Running Towards the Warning Sign

Cyberpunk author William Gibson is often quoted as saying “The future’s here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

I always considered him wrong about the first part and right about the second.

Yesterday I watched an (old) interview with Gibson done by fellow author Robert J. Sawyer at the Toronto Public Library in which Gibson dropped a pretty stark message. “The only people who can view Neuromancer as a dystopia,” Gibson stated, “are people living in a condition of extraordinary privilege.” Now it’s important to remember that Neuromancer is largely about a crippled, suicidal drug addict being scraped off a predatory street, having his brain rewired and being tasked to complete an equally suicidal hacking mission. Refusal results in him becoming re-crippled, failure likely results in his death or incarceration as well. This in the context of a world where some corporations have become so established as to be colonial powers in their own right.

As part of the internet’s countertechno culture I see at least weekly someone utter the lament, “Where’s my fucking jetpack?” The sad old refrain, accusatory and rightly perceived and being full of privilege in itself. Science Fiction promised us so much and the world delivered so little.

In thinking about this tonight I stumbled on a new indignation, insult to the injury. The only part of modern life really approaching Jetpack Space, really approaching that glory, is the NSA. The technological capabilites of the National Security Agency goes far beyond even most hackers. Their sheer ballsyness, the testicular fortitude it takes to dream up some of these hacks no less package them in a catalog to be pulled out at whim harkens back to pure science fiction. A society in which technology and imagination don’t follow each other but are rather intertwined, symbiotic.

With that symbiosis leading to a rate of societal change that can only be described as exponential.

It’s not a warp drive, or first contact, or zero point energy. In fact it’s the antithesis of these long-sought advances. NSA technology takes us nowhere. It’s turned inward and facilitates no bridge between nations no less extraterrestrial species. And it requires an astounding amount of energy produced in some of the most archaic of ways.

Yet it’s quickly clear that the NSA has brought us further into the future than any existing body so far.

In our privilege, the only part of the future we dared tread towards is the part we were warned most vehemently about.

Evening Readings for November 11, 2013

Techdirt: Office Depot Sends World’s Worst DMCA Notice To RedditThis has got to be the dumbest idea ever. Hoping the person responsible is looking around sheepishly.

MediaMatters: CBS “Eyewitness” Admits He Lied About Benghazi Attack While Bashing CriticsThe Right seized on this guy’s account as proof Obama lied but, as usual, didn’t bother with the least bit of fact-checking or vetting (nor did 60 Minutes, it seems). Looks like he wasn’t even close to the embassy. Simon & Schuster has pulled his book from the shelves at this point.

Foreign Policy: Meet the Most Crooked Cop in AfghanistanAmerican soldier who warned his fellow soldiers about this guy getting criminally charged for it. Insane.

Reuters: Snowden persuaded other NSA workers to give up passwordsOne CIA director gets nailed arranging an affair via Gmail, a former NSA/CIA director gets eavesdropped on while spilling secrets on the train, now NSA employees are handing over their passwords. Lovely.

Morning Readings for October 30, 2013

Quotes in quotation marks, commentary by me in italics.

USA Today: Wheeler confirmed as head of FCCWireless and cable industry lobbyist. I’m sure he’s got the public’s best interest in mind.

Disinfo: Ancient Magician’s Curse Tablet Discovered In Jerusalem – “The text is written in Greek and, in it a woman named Kyrilla invokes the names of six gods to cast a curse on a man named Iennys, apparently over a legal case.” – I wonder if this would work on Congress.

Volokh: Conviction of Iranian-American Muslim Reversed Because of Prosecutor’s Reference to Sharia – “The prosecutor contrasted for the potential jurors a scenario that he asserted “was out of either Iran or Saudi Arabia” where an alleged rape victim was required to produce five male witnesses to prove the rape….”

Ars Technica: Not even two weeks after shutdown, BitTorrent search site isoHunt is backIf this is not a honeypot (site erected for the purpose of luring torrenters in order to track them) I will EAT MY SHIRT.

TYWKIWDBI: Eels inside the cardiac chambers of a sharkFascinating image and explanation but not for the squeamish.

JP Morgan Wants Blanket Immunity AND FDIC Money For Settling Over Mortgages

According to Bloomberg, settlement talks between JP Morgan Chase and the Department of Justice have hit a rough patch over two main sticking points:

The sides split over JPMorgan’s plan to seek reimbursement from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for part of the accord and the bank’s bid for exemption from criminal liability in probes unrelated to residential mortgage-backed securities, one person said.

Just to fathom the full weight of JPM arrogance, read that quote over again.

In order to settle with the DOJ over claims that JPM willfully and knowingly misrepresented the quality of mortgage-related products sold at the time, JPM is requiring that the DOJ immunize them from other unrelated criminal probes and demanding partial reimbursement from an (albeit independent) federal body.

That’s like me robbing a bank, shooting a teller, stealing their car, running over and killing someone in the parking lot, and then suggesting I’ll settle with the government for all those crimes and anything else I might’ve done by returning the hubcap of the stolen car. But only if the prosecutor buys me lunch after we get out of court and the bank that I robbed pays for my lawyer.


Evening Reading for October 29, 2013

Quotes in quotation marks, commentary by me in italics.

Guardian: Family of grandmother killed in US drone strike arrive for Congress visit – ‘Among the most striking evidence that the attack was carried out by a US drone, Qadri said, was the “phenomenal accuracy” of the strike. “It physically hits her,” he said, referring to Momina Bibi. “She’s literally hit flush and is blown to smithereens.”‘ – Family’s story was consistent across multiple blind interviews. No answers for them so far. Government’s story has changed multiple times, from suggesting this grandmother was cooking for militants to implying a militant had simply “been in the area” ten minutes before. Crushing. Infuriating.

TPM: British Man Arrested For Allegedly Hacking U.S. Government Systems – “An indictment unsealed in Newark federal court said Love, who was also allegedly known as “nsh,” “route,” and “peace,” worked with multiple co-conspirators in online chatrooms to compromise the systems and steal personally identifiable information of thousands of government employees and contractors.”

Phys: – New material for quantum computing discovered out of the blue -“Our research shows that a common blue dye has more potential for quantum computing than many of the more exotic molecules that have been considered previously.”‘ – Gotta love the little tricks the universe pulls from time to time.

Gawker: Ron Paul’s Campaign Manager Died of Pneumonia, Penniless and Uninsured – Article’s from 2011 but I stumbled across it today and found it pretty educational. The great, free society that Libertarians want to build doesn’t even take care of their own. What the hell kind of way is that to live?

Evening Reading for October 24, 2014

Quotes in quotation marks, commentary by me in italics.

Mother Jones via pi8you: Could Obama’s Campaign Tech Gurus Fix Let’s Ask ‘Em! – ‘”The ‘secret’ here is that the problems are not about tech at all,” he tweeted on Monday. “It is about procurement. I can’t fix that with my tech chops or my team.”‘ – A pretty good, fast read on why the problems with are vastly different than any web startup or website you’re comparing it to.

TechDirt: Texas Judge Forced To Resign After Being Caught Texting Instructions To Assistant DA During Trial – “Coker used Assistant District Attorney Jones to privately communicate information about the Reeves case to the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case; to suggest questions for the prosecutor to ask during the trial; to ensure that a witness was able to refresh his memory and rehabilitate his testimony by reviewing his videotaped interview with law enforcement before he took the stand for the second time the following day; and to discuss legal issues pertinent to the case. in an unsuccessful effort to assist the State obtain a guilty verdict in the case…”

Newsweek: Campaign to Defund, Repeal Obamacare Abandoned by Tea PartyNot sure I buy it, but makes a case that the major backers of the anti-Obamacare movement are moving on.

And finally, via American Military, one of the most badass military tattoos I’ve ever seen:


Building something, brick by brick.

I’ve let my thoughts scatter for months and now they’re lost across the map.

Used to be a writer. Decided that it’s time to be one again. Time to pull those thoughts in and create coherent narratives again, share things across time and space. Put it all down. Build something up.

I should probably start with what I am.

I am a writer. Of fiction, nonfiction, whatever comes across my brain. I’m also a person with depression. A depression that caused me to not give a shit about writing for the past six months.

This is an official notice that I am taking my brain back. Every lobe, every fold, every miniscule neuronal connection. They’re all mine again. And I’m writing again.

So it goes.

I’m also a pretty tireless observer of world affairs. Keenly interested in foreign relations, technology, finance and other subjects. And as I begin to write again I realize that I need be not simply an observer but also an active presence. Move from simple consumption to analysis and explanation.

But what I really am is a seeker. I seek things out. Knowledge, answers, questions. Reasons. Focused more on the process than the destination, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to convert the energy I have for seeking into something more productive. Consuming media leaves me in an unconscious Sisyphean cycle of digging cognitive holes in the sand and filling them back up again instead of building castles.

Just what castle to build still slips out of my grasp, running through my fingers every time I try and grab for some firm idea of how and what to do. So I’ll start with the basics and work my way back up to vaulted ceilings and gargoyles on ledges.

What’s the worst that could happen?

I have something to hide

5654_1240467811770_1231550090_690112_5740059_nIn the debate about NSA surveillance, any surveillance, in the debate about any action government and especially law enforcement may take, the oft-repeated party line goes like this: “I’m not concerned about it because I have nothing to hide.”

This argument fails on a number of levels. The most basic level is that it assumes we each possess perfect information. Perfect information is a concept in two fields that I follow closely: Game Theory, and Economics. Game Theorists study rational strategic decision-making by examining mathematical models of games and how players interact. In game theory a player is said to have perfect information when they possess “the same information to determine all of the possible games (all combinations of legal moves) as would be available at the end of the game.” Chess can be a game of perfect information since all the pieces are on the board throughout the game and all the rules are known ahead of time. Even then, though, most humans don’t possess the cognitive processing paths allowing them to treat chess as a game of perfect information. We’re simply not primed or trained to see all those possible moves from all sides.

A better game to think of in the context of perfect information is tic-tac-toe. Nine squares, two pieces (X’s and O’s), known rules, and much easier for us to process. Processing information (legal moves) in games is best described through using a decision tree (graphical tool where every option spawns a new branch of the tree) or a decision matrix (rows and columns of values that quantize relationships, such as those between choices in a game). The decision tree for tic-tac-toe is a lot more simple than chess since the latter involves sixteen game pieces and sixty-four squares (this is the main reason why it’s a lot easier to teach a computer how to play tic-tac-toe than chess).

In either game you’ve got perfect information if you can fill out the entire decision tree from start to finish. All the possible moves by all players.

Let’s consider a new game to model. It’s a lot more complex. It’s called Being A Citizen.

Before saying “I have nothing to hide” I’d have to say that I possessed perfect information in the context of making that decision. That’s perfect information not only about every past move leading up to this decision but every future move after it. It assumes that all “pieces” are above the board and that I know all the rules to this game. And that’s demonstrably incorrect.

Let’s take the assets and programs of the National Security Agency as some of our game pieces. For them to be above the board we’d need the government to be both honest and accountable about them. Instead, NSA Director Keith Alexander has repeatedly lied to the public about every aspect possible. So has Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. They’ve lied to us as individual players and Congress as what we might call a Superplayer; about buildings, assets, programs, collected materials. Everything we’d need to get a good idea, no less a complete idea, about the pieces on the playing board.

Having established that we don’t have clear information on the game pieces, let’s turn to the playing board. In order to play chess you’ve got to abide by certain rules, but there’s a trade-off: the rules are all made plain beforehand. You’re not going to get midway through the game and then be challenged about the legality of your opening move, either due to a rule that was hidden from you or due to a new interpretation of an old rule. But in the game model we’re dealing with here, government in general and intelligence agencies in particular have established exactly this possibility. As one example: the very court opinions and administration interpretations of the Patriot Act allowing the government to order telecommunications companies to collect and provide massive amounts of data on US citizens are secret.

The Foreign Intelligence Services Court approved nearly nineteen thousand search/eavesdropping warrants from 1979 until 2004, while rejecting just four. And their proceedings are entirely sealed and secret from us. Unless, of course, leaking FISA information benefits the Government player. And then it suddenly appears. This, by the by, is what’s called information asymmetry. It takes place in asymmetric gamesgames in which strategies are not the same for each player but dictated by the power imbalance between players. Remember this concept, it’s important.

At this point we need to remember the structure of the NSA’s information-gathering programs. They’re largely not set up for distributed, real-time analysis of communications. They’re erected for investigative purposes, connecting the dots. Going back into records of previous events as far back as the records go. Which means that once you seemingly violate a rule that you’re not aware of, or once the administration alters its interpretation of the rule to make you a violator, they can now go back through every communication within their grasp and piece it together in any way they desire in order to make you appear guilty as sin.

Without you knowing, at any step of the process.

“But Ian,” you’re about to argue, “of course D-NSA Alexander and DNI Clapper lied to the public. FISA’s secret. They had to. It’s classified. Surely you didn’t expect them to expose their own secret programs?”. No, I didn’t. I expect secrecy and confidential programs in government; I’d go so far as saying that secrecy is absolutely essential in some areas of government. Arguments about ending secrecy are naive from the outset. Abolishing secrecy isn’t the point.

The point is this: playing a game (read: making decisions) as if I have perfect information when I don’t manifests an inherently flawed strategy. This isn’t about what I expect of Alexander or Clapper, but what they expect from me in adopting “It’s okay because I have nothing to hide.” It presupposes that my interests and those of the government always lie in the same direction. That I know each strategy the government may take, every branch of their decision tree, that the government’s being straight with me, and that it has and will always have my individual interests at heart. Out of these three conditions, the first is ludicrous, the second is (again) immediately demonstrably false, and the third is false in nearly every lesson we’ve seen in history.

The interests of individual and government always have places of divergence, generally because government is full of other individuals all making strategic decisions in the interests of themselves and their ideologies. Our ability to compromise in places is what allows us to form governments. And compromise, while not inherently harmful, often involves finding common ground in the spaces between our original interests. Even moreso when it’s done on a macro, societal scale with the potential to criminalize peaceful protests (like many Occupy sites), pass legislation that potentially criminalizes miscarriage, restricts a person’s right over being secure in their own biological functions, refuses equitable rights to people of different sexual orientation or race or religion or levels extra scrutiny on the tax status of organizations of a particular political persuasion.

“I have nothing to hide” means you’re playing an asymmetric information game like other players would want you to: poorly. Out of some mythical principle you’ve chosen to tie both hands behind your back in order to play a game that the intelligence agencies won’t even tell you the rules to. This is a game you will lose every time. Because not only do other players have more information than you, they also have just about all the power in the situation. And remember what I said above: strategy in asymmetric games is dictated by power imbalance between the players. Relinquishing both your power and your information is not a strategy, it’s a suicide. A strategy is, say, aligning with other players cooperatively to combine your power, such as in protest. Or securing your own information, as in encrypting your data and anonymizing your internet usage.

We know what happens to protesters: they’re investigated, infiltrated, marginalized and criminalized. They face felony charges and thirteen years in prison for marking the sidewalk with water-soluble chalk (this last, thankfully, acquitted by a jury this week). And now leaked NSA guidelines reveal what happens to the other side of your strategy as well: using cryptographic and anonymizing technologies increase chances that the NSA will not only scrutinize you further, but also keep your data in contravention of law.

In other words, when you pursue a rational strategy that harms no one, it’s used against you.

Just how do you think the NSA is approaching this game? To move this from game theory back into common terms: Just how do you think the NSA is approaching this decision-making process?

With your interests in mind?

So yes, I’m going to encrypt my data. I’m going to use Tor when I browse, I’m even going to order an Onion Pi and switch all my traffic over to Tor. I may be a very solid part of the surveillance state, being a police dispatcher for nearly a decade now. But I have something to hide: my communications, my traffic, my likes and dislikes, my entire online identity in some senses. I have something to hide not because I’m a bad person (I’m not) or because we live in a totalitarian state (we don’t) but because I don’t have perfect information and this game isn’t being played fairly.