Saturday, June 15, 2013

Edward Snowden's NSA leaks - and how they strengthen America

We have heard a great deal lately about Edward Snowden's leaks about the NSA spying on millions of ordinary Americans under "novel" interpretations of the law. Opinions on Snowden range from calling him a traitor to calling him a patriot. If we presume the dominant narrative is true, I fall firmly in the "patriot" camp. To call Snowden a traitor for aiding and comforting the American people is to call the American people the enemy - and that has no place in a nation that purports to have a government that gains its legitimacy by the consent of the governed - just as secret laws, secret interpretations of the law, and secrets about the broad actions of government itself have no place in a system that derives its power and its guidance from the people.

I am surprised, however, that the public debate has been so limited. There are certainly dangers that come from secretive and powerful agencies having access to almost unlimited information, especially where oversight is ineffective and rogue agents can use that information for personal gain or otherwise to the detriment of the safety and well-being of the public - but there is another danger to the community at large of which those secretive agencies are a part. That danger is that the NSA and other American agencies are not the only players in this game.

In this respect the current situation is much like the question of encryption some twenty years ago, when the U.S. government outlawed the export of encryption software to certain countries - and some politicians attempted to limit what encryption Americans could use in order to maintain the government's ability to crack the codes and spy on its people. The first flaw in this approach was that the countries in question could get strong encryption from other sources, or even develop it themselves, rendering the export controls pointless - and the greater flaw was that any code that could be cracked by the U.S. government could also be cracked by unfriendly parties - whether they be common criminals or the intelligence services of foreign nations. Eventually the U.S. government realized that in order to have a secure banking system and to prevent the collapse of the American economy (and the U.S. government with it) they should not only allow the public to use encryption, but should demand it.

Despite the jokes, intelligence agents are not all stupid. Most of them are pretty smart - at least within their specialty - and some of them are downright geniuses. They have been warning us about cyber threats from abroad for years now, and they understand that hostile parties can do the exact same things illegally that American intelligence services can do "legally". They also know that the huge amounts of data that they intercept are not especially useful in preventing terrorist attacks and are often a distraction from more reliable methods - especially as every competent foe has known about these programs for years and has already taken effective countermeasures. On the other hand, this sort of spying might be far more useful to a hostile party - by allowing them to find the means to blackmail key individuals, for example. With our current thicket of mutually incompatible laws, every American is guilty of multiple felonies - and the knowledge of which felonies could give a hostile party a great amount of power and influence to the detriment of the American people, the American government, and ultimately to the American intelligence services themselves. (Agents can't earn their big salaries if the economy can't support them.) Perhaps some of those analysts have recognized that the best means of securing the nation from foreign powers is to harden the entire information infrastructure - and the most difficult part of hardening information infrastructure has always resided in encouraging participants to adopt best practices.

For those wishing to secure America's information infrastructure, Snowden's revelations are a godsend (or, if the spooks were smart enough, were even commissioned for this purpose). This is a wake up call to the American people, and also to the citizens of friendly nations - we all can be and are being spied on - for a certainty by the U.S. and allied governments, and for that matter by foreign powers and common criminals as well. Smart intelligence agents don't want that. They don't want rogue agents within their own organizations causing discord and dissension that could lead to blowback at home, and they certainly don't want to give that sort of carte blanche to their adversaries. They have other methods they can use when they need to - they don't want the millions of underlings with broad access to classified material to be able to make those sorts of moves on their own. Not if they're smart, they don't.

As it happens, the means to harden the information infrastructure is already available, if not yet widely used. Tor, Freenet and similar networks makes it difficult to track online activity, and the more people use them the more useful they are - not only to the American public but also to the American intelligence services and to dissidents in hostile nations who also use them. Tor was even partially funded by the Naval Research Laboratory. If these revelations move more Americans to embrace such networks, everybody - except tyrants and criminals - will win.

It's real easy too, even if your tech skills are minimal - just visit the Tor Project to download and install the software on your computer, or visit TAILS to download an ISO image that you can burn to a DVD which you can use to boot your computer and run Tor without leaving any traces that you ever used it.

As a couple asides: The use of such networks and new types of money like bitcoin will hopefully make the income tax untenable, which is why I expect to see movement towards a national sales tax which is both more difficult to evade and less intrusive and prone to abuse than the current system - and indeed we have already seen some moves in that direction. The combination of anonymous money and an anonymous network have famously spawned the creation of markets in outlawed products and services - but before you hire that anonymous hitman just keep in mind that they are probably either a scammer or a law enforcement honeypot.

So go ahead and sign up - no need to fear that the use of such programs might identify you as a political dissident or a person of interest. The NSA has just given every patriotic American an excellent reason to protect themselves and their fellow Americans from threats both foreign and domestic, both public and private. Be sure to give your local spook a hug!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Some thoughts on the Boston bombers

It seems like the alleged bombers - brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev - had some serious issues with America, but were genuinely interested in doing the right thing - which of course raises the question why they thought killing ordinary members of the public would be the right thing.

Some recent tweets reported to be from Dzhokhar's twitter account are interesting:

"some people are just misunderstood by the world thus the increase of suicide rates"

"its kind of like we're living in times where good is evil and evil is good"

"they want one thing after another, never satisfied"

"a decade in america already, i want out"

"The value of human life ain't shit nowadays that's tragic"

"There are people that know the truth but stay silent & there are people that speak the truth but we don't hear them cuz they're the minority"

"Evil triumphs when good men do nothing"


Well, these two men did something. It is difficult for Americans to concede that they may have had a point, but consider how many innocent people the American government has killed, directly or indirectly, around the world and within the United States, just within the last 50 years - and the American people have never cared too much until they saw that they could get hurt. It was not Martin Luther King's nonviolence that got black Americans their civil rights - it was the threat of riots and death that convinced the authorities to embrace Martin Luther King's alternative. It was not a cool appeal to reason that led to homosexuality being removed from the list of mental illnesses, it was the Stonewall riots that made others realize that their well-being was at stake. It was not an appeal to fairness that allowed American Indians to reclaim their culture and pride, it was a band of armed Indians at Wounded Knee.

It is a sad fact of life that people will let almost any atrocity be committed in their name indefinitely until they are affected themselves. We Americans like to believe we are different, but history tells us otherwise.

The question that remains is Why? What did these brothers consider worth dying for? Was it Islam, or was it something else? Dzhokhar's tweets suggest it was something more than Islam, something more personal.

Perhaps there is a hint in Tamerlan's arrest for domestic violence. As is well known, in cases of domestic violence where one party is a man, the man is nearly always arrested and prosecuted, regardless of whether he was the aggressor or the victim. Alternately, cultural differences may have led Tamerlan to think of something as acceptable that the authorities considered otherwise. Either way, the consequences of such arrests are often severe and long-lasting, and the disproportional punishments often cause resentment.

It may be some time before we know, if we ever know, why - but when two young men act together like this it is hard to credit it to madness alone - and yet the claims of Islamic extremism seem wanting as well. Perhaps they were deluded, but perhaps they knew something that the rest of us do not - and understood that the only way to get Americans to listen is through violence.

If there is a lesson for us to learn, I wonder whether we will learn it in time.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A New Strategy for North Korea: Let the Wookiee Win

There is a famous scene in Star Wars - R2-D2 and Chewbacca are playing a game and Chewbacca is losing. After Han Solo points out that wookiees are known for pulling people's arms out of their sockets when they lose, C-3PO offers this advice: "I suggest a new strategy, R2. Let the wookiee win."

We have a similar situation in North Korea. We all know that North Korea is losing this contest. Famously, satellite images taken at night show North Korea as an area of darkness surrounded by the lights of South Korea, China, and Japan. North Korea has only one ally - China. That ally is growing impatient. In any sort of military contest, North Korea would lose. Badly.

But North Korea is not harmless - it would lose any military contest, but their army could still hurt a lot of people. The government also has domestic problems. After the famine of the 1990s, and years of information slowly trickling in via China, the North Korean people are beginning to be vaguely aware that life is better almost anywhere else, and they are gradually slipping away from central control. The governing class there knows it has to reform their economy, but they don't know how to do so without ending up dead. Kim Jong-un did not create this monstrosity - he inherited it. The same can be said for most of the rest. We consider the damage North Korea can do to the outside world, but the ruling class there has that tiger by the tail and they dare not let go. South Korea and China are also concerned about domestic problems in North Korea, because they will inevitably spill across their borders, disrupting the status quo with millions of refugees in need of food, shelter, and services. To make matters worse, due to decades of malnutrition, many of these refugees will not be merely uneducated but will be mentally retarded and difficult to integrate into society.

Naturally we wonder what to do about this. Our natural sense of justice inclines us to send in our military and smash the North Koreans - but military force would mostly affect people who aren't responsible for these problems. It would also force a response which would likely hurt our friends in China and our allies in South Korea. The military option should not be on the table.

Our best response may be quite unintuitive: let the wookiee win. Give North Korea what they need, though not necessarily what they want. Food. There is a good strategic reason for this: the more dependent North Korea is on outside nations for food, the less capable they will be to wage war on their benefactors, because victory would mean death.

Much of this should enter via official channels, allow the governing officials to save face and giving them a chance to introduce gradual change - but perhaps most should enter via other channels. Already the lack of food has weakened central control by forcing the development of a black market and an alternative economy - but it is unclear whether a sudden collapse of central control would be in anyone's interest. A gradual change would be safer, and might be accomplished with slowly increasing amounts of smuggled food and other goods.

This strategy does not even require a government to accomplish it. With advancing technology, private groups could smuggle in food directly to individuals, without being tied to any state.

Consider the development of drones. If this drone could be scaled up (or range extended), imagine tens of thousands of them dropping supplies all over North Korea where needed, their sheer numbers overwhelming the ability of the North Korean military to stop them. Launched from platforms in international waters, by loose-knit groups without ties to any state, who would stop them?

In the longer term, other factors will bring down the North Korean government, but for now our best choice might be to let the wookiee win.

(Other factors? as I wrote on this topic at Google+):
You really want to know the end game in North Korea? 
In less than twenty years, but probably more than five years, private parties from around the world will decide to end the North Korean regime, and do so quickly and quietly. 
They will do this with the deployment of massive numbers of miniature and untraceable, autonomous or semi-autonomous drones. 
If you have read "Escape from Camp 14", consider this scenario: 
A small drone announces in the ear of every prisoner in their native language "It is time to leave this camp. Walk to the front gate." It sounds just like the voice of the guards, and the prisoners do so in mass. 
Other small drones project a display onto the retinas of the guards, and nullify some sounds and emit others so that the guards do not notice anything unusual happening. They stand there with their eyes open, unseeing and unaware, as the prisoners leave the camp. 
One of the guards makes a sudden movement with his head and the drones projecting the image on his retinas are suddenly out of position. He sees the prisoners escaping and aims and attempts to fire his rifle. The rifle does not work: it has been sabotaged by other drones. The guard, only knowing his rifle does not work, pulls out his concealed revolver which had passed unnoticed by the drones. He fires at the prisoners closest to the gate. The bullets speed through the air only to stop, flattened into lead disks, a few feet from the prisoners - halted by a utility fog. 
When the prisoners reach the front gate they find it open and they walk out. Or, perhaps, they discover that the gate - and the entire fence around the periphery of the camp - has fallen to the ground. They step over it and are on their way. A little way down the road tables are waiting with good shoes, decent clothing, and adequate food and water that have been delivered by larger drones by air. The prisoners may now go where they wish. 
A billion people, linked together on seven continents and habitats on the seas, monitor a hundred million incidents at once, and occasionally point out an area of interest to the swarm of drones.
Not one of those people has been authorized to do so by their own government. Their own governments are terrified.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

A brave beginning

This is my first post on this blog. I have been on the internet almost constantly since September 1988, but my comments have been scattered in newsgroups and websites across the net. It is a little belated, but I thought it was time to establish my own home on the web where humble netizens can bask in the glory of my great and immeasurable wisdom - or, more likely, call me names. Thus, I have registered the domain, which, if the propitiation of the network gods goes well, will direct to this blog where I'll enlighten you.