Thursday Reads: Human Evolution, Snowden Leaks, and Other NewsPosted: December 5, 2013
I seem to have caught a little cold, nothing serious; but I’m a little slow this morning. Anyway, I have a few interesting stories for you, beginning with an amazing discovery that has stunned scientists and forced them to adjust their assumptions about human evolution. From the NYT: Baffling 400,000-Year-Old Clue to Human Origins.
In a paper in the journal Nature, scientists reported Wednesday that they had retrieved ancient human DNA from a fossil dating back about 400,000 years, shattering the previous record of 100,000 years.
The fossil, a thigh bone found in Spain, had previously seemed to many experts to belong to a forerunner of Neanderthals. But its DNA tells a very different story. It most closely resembles DNA from an enigmatic lineage of humans known as Denisovans. Until now, Denisovans were known only from DNA retrieved from 80,000-year-old remains in Siberia, 4,000 miles east of where the new DNA was found.
The mismatch between the anatomical and genetic evidence surprised the scientists, who are now rethinking human evolution over the past few hundred thousand years. It is possible, for example, that there are many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. They might have interbred, swapping DNA. Scientists hope that further studies of extremely ancient human DNA will clarify the mystery.
Now the experts are going to have to find a way to incorporate these new discoveries into their understanding of human history. The story offers several different possibilities from different scientists.
Hints at new hidden complexities in the human story came from a 400,000-year-old femur found in a cave in Spain called Sima de los Huesos (“the pit of bones” in Spanish). The scientific team used new methods to extract the ancient DNA from the fossil….
Since the 1970s, Spanish scientists have brought out a wealth of fossils from the cave dating back hundreds of thousands of years. “The place is very special,” said Dr. Arsuaga, who has found 28 nearly complete skeletons of humans during three decades of excavations.
Based on the anatomy of the fossils, Dr. Arsuaga has argued that they belonged to ancestors of Neanderthals, which lived in western Asia and Europe from about 200,000 to 30,000 years ago.
But based on newly discovered methods for extracting DNA, researchers learned something very different. Read the rest of this fascination story at the NYT link above.
Yesterday the Washington Post published a new story by Barton Gellman, based on the data stolen from the NSA by Edward Snowden: NSA tracking cellphone locations worldwide, Snowden documents show. Except if you read the whole story you’ll learn that this is being done only to collect foreign intelligence; it’s not being done in the U.S. Data from Americans who are overseas could get caught up in the data collection, but the point is to track the locations of suspected terrorists.
The NSA does not target Americans’ location data by design, but the agency acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts of domestic cellphones “incidentally,” a legal term that connotes a foreseeable but not deliberate result.
One senior collection manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity but with permission from the NSA, said “we are getting vast volumes” of location data from around the world by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as well as foreign ones. Additionally, data are often collected from the tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year.
In scale, scope and potential impact on privacy, the efforts to collect and analyze location data may be unsurpassed among the NSA surveillance programs that have been disclosed since June. Analysts can find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among the people using them.
Honestly, is anyone really surprised by this? I’m not saying it’s a wonderful thing, but, as I recall, tracing cell phone locations was the method used to catch Osama bin Laden. Not only that, but local police in the U.S. routinely use cell phone tracking to investigate crimes–and like the Feds, they have to get warrants to do so.
Anyone who didn’t know that you have no expectation of privacy when using a cell phone must have been living in a cave for a very long time. But if you really think the NSA is listening in on all of your personal phone calls and reading your text messages, you’re–quite frankly–nuts. The NSA would have to have millions of employees in order to sift through everyone’s data.
Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, said “there is no element of the intelligence community that under any authority is intentionally collecting bulk cellphone location information about cellphones in the United States.”
The NSA has no reason to suspect that the movements of the overwhelming majority of cellphone users would be relevant to national security. Rather, it collects locations in bulk because its most powerful analytic tools — known collectively as CO-TRAVELER — allow it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.
As noted in the article, data collected from Americans overseas isn’t protected by the Fourth Amendment; and the Supreme Court decided long ago that telephone call data is owned by the phone companies and that Americans have no expectation of privacy when talking on the phone. If we want to increase privacy protections, it will have to be done through legislation–not by whining about the NSA doing it’s job, which is to collect foreign intelligence. (A side note: a short time ago, former NSA analyst John Schindler offered some suggestions for “Reforming NSA from the Top.”) I wish journalists would devote as much energy to investigating why millions of Americans can’t get jobs and why so many of the ones who do have jobs can’t get paid a living wage as they do to telling us things we already knew or strongly suspected about NSA data collection.
Meanwhile, there are some troubling questions and revelations about some of the journalists who have been involved in releasing the Snowden files. As everyone knows by now, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras now have control of all of the data that Snowden stole. This data includes the names of all British and American intelligence agents. Greenwald and Poitras are currently working on developing a new news website, a project backed by libertarian Ebay billionaire Pierre Omidyar. Here’s an extensive profile of Omidyar by renegade investigative journalist MarkAmes.
Recently, Ames wrote another piece at Pando Daily questioning the ethics of Snowden’s cache of NSA data being controlled by two individuals who are beholden to one wealthy backer headlined Keeping Secrets: Pierre Omidyar, Glenn Greenwald and the privatization of Snowden’s leaks.
Who “owns” the NSA secrets leaked by Edward Snowden to reporters Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras?
Given that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar just invested a quarter of a billion dollars to
personally hire Greenwald and Poitras for his new for-profit media venture, it’s a question worth asking.
It’s especially worth asking since it became clear that Greenwald and Poitras are now the only two people with full access to the complete cache of NSA files, which are said to number anywhere from 50,000 to as many as 200,000 files. That’s right: Snowden doesn’t have the files any more, the Guardian doesn’t have them, the Washington Post doesn’t have them… just Glenn and Laura at the for-profit journalism company created by the founder of eBay.
Edward Snowden has popularly been compared to major whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg,Chelsea Manning and Jeffrey Wigand. However, there is an important difference in the Snowden files that has so far gone largely unnoticed. Whistleblowing has traditionally served the public interest. In this case, it is about to serve the interests of a billionaire starting a for-profit media business venture. This is truly unprecedented. Never before has such a vast trove of public secrets been sold wholesale to a single billionaire as the foundation of a for-profit company.
I didn’t realize this until yesterday, but apparently Greenwald did not have the data on British intelligence originally; but he somehow forced the Guardian to turn it over to him before he resign from the newspaper. This may be the data that Greenwald’s husband David Miranda was caught with at Heathrow airport when he was detained there awhile back. The British Parliament is currently investigating the behavior of the Guardian and its editor Alan Rusberger. From the blog of BBC journalist Louise Mensch: Rusbridger admits shipping agents’ names – what now?
MPs today got Alan Rusbridger to admit a number of things he, and his paper had previously denied.
Firstly, that he shipped the names of GCHQ agents abroad to newspapers and bloggers. Mr. Rusbridger was reminded that this was a criminal offence, and said he had a public interest defence. He also, however, kept arguing that he hadn’t published any names, which rather blows up his public interest defence – it’s self-evident that you don’t need the names of intelligence agents to report on GCHQ spying, so why not redact them?
The fact is, Rusbridger did acknowledge that it put GCHQ agents at risk when he first shipped files to ProPublica. He redacted the names of GCHQ agents from those files, and he promised the government he had done so….
In Parliament today when asked why he didn’t redact the names he said there were 58,000 documents – essentially, he could be bothered to go through the <100 files he FedExed to ProPublica, but could not be bothered to go through the entire batch he sent to the NYT.
Really? He couldn’t take a week, and black out agents’ names? There were copies of the docs in the Guardian offices in New York, so time was not an issue for Rusbridger – instead, he exposed the names.
Perhaps worst of all, Rusbridger confirmed my very worst suspicions, which were that he hadn’t even read through the top secret files before shipping them. He redacted no names; he redacted no operational details; he didn’t even read them. And by “he” I mean any employee of the Guardian. Nobody at that paper read the 58,000 documents through, not even once, before sharing them in bulk.
Mensch updated that post with more information yesterday: HAS Rusbridger exposed thousands of GCHQ personnel? A commenter on the original post explained that in revealing the names of intelligence personnel to multiple people, Rusberger and the Guardian essentially destroyed their careers and seriously damaged British intelligence efforts. Here’s the comment:
A comment was left on that last blog that I have to reproduce. It shows that every agent exposed by Rusbridger has had their career ruined for the duration of it; none of them can ever work in the field again. Furthermore, the writer makes the compelling case that the NSA-GCHQ wiki, which the New York Times published extracts from, and the directories of staff interests like gay and lesbian clubs, ghost hunting clubs etc, mean that Rusbridger has actually sent abroad not just a handful of names, as he claimed to Parliament “there were names on power points” but actually thousands of GCHQ names.
Read the whole explanation at the link. I apologize for writing this before I nail down every detail, but I think this is important and it’s highly unlikely the corporate media will look into it since they could also culpable.
I’m afraid I rambled on too long on the NSA story, so I’ll just add a few more links that you might like to check out.
AP via Business Insider: A Period Of Bitterly Cold Temperatures Not Seen In A Decade Is About To Hit Parts Of The US
JM Ashby at The Daily Banter: Their Kind of Individual Mandate