Weekend Roundup: PRISM exposés under threat, GCHQ takes hammer to Guardian hard drives, Zuckerberg eyes third world cash

PRISM exposés under threat with David Miranda detained

Since the PRISM surveillance programme exploded into the public domain back in June, it has scarcely left the news. Spinning off scandals and sub-plots throughout the summer, this week stayed true to form as the David Miranda detention at Heathrow airport and GCHQ’s visit to the Guardian served up fresh controversy and talking points.

When it emerged that Miranda – partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been influential in the PRISM exposés – was held by authorities without charge for nine hours, most of the media discourse surrounded the fairness and legality of the detention. But with Miranda also stripped of every electronic device in his possession (“my computer, video game, mobile phone, my memory cards, everything”), we assessed the technological implications of the police getting their hands on the devices. Would some potentially hyper-sensitive data be spilled?

Greenwald’s response was characteristically bullish, as he placed full confidence in the encryption technology deployed my himself and Miranda. “We both now typically and automatically encrypt all documents and work we carry – not just for the NSA stories,” Greenwald (below, with Miranda behind) told Forbes. “So everything he had – for his personal use and everything else – was heavily encrypted, and I’m not worried at all that they can break that.”

Verdicts within the information security industry, however, didn't quite echo the assurances of Greenwald. In fact, when Conrad Constantine, a research team engineer at AlienVault, was asked what information the authorities may be able to glean from Miranda’s devices, “The short answer," he said, "is whatever they want.”

“Encryption doesn't matter,” Constantine continued. “The UK became a police state back in 1994 [as a result of the Criminal Justice Bill] and 2000 [Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act]. The Criminal Justice Bill stated there is no right to silence - refusal to speak when questioned may be filed as admission of guilt.” Robert Hansen of WhiteHat security was similarly pessimistic; check out the full article for his views on Miranda’s data.

GCHQ pays Guardian a visit

One day later we had further reports of British authorities thrashing around in the wake of continued leaks regarding secret government surveillance.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger published a chilling account revealing a series of events beginning with "shadowy" Whitehall figures warning the newspaper to hand over documents related to the Snowden leaks, and culminating in the destruction of hard drives belonging to the publication by GCHQ agents.

"And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian's long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian's basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents," Rusbridger wrote. The raid had been prefigured, he said, by a sinister caution: "You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more."

WikiLeaks was quick to weigh in on the incident via its Twitter account, noting that, "The Guardian hard drive shredding scandal demonstrates why it is necessary to publish early publish often and publish globally." With authorities swirling around the whistleblowing clique with increasing menace (this week also confirming the fate of Bradley Manning, sentenced to 35 years in prison), Greenwald et al may well be heeding this advice.

Internet.org: Altruism or greed?

Despite its general themes of goodwill and global advancement, another of this week’s big stories would again provide the cynics with the opportunity to pour scorn. Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s ‘Internet.org’ collaboration with a host of fellow tech giants, aimed at bringing Internet access to the world’s entire population. But while schmaltzy promotional videos (see link above) were showing the third world smiling at the prospect of being taken under Zuckerberg’s online wing, many of us were rolling our eyes at a pretty obvious ploy from Facebook and co to expand their user-driven businesses to even more monstrous proportions.

Yet is probably the opening sentence of Sebastian Anthony’s analysis of Internet.org that hits the nail on the head, with the project described as “one of the most admirable but least altruistic moves ever.” Because for all the obvious advantages a connected world brings to the business of online advertising, spreading Internet access is unquestionably “admirable”, bringing countless benefits to communities ostracised in the Internet age.

"There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy. Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it," said Zuckerberg.

So while the project’s participants (also featuring Samsung, Qualcomm and Nokia, among others) will be licking their lips at the prospect of widening revenue streams, we can but hope that oft-forgotten corners of this world will be seeing some kind of benefit in the process.