Radical Instrument

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

Archive for March 2009

Where Internet attacks come from

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On the eve of a possible “D-Day” for the Conficker worm, there’s new data out from Akamai underlining the point that not all Internet attack traffic originates in Russia or China, despite articles about “GhostNet” and the like. For Q4 2008, Akamai’s data suggest the top originating country for attack traffic was the U.S. (23% of traffic), with China a few percentage points behind (19%). Akamai does note that this represents a shift from previous quarters in 2008, in which the U.S. played second to China or Japan.

What Akamai’s study offers is some perspective and perhaps a question. The figures merely point out that Internet attack traffic is not so much a function of any national characteristic except Internet penetration. To be fair, the study doesn’t show where the constitution of attack traffic may vary across countries – which attacks have tacit state support and which are merely criminal. But that in and of itself raises the question as to whether the greater threat to any single country’s Internet infrastructure, over time, is from other countries (i.e., the “digital Pearl Harbor” scenario) or from the sheer volume of always-active cybercrime. It’s a decent bet to suggest that the recession will give more impetus to the latter.

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Written by Mark

March 31, 2009 at 10:46 pm

Posted in Technology

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On the NYT’s “Vast Spy System”

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The front page of the Sunday NYT (not to mention the Saturday inter-webs) was ablaze headlining a “vast [computer] spy system” infiltrating nearly 1,300 systems in 100+ countries, including computers belonging to the Dalai Lama. The real news is the source of discovery – a team of four Canadian academics, working over two years. The story has some degree of happy accident to it, in the discovery of a webpage missing encryption, but the idea that discovery took place outside government channels presents an interesting mirror-image to the claims of China and other governments that such cyber-snooping happens outside their official purview.

Assume for the moment that the Internet itself represents one “vast spy system,” i.e., in the typical absence of strong security measures, most individuals have no idea who might be seeing them (and with camera technology, literally seeing them) across the wire. Assume that privacy is…uncomfortably…dead. One wonders whether it’s only a matter of time before similar, smart researchers are making a cottage industry out of finding who’s looking at who, and making their findings public. It seems…well, needed.

Written by Mark

March 29, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Posted in Technology

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China’s turning off the (You)Tube again

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China has blocked access to YouTube, again – coincident to a denunciation of this video that appears to show the death of a Tibetan protester after a beating by Chinese police last year. This comes a year after a similar shutdown, again related to footage of Tibetan protests.

Given that the video in question has proliferated across multiple sites – and the probable un-blocking that’ll happen soon – there’s the question of why the Chinese government bothers to block YouTube at all. The footage, while brutal, won’t have the strategic consequences of, say, the Abu Ghraib photos:  I’d wager that international hearts-and-minds are resigned to the fact that the occupation of Tibet has been and will likely will continue to be marked by some measure of brutality. 

An article from The Register, dated from last year’s shutdown, offers a better answer:  this may be a means of keeping the lid on internal nationalist sentiment, or at least a means of taking away the tinder. In a year of economic disruption – disruption with profound global interdependencies – there’s danger in letting nationalism run rampant, especially over the echo chambers of the Internet.

Written by Mark

March 24, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Posted in Technology

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Back from hiatus…

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…and I’m reading “The Downside of Letting Robots Do the Bombing” in the Sunday NYT. The theme is one of investing in tactics missing a strategic context: 

But in Pakistan, some C.I.A. veterans of the tribal battles worry that instead of separating the citizenry from the militants the drone strikes may be uniting them. These experts say they fear that killing militants from the sky won’t undermine, and may promote, the psychology of anti-American militancy that is metastasizing in the country.

…and later –

Intelligence officials in Washington and Islamabad said it was nearly impossible to measure the impact of the strikes on the so-called ‘war of ideas.'” 

Umm…yes. What idea, exactly, is a flying killer robot supposed to convey?

Written by Mark

March 22, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Posted in Military & Security

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Search in Tibet, before the Internet

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Overheard on NPR yesterday:  this interview with Robert Barnett of Columbia University, discussing Tuesday’s anniversary of 1959’s failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. Among the interesting highlights, Barnett mentions China’s current shutdown of text-messaging in Tibet, due to “maintenance.”

He also talks about China’s past efforts to distribute satellite dishes to nomads, as a means to channel Chinese media into Tibet. Tibetans, in turn, tuned their dishes to Voice of America broadcasts instead. There’s an interesting lesson there, and an optimistic one for those who fear government attempts to push propaganda into cyberspace, like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ efforts to recruit “10,000 bloggers.” I’d guess that when it comes to media technology, even the old-school stuff, individuals are often far more active and directed in their consumption than most people credit. Search didn’t begin with Google, and it’s something that seems difficult to control – easy to misdirect, maybe, but control, unlikely.

Written by Mark

March 11, 2009 at 7:47 pm

Posted in Technology

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Facebook ’round the world

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Over at O’Reilly Radar, Ben Lorica has an updated analysis of Facebook’s global growth. Among the findings:

  • Europe is now home to a third of all Facebook users, with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, Spain, and Germany driving growth
  • Facebook remains a smaller social networking platform in Asia, but has seen rapid recent growth in Indonesia and the Philippines
  • Turkey is a surprising leader – home to 69% of all Facebook users in the Middle East and North Africa, and behind only the U.S., UK, and Canada in total number of Facebook users

Out of curiosity, I went back to the page for the “Alliance of Youth Movements,” a group affiliated with the State Department’s public diplomacy efforts, to find out whether the worldwide “March Against Al Qaeda” had a date listed yet. Still “March, 2009 – exact date to be determined.” Not keeping my breath held.

Written by Mark

March 9, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Posted in Technology

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Wargaming the peace?

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You have to love The Register for getting a DARPA request-for-proposals on “social computing” down to its essence:  “…it’s more like gas dynamics for human beings.” 

Sort of. What it really seems to come down to is an attempt to wargame the kind of dynamics that clear thinkers can discern through a deep sense of history and culturally sensitive perception. In other words, an attempt to computerize the dynamics that General David Petraeus’ group understood in Iraq (author’s note:  I might be biased, since Thomas Ricks’ The Gamble is on my nightstand).

This isn’t just happening in classified labs at DARPA. The Economist has an article in its recent technology quarterly on agent-based crowd simulation, and technology has been in place to identify potential conflict indicators via aggregation of news reports for some time. 

As Wired’s recent piece on the financial crisis suggests, the success of models like these depends on the assumptions involved. Common sense, really. The more you assume away, the more modest the aspirations you need to have for your model. Yet I suspect there’s something inherent in models like these that tend to seduce people away from modest aspirations. Especially when they come loaded with datasets and cool visualizations.

Written by Mark

March 8, 2009 at 10:59 pm