Radical Instrument

IT is changing the exercise of power. Radical Instrument is picking up the signals.

Archive for November 2008

We need a new metaphor for…

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…”Cyber-attack,” “cyber-war,” or anything similar. No need to pile on to the technical criticism of this LA Times story, which was appropriately Slashdotted. It does highlight the need for clearer thinking about how to deal with the borderless nature of ICT.

Does the presence of malware in a government system really constitute an “attack,” if said malware was “inadvertently loaded” via flash drive and had been circulating in the private sector for months? OK, I think that’s easy. The harder questions follow: 

Has any government articulated how it would distinguish between an actual attack using ICT, and a criminal act? Does a state-sponsored scan of another government’s system – if you can prove it – constitute “legitimate” reconnaissance and intelligence gathering? How should states respond to each other’s activities, whether scans or actual penetrations? What constitutes an act of hostility? What happens when a state harbors (i.e., no extradition treaties) an individual malware producer? 

Expect more media breathlessness – and more bad cyber-words – until questions like these get sorted out.

Written by Mark

November 30, 2008 at 5:00 am

A new and disturbing kind of silence

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Anne Applebaum has written a clear-eyed analysis of what we know – and don’t yet know – about the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai. As she notes, what’s striking here – apart from the sheer evil of the attacks – is that the world still knows nothing about the attackers. 

Terrorism has changed, but not merely in its level of violence. The terrorist organizations of the pre-9/11 world were known, in the sense that they had a professional communications infrastructure to accompany and reinforce the political messages conveyed through violence. The IRA, Hezbollah, Baader-Meinhof … even al-Qaeda. There was little chance that the world missed the message, since it came with a press release, videotape, or statement read by a hostage. Why was this so prominent in, say, Lebanon in the 1980’s, and in Mumbai today? A few possible scenarios:

1.  The terrorist groups of the past were seeking some sort of political legitimacy, and thought they could achieve it. Some, including the IRA and Hezbollah, arguably did achieve a measure of political legitimacy. The attackers in Mumbai weren’t looking for legitimacy, or any other limited set of objectives. They’re part of a post-9/11 absolutism which seeks nothing less than the complete destruction of existing political systems. In other words, this isn’t terrorism – it’s war, which, thanks to AntiMoore’s Law, is now the province of individuals as much as it is countries.

2.  The communications strategies used in previous generations of terrorism don’t work. Terrorist groups can’t simply dominate a limited set of media channels as they might have in, say, 1983. More importantly, today’s media gives the target audience an opportunity to respond, in real time. This matters. Terror depends on media to magnify fear and isolation, to create a shock effect that inhibits any sort of counter-mobilization. You can’t do that without either (a) highly centralized and controlled media, which doesn’t exist today, or (b) an act that floods all channels through sheer magnitude (e.g., 9/11).

3.  Anonymity is the message. Elaine Scarry wrote a fascinating book which theorizes that torture functions psychologically by disassociating pain from the torturer – in other words, pain becomes a characteristic of the body’s environment (e.g., this room, this chair, etc. is causing me pain).  Terrorism post-9/11 is like torture:  an attempt to convince that pain and terror originate from the victim and the victim’s environment, rather than from the terrorist.

4.  It’s state-sponsored. War by proxy, much like Libya’s sponsorship of Pan Am 103 and the bombing of a Berlin nightclub in the 1980’s. But this scenario raises a question of rational political motives. There’s no obvious reason the most likely culprit in this scenario, Pakistan, would sponsor something like this. It seems much more likely an organization would want to taint Pakistan with this – see scenario #1, above.

I think we won’t know much more in a few weeks than we do now, at least not without investigation to ferret it out. I hope none of the scenarios above are right, but I suspect terrorism is going to continue to look a lot like numbers #1-3.

In the meantime, my thoughts are with the Mumbai victims. Make no mistake – acts like these are evil, pure and straightforward.

Written by Mark

November 29, 2008 at 2:57 pm

Posted in Terrorism

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Every (hu)man is an island

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Slashdot has a post on NVIDIA’s Tesla Personal Supercomputer – 4 TeraFLOPS on your desktop for under $10,000. Moore’s Law continues. 

For all the attention given Moore’s Law, it’s surprising that nobody has yet come up with a similar function to describe the rate of change in the capacity of the individual to inflict violence. After all, if there’s two things technology’s delivered over the last fifty years, it’s both phenomenal computing power and phenomenal killing power – both delivered into the hands of smaller and smaller groups, and increasingly into the hands of the individual. 

The confluence of Moore’s Law and…well, let’s call it AntiMoore’s Law…vest any single individual with a great deal of power. Arguably as much power as a minor state might have had in a pre-gunpowder age. Toss in the emerging move towards personal manufacturing, and you can see the outline of the next fifty years. Is it any wonder that nation-states everywhere are pushing against the boundaries of individual liberty?

Written by Mark

November 23, 2008 at 5:35 pm

Arabian Bytes

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BusinessWeek has a short but intriguing brief on Cisco’s foray into Saudi Arabia. As a consultant quoted in the piece states, technology companies can be thought leaders in weaving ICT into the development plans of countries like Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the article comments on the competition Cisco faces from the likes of Ericsson and Huawei. Unanswered:  how would “thought leadership” differ from Cisco to Huawei to Ericsson, and what would that mean for Saudi Arabia’s positioning in the Internet age?

Written by Mark

November 22, 2008 at 1:28 pm