by The Federalist
On Thursday, June 13, 2013 the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) held a “digital innovation expo” which it called “Innovating at the Speed of News,” a cumbersome title to use by a journalistic organization, to say the least. The event was held at the US Capitol Visitor Center.
Among other things, the IBB wanted to troop out the latest in its “anti-censorship tools in China and Iran.”
Let’s be clear, this agency is no longer in the business of “innovating at the speed of news.” That’s another example of a Third Floor oxymoron. Its “global news network” initiative is a farce. It is doing less original reporting and increasingly becoming a pass-through for recycled Reuters and Associated Press (AP) reports.
[If that is the direction of the vision of a “global news network,” one need not waste time with the VOA website when someone can go directly to the Reuters or AP source websites.]
Further, anyone with an interest in the operations of the Voice of America (VOA) Central Newsroom knows that the agency can’t crank out news items for its main English language website in a timely manner – that hours go by between when a story is filed to the Newsroom and the time it appears – if at all – on the VOA English language website. Face it: under-resourced and poorly managed, these guys move at turtle land speed.
And turtle speed may be reduced to snail speed if you recall that as part of its FY2014 budget proposal, the IBB intends to eliminate more Newsroom positions, including those that are encumbered and funded vacancies. You need people to move the “speed of news.” Generally speaking, the VOA Newsroom is starting to look mighty thin both through the stated intentions of the IBB and the departure of staff that can see the handwriting on wall.
But we digress. Let’s get back to the “expo.”
As one of our associates observed caustically on the anti-censorship tools, “For every measure, there is a countermeasure.”
We reprise for your consideration an event several years ago in which the Iranian Cyber Army hijacked all VOA websites for about five hours, put up their own page, with the Iranian flag wafting in the cyber breeze and an AK-47 alongside, with a personal message in English and Farsi for then-Secretary of State Clinton.
That is what we saw.
What we do not know is the extent to which the penetration by the Iranian Cyber Army compromised other agency digital systems or data.
As behind-the-curve as we tend to believe this agency is, any claim of successful countermeasures to what the Chinese and Iranians can do in the cyber-warfare operations is highly suspect.
Remember: we saw what the Iranians can do. On the other hand, the IBB talks a big game, but…
Ironically, the most effective measures against IBB programming are those directed by the IBB itself: its intentional efforts to eliminate VOA language services and their programs and the elimination of international radio broadcasting transmissions.
This is how lost the IBB is in their technology la-la land: hands down, radio transmissions have the largest geographical footprint. And more importantly –
Where the IBB is at is no longer in the realm of broadcasting. It is embracing “narrowcasting” (a term we observed in a Washington Post article by reporter Marc Fisher). These IBB guys are all about narrowing the agency’s reach – and spending lots of taxpayer money on narrowcasting gizmos – when not deluding themselves about the ability of their intended audience to obtain their narrowcasting technology and evade detection.
Another thing about our tech-toy-crazed IBB:
Regularly, the IBB puts out press releases expressing outrage over the (successful) efforts of other governments blocking IBB programs.
On the other hand, you hear very little from these other countries in response.
It may be a bit of psychological warfare: to watch the motley collection of IBB functionaries throwing a temper tantrum just for the sport of it.
On the other hand, they may not have to say anything and let the success of their countermeasures speak for themselves.
And because the agency has made a catastrophe of its broadcasting efforts that it must now rely upon an expo (a form of IBB exhibitionist behavior) to show that it is doing something, the Iranians and Chinese may just be watching to see what the IBB is trooping out and planning future countermeasures accordingly.
Face it: these IBB folks – seemingly spending a large amount of time viciously defaming members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) – have put themselves in a tight spot when it comes to the effectiveness of the agency’s mission.
In short, the IBB has made the agency mission ineffective.
In our view, the IBB lacks the intellectual capacity to understand nuances in cyber warfare.
More than likely, the Chinese know that their cyber warfare countermeasures are working. This shifts the focus to espionage in which they gather information. Washington officials are always jumping up and down over what the Chinese are able to do in this regard. If they can obtain information about advanced US weapons systems, the IBB is child’s play for them. And with regard to the IBB, the Chinese may be engaged in “passive” cyber warfare: gathering information for use at a later time.
But then there are the Iranians.
We already know what they can do. Their cyber warfare philosophy is more overt and aggressive in nature. They like boldness.
Consider if you will the following possible scenario:
We receive a regular stream of emails from our sources about the agency’s struggles with its DALET programming/production software.
We are left to wonder how much of this is purely the result of system overload or the IT senior-level “gurus” layering one more system on top of another, with incompatible protocols, taxing the agency’s IT systems and the like –
Or, some code periodically introduced by a foreign government – or even an individual – to mess things up at inconvenient times (“zero days,” so to speak) to see how the agency responds. And if these adversaries can read agency emails…
You get the picture: a treasure trove of data for tracking dissidents and others.
[And outside the la-la land of the Cohen Building, you can best believe that any time there is an “incident” involving a broad range of accidents at US power plants and other facilities now largely controlled by computer systems, one of the first things that gets checked is the IT infrastructure to see if it was compromised.]
Edward Snowden and the IBB
We don’t mean a literal connection. But follow:
Americans – and others – find themselves reeling from the revelations of Edward Snowden, a former employee of the huge private consulting firm Booz-Allen-Hamilton, on contract with the National Security Agency (NSA), that the US Government is compiling “big data” on the public and listening in on phone conversations sometimes without a warrant.
Welcome to the 21st century and the nature of foreign asymmetrical threats to the United States and its people.
Most Americans are focused on the personal aspect of the “PRISM” operation that Snowden revealed: intrusions on their personal privacy.
This leaves us kind of surprised as Americans compromise their privacy on a daily basis, either willingly or as an inevitable consequence of the intrusiveness of computer data collection in our daily lives. Think about it: email and websites are all data collection points. You can go on Facebook and off to the right hand side of the page you will see advertisements for other websites. For example, if you happened to have viewed the Macy’s department store website before going over to Facebook, you might see a link to the Macy’s website. You may even see a selection of the same items that you were looking at on the Macy’s website. “Big data” is watching.
That’s data collection. It is the commercial version of gathering (marketing) intelligence on buyers, prospective buyers.
Let’s move things up to the operations of the United States Government.
All agencies of the US Government collect data. As relates to the IBB: some phone calls are recorded (normally for programming purposes), the output of studios can also be monitored and recorded. Most certainly, the IBB can track email traffic of its employees (including members of the BBG). It may also be able to use data collection techniques to determine the origin of hits to its websites.
Even absent potential nefarious intent, data collection is a natural by-product of becoming almost wholly dependent upon computer technology.
[Note: However, given what we’ve seen of IBB behavior toward members of the BBG, a good piece of advice to members of the BBG is to NOT use agency computers or telephones to conduct your personal business: march yourself outside that Soviet-like IBB environment with your personal phone or tablet for your personal matters. Why? Because it is one less thing that some individuals can and/or would use against you – via an allegation of using US Government equipment for your personal business, no matter how innocuous you may think it is. This is good advice for future BBG members.
(We just thought we would mention it, “Penny.”)
Considering the agency’s innovation expo, if you are abroad and trying to access an agency website: be wary. The Iranians have proven adept at using technology to track individual computer users and the websites they visit, the emails they exchange. It would be reasonable to conclude that the Iranians have shared that technology with others. Even if you use the services of an Internet café, caution is the appropriate watchword of the day. Do not assume that IBB claims of anti-censorship devices that put you beyond the reach of local authorities are accurate or foolproof. One needs to do a serious “risk-to-reward” assessment. Chances are – depending on which autocratic regime you live under – the risks are greater than the rewards.
Another thing: since we don’t know how much data the Chinese, Iranians or the Russians have been able to compromise by intrusions into the IBB IT networks that also elevates the need to do some serious risk assessments. The agency isn’t talking – and more importantly neither are the Chinese, Iranians and Russians.
In short, in dangerous locations nothing beats a portable, multi-band, battery-powered, anonymous radio (and sometimes a satellite television receiver if a satellite dish does not give you away as a potential enemy of the state) – unless you are searching for US Government international radio and television broadcasting. The IBB is doing everything it can to eliminate these programs and cut off global publics from reliable information from the US Government.
They are selling the Internet — the most inexpensive mass media communications technology ever devised with its many free applications available to anyone, including the US government — as super expensive technological gizmos. They are asking American taxpayers to pay for them. They are also telling Voice of America and other journalists and broadcasters that the only way to get these gizmos is for program content producers to lose their jobs so that more bureaucrats and consultants could take their place.
But these IBB officials and strategists forget that there is no Internet radio without radio and no Internet television without television. There is no news content unless someone produces it. There is no mission unless someone understands what it is. Technology will not save a US international broadcaster with a failed strategy.
In the business of US Government international broadcasting, technology can make one really short-sighted.
And the IBB has chomped down hard on the bait.