Mar 13, 2014
Welcome to the Memory Hole
Posted on Dec 5, 2013
By Peter Van Buren, TomDispatch
Hiding something from users by reprogramming search engines is one dark step to come. Another is actually deleting content, a process as simple as transforming the computer coding behind the search process into something predatory. And if Google refuses to implement the change-over to “negative searches,” the NSA, which already appears to be able to reach inside Google, can implant its own version of malicious code as it has already done in at least 50,000 instances.
But never mind the future: here’s how a negative search strategy is already working, even if today its focus—largely on pedophiles—is easy enough to accept. Google recently introduced software that makes it harder for users to locate child abuse material. As company head Eric Schmidt put it, Google Search has been “fine-tuned” to clean up results for more than 100,000 terms used by pedophiles to look for child pornography. Now, for instance, when users type in queries that may be related to child sexual abuse, they will find no results that link to illegal content. Instead, Google will redirect them to help and counseling sites. “We will soon roll out these changes in more than 150 languages, so the impact will be truly global,” Schmidt wrote.
While Google is redirecting searches for kiddie porn to counseling sites, the NSA has developed a similar ability. The agency already controls a set of servers codenamed Quantum that sit on the Internet’s backbone. Their job is to redirect “targets” away from their intended destinations to websites of the NSA’s choice. The idea is: you type in the website you want and end up somewhere less disturbing to the agency. While at present this technology may be aimed at sending would-be online jihadis to more moderate Islamic material, in the future it could, for instance, be repurposed to redirect people seeking news to an Al-Jazeera lookalike site with altered content that fits the government’s version of events.
Or consider an example that’s already with us. In 2009, many Kindle owners discovered that Amazon had reached into their devices overnight and remotely deleted copies of Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 (no irony intended). The company explained that the books, mistakenly “published” on its machines, were actually bootlegged copies of the novels. Similarly, in 2012, Amazon erased the contents of a customer’s Kindle without warning, claiming her account was “directly related to another which has been previously closed for abuse of our policies.” Using the same technology, Amazon now has the ability to replace books on your device with “updated” versions, the content altered. Whether you are notified or not is up to Amazon.
In addition to your Kindle, remote control over your other devices is already a reality. Much of the software on your computer communicates in the background with its home servers, and so is open to “updates” that can alter content. The NSA uses malware—malicious software remotely implanted into a computer—to change the way the machine works. The Stuxnet code that likely damaged 1,000 centrifuges the Iranians were using to enrich uranium is one example of how this sort of thing can operate.
These days, every iPhone checks back with headquarters to announce what apps you’ve purchased; in the tiny print of a disclaimer routinely clicked through, Apple reserves the right to disappear any app for any reason. In 2004, TiVo sued Dish Network for giving customers set-top boxes that TiVo said infringed on its software patents. Though the case was settled in return for a large payout, as an initial remedy, the judge ordered Dish to electronically disable the 192,000 devices it had already installed in people’s homes. In the future, there will be ever more ways to invade and control computers, alter or disappear what you’re reading, and shunt you to sites weren’t looking for.
Snowden’s revelations of what the NSA does to gather information and control technology, which have riveted the planet since June, are only part of the equation. How the government will enhance its surveillance and control powers in the future is a story still to be told. Imagine coupling tools to hide, alter, or delete content with smear campaigns to discredit or dissuade whistleblowers, and the power potentially available to both governments and corporations becomes clearer.
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