiding all summer.

It was interesting idea because you work out the possible locations for tracking equipment based on where in the car they can get both signal and power.

Then I realised that my car has composite body panels, not metal. So a tracking device could be ANYWHERE, so I'd never find it, so there's no point in looking.

Damnit, now maintaining the car is a chore again :-(
posted by -harlequin- at 3:19 PM on October 9, 2010


Echelon is real. It's not pie in the sky paranoid science fiction garbage, it's demonstrably provable that it works in theory, and would be very affordable compared to many other known projects - and this was twenty to thirty years ago.

So with twenty to thirty years of progress they probably now have an even better spam filter than the one in GMail.

Are you under the impression that the Federal Government doesn't understand the internet? Are you mad? They invented it!

They funded the research that led to the Internet, that's not the same thing as inventing it. If top secret intelligence labs were a better place to do science than open academia then there wouldn't be so many scientists at Universities.
posted by robertc at 3:25 PM on October 9, 2010


Since the devices apparently run off of battery power, in addition to adding some non-zero amount to the curb-weight of the vehicle, I'd argue that even if secretly installing these things is found to be constitutional, than they still constitute a "taking" in terms of money paid for gas. And that the Bureau must then be forced to compensate the subjects of their takings. Publicly.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:32 PM on October 9, 2010


I've been making comments like the one in the extended more inside part of this FPP for years on web forums and blogs and IRC; I share the sentiment exactly. I'm just guilty (and glad and guilty about being glad) I'm Canadian and caucasian so I don't have to worry about this sort of thing
posted by tehloki at 3:32 PM on October 9, 2010


Oh wait, I don't need to look for a tracking device, the car already has onstar.
Aw man, where's the challenge in that? :)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:43 PM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


possibly a worse threat to civility and democracy thenthan nuclear war ever was

FTFY, but otherwise correct. Needs more discussion of traffic analysis, mapping relationships among people, clustering into groups, etc. Basically PageRank for people. It's much easier than e.g. natural language parsing and semantic analysis, and it's great for rounding up dissidents. McCarthy would have loved "Find Similar Results".

Note to boring people: when the government fabricates fake evidence to use against you, your boring facts will help create a completely convincing lie.

On the bright side, no more indefinite detention without trial! Here's to an efficient future...
posted by ryanrs at 4:46 PM on October 9, 2010



loquacious makes several good points

Yeah, but unless there are internet privileges in Gitmo I doubt if we will ever see another comment from loquacious.
posted by notreally at 6:03 PM on October 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Rudimentary quantum computers already exist in the non military world: see here.

For sufficiently extreme definitions of rudimentary, that is. They factored the number 15!
posted by nat at 6:08 PM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I should add, here's the narrative I see for this from the FBI side of things:

Some paranoid right-winger sends in the tip about something they saw on an internet forum. Someone at the FBI reads it, probably thinks it is exactly as it reads - a critique on the security theatre and how weak the country is to actual attacks of a certain sort - and sees it as almost certainly harmless. But the job is still to follow up on these things, so they send it along to the appropriate field branch.

The top brass at the field branch also see this as something probably meaningless, but also decide that they should follow up on it in some way, so they pass it on to the, let's call them "second stringers."

The second stringers attack it with full force, because they have the chance to do something. Their equipment is outdated, and they're not as talented or well-trained, but they have free reign over this case because no one above them is particularly worried about them screwing it up, since it's probably nothing anyway.

And so the second stringers put a very large bug on a student's car, because he was in some way connected to the meaningless blog comment, it gets found, the finding goes public, and the second stringers act like thugs in order to get it back and to intimidate the student because, dammit, they're the FEDS!

Which would all be comical except that in this narrative, the lack of a likely threat means that the civil liberties of U.S. citizens are passed down to those least-qualified agents because "it probably doesn't matter."
posted by Navelgazer at 6:28 PM on October 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


"I think it's fascinating that our comments range between two extremes, hyperbolically stated as:

"1) The spooks are so disgracefully clueless and inept that there's no way they could write software that would effectively monitor internet discussion sites for potential threats. Their technology is 20 years out of date and they are so isolated that they have no clue what normal people think and feel.

"and

"2) They are astoundingly competent and well-equipped, and have been capable of monitoring the internet, cracking SSL and generally watching every US resident's every move online and in real life since 1950. "


No reason it couldn't be bi modal; pretty well any organization large enough to be divided up into departments is going to encompass have and have nots both of materials and personnel.
posted by Mitheral at 11:30 PM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


In short, those being watched internalize the fact they are watched. Win/win for the FBI.
posted by Ahab at 4:49 AM on October 9


I don't understand this. Wouldn't the FBI get better intel on people who don't know they're being watched? A clever criminal who knew she was being watched would be difficult to tell from an innocent person who knew she was being watched, right? Whereas the clever criminal and innocent person would act very differently if they both had no idea they were being watched.
posted by joannemerriam at 10:04 AM on October 10, 2010


I'm glad loquacious is encouraging people to support privacy laws. But the idea that the intel community is storing the internet history of every person in this country, because the data might be valuable if we suffer a totalitarian revolution, does not stand up to Occam's Razor.

The intel community is primarily concerned with preventing attacks against US citizens and interests. It's hard to do. If they screw it up they'll get in serious trouble. My porn history is not going to help them. They are not spending vast quantities of money and resources, and risking massive legal fallout, to store every non-pertinent internet interaction of hundreds of millions of people. Monitoring technology was developed and is being used because it can identify people of interest and monitor them. If you're not interesting, they're not interested.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:59 AM on October 14, 2010


Everyone might be interesting at some point in the future. Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies have a very public paranoid streak. While they may not store everything they have the capability of intercepting just yet, it's more likely due to a lack of the necessary budget than any institutional opposition to doing so.
posted by wierdo at 9:40 AM on October 14, 2010


By the way, I think the incident in the post is outrageous and should be illegal, and I don't believe spies always have people's best interests at heart. I'm just responding to loquacious's specific claim that a permanent database is being constructed of everyone's slightest interaction. It would be a massive undertaking without a realistic benefit to the spies.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:45 AM on October 14, 2010


Not only is it not illegal for the police to put a traffic device on someone's car without a warrant, it's not illegal for a private citizen to do it either.
posted by empath at 10:05 AM on October 14, 2010


The intel community is primarily concerned with preventing attacks against US citizens and interests.

J. Edgar Hoover
posted by benzenedream at 11:46 AM on October 14, 2010






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