The New Yorker: State of Deception


A fascinating article from The New Yorker. Much, much more at the link.

State of Deception
Why won’t the President rein in the intelligence community?

In practice, Obama has not wavered from the position taken by the N.S.A.’s lawyers and embraced by Feinstein and the majority of the Intelligence Committee. “The system generally has worked,” Matthew Olsen told me. “One way to think about the current debate is the degree to which, as a lawyer or as a citizen, you have confidence in our government institutions to operate effectively and trust our system of court oversight, congressional oversight, and executive-branch responsibilities.”

The history of the intelligence community, though, reveals a willingness to violate the spirit and the letter of the law, even with oversight. What’s more, the benefits of the domestic-surveillance programs remain unclear. Wyden contends that the N.S.A. could find other ways to get the information it says it needs. Even Olsen, when pressed, suggested that the N.S.A. could make do without the bulk-collection program. “In some cases, it’s a bit of an insurance policy,” he told me. “It’s a way to do what we otherwise could do, but do it a little bit more quickly.”

Full article at

Updated to add this leaked NSA slide from Der Spiegel

317 thoughts on “The New Yorker: State of Deception

  1. “current UHF/625” Komodo? They’ve switched it off ’round my way. If you’re living on a planet orbiting Vega, you can expect the signal to cease in about twenty years time.

  2. Guess that’s where I must be., lol. Don’t have a TV myself. The Vegans agree – it’s mostly crap…

  3. Clark: Most of the sky looks pretty random to me, and the patterns the ancients saw in the stars seem to require more than the eye of faith. I haven’t a clue where Draco is. I am further deterred from astronomy by the knowledge that even if I could afford a telescope big enough to see anything interesting, a permanent cloud would locate itself above my observatory the moment I did.

    I had to check this, as I haven’t got TV, but the terrestrial standard here is still UHF (same aerial dimensions) and 625 (but different no of lines displayed). I don’t know if the IF is still standard, but with modern electronics I somehow doubt it. On the other hand, digital signals are pretty easy to pick up , (even from your keyboard) and it might not be too much of a problem for a snooper to reproduce on his screen the picture you are watching.

  4. I too find that the constellations fail to convey the representations that have been associated with them. They don’t strike me as looking random, even though I rationally believe them to be so; I guess it’s a matter of scale and familiarity. The distribution of stars seems to me to include recognisable patterns more than would a sheet of paper marked with randomly distributed dots, but presumably if the sheet were enlarged to the size of the sky and displayed unchanged for my whole life, I’d see just as many patterns as I do in the constellations.

    Something that’s often overlooked is that the apparent movement of the sky animates the constellations, thus adding to their tendency to look like something. I first noticed this when I was watching for Leonid meteors. Every hour or so, all through successive nights, I’d go out and look to see if a major meteor storm had started. The radiant point for Leonids is right in the middle of “the lion’s head” in the constellation of Leo, and on each successive observation “the lion” had moved a bit to the right, which is effectively “forward” for the lion. Its arc across the sky was reminiscent of a cat pouncing or leaping.

    People just a few generations ago had a much stronger connection with the constellations for a number of reasons. Anyone living in tents would have seen the night sky far more frequently than house dwellers. Even just the absence of an indoor loo would do make a big difference. And electric light – not only does it splurge across the modern sky as “light pollution”, it desensitises our eyes (monitor screens seem especially effective) so that when we do see the night sky we miss much of its detail.

    Yes, the UHF band is still used, though somewhat differently. The analogue system divided the UHF band into a few sub-bands or ‘groups’, and you needed the right ‘group’ antenna for the transmitter you wished to receive from. Like a four-colour map, no two physically adjacent areas were allocated to the same group, thus reducing interference at the receiver between signals from multiple transmitters.

    The digital system uses a ‘spread spectrum’ method (this is why viewers were told to change their antenna for a wide-band version) and I doubt that there’s an IF at all any more.

    You wrote (chopped about a bit):

    “the terrestrial standard here is still 625 (but different no of lines displayed)”

    but I don’t know what “625” is apart from the number of old analogue lines. I think the “625” is no longer relevant, except that the TV UHF band was sometimes referred to as “the 625-line band”.

  5. I think (said cautiously) that the basic unit is 1/25 sec, during which one complete frame is transmitted. 625 CRT scan lines were transmitted (interlaced) during this time, and not all of these contained picture data. The system had to be backwards compatible for the benefit of those who just got converter boxes, I believe.

  6. ….I have a private theory that, upside down, Orion’s sword becomes a trunk, and is the celestial representation of the Mayan tapir-god Chac. But don’t quote me…

  7. It’s true that not all 625 lines in the old PAL system contained picture signal. There were a few lines during, er, vertical blanking (?) that were not displayed; these were pressed into service to carry the Teletext signal.

    It is true that set-top digital receivers had to produce a PAL 625 line output to drive old-fashioned tellys.

    But digital picture data is very different from an analogue TV signal. It isn’t even real-time. I think you’ll find it’s a lot like MPEG, in that only the changes between one frame and the next are transmitted in order to save bandwidth. This presents a problem when the picture cuts from one scene to the next and the whole screen needs updating. So I think there’s a buffer which gradually gets filled with the first frame of the next scene over the course of multiple frames in the current scene, if you see what I mean. You see this buffer in action when the signal is weak and the picture freezes, followed by pixelated detail-filling.

    Do you know the old tech-slang for the various systems?

    PAL – really “Phase Alternated Lines”, nicknamed “Pale And Lurid”. The chrominance signal was susceptible to phase skew which, depending upon polarity, either richened or weakened the colour saturation. To make this self-compensate, alternate lines were sent (and demodulated) in opposite phase, such that if odd-numbered lines saturated more, even-numbered lines would saturate less and average out the effect in the eye of the beholder – hence “Pale And Lurid”.

    NTSC – the US system that didn’t have phase alternation, hence “Never Twice the Same Colour”.

    SECAM – the French system. I can’t remember how this worked (if I ever knew), but the slang was “System Exactly Contrary to the American Method”.

  8. And yes, the PAL frame-rate was 25 per second. It was two-way interlaced, so vertical sync occurred 50 times per second.

  9. Clark My father as a 14 year old worked for his father in a wireless business. That would have been in the 20s. He used to go round the Southampton and New Forest area, exchanging the expired wet batteries for newly charged ones for the customers. In the days of cat’s whiskers he told us.

    After the blitz on Southampton in WWII, the premises were bombed and he was left with a few screwdrivers and an Avo test meter.

    As a radio and television engineer he had two retail businesses in Southampton. He worked very hard although he was asthmatic all his life and when my mother was expecting me, he contracted cerebral spinal meningitis but was saved by the newly discovered penicillin. A bit of a survivor and a fighter. He belonged to the social credit movement and had a great interest in politics.

    I don’t know when it would have been but he told us that he went up to Alexandra Palace to see John Logie Baird’s early television system. I was telling an American that my father had met Logie Baird but the American had never heard of him. No irony considering the volume of TV screens now in the US.

    I remember some of the manufacturers of radio and televisions he dealt with – Ecko, Pye, Bush, Baird, McMichael, Ultra, Phillips, Marconi, Dynatron. Mullard made cathode ray tubes and Mazda the valves. Transistors were just coming into use when he retired.

    When I visit a museum and see these items and others whose names I have forgotten, I feel really old!

  10. Mary, ha! I have a couple of Avo 8 multimeters. Lovely instrument. Of course, I use a modern digital meter mostly; it’s more accurate, robust, and portable, and its higher impedance affects the circuit under test less. But it you’ve got fluctuations or a poor connection or something like that, you’ll see it in the movement of the needle of an old analogue meter, whereas a modern digital meter would probably miss it.

    Ha! Americans and their telly!

    I am gross and perverted, I’m obsessed and deranged.
    I’ve existed for years but very little has changed.
    I’m the tool of the government and industry too,
    for I am destined to rule and regulate you.
    I may seem vile and pernicious, but you can’t look away.
    I make you think I’m delicious with the stuff that I say,
    I’m the best you can get, have you guessed me yet?
    I’m the slime oozing out from your TV set.

    You will obey me when I lead you,
    And eat the garbage that I feed you,
    Until the day that we don’t need you,
    Don’t call for help, no one will heed you.
    Your mind is totally controlled,
    It has been stuffed into my mould,
    And you will do as you are told,
    Until the rights to you are sold.


    I am the slime from your video,
    oozing along ‘cross your living room floor.
    I am the slime from your video,
    Can’t stop the slime, people, look at me go!

    Frank Zappa, of course.

  11. I had a lovely USSR made analogue multimeter from the early 80s. Had that lovely USSR smell when new. Some bastards nicked it in a burglary nearly 20 years ago. I suspect they were connoisseurs.

  12. LOL at the slang, Clark. The NTSC one – very true for US TV in the 70’s. I was only very briefly a TV engineer ( among occupations too various to be credible), and never heard it. Yeah, the buffering concept….aware of the difference, but didn’t want to complicate the discussion further. as simply defending my UHF/625 thesis. Agree about analogue meters re picking up transient glitches. OTOH, my current digital cheapo has a USB output which permits monitoring and data processing. And of course 10Mohm/V + input impedance. Zappa: spot on.

    Russian multimeters, Squonk – had one too. Excellent bit of kit, if not quite up to AVO standard – at about 1/20 the price, who cared? Their Leica-knockoff, the Zorki-4 camera, was also astounding value for money. I also had a 6″ screen portable TV from the USSR. Germanium transistors throughout, so not as robust as it could have been, but the picture was good.


    NSA, GCHQ use phone apps to scoop user data

    GCHQ’s tools against smartphones are named after characters in ‘The Smurfs’ cartoon. The ability to make a phone’s microphone ‘hot’ – in order to listen to conversations – is known as “Nosey Smurf.” The sophisticated geolocation ability is called “Tracker Smurf.” Power management – the ability to activate a phone that is turned off – is known as “Dreamy Smurf.” The spyware’s self-hiding capabilities are called “Paranoid Smurf.”

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