WikiLeaks’ CIA Hacking Revelations

(An earlier draft of this column on Digital Privacy for Ordinary People appeared in the Leveller.)

Surveillance is in the news again with WikiLeaks’ release of an archive detailing CIA hacking methods. What does this mean for you, the ordinary reader interested in having a private on-line life?

First, let’s back up a little. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations showed the ubiquity of mass on-line surveillance.
But they also showed that certain programs and services were giving security agencies difficulty. These programs implemented encryption in various contexts – for browsing, instant messaging, calling, or for drives and whole operating systems. In 2013 the NSA internally characterized these privacy tools as a “major threat” to their mission. It also described the effect of chaining them together as “catastrophic” – leading to a “near-total loss/lack of insight to target[’s] communications [and] presence”.

The development and popularization of these tools has continued, and this column was created to introduce the best of them to readers.

Nothing in this more recent CIA release shows that these encrypted tools have been compromised, despite an initial tweet from WikiLeaks that spoke of “bypassing” popular encrypted apps like Signal and WhatsApp. While it was initially picked up by many news organizations, a growing consensus has characterized this tweet as ‘misleading’ and ‘sensationalizing,’ to borrow words from Zeynep Tufekci, a New York Times contributor and ‘technosociologist’ professor at the University of North Carolina.

So I still recommend encrypted tools like the Tor browser, Signal messaging/voice/video app, ProtonMail webmail, and TAILS operating system. Future columns will cover these tools in detail. In Tufekci’s words, “if anything, the C.I.A. documents in the cache confirm the strength of encryption technologies.”

That said, what the WikiLeaks cache does show is a significant shift in surveillance culture. Having realized that they can no longer reliably intercept communications when they are encrypted, the CIA has shifted to specifically targeting devices with malware. This includes smartphones, computers, smart TVs, and even automobile control centers. These practices by the CIA are probably indicative of what security agencies all over the world are doing, according to ProtonMail founder Andy Yen, a secure e-mail provider. Continue reading

Watershed Blues Autopsy

A shorter version of this self-interview ran in the Leveller. After they finished running Watershed Blues, the Leveller editors asked if I wanted to write an article as “a final sign off, an explanation of what the comics meant, or the issues that inspired you, or what you hope people took away from the series, or whatever.” Careful what you ask for.
Those who persist to the end of the interview will be rewarded with more and more self-mockery.

A Comic Artist Questions Himself

Tim: Can you describe Watershed Blues for readers who are unfamiliar with it?
Kitz: Watershed Blues is a mixed-media comic that ran in the Leveller for the last ten issues, from Issue 7.2 (Oct-Nov 2014) to 8.5 (Feb-March 2016).

Tim: What do you mean by mixed media? How did you create the art for the comic?
Kitz: I can’t draw, so I used photos – old historic photos, and ones I took myself. But I wanted the photos to look more cartoony, stylized, and analog. So I would print them out and outline everything in the photo black, using a brush. The idea was to ink the photos the same way a cartoonist would ink their pencil sketches. I was trying to ‘comic’ the photos or to ‘cartoon’ them, if that makes sense.

Tim: What was the comic about?
Kitz: It’s a series of meditations on the ecology of the Kitchissippi (AKA  Ottawa River) watershed. There’s some history, but also a focus on the present-day city of Ottawa itself.

Tim: Serious stuff. In fact, it doesn’t have any of the things we tend to associate with comics. There’s photo-art but no drawings – and no superheroes or jokes, no dialogue, and no real story. Is Watershed Blues really a comic?
Kitz:  I think it’s a comic, since it juxtaposes a series of images with text in an attempt to make an overall statement. But it’s all a big experiment, and it’s up to other people to decide if it works – and if it even counts as a ‘real comic’.

Tim: If it was an experiment, what were you trying to test?
Kitz: Having had a couple of collaborations go nowhere, I was trying to see if I could make comics alone, without working with an artist. I wanted to see if I could create satisfying art for words I’d written, despite having no real artistic talent.
Also, I wanted to make comics that weren’t story-based. Even in non-fiction comics, there’s still usually some sort of story. There’s a lot of biography and autobiography in indie comics for example – so it’s the story of someone’s life.
I didn’t want to do that. In my most pretentious moments, I would say I wanted to make a comic that was less like a story, and more like a song.

The Holy Trinity of Indie Comic Artists and some of their narrative creations. From left to right, R. Crumb, Dan Clowes, and Chris Ware (AKA the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)

Tim: Can you unpack that a bit?
Kitz: It’s more straightforward than it sounds. Songs are a hybrid art; they combine music and words. Comics combine pictures and words. They’re both hybrid forms.
But while most comics have a story to them, a lot of songs don’t. Song lyrics tend to be more more impressionistic and poetic. Often they’re about what’s going on in someone’s head, what it feels like to be them. It’s much rarer to get a song with distinct plot, characters, and exposition – a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Of course there are exceptions – murder ballads and so on. But that’s not your average song lyric. I wanted to try making comics where the script was more like lyrics or a poem than a story.
Continue reading