Wilful ignorance


I’m not much of a podcast fan, but I came across Sam Harris interviewing Michael Hayden and set aside some time to listen to it. I wasn’t expecting much common ground between the interviewer and interviewee, but a mutual dislike of Glenn Greenwald seemed to get their rapport clicked into place, and I very much enjoyed their discussion.

The purpose of this post is that there’s a massive logical discrepancy in what Hayden said. If it’s true then the (US) Intelligence Agencies are being wilfully ignorant, something that I find unlikely.

The President’s BlackBerry

In one part of the interview Hayden talks about how Obama had to be weaned off his BlackBerry after taking office at the White House.

The assertion: Every embassy in Washington would be able to tap in to the President’s email traffic.

Why this seems unlikely: BlackBerries had a reputation for strong end to end encryption, so much so that there has been controversy over whether they could be permitted in India. For sure any (foreign) agency with proximity to the cell tower near the White House would be able to intercept the encrypted traffic, but that should be pretty much useless to them. At worst traffic pattern analysis would reveal when the device was sending and receiving.

Tipping their hand: This could reveal that NSA already knew how to intercept BlackBerry traffic and that it was simple enough that they also expected less friendly agencies to be able to do the same and/or their was a TEMPEST issue with the handsets that presented a vulnerability to anybody with sufficient proximity (‘anybody on Pennsylvania Avenue’).

Trump Tower Wire Taps

Elsewhere in the interview Hayden marvelled at how the discourse around Trump Tower wiretapping allegations had taken place so publicly, with key agency representatives going on the record to say that Obama had not authorised spying on the Trump campaign/President Elect.

The assertion: Trump Tower wasn’t under surveillance.

Why this seems unlikely: Hayden had talked earlier in the interview about domestic metadata collection for back tracing, and how even his own call records would be amongst that horde. So it would be exceptional for Trump Tower not to be included. Perhaps the point here is the oft argued content versus metadata; but in a world of ‘we kill people based on metadata’ it matters not; and the metadata would be plenty to build the graph of Trumps relationships and influence.

Putting it together

Trump is well known for using an Android phone, which is likely a lot less secure than Obama’s BlackBerry, so if the earlier assertions are true, then any (foreign) agency in New York would be all over his comms and collecting their ‘Kompromat‘. If the latter assertion is also true then the US are basically saying that they left the field open for foreigners, but didn’t take a look themselves; and that would be wilful ignorance. At the very least I’d expect a ‘this is what we (and everybody else) got on you before you were sworn in, and that’s why things need to change’ type conversation and the business as usual activities behind it. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe wilful ignorance is part of how the game is played.

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