Silly bugger games

MIKE O'DONNELL
Last updated 05:00 22/06/2013

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OPINION: I was lucky enough to go pheasant shooting at Te Para in the Northern Rangitikei last weekend. Drew and Nicky Duncan are farmers who have chosen to diversify their beef and lamb business with what I reckon is the country's best upland game shooting.

No bourgeois pheasant drive, this is walked up shooting where you clamber over banks, slosh through wetlands and battle bush lawyer in search of the noble birds. One of the characteristics of a flushed pheasant is that after it cannonballs away from you on the wing and lands out of sight, it then doubles back on foot so the hunter runs over the top of the crafty bird. Drew calls this cunning ploy playing "silly bugger games".

Silly bugger games of a bigger scale came to light recently when two newspapers broke a story about a data-sharing collusion between nine of the largest companies on the internet and the skunk-works of the US intelligence community, the National Security Agency (NSA).

The Guardian and The Washington Post went to press with stories about a secret programme called PRISM which gave NSA spooks access to the systems of Facebook, Apple, Skype, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and others.

A leaked NSA PowerPoint presentation said officials collected a vast range of material including live chat, email, file transfers, search history and tracking data though some sort of "back door".

While it's no surprise that private companies must comply with State requests for material under American law, this was a whole new paradigm with the back door apparently allowing ongoing access to the servers of the big web companies.

Apart from the fact that it was going on at all, the weirdest thing was the response from the two groups of parties which couldn't have been more different.

The US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, came out confirming that the NSA does use PRISM to obtain data including emails and online files, and described the leak as "reprehensible".

On the other hand, all nine web companies flatly denied any knowledge of PRISM, and drew a strong distinction between ongoing access as opposed to individual responses to explicit court orders on specific matters.

Apple denied providing any government agency with direct access to their servers and insisted any agency needed a court order. Facebook said they scrutinised any information request for compliance with applicable laws, and provided information only as required by law.

Google specifically denied any back door for government to access private data, with CEO Larry Page saying that any suggestion that Google was disclosing information about its users' internet activity on such a scale was false. Microsoft and Yahoo! issued similar statements.

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Soon after this apparent contradiction, the man who leaked the document, former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden, surfaced in Hong Kong describing himself as an American seeking to reveal global criminality. Twenty-nine-year-old Snowden - colourfully described by The New Yorker as a techno libertarian agnostic with a photogenic girlfriend - is now seeking to fight the US Government through the Hong Kong courts, but may have to give up secure data to the Chinese to do so.

Two theories are in circulation to explain the chalk and cheese views about what the heck is going on; the prismatic cable-splitter theory and the locked mailbox theory.

The cable-splitter theory picks up the technical definition of prism, being a triangular cut glass lens which separates out light passed through it into a spectrum of visible light colours, and applies it to data.

Effectively this would see the programme tapping into the optical fibre cables that carry data packages across the internet, and sampling them directly. Apart from the obvious technical challenges of ordering that data, the cost would be extraordinary. Well beyond the $20 million specified in the leaked papers.

The locked box theory is that rather than giving the spooks a dedicated back door to their systems, the big nine web companies provided an online locked mailbox. The Government holds a key and picks up files.

This locked box is used for requesting and sharing information, but the detail of such requests is hidden from the companies. What makes this hypothesis interesting is that the actual wording of the original denial by the nine web companies, wouldn't preclude a lock box arrangement.

Right now, no-one knows who's lying or navigating the truth but one thing is crystal clear: if the big nine web firms are found to be intentionally participating on such a scale then the public loss of trust would be epic, as would the commercial.

Trust is what keeps companies in business and politicians in power; if you're forced to lose it by the NSA then chances are you will be pretty irate.

In the end it will come out who exactly is playing silly bugger games. It always does. And as with the gamebirds at Te Para, the perpetrator is going to appear a real cock.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is a professional director and ecommerce manager. His twitter tag is modsta and he's a lousy shot.

- BusinessDay

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