Saturday, November 16, 2013

Help the NSA Read Your Mail

Search Engine Overload
Helping the NSA read your mail

By John P. Smith
Freelance Journalist

(Watch the introductory video for this article.)

We know the NSA and other government agencies are reading our mail and our social media posts. They do this in the name of the "War on Terror." The more the government tries to clamp down on everyone as a potential terrorist, the more they become part of the problem and in the end, they’ll be exactly what they’re supposed to be fighting against. Our own government has become more of a threat to us than any terrorist.

They are reading our email. Searching our Social Media posts. Highjacking our private messages. Our government appears to think that's okay, despite being a complete violation of our Constitutional right to privacy. 

What can we do about it?  We can do three things to limit their ability to read our correspondence:  We can stop using email and social media, text messaging and private blogs. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not even a real option.  We can deny them the information using encryption technology such as PGP.  (All governments hate PGP.)  Or, we can give them more than they can handle.  

I think search engine inundation is the way to go. Let's spam their search algorithms with key words until they can't possibly read it all. It will take some effort from everyone who’s willing to fight back.


I created the above line to put in the text of every one of my messages, emails or social media post. The idea is to overwhelm them with their own crap. Make EVERYTHING in the world flag in the search. There's no way a limited staff can sort through all that. But it won’t work that simply. For instance, the line is all CAPS. That’s easy to flag as a planted line and simply discard it.

This is not a new idea, spamming the government’s search routines.

Troll the NSA had a similar idea back in June, but they wanted everybody send out the same text.  That’s fairly easy to program around.

Motherboard.TV has a more random idea:  But I clicked their random phrase generator about 20 times and hit the exact same phrase two times.  Not nearly random enough.

And there’s Scaremail which is a great idea.  But like the generator, if it’s a computer program, it’s going to leave a signature of some kind and that will make it easy to filter out.

Very similar to Scaremail is Flagger.  This adds keywords to the urls visited by your browser.  It’s an addon for Google Chrome.  But, again, a computer program to place keywords is going to leave a signature.  It’s easy to filter out.

Here’s the list of words:  From

Here’s the list of words:  From Reddit via Business Insider.

Here’s the list of words: From a site called 42X.

These lists do not exactly match. Also interesting: “Homeland Security” is not in either of the first two lists and “DHS” doesn’t show up in any of them, nor do the words “tactical” or “strategic.” The folks at 42X said the list was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. I’m not certain any of these are even authentic lists. Maybe they’re plants from the NSA to give us all something to focus on while they keep searching our mail. 

Make of that what you will. Also of note, none of the British alternative spellings are on the list. Nope. This list contains no French, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, Etc., so I can logically establish that these list are for only American English speakers. We can also assume the NSA has hit lists for other languages. I see that PGP makes the list five times, once on its own and then four specific versions of it.  We know how the government hates PGP, but why would they target specific versions of it?  That kind of thing makes me suspicious.

Plenty of information is available on how the government is getting our private correspondenceAnd who’s letting them have it. So I won’t even go into that. The following is mostly speculation on my part, based on how I, as a programmer, would look for specific words in a gazillion intercepted messages, posts and emails.

How I think a typical search would work:

Information is collected.  First thing we need to do is strip out all the superfluous crap. A single line of text sent via email or posted on social media carries a long trail of data about servers, fonts, routes and addresses in the background.  Most of this data is useless to humans and so would be stripped (or simply skipped) so only the pertinent content data is sent on to the parsing routines.

Information is parsed, searching for keywords. This can be done one character or one word at a time, or by phrase or even by whole sentences, as required, to flag significant combinations of letters, words, etc.

Information is then scored based on the number and strength of hits when the information is compared to the database of keywords. The scoring algorithm assigns each keyword a value. The higher the score, the more likely the information is flagged as a possible threat, and the more likely the information is to be read by a real human. The value placed on a word will be based on the importance of the word itself, its placement in the text and the emphasis placed on it by the writer.

Let’s take a sample phrase: “So, I thought I’d kill some time watching the president of the Rotary Club speaking on the sex orgy tape found in the state Congress meeting room.“ The word “president” will have a high value while “sex” will have a much lower score. Once we see some of these keywords, we parse the text again for placement and emphasis. The words “kill”, “president”, “Congress” and “meeting” all being in the same block of text adds strength to the score. The word order is also important, so I would have a routine to adjust the score based on placement relative to other keywords: before or after, etc. Those words being in the same sentence, in that specific order, will probably raise a red flag somewhere in a DHS cubicle.

At this point, someone will actually read the text only to discover it’s someone speculating on how they might be looking at our correspondence and postings.  (Hello there, cubicle agent!  Is this going to get me another visit from the FBI?)

I would also think it possible, but not prudent, to score for grammatical emphasis. For instance, “President” versus “president” to distinguish exactly who is being talked about. This kinda assumes a potential terrorist would also be an English grammar jerk and is probably unlikely. I believe the same would be true of other emphasis, such as quotes, bold, italic and underline; they could be used, but would probably add more confusion than they’d clear up.  If I was writing these search routines, I’d strip the formatting to make the raw text easier to search.

But, there’s going to be some problems.  And what programmers do is make computers solve problems.  They can't possibly look at everything that flags due to keywords.  Their next logical step is to stop flagging, just ignoring, those SPECIFIC strings known to be planted. They can be skipped just like formatting.. This is where most of the plans and programs noted above ran into problems.  We have to break the strings up into non-uniform snippets.  There's nothing more random than several million people putting a string of data in whatever random order they prefer.  Still, some programming techniques employ fuzzy logic routines to look at something that's almost the same and say, yeah, that's close enough, we'll call it a non-hit.  It’s really a matter of playing the percentages.

Here's where anybody can get involved and help.

We humans have to be more random.  And isn’t that what we do best?  At the end of your email, post or message, add a line or two of keyword text from 2 to 2000 characters.  Copy and paste from the lists in the links or write your own.  Next time you post or mail, use the same text but add a period or comma, add another acronym, remove one, chance some capitalization.  Next week, use another random keyword string. Anything to make the strings of text dissimilar enough that a fuzzy logic routine won’t see it as part of a specific class of planted data.

We can also get a little more creative and use some of these words in our main body text.  Tell your friends that the “movie was a bomb,” or that you had a “blast at the lake.”  We all need to do whatever we can make it harder for them to read our mail.

For some more fun with NSA keywords, there’s the NSA Haiku Generator.

And if you need a laugh: This NSA list is kinda funny.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Affordable Care Act: Some Thoughts

What is the ACA aka Obamacare?

We’ve all heard about the Affordable Care Act. Most people will know it as Obamacare.

Major media outlets are telling us it’s the best thing since sliced bread. But we know those talking heads are nothing more than sock puppets for the current administration. Political pundits, the opposition and doomsayers are telling us it’s another tax and is, of course, a harbinger of the apocalypse. Then again, those folks tend to think everything that happens is a sign of the end.

My opinion is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle of all that. But where? How can we know? For one thing, the legislation is entirely too big (11,000 pages) to tackle in a single-sitting, quick read article. Anyone who wishes to read the full text of the act may do so. The PDF Compilation of the “Health Related” portions of the act is 974 pages. (I have not read all of this and I have no plan to do so.)

Let’s take a “Five W” approach and just look at some of the facts.
What is the Affordable Care Act? How about the official line: The following comes from

The Affordable Care Act provides Americans with better health security by putting in place comprehensive health insurance reforms that will:

  • Expand coverage,
  • Hold insurance companies accountable,
  • Lower health care costs,
  • Guarantee more choice, and
  • Enhance the quality of care for all Americans.
Who is affected? The above says “all Americans.”  And, the above list really sounds like a great idea. But let’s put some questions at the end of those bullets:

Expand coverage, for whom? And what exactly does that mean, anyway? The government offers the website to answer those questions. And we’re all aware of the problems associated with with the rollout of the website. The $394 million website doesn’t work. Oh, they’re working on it, they’ve dragged in experts from some of the biggest names in networking to get the site up and running properly. And, as a bonus, Obama became the first president to hold a press conference because his website was down. They’re also offering online live chat, phone and mail-in sign up.

Hold insurance companies accountable, to whom? Insurance companies are in business to make money. If they’re not held accountable by their customers, then they shouldn't be in business very long.  Having the government prop them up isn't the answer to poor customer service.

Lower health care costs, for whom? Here’s something interesting; I’ve done a lot of research on this subject and nowhere do I see reductions in the actual cost of healthcare. There will be those who want to argue the semantics of this statement, but it does say exactly that: Lower Health Care Costs. That’s not happening. Healthcare costs are growing and there’s nothing in the works to lower them. The ACA solution is to help people pay for insurance. That doesn’t do anything to actually lower the cost of care; only to reduce what some people will have to pay. And, logically, if the government is picking up the tab for lowered payments, then we all know where the money is coming from. We who work and pay taxes are picking up the bill. It’s really a no-brainer. No, it’s not socialized medicine. In my opinion, socialized medicine would be much better.

Guarantee more choice. Why does that even need a guarantee? Think about that… We’re being forced to buy insurance. Our choices are already limited.

Enhance the quality of care for all Americans. This is a fine example of political doublespeak to try to sell something.

When does all this happen? According to Wikipedia, which has a well-written article on the act, “The ACA includes numerous provisions that take effect between 2010 and 2020. Policies issued before 2010 are exempted by a grandfather clause from many of the changes to insurance standards, but they are affected by other provisions. Significant reforms are to take effect by January 1, 2014.” (See the listing here.)

(Yes, I know Wikipedia is often not considered a legitimate source for journalistic research. I say it depends on what you’re researching. In this case, Wikipedia had the most comprehensive, readable, understandable and concise article I could find. The Wikipedia article carries a slight leaning toward the Obama camp, but not so much it sickened me. The majority of articles out there tend to be grossly pro-ACA or vehemently anti-Obamacare.)

Why is this necessary? First, it does take care of some gaps in coverage, such as companies denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions. This is good. But was a complete overhaul of the U.S. healthcare establishment actually needed? When medical bills are the cause of nearly half the bankruptcy filings in the country? Yes. Is this the right way to go about it? No. Forcing people to buy insurance isn’t the solution. Socialized medicine would be a better solution. Please don’t misunderstand: My opinion is that a government-run healthcare system would be a fiscal disaster mired in bureaucratic quicksand and fraught with incompetence, cover-ups, scandals. (And I consider myself an optimist.) But it would still be better than forcing us to buy third-party insurance. While the British and Canadian models may have their problems, those populations, on the whole, have better healthcare than we do in the U.S.

Where does this end? In more deficit. And more government control of the lives of U. S. citizens. This video from Stormcloudsgathering takes a more fatalistic approach; but not necessarily an unrealistic view.

Is there a bottom line here? Nothing concrete. The Affordable Care Act will lower healthcare premium costs for some, increase it for others and generally make healthcare more available to the general population. That’s a good thing. In the bigger picture, however, the U.S. government says: You will have insurance, you will pay for it, and if you do not, we will fine you, garnish your wages or otherwise punish you for not doing things our way. The Affordable Care Act is about control. Like any legislation created by government: It only serves to take away rights and freedoms.