Tag Archives: radical transparency

To Know the Truth Even if it Harms You

Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDoSecrets, an NGO, had been a thorn in the side of secretive governments, corrupt corporations, and powerful law firms since its founding in late 2018. In June 2020, in a release known as BlueLeaks, the group published 269 gigabytes of law enforcement data, which exposed police malfeasance and surveillance overreach across the United States.

DDoSecrets also published incriminating records from overseas tax shelters, from the social media site Gab, and from a Christian crowdfunding site often used by the far right. The group has affected autocrats as well, exposing the Russian government’s plans in Ukraine and mapping out the Myanmar junta’s business dealings. These revelations have spawned numerous news stories in the public interest, making DDoSecrets a valuable source for journalists, but also rendering it a target: In July 2020, German authorities seized one of the organization’s servers. August of 2020 brought ominous news of a Department of Homeland Security bulletin labeling DDoSecrets a “criminal hacker group.” ..

Avowedly nonpartisan, DDoSecrets nonetheless exhibits an ethos that seems to fuse anarchist politics, a hacker’s curiosity about forbidden knowledge, and a general sympathy for the oppressed. Its barbed Latin slogan, Veritatem cognoscere ruat caelum et pereat mundus, roughly translates to, “To know the truth, even if the heavens fall and the world perishes.” Call it a bolder, more transformative version of “information wants to be free.”

Emma Best…launched DDoSecrets in December 2018 with someone known only by the pseudonym “The Architect.” Together, they set out to distinguish their group from WikiLeaks, which they felt had morphed into a vehicle for Julian Assange’s ego…”Truth has an impact, regardless of the respectability politics some people choose to engage in when it comes to the alleged sources,” Best wrote after Swiss law enforcement, at the request of U.S. authorities, arrested Tillie Kottmann, a hacker who alerted journalists to security vulnerabilities in a vast commercial network of surveillance cameras. “The world can no longer be rid of hacktivists or leaktivists. Not as long as people are willing.”

Excerpts from Jacob Silverman, The New WikiLeaks, The New Republic, Aug. 18, 2021

Out-of-Fashion: Aggressive Tax Planning

In December 2019, Royal Dutch Shell voluntarily published its revenue, profit, taxes and other business details in each of 98 countries. The disclosure aligns with a drive by the energy company, which often attracts criticism from environmental activists, to present itself as forward-thinking, transparent and socially-minded.  That didn’t stop the information feeding a predictable host of headlines in the U.K., where the company is partly based, that it didn’t pay taxes in the country (because of losses carried forward and tax refunds). In the U.S., Shell accrued $137 million of tax—a rate of 8%.  This kind of detailed reporting is required by tax authorities in about 100 countries including the U.S. since 2017, based on rules agreed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, but it is rarely made public.

Companies that don’t jump may soon be pushed. Economy ministers from European Union countries are considering a proposal that would require all large companies with total revenue of more than €750 million ($834 million) operating in the bloc to publish the information annually. The Global Reporting Initiative, an organization that establishes sustainability standards, recently agreed to include a similar requirement. Greater transparency could also spur reform efforts and reduce incentives for complex tax arrangements. Companies, investors and states all agree that it is best to find a global solution to the problem of aggressive tax planning.

Excerpts from Rochelle Toplensky, Beginning of the End of Tax Secrecy, WSJ, Dec. 20, 2019

Conspiracy as Government

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange first outlined the hypothesis nearly a decade ago: Can total transparency defeat an entrenched group of insiders?“Consider what would happen,” Assange wrote in 2006, if one of America’s two major parties had their emails, faxes, campaign briefings, internal polls and donor data all exposed to public scrutiny.”They would immediately fall into an organizational stupor,” he predicted, “and lose to the other.”

A decade later, various organs of the Democratic Party have been hacked; several staffers have resigned and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has seen the inner workings of her campaign exposed to the public, including disclosures calling into question her positions on trade and Wall Street and her relationship with the party’s left . Many of these emails have been released into the public domain by WikiLeaks.

Some see the leaks as a sign that Assange has thrown his lot in with Republican rival Donald Trump or even with Russia. But others who’ve followed Assange over the years say he’s less interested in who wins high office than in exposing — and wearing down — the gears of political power that grind away behind the scenes.  “He tends not to think about people, he thinks about systems,” said Finn Brunton, an assistant professor at New York University who has tracked WikiLeaks for years. “What he wants to do is interfere with the machinery of government regardless of who is in charge.”WikiLeaks’ mission was foreshadowed 10 years ago in “Conspiracy as Governance,” a six-page essay Assange posted to his now-defunct blog.

In the essay, Assange described authoritarian governments, corporations, terrorist organizations and political parties as “conspiracies” — groups that hoard secret information to win a competitive advantage over the general public. Leaks cut these groups open like a double-edged knife, empowering the public with privileged information while spreading confusion among the conspirators themselves, he said. If leaking were made easy, Assange argued, conspiratorial organizations would be gripped by paranoia, leaving transparent groups to flourish…

It’s possible that malicious sources are using WikiLeaks for their own ends, said Lisa Lynch, an associate professor at Drew University who has also followed Assange’s career. But she noted that a lifetime far from public service and an aversion to email make Trump a more difficult target.”If Trump had a political career, he’d be more available for Wikileaking,” she said…

He has targeted Republican politicians in the past; in the run-up to the 2008 election his group published the contents of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s inbox. Her reaction at the time anticipated the Democrats’ outrage today. “What kind of a creep would break into a person’s files, steal them, read them, then give them to the press to broadcast all over the world to influence a presidential campaign?” Palin wrote in her autobiography, “Going Rogue.”

Excerpt fro RAPHAEL SATTER,With email dumps, WikiLeaks tests power of full transparency, Associated Press, Oct. 24, 2016

The Transparent Individual

By integrating data you want into the visual field in front of you Google Glass is meant to break down the distinction between looking at the screen and looking at the world. When switched on, its microphones will hear what you hear, allowing Glass to, say, display on its screen the name of any song playing nearby…It could also contribute a lot to the company’s core business. Head-mounted screens would let people spend time online that would previously have been offline. They also fit with the company’s interest in developing “anticipatory search” technology—ways of delivering helpful information before users think to look for it. Glass will allow such services to work without the customer even having to reach for a phone, slipping them ever more seamlessly into the wearer’s life. A service called Google Now already scans a user’s online calendar, e-mail and browsing history as a way of providing information he has not yet thought to look for. How much more it could do if it saw through his eyes or knew whom he was talking to…

People may in time want to live on camera in ways like this, if they see advantages in doing so. But what of living on the cameras of others? “Creep shots”—furtive pictures of breasts and bottoms taken in public places—are a sleazy fact of modern life. The camera phone has joined the Chinese burn in the armamentarium of the school bully, and does far more lasting damage. As cameras connect more commonly, sometimes autonomously, to the internet, hackers have learned how to take control of them remotely, with an eye to mischief, voyeurism or blackmail.  More wearable cameras probably mean more possibilities for such abuse.

Face-recognition technology, which allows software to match portraits to people, could take things further. The technology is improving, and is already used as an unobtrusive, fairly accurate way of knowing who people are. Some schools, for example, use it to monitor attendance. It is also being built into photo-sharing sites: Facebook uses it to suggest the names with which a photo you upload might be tagged. Governments check whether faces are turning up on more than one driver’s licence per jurisdiction; police forces identify people seen near a crime scene. Documents released to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a campaign group, show that in August 2012 the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Next Generation Identification” database contained almost 13m searchable images of about 7m subjects.

Face recognition is a technology, like that of drones, which could be a boon to all sorts of surveillance around the world, and may make mask-free demonstrations in repressive states a thing of the past. The potential for abuse by people other than governments is clear, too…In America, warrants to seize user data from Facebook often also request any stored photos in which the suspect has been tagged by friends (though the firm does not always comply). Warrants as broad as some of those from which the National Security Agency and others have benefited in the past could allow access to all stored photos taken in a particular place and time.

The people’s panopticon, Economist,  Nov. 16, 2013, at 27

Keep Talking, the State Listens

DARPA is funding a project that uses crowdsourcing to improve how machines analyze our speech. Even more radical: DARPA wants to make systems so accurate, you’ll be able to easily record, transcribe and recall all the conversations you ever have... But it’s not just about better recordings of what you say. It’ll lead to more recorded conversations, quickly transcribed and then stored in perpetuity — like a Twitter feed or e-mail archive for everyday speech. Imagine living in a world where every errant utterance you make is preserved forever.

University of Texas computer scientist Matt Lease… has attracted enough attention for Darpa to award him a $300,000 award over two years to study the new project, called “Blending Crowdsourcing with Automation for Fast, Cheap, and Accurate Analysis of Spontaneous Speech.” The project envisions a world that is both radically transparent and a little freaky.

The idea is that business meetings or even conversations with your friends and family could be stored in archives and easily searched. The stored recordings could be held in servers, owned either by individuals or their employers….

How? The answer, Lease says, is in widespread use of recording technologies like smartphones, cameras and audio recorders — a kind of “democratizing force of everyday people recording and sharing their daily lives and experiences through their conversations.” But the trick to making the concept functional and searchable, says Lease, is blending automated voice analysis machines with large numbers of human analysts through crowdsourcing. That could be through involving people “strategically,” to clean up transcripts where machines made a mistake. Darpa’s older EARS project relied entirely on automation, which has its drawbacks….

Crowdsourcing is all about harnessing distributed networks of people — crowds — to do tasks better and more efficiently than individuals or machines. Recently, that’s meant harnessing large numbers of people to build digital maps, raising funds for a film project at Kickstarter, or doing odd-jobs at Amazon Mechanical Turk — one system being studied as part of the project. Darpa has also taken an interest in crowdsourcing as a way to analyze vast volumes of intelligence data, and Darpa’s sibling in the intelligence community, IARPA, has researched crowdsourcing as a way to find the best intelligence predictions.

It also raises some thorny legal and social questions about privacy. For one, there is an issue with “respecting the privacy rights of multiple people involved,” Lease says. One solution, for a business conference that’s storing and transcribing everything said by the participants, could be a mutual agreement between all parties. He adds that technical issues when it comes to archiving recorded speech are still open questions, but people could potentially hold their cell phone conversations on remote servers; or on individual, privately-held servers.

The other problem is figuring out how to search massive amounts of transcribed speech, like how search engines such as Google use complex algorithms to match and optimize search queries with results that are likely to be relevant. Fast and cheap web analytics — judging what people type and matching it up to what they click — is one way to do it. Studying focus groups are more precise, but expensive. A third way, Lease suggests, is using more crowdsourcing as a sort of a “middle-ground” between the two methods.

But it’s unknown how the research will be applied to the military. Lease wouldn’t speculate, and it’s still very much a basic research project. Though if it’s similar to EARS at all, then it may not be too difficult to figure out. A 2003 memorandum from the Congressional Research Service described EARS as focusing on speech picked up from broadcasts and telephone conversations, “as well as extract clues about the identity of speakers” for “the military, intelligence and law enforcement communities.” Though Lease didn’t mention automatically recognizing voices. But the research may not have to go that far — if we’re going to be recording ourselves.

Excerpt, BY ROBERT BECKHUSEN, Darpa Wants You to Transcribe, and Instantly Recall, All of Your Conversations, Wired, Mar. 4, 2013