Our web history reveals what we think and do. Shouldn’t that remain private?

By Paul Bernal, University of East Anglia

An overlooked aspect of the draft Investigatory Powers Bill is the significance of demanding that service providers store 12 months’ internet connection records. A record of every website visited and internet service connected to, the government presents this as the online equivalent of an itemised phone bill. But this is a false analogy: internet connection records carry far more detail than a phone book, and the government’s move to claim them represents an unprecedented intrusion into our lives.

Supporters of the bill suggest that this data provides a way of checking that someone accessed Facebook at a particular time, just as phone records can reveal that a user called a particular number at a certain time. But while this is true, it misunderstands the role the internet has in our lives, and consequently underplays how much it can reveal.

The phone is a communications tool, but we have complex online lives and use the internet for many things other than “communication”. We do almost everything online: we bank online, we shop, find relationships, listen to music, watch television and films, plan our holidays, read about and indulge our interests.

Access to the websites we visit, for an entire year, is not at all comparable to having an itemised telephone bill. It’s more equivalent to tailing someone as they visit the shops, the pub, the cinema, listen to the radio, go to the park and on holiday, read books and magazines and newspapers, and much more.

It’s not just the data that’s revealing, it’s the sort of direct, logical inferences that can be made given a web browsing history. For example, from the fact that someone visits sites connected with a particular religion, one can infer that they follow that religion. If they visit sites regarding a particular health condition, it’s possible to infer that they may suffer from that condition, or are worried about their health.

[Read more…]


ISIS has a new favorite social media network: Telegram

The Fiscal Times reports: Terror Jihadi groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are now shifting much of their social media propaganda, recruiting and fund transferring from mainstream social media sites like Twitter to a service called Telegram, according to a new report by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC).

ISIS and other militant groups have been jumping from one social media service to another in their attempts to avoid anti-terrorism programs by governments and corporations. They appear to have settled on Telegram. “The Jihadis’ struggle to keep up with the relentless suspensions and removal of jihadi social media content may have finally run its course,” says Veryan Khan, the Editorial Director at TRAC. “The new frontier of jihadi communication is taking place on a recently launched tool, in a messaging platform that has revolutionized the social media sphere.”

Telegram was launched in August 2013 by the two Russian brothers, Nicolay and Pavel Durov, as a free encrypted instant messaging service. While reports of terror groups using Telegram surfaced months ago, a new feature called “Channels” was launched in September to let users broadcast to other members of the service. It quickly turned Telegram into the favorite social media hub of ISIS and other terror groups.

“It is this new feature that has been enthusiastically embraced by many militant groups, becoming an underground railroad for distributing and archiving jihadi propaganda materials,” the TRAC report says.

As of Nov. 2, TRAC has recorded more than 200 major jihadi channels. Half of them belong to ISIS. Other major players in the jihadi world, from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Jabhat al-Nusra to Ansar al-Sharia in Libya to Jaysh al-Islam, are increasingly creating their own channels. The rate of membership growth for the channels has been staggering, quickly climbing to about 150,000 total members, the report concludes.

“The sheer scale and momentum of the Telegram migration is hard to fathom,” says Brian Watts, an author of the TRAC report. “The force of the numbers using Telegram channels is staggering, watching hundreds of new members in an hours’ time; thousands coming on in over a few days is commonplace for many channels.” [Continue reading…]


British government’s new plans for mass surveillance welcomed by opposition

The Guardian reports: New surveillance powers will be given to the police and security services, allowing them to access records tracking every UK citizen’s use of the internet without any judicial check, under the provisions of the draft investigatory powers bill unveiled by Theresa May.

It includes new powers requiring internet and phone companies to keep “internet connection records” – tracking every website visited but not every page – for a maximum of 12 months but will not require a warrant for the police, security services or other bodies to access the data. Local authorities will be banned from accessing internet records.

The proposed legislation will also introduce a “double-lock” on the ministerial approval of interception warrants with a new panel of seven judicial commissioners – probably retired judges – given a veto before they can come into force.

But the details of the bill make clear that this new safeguard for the most intrusive powers to spy on the content of people’s conversations and messages will not apply in “urgent cases” – defined as up to five days – where judicial approval is not possible.

The draft investigatory powers bill published on Wednesday by the home secretary aims to provide a “comprehensive and comprehensible” overhaul of Britain’s fragmented surveillance laws. It comes two-and-a-half years after the disclosures by the whistleblower Edward Snowden of the scale of secret mass surveillance of the global traffic in confidential personal data carried out by Britain’s GCHQ and the US’s National Security Agency (NSA).

It will replace the current system of three separate commissioners with a senior judge as a single investigatory powers commissioner.

May told MPs that the introduction of the most controversial power – the storage of everyone’s internet connection records tracking the websites they have visited, which is banned as too intrusive in the US and every European country including Britain – was “simply the modern equivalent of an itemised phone bill”.

Her recommendations were broadly welcomed by the shadow home secretary, Andy Burnham, but received a more cautious welcome from the former Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis, the former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister. [Continue reading…]


The third dimension: Why Amazon just opened a bookstore

In all honesty, I don’t know why Amazon just opened a physical bookstore in Seattle.

Maybe they want to drive the last remaining independent bookstores out of business by stealing their employees. Maybe it’s a memorial to commemorate the form of brick-and-mortar retail the online corporation has been so successful in destroying — a nostalgic return designed to remind customers of its own obsolesce.

On the other hand, this could be a semi-conscious token recognition that online is not in all ways expansive. It’s not just bigger, faster, cheaper, better.

The price of using a screen is that through its surface we step away from three-dimensional space.

Although the physical internet exists in three-dimensional space, we can only connect through a two-dimensional display.

Even though the tool for navigating through digital space has traditionally been called a browser, a screen marshals attention in ways that physical browsing does not.

Wandering around a bookstore, scanning titles along bookshelves and leafing through pages, are physical actions that can only take place in physical space. And that space has fuzzy boundaries.

When we examine a book in our hands, we can feel its weight, see the font style and size, the quality of the binding, open pages at random and engage with this physical object in a much richer and more complex way than through a digital window.

This physicality points to an even more basic disjunction between corporeal existence and digital activity.

However entwined our lives have become with electronic devices, we remain creatures confined at any one moment to one place in the universe.

Increasingly, however, our lives are disconnected from where we are. People come together and then their phones step between them.

We are forever being beckoned to be some place else.

The end of all our exploring may never come if we fail to return where we started.


The dangerous consequences of routinized venomousness in public life

Pankaj Mishra writes: In the guise of hyper-patriotism, trash talk has gone mainstream in the world’s two biggest democracies. Donald Trump, the leading candidate in Republican primaries, set a new low in public discourse by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” The Hindu nationalist chief minister of one of India’s richest states recently underscored the deterioration in India’s political culture by declaring Muslims could only live in the country if they stopped eating beef.

One hopes that a dignified retort of the kind that defused the menace of McCarthyism — “Have you no decency, sir?” — terminates this season of demagogues. But public support for them suggests that a disturbingly broad assault is underway on democratic values — indeed, on civility itself.

People foaming at the mouth with hate and malice have become a common sight on both traditional and social media. Mobs in India and mass shooters in America have thrived in this climate of irrationalism. Many people, it seems, can think only in the categories of friends and foes, group loyalty or treason; their preference for abuse kills all possibilities of reasoned debate. [Continue reading…]


Everything you need to know about the vast network of undersea cables that makes the Internet global

The Washington Post reports: Russians submarines and spy ships are “aggressively operating” near the undersea cables that are the backbone of the global Internet — worrying some U.S. intelligence and military officials who fear the Russians may sabotage them if a conflict arises, the New York Times reports.

For all the talk about the “cloud,” practically all of the data shooting around the world actually relies on a series of tubes to get around — a massive system of fiber-optic cables lying deep underneath the oceans.

The network connects every continent other than Antarctica, carrying e-mails, photos, videos and emoji around the globe. Here’s what that looks like in the style of a vintage maritime map, courtesy of TeleGeography: [Continue reading…]


ISIS’s online recruitment strategy

J.M. Berger writes: Observers have focused, rightly, on the quality and quantity of Islamic State propaganda as a factor in its success, but passive material can only take the typical radicalization so far. Therefore, the organization deploys a wide variety of tailored online interventions to bring their targets into the fold.

Sometimes referred to as “grooming,” these interventions are conducted by small teams of prolific social media users who lavish attention on potential recruits in order to shape their worldview and encourage direct action in support of the Islamic State, ranging from lone wolf–style terrorist attacks to migration to Islamic State territories. Some interveners are more formally affiliated with the Islamic State while others appear to be informal volunteers.

Online interventions are more prevalent in countries where the social climate offers few opportunities to safely discuss an interest in the Islamic State in a face-to-face setting, but even in such environments, many cases incorporate activity that crosses over from online to real-world interactions. [Continue reading…]


How pro-Kremlin tweeps are framing the Syrian debate

RFE/RL reports: Support among Russians for military intervention in Syria has more than doubled, to 31 percent in early October from 14 percent in September, according to independent pollster Levada Center.

The increase comes with coverage of air strikes filling Russian state airwaves, press, and the Internet, and social-media salvoes fired from both sides of the debate.

On social networks like Twitter, expressions of support for Moscow’s air raids appear to fit into three distinct categories: perceived cultural and historical affinities between Syria and Russia; purported Western helplessness in the face of the continuing Syrian crisis; and the conflation of any armed forces opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime under the “terrorist” banner. [Continue reading…]


If you’re not paranoid, you’re crazy

Walter Kirn writes: I knew we’d bought walnuts at the store that week, and I wanted to add some to my oatmeal. I called to my wife and asked her where she’d put them. She was washing her face in the bathroom, running the faucet, and must not have heard me—she didn’t answer. I found the bag of nuts without her help and stirred a handful into my bowl. My phone was charging on the counter. Bored, I picked it up to check the app that wirelessly grabs data from the fitness band I’d started wearing a month earlier. I saw that I’d slept for almost eight hours the night before but had gotten a mere two hours of “deep sleep.” I saw that I’d reached exactly 30 percent of my day’s goal of 13,000 steps. And then I noticed a message in a small window reserved for miscellaneous health tips. “Walnuts,” it read. It told me to eat more walnuts.

It was probably a coincidence, a fluke. Still, it caused me to glance down at my wristband and then at my phone, a brand-new model with many unknown, untested capabilities. Had my phone picked up my words through its mic and somehow relayed them to my wristband, which then signaled the app?

The devices spoke to each other behind my back—I’d known they would when I “paired” them—but suddenly I was wary of their relationship. Who else did they talk to, and about what? And what happened to their conversations? Were they temporarily archived, promptly scrubbed, or forever incorporated into the “cloud,” that ghostly entity with the too-disarming name?

It was the winter of 2013, and these “walnut moments” had been multiplying—jarring little nudges from beyond that occurred whenever I went online. One night the previous summer, I’d driven to meet a friend at an art gallery in Hollywood, my first visit to a gallery in years. The next morning, in my inbox, several spam e-mails urged me to invest in art. That was an easy one to figure out: I’d typed the name of the gallery into Google Maps. Another simple one to trace was the stream of invitations to drug and alcohol rehab centers that I’d been getting ever since I’d consulted an online calendar of Los Angeles–area Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Since membership in AA is supposed to be confidential, these e‑mails irked me. Their presumptuous, heart-to-heart tone bugged me too. Was I tired of my misery and hopelessness? Hadn’t I caused my loved ones enough pain? [Continue reading…]


When you develop the habit of distraction, it becomes harder and harder to think deeply

Huffington Post spoke to Nicholas Carr who five years ago wrote in his book, The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing Our Brains, about the way technology seemed to be eroding our ability to concentrate:

Are you optimistic about any of the ways we currently seem to be adapting [to the constant flow of information through digital devices]?

No. It’s the ease with which we adapt that makes me most nervous. It doesn’t take long for someone to get used to glancing at their smartphone 200 times a day. We’re creatures of habit mentally and physically.

When you develop that habit of distraction, it becomes harder and harder to back away and engage our minds in deeper modes of thinking.

Is there anything we can do to keep our mental faculties intact, or is it pretty much hopeless at this point?

Well, you can use the technology less and set aside your phone and spend a good part of your day trying to maintain your focus and not be interrupted. The good thing about that — because of the plasticity of our brains — is that if you change your habits, your brain is happy to go along with whatever you do.

What makes me more pessimistic is that we’re kind of building our personalities and our entire societies around this new set of norms and expectations that says you need to be constantly connected. As long as we continue going down that path it’s going to be ever harder for us to buck the status quo. [Continue reading…]


The Red Web: Russia and the Internet

Steven Aftergood writes: The Internet in Russia is a battleground between activists who would use it as a tool of political and cultural freedom and government officials who see it as a powerful instrument of political control, write investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan in their new book The Red Web. For now, the government appears to be winning the battle.

Soldatov and Borogan trace the underlying conflict back to official anxiety in the Soviet era about the hazards of freedom of information. In the 1950s, the first Soviet photocopy machine was physically destroyed at the direction of the government “because it threatened to spread information beyond the control of those who ruled.”

With the introduction of imported personal computers in the 1980s and a connection to the Internet in 1990, new possibilities for free expression and political organizing in Russia seemed to arise. But as described in The Red Web, each private initiative was met by a government response seeking to disable or limit it. Internet service providers were required to install “black boxes” (known by the acronym SORM) giving Russia’s security services access to Internet traffic. Independent websites, such as the authors’ own agentura.ru site on intelligence matters, were subject to blocking and attack. Journalists’ computers were seized.

But the struggle continued. Protesters used new social media tools to organize demonstrations. The government countered with new facial recognition technology and cell phone tracking to identify them. Large teams of “trolls” were hired to disrupt social networks. A nationwide system of online filtering and censorship was put in place by 2012, and has been refined since then. [Continue reading…]


How Edward Snowden inadvertently helped Vladimir Putin’s internet crackdown

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write: In the 1990s the global nature of the Internet meant wires. When a user got connected, he could send his e-mail or visit a website anywhere in the world. In the 2000s the Internet meant the rise of global platforms that allowed users to share the same social networks, email services, search engines, and clouds. The Internet became more of a common ground for people from Argentina to Russia — they used the same Facebook, the same Twitter. That also meant that the information users exchanged was stored inside systems located far from the users — systems that could not be readily controlled by nations, their leaders, or their secret services. Most of the servers were located in the United States.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, this was intolerable. In his mind the solution was simple: force the platforms — Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple among them — to locate their servers on Russian soil so Russian authorities could control them.

The challenge was how to do it.

The Kremlin obviously needed a pretext to put pressure on the global platforms to relocate their servers, and Edward Snowden’s revelations provided the perfect excuse to start the offensive. The members of the Russian parliament chosen by the Kremlin to define Internet legislation rushed to comment on his revelations. Legislation forcing global platforms to store Russians’ personal data in Russia was soon adopted, and came into force on Tuesday [Sept. 1], sending Western tech giants scrambling to comply. Russian censors announced plans to blacklist websites including Wikipedia, Github, the Wayback Machine, and BuzzFeed. Snowden had no say in the matter. [Continue reading…]


Ad industry may gripe about adblockers, but they broke the contract – not us

By Andrew McStay, Bangor University

The latest version of Apple’s operating system for phones and tablets, iOS9, allows the installation of adblocking software that removes advertising, analytics and tracking within Apple’s Safari browser. While Apple’s smartphone market share is only around 14% worldwide, this has prompted another outpouring from the mobile and web advertising industry on the effects of adblockers, and discussion as to whether a “free” web can exist without adverts.

It’s not a straightforward question: advertising executives and publishers complain that ads fund “free” content and adblockers break this contract. Defenders of adblocking point out that the techniques used to serve ads are underhand and that the ads themselves are intrusive. Who is right?

[Read more…]


How GCHQ tracks web users’ online identities

The Intercept reports: There was a simple aim at the heart of the top-secret program: Record the website browsing habits of “every visible user on the Internet.”

Before long, billions of digital records about ordinary people’s online activities were being stored every day. Among them were details cataloging visits to porn, social media and news websites, search engines, chat forums, and blogs.

The mass surveillance operation — code-named KARMA POLICE — was launched by British spies about seven years ago without any public debate or scrutiny. It was just one part of a giant global Internet spying apparatus built by the United Kingdom’s electronic eavesdropping agency, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.

The revelations about the scope of the British agency’s surveillance are contained in documents obtained by The Intercept from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Previous reports based on the leaked files have exposed how GCHQ taps into Internet cables to monitor communications on a vast scale, but many details about what happens to the data after it has been vacuumed up have remained unclear.[Continue reading…]


The web has become a hall of mirrors, filled only with reflections of our data

By mc schraefel @mcphoo, University of Southampton

The “digital assistant” is proliferating, able to combine intelligent natural language processing, voice-operated control over a smartphone’s functions and access to web services. It can set calendar appointments, launch apps, and run requests. But if that sounds very clever – a computerised talking assistant, like HAL9000 from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey – it’s mostly just running search engine queries and processing the results.

Facebook has now joined Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon with the launch of its digital assistant M, part of its Messaging smartphone app. It’s special sauce is that M is powered not just by algorithms but by data serfs: human Facebook employees who are there to ensure that every request that it cannot parse is still fulfilled, and in doing so training M by example. That training works because every interaction with M is recorded – that’s the point, according to David Marcus, Facebook’s vice-president of messaging:

We start capturing all of your intent for the things you want to do. Intent often leads to buying something, or to a transaction, and that’s an opportunity for us to [make money] over time.

Facebook, through M, will capture and facilitate that “intent to buy” and take its cut directly from the subsequent purchase rather than as an ad middleman. It does this by leveraging messaging, which was turned into a separate app of its own so that Facebook could integrate PayPal-style peer-to-peer payments between users. This means Facebook has a log not only of your conversations but also your financial dealings. In an interview with Fortune magazine at the time, Facebook product manager, Steve Davies, said:

People talk about money all the time in Messenger but end up going somewhere else to do the transaction. With this, people can finish the conversation the same place started it.

In a somewhat creepy way, by reading your chats and knowing that you’re “talking about money all the time” – what you’re talking about buying – Facebook can build up a pretty compelling profile of interests and potential purchases. If M can capture our intent it will not be by tracking what sites we visit and targeting relevant ads, as per advert brokers such as Google and Doubleclick. Nor by targeting ads based on the links we share, as Twitter does. Instead it simply reads our messages.

[Read more…]


Mapping the situation in Syria

Der Spiegel reports: Islamic State fighters have conquered Rahabi in Iraq. They control the Libyan coast near Sirt. In Syria, they just lost Tall Abyad to the Kurds, but are spreading out in the center of Palmyra. Thomas van Linge is keeping an eye on their movements. The 19-year-old wears a hoodie and, although he only just graduated from high school, he already knows better than most people where the Jihadists are heading, which areas they are occupying and where they’ve been beaten back. That’s because van Linge makes some of the world’s best maps of chaotic war zones from the desk of his childhood bedroom in Amsterdam. He has never been to Syria, Iraq or Libya, and he learned Arabic on YouTube.

The young Dutchman isn’t just keeping an eye on Islamic State and its “caliphate,” he also knows what the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, al-Nusra Front and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are doing. In Libya he’s monitoring the Zintan Brigades, in Nigeria he’s watching Boko Haram, in Eastern Ukraine he’s keeping an eye on the separatists. “All places where people are rising up,” he says.

His maps have been used by CNN, the New York Times and even SPIEGEL. The question is: Why is a 19-year-old interested in the situation at Syrian front lines? And how does he manage to depict these conflicts so precisely, with more details than almost any other professional cartographer? [Continue reading…]