OTF – The “Independent” Internet Freedom Organization That Makes All Your Favorite Privacy Apps – is Staffed Full of Spies

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by Alan Macleod, MintPress News:

While the OTF presents itself as independent internet freedom activists, their funding, staff, history and choice of targets all point to the conclusion that they are a digital weapon being used against Washington’s enemies.

WASHINGTON – The Open Technology Fund (OTF) is one of the most influential and celebrated organizations in the hacking and internet freedom communities. Well over two billion people globally use OTF-produced software, including communications app Signal and web browser Tor, services that are specifically marketed to privacy-conscious consumers looking to circumvent government censorship and surveillance. Yet its close links to the U.S. national security state raise many worrying questions about whether the world is making a mistake by trusting the organization and its products.

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Through its research and sponsorship, the OTF is responsible for apps and services that can boast a massive reach. It is estimated that more than two-thirds of all smartphones are equipped with OTF offerings, apps that brand themselves as the obvious choice for privacy-minded users.

The OTF describes itself as “an independent non-profit organization committed to advancing global Internet freedom,” adding that it “supports projects focused on counteracting repressive censorship and surveillance, enabling citizens worldwide to exercise their fundamental human rights online.”

There is strong evidence, however, to suggest that the Open Technology Fund is not what it claims to be: that it is neither independent nor truly committed to online freedom and privacy. First, while technically a private company, it is directly funded and controlled by the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM), a government body responsible for overseeing U.S.-funded state media outlets overseas, including Radio Free Europe/Radio LibertyVoice of America and Radio and Televisión Martí. The OTF derives essentially all of its funding from USAGM, which, in turn, receives money from Congress through the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related programs ($808 million in 2019).

Secondly, until 2019, the OTF was officially a government project managed by the infamous Radio Free Asia. Together, The New York Times described these outlets as a “worldwide propaganda network built by the CIA.” Even a brief look at their content suggests that this is essentially an accurate description, with USAGM brought into existence to manage CIA-created media outlets.

This alone would be enough to raise questions. However, the OTF’s definition of freedom should sound even more alarm bells. In its most recently published annual report, it describes its mission as:

…Advanc[ing] internet freedom in repressive environments by supporting the research, development, implementation, and maintenance of technologies that provide secure and uncensored access to USAGM content as well as the broader internet. This critical support helps to counter attempts by authoritarian governments to restrict freedom online.

Internet freedom, according to the OTF, is explicitly defined in relation to access to U.S. state propaganda arms. If individuals in a country have access to Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, then their internet is free. If not, they live in a totalitarian state. Internet freedom boils down to the freedom of the U.S. government to reach you. Any other understanding of the concept is, at best, an afterthought.

The report also states that the OTF exists primarily for two purposes: (1) to “[p]rovide unrestricted access to the internet to individuals living in information-restrictive countries to help ensure they are able to safely access USAGM content,” and (2) to [p]rotect journalists, sources, and audiences from repressive surveillance and digital attacks to help ensure they are able to safely create and engage with USAGM content.” This is unlikely to be the idea of freedom that many privacy-conscious users of Signal and Tor have in mind.

That this operation is pointed specifically at U.S. enemies is made clear on the fund’s website, which states that “leading censors like China and Russia” are “exporting their censorship and surveillance tactics to like-minded regimes abroad,” and that the OTF must “capitalize on its unique capability within the U.S. government to support internet freedom efforts,” thereby positioning Washington as the unquestioned defender of liberty around the world.

Of course, China and Russia do indeed have very serious censorship concerns, but they are hardly alone in that regard. Thus, while the fund speaks in the language of privacy and social justice, its targets are overwhelmingly U.S. enemy states. Meanwhile American allies with equally poor or worse free speech environments (such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar) are quietly overlooked.

 

A board of state functionaries

Not only was the Open Technology Foundation created by the national security state, it continues to employ high government officials in key positions. Its five-person board consists entirely of important state functionaries:

  • Karen Kornbluh was formerly U.S. ambassador to the OECD, Barack Obama’s policy director, deputy chief of staff at the Treasury Department, and a senior figure at the FCC during the Clinton administration.
  • Ben Scott was previously policy adviser for innovation at the Department of State, where, in the OTF’s words, he crafted the government’s 21st Century Statecraft agenda.
  • Top Democratic fundraiser Michael Kemper served as the DNC’s deputy finance chairman as well as deputy finance coordinator for President Obama. He also held a position on the White House Council for Community Solutions from 2010 to 2012.
  • William Schneider is a Republican who was Ronald Reagan’s under secretary of state for Security Assistance, Science and Technology. He is also a member of the notorious neoconservative group, the Project for a New American Century. In 1998, he signed a letter to President Bill Clinton, urging him to attack Iraq. A science expert, he has consistently argued that the U.S. should use nuclear weapons as a standard part of its warfare.
  • Even more central to the post-9/11 wars, however, is the fifth member of the board, Ryan Crocker. Crocker was United States ambassador to both Iraq (2007-2009) and Afghanistan (2011-2012). So important was he to the occupations that General David Petraeus, supreme commander of the occupation forces, said that he was merely Crocker’s “military wingman.” George W. Bush described him as “America’s Lawrence of Arabia.”

Ryan Crocker

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles at Ryan Crocker at the event at tU.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2012. Brendan Smialowski | AP

For such a group of individuals, who have spent their lives dedicated to enhancing U.S. state power, it appears unlikely that freedom from state surveillance would be high on their list of priorities. Underlining that the Open Technology Fund’s concern with privacy and freedom of speech goes only so far is its choice of CEOs, who have included the former director of programming for Voice of America, the former president of Radio Free Asia, and an ex-State Department and National Endowment for Democracy official.

Thus the OTF – a “private” company that was created by government agencies and was a government body itself until 2019 – is staffed by top U.S. officials who have been chosen by the USAGM. The veneer of independence actually serves two important purposes: it provides the U.S. government a modicum of plausible deniability if any misdeeds are exposed and ensures that the organization is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, making the OTF far harder to scrutinize.

This semi-privatization technique is a new trend in U.S. statecraft. In recent years, the government has farmed out much of its most controversial clandestine work to NGOs and shadowy “private” companies that rely largely or solely on federal contracts. For example, NGOs like Creative Associates International have been employed to organize regime-change ops in Cuba or act as a front group for the CIA in Pakistan. Last year, a private American security firm was also responsible for a failed coup attempt in Venezuela.

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