NSA and Snowden – A Year On

NSA and Snowden was written in 2014 but the revelations remain concerning and technology, surveillance and privacy remain key issues

Another anniversary this past week. After the commemoration of D-Day 70 years ago on the 6th June, something far less significant in multiple nation’s collective memories, it is one year since The Guardian first printed Edward Snowden’s revelations about the activities of the NSA, GCHQ et al. For an excellent commentary and summation read the article on The Register.

The article covers not only the scope of what was revealed but also discusses the impact of these revelations. It is clear there is still much to be revealed, and there is also the on-going reluctance of the British Press in particular to publish some of the revelations. Most notably, the Register also published details about the international fibre and communication link tapping operations notably in Oman. Quoting from the article from 2nd June.

Exclusive Above-top-secret details of Britain’s covert surveillance programme – including the location of a clandestine British base tapping undersea cables in the Middle East – have so far remained secret, despite being leaked by fugitive NSA sysadmin Edward Snowden. Government pressure has meant that some media organisations, despite being in possession of these facts, have declined to reveal them. Today, however, the Register publishes them in full.
So not only do we have hidden spying activity, no surprise there, but a marked reluctance by our own media to discuss the issue. The often quoted excuse for not discussing the issues is that it put lives at risk and harms the nation. This is made as a statement with no factual information to back it up. Proof of a negative is always difficult, but really lives at risk from the UK public knowing that a location in Oman is built and operated for the entire purpose of monitoring Internet communication links, something that the locals in Oman. all the people who built and service the staions and all the agencies know, but the British public must not.

This reminds me of the farcical situation a few years ago when Ordnance Survey Maps and road atlases would show blank empty spaces where UK military and other sensitive bases were. Meanwhile the then Soviet Union was scanning those places with satellite photography almost hourly. So our prospective enemy knew what was there (at least what building were) but the British Public was not allowed to see that just inside the main gate was the entrance to the Officers’ Mess and NAAFI next to the tennis court. I have never been able to understand why this was the case, this in built secrecy left over from the war, like changing the road signs around as if an invader would not have a compass and discover our ruse.

Back to NSA and the latest series of revelations. The sheer scope and scale of the observations are in one way comforting, our spies are spying, protecting us. They claim to have prevented all sorts of illegal actions like Germany stealing a march on trade negotiations or when Chancellor Merkel was getting home from the state dinner. The plumbed into the content not just metadata of every single telephone call in the Bahamas. How many pizza takeaway orders were there? We should be told about this vital contribution to national security. The sheer scale of the monitoring beggars belief yet it has raised the merest flicker of interest in the UK. I believe that some of this is down to media jealousy. Much like the Telegraph when it broke the MPs’ expenses scandal. The Guardian had an exclusive and the rest of the media seemed reluctant to follow up.

Whether Snowden was right to release the information will be a matter for history to judge there has been a media backlash against him pushed forward by the self same agencies he has allegedly harmed. The bottom line is that like MPs these agencies work for us. GCHQ is funded by the taxpayer, if it is wasting needed national resources discovering how many of us posted tweets on our favourite dogs isn’t it justified that we question what they are spending our money on. At a time of national austerity with ongoing cuts still impacting numerous government spending, what exactly are we getting for our money. Our MPs don’t seem to want to find out as I have previously blogged here. Our media for spitefulness , boredom or just plain laziness have not followed up. Where is the probing Channel 4 or BBC Panorama expose? Yes, they have reported on the Snowden allegations but where is their own investigation adding to the story. The NSA intercepting and tampering with Cisco routers was an allegation without specificity from Snowden. Then film emerged of the NSA doing it, it’s referenced in The Register’s article but still the doubters question Snowden’s authenticity. This week, having claimed for months that they had no emails from Snowden complaining about anything, they suddenly released one email from him. How did they manage to find that? No emails means no emails, not one. Where are the others he cannot have sent just one? Another scandal waiting to happen unreported in the mainstream press.

My final comments for today concern the real issue. On Friday we commemorated a major step in the fight to bring freedom to Europe. Freedom what does that mean? Freedom in my view is about freedom from oppression, free to think, comment and express opinions. The Internet has greatly extended this freedom. It has also given us the freedom to shop, post dog and children videos and endless meaningless chatter. The e-commerce activities have been significantly undermined by our so called security agencies deliberate attempts to break encryption and other secure systems. There actions have made us less secure as a whole. Billions of financial transactions are at risk because of exploits they either created or left in place so that they could spy on everything else. This is akin to a policeman breaking the locks of every house in case he needs to raid it at some stage in the future or a doctor creating a virus so that he always has plenty of patients.

This is not security, this is not in my interest and it’s a colossal waste of resources. Every part of government is scrutinised about how it spends our money except this one. Perhaps our own MPs might do the job they are elected to do rather than the one their party or government tells them to do. Cosy-ing up to the security services is not their job, representing us is; I wonder if they ever will?

Controversy for Controversy’s Sake

I recently commented on the GoodReads forum http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1471999 discussing the subject “Would You Write About Controversy” or controversy for controversy’s sake

I said I might blog so here it is starting with my own comment, I haven’t reproduced others’ comments as I haven’t asked the writer’s permission.

One of my favourite discussion subjects along with censorship.  Freedom of speech in the UK is not as formally protected as it is in the USA, but it is protected.  There are always controversial subjects although the USA arguments of religion and politics are not as ribald, neither is abortion.

One of the most interesting controversies, over the years, has been Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.  Irrespective of political viewpoint it is a work of fiction, but look what it led to and that was mostly in a pre-Internet Social Media age.  Did this book sell more copies because its opponents were so vociferous in denouncing it and the author?  Has Salmon Rushdie sold more of his other books as a result or has he changed writing subjects to avoid further death threats?

In my own work, controversial decisions and some politics are backdrops to my stories.  In my first attempt, it was the creation of the dossiers to support the war in Iraq.  With Syria going on, the recent UK decision to not support military action can be traced to the Iraq dossier debacle.  In my second, I deal with several controversial subjects like rape and summary execution, hidden in a story about survivors.  My third has insider trading to generate huge wealth and the misbehaviour of big business.  Who knows what I might write next as news stories often provide a creative spark.

At the front of all of my books is a disclaimer.  This is a work of Fiction, in other words I made it up, it’s just a story, I don’t necessarily share my characters opinions, although I like to have a basis of fact behind all my stories.”

That said, is controversy useful?  In an age of trolls, flame wars, email barrages, and 24/7 media sound and video bites, should a writer of a blog, article or book deliberately try to be controversial.  Another quote attributed to Brendan Behan

There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”

In the UK we have had threats of rape caused by promotion of the image on a bank note followed by more threats to female writers and journalists who had the temerity to comment on the threats.  Opinion piece writers in newspapers and other media are supposed to be controversial, that’s why they are employed.  A newspaper editorial and front page headline are designed to support the political leanings of the newspaper and act as an advertisement for sales.

Let’s be controversial then – Martin Luther King, Jr said

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

A nice uncontroversial quote, so lets dissect it.

The ultimate – really this is the ultimate meaning the peak, the top? Are we sure it’s really the ultimate.

Measure – by what metric is this a measurement and to what standard and against what comparator?

Of a Man – Many commentators would regard this as sexist, but of course at the time of the quote man in this sense meant humankind or to use the terminology mankind still shouldn’t the same measure be used for women?

I’ll stop there I have no wish to denigrate Mr King who was a fantastic orator on the speeches I have seen, I don’t know if he was a good man or not I didn’t know him personally or professionally.

So, if I write about abortion in a novel, will I face controversy and criticism regardless of the viewpoint the character, or characters, propose. Under-age sex or any sex often causes controversy. I’m not sure why, it has always happened and despite sex education, moralistic pronouncements, campaigns and so on it always will. Should I avoid that subject to avoid controversy? Because a character has under-age (a subjective legalistic viewpoint with different morals, laws and conventions around the world) sex in a story should that automatically rate a book as adult only content? If I write about it does that make me a paedophile (another nice controversy there)? If I look at a naked woman in a Rueben’s picture in an art gallery that is cultural, if I look at a naked woman on a porn site it’s bad or degenerates women.

For women, is a Michael Angelo sculpture porn? It’s a naked man! My word we cannot show that on prime time TV and if the man had an erection it would be porn and not suitable for any regular TV viewers. In case nobody noticed the human race has survived and expanded thanks to sex including erect penises. If you don’t want them described in a book or film don’t read or watch, but why would you avoid human nature. I don’t particularly like watching people chew gum, maybe we could censor that, but of course I might just be trying to be controversial so you will read my blog, if I tag it correctly for Internet searches.

If I argue for against creationism, Islam, Christianity, Scientology, Buddhism, etc., etc., will I attract more interest, more blog followers, more complaints? Will that sell more of my books?  Who knows? There are millions of blogs, tweets, and emails. Thousands of newspaper articles around the world and nearly seven billion people on the planet each with their own opinions and beliefs.  Just because a politician, media outlet, or journalist says something in Iran, the UK or the USA does not make it so or true.  In general I think there is too much opinion dressed up as facts.  If you hear the words common sense, the people believe, it is God’s wish, step back, ask if that is really true is it a fact or an opinion?

If you don’t discuss controversial subjects then you are simply avoiding facts which is often the advice given for polite conversation – no religion, sex, or politics.  Whichever side of an opinion you may take, remember it’s an opinion not a fact.  I like to argue, I like controversy, I think I’m right and so do you.

Now back to writing my next story about a homosexual atheist who rapes a disabled veteran on his nation’s flag whilst looking at kiddie porn having forced his 14 year old sister to have an abortion only because the father was a black Islamic preacher– or maybe not.  Still it’s an idea…  now for the tags, light blue touch paper stand back and….

What The Hell Is YA?

What the hell is YA as Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young-adult_fiction) defines YA as the following:

“Young-adult fiction or young adult literature (often abbreviated as YA),[1] also juvenile fiction, is fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents and young adults, although recent studies show that 55% of young-adult fiction is purchased by readers over 18 years of age.[2] The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) defines a young adult as someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Authors and readers of young adult (YA) novels often define the genre as literature as traditionally written for ages ranging from twelve years up to the age of eighteen, while some publishers may market young adult literature to as low as age ten or as high as age twenty-five.[3] The terms young-adult novel, juvenile novel, young-adult book, etc. refer to the works in the YA category”

So what exactly is YA? Should I be writing for this market, which seems to dominate many categories or other genres or is this just a marketing gimmick? What distinguishes this genre from other categories? When I was in this age category I read grown up fiction to prove I was an adult. Children’s books consisted of Enid Blyton and the classics of Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and Kidnapped. I also read The Hobbit. I have of course read as an adult the Harry Potter series with my own children but also for myself. Being from the Neolithic age pre-Internet, I regard all these stories as children’s books. Classic books were what we studied at school in English classes, I love Shakespeare, I have read Jane Austin, some Dickens, are these YA? Do I have to reclassify Romeo and Juliet as a YA targeted story? So maybe it’s my upbringing and age that causes my confusion and I am back to what exactly is this genre. I browsed the list of books on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/list/tag/young-adult and I am none the wiser. There were 549 group discussions tagged as YA on Goodreads, but the definition still escapes me. I certainly do not wish to offend any of the clearly millions of YA readers or the thousands of YA Authors. So what is it that distinguishes this category?

Adult themes appear such as abuse, despair, and the struggles of modern or historical life. There are fantasy and Sci Fi stories, YA Romance, thrillers, short and long books. So is it the content I should look at or the language used. There may be non-explicit sex and violence, but many traditional genre books hold back from one or more of these. Relationships may not be consummated in YA, but Romance genre has lots of looking and gazing and very little actual sex. Is it the literary complexity of the language that dictates a YA novel or just the absence of swearing? One forum discussed the use of YA lead characters in the story as a guide, but that doesn’t seem to hold true for all the stories. If I read a Sci Fi novel about teenagers fighting off werewolves is it YA, Sci-Fi, Horror, Fantasy, or a romance because one character dreams of kissing another?

My books tend to have fairly robust, some would say explicit, sex and violence and some swearing, does that mean they cannot be considered as YA? My second book To The Survivors has several YA age group characters. Is Lord of the Flies a YA novel? Who decided that this category even exists?

I turn to the marketing industry for guidance, and I am even more lost by tweens, teens, YA. They separate the three as individual target audiences. As adulthood is a cultural and legal definition, is a sixteen year old, a YA, a teenager, or a child? As a sixteen year old I positively avoided reading anything labelled as for a teenager, or a child. I wanted to be treated and saw myself as an adult, I read newspapers and adult fiction. I read Heinlein, Asimov, Silverberg and Clarke in Sci Fi. I read Heller and Updike, but added Le Carre and Deighton, whilst at school we had more Shakespeare to name just a few. I also read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and other D H Lawrence books and I sneaked in to watch the 18 rated films until they came on TV. I craved adult content that dealt with sex and violence not some pastiche of a 1950’s Hollywood movie where Rock Hudson and Doris Day are married but sleep in separate beds wearing more clothes than the did in the day time for fear of falling foul of the censors.

So is YA another form of censorship? The US TV market (excluding cable), gives us a guide, no sex, no swearing but endless violence is fine. Twilight the books and movies have chaste kisses and dreamy looks whilst violence and death surround the protagonists. Is this YA? If it is, then no thanks. If I ever write a children’s story it will not have sex, violence or swearing. My other fiction will be written for…. Well I suppose I am writing for me. I have blogged previously on this subject so I’ll try not to repeat myself. For the YA market, I think if you are a YA then you will like my books because they feature adult themes, but they are not in YA.

I’m not in YA, I don’t understand the category maybe someone else can explain the definition of this alleged genre to me.

How Far Should I Go?

One of the interesting things about writing my own books, has been the explicitness question i.e. how far should I go? This covers several different elements; I’ll try and cover my reasoning for each.

Language – should characters swear at each other. I personally, have nothing against the use of swear words, although a lot of dialogue used in movie adaptions, or TV, seem to go further than the books on which they are based. I have used swear words, but minimally, and only where I think it adds to the plot. I have not written an action packed crime thriller or gangsta rap piece. If I did, I may swear more, but even then, I would want to keep it to a minimum. DH Lawrence used sexually explicit words in his descriptions and conversations. I have not, but then again I am not DH Lawrence by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Sex – I have been told there is a lot of sex in my book, there is some but define a lot. For the lead characters it is part of their engagement with each other, it’s also critical to the lead protagonists behaviour before he meets his girl. This is an adult thriller not an adult book. I could have been more explicit, I could have been less. I have found that in a lot of thrillers, in this genre, sex is missing or skipped over. I wanted to make sure it was there.
  • Violence – Like the sex, there is some, not as explicit as a slasher or other serial killer books, but some. Again I was tempted to go further but held back. I wanted to leave some to the imagination
  • Sexual Violence – Combining the last two into a single theme. There are some difficult scenes with the killer and his victims. Again, I was tempted to be more explicit but held back. Partly, this was contrived for the further parts of the plot, but also because I didn’t want to write some of the things, or when I did it became too comic book.

With the elements covered, there is an overall pitch level as to who the book is for. That covers the style, language, and theme. Do I want 12 year-olds reading it? Probably not, but I read some fairly serious so called adult books as a young teenager. I have tried to understand the Young Adult genre characteristics, and I am struggling. Why is a film or book characterised in this way I struggle to understand much as the argument about nudity in films, (bad leading to age restrictions) compared to nudity in an art gallery (good and culturally uplifting and worthy of a school visit).

Hollywood and TV seems to have decided that bad language and violence is fine but nudity and sex is not. Calling someone a M***** F***** is fine in a 15 film rating, but showing them having sex results in an 18 or USA R rating. When visualising the scenes in my books or writing the conversations am I led by this hypocrisy or should I write what I want. I would love a film deal so should I swear more to try and get one? If I was lucky enough to get one would I argue to keep the sex in and swearing out, what would you do?