PRISM: any substance?

So the world is desperately excited by a programme called “PRISM”, and we learn that – shockingly – the NSA reads people’s emails. Can that possibly be true? Hard to believe, I realise, but stay with me.

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian

sez the Graun, and the WaPo says much the same (Update: care! See below). But Google says they’re wrong:

we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers.

Early Warning, who is usually sensible, says Google is lying. But I tend to trust Google, certainly more than I’d trust the Graun or WaPo to understand tech. EW’s belief that Google is lying appears to stem from the US Govt confirming the existence of PRISM: but its an awfully long way from “existence” to “details of the story are correct”. And indeed the US have said explicitly that details are wrong.

I can’t tell where the truth lies, but I suspect that the Graun has indulged in what Wiki would call “Original Research”, which is to say connecting the dots a bit further than the sources permit. This is the key slide, and the key words are “Collection directly from the servers of…”. Weeell, its only a powerpoint slide, hardly a careful analysis. It looks like the real meaning of “directly from the servers of” is actually “we put in requests, following the law, and they comply with that law by providing data”. Which is a very different thing to direct access. The former is known and boring (even if you don’t like it); the latter would be new. The Graun knows about the distinction and is definitely claiming the latter (they have to be, otherwise there is no story): Companies are legally obliged to comply with requests for users’ communications under US law, but the Prism program allows the intelligence services direct access to the companies’ servers.

Another thing that suggests strongly to me that this is only an analysis-of-received-data type operation is the price tag: $20M/y. That doesn’t sound like the kind of money to fund searching through all of even just Google’s vast hoards of data, let alone all the rest.

If you wanted a conspiracy theory, the one I’d offer would be that this is to deflect attention from the “Verizon revelation” about the phone records. You get people wildly excited about direct access, based on some ambiguous slides. That all turns out to be nonsense, and so people then start waving all the rest away.

[Update: According to Business Insider the WaPo has modified and weakened its story somewhat. It does indeed say “updated”, though not in what way. I did like BI’s “Many have questioned other aspects of the revelations, such as the amateurish appearance of the slides (though they are believable to those with government experience)”.]

[UUpdate: there is a US govt factsheet. Some of it is potentially weaselly Under Section 702 of FISA, the United States Government does not… – yeah, but what about things *not* done under section 702? However, it does make some direct positive statements PRISM is not an undisclosed collection or data mining program. It is an internal government computer system used to facilitate the government’s statutorily authorized collection of foreign intelligence information from electronic communication service providers… So it looks more and more to me as though either the US govt, and Google, are lying to us directly; or (far more likely) the Graun and WaPo are wrong.]

[UUUpdate: the Graun sez Technology giants struggle to maintain credibility over NSA Prism surveillance. The substance is the same: Graun makes claims, the companies say they’re wrong, and the Graun has no evidence. The institution that is leaking credibility is the Graun, not the companies.

And: just when you thought they couldn’t lose the plot any more, we have them calling this the biggest intelligence leak in the NSA’s history. That’s twaddle. So far, this is nothing: they have no substance.]

[UUUUpdate: at last, the dog that didn’t bark in the night speaks, though softly. Bruce Schneier, who I’d have hoped would be on top of this, has some stuff to say. He praises whistleblowers in general; I agree. But he only talks about PRISM in an afterword, and its pretty clear that he doesn’t know what is going on either. He praises Edward Snowden but I think that is premature – some of the stuff the Graun has him saying makes him sound rather tin-foil-hat to me.]

[Late update: the Graun has now admitted that the original story as wrong, although to their discredit only by implication. They were no honest enough to publish an upfront correction – or, in other words, they are simply dishonest.

Kevin Drum points out that the Graun was mislead by the words “direct access” in the original powerpoint -and makes the obvious point (that I’ve though of, but not written down): why didn’t Snowden tell the Graun this? Its hard to think of a reason that rebounds to his credit. the most obvious are (a) he’s clueless, or (b) he knew that with that error corrected, the powerpoint was dull. Its not possible that it was an oversight, since the Graun talked to him *after* the story was public, and this was a major point.

More: The Graun (or is it just Glenn Greenwald?) is claiming total accuracy and no backpedalling. Read his point (4). How odd.]

Much later: even though the “direct access” claim has been thoroughly refuted, the Graun is still peddling this crap on Friday 12 July 2013. Have they no shame?


* NSA admits it created internet so it could spy on it
* Google’s Real Secret Spy Program? Secure FTP

“Dr” Roy Spencer is sad and lonely and wrong (part II)

This spawned by reading DA, who comments that “Roy Spencer has a very unprofessional post”, EPIC FAIL: 73 Climate Models vs. Observations for Tropical Tropospheric Temperature. And it is very unprofessional: its just not what you write, if you have any hope of belonging to a scientific community. Its what you write if you know you’ve marginalised yourself and there is no way back. And as DA points out, the UAH record itself has suffered numerous disastrous failings over the years, up to and including getting the very sign of the temperature change wrong.

“Dr” Roy Spencer is sad and lonely and wrong refers.

Update: DA thinks Judith Curry is going down the same road.


* Roy Spencer’s latest deceit and deception – Hotwhopper, 2014/02.

Too stupid even for WUWT, eventually

An interesting little saga. WUWT had a post up as An interesting issue with ice core data. That’s a link to the webcitation, beacuse as of now the post has been removed from WUWT, on the grounds that it was utter drivel. Which is correct – it was. Pretty well the whole thing was error, but for outstanding stupidity it doesn’t get much better than:

Prior to the Little Ice Age, most of the areas where today’s core samples are taken, were not covered with ice. The ice that scientists have stated is hundreds of thousands of years old can be no more than a maximum of 650 years in age…

[Even the commas are wrong.] Any number of commenters point out this is trash, in words such as:

The ice domes of Greenland are only 650 years old!? I can’t believe you published something this silly, Anthony

To which the only response is “why are you surprised?” My best guess is that AW was trying to “do a Curry” – put up something that was basically denialist junk, but just call it “an interesting issue” and so duck any flak. Unfortunately AW is stupider than Curry and is incapable of evaluating the validity or plausibility of text (and writing the word “text” there makes me wonder if this wasn’t a Sokal-type hoax: people deliberately sending AW drivel in the hope he’ll post it. Might be a fun game).

ps: I think the source of the drivel might be

[Update: poking around in the entrails of WUWT is a cheap way of generating posts, but I’ll try to avoid doing it too often. R sends me a more complete version of the post, just before it was declared too embarassing to be allowed to live. AW had added:

I don’t disagree with Richard Telford, Mike Ossander, Don Easterbrook and others who have pointed out issues with this essay. There is value though in calling out such issues. Most importantly, the participants and readers in the discussion get to see why the claim made is wrong.

Science gives us the freedom to be wrong, because otherwise, we’d never learn anything. Clearly this article is wrong in many assertions.

For my part, last night I only got to read and check the first part of the submission about plasiticty, and then I got distracted at home with family issues. The post had been set to autopublish overnight, and I didn’t get back to it, and simply forgot it was in the que. I apologize to readers for this oversight.

This lapse is probably a sign that I need a true vacation away from the duties of running WUWT, which has been ongoing almost daily since November 2006.

Would anyone want to volunteer to be editors to make that possible?

He’s wrong to say there is value in calling out these issues; that’s merely his excuse for unthink (which he eventually realises; if it was actually true, he wouldn’t have subsequently removed the post). Science, or science communication, doesn’t advance by writing up drivel. If you’re purporting to communicate with the public, you need to at least have a clue. Signal to noise is hard enough already. But the suggestion that he might throw in the towel is interesting. VV suggests WUWT readership is declining.]