Radical Instrument

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Archive for February 2009

Midweek roundup…watching the watchmen, Allende’s Internet, and terrorist surveillance-dodging

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Three midweek reads:

1.  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Via Wired’s Threat Level, the senior official for Beijing’s municipal Internet monitoring program is arrested for corruption.

2.  Over at iRevolution, Patrick Philippe Meier summarizes a fascinating paper on cybernetics under the Allende presidency in Chile. Interesting commentary at the end on the symbiotic nature of human as well as machine networks…similar to this presentation on the failure of the “Soviet internet.” If you have time, also recommend his recent post from Mobile Tech for Social Change Barcamp.

3.  Speaking of mobile tech…Italian press is reporting that the cell phones used in last year’s Mumbai terror attack were activated in the U.S. with Austrian country codes, registered to a man identifying himself as an Indian citizen, using funds wired from Italy. The alternative for avoiding surveillance? Skype, according to this Register piece, which cites an unnamed “industry source” disclosing an NSA offer of “billions.” (via Schneier)

Written by Mark

February 24, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Soviet drones of yesteryear

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Military robots are having their fifteen minutes, from The Daily Show to the pages of The New Yorker. Amid all the talk of revolution, it might be worth asking what happened to the Soviet teletank, and why it didn’t last beyond the first few years of World War II.

It’s an interesting question, given that the “revolution in military affairs” in U.S. defense circles has its intellectual roots in the Soviet Union’s “military-technical revolution” … a concept that would be difficult to untangle from the Soviet Union’s social and cultural relationship with cybernetics

The (purely speculative) point:  there’s something in the “robot revolution” that’s more than a straightforward matter of military capability, that points to deeper societal and historical trends. It might be sympotmatic of a return to isolationism, or something else. Whatever it is, it’s worth examining, before the revolution moves much further.

Written by Mark

February 19, 2009 at 9:47 pm

Posted in Military & Security, Technology

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Crowdsourcing the hunt for bin Laden

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USA Today summarizes a fascinating paper released today in MIT International Review. In it, UCLA geography professors Thomas W. Gillespie and John A. Agnew use biogeographic theory, public reporting,and satellite imagery to develop a hypothesis about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden…narrowing it down to a choice of compounds in Parachinar, in Kurram, one of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Leaving aside the validity of the model – although a suspected U.S. drone conducted the first attack in Kurram on Monday – the most striking point of the authors’ analysis is in the conclusion:

“…For instance, in an attempt to aid disaster relief efforts after the October 8, 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, numerous international aid agencies posted high-resolution satellite images on the web.  The Pakistani government forced these images to be removed because they feared that the security of the Kashmir region might be compromised.  Perhaps it is past time to embrace this technology and create a public database concerning models or hypotheses about bin Laden’s current location [emphasis added]. … Altogether, the US intelligence community spent over $50 billion on intelligence activities last year alone.  Ideally, some of this money should have been spent looking for bin Laden and the US intelligence community could make public a report based on all data collected  from 2001 to 2006. … These methods are repeatable and could easily be updated with new information obtained from the US intelligence community on his last known location.”

It’s a point worthy of debate. There have been applications of related knowledge-transfer techniques inside the U.S. government, but the authors appear to be advocating for something akin to a crowdsourcing model to expand the resource capacity of the intelligence community. The counter-argument will, of course, be based in security. But could a “public database” such as advocated by the authors have appropriate filters in place to protect security considerations? Could development or testing be released to the public domain in such a way that the testers cannot distinguish between, say, an analysis of building types in Pakistan and an analysis of buildings in a fictional environment?

Written by Mark

February 17, 2009 at 11:11 pm

Questioning “digital Pearl Harbor”

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In its Sunday op-ed section, the New York Times raised the specter again of “digital Pearl Harbor,” this time contained in a quote from the CEO of a network security company:

“If you’re looking for a digital Pearl Harbor, we now have the Japanese ships streaming toward us on the horizon,” Rick Wesson, the chief executive of Support Intelligence, a computer consulting firm, said recently.

The term dates back to 1991, first used to discuss the U.S. government’s digital signature standard, and took on new prominence in a speech delivered by Richard Clarke at a computer security conference in 2000, in which he advocated the establishment of a Federal CIO position with responsibilities for cybersecurity (a policy that is coming to be realized, eight years and a few months later).

The term has also proliferated – roughly 303,000 Google results tonight – to the point where it’s straining credibility, like other overused metaphors involving cyberspace and international goings-on, nefarious or otherwise. A few points for consideration:

1.  After a wargame sponsored by the Gartner Group and the U.S. Naval War College in 2002 – named, predictably enough, “Digital Pearl Harbor” – 79% of participants walked away saying that a “strategic cyber attack is likely within the next 2 years.” Saying that you could use better security is not the same as saying that the attack is just over the horizon.

2.  “Cyberwar,” “cyberespionage,” Internet-enabled crime, virus releases, and simple malfunctions can be difficult to distinguish from each other by their effects. Political actors schooled to think only in terms of “Pearl Harbors” (or “Munichs,” for that matter) may be predisposed to solutions which could be wasteful, or even counterproductive. A hypothetical:  imagine the Cold War never ended, but turned even more tense. A new worm originates from inside Russia and disrupts U.S. air traffic systems. Is it the work of a bored college student? The prelude to an attack? In 1983, a Soviet air defense commander “made a serious but honest mistake” in the shootdown of a South Korean 747 due to conditions of tension and high alert, according to a CIA monograph. The point is that there’s a danger of escalation in any crisis, and while these conditions do not currently exist, metaphors like “digital Pearl Harbor” substitute predisposition for analysis.

3.  As Bruce Schneier has pointed out, legitimate security concerns, once given a backdrop of “ships streaming towards us” or terrorism, tend to get washed out by calls for regulation that limit the productive use of technology and threaten privacy. 

It might be time to start a contest for a new metaphor.

Written by Mark

February 16, 2009 at 10:50 pm

Valentine’s Day roundup: more Iranian netroots, Saudi Arabia and satellite TV, and net piracy…

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1.  John Kelly and Bruce Etling have updated their map of the Iranian blogosphere, noting a dramatic change in what they’re now calling the “CyberShia” cluster. The authors note that this could represent a debate around Islamic law, or may reflect an effort by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to recruit 10,000 bloggers (the cyber-equivalent of opening a Starbucks on every corner?).

2.  King Abdullah has fired Saudi Arabia’s most senior judge, who last year opened the legal door to the killing of satellite channel owners airing “evil” programming. This may be a little more than Wahhabism vs. skin. As The Guardian noted last fall, several channels are owned by royal family members, and the judge’s fatwa was issued on a radio program. A year prior to the fatwa, the issue with satellite programming wasn’t so much debauchery as it was “programs related to witchcraft,” threatening the religious establishment:

“The popularity of charlatanism and magic has increased amongst Arab satellite channels, which, in turn, has led to an increase in the number of charlatans. These individuals aim to give off an image of a pious sheikh who can solve individual problems. There are others who have a strong sense of persuasion that has been learnt throughout many years of experience. His/her viewers feel compelled to watch and listen as if they have hypnotized the words and become convinced of his/her abilities to solve their problems.”

3.  The Pirate Bay goes on trial Monday. Wired’s Threat Level provides the details…suffice to say that the case has significant implications for cross-border copyright law, possibly raising more questions than answers. The operators of this BitTorrent tracking service have indicated that the service will live, regardless of the verdict, raising yet more questions about legal boundaries and enforceability.

Written by Mark

February 14, 2009 at 10:53 am

Robots and the systematization of war

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After a tortuous ride through blog-space (thanks to links on Opposed Systems Design and Kings of War), I came across this New Year’s Day post (featured on Entitled to an Opinion) featuring a 2005 presentation made by a former R&D head in the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

At the heart of the presentation is a “system collapse model” for Israeli anti-terrorism efforts, which is described as “mostly all maths” and a “thermodynamic model which analyzes the disorder inside the system.” It’s essentially the theory of Jenga:  the more components of a system that are damaged, the greater the probability of system collapse, even if the system’s “critical point” remains undamaged. 

It’s pure speculation to draw lines from this theory to the IDF’s 2006 and 2008 campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza. Still, one can’t help but be reminded of General James N. Mattis’ memo to U.S. Joint Forces Command criticizing “effects-based operations” (which this Air Force briefing describes as an approach that models an “Enemy as a System”):  

For example, a recent analysis of the recent Israeli-Hezbollah conflict found that EBO ‘terminology used was too complicated, vain, and could not be understood by the thousands of officers needed to carry it out.’ … Although there are several factors why the IDF performed poorly during the war, various post-conflict assessments have concluded that over reliance on EBO concepts was one of the primary contributing factors in their defeat.”

Here’s what’s troubling. There’s an argument to be made that the military’s growing use of robots – highlighted by P.W. Singer’s new book and debates over the implications for ethics and laws of war – represents the continuance of a mindset that applies “enemy as a system” thinking to war. General Mattis’ memo highlights the dangers inherent in this reductionism:  “…all operating environments are dynamic with an infinite number of variables…” Variables, in other words, that can’t be overcome with better or even adaptive programming. 

And that doesn’t even start to address the moral questions involved in systems models for warfare, or the ethical and legal questions associated with the application of these models to domains like homeland security … domains which will see technology manifestations of this thinking (e.g., TSA databases) just as we’re seeing with the growth in military robots. It’s not the technology that should trouble us. It’s the theory that defines how we use it. 

Post-script:   The background for the presentation featured on Entitled to an Opinion is intriguing. It was delivered at a Russian think-tank headed by a political theorist with possible links to far-right European and neo-Nazi groups. This same theorist, Sergey Kurginyan, also appeared on a panel with a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official at a 2008 “World Summit on Counter-Terrorism” in Israel. No conspiracy theory here – just a suspicion on the possible attraction of these systems models to the right-wing, and a comment that we should really watch who we associate with on the counterterrorism front. 

Written by Mark

February 10, 2009 at 11:21 pm

Obama appoints a cybersecurity czar

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Via Reuters: President Obama today named Melissa Hathaway, an advisor to former Director of National Intelligence Adm. Mike McConnell, to oversee a 60-day cybersecurity review. Prior to her work in government, Ms. Hathaway worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, which, interestingly enough, was the centerpiece for a BusinessWeek cover story on cybersecurity last spring.

Written by Mark

February 9, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Posted in Military & Security

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Khatami vs. Ahmadinejad

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Via Reuters and every other source – former Iranian President Khatami has announced he’ll run against incumbent Ahmadinejad this June. John Kelly and Bruce Etling produced this nice visualization of the Iranian blogosphere last April, depicting secular/reformist and conservative network clusters.

Written by Mark

February 8, 2009 at 11:42 pm

Posted in Random

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Cyber-hedonism vs. cyber-activism

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In its most recent edition, The Economist frets that “pleasure-seeking” will outweigh political activism in the activities “young surfers” pursue online, particularly in authoritarian countries.

It’s an exposition of a theme laid out in December by Evgeny Morozov, who’s writing a book on the effects of the Internet on civic engagement, under the auspices of George Soros’ Open Society Institute.

I’m not (yet) convinced. To start, I’d assume that political activism is a minority pursuit no matter where it’s pursued, from contested states in the U.S. Presidential election (where 28% of young voters reported attending a campaign event) to the most repressive autocracies. Certainly, it becomes even more of a minority pursuit where repression’s involved, but should we assume that “hedonism,” whether represented by video gaming, online dating, gambling, pornography, or media will be free of any political color? Or that activism is (or should remain) a completely puritanical business?

As more content becomes user-generated (or user-participative) – and as formerly distinct channels for media consumption and social interaction blur – it’ll be harder to draw bright lines between domains like activism and hedonism (and commerce, for that matter). The smarter activist movements will look to inject politics into entertainment channels like a virus, in ways that will likely be a few steps ahead of any autocrat’s inoculation measures. And as I’m sure Morozov would agree, the smarter autocracies will look to exploit entertainment channels in their own way. I suspect we’re still in for some surprises over the next decade.

P.S. – You can find Morozov’s blog here, now also featured in the blogroll.

Written by Mark

February 8, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Posted in Random

Where’s Omid?

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Just past 10:40 pm on the East Coast and new Iranian satellite Omid has crossed the Aleutians, about 180 miles above the Earth. At least according to this “real time satellite tracking” service. Looks like it’ll be crossing British Columbia as I finish writing this, headed towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Written by Mark

February 3, 2009 at 10:46 pm

Posted in Random, Technology

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