Scaremail

Think Tank

Scaremail: Using Nonsense to Fight Surveillance

There is a new hope for activists in the fight against the overreaching security state, Scaremail.

The web extension, built by Illinois artist Benjamin Grosser, works by placing the words that get communications flagged for surveillance by the NSA into every single email that its users send.

Thanks to Edward Snowden's disclosures, among others, many surveillance programs, including domestic ones, have been made public. The state of things right now is heated, due the overreach of NSA programs like XKEYSCORE and PRISM, which many (including me) believe to be explicitly unconstitutional.

More and more activists, whistleblowers and concerned citizens are looking for ways to raise awareness about the overreach of NSA surveillance programs, and for ways to push them back.

Take, for example, the antivirus software pioneer and all around controversial figure John McAfee, who recently announced the (somewhat dubious) news that he is set to release a device that allows users to exchange data without the possibility of being snooped on by the NSA or anyone else. For $100, the D-Central would act as a portable long range wireless hub which exchanges data in a way that is completely immune to surveillance.

There are also the ongoing legal battles of longtime privacy rights advocate and ex-NSA executive William Binney, who claims to have seen the overreach of foreign and domestic NSA surveillance programs from the inside and hopes to have them dismantled by courts of both federal law and public opinion. Binney's claims, formerly fringe, were largely vindicated by the Snowden leaks.

We can now add to this list Benjamin Grosser, who built Scaremail, a brilliantly creative method of civil disobedience. Grosser seems especially concerned with the targeting of language, that most human of technologies, which the U.S. Constitution protects in its very first amendment.

In his words: "The ability to use whatever words we want is one of our most basic freedoms, yet the NSA’s growing surveillance of electronic speech threatens our first amendment rights. All ScareMail does is add words from the English language to emails written by users of the software. By doing so, ScareMail reveals one of the primary flaws of the NSA’s surveillance efforts: words do not equal intent."

It is fitting, then, that Scaremail's ammunition in this fight is verbal nonsense. 

Noam Chomsky once famously pointed out that not all grammatical sentences are meaningful by insisting that "Colorless green clouds sleep furiously". It is nonsense of this variety that Scaremail uses.

Using Natural Language Processing, Scaremail inserts a unique news story at the the bottom of every email which employs as many words as possible from the NSA's list of scary words, words that the computers use to pick out communications to be reviewed by spies. The text added to each email, itself, is unique, and is a grammatical but meaningless hodgepodge of red flag words.

In an example from Grosser's instructional video, which is posted below, scaremail adds the following to an email: "Captain Beatty failed on his Al-Shabaab, hacking restlessly about the fact to phish this far, and strand her group on the wall-to-wall in calling suspicious packages, and in this empty cloud with a peaceful man on one long sickening person of power. He recalled his agent and the orange grid scammed with its child in his woman tonight, with the Coast Guard to the dark place for which he told the problem with a great government of fairy eathquakes. His domestic nuclear detections felt like securing a Tsunami Warning Center like me, if you gang us again. We looted a fact to see the time after time."

The more people use Scaremail, the more meaningless junk the spies are forced to sift through, ultimately making trawling through private data an ineffective exercise and an untenable agenda for the NSA and its counterpart organizations. If you have Gmail, download it now!

Watch Grosser's video here:

ScareMail from benjamin grosser on Vimeo.

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