15 December, 2012

The all-seeing government

Elements of the US government assume everyone is a terrorist, and has authority to mine every data base associated with, or accessed by, the government as a whole to maintain surveillance on everyone's behavior, looking for (as yet unannounced) "suspicious patterns" and making predictions of future activity.

united states currency eye- IMG_7364_web
united states currency eye- IMG_7364_web (Photo credit: kevindean)
After the somewhat-farcical (and some claim, contrived) case of the "underwear bomber"the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC--leave it to the government to misspell an acronym) requested to maintain a dragnet that made even the Department of Homeland Security uneasy.  After long insider arguments, the Wall Street Journal Reports, that access was granted in March of this year.

According to the DHS privacy officer this a "sea change" in which the first question to be asked by the feds of any citizen is now "are they a terrorist?"  The legislative counsel of the ACLU describes it like this:

What if a government spy agency had power to copy and data mine information about ordinary Americans from any government database? This could include records from law enforcement investigations, health information, employment history, travel and student records. Literally anything the government collects would be fair game, and the original agency in charge of protecting the privacy of those records would have little say over whether this happened, or what the spy agency did with the information afterward. What if that spy agency could add commercial information, anything it – or any other federal agency – could buy from the huge data aggregators that are monitoring our every move? 
What if it wasn’t just collection but also sharing? Anything that was reasonably believed to be necessary to “protect the safety or security of persons, property or organizations” or “protect against or prevent a crime or threat to national security” could be shared. Imagine the dissemination was essentially unlimited, not just to federal, state, local or foreign governments but also to individuals or entities that are not part of the government 
It has already happened.
And almost no one seems to care. Even working on the assumption that the motives of everyone involved in this are pure, it's setting up a weapon in the name of national security aimed not at "the terrorists," but at everyone.  In fact, if anyone would be safe from this it would be a skilled terrorist. It shines the light on the trivial at the expense of what might actually be useful, if the system were focused and operated in keeping with constitutional safeguards.  It promises predictability.  It delivers chaos.  And in the meantime, it places whatever data exists--whether true or not--combined and analyzed by whatever algorithm is applied--however imperfect or biased--into the hands of politicians and bureaucrats--no matter how stupid or evil--to do with as they will.

Who needs terrorists?  Who nees to look outside for threats?  They don't: they have us.  And we don't: we have them.

US Counterterrorism Agency Collects Data On Every US Citizen - Business Insider

27 November, 2012

Baathism: An Obituary / The End Of An Ideology | The New Republic

Something to think about, as the slow collapse of Syria proceeds, is the ideas that created so many countries like it.  Like Communism, yet another God has failed.  But another one waits in the wings...
The bombed-out remains of the Baath Party Head...
The bombed-out remains of the Baath Party Headquarters in Baghdad. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The political and cultural landscape of the Middle East, post-Baath, will be pockmarked by blighted zones that might otherwise have been a prosperous Iraq and Syria, if only the Baathist doctrine had not destroyed those countries. A cloud of intellectual bafflement and paranoia will hover overhead, consisting of the confused thoughts of everyone across the region who, in the past, talked themselves into supposing that Baathism was a good idea. And more than visible will be the triumphant zeal of Baathism’s principal rivals in the matter of grandiose revolutionary ideology—the champions of the single Middle Eastern millenarian doctrine still standing, once the Assad regime has finally gone. These will be the Islamists.
How long till we get out of the millenerarian mindset?  A little humility can go a long way to making the world a much better place.  It's people with a direct line to the truth who too often turn into monsters.

Baathism: An Obituary / The End Of An Ideology | The New Republic

15 September, 2012

Criminal or incompetent?

George W. Bush
Cover of George W. Bush
Eleven years after 9/11, it seems the real core of the argument about the truth of 9/11, one that all so often descends into technical minutia and mutual name-calling, really boils down to competing images of the roles and capabilities of government.  Paul Craig Roberts, an intelligent critic of the conventional 9/11 story, does a good job of highlighting the differences.  As he describes it the options are that elements of the government, or elements of several governments, are either VERY competent at managing and hiding a false-flag operation, or those elements are VERY incompetent to the point of multiple simultaneous failures.
In order to understand the improbability of the government’s explanation of 9/11, it is not necessary to know anything about what force or forces brought down the three World Trade Center buildings, what hit the Pentagon or caused the explosion, the flying skills or lack thereof of the alleged hijackers, whether the airliner crashed in Pennsylvania or was shot down, whether cell phone calls made at the altitudes could be received, or any other debated aspect of the controversy. 
You only have to know two things. 
One is that according to the official story, a handful of Arabs, mainly Saudi Arabians, operating independently of any government and competent intelligence service, men without James Bond and V for Vendetta capabilities, outwitted not only the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency, but all 16 US intelligence agencies, along with all security agencies of America’s NATO allies and Israel’s Mossad. Not only did the entire intelligence forces of the Western world fail, but on the morning of the attack the entire apparatus of the National Security State simultaneously failed. Airport security failed four times in one hour. NORAD failed. Air Traffic Control failed. The US Air Force failed. The National Security Council failed. Dick Cheney failed. Absolutely nothing worked. The world’s only superpower was helpless at the humiliating mercy of a few undistinguished Arabs.
I'll ignore the implicit racism in describing the hijackers as "a few undistinguished Arabs."  His main point is he finds it easier to believe in superior villains than in spectacular fools.  I disagree.  This is not to say that I disagree with the idea that conspiracies operate in the world.  Of course they do.  What I find hard to accept is they are that good at it.  My personal experience with government at all levels is that, along with other organizations, it often magnifies the failures of the people in it.  People in power don't believe what they don't want to believe.  Bureaucracies fail to perceive things that fall outside of their areas of expertise.  Those who do put the clues together will find themselves marginalized and ignored, or even punished.  And what happens next?
It is hard to imagine a more far-fetched story–except for the second thing you need to know: The humiliating failure of US National Security did not result in immediate demands from the President of the United States, from Congress, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and from the media for an investigation of how such improbable total failure could have occurred. No one was held accountable for the greatest failure of national security in world history. Instead, the White House dragged its feet for a year resisting any investigation until the persistent demands from 9/11 families for accountability forced President George W. Bush to appoint a political commission, devoid of any experts, to hold a pretend investigation.
This is supposed to be a surprise?  When organization and governments screw up--totally, completely, and from the top down--they circle the wagons, look for excuses, punish scapegoats, derail investigations, do whatever they can to cover the asses of those most responsible for the failure.  This is not a surprise.  An exception to this pattern would be a surprise.

What shocks me about so much of the "9/11 truth" critique is not the idea that there could be duplicity in government, or among other elites.  What amazes me is they have so much faith that so many, so powerful, could be so good at it, and so consistently.  They believe in the state, even as they criticize particular people in it.  They believe that if the state fails, there must be a sinister agenda, because at heart the state is too good and too competent to stumble as it did.  Personally, I don't buy it.  I don't buy the official story--there's no reason to assume that any official story is the truth--but if the only choice is between human fools and perfect villains, I find it easier to believe in fools.

The 11th Anniversary of 9/11 ~ Paul Craig Roberts - PaulCraigRoberts.org

14 September, 2012

Drinking your way to freedom

I love it.  A man, evidently very drunk, floated from North Korea to South Korea, and now he's likely to stay there.
A profoundly drunk North Korean man floated all the way to South Korea on a piece of wood this week—and he's been offered South Korean citizenship. 
South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported that the man, who appears to be in his 20s, was found hiding in a house on the island of Ganghwa, an hour from Seoul, on Sunday.
Yonhap reports that when the man was taken into police custody, he was only wearing his underwear and appeared to be intoxicated. (I've got to say, I've never found myself repatriated after a night of drinking—this guy deserves a medal).  
   "The man said he crossed to the South, holding on to a floating object to waters off the coast of Gyodong Island," said Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Lee Bung-woo to the Yonhap News Agency. "The floating object is seen as a wooden board that drifted due to the flood in the North."
Reminds me a bit of the cook who drank enough Brandy to survive the sinking of the Titanic.  (Is that story true?)

Two questions come to mind:
  1. Where did he get that much alcohol?  It was North Korea, after all.
  2. Can I have some of what he's drinking?
Drunk North Korean man floats to South Korea

28 August, 2012

Follow the money

It's a mistake to think that one can simply buy an election.  Money is important in a system where access to media can be so expensive, but in itself it isn't enough.  What the money trail can show, however, is where the people investing their cash think their interests lie.  It can also show us how many people are willing to put their money on the line, and by looking at the percentage of their resources invested we can get some idea of the strength of their feelings.  With that in mind, compare the organizations and their members associated with three major candidates for president in 2012:

Also note that a government agency can't invest in a political campaign.  That means that Paul's money came not from the organizations directly, but from the troops and civilians whose lives are most directly on the line when it comes to issues of war and peace.  These are also the people who have the least money to contribute.  When considered as a percentage of their wealth the pattern is even more remarkable.

A realist critique of Romney's foreign policy

27 August, 2012

School vouchers and college enrollment

There's an interesting study out from Harvard and Brookings using a randomized experiment to measure how vouchers for elementary students to private schools in the 1990s affect their enrollment in college.  Apparently, there's no significant change in overall college enrollment, but among African-American students the effect is large, statistically significant, and positive--a twenty-four percent increase.  It is also associated with significant increases for full-time college attendance, enrollment in selective four-year schools, and enrollment in private four-year colleges.
education (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Evidently, as experiments like Head Start showed several years ago, a little bit of help at an early age can make a major difference for some people later on.  How interesting that one of the better ways to help African-American students get an education--and a better life--is to get them out of the private public schools.

My mother is a retired public school teacher.  My father was a principal in St. Louis, eventually ending up in charge of the school for juveniles held in jail.  I know how hard they worked.  I know the horror stories they'd bring home.  I also know--as they did--that the present system has some fundamental problems.  It tells you something that my Dad was happiest at the prison school: he found it better for the students, and more conducive to learning, than the standard public school.  He even had students who admitted to getting arrested in order to get back into his school.  What does that tell us about the public alternatives?

02 August, 2012

Where is Prince Bandar?

English: President George W. Bush meets with S...
English: President George W. Bush meets with Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan at the Bush Ranch in Crawford, Texas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here's what we know.  On July 18th a bombing in Damascus killed several senior officials in Syria, including the Minister of Defense and a brother-in-law of President al-Assad.  On July 19th, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, long associate of the Bush family, former ambassador to the US, famous for his role in getting Saudis out of the US in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and in relative eclipse the past few years, was appointed President of General Intelligence for the government of Saudi Arabia.  On July 22nd a bomb detonated in the headquarters of Saudi intelligence, killing the deputy Chief of Intelligence.

There are no reports of Prince Bandar being seen since the explosion.

There are no reports indicating that he was killed or wounded.

There are no statements from the Saudis or the White House refuting rumors of his death.

There are no reports on his location or status, period.

Bandar bin Sultan, Secretary-General of the Na...
Bandar bin Sultan, Secretary-General of the National Security Council of Saudi Arabia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Now we get into speculation.  It's not like there aren't a number of people who would like to plant a bomb in Saudi intelligence HQ.  The coincidence with the Syrian operation is probably, in fact, a coincidence.  Besides, they have enough going on at home to stretch their capabilities past the point where they could do something like this (especially on such short notice).  If the bomb could be tied to Iran it would be an act of war, so even if there are indirect connections it's unlikely we'll find anything substantial.  Besides, it's probably not in Iran's interests to take that kind of risk, and it would take time to set up.  There have been successful attacks on Saudi intelligence in the past, but these have usually been attributed to internal dissidents, with general support from the Syrians and/or Iranians.

Yet another possibility:  perhaps factions of the Saudi elite are in conflict with one another. It wouldn't be the first time, although usually without open violence.  At the very least, an internal opponent to Bandar--a man who has made some enemies--could have looked the other way, leaving the door open to an attack by one of several groups. 

The first task, of course, is to confirm what has happened. 

How odd, though, that so little has been made of this in the press. Bandar was/is a "rock star" in the Saudi establishment with long and substantial ties to the US. The silence is almost deafening.

There's nothing like the politics of the Middle East to lend itself to conspiratorial thinking.  The fact is, however, there's still a lot that we simply don't know.

For an excellent overview, see NightWatch 20120801 - KGS.

17 July, 2012

Stuxnet and Flame

Depiction of a compartmented "Behind the ...
Depiction of a compartmented "Behind the Green Door" US secure communications center (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cyberwarfare is getting interesting, and not just because of what it means for "traditional" international relations.  Increasingly, it looks like anyone can run a serious cyber-espionage operation.  How long until these tools are in the hands of more non-state actors?  When do they become a major tool in domestic politics?  IntelNews reviews the situation.  Excerpts:
Stuxnet, which caused unprecedented waves of panic among Iranian cybersecurity experts, was 500 kilobytes in size. Flame is over 20 megabytes in size, consisting of 650,000 lines of code; it is so complex that it is expected to take programming analysts around a decade to fully comprehend. The two are different, of course. Stuxnet was an infrastructure-sabotaging malware, which destroyed hundreds —maybe even thousands—of Iranian nuclear centrifuges. Flame, on the other hand, appears to be an espionage tool: it aims to surreptitiously collect information from infected systems.
Both, of course, were directed against Iran.  But they don't end there.
...there is no little doubt that Flame’s handlers have collected massive amounts of intelligence for at least two years. The program was apparently able to record conversations conducted over Skype; take desktop snapshots every 15 seconds or so; and collect usernames and passwords, among other capabilities. And all that while circumventing even the strongest antivirus software. But there is also the other side of the equation: as in the case of Stuxnet, Flame is now effectively freeware. Anyone can ostensibly access it, copy it, modify it, and re-launch it against his or her target of choice...
Cover of "The Transparent Society: Will T...
Cover via Amazon
Over 100 Israeli systems are already reported to have been infected by Flame, as well as systems in several other countries in the region.  The United States?  I have found no conclusive reports one way or another.  And even then, we'd have to distinguish between government and corporate and other systems.  But the "freeware" aspect intrigues me.  How much trouble would it be for the next PFC Manning to insert a version of Flame into SIPRNet?  Or something more restricted?  I can't help but wonder how many cyberactivsts are pouring over the code.

Are we approaching the land of "No More Secrets"?  Is this The Transparent Society discussed by Brin?  Not really, if only for the reason that those who uncover secrets may not be able to understand what they have, or may choose not to share it with the world.  But it does raise the prospect that while the NSA plugs away at monitoring everything we do, there might be a lot more states and non-state actors doing the same to them.  How will that change the game?

Comment: Who authored computer virus that ‘dwarfs Stuxnet’? « intelNews.org

27 June, 2012

Altruism and deterrence

Alice Krige as the Borg Queen in First Contact
Alice Krige as the Borg Queen in First Contact (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm talking to some people about getting involved in an institute exploring global catastrophic risk.  What they do fits in with the textbook (still in progress), and with my next conference paper (working title: "Captain America Meets the Borg").

An interesting question came up regarding the promotion of altruism and deterrence as strategies to reduce global risk.  I hope they don't mind if I recycle some of my comments here.  I suspect my approach may be a little different than most, although to me it seems natural.  In fact, I'd characterize it as, in many ways, classically liberal.  I think James Madison in particular would approve.

I hate to admit it, but I’m something of a cynic on many of these issues.  Promoting altruism is a good thing in general, but I’d rather find a way to take advantage of selfishness, using personal payoffs to result in public goods.  For one thing, in a system where strong altruism is the norm, a selfish minority (if not so large that it is more advantageous to prey on one another instead of on the altruistic minority) has some structural advantages.  There’s a reason why some of the most successful people are clinical sociopaths: sane people are at a disadvantage when competing in stock markets, or as generals, or in presidential elections.  People who empathize too much hesitate and lose. 

(This is not to say you can’t have sane and caring success stories in these kinds of competitive areas, but they require special circumstances and/or compensatory talents.)

So the trick, much as Montesquieu observed, is to take advantage of those rare moments and set up a system where the predators are so busy contending with one another that they need to constantly curry the favor of the majority in order to  succeed, and where it is in the interest of most of the sociopaths to tolerate the long-term empowerment of the majority.

Of course, we might want to get rid of the sociopaths completely.  But sociopathology isn’t either/or.  It’s a continuum, and whoever is sitting in the long tail (whether Genghis Kahn or Bernie Madoff) is still in an advantageous position.  Besides, there will always be “mutations.”  And worst of all, since power accumulates around the sociopaths they are, in the long run, the ones who will be doing and implementing most of the designing.  The regulators get co-opted.  It’s built into the structure of the game.

Deterrence has a better chance.  Although there’s still the chance of suicidal decision-makers, one of the useful things about sociopathology is that people who value nothing over their own lives and profit can be risk adverse—if they can accurately calculate the probability and penalties for failure.  Thus one of the things we can do is increase transparency to the point that they can’t delude themselves that they are untouchable, and another is to encourage a balance of power in which those who can do harm are also subject to the greatest risk of retaliation.

So I guess I have more faith in selfishness than in altruism, IF the selfishness is enlightened self-interest, in a system where the desire for personal gain leads to the provision of public goods, and transparency is great enough, and the most potentially dangerous members of the group have the most to lose from actions that threaten the system as a whole.

Meanwhile, fragment power and disperse populations and encourage local resilience--because there will always be disasters and we need to plan to rebuild when they occur—while not allowing those preparations to encourage overconfidence and the “moral hazard” phenomenon. 

To steal a line from Robert Gilpin, I guess I'm a liberal living in a realist universe.  I'd like to rely on the goodness of man, but it seems to me the track record (and the structure of the system) makes that a sucker bet--especially when there can be so many lives on the line.  Better to encourage a system that can encourage and profit from the better elements of our nature, but doesn't rely on them so much that it can't survive disappointment.