Snowden on the Dangers of Photography, with a dash of Persinger (and Schneier coming to Boston)

If my guess is correct, this could be one of the most dangerous things you’ll ever read 🙂

Edward Snowden to a room full of “talking grant eaters”[1] and one journalist who “has spent a lot of time in Russia to get my way”:

“The more photographed I am, understanding the technical capability that the US services have, the more dangerous my situation becomes.”

The linked article speculates that this is about facial recognition technology, but I’m wondering if that’s all it is. For one thing, the existing video footage is pretty close to the standard for training facial recognition systems: clear, evenly lit, about eye height, the only thing that could be done better would be shooting it head-on.

The journalist is right about more pictures being good for “human” detective work… but Snowden explicitly said “technical capability” — and Snowden is nothing if not a precise speaker.

Snowden also said “more dangerous” — well, a streetcorner camera feed getting tapped by the Nicotine Sellers’ Association and picking him up could make a difference in locating him some day… but again, I’m pretty sure just walking through the Honolulu and Hong Kong airports generated enough training footage in that regard.

Therefore, I have to wonder if his words reflect much larger and scarier things he doesn’t want to disclose in detail.

Specifically, remember Persinger’s remarkable “No More Secrets” talk?

Persinger’s thesis echoes another well-respected Canadian academic 39 years ago — “no form of secrecy is possible at electric speed,” Marshall McLuhan[2] — but that’s not why I’m linking to it.

Starting at 28:34, Persinger describes the case of one Sean Harribance, a man who can access others’ memory — given only a picture of the person.

Now, THAT would indeed have the capability to make Snowden’s situation MUCH more dangerous!

Have another McLuhan quote: “Only puny secrets need protection. big discoveries are protected by public incredulity.”[3] (I’m starting to wonder if these Canadians aren’t on to something… after all, any country that played host to Tesla’s secret lab would know something about public incredulity and big discoveries.)

Anyway, where was I… if we go back to Snowden’s quote, does that mean that there’s a “technical capability” to take someone’s picture and use it to access their memory… or maybe even more?

(Come to think of it, there is a lot of odd superstition about people’s pictures, dating back to the Native Americans and even Islamic tradition. That we have portrait photographs of Native Americans at all is due to JP Morgan financing Edward Curtis’ expeditions.)

Schneier is coming to Boston: Everyone’s favorite high-profile ex-government cryptographer and security expert will be in the Boston area an awful lot for the 2013-2014 year, hanging around Harvard and MIT.

[1] [2] [3]

“Upon closer inspection, Snowden’s shirt is not the one he wore in Hong Kong. This one has button-down collars; the other one did not. But it’s evident that either his sartorial taste runs quite narrowly — as befitting a classic “computer nerd” — or he’s very specifically controlling his image, or both. In response to a request that he make himself available for more photographs to the assembled media outside the conference room, Snowden said,

“The more photographed I am, understanding the technical capability that the US services have, the more dangerous my situation becomes.”

He’s presumably speaking about facial recognition technology, meaning that the more photos that are taken of him, the easier it will be to make a match if he goes incognito. And on the human detective level, more imagery in more diverse attire could give his pursuers a far clearer picture of his preferences, his available wardrobe, and his mannerisms and appearance in general. It’s pure speculation, of course, if wearing almost the same clothing is intended to limit the sense of what he might look like in disguise or it’s just consistent with the standard tradecraft of a CIA and NSA operative who avoided being photographed long before he went off the reservation.[…]

She gave further insights on Snowden’s predicament. Frelih tweeted, “#Snowden is not phantom. Fragile, desperate” and then clarified, “#snowden looked like someone without daylight for long time but strong enough psychologically.” Answering questions about Sarah Harrison and Wikileaks, she wrote, “It’s obvious who is in charge. #wikileaks are the only ones he can count on now” and “S. Harrison is a bossy lady, probably has to be. I will talk first she said at the beginning.” Frelih’s photograph with the hand of Wikileaks crossing Snowden’s face shows this uneasy tension explicitly.””

%d bloggers like this: