Thursday, May 1, 2014

You've got Virus

I joined America Online back in the dark ages when you were assigned a number for your membership. I remember listening to the grinding of the 2,400 baud modem connecting over telephone lines...thrilled when the high pitched electronic sound sync’d. My AOL member number was under the 6 digit mark, so it was early days for what became a behemoth (before it became extinct). I delighted in the “You’ve Got Mail” announcement until I began getting these strange messages from people I didn’t know for things I didn’t want. Back then you would reply to such oddities and politely explain that the mail must have been intended for somebody else. We all quickly learned that by responding to spam messages only unleashed the floodgates since we had inadvertently validated that the messages were reaching real people who actually looked at them. More than once I’ve succumbed to a rogue message and gotten my system infected with some nasty virus or other. The tech industry innovated an entire new sector to filter email, scan for viruses and monitor malware. Today I receive about 250 unwanted messages each day to my various accounts, and despite that annoyance, I’m glad that the government didn't step in to run the email system as many wanted. Little did I realize that the government itself is a purveyor of sending out junk email with malware that infects computers.


In November 2013 the media began reporting on the NSA’s placing of malicious malware on 50,000 computers around the world. The administration focused concern away from the disclosure by pointing out how few 50,000 computers actually were. Further reporting showed that the vast majority of computers targeted were not U.S. based and were part of the process of keeping tabs on foreign governments. Interest and concern waned.

The more recent information gleaned from the Edward Snowden released documents is that the NSA ("National Security Agency") has been impersonating Facebook to gain access to people’s computer. The program, launched full scale in 2010, has infected millions of computers. It allows the NSA to “covertly record audio from a computer’s microphone and take snapshots with its webcam. The hacking systems have also enabled the NSA to launch cyber-attacks by corrupting and disrupting file downloads or denying access to websites.” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said : “I've called President Obama to express my frustration over the damage the government is creating for all of our future. Unfortunately, it seems like it will take a very long time for true full reform.”

It’s only been a year that the public has had proof about the U.S. Government’s spying on American citizens. In May 2013 – Edward Snowden left the U.S. and met with reporters from the The Washington Post and The Guardian. He disclosed to them a massive amount of classified material. A small amount of the data was published. The Establishment, outraged, embarrassed and beside themselves call him a traitor amongst other things and some sought to censor the publications for publishing the information. The Pulitzer Prize was recently awarded the two papers for the stories - validating their newsworthiness and that they weren't "aiding the enemy" as the Obama Administration referred to it.

It's easy to acknowledge and support the release of information that showed how the government was spying on its citizens. Certainly it was a breach of confidential information and a violation of the law - but the privacy being impeded was a greater problem. It’s hard, however, to condone somebody like Snowden who fled the jurisdiction. Based on how the U.S. government treatment of Chelsea Manning (fka Bradley Manning) by having her stand naked for days on end until psychologists warned the Defense Department that she was losing her mental capacity to stand trial – it is at least understandable.

The Obama Administration ridiculed the idea that the U.S. government had the capability, let alone the interest in reading everybody’s email.  “We don’t have a domestic spying program,” President Obama said. Gathering metadata on emails, phone calls and texts without somebody's consent is certainly not being transparent. The U.S. Government sending out malware and impersonating a major social media company in order to gain access and control of individual computers may not be the President’s definition of a domestic spying program, but it is for most of us. AOL’s classic catch-phrase “You’ve Got Mail” has a much deeper and more sinister meaning considering the NSA is sending the messages.

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