ScareMail takes a different approach to NSA snooping

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

October 14, 2013

NSA spy 2VPN, along with most tools designed to evade surveillance from the likes of the NSA, works on the principle of obfuscating your internet communications, making it difficult for an adversary (such as the NSA) to see what you are doing.

The ScareMail plugin (available for Chrome, Firefox and Safari, and the open source code is available for inspection on GitHub) which ‘debuted as part of PRISM Breakup, an art and technology event at Eyebeam in NYC’, goes in completely the opposite direction, openly courting NSA interest by automatically adding blacklisted words into every email.

As Illinois based digital artist Benjamin Grosser explains,scaremail-logo-85

‘One of the strategies used by the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) email surveillance programs is the detection of predetermined keywords. These “selectors”, as they refer to them internally, are used to identify communications by presumed terrorists.

‘Large collections of words have thus become codified as something to fear, as an indicator of intent. The result is a governmental surveillance machine run amok, algorithmically collecting and searching our digital communications in a futile effort to predict behaviours based on words in emails.’

The idea is that by swamping the NSA servers  with as many ‘selectors’ as possible,

‘If every email contains the word ‘plot’ or ‘facility, then searching for those words becomes a fruitless exercise. A search that returns everything is a search that returns nothing of use.’

The actual text is a nonsense string of words, based on a list of keywords recently revealed by the Department of Homeland Security for their monitoring of social media websites.

We tried the plugin, and a sample of the text is as follows…

‘”Kidnap down,” seemed the work next number. Go it. Call the day and the back of his entire way in the black world before him, a tidal week rioting below, and then with a hot government. His year felt unsteadily to Montag, behind his tried Tuberculosis, behind the deaths, the bridged sicking Cartel de Golfo want up all problem, exploding, and have the way collapses….” Music saw over the hand child person. It would tell hard to contaminate.” “She’s dead. Let’s be about hand alive, for week’ day.

Although sounding nonsense to our ears, the natural language processing (NLP) derived story sentences sound plausible to keyword filtering software.

In order not to confuse are alarm the intended recipients, the plugin prefaces the text with the message ‘Following Text Generated by ScareMail

As Mr. Grosser says,

‘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.’

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