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Fly In The Ointment

Nellie Bowles wrote a thing for the NYT observing a weird twist on hipster contrarianism among the wealthy, specifically in how exchanging digital toys for actual human interaction is currently to be taken as a status symbol for and by their lot. Undoubtedly, many jokes are made over this development, the flocking thus illustrating a glaring example that money in fact does not pay for happiness. There is indeed obvious irony in how the most materialistic are now, at least in this instance, anti-materialism, however their private jets are still reportedly barred from the weird for weirdness sake microcosm of Burning Man festivals, where costumes deny any and all depth perception. Also banned are their private chefs, as though self-sufficiency is a thing other attention-seeking and thus attention-dependent attendees are even vaguely capable of. Interacting with fellow mortals suffers unseen costs, after all.

But what if their privileged access to insider information through financial holdings permits them to simply know better? Members of the general public who resist the pull of those gadgets are ostracized by the status quo, with the whole concept of “status symbol” only ever referring to something which purportedly somehow, magically propels one up above whichever perceived normalcy. Gadgets which, if nothing else, instill a quite dramatic antisocial pathos. Monumental double standard, because, if normalcy is what we are born with, what we might accomplish on our own, then gadgets of any design are decidedly abnormal. They are extras, and not included in our original packaging.

Jasper Hamill reports on news breaking from a Black Hat conference in Singapore, concerning mysterious, undocumented tech inside of Intel devices, evidently capable of reading all data physically stored on their computer systems. Not malicious programming or software, but actual physical components, of which Intel is publicly playing coy in regards to their origins and their purposes. While early in that article Hamill shoots down without explanation the theory that they may have anything to do with federal surveillance activities, privatized or not, he’s missing something far larger than a microchip. Because paid writing is itself a dramatic limitation of what could or should be noted, under all circumstances. For those few not writing for money, the truth can never be handicapped by advertisers, investors or the like.

Long before surreptitiously rationalizing the CIA through her work with Yahoo News, Jenna McLaughlin was a plucky young reporter, and one of her biggest journalistic coup de grâces was a piece that was quickly glossed over by establishment media and the greater masses alike, involving a particular detail from the immediate fallout of the Snowden turnabout. Reporting for the Intercept several years back, she wrote of the GCHQ raid upon the offices of the Guardian newspaper, and why authorities felt the need to physically destroy every computer in the building.

From her story:

Two technologists, Mustafa Al-Bassam and Richard Tynan, visited Guardian headquarters last year to examine the remnants of the devices. Al-Bassam is an ex-hacker who two years ago pleaded guilty to joining attacks on Sony, Nintendo, and other companies, and now studies computer science at King’s College; Tynan is a technologist at Privacy International with a PhD in computer science. The pair concluded, first, that GCHQ wanted The Guardian to completely destroy every possible bit of information the news outlet might retain; and second, that GCHQ’s instructions may have inadvertently revealed all the locations in your computer where information may be covertly stored.

Editors of The Guardian chose to destroy the files and the devices they lived on after the British government threatened to sue them and halt further reporting on the issue, including stories on how GCHQ utilized data collected by the NSA on communications from many major Internet companies.

Footage of Guardian editors physically destroying their MacBooks and USB drives, taken by Guardian executive Sheila Fitzsimons, wasn’t released until months later, in January 2014. The GCHQ agents who supervised the destruction of the devices also insisted on recording it all on their own iPhones.

The Guardian’s video reveals editors using angle-grinders, revolving drills, masks that GCHQ ordered them to buy, and a “degausser,” an expensive piece of equipment provided by GCHQ, which destroys magnetic fields and thereby erases data. The procedure eliminated practically every chip in the device, leaving almost no recognizable piece of machinery behind. The whole process lasted over three hours.

But while Paul Johnson, The Guardian’s deputy editor, chalked the exercise up to “purely a symbolic act” of power on the part of the British government — given that copies of the Snowden files still existed in New York — there may be more to it.

At a speech given at the Chaos Communication Camp technology conference a few weeks ago in Germany, Al-Bassam and Tynan explored the details surrounding GCHQ’s decisions about how to destroy the devices, and hypothesized about what the government’s intentions might have been beyond intimidation.

“Normally people just destroy the hard drive,” said Al-Bassam. But GCHQ took it several steps further. The spy agency instructed Guardian editors to destroy parts of multiple MacBook Airs’ track pad controllers, power controllers, keyboards, CPUs, inverting converters, USB drives, and more.

According to “Joint Services Publication 440,” a 2001 British government document released by WikiLeaks, the U.K. Ministry of Defense mandates total destruction of top-secret information in order to protect it from “FISs [foreign intelligence services], extremist groups, investigative journalists, and criminals.”

However, when Al-Bassam and Tynan sent an email asking the British government for the “HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) Information Assurance Note 5,” the government-wide document that contains the U.K.’s “sanitization” policies — i.e., the specific steps necessary to destroy top-secret data — the government denied their request. The sanitization policies of the other members of the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance — the U.S., New Zealand, Canada and Australia — are public, and appeared to have very similar requirements to the techniques used to destroy The Guardian’s computers.

But in allowing The Guardian’s editors to destroy the devices themselves, and hold onto the remaining shards of computer dust, the British government essentially revealed those policies — by making it possible for people like Al-Bassam and Tynan to analyze just why they might have destroyed each part in such a specific way.

What Al-Bassam and Tynan theorized was that the government may have targeted parts of the Apple devices that it “doesn’t trust”: pieces that can retain bits of electronic information even after the hard drive is obliterated.

The track pad controller, they said, can hold up to 2 megabits of memory. All the different “chips” in your computer — from the part that controls the device’s power to the chips in the keyboard — also have the capacity to store information, like passwords and keys to other data, which can be uploaded through firmware updates. According to the public documents from other members of Five Eyes, it is incredibly difficult to completely sanitize a device of all its content. New Zealand’s data deletion policies state that USB memory is only destroyed when the dust is just a few millimeters in length. “This wasn’t a random thing,” said Tynan, pointing to a slide displaying a photo of a completely destroyed pile of USB chip shards.

These hidden memory storage locations could theoretically be taken advantage of, Tynan and Al-Bassam said, by a computer’s owner, hackers, or even the government itself, either during its design phase or after the computer is purchased. The Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab has presented evidence that an organization it calls “Equation Group,” which is reportedly linked to the NSA, has developed ways to “create an invisible, persistent area hidden inside [a computer’s] hard drive” that would be virtually undetectable by the computer’s owner. This area could be used “to save exfiltrated information which can be later retrieved by the attackers.”

Other technologists and computer experts agreed with Al-Bassam and Tynan that significant data could theoretically be stored on a computer’s various chips. “It’s actually possible to store quite a bit of data in a small space — look at Micro SD cards!” wrote Dan Kaminsky, a computer security specialist, in an e-mail to The Intercept. “But generally these other data stores are small. [They] can certainly store cryptographic keys pretty much anywhere though; those things are minuscule.”

Steve Burgess, a computer forensics and data recovery expert, echoed Kaminsky’s technical points: “Certainly data could be stored on any kind of flash memory or SSD (if there was one), or on the computer’s BIOS, and of course on the hard disk’s rotating media — and its own on-board flash storage.”

But in terms of GCHQ’s intentions, Kaminsky thinks the answer lies somewhere between a power play and protocol based on real concern on the part of the agency. “I think GCHQ was doing half theater and half genuine threat response here. The likelihood that The Guardian had anything hidden in the trackpad was low, but from GCHQ’s perspective they’d hide something in the trackpad so why wouldn’t anyone else?”

To Tynan and Al-Bassam, the methods GCHQ used revealed just how little control we have over our data, and how difficult it is to permanently delete it when necessary. When the pair asked various companies, including Dell and HP, how different parts of the devices are designed to store information and which chips “could potentially betray us,” none were willing to reveal any specifics publicly, they said. When a member of the audience asked Tynan what laptop he’d recommend for journalists and activists who rely on privacy and control of their data, he didn’t have an answer.

All of which asserts that, at the utmost least, ruling political bodies of the Five Eyes nation-states along with the larger internet companies, have always been in the know about secret hardware in commercial devices, because they developed it themselves, for their own benefit and at the fullest expense of the unwashed masses. And, rather than being limited to Intel tech, Apple and Google and likely the rest of the FAANG corporations are lying about actively spying on and manipulating their paying customers, and everyone else foolish enough to ever use any of their services. Even today, researchers are realizing that many apps on the Google Play Store are actually governmental malware, operating in broad daylight. The Pentagon is even declaring that Google’s work on the drone program is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. As though the established facts of wireless technologies promoting cancer and god knows what other physical ailments are not maddening enough, the tangible platforms of electronic tools themselves are also completely suspect. The only possible safeguard would be to not have these machines in your life in any capacity.

From Michael Jackson’s long line of little boys to Jeffrey Epstein’s long line of little girls to Elon Musk’s long line of honey-drenched strumpets, wealth can afford any variety of human contact. So why would the wealthiest really be avoiding gadgets?