Radical Instrument

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

Archive for January 2009

New thievery and old rivalries in cyberspace

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This year’s Davos is like a bad family reunion: Vladimir Putin told off Michael Dell, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan says he’s never coming back, and McAfee, Inc., brought the news that malware increased 400% in 2008 – resulting in an average intellectual property loss of $4.6 million per company, for a reported global loss of $1 trillion.

The most interesting finding from the survey behind McAfee’s data:  “Geopolitical perceptions have become a reality in information security policies.” Respondents – drawn from across the globe – cited China, Pakistan, and Russia as having the highest “threat levels” to “digital assets,” but the report perceptively notes that:

Perceptions among respondents may be rooted in both historical conflicts and modern economic, cultural and political differences. Responses can be sorted according to long-time tensions between China and Japan, India and Pakistan, the U.S. and Russia, the U.K. and Russia, as well as more modern conflict between China and Taiwan and China and the U.S. … For example, when asked to rate the threat level of various countries, 47 percent of Chinese respondents chose the U.S., followed by Taiwan (41 percent). Japanese respondents chose China (57 percent) followed by Russia (44 percent). Indian respondents overwhelmingly chose Pakistan (61 percent) as having the highest threat level. U.S.-based respondents chose China (62 percent) followed by Russia (59 percent). U.K.-based respondents selected Russia (74 percent) followed by Pakistan (68 percent) and China (66 percent).”

The data add to the argument that nationalism is prevailing over globalism in cyberspace, a trend likely to continue with recession and regulation. Absent a change in mood at Davos, the report’s call for an international cybersecurity convention seems like it’ll go unanswered in 2009.  One might expect what happens on the Internet – the exchange of information – to follow what happens in trade. Less of it, justified in nationalist terms and enforced by the technical equivalents of protectionism.

You can find the full McAfee report here (registration required).

Written by Mark

January 29, 2009 at 10:37 pm

Happy Data Privacy Day

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By resolution of the U.S. House of Representatives, today is officially National Data Privacy Day. Three highlights from around the world:

1.  Dutch search engine Ixquick announces it will no longer log user IP addresses, and will delete even anonymous search query data within 48 hours. 

2.  Wired’s Danger Room makes the case that the denial-of-service attacks shutting down Internet access in Kyrgyzstan are likely targeted at the Kyrgyz opposition.

3.  Vladimir Putin tells Michael Dell to shove off in Davos. We can network Siberia on our own, thanks.

Written by Mark

January 28, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Posted in Random, Technology

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Killer robots, part 2: implications for international law?

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As Foreign Policy Watch recently noted, the winter edition of the Wilson Quarterly features an article by P.W. Singer on the vertigo-inducing growth of robots and automation in the U.S. military, adapted from his new book Wired for War

Opinio Juris has a nice summary of points raised during an NPR interview with Singer, particularly his theme that the assumptions by which we define “war” are less and less valid. This is critical, and it seemed to be a point overlooked in a Washington Post opinion piece that caromed around a few blogs recently. 

The literature that’s sprung up so far seems to be unified by the contrast between the efficacy of military robots, and the ethics of their use. The legal question, when examined, seems to concentrate on whether we can avoid the robot equivalent of a My Lai (and, indeed, John Pike, among recent authors, has even suggested robots could thwart genocide, not to mention lesser atrocities), given the potential lethality of autonomous or semi-autonomous machines. 

While important, I’m not sure that the efficacy/ethics question can be resolved without a better understanding of what now constitutes “war,” as Singer’s work suggests. Take for instance, the example cited of the human operator in the U.S. piloting a drone operating in a war zone a continent away. Singer elsewhere in the article quotes Gordon Johnson of the Joint Forces Command:  “The enemy, are they going to give up blood and guts to kill machines?” Left unanswered is the question as to whether an enemy would instead focus on attacking the man-in-the-loop in the U.S., and whether or not this would constitute a legitimate act of war. Is the man-in-the-loop a combatant in this instance? Will increased use of robotics, controlled from afar, not just change the proclivity to use military force, as Singer asks, but also blur the boundaries of what legitimately constitutes a “battlefield”? 

As Gary M. Anderson and Adam Gifford, Jr., have noted, international law has historically lagged technological change – the submarine and strategic bombing representing two cases in point. But in a situation where Moore’s Law is driving the rate of change – and where advances in robotics are not limited to the U.S. – would it not be wise for a post-Iraq U.S. to lead a definition of conventions for robot operation and use? Leaving this one to technology evolution just seems too dicey. I don’t know whether this gets raised in Singer’s book, but I’m looking forward to reading it.

Written by Mark

January 27, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Posted in Military & Security, Technology

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Now featured on The Progressive Realist

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Radical Instrument is now included in the feeds for The Progressive Realist, a new metablog about American foreign policy that Robert Wright is launching today. Check it out! To learn more about progressive realism, see this editorial from a few years ago.

Written by Mark

January 27, 2009 at 8:25 am

Posted in Random

Facebook and a new form of opposition in Egypt

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Samantha M. Shapiro has an exceptional piece in this Sunday’s NY Times Magazine on Facebook’s role in organizing an opposition youth movement in Egypt. Shapiro also brings to light the attention paid by the State Department’s public diplomacy arm to Facebook, including this December summit featuring the Obama campaign’s new media team. 

You can find the Facebook group created by the State Department, the “Alliance of Youth Movements,” here. It gets even more interesting. The first thing listed in the group’s description is “THE MARCH AGAINST AL QAEDA,” scheduled for March in 20 locations around the world, including Baghdad, Mumbai, Cape Town, Beirut, Bahrain, and an unnamed site in Saudi Arabia. Its precedent is the “One million voices against FARC” group that inspired a protest of one million+ in Colombia last February, the largest so far against a terrorist organization. 

The Colombia and Egypt examples offer hope for technology-driven efforts in “civil society 2.0” and “dorm room diplomacy.”  But it still seems a hope fraught with ambiguity. Shapiro’s best sentence is at the end of her article on Egypt:  But what does it mean to have a vibrant civil society on your computer screen and a police state in the street?

Written by Mark

January 26, 2009 at 1:24 am

Vietnam’s crackdown on blogging

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A week ago, the Washington Post  summarized the Vietnamese government’s efforts to restrict online critics in a campaign dating back to August. What the piece misses is something Time picked up in a similar, late December summary,  the China connection: 

In December 2007 and January 2008, 56-year-old human rights activist Nguyen Hoaong Hai — who blogged under the pseudonym “Dieu Cay” — organized demonstrations in Ho Chi Minh City against the government’s permission of the Olympic torch to pass through Vietnam. The demonstrations protested Chinese occupation of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea — which Vietnam also claims. Within months, police arrested Nguyen on charges of tax evasion — a move widely seen as retaliation. “It’s pretty clear that what he was really thrown in jail for was for criticizing China’s claim over the Paracels,” says Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. In December, an appeals court upheld Nguyen’s 30-month jail sentence.

The WashPost piece focuses on the potential role of Yahoo! and Google – per the new regulations, “Internet companies” are required to report to the government every six months, although the application of this to non-Vietnamese companies is unclear. But the possible role of China would seem to be more interesting here, especially considering the relationships China has effectively forged with companies like Yahoo! and Microsoft.

1.  First, the high-profile arrest described in Time has paralleled growing cooperation between China and Vietnam in the military and technology sectors, with a new technology-cooperation agreement concluded in December

2.  Second, there’s the Burma precedent – not just in the example of the Internet-fueled protests of 2007, but in the allegations that Burmese military personnel received training abroad (specifically Russian) and other support in the junta’s cyber-crackdown. There’s an implication in the WashPost piece that the Vietnamese government is coming to the game somewhat late, in terms of its monitoring effectiveness. Even in the absence of international cooperation (e.g., if Yahoo! and Google were to close access to their blogging platforms), there’s a question as to whether Vietnam will need technical support to put teeth into its new edicts, and how it will acquire it.

3.  Third, there’s an interesting correlation between recent Chinese efforts to go after online pornographers and a line in the Vietnamese law banning “obscenity and debauchery” … regardless of whether or not it receives any technical support from abroad, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suspect that Vietnam is looking to China as a model for how to leverage the economic benefits of the Internet without sacrificing political control.

Written by Mark

January 24, 2009 at 9:48 pm

Posted in Technology

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YouTube and the Vatican

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As reported by the LA Times and others, the Vatican launched a YouTube channel on Friday, with a goal of  evangelizing the “digital continent.” There’s an inkling of social media savvy in the announcement – Pope Benedict XVI called upon “young people” to “announce the Gospel to your contemporaries with enthusiasm” – tempered by concern over the addictive, anti-social qualities of cyberspace, a concern similar to those articulated by Nicholas Carr, among others.

But Vatican City’s still missing the point.

Why YouTube? According to the LA Times piece, the Vatican is seeking to both “expand the reach of the church and exert greater control over its image.” You need only look to any number of marketing ventures, not to mention experiments like the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s efforts at blogging, to understand the goals of reach and control are in fundamental conflict. If it wants to expand, the Vatican has to cede some measure of content control and creation to its proselytizers – imagine, for the sake of argument, a set of online tools that would allow Catholics to assemble a “neighborhood Mass,” similar to the parties you could put together using the Obama campaign’s online kits.

This won’t happen, of course. It requires the Vatican to change its nature as a rigid hierarchy, built on a doctrine that has no room for vigorous debate … and as long as that’s the case, the Vatican will continue to play catch-up with Pentacostalism, Islam, and (in Europe particularly) non-belief.

You’d think someone might have figured this out, after the Gutenberg press and that Reformation business.

Written by Mark

January 24, 2009 at 7:17 pm

A few more post-inaugural thoughts…

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1.  James Fallows notes that the People’s Daily in China has published a complete translation of President Obama’s inaugural address, including references to both communism and dissent. He makes several great points, chief among them the role of uncertainty in what’s allowed and what’s forbidden.

2. From a 1970 interview with Hannah Arendt on the then-youth movement:  “…if I consider what (apart from goals, opinions, doctrines) really distinguishes this generation in all countries from earlier generations, then the first thing that strikes me is its determination to act, its joy in action, the assurance of being able to change things by one’s own efforts. … How long the so-called “positive” factors will hold good, whether or not they are already in the process of being dissolved, eaten away by fanaticism, ideologies, and a destructiveness that often borders on the criminal, on one side, by boredom, on the other, no one knows. The good things in history are usually of very short duration, but afterward have a decisive influence on what happens over long periods of time.” [source:  “Thoughts on Politics and Revolution”]

3.  Three days after having stood out on the Mall, I can’t remember a single sentence from the Inaugural Address. No “ask not…”, no “the only thing we have to fear…” What I do remember are keywords and keyphrases:  “dust ourselves off,” “science,” “bitter swill of civil war,” “childish things,” “greed,” “clenched fist.” I wonder whether this is due to subtle, technology-influenced changes in (a) how we write, (b) how we listen, or (c) the perishability of content in a content-saturated world.

Written by Mark

January 23, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Posted in Random

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New media questions in the UAE

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As reported in today’s WSJ, the United Arab Emirates is passing a new media law which threatens fines against journalists publishing information that “harms the economy.” Fake Plastic Souks has a good roundup of local media reaction, and points out that the new law seems to omit any reference to blogging, Twittering, YouTube, or any other online channel. But one doesn’t have to be a committed cynic to think that the UAE is likely to adopt a broad interpretation of “media,” given the precedent recently set in South Korea.

In fact, the parallel to South Korea might be more pronounced than a first glance would suggest. “Minerva” – offline, Park Dae Sung – was arrested for blogging about government moves to keep the won from falling against the dollar. As The National noted in December, the UAE’s Central Bank has kept interest rates higher than in the U.S. to contain inflation, despite a dollar peg, thanks to forward contracts betting on a devaluation of the dirham in 2009. 

There’s a dilemma at work here. The crisis in the capital markets has a great deal to do with transparency and a lack of reliable information, particularly when it comes to asset quality and balance sheets. But the sheer quantity of information (which by definition will include misinformation and speculation), as well as the speed and ease by which it can be produced, may risk exacerbating the situation. Such would seem to be the fear of policy-makers, at least.

The danger, of course, is that “the economy” becomes the new excuse for worldwide Internet regulation (after “terrorism” and “pornography”)…a danger that’ll become depressingly real as 2009 progresses.

p.s. – see The Emirates Economist for a blog dedicated to economic analysis of the Gulf states

Written by Mark

January 23, 2009 at 3:48 am

Posted in Business & Economy

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Gaza and social media, post-ceasefire

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Wired’s Danger Room has followed up on the Israeli Defense Force’s use of YouTube in the Gaza campaign, and finds that it was not so much planned as suggested by Gen-Y types. According to the piece, “social media” is under consideration for future IDF plans. 

I’d still argue that there’s an inherent conflict between information operations and social media, which leaves the IDF at a disadvantage. The question is whether two million hits on YouTube changed anything, beyond solidifying Israeli opinion and possibly moving U.S. opinion (this survey from RasmussenReports indicated a split over the campaign, while more recent surveys claim broader U.S. support for Israel). The second and more important question is whether this even matters relative to the impact that social and new media channels have in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well among Arab populations abroad.

Written by Mark

January 22, 2009 at 5:12 am