Why I’m Really Not That Bugged About PRISM

16 June 2013, 5:59 am

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and the conclusion I eventually came to really startled me.

TLDR: The more communications data is recorded, the less scrutiny any of it gets.

Disclaimer: I have a longstanding amateur interest in cryptography and cryptanalysis; I’ve read a few books. I’ve never held a security clearance nor worked in intelligence. It’s entirely possible that classified information exists that invalidates my conclusions. These opinions are solely mine and do not represent those of any employer, past or present.

Thought experiment: What if the NSA actually recorded every single phone call to, from, or within the United States? It couldn’t listen to all those phone calls unless it had as many people to do that listening as to make the calls in the first place. Orwell’s nightmare society’s repression succeeds not because it has some technological genie, but because its government has the luxury of virtually limitless manpower: anyone could an informer. The resources of our intelligence agencies are significant, but they are finite.

Data storage, indexing, and retrieval is a hard problem. The more data you store, the bigger the problem is.

Algorithmically identifying “interesting” conversations based on their content is an extremely hard problem. I don’t believe that we currently have (or will soon have) automatic analysis that can reliably distinguish between innocent people discussing the plot of 24 and a terrorist plot. (Identifying ‘interesting” conversations based on “interesting” attributes (between “interesting” parties, across international borders to places with possible state sponsorship/tolerance of “interesting” organizations) is far more reliable. But reviewing the actual content of those conversations gets harder — exponentially, I think — as the number of potentially “interesting” conversations goes up.

If (and I think it’s a very big “if”) the descriptions of PRISM are essentially accurate, then I would guess it works something like this:
* There’s a constrained set of targets under actual active, like-you-see-it-in-the-movies surveillance. As in The Wire, these are known small fish strung along in the hopes of landing bigger fish.
* There’s a much broader set of communication that’s captured in some form (more envelope/metadata than actual content, some of both)
* There’s some filtering for keywords of current interest, and that elevates some set of the analyzed communication into the constrained set of active surveilled targets
* A lot of communication is analyzed in greater depth only in retrospect. Empirical evidence suggests that the Tsarnaevs, for instance, were below the threshold for active surveillance until they actually did something. But at that point if any communications to or from them had been stored, they became extremely interesting and subject to intense scrutiny and analysis. (Hopefully/presumably some parties cross the active surveillance threshold before executing their plans.)

And I conclude that, even if you have something to hide, the chances that anyone is actually paying attention are slim, unless you call attention to yourself.

Most of the concerns I’ve seen people express seem to center around one of two things:
* Prosecution for things that aren’t currently legal (growing pot; stuff that happens in bedrooms in some states)
* Persecution for things that are legal (civil disobedience; stuff that happens in bedrooms in some some states) but which a non-trivial segment of the populace disapproves of or disagrees with

As far as legality goes, the great thing about a democracy is that we can change what’s legal.

As far as persecution for things that are legal, I think the risk is for intelligence agencies to set and follow their own agendas independent of policy dictated by the executive branch.

I do think we should take steps to minimize this risk — I’m in favor of transparency about the number and categories of requests made, and I’m strongly in favor of due process and oversight around all privacy-violating data requests. But I would also note that even professional CIA gadfly Philip Agee — writing about the pre-Church Committee period, yet — maintained that the Agency did not set its own policy.

A book I’m searching for

1 June 2013, 11:45 am

(I may have some details wrong)
* probably targeted for what we’d now call the “tween” market (middle grade)
* published mid-late 70s
* book jacket copy mentions people suddenly finding large quantities of dead spiders
* I think jacket copy included rhetorical questions (e.g., “what is killing all the spiders?”)
* plot point: spiders we know here on Earth are devolved from larger, super-intelligent extraterrestrial spiders
* grayish cover?
* jacket copy MIGHT mention cat named “s.o.b.,” but now I think I am conflating it with another book. . .
* it’s definitely NOT “The View from the Cherry Tree.”

I’ve tried numerous searches for things like “kids book intelligent spiders outer space, ” nada. And I’m pretty sure it has no searchable text on books.google.com.

If you think you might know this book, please comment!

IFFB 2013 Wrap-up

4 May 2013, 7:14 am

tops

My favorite four films from Independent Film Festival Boston 2013, in alphabetical order:

The Act of Killing Mass murderers from Indonesian death squads set out to make a film about their defense of the nation from communists, but it turns into something completely different. One of the toughest things to watch since Once Were Warriors — my legs were literally shaky as I left the theatre. Moments of shocking candor from the killers — their comfort with director Joshua Oppenheimer is astounding, completely-off-the-charts levels of cognitive dissonance, leavened by a certain weird grotesque beauty in the increasingly surreal film the gangsters are making. Days later thoughts about it are still swirling around in my head.

The Dirties This film about two persecuted high school students making a movie about their fantasies of getting revenge on their bullies is provocative, compelling, and very, very funny. Heart-in-mouth through the final sequence. Extraordinary performances from director Matthew Johnson and co-star Owen Williams.

Much Ado About Nothing Bias disclosure: I’m a fan of several of Whedon’s projects, but not at the Joss-can-do-no-wrong level. I had fairly high expectations for this modern-dress version with many of Whedon’s usual suspects, and it exceeded them, partly due to some very smart staging decisions, the gorgeous sets (the film is at least partly a lovenote to Whedon’s own home, which deserves lovenotes) but mostly due to breakout performances from Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker, showing off, respectively, a gift for broad physical comedy and emotional intensity that I hadn’t seen from them before.

Sightseers A demented, blackly hilarious and veddy, veddy British roadtrip flick, perhaps a bit like The League of Gentlemen set free to terrorize the general populace. Director Ben Wheatley displays gleeful unflinchingness, but it was the chemistry between writer/stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram that commanded my sympathies through some very odd turns.

also recommended

Other films from Independent Film Festival Boston 2013, that I really liked, in alphabetical order:

Exit Elena Nathan Silver’s loose, largely improvised family comedy/drama is much enlivened by Kia Davis’s title role performance of a nurse who’s less stable than she initially appears. Quirky, but not cutesy.

Houston Bastion Gunther’s increasingly surreal story of a German businessman (Ulrich Tukur) losing himself in Houston and in alcohol is characterized by deliberate pacing, gorgeous, somewhat chilly, cinematography, leavened a bit by the just-shy-of-over-the-top obnoxiousness of Garret Dillahunt as Tukur’s American foil Robert (”like the actor!”) Wagner, and ably supported by a cannily chosen soundtrack (plenty of Neu!).

In a World. . . I know writer/director/star Lake Bell from Adult Swim’s Children’s Hospital, which has mutated from a funny-but-obvious parody of medical dramas and soap operas into a meta-comedy that takes more chances than Community. In a World. . . doesn’t offer a feature-length swatch of Children’s Hospital-level insanity; it has a far more conventional plot arc. But it explores professional rivalry in a domain that hasn’t been done to death (or at all, as far as I’m aware), displays a penchant for simultaneous conversation that rivals Lynn Shelton, has some very funny cameo bits, and a solid, unambiguous, but not shrill, feminist core. I liked it very much.

Our Nixon Found footage emerged as a theme in IFFB 2013, and this unusual documentary was the strangest instance of that: the found footage comprises Super 8 reels shot by H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman, and (lesser-known Nixon aide) Dwight Chapin. The footage is juxtaposed with audio from Nixon’s tapes. Director Penny Lane chose not to shoot or record any additional material. Our Nixon is a bravura triumph both of archival research and editing.

The Punk Singer Sini Anderson’s biography of Kathleen Hanna, co-founder of the Riot Grrl and leader of Bikini Kill, one of the movement’s most emblematic bands, features recent interviews with Hanna and her husband Adam Horovitz, the voices of a generous sampling of Hanna’s peers as well as trailblazers like Kim Gordon and Joan Jett, and some pretty terrific performance footage.

Remote Area Medical Directors Farihah Zaman and Jeff Reichert steer clear of explicit politics in their examination of a pop-up clinic’s weekend-long stay in Bristol Tennessee, but I can’t imagine watching this film and not concluding that our medical care infrastructure is fundamentally failing a lot of people. The film is so effective at conveying its message that most of the Q&A session after the film was about RAM and its work — I thought that was a bit of a shame, since it overshadowed the impressive editing (and logistical) accomplishments of these two young filmmakers.

The Spectacular Now I spent the first act or so of this film wanting life to punch underachieving Sutter Keely in his smug face, but Miles Teller’s performance (and Scott Neustatder and Michael Weber’s nuanced script) eventually won me over. Director James Ponsoldt said he didn’t see it as a story of addiction, just an attempt to tell a realistic story about teens, but it’s hard for me not to see booze as the third point in the triangle between Keely and Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants). Regardless, I thought it was good. Quibble: There is one moment where most of the audience seemed a little unclear on what had happened, and if I were the studio, I’d urge a pickup shot to explain it a bit better.

Willow Creek Bobcat Goldthwait’s loveletter to bigfoot lore is not a scary/funny movie, it’s a funny movie that abruptly turns into a serious scary movie, and when it does, it’s often seriously scary. There were a few moments where I had to remind myself it was only a movie. On balance I liked the funny part better, in part because once the film commits to horror it becomes a bit more conventional (although there are some very smart touches that I can’t discuss without being spoilery, but definitely appreciated). And I thought the chemistry between principals Bryce Johnson as bigfoot-obsessed Jim and Alexie Gilmore as skeptical-but-game girlfriend Kelly was terrific.

IFFBoston 2012: Your Sister’s Sister

3 June 2012, 6:47 am

I liked writer/director Lynn Shelton’s previous feature Humpday and I’m a pretty big fan of the loose assemblage of talented writers, directors, and actors that has unfortunately been labeled “mumblecore.” On balance I liked Your Sister’s Sister — it was funny, and fun to watch; Rosemarie DeWitt was particularly good in it. But I thought it was seriously marred by a few very conventional romcom setpieces. On the plus side, bicycle scenes featured helmets.

IFF Boston 2012: Documentary Shorts (III)

30 May 2012, 6:13 am

The third documentary shorts program at IFFB offered three strong films.

Brent Hoff’s “The Love Competition” introduces the audience to several people who each claim they love the most — and a science team looking to investigate the strength of that love with an M.R.I. machine. It’s sweet, funny, has a satisfying twist. I was struck by how deeply many of the participants were affected by concentrating on love for an uninterrupted span of time, and how different their experience of the M.R.I. was from mine. (It was hard for me to concentrate on anything except the sounds it made and wanting OUT of the metal tube A.S.A.P.)

Howard Libov’s “Aglow” is about artist Paul Chojnowski, whose work involves images produced by an unusual technique. It’s startling and interesting to watch him work, but once the surprise wears off I was struck by the duality of Chojnowksi’s attitude. He seems interested in pushing himself to evolve artistically and push the boundaries of his chosen medium, but he’s also remarkably candid about the commerciality of his work.

“Mondays at Racine” portrays women with breast cancer who meet at Racine, a Long Island hair salon that offers free services to women with breast cancer. It’s definitely a heartstring-tugger, but what impressed me most was how impeccably director Cynthia Ward structured and paced the narrative arc.

IFF Boston 2012: Narrative Shorts (IV)

22 May 2012, 6:04 am

The lone narrative shorts package this year was one of my favorite screenings of the festival, with hardly a weak spot. I’m interested in seeing more work from all of the featured filmmakers.

Kat Candler’s “Hellion” was a supercharged start to the morning, with an aggressive sound design and a story that was funny, unsettling, affecting, and thought-provoking in the space of six economical minutes.

Alexander Carson’s “We Refuse to Be Cold” is a relationship drama with the sort of finely observed detail that tempts me to wonder if there are autobiographical elements (a temptation not alleviated by Carson himself playing the male lead, “Alex”). It recalled past relationships for me, and Dar Williams’ song February, where winter is in obstacle to get through, and one that a relationship literally may not weather. I empathized with the characters, but I’m very glad to not feel like I’m living in the shadow of seasonal affective disorder.

Matthew Rankin’s “Tabula Rasa” is a brief, magical realist tale of a catastrophic flood. I liked its impressionistic cinematography and didn’t think it overstayed its welcome, but I thought it was perhaps a little too specifically indebted to Guy Maddin.

Kris Avedisian’s “Donald Cried” was terrific (it won the festival’s Grand Jury prize in the short film category), but it’s the sort of film that doesn’t summarize well: a guy returns to his hometown and through happenstance finds himself stuck spending the day with a former friend he’s glad to have left behind. The performances are extraordinary — a masterful funny/awkward/touching blend — the pacing is great, and the slightly washed-out look of the film is perfect. It looks like you can watch it on Vimeo if you don’t have a chance to catch a screening.

When Dana O’Keefe explained in the post-screening Q&A that “Aaron Burr, Part 2″ had been significantly inspired by Gore Vidal’s Burr I immediately checked the novel out of the library. O’Keefe’s film provokes thought about the relationship between history, myth, past, present, and geography, but it’s also really funny and inventively shot. (The sound design was also outstanding.)

John Wilson and Chris Maggio said in the Q&A that they didn’t intend for “People Parade,” a whacky look at a low-budget variety show gone horribly wrong, to evoke the past, which surprised me — although the film is clearly set in the present day, the featured show is an homage to the show’s founder, and I thought Maggio and Wilson were deliberately recreating the visual tone of an older broadcast. They said, no, it was an artifact of the equipment they used. But it doesn’t really matter, this was still very funny in a way that might appeal to fans of the BBC’s willfully wrongheaded “Look Around You” mockumentaries or John C. Reilly’s “Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule.”

It’s a little tricky to discuss Nash Edgarton’s “Bear,” because it’s more or less a set-up for a sight gag (which I won’t spoil). But it’s very sharply assembled, exactly as long as it needs to be, and viscerally effective.

Johannes Nyholm’s “Las Palmas” must be seen to be believed. A gangster terrorizes a small seaside cafe, with casting that defies description.

IFF Boston 2012: Gayby

30 April 2012, 6:43 am

Laugh-a-minute is a dreadful cliché, but Jonathan Lisecki’s Gayby made me laugh more than any other recent feature I can think of. 89 times? Quite possibly. Lisecki has a trick of presenting a gag, and then ratcheting it up until it becomes almost, but crucially not quite too camp. A terrific ensemble cast including Jenn Harris, Matt Wilkas, and Lisecki himself have both the timing to play up the jokes, and the depth to maintain emotional resonance underneath the yuks. I almost didn’t see this because the unlikely-coupling MacGuffin seemed too familiar from the likes of Friends with Kids and Hump Day. But I’m very glad I saw it, and recommend it highly.

IFF Boston 2012: Sun Don’t Shine

30 April 2012, 6:40 am

It’s tricky to discuss Amy Seimitz’s Sun Don’t Shine without spoilers: it both embraces and subverts traditions of the outlaw-lovers-on-the-run story in inventive and surprising ways. Leads Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley turn in nuanced and powerful performances. Seimitz’s blending of the internal mental landscapes of her characters and their objective environments is sly, effective, and even disorienting (in a good way). This is another film in the festival bolstered by outstanding sound design.