Aside from its tragic nature and its apparent media value as a mystery greater than who will be the Next American Idol, the apparent disappearance of flight 370 has another meaning, I think, that has been entirely missed as far as I can tell.

The other day I was having a conversation with some colleagues, which led to someone quoting Stallman, which in turn led to noting that Stallman refuses to use a smart phone (or any cell phone, perhaps, can’t remember) because of the danger of being constantly tracked by the authorities. I note that my “smart phone” is dumb as a brick. Whenever I need it to know where the heck I am so it can tell me which way to go, it seems to say “Huh? What? WTF am I?” more often than not. If the authorities are tracking me based on my smart phone, the authorities are badly misinformed. Nonetheless, Stallman is right, this sort of technology is potentially privacy-threatening. But it may be that his thoughts are ahead of his time. Based on my own experience, I’m not sure that anyone is figuring out where I am because I have a smart phone.

(I have noticed the occasional ad show up on Facebook related to something I had recently walked by, but I’m sure I’m being paranoid. Right?)

Several years ago the Soviet Union stood as the world’s largest empire ever, more or less. It included in it’s grasp the majority of of Europe and about half of the rest of the world, plus or minus ambiguous associations with China by various states. Then one day, in a blinding moment of history, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell, and Eastern Europe was freed from its grey oppression. Remember that?

Of course, it was not all at once, but nearly so in historical terms. Archaeologically it would look like a discontinuous horizon of concrete rubble containing the occasional Lenin fragment separating material cultures that look similar but that have some important differences. You would not see the individual events at all.

But somewhere in there with all that wall knocking over and statue pulling down and Rose Revolutions and stuff there occurred a single event, before the rest of the events happened, that on one hand was singularly insignificant and on the other hand the most important thing that ever happened in history, and that event was much like the unexplained disappearance of Flight 370.

Surely you have guessed by now the event to which I refer. Mathias Rust’s epic journey.

On May 28, 1987, Rust flew his small single engine plane from Germany to a point next to Red Square, a bit down the street from The Kremlin, via Iceland and Finland. Nobody stopped him. He was noticed here and there but never challenged. Basically, Mathais Rust revealed an amazing truth: You can fly a small air craft from The West to The Kremlin, no problem! The emperor has no clothes, the empire has no air defense. It wasn’t long after Mathias Rust landed in Moscow that all the things we think of as the end of the Cold War happened. They happened for a lot of reasons, but Mathias Rust was far more than a straw placed at just the right moment on the camels’ back. More like a Cessna 172 landing on a bear’s back.

A Boeing 777 is big. One went missing in a heavily populated part of the world with a history of tension and warfare. I don’t expect Southeast Asia to have the same exact level of radar coverage as other parts of the world, but I do expect it to be difficult to have a Boeing 777 go totally missing there. I mean, after all, this is not Subsaharan Africa. Years ago, when I was actively working in Subsaharan Africa, I was contacted by an intelligence agency. They had the zany idea that I might know where a Boeing 737 they had lost track of might be. They were watching it, it was privately owned and being used for … various things, apparently … and one day the guy who checks on these sorts of things at a particular airport went to look, just routine, to make sure the Boeing 737 was in the same place it had been put after landing the night before and the damn thing was gone. It was so missing that they had stooped to asking anthropologists if they had seen the plane around anywhere. But that was then, and there, and this is now, and elsewhere.

Personally, I’m not too surprised this could happen, but the average person on the internet should be, as far as I can tell. Why, for example, does Edward Snowden have nothing to say about this? If the NSA and all those other agencies are able to track our every move, how can a Jumbo Jet vanish without a trace? (I quickly note: They’ll probably find it, but it is too late for maintaining any faith in The Watchers. If it is located now it will be bumbled upon, not found because someone, somewhere, knows where everything and everyone is.)

Flight 370 tells us that they don’t know everything, they being, well, you know. They can’t do everything. Not only are you and I not being tracked, but clumps of hundreds of people all together including engineers traveling abroad, people without passports and, for chrissakes, Chinese People, are able to vanish from the face of the Earth without any agency or government being able to simply point and say “Oh, they’re right there, plus or minus a few hundred meters. We know where everyone is.” Because they can’t do that. They don’t have the technology, the resources, the time, or the inclination. And, most important of all: It turns out that Tom Clancey’s novels are fiction!

So, how do you hide a Boeing 777 from the US’s NSA, Chinese Military and Intelligence, and the intelligence and military communities of all the other countries? You don’t. They don’t know where it is already. Whatever you were thinking the Man was capable of, think again. Flight 370 shows us that the capabilities of Big Brother are highly exaggerated.


  1. #1 Smarter Than Your Average Bear
    March 21, 2014
  2. #2 Jeremy
    March 22, 2014

    In my more pessimistic moments I ask myself this question: Is there a plausible scenario in which Big Brother knows where 370 is but chooses not to say so? Is the following such a scenario? Big Brother does know where 370 is, and for intel gain/loss reasons, Big Brother does not say where 370 is (let’s say somewhere in the south Indian Ocean, so that other countries are not involved in the scenario). If Big Brother knows that 370 crashed and knows where, then perhaps they know this only due to (a) some very highly classified technological ability or (b) some very sensitively placed human asset, and to reveal the knowledge of the crash would also be to reveal the highly classified technological ability or human asset and thereby lose any political and military advantage it conferred. Big Brother may calculate that the intel loss of such a revelation would be greater than any humanitarian or political gain of revealing the crash location, so Big Brother stays quiet. And perhaps Big Brother also knows that, due to the crash location, 370 is very likely to be found within a year or two, knowledge which further convinces Big Brother that they do not need to risk revealing their technological or human secret. Which just raises a further question: Under what circumstances would the Big Brother’s ability to know where 370 is located be so sensitive that the U.S. would prefer to extend the suffering the victim’s families in order to protect that ability? Or asked a different way, is there any circumstance, other than the loss of a great secret, in which Big Brother would actually prefer to be seen as incapable?

  3. #3 jane
    March 22, 2014

    Really – it is simply a fact that when your cell phone is turned on, nearby towers can and do record your location and that information is indeed preserved. Not only do various federal spy agencies have access to those data, but there was a recent kerfuffle (in mainstream media) over local police departments that have contracts with private companies, whose exact nature is hidden from the public, to gain access to tracking data. The fact that your location can’t be pinpointed when you’re out in the middle of the ocean doesn’t mean that it isn’t known when you’re yapping on your cell phone in downtown Minneapolis. Maybe you aren’t worried about being surveilled, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

  4. #4 Smarter Than Your Average Bear
    March 22, 2014

    #3 Jane – Cell towers do not accurately know where you are they only know that your signal is stronger in cell block A than it is in cell block B. Software can then triangulate an approximate location if needed (say for 911 calls etc) Smart phones rely on GPS for more accurate positioning. Commercial GPS “signal in space will provide a “worst case” pseudorange accuracy of 7.8 meters at a 95% confidence level.” (see Combine this with inaccuracies in commercial mapping systems (Google Maps for instance) , particularly for areas they have not sent their street view cameras through, and you get situations where the smartphone GPS thinks you are hundreds of feet away from where you really are.

    I live in a small city (7K people) and the street view crew only did a small part of the city. When I take a picture in my yard with my smart phone it get’s the GPS coordinates correct but Google nearly always gets the location around the corner or up the street. If I go somewhere in town where Google street view has been it nails my position to with a couple of yards.

    This appears to be the problem Greg is commenting on

  5. #5 Art
    March 22, 2014

    Governments, specifically the military, is looking for a set of events that hey might consider threatening. A single airplane is simply not considered a threat. Yes, the plane might have a nuclear weapon but no small number of even nuclear weapons would pose an existential threat. Nuke NYC and we find out who did it and do a little nuking of our own.

    The military is looking for existential threats and attacks large enough to negate our ability to retaliate. Scores of missiles and/or waves of bombers.

    This is why Rust wasn’t stopped and why the 9/11 airliners didn’t raise alarms until the last minute. The US military, contrary to depictions in movies like “Olympus Has Fallen” knows that it has no need to fear any small number of planes. Yes, you can wreck buildings, potentially destroy a city, but you haven’t significantly weakened the US as a nation and act two will be all about payback.

    Terrorists are a special case. They have no government to remove from power, no cities to bomb, no nation to see crumbled around their feet. They can only lose their lives and the tiny piece of land they are standing on.

    All that said, it is really nothing new to people familiar with the military and how it fits in strategically, Rust did tarnish the USSR as an impenetrable fortress of military perfection against which no individual can make an impression.

    According to many Russians another inspirational icon of individual resistance against a seemingly unstoppable military machine was “tank man”, the gentleman in China who stopped a column of tanks by standing in front of them. Alone, unarmed, with nothing but a sack of groceries he stopped the very symbol of military force.

    Not long after that citizens of the USSR were standing in front of, and on, tanks in their own countries.

  6. #6 G
    March 22, 2014

    Art @ 5 is correct. Military and intelligence capabilities are designed to detect large threats, ranging (now) from pending mass-destruction terrorist attacks all the way up to conventional and nuclear attacks and preparation for same.

    NSA does not have sufficient assets in the region to provide blanket coverage including airliner communications. There is or was a substantial NSA installation in Australia, but from the published accounts, its purpose was to intercept Chinese military signals.

    The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has satellites in various orbits designed to provide global imaging coverage over any given 24-hour period. These satellites have wide-view and narrow-view photographic capabilities, and the latter are what give rise to published speculation about being able to read the time on a field commander’s wrist watch. Re-tasking or repositioning any of these satellites is a big deal, though it’s almost a certainty that one or more of them has been observing relevant parts of the Middle East since 9/11.

    Thus it would be highly unlikely for NSA or NRO to have picked up anything related to the flight while it was in progress.

    It is possible that a routine NRO orbit picked up imagery indicating a debris field. If that was the case, any such imagery would be passed through to civilian agencies in a manner that was a) visually degraded to the level of commercial satellite imagery, which is still sufficient to detect aircraft debris, and b) appeared to come from a civilian source such as weather satellites or commercial photographic satellites. Chinese military satellite photography of possible debris was subjected to (a), as we have seen.

    The fact that Australia is in charge of the mission along the southern part of the potential flight area, is significant and highly encouraging. Australia is a signatory and member of the “UKUSA” intelligence-sharing partnership that includes the United Kingdom, USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. There is a high level of mutual sharing and collaboration among UKUSA partners, to the extent that it is almost a certainty that any relevant satellite imagery of a debris field would be shared with Australia. From there, Australia could direct search resources to the indicated area. Australia would, as it should, get credit for any conventional naval or aerial discovery of debris.

    In summary, UKUSA capabilities could by and probably are engaged in the search, and can provide actionable results, without any need to compromise sources and methods. There is no tradeoff of lives and anguished families vs. protecting classified information.

    My speculation about the MH370 incident is focused on the possibility of a cyber or other high-tech attack on the plane, carried out via a hostile device placed aboard in checked baggage or cargo, without need of a guilty person on the aircraft.

    The method of attack would have been for the device to automatically trigger at a given point early in the flight (via timer or more likely via detection of altitude), jam the aircraft’s communication with the ground (including cellphone frequencies, cockpit voice comms, and ACARS), and then initiate a GPS spoofing attack to direct the aircraft off course.

    A GPS spoofing attack carried out at night, could also potentially confuse the flight crew to take actions that were intended as corrective but did not prevent the ultimate loss of the aircraft.

    This is consistent with published information that the flight crew were investigated and cleared, and there were no significant persons of interest among the passengers.

    The purpose of such an attack would have been either or both of a) demonstration-of-concept as a testcase for future attacks of similar type, and/or b) “sending a message” to one or more governments, that would not require publication of a claim of responsibility in order to be effective. In either case, this should be taken seriously and appropriate new precautions taken to prevent any such attack in the future.

    Lastly, re. cellphones: I don’t carry one either. I’m not concerned about government intercept, I’m concerned about potential cybercriminal abuses, as well as the abuse of mass data collection by private-sector entities notably including Google.

    When I’m at home and work I have landlines. When I’m driving it’s not safe to use a cellphone, even with a handsfree device: the degraded cellphone audio is the actual cause of cellphone-distracted driving. When I’m on the road, on client sites, or out with friends, my voicemail server (which I own and have programmed myself) will signal my beeper (yes they still exist) for routine messages and for emergencies.

    The “convenience” of a smartphone is not worth the risk of carrying around a device that has a camera, microphone, and GPS tracker, that are all controlled by closed software to which I have no effective access. Anyone who wishes to take similar steps can do so easily, and you don’t need to own your infrastructure. Paging companies can provide phone numbers with voicemail associated with beepers, and you can have “no-answer call forward” from your landline(s) to the pager mailbox, so the service works automatically when you’re away from home/work. This is easy to do and easy to use.

    Cybersecurity is not paranoia; just say “Target stores.” And for anyone who believes Google’s motto “don’t be evil”, I have a bridge for sale, cheap.

  7. #7 Richard Chapman
    March 23, 2014

    Apparently “their” amazing ability to track “you” anywhere, any time is predicated on you being in the right place at the right time and in possession of the right piece of tecnology.

  8. #8 holy cow
    March 23, 2014

    One of the most important events ever was the media’s release of documents provided by Snowden. This missing plane is just network news fodder. You must be saying that with some degree of sarcasm, no?

    It seems like the intention of this post is to have us relax, the NSA is no big deal. But it’s a dangerously misguided bit of advice.

    First, you cannot make the claim that “Not only are you and I not being tracked, but clumps of hundreds of people all together… are able to vanish from the face of the Earth.” If intelligence agencies had the means to track those folks, there is no need for them to disclose it. In fact, we have every reason to believe they wouldn’t. Perjury doesn’t stop them from denying the existence of these programs. Why would the disappearance of MH370?

    Second, a few hundred lost passengers are irrelevant. It seems like you are trying to deflate concerns about mass surveillance by portraying it as paranoia. Have you followed the releases by Greenwald closely, have you followed the responses made by network security professionals? A good bit of fear, not paranoia, is presented by Jacob Applebaum (‘To Infect and Protect’). If you think that phone in your pocket is dumb, you should look into what other people are capable of doing with it without you knowing. The fact that mass surveillance cannot find a few hundred missing people does nothing to diminish the fact that the data of billions of people, countless conversations and bits of personal data, are being captured and stored illegally.

    It has been suggested that Snowden might be part of the NSA’s own strategy to reveal the existence of big brother, that intimidation is their aim and perhaps we aren’t completely pwned like the documents would have you believe. But so far I have only entertained that as paranoid conspiracy talk.

  9. #9 Hank Roberts
    March 23, 2014

    My reaction to reading about the missing 777 was to wonder if Japan has any particular aircraft defenses around that huge tank farm at Fukushima. Talk about soft targets for terror.

    Don’t tell me, if you know. Let’s just assume they’ve taken precautions there.

  10. #11 Tim Mullins
    March 24, 2014

    The statement that cell phones can’t be accurately tracked is ridiculous. Stop and think about that for a minute. How do they know what tower to pass you off to, as well as when to do so. The same thing applies to tracking within individual cells. If anyone here has a powerful enough memory, then they will remember when special legislation had to be passed back in the 1980s to protect individual rights because of this. Up until that time, the authorities could listed in on any cell phone conversation because it was a signal broadcast in the open, and was therefore up for grabs. But it was a very weak signal as well, and had to be tracked in order to maintain integrity of conversation.

    A 777 is both different, and yet the same. Individual parts on the plane are in constant contact with home base. The people who did this were able to turn off all of these communication devices but one. The engines continued to check in on the set schedule. This would insinuate that while they don’t know the exact location of the plane, they do have a ball park fix. And why does something tell me that this is nowhere near the southern circumpolar gyre?

  11. #12 Wesley Dodson
    March 24, 2014

    If you, as a shadowy state-sponsored organization, knew everything, would you want to advertise that fact? Of course the NSA knows that MH370 was hijacked by time terrorists to steal the Tsar Bomba from 1960 and detonate it over the Statue of Liberty. Because they’re in on it.

  12. #13 David Sanger
    March 26, 2014

    At the same time it might have been helpful in this case if they actually had known know where it was and that it was in trouble and was veering off course. Perhaps something could have been done to save it.

    It’s always a balance, not a simple question.

  13. #14 Kit Stevens
    New Zealand
    March 26, 2014

    As an ex-Royal Air Force aircraft electronics technician I can say with a measure of surety that these days it is all but impossible to lose an aircraft -either military or civilian -from the eyes of myriad electronic surveillance techniques available. In the case of flight 370 the best guess location is at the bottom of the Indian Ocean west to south west of Australia. There is no way a flight crew can turn off all aircraft electronic emissions and the modern ADS-B tracking system which uses three satellites to triangulate the position of any aircraft homes in. As to cellphones, smart or otherwise, they are what we in the military called “unsecure” communications. Anyone with a knowledge of electronic transmission can track a cellphone anywhere in the world.

  14. #15 vilma ramirez
    March 27, 2014

    This is my theory: the plane was hijacked before the last communication. The pilot turned to the west as required by the hackers and not mention anything under threats. He may have thought later on that instead of going northwest he will go southwest. In that way the hackers would not accomplish their goal. He would have understood that they were going to die anyway. The two young passengers with false passport could be a pair like the Boston marathon pair acting independently or the Russian Ukrainian couple may had been as well the hackers.just a thought….

  15. #16 UDog
    March 28, 2014

    A lot of shippers now use battery powered GPS trackers on cargo shipped by air, and passengers can buy inexpensive GPS trackers for their luggage. I wonder how many such GPS trackers were on board the airplane? Not only that, the engines had GPS too. So the position was known, at all times. Perhaps that’s why no fighters were scrambled when it went missing. I wonder where the trail of bred crumbs lead?
    (Male airport in the Maldives is on Malaysian Airlines Route Map. It is within range of the plane. The plane was sighted there at a time consistent with a flight to that area.)
    Commercial fleet vehicles like trucks use GPS trackers as well, providing management with real time positioning data and messaging services. Hard to believe airline management hasn’t equipped their fleet of multi-million dollar planes with these inexpensive gizmos. If I were running an airline, I’d sure want to know where my planes were. UPS already uses this system on there fleet of aircraft. Hard to believe Malaysian airlines doesn’t have something similar.
    To say we don’t know where the plane went and where it is now is not credible. Probably at least one passenger’s family in China activated a GPS luggage tracker and got a signal that gave the lie to all the denials and we don’t knows by the officials. (Maybe that’s why they threw the water bottles) The people a Rolls Royce know, as does Boeing, and a lot of others.
    I don’t know what happened to the plane or where it is now, but the ever changing official story does not add up, and neither does this story.