Surveillance Fans Angry Journalist Used Metadata, Contact Chaining To Out Comey's Secret Twitter Account

from the not-only-months-after-the-fact,-but-with-zero-self-awareness dept

Earlier this year, journalist Ashley Feinberg outed then-FBI Director James Comey’s secret Twitter account, using nothing more than the “harmless” metadata people like James Comey have said no one needs to worry about. The secret account was sniffed out through something the Intelligence Community likes to call “contact chaining.” The path ran through Comey’s children’s Instagram accounts and one conspicuous follower of Comey’s previously-secret account: Lawfare writer, surveillance apologist, and personal friend of Comey’s, Benjamin Wittes.

For some reason, months after the fact, Wittes has decided the route to unmasking Comey’s Twitter account was more like stalking than journalism. Wittes objected to the “use” of Comey’s children — the seemingly-unrelated contacts who Feinberg chained together to reach her conclusion. This was weird because, as Marcy Wheeler points out, Comey seemed to be impressed by the journalist’s work. Even weirder is the fact Wittes (and former IC attorney/Lawfare editor Susan Hennessey) didn’t see the obvious parallels between Feinberg’s detective work and the FBI’s own use of metadata, contact chaining, and working its way towards targets through vast amounts of unrelated data.

Not only did he say he wasn’t mad and compliment her work, but he posted the link to FBI jobs.

I’d say Jim Comey sees a similarity in what Feinberg did.

I’m all in favor of protecting the accounts of children from such contact chaining — and am really not a big fan of contact chaining, generally. But those who, like Comey and Wittes and Hennessey and Tait, have championed a system that endorses at least two hop chaining irrespective of who gets hopped, not to mention those who’ve tolerated the collection on family members in even more targeted surveillance, I’m not all that interested in complaints about the privacy of a 22-year old son.

Or rather, I point to it as yet another example of surveillance boosters not understanding what the policies they embrace actually look like in practice.

Which is precisely why this “doxing” was so newsworthy.

Wheeler goes into more detail on the FBI’s use of contact chaining and metadata and discusses Comey’s own approval of these practices during his tenure. This may explain why Comey was more impressed than angry when he was outed. As for the complaints about “outing” Comey’s adult children, Wheeler points out Comey himself has thrust them into the public eye on more than one occasion, starting back when they were still young teenagers.

But beyond this there’s the hypocritical nature of Wittes’ attack on the journalist. Surveillance state supporters love surveillance — except when the apparatus is controlled by people they don’t like or aimed at people they do. These are ridiculous arguments to be making, especially when you actively support state-sponsored “stalking.”

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Comments on “Surveillance Fans Angry Journalist Used Metadata, Contact Chaining To Out Comey's Secret Twitter Account”

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19 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Supporters of Google love surveillance too!

“Surveillance state supporters love surveillance”

Somehow, the importance of the fact that Google gives NSA “direct access” according to Snowden STILL escapes recognition here.

Google IS part of the surveillance state. Its start-up was funded by the CIA. — Do you really believe that an “algorithm” by two kids still in college was needed? No one else in intelligence and computerdom ever before had the idea of massively collating data? Two college kids were just given billions and built a huge corporation to purchase and maintain thousands of servers, not to mention the necessary infrastructure just to exist and meet payroll? Did ALL that massive scaling up from a computer lab by themselves?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Supporters of Google love surveillance too!

“Two college kids were just given billions and built a huge corporation to purchase and maintain thousands of servers, not to mention the necessary infrastructure just to exist and meet payroll? Did ALL that massive scaling up from a computer lab by themselves?”

yeah who’d ever believe a story about a couple of college age kids who dominating in the computer industry.

Say you ever heard of Bill Gates? He was this college drop out, started a small business in his garage. Anyone know whatever happened to him and his little startup?

Or that Jobs kid and his buddy Wozniak, they had a business in a garage to didn’t they?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Supporters of Google love surveillance too!

The problem with your response is that you have disregarded both history and influence.

It is influence that can get you a head start over others. of course, there is no guarantee that you will effectively use that influence to be successful.

The simple thing is that there are quite a number of companies over a large number of fields that have had the boost of “strange” money for the express purpose of benefiting the donations of that “strange” money. Government funds through the various security and military channels is one such area. Funding through criminal organisations is another.

we should not be surprised, nor should it be unexpected for this to happen. The world is not set up for the benefit of mankind as a whole. If it is was, we would see a much different socio-economic environment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Supporters of Google love surveillance too!

Successful companies have a combination of tow people with different personality types, a sociopath to run it, and a technical wizard to build the technology. Also, it is usually the sociopath that make a name for themselves, while the real wizard basks in relative obscurity.

Everybody Knows Bill gates, fewer Paul Allen,Everboy remembers Steve Jobs, fewer Steve Wozniak, and even fewer Ronald Wayne. Everybody knows MAek Zuckerberg, but can they name the other four founders.
Mark Zuckerberg
Eduardo Saverin
Andrew McCollum
Dustin Moskovitz
Chris Hughes

In all cases, the person who is most famous is the who is most driven to control people and money, rather than the ones who actually built the technologies that the companies are famous for.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Supporters of Google love surveillance too!

The simple thing is that there are quite a number of companies over a large number of fields that have had the boost of "strange" money for the express purpose of benefiting the donations of that "strange" money. Government funds through the various security and military channels is one such area. Funding through criminal organisations is another.

Ummm… yeah, that "strange money" you mentioned, that’s usually called "investment capital". Which is, yes, usually "given" for the benefit of the "donor". I don’t think anyone would deny that it is often from very strange sources indeed.

Blenan says:

who are the good guys?

-> “Surveillance state supporters love surveillance — except when the apparatus is controlled by people they don’t like or aimed at people they do. “

====

Big-Government supporters love pervasive and endless laws & regulations — except when that apparatus is controlled by people they don’t like or aimed at people they do.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: "Big government supporters"

Actually big government supporters like large infrastructure and services, and want our meat to be clean and our capitalism to be fair to small players.

These things are what we like which result in big government, but not all big governments result in these things.

Small government supporters like large infrastructure and services, clean meat and fair capitalism, but not at their expense, and not when they don’t personally benefit from them (because fuck everyone else).

People who like small government don’t realize that the things they enjoy like power and running water and roads and liberty require big government to sustain them.

Feel free to go start an agricultural commune in Guyana, then. Because we, here in the states like having internet and space programs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Open-source intelligence is how we will win. Forget protesting, writing letters and voting. Brush up on your Python and Hadoop and start looking at open gov registries and archives, LinkedIn pages, job ads, FOI databases, social/media archives and the high profile leak databases.

All big fish are held up by a support network of regular little fish. And all of them use the same networked, electronic systems as us.

They have 5 eyes. We have a billion.

Anonymous Coward says:

Fascinating Story of Bad OpSec

Ignoring the main point of this story, what I found really fascinating was the description of how Comey’s (and Wittes’s) OpSec failures enabled the chaining. Wittes spelled it all out before going on to whine about being surveilled and I think everyone here ought to read it:

https://twitter.com/benjaminwittes/status/929682413885837312

FWIW, I read Wittes’s feed because he (and lawfare) are doing a really good ongoing analysis of the russia meddling story as it develops. Since he’s a "very serious man" it tends to be very low on hyperbole and high on facts. One thing that is not debateable is that Wittes knows a lot about the internal procedural operations of the IC. A couple of things have stood out so far:

  1. Surveillance as a means of holding the powerful to account is good. Its really the best use of surveillance.
  2. The effectiveness of surveillance on the powerful, so far, has been less than optimal but far from useless. As more details are uncovered it could break either way.
  3. If surveillance of the powerful turns out to be effective in the russia case, I am worried that fact will be used to justify amping up surveillance on everybody.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Fascinating Story of Bad OpSec

ICAC: Just_Security is another good pro-institutional twitter feed worth following. Not only do they talk seriously about the russian affair, they are also covering two stories that have had zero mainstream coverage:

  1. The on-going (now 2 month old) detention of an unnamed american citizen as an enemy combatant without habeas corpus.
  2. Defense lawyers of a gitmo detainee quit because their communications with their client were being surveilled by (probably) the CIA. And now the judge is ordering them back to work under threat of personal sanction, without any effort made to rectify the surveillance problem that makes it impossible for their client to get a fair trial.

https://twitter.com/just_security

DannyB (profile) says:

Talk about an impossible to parse headline

Surveillance Fans Angry Journalist Used Metadata, Contact Chaining To Out Comey’s Secret Twitter Account

Talk about a difficult to parse headline. This is where a backtracking parser is needed. Context free simply won’t cut it.

Attempt #1. Surveillance is the verb? No. That one quickly fails to parse.

Attempt #2. Fans is the verb? That one starts to parse. Surveillance, the subject, Fans something, And what it fans is an Angry Journalist, but then parsing falls apart.

Attempt #3. Used is the verb? Surveillance Fans is possessive, and owns an Angry Journalist. So an Angry Journalist owned by Surveillance Fans, Used Metadata, and had to Contact something . . . well, that one parses completely but fails to make sense and thus is rejected during semantic analysis phase. Thus backtracking into the current parser state for another try is triggered from a different phase of the recognizer.

Attempt #4: Angry is the verb? Surveillande Fans is the subject, and they are Angry that a Journalist Used Metadata, that works, and then after parsing the entire rest of the sentence, the comma means Surveillance Fans are Angry about 2 things separated by a comma.

Whew! I need another diet coke.

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