Saturday, January 5, 2019

Book Review: 'Surveillance Valley' by Yasha Levine

TOR is a government sting?

TOR is the dark internet, where identity thieves, drug dealers and arms sellers hang out, safely hidden. It is home to Wikileaks and Silk Road. You can purchase anything from a billion stolen e-mail accounts to assassination services there. Turns out TOR is a service designed and built by the CIA, and even though TOR is now a non-profit organization, it is almost entirely funded by annual “donations” from a handful of US government agencies, mostly connected - to the CIA. The NSA sees TOR as “a honeypot”, where all kinds of people they’re after (dealers, jihadists, bombers) gather in one place. They can be tracked and found with little effort. So while the government bemoans the criminals hiding in plain sight on TOR, it also encourages their use of TOR with taxpayer money.

How can this be? It seems that CIA operatives using TOR to hide their online identities were instantly recognizable as CIA operatives because their activity showed they came from TOR. So the user base had to be broadened in order to hide the spies – in plain sight.

Yasha Levine obtained a carton full of documents from the Board of Broadcasting Governors, another offshoot of the CIA, using the Freedom Of Information Act. It is all spelled out clearly and plainly, including updates to the CIA on technical progress at the supposedly independent non-profit. Levine says TOR employees are essentially federal civil servants. This book is a warning that you never know who your friends are, and that everything can be fashioned into a weapon.

Surveillance Valley, The Secret Military History of the Internet is a totally misleading title for this book. It wanders through internet history for two hundred pages, looking at the same developments we all know about. Mostly, it is not about surveillance. And there’s nothing new.

We all know what an open sewer the internet is. And that Silicon Valley receives countless billions from the government for services gladly rendered, be they hosting, profiling or out and out spying. Also nothing new. So the book became a grating read, until quite suddenly and without warning, Levine turned to TOR. The paradox of the US government building, promoting and subsidizing the would-be secret world of the dark net is scary enough. That it is so fragile its managers attacked a university that hacked it, accusing the university of “ethical lapses“ is both laughable and shocking. (It turned out to be cheap and easy.) That anyone thinks they are safe anywhere must forever be out of the question.

Even, or similarly, Signal is a dark net product of the US government. It encrypts communications over the internet, but first requires users to upload their cellphone number and their entire phonebooks. And everyone does. Like lambs to the slaughter. Signal uses Amazon servers, so any intelligence force can watch for the pings and quickly see who is using Signal to keep their conversations secret. Both Signal and TOR are forcefully and famously recommended by Edward Snowden and Julian Assange for their “privacy and safety”. They both must know better. So what does that mean?

The CIA used its ops network to attack Levine for his investigation, in a co-ordinated campaign. He was suddenly accused of all kinds of crime and immorality, and subjected to threats including death to his family. Even Anonymous got after him as a wacko conspiracy theorist. All in an effort to discredit anything he might later publish. But Levine has the government’s own documents. He did the groundwork for the book on a Kickstarter campaign with 500 contributors. And now he is delivering - a real public service – at least in the last third of it.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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