Radical Instrument

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

Archive for December 2008

Gaza and social media

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This article from Wired’s Danger Room is a little surreal and disorienting:  Israel is conducting an information campaign in support of the developing war in Gaza using Twitter and YouTube. As you might expect, there’s more out there in non-governmental channels as well – see this blog for a roundup on the Israeli side. Naturally, there’s a slice of the blogosphere representing the non-governmental Palestinian perspective (this blog, for example, serves as an aggregator), and Israeli media reported on Hamas’ use of a video-sharing service as recently as October.

I’m going to focus on the governmental (and let’s include Hamas in that) use of these technologies, since non-governmental use is really old news.

1.  There’s an inherent conflict between information operations and social media channels. Information operations are designed to control content. Social media are about ceding creation, contribution, and some measure of control to the audience. The IDF’s YouTube channel isn’t really social media, or “Web 2.0” in that respect – it’s simply the broadband version of the Pentagon briefings played out in the early days of the Iraq war. As for Twitter – isn’t omnipresent/always-on interest a precondition of using omnipresent/always-on media? I’m going to assume that anyone using Twitter to track events like this probably already supports one side or the other, with a passion. I’m not sure that you’d want to dedicate information operations to the choir. 

2.  Successful use of these tools depends on the goal, which directly relates to a political entity’s position relative to the international order. Hamas has a clear advantage here:  video-sharing and other forms of cheaper, more loosely controlled, and “instant access” media allow it to stimulate the so-called “street” against regimes in Egypt and other Arab states. Hamas also holds the advantage in content creation:  at a minimum, it can simply circulate graphic images of the dead (instant mental impression), whereas the IDF has the far harder task of using content to convince U.S. and EU populations of the legitimacy of its efforts (requires some degree of analysis). I’m not sure if this is too far removed from pre-digital pamphleteering – at least not yet.

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Written by Mark

December 31, 2008 at 6:01 am

Printers in Tehran

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Recently seen on Slashdot:  this surprisingly lengthy piece in the Boston Globe on the possibly illegal sale of HP printers in Iran. Let’s leave aside for a moment debates around the effectiveness of sanctions and embargoes. Isn’t a desktop printer (or cell phone, or Xerox copier, or…) exactly the kind of thing Western countries should want sold on the streets of Tehran? The regime is jailing bloggers and defining “defamation” over SMS as a new computer crime, and an undiscriminating embargo abets this by limiting the introduction of technologies that promote freedom of communication.

For some strange reason I’m reminded of the ban on typewriters in Ceausescu’s Romania.

Written by Mark

December 31, 2008 at 4:09 am

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Watch this space – more academic work coming in this area

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According to Wired’s Danger Room, a scholar from MIT has been awarded Pentagon funding to study “cyber international relations.” Professor Choucri’s academic focus has included development and international political economy (as an aside, some of my own research in the latter topic inspired this blog). She also holds the first patent in the history of MIT from its School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and worked with the UN’s World Summit on Information Technology. 

Looking forward to seeing what comes out of this work. As recently as three years ago, it was difficult to find international relations scholars writing extensively about the Internet – or at least to find them amid the flood of research in terrorism and security issues.

Written by Mark

December 29, 2008 at 2:21 pm

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Tragedy in Gaza

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On one level, it’s difficult to write anything truly meaningful or insightful about the tragedy that’s playing out in Gaza. I’m going to use the word “tragedy” for the reason that there doesn’t seem to be an exit for any side in this conflict. And like any tragedy, the danger is not just to the protagonist/antagonist, but to those caught in their wake.

In this case, that includes leadership elsewhere in the Arab world, faced with angry demonstrators with instant media access to the Gaza situation. I heard an expert several years ago advise an audience to “watch Egypt,” a focal point for condemnation for Hamas, Iran, and Syria for its closure of the Gaza border. Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah called upon Egyptians on Sunday to force an opening of the border via mass protest, without explicitly advocating a coup – see either this article on Ynetnews or this post from an Egyptian blogger for more details.

Written by Mark

December 29, 2008 at 5:10 am

Joining the 2009 prediction racket

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Forecasting has taken a beating in 2008, from the hard landing crash of the economy to the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, from the odds of seeing snow in Las Vegas this winter to the chances given to the NY Giants against the Patriots in Superbowl XLII. 

And yet we continue. In the spirit of tradition (if not science and probability), here are my top five calls on for where (and how) ICT will (and won’t) affect international affairs in 2009

1. Global economic conditions tilt the balance towards greater Internet regulation… Watch for nationalist-protectionist tendencies to surface in cyberspace as much as they will in the world of physical trade, assuming the recession extends until mid-2009 or longer. Expect commentators to blur their depictions of “unregulated finance” and “unregulated cyberspace,” and for politicians to justify Internet regulation as a means to “safeguard the economy,” whether by preventing cyber-crime or otherwise. 

2. …and prolong the “digital divide” in the developing world.  The capital drought has already halted or delayed major investments in the developed world. Watch for a similar, if not amplified, effect on ICT projects – charitable or otherwise – in BRIC countries, and definitely the Third World. Cell phones will remain a key network technology in the Third World – but without additional investment, will existing networks be able to handle increased capacity?

3.  Cybercrime gets worse.  The recession presents two key conditions for fraud and exploitation:  (a) significant dislocation in the corporate environment, presenting opportunities for the leakage of sensitive information, and (b) heightened psychological insecurity, increasing the size of the “target audience” for exploitation. Add in year-over-year improvements in criminals’ technical savvy, and 2008 looks to be a year to batten down the security hatches. For a good read, see McAfee’s annual cybercrime report.

4.  The next “Internet election” might be in Iran.  Expect a lot of attention to be paid to Iran’s 2009 presidential election, slated for June. There’s an interesting question as to whether Iran’s filtering mechanisms, which block access to five million websites, will be able to contain both (a) criticism of current President Ahmadinejad from political rivals and (b) both a web-savvy populace’s desire for information and the desire of external parties (e.g., exile groups) to provide it. OpenNet Initiative has an article from November (original source:  ynetnews.com) noting the passage of a draconian “computer crimes” bill earlier this year. Seems like the regime might lack some confidence in its firewall.

5.  Cloud computing will raise new questions about regulation, privacy, and security.  If there’s any technology in the hype cycle right now, it’s cloud computing (see this earlier post for more background). If – and this is a big if – we’re on a path towards the concentration of processing and storage in a limited number of massive data centers, servicing hundreds (or thousands, or…) of customers, there’s going to be a showdown with some questions that have yet to see satisfactory resolution. Such as:  will there be political acceptance of warrantless surveillance (not to mention government data-mining) once data is concentrated? Will government cybersecurity efforts concentrate on fortifying “clouds” as critical infrastructure, and leave the rest of the Internet wild? What responsibilities do Internet giants have towards governments for the data that runs through them? The answer’s going to have to be a little more precise than Google’s “Don’t be evil.” 2009 won’t be the year these questions get answered, but I’m betting that we’re going to start hearing (and listening to) them more.

Written by Mark

December 24, 2008 at 1:22 am

North Korea rolls out 3G…

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In the “can’t believe I missed this” file:  What You Must Read has a short post on the rollout of a 3G wireless network in North Korea. The best wall-to-wall coverage for this is over at North Korean Economy Watch. Price tag for the network is $400M. Some interesting comparisons:  a 3G build project in Quebec is tagged at $800M, while a T-Mobile project for San Francisco ran $322M.

Written by Mark

December 21, 2008 at 3:12 am

Amplification (or Contagion), part 2

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A physician and a political scientist have just concluded a study that confirms “emotional clustering” in online social networks. In other words, happy nodes tend to cluster with other happy nodes, and unhappy with unhappy (with happy defined by the presence of a smile in pictures). The only difference is that happier people tend to cluster at the center of networks, while the unhappy sit out on the periphery.

Seems like the Internet as Great Amplifier is probably right.

Written by Mark

December 21, 2008 at 12:06 am

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