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The Internet Government News Politics

Internet Giving Rise To "Citizen Spies" 93

reporter writes "According to a startling report by the Wall Street Journal, the Internet has empowered ordinary people to be part-time intelligence officers, uncovering secrets like military facilities and prison camps across the landscape of North Korea. The report states, '[Curtis] Melvin is at the center of a dozen or so citizen snoops who have spent the past two years filling in the blanks on the map of one of the world's most secretive countries. Seeking clues in photos, news reports and eyewitness accounts, they affix labels to North Korean structures and landscapes captured by Google Earth, an online service that stitches satellite pictures into a virtual globe. The result is an annotated North Korea of rocket-launch sites, prison camps and elite palaces on white-sand beaches. "It's democratized intelligence," says Mr. Melvin. More than 35,000 people have downloaded Mr. Melvin's file, North Korea Uncovered. It has grown to include thousands of tags in categories such as "nuclear issues" (alleged reactors, missile storage), dams (more than 1,200 countrywide) and restaurants (47). Its Wikipedia approach to spying shows how Soviet-style secrecy is facing a new challenge from the Internet's power to unite a disparate community of busybodies.'"
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Internet Giving Rise To "Citizen Spies"

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 24, 2009 @10:24AM (#28074583)

    Citizens spy on you?


    • by asdfx ( 446164 )

      does it not sound problematic that if we can do this, so can they...?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by gnick ( 1211984 )

        So what? Security through obscurity has pretty well been written off. We used to identify Russian special-nuclear-material sites by looking for the buildings with 3-layer fences and sniper towers. Our sites are identifiable the same way. Solution? 3-layer fences, sniper towers, and undisclosed underground protection. You can no longer hide your facilities, you just protect them and keep anything super-sensitive under a closed roof in a building with no open windows.

        • Of course, when these are located in the UK or US?

          You are a paranoid tin-foil hatter.

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by Anonymous Coward

            > You are a paranoid tin-foil hatter.

            You say that like its a bad thing....

        • by Whiternoise ( 1408981 ) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @11:53AM (#28075187)
          Or, like most top secret installations these days, you dig and avoid the problem entirely. Facilities like NORAD, for instance (and you think if anything has ever existed at Area 51 it's above ground?).

          The UK (and no doubt the US and similar) government employs researchers with the sole task of poring over satellite pictures to determine the capacity of power plants, populations of regions and in general "what things are and what they can do". They also have far more high resolution satellite images than Google is allowed to produce.

          We've been doing this kind of thing for years and still are. The only difference now is that the public can give it a go.

          Reminds me of the famous incident concerning one of the first Nuclear tests when a university professor used dimensional analysis to calculate what the detonation payload was (a classified figure at the time) based on a photo that was published in the papers (that was the last time the US Military put scales on their photos :P).
        • by fishbowl ( 7759 )

          >So what? Security through obscurity has pretty well been written off.

          Just when I started to believe that, I had three different system administrators tell me to put SSH on a nonstandard port in response to dictionary attacks. Of course that buys you a few seconds maybe, but the bots are smart enough to nmap and find sshd running wherever you put it. My plan was to (hardware) firewall the host so that it only allowed specific source addresses and to disable passwords entirely. One of those admins, a s

      • They don't have agents in Google faking the maps (or launching the spy satellites).

        Or do they?

    • by Jurily ( 900488 )

      Citizens spy on you?

      Ah, just like old times. Since there's absolutely no way to stop the phenomenon, why don't we balance things out? Let the citizens spy on the government as well.

  • Oh Boy (Score:5, Funny)

    by cbs4385 ( 929248 ) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @10:26AM (#28074611)
    Does this mean I get to act out my favorite moments from 24 on that creepily suspicious neighbor of mine, the one who speaks that foreigner lingo in with his so call family? I can't wait. Now where'd I put my home waterboarding kit...
    • the one who speaks that foreigner lingo in with his so call family?

      Depends on it being more or less foreign than your "lingo". :P

    • Setting: front lawn. Neighbor is watering his lawn and CBS is coming home from work.

      Neighbor: Hello CBS, good evening!
      *cbs jumps over fence and grabs Neighbor, dragging him to the closed garage door, and and slams him against it
      cbs: Where are the weapons?! WHERE ARE THE WEAPONS?!
      Neighbor (flabbergasted): weapons? What are you talking about?
      *neighbor starts to fall down the garage door as Bauer^Wcbs pulls him back up and slams him against it, pulling a USP and pressing it into Neighbor's nose
      CBS: The weapons

  • by redelm ( 54142 ) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @10:27AM (#28074619) Homepage
    There's a _huge_ difference between people on the ground who go look at things and talk to people, and people who analyse the photos people on the ground or in the sky/space have taken.

    For one thing, analysts aren't in hostile territory and subject to arrest.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by nametaken ( 610866 )

      Yeah, my initial thought was, aren't there LOTS of people who work for our intelligence agencies doing this with much better imagery and expertise, augmented by feet on the ground?

      • This sounds like fealgood uselessness to me, surely the real spies will just be able to use use an automated system to analyze the boundary of camps. I suspect nobody has had the heart to tell the guy that his efforts are pretty redundant or worse counter productive.

    • by ickleberry ( 864871 ) <web@pineapple.vg> on Sunday May 24, 2009 @10:47AM (#28074735) Homepage
      True. You're not a real spy unless you build a UAV and fly it over North Korea, or a MAV if you have the balls (or a death wish).

      It would be a fun project, launch it from Russia or South Korea - not China because NK & China are good communist brothers. You can have it connect to the interwebs using Thuraya, Inmarsat and maybe use an Orbcomm transceiver as backup. I suppose ideally you'd want a dirigible or something that can stay in the air for extended periods without producing much heat that missiles would pick up on. Once in the country's interior you could lower its altitude and get some nice detailed shots. You could control it directly by radio but this makes you far too easy to trace - internet connectivity allows you to GTFO once the thing is launched.

      The problem would be getting something to power the thing - microjets pump out too much heat, solar power alone probably won't give you the required amount of oomph to fly the thing. You could go unpowered, launch when there is a good breeze blowing into North Korea and deflate once it reaches another country. There was a slashdot story about a bunch of students who made something similar but I don't think they ever flew it over North Korea
      • You could go unpowered, launch when there is a good breeze blowing into North Korea and deflate once it reaches another country

        Or you could make a glider with AI or remote control. Perhaps an infrared camera on a glider would help it find thermal columns? Gliders piloted by humans have flown over 3000 km, I wonder how much a remote control glider could do.

      • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

        by Hurricane78 ( 562437 )

        I think it would be more interesting to let it fly over the USA. ^^
        I'll start it from the UK, because they are good brothers too.

        Man, I bet you could unite 99% of the people of NK, Iran, and the USA, and they would work well together.
        Why not just dump the government of all those states on the moon, and let them annihilate each other?

      • I suppose ideally you'd want a dirigible or something that can stay in the air for extended periods without producing much heat that missiles would pick up on.

        Modern missiles use imaging-based terminal guidance, not heat seeking. The imagers often work into the infrared spectrum, but that is primarily to give better all-weather performance. If they can pick up your dirigible on radar, they can put a missile in your area that can find you.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Omnifarious ( 11933 ) *

        No, you're not a real spy until you actually become a part of the North Korean military in order to report on what it's up to and what kind of orders you're getting.

        Our intelligence agencies have lost their edge precisely because they don't want to do that kind of thing. But that's what real spies do and where useful intelligence comes from.

        And citizens could get involved in this if there were people who lived in North Korea wanted to do something horribly risky because they wanted to make their government

      • by CAIMLAS ( 41445 )

        A helium balloon with control valves and maybe directional sails, or some such thing would do the job nicely. IE, a 'weather balloon'. Depending on air currents you could launch it quite a far ways off.

  • The miniturization and degree of complexity in today's modern electronics, combined with price drops from affordable generic knock-offs of premium items makes it now possible to equip yourself like James Bond after a Q-Branch sequence with little more than a shoestring budget and a Best Buy online account.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by CRCulver ( 715279 )
      I would think this newfounding spying power would be mainly limited to Google Earth. Walking around in an oppressive regime with ultra-miniaturized electronics can often draw great suspicion.
  • by owlnation ( 858981 ) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @10:49AM (#28074751)

    Its Wikipedia approach to spying shows how Soviet-style secrecy is facing a new challenge from the Internet's power to unite a disparate community of busybodies

    Wikipedia: a disparate community of busybodies. Yep, pretty much the best definition I've heard.

    But lets hope the quality of these citizen intelligence officers is vastly superior to the average wikipedian. Using wikipedia-based information might get you a fail mark, a libel suit, minor injuries, or a variety of other personal problems. However, using poor intelligence information might get us all nuked, or start a major war. (citation: see Iran, Weapons of Mass destruction, intelligence failure thereof)

    • I think Iraq rather than Iran.

      We still don't really know what Iran are up to. Or is that what you meant?

    • The problem with Wikipedia isn't badly edited content. It's poorly informed readers.

      A Wikipedia article is only as good as the sources it cites, and anyone intending to do anything important according to information in a Wikipedia article should be aware of that.

  • With a million eyeballs, no restaurant can remain hidden
  • by hughperkins ( 705005 ) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @10:53AM (#28074767) Homepage

    Some books on the subject:

  • by MartinSchou ( 1360093 ) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @10:56AM (#28074795)

    I wonder what kind of trouble you'd get in if you made a similarly detailed map of all military installations (secret or otherwise) in the US or the UK.

    Considering the oproar over showing where schools, churches and Cheney's residence are, I wouldn't be surprised if it was more difficult to get it done for the US than for North Korea ...

  • On one side it is cool how proliferation of information is creating transparency in areas previously shrouded with secrecy, on the other side it is somewhat creepy to see how it is becoming increasingly more acceptable to out things without the involved party's consent. Are we evolving into info junkies, who under the guise of "The Public Has The Right To Know" are simply feeding our addiction to sticking our noses into everyone's business? I admit that I am addicted to information (duh I am on /.), but I d
  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @11:04AM (#28074853)
    Keep this story in mind the next time you hear about "China" hacking DoD computers - we don't know whether or not the govt. is behind hacks from a given country, assuming the attacks even originate from there, it could just be bored geeks in their mom's basements.

    And keep this story in mind the next time an "American" (they always turn out to be dual citizens) is arrested for spying in Iran or China - we don't know whether a US citizen has been doing some un-sanctioned spying on another country. Even if they're not on the CIA payroll, it could be business interests, it could be family ties, it could be a grudge, and after reading this story I realize it could just be flat out idle curiosity?

    • Or they could just be an innocent citizen arrested by the secret police of a totalitarian state that denies freedom to its own people?

      Just a thought.

      • by rhizome ( 115711 )

        Or they could just be an innocent citizen arrested by the secret police of a totalitarian state that denies freedom to its own people?

        I love it when ideologues generalize on "freedom," especially in the morning. It smells like bloggery.

        Take it from me, kid: you remember all those stories about how bad the Soviet Union was, like in the 70s? They were exaggerated.

    • timeOday wrote, "And keep this story in mind the next time an "American" (they always turn out to be dual citizens) is arrested for spying in Iran or China".

      timeOday is referring to Roxana Saberi. The Iranian government rarely acts appropriately, but in her case, it was 100% in the right in sentencing her to imprisonment.

      The American media understandably presented her as an innocent victim. American journalists simply did not know that Roxana Saberi had taken -- without authorization -- top-secret mil [timesonline.co.uk]

  • by MillionthMonkey ( 240664 ) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @11:25AM (#28075007)

    Every time I hear about the death of newspapers, I wonder how the efforts of a small number of full time reporters would match up to the lackadaisical efforts of a million maternal basement dwellers with Internet connections.

    • I don't think there'd be that much difference, it might even be better. Reporters are after sensation, basement dwellers might actually be more realistic.
  • was probably operation TIPS [wikipedia.org] (Terrorism Information and Prevention System), which would have given each and every US-citizen the chance to effectively spy on his neighbours. But sadly, only a few are lucky now, quote (loc. cit.): "On June 30, 2008, the Denver Post reported that 181 individuals, including police officers, paramedics, firefighters, utility workers, and railroad employees had been trained as Terrorism Liaison Officers to report suspicious information which could be signs of terrorist activity.
  • I'm not sure... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Nakoruru ( 199332 ) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @12:34PM (#28075479)

    I'm not sure that I want the same pool of people that believe in faces on Mars, and other hoaxes, interpreting photos of North Korea.

  • Wikileaks (Score:4, Interesting)

    by HalAtWork ( 926717 ) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @12:53PM (#28075615)
    Wikileaks has also played an important role in revealing secrets. In addition, Wikipedia also helps people disseminate information that is direct and to the point, in plain language, with references and with links to articles containing more specific information. It's an invaluable tool for knowledge. I hope it never disappears, and I am glad that they offer burnt-to-DVD versions of articles.

    Plus, every time I visit a web site for information, I save it, because I never know if that information will disappear or change. When I go back, I save another copy so I can compare, and also so I can retain information in previous copies should I need to reference it.
  • Uh, ever tried searching google earth for FEMA Camps in the USA?
  • You might as well be in Nazi Germany, or old school Russia.

    Time to put that tinfoil on the windows too.

  • We had this before the Internet: it's called Neighborhood Watch programs. My extension of it, and a solution to the fears of emergence of Big Brother with the advent of cameras on every street corner, is to wire those cameras up to either the global 'Net or a local WAN and let anyone monitor those cameras and report suspicious activity. The police would merely act on reports from citizens; police would not monitor the cameras directly except perhaps with the express request and consent of a citizen. If t

  • Got nothing better to do? Of all the threats to the world order, I think North Korea sits pretty close to the bottom. How about we uncover some of the hundreds of secret & illegal US & Israeli prisons, nuclear sites, etc? Sure, I know the answer already ... because these are 35,000 idiots we're talking about, and they all believe that North Korea is out to get them, and that the US and Israel are bastions of peace and democracy. Of course, in our secret prisons, no-one is tortured to death. And our

  • I never thought a story like this would uncover so many N. Korea apologists. I love the busybody remark -- no bias there. "Nothing to see, move along."

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