Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Financial sanctions on Russia: big or nothing?

[link] Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

What the downing of the Malaysian plane reveals yet again is how shallow Cameron is as a political leader. He only does posturing: witness his cant that the French should not deliver the warships they are contracted to build for the Russians. Imagine if the contract were with a British company, for example BAE Systems.

At least the other EU leaders don’t go in for much bluster and posturing. It’s not the Merkel style. They will almost certainly shrink from doing anything that might cause Putin to think again, though: too dependent on Russian energy supplies, not to mention exports to Vlad’s little empire. But if they need some ideas about what would really hurt, then this blog post by Paul Mason should help.

The USA’s sanctions prevent four major Russian companies – Gazprombank, VEB bank, Rosneft and Novatek – from issuing bonds to borrow money long term (longer than 90 days). The EU does not yet even do that. But if applied to a wide list of Russian companies, combined with a ban on actually trading either the shares or the debts of those companies, a freeze on market access would quickly bring the Russian economy to its knees. Its stock market would collapse, its banking system probably suffer a Lehman style moment.

In addition, any major and comprehensive crackdown on money laundering in London – with balaclava and kevlar-clad cops raiding the homes and offices of key people – would probably achieve the same effect just by being announced. London would seize up as a conduit for the tax-dodging billions of the Russian oligarchs.

And this encapsulates the problem. When a major state transgresses international law again and again, the only deterrents or remedies are major, unilateral actions by states that host global markets. The only thing you can do that is not for show is actually something quite massive.

Good stuff!

Cameron plays German roulette — and loses

[link] Sunday, June 29th, 2014

If anyone needed proof of how shallow and inadequate a political leader David Cameron is, then the debacle over Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment should be a wake-up call. We are confronted with the spectacle of a Prime Minister who has traded the economic future of his country simply in order to appease a small, fanatical minority in his own party.

You think I jest? Well, if the Tories were to win a majority in next year’s general election (and, God knows, Miliband & Co are doing their best to ensure that they do), then Cameron is committed to holding an in-out referendum on the basis of whatever deal he has managed to negotiate with the EC. The Juncker fiasco has now guaranteed that he won’t get a favourable deal from Germany et al. So he will go to the country with an unimpressive case expecting to get a “yes, we stay in” result. Guess what will happen?

This is how my colleague Andrew Rawnsley puts it in this morning’s Observer:

He has predicated the success of that enterprise almost entirely on his relationship with the German chancellor. He has piled up all his chips on Frau Merkel. He has assumed that she would help him package up a renegotiation with enough “concessions” to Britain to allow him to recommend a yes vote in a referendum.

Crucially, he has also assumed that she can deliver everyone else to a deal as well. Some of us have been warning for some time that he has staked too much on Mrs Merkel. Yes, she is a highly skilled politician. Yes, she is the most powerful woman in Europe. Yes, she would like Britain to remain within the EU. But she is subject to her own domestic pressures – she isn’t where she is without being ruthlessly protective of her interests and she will not make huge sacrifices of her own political capital just to help Britain.

There are many lessons from this debacle for the Tory leader. One is – and this he really should have guessed already – that Mrs Merkel cares more about her own political skin than she does about David Cameron’s hide. If he can’t block a poorly regarded former prime minister of a very small country who has a notorious weakness for fermented fruit in liquid form, how is David Cameron going to succeed in his self-defined and much more challenging ambition of keeping Britain in the European Union after a renegotiation of the terms of membership?

Of course there are reasons for supposing that, even in those circs, the British will shrink from pulling out, once the appalling consequences of being outside the EU sink in. Some people have pointed out that the demographics of the British electorate point in an optimistic direction, in that younger people are significantly more pro-European than older people and the anti-Europe vote is strongest among the over-60s. The only problem with that is that the old tend to be more assiduous voters than the young.

Leaving the EU would be an economic catastrophe for Britain, as well as a cultural one. Every significant British industrialist understands that. The City understands it. Every university vice-chancellor knows it. Most serious politicians know it. Every significant policy adviser in Whitehall knows it. But they are all afraid to speak out because they fear a populist backlash, fuelled by tabloid xenophobia. (Some CBI bigwigs are already nursing the wounds inflicted on them by Scot CyberNats for daring to express negative opinions about the wisdom of Scottish independence.)

The thing about Cameron is that, deep down, he’s shallow. Now we know just how shallow. Still, I guess his good friend Rebekah Brooks will have sent him a LOL message after learning of his triumph at Ypres.

Making algorithms responsible for what they do

[link] Sunday, June 29th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column:

Just over a year ago, after Edward Snowden’s revelations first hit the headlines, I participated in a debate at the Frontline Club with Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary who is now MP for Kensington and Chelsea and chairman of the intelligence and security committee. Rifkind is a Scottish lawyer straight out of central casting: urbane, witty, courteous and very smart. He’s good on his feet and a master of repartee. He’s the kind of guy you would be happy to have to dinner. His only drawback is that everything he knows about information technology could be written on the back of a postage stamp in 96-point Helvetica bold…

Read on

A borderless world?

[link] Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

One of my mantras is that for the first 20 years of its existence (up to 1993) cyberspace was effectively a parallel universe to what John Perry Barlow called ‘Meatspace’ (aka the real world). The two universes had very little to do with one another, and were radically different in all kinds of ways. But from 1993 (when Andreessen and Bina released Mosaic, the first big web browser) onwards, the two universes began to merge, which led to the world we have now — a blended universe which has the affordances of both cyberspace and Meatspace. This is why it no longer makes sense to distinguish (as politicians still do sometimes) between the Internet and the “real world”. And it’s also why we are having so much trouble dealing with a universe in which the perils of normal life are turbocharged by the affordances of digital technology.

This morning, I came on a really interesting illustration of this. It’s about how Google Maps deal with areas of the world where there are border disputes. Turns out that there are 32 countries in the world for which Google regards the border issue as problematic. And it has adopted a typical Google approach to the problem: the borders drawn on Google’s base map of a contested area will look different depending on where in the world you happen to be viewing them from.

An example: the borders of Arunachal Pradesh, an area administered by India but claimed as a part of Tibet by China. The region is shown as part of India when viewed from an Indian IP address, as part of China when viewed from China, and as distinct from both countries when viewed from the US.

There’s a nice animation in the piece. Worth checking out.

Bletchley Park and the erosion of the freedoms it was set up to defend

[link] Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

It’s terrific that Bletchley Park has not only been rescued from the decay into which the site had fallen, but brilliantly restored, thanks to funding from the National Lottery (£5m), Google (which donated £500,000) and the internet security firm McAfee. I’ve been to the Park many times and for years going there was a melancholy experience, as one saw the depredations of time and weather inexorably outpacing the valiant efforts of the squads of volunteers who were trying to keep the place going.

Even at its lowest ebb, Bletchley had a magical aura. One felt something akin to what Abraham Lincoln tried to express when he visited Gettysburg: that something awe-inspiring had transpired here and that it should never be forgotten. The code-breaking that Bletchley Park achieved was an astonishing demonstration of the power of collective intelligence and determination in a quest to defeat the gravest threat that this country had ever faced.

When I was last there, the restoration was almost complete, and I was given a tour on non-disclosure terms, so I had seen what the duchess saw on Wednesday. The most striking bit is the restoration of Hut 6 exactly as it was, complete with all the accoutrements of the tweedy, pipe-smoking genuises who worked in it, right down to the ancient typewriters, bound notebooks and the Yard-O-Led mechanical pencil that one of them possessed.

Hut 6 is significant because that was where Gordon Welchman worked…

Read on

Tribes with flags

[link] Thursday, June 19th, 2014

I have mixed feelings about the NYT‘s Tom Friedman, but sometimes he does hit the target. This morning he has a bleak assessment of the options for Syria and Iraq, and indeed for the Middle East generally. In a nutshell, he argues that

a unified Iraq and a unified Syria can no longer be governed vertically [i.e by dictators] or vertically [i.e. "by having the different sections, parties and tribes agree on social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens who share power"]. The leaders no longer have the power to extend their iron fists to every border, and the people no longer have the trust to extend their hands to one another.

His conclusion is bleak:

It feels both too late and too early to stop the disintegration — too late because whatever trust there was between communities is gone and Maliki is not trying to rebuild it, and too early because it looks as if Iraqis are going to have to live apart, and see how crazy and impoverishing that is, before the different sects can coexist peacefully.

He’s right. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Ralf Dahrendorf and his views about how complex and fragile a plant democracy is, and how it can only grow and flourish in complex soils which take a long time to evolve. Friedman sees it that way too:

Pluralism came to Europe only after many centuries of one side or another in religious wars thinking it could have it all, and after much ethnic cleansing created more homogenous nations. Europe also went through the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Arab Muslims need to go on the same journey. It will happen when they want to or when they have exhausted all other options. Meanwhile, let’s strengthen the islands of decency — Tunisia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kurdistan — and strengthen our own democracy to insulate ourselves as best we can.

Well, yes but… A futile but sobering counterpoint to that would be to reflect on how so much of this Middle Eastern mayhem is a legacy of European colonialism, and of the way the soi-disant ‘peacemakers’ in Versailles created all these fake and untenable countries by drawing arbitrary lines on maps.

Stand by for a deluge of Magna Bollocks

[link] Sunday, June 15th, 2014

We are about to be deluged with establishment cant about Magna Carta, on account of its approaching 800th anniversary. A splendid antidote to this is provided today by Anthony Barnett of

any authentic celebration of Magna Carta would be a sober, serious challenge to the status quo, unlike the celebratory website proclaiming “The Magna Carta has been the most valuable export of Great Britain to the rest of the world”. For all its eulogies it cannot bring itself to reproduce the actual Magna Carta itself, let alone the Charter of the Forests.

This is not to make an anachronistic claim that the Magna Carta was ‘progressive’. It was a feudal deal. It is the myth that matters: an inspiration to challenge arbitrary, despotic power; a seed for a democratic constitution; a right to be ruled by law; and even, thanks to its companion Charter, a claim that land be held in common not enclosed for profit.

To snuff out all such radicalism, the official celebrations of its 800 years will be funded twelve months hence by £1million from chancellor George Osborne and we will be palmed off with an assortment of Magna Bollocks, to express gratitude to Britain’s ruling order gifting liberty to the globe.

That is how Margaret Thatcher saw it after 1989. Unable to prevent the unification of Germany she planned to use a Paris Summit on European security in November 1990 to launch a Magna Carta for Eastern Europe. I attended the press conference, in the ballroom of the British Embassy and asked her, “Prime Minister, why, when you called upon this Summit to entrench rights across Europe, do you not agree with Charter 88 that we should have entrenched rights in the United Kingdom?” She replied, “We are in this Summit to get rights way across the European Divide… to call for the Community to extend democracy to other countries…”.

Within three days, British democracy such as it was, forced Thatcher to resign. Let’s hope that the curse of the Magna Carta brings down our present bunch of manipulative populists. Eight hundred years of rule by Barons is enough. It is the peoples’ turn. We do not just need a Magna Carta for the World Wide Web as Tim Berners-Lee has called for, we need a democratic constitution: to govern Parliament now that it has been corrupted and suborned, to define our relations with Europe and secure our claims to privacy, liberty and, in a digital age, our metadata.

Right on. Earlier in the piece, Barnett recalls the time that Professor Peter (now Lord) Hennessy, who taught modern British political history at Queen Mary College, to meet the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir (now Lord) Robin Butler.

One of the students innocently asked what is the British constitution. Butler answered, “something we make up as we go along”.

“Who is this ‘we’ that makes it up?” asks Barnett.

It is certainly not ‘We, the people’. When Sir Robin was speaking, he was part of the last remnants of the old Establishment. Now the British Constitution is something GCHQ makes up, as it goes along.

Can Google really keep our email private?

[link] Sunday, June 8th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

So Google has decided to provide end-to-end encryption for any of its Gmail users who wants it. One could ask “what took you so long?” but that would be churlish. (Some of us were unkind enough to suspect that the reluctance might have been due to, er, commercial considerations: after all, if Gmail messages are properly encrypted, then Google’s computers can’t read the content in order to decide what ads to display alongside them.) But let us be charitable and thankful for small mercies. The code for the service is out for testing and won’t be made freely available until it’s passed the scrutiny of the geek community, but still it’s a significant moment, for which we have Edward Snowden to thank.

The technology that Google will use is public key encryption, and it’s been around for a long time and publicly available ever since 1991, when Phil Zimmermann created PGP (which stands for pretty good privacy)…

Read on

LATER Email from Cory Doctorow:

Wanted to say that I think it’s a misconception that Goog can’t do targeted ads alongside encrypted email. Google knows an awful lot about Gmail users: location, browsing history, clicking history, search history. It can also derive a lot of information about a given email from the metadata: sending, CC list, and subject line. All of that will give them tons of ways to target advertising to Gmail users – — they’re just subtracting one signal from the overall system through which they make their ad-customization calculations.

So the cost of not being evil is even lower than I had supposed!

This from Business Insider:

Inside the code for Google’s End-to-End email encryption extension for Chrome, there’s a message that should sound very familiar to the NSA: “SSL-added-and-removed-here-;-)”

Followers of this blog will recognise this as quote from a slide leaked by Edward Snowden.


This comes from a slide-deck about the ‘Muscular’ program (who thinks up these daft names?), which allowed Britain’s GCHQ intelligence service and the NSA to pull data directly from Google servers outside of the U.S. The cheeky tone of the slide apparently enraged some Google engineers, which I guess explains why a reference to it resides in the Gmail encryption code.

Oversight Theatre

[link] Saturday, June 7th, 2014

Snowden + 1: reflections on a sobering year

[link] Saturday, June 7th, 2014

It’s a year today since the first of Edward Snowden’s revelations about global surveillance appeared. All over the world there are events marking the anniversary, so it seems a good time to take stock.

First, some ground-clearing.

  1. I’ve been saying almost from the beginning that Snowden is not the story. It follows that whether one regards him as a hero or a villain is moot. What matters is what he has revealed about the state of our networked world.
  2. I don’t think there’s much mileage either in demonising the security agencies. They’re doing a job that’s been specified for them by their political masters. There are, of course, always grounds for being suspicious of secretive agencies, and there’s plenty of evidence of past wrongdoing in MI5/6, the CIA, the FBI and our own dear Metropolitan Police (and maybe also the NSA, though I’m not up to speed on its history in that regard). Maybe there are rogue elements loose in their contemporary manifestations, but what Snowden has revealed is so systemic and large-scale as to relegate individual malfeasance to the status of noise in the signal. The buck we are dealing with at the moment stops with the politicians: the missions they have tasked the agencies with carrying out, the laws they have made and the ‘oversight’ mechanisms they have devised and are now operating. (That’s not to say that the agencies are blameless, by the way, or that they don’t play a hidden role in lawmaking. I’m sure that, for example, the UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act owed quite a lot to internal lobbying by GCHQ and MI5. But in terms of the post-Snowden fallout, that’s a secondary issue just at the moment.)
  3. The official protestations that if Snowden had been a serious whistleblower then he should have confided his concerns to his superiors is laughable cant. Does anybody seriously believe that we would be having the debates we’re having if Snowden hadn’t done what he’s done? In this context, the experience of William Binney is key. He saw what was happening (ie that the NSA was spying on American citizens using the tools that he had designed) and resigned from the Agency. Nothing happened. Nothing.

Having got that stuff out of he way, where are we now?

My colleague David Runciman makes a useful distinction between scandals and crises. Scandals happen all the time in democracies; they generate violent controversies, lots of media coverage and maybe public discussion. But they pass and nothing much changes. Normal life resumes. Crises, on the other hand, do eventually lead to significant reform or change. When the British phone-hacking story broke, many of us felt that it was a genuine crisis that would lead to significant change in the way the tabloid newspapers behaved. But now it looks as though it was just a scandal, because nothing significant will have changed, despite the Leveson Inquiry and its aftermath. The newspaper industry will continue to ‘regulate’ itself, and the newspapers will continue to behave badly.

The big question about the surveillance controversy, therefore, is whether it is a scandal or a crisis. And my reading of events to date is not encouraging: it will turn out to have been a scandal, not a crisis, because I can see no evidence that the relevant governments have any intention of changing their practices. That’s not to say that there haven’t been flurries of activity. Obama set up his famous Intelligence Review Panel of five wise men (all of them insiders, of course), and they duly produced a 300-page report with its 46 recommendations for consideration by the administration. But a close reading of Obama’s recent speech and the resulting Presidential Policy Directive suggests that nothing fundamental is going the change.

As Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution puts it,

“In his speech Obama squarely aligns himself with the intelligence community’s own central narrative of recent events: Its activities are essential, the president says; its activities are lawful and non-abusive (mistakes notwithstanding); and the community’s critics will hold it accountable for failures to connect the dots just as breezily as they now hold it accountable for the use of available tools to connect those dots.

That said, Obama goes on, we need changes. But Obama is careful to describe the reasons we need changes. It’s not to rein in an out of control intelligence community. It’s because “for our intelligence community to be effective over the long haul, we must maintain the trust of the American people, and people around the world.”

What that means is that the US will unapologetically continue its bulk collection and other programmes; continue to ignore the privacy rights of non-Americans; and so on. The mood music is different, of course; lip-service is paid to the need to be respectful of others, etc. But in the end, the national security of the United States trumps everything.

It will be the same story in Britain. The Intelligence Services Committee has launched an investigation, the results of which are not yet available. My hunch is that while there will be more soothing mood music, along the lines essayed by the Chairman of the Committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, in his recent Wadham Lecture at Oxford which concluded thus:

True public servants operate with noble motivations, lawful authority, and subject to rigorous oversight. These are the values that distinguish public servants from a public threat. That is how those who work for our intelligence agencies see themselves. That is how most of the public see them. That has been my own experience seeing them at work over a number of years. It is in all our interests that that should remain their justified reputation in the Internet Age.

In practice, therefore, there will be no substantial change. We will continue to have ‘oversight theatre’ rather than rigorous democratic accountability. And I expect that the Foreign Secretary will continue to intone his if-you-have-nothing-to-hide-then-you-have-nothing-to-fear mantra. And all this will be tolerated because the Great British Public appears to be largely relaxed about the whole business.

The only developments that might transform it from a scandal into a crisis are (a) possible action by the EU or by some European governments (notably Germany); (b) really vigorous pushback by the American Internet giants who are concerned about the long-term damage that the Snowden revelations is inflicting on their businesses; and (c) intensive technological resistance by engineering and Internet community activists.

On (a), I’ll believe it when I see it. In this respect, when EU governments are confronted with a bleak choice between confronting an implacable United States and doing nothing, most — even Germany — will choose the latter course. On (b) we’re seeing steps like Google offering end-to-end encryption for Gmail users, implementing perfect forward secrecy on communications between its server farms and laying its own intercontinental fibre-optic cables. But the companies are inextricably compromised in all this because they’re all in the same business as the NSA — comprehensive, intensive surveillance. And on (c) we see tech resistance like the IETF’s determination to insert more encryption in the Internet’s internal workings, which is a bit like putting treacle into the NSA’s surveillance machine, vigorous calls to arms by sages like Eben Moglen and renewed calls to citizens to use TOR and other protective technologies.

All good stuff, which I hope will have beneficial effects. But without political change — which will only happen if, in the end, there is widespread and palpable public concern and outrage — these reactions will have only limited impact. One of the mistakes that we techno-utopians made was to assume that technology would eventually trump politics. I remember thinking that when PGP first appeared in the early 1990s. At last the average citizen could have the same privacy from government (and other snooping) that the state had hitherto reserved for itself. And then along came the aforementioned RIPA in 2000 with its provision that a duly-authorised agent of the Home Secretary (aka Minister of the Interior) could demand that one hand over one’s encryption keys or face a gaol sentence of two years. For most people, caving in would be a no-brainer. And suddenly technology didn’t look so omnipotent after all.

So a bleak — but I fear realistic — conclusion is that the national surveillance state is here to stay. Our democracies seem unwilling, or unable, to choose a different path. If that’s true, then we need to start thinking about what lies ahead. What we’re likely to see is the emergence of a bi-polar world in which there are two competing surveillance empires: one run by the US and its allies, the other run by the Chinese. Think of it as Apple’s IoS and Google’s Android. In those circumstances, the stuff that Ross Anderson has been writing recently suddenly seems very apposite. In a surveillance ‘market’, Ross asks, why shouldn’t the network effects that dominate commercial competition in information markets come into play? “The Snowden papers”, he writes,

reveal that the modern world of signals intelligence exhibits strong network effects which cause surveillance platforms to behave much like operating systems or social networks. So while India used to be happy to buy warplanes from Russia (and they still do), they now share intelligence with the NSA as it has the bigger network. Networks also tend to merge, so we see the convergence of intelligence with law enforcement everywhere, from PRISM to the UK Communications Data Bill.

There is an interesting cultural split in that while the IT industry understands network effects extremely well, the international relations community pays almost no attention to it. So it’s not just a matter of the left coast thinking Snowden a whistleblower and the right coast thinking him a traitor; there is a real gap in the underlying conceptual analysis.

That is a shame. The global surveillance network that’s currently being built by the NSA, GCHQ and its collaborator agencies in dozens of countries may become a new international institution, like the World Bank or the United Nations, but more influential and rather harder to govern. And just as Britain’s imperial network of telegraph and telephone cables survived the demise of empire, so the global surveillance network may survive America’s pre-eminence. Mr Obama might care to stop and wonder whether the amount of privacy he extends to a farmer in the Punjab today might be correlated with what amount of privacy the ruler of China will extend to his grandchildren in fifty years’ time. What goes around, comes around.

It sure does.