Archive for the 'Politics' Category

After Snowden, what?

[link] Sunday, October 19th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

Many moons ago, shortly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA first appeared, I wrote a column which began, “Repeat after me: Edward Snowden is not the story”. I was infuriated by the way the mainstream media was focusing not on the import of what he had revealed, but on the trivia: Snowden’s personality, facial hair (or absence thereof), whereabouts, family background, girlfriend, etc. The usual crap, in other words. It was like having a chap tell us that the government was poisoning the water supply and concentrating instead on whom he had friended on Facebook.

Mercifully, we have moved on a bit since then. The important thing now, it seems to me, is to consider a new question: given what we now know, what should we do about it? What could we realistically do? Will we, in fact, do anything? And if the latter, where are we heading as democracies?

I tried to put some of these questions to Snowden at the Observer Ideas festival last Sunday via a Skype link that proved comically dysfunctional. The comedy in using a technology to which the NSA has a backdoor was not lost on the (large) audience — or on Snowden, who coped gracefully with it. But it was a bit like trying to have a philosophical discussion using smoke signals. So let’s have another go.

First, what could we do to curb comprehensive surveillance of the net?

Read on…

Value for money in the surveillance business

[link] Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Has anyone in government done a cost-benefit analysis on bulk surveillance? I mean to say, we’re spending fortunes on this stuff (in the US something like $100B a year ). Does anyone have any idea of whether it’s really worth it? Could we be spending all that dosh more wisely and getting better anti-terrorist results?

Which is why I found this exchange between a questioner and William Binney, the former Technical Director of the NSA fascinating.

Question: Other than making money off of like these NSA contracts, what capabilities do these companies [i.e. defence contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton -- Snowden's employers] *have, what other value are they generating for themselves?

William Binney: Nobody does return on investment at NSA. They don’t.

I mean, if they did return on investment, they would throw away everything except TRAFFICTHIEF and maybe some graphing programs out of MAINWAY– they’d throw all of this away. They wouldn’t have built Bluffdale [Utah], that $2.3B or whatever it is– facility to store data. This is all the data from PINWALE and MARINA and all that stuff is going out there, being stored. So they wouldn’t have to buy that at all. They’d be more effective, because they wouldn’t be buried. So at any rate, that’s what they’re doing.

The exchange comes from an absolutely riveting report of a presentation that Binney gave in which he explained some of the Snowden material.

The New Yorker’s interview with Edward Snowden

[link] Thursday, October 16th, 2014


Carole Cadwalladr’s report of my conversation with him last Sunday is here.

Why a month is a long time in (UK) politics

[link] Wednesday, October 15th, 2014


Bruce Schneier’s next book

[link] Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Title: Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World

Publisher: WW Norton

Publication date: March 9, 2015

Table of Contents

Part 1: The World We’re Creating
Chapter 1: Data as a By-Product of Computing
Chapter 2: Data as Surveillance
Chapter 3: Analyzing our Data
Chapter 4: The Business of Surveillance
Chapter 5: Government Surveillance and Control
Chapter 6: Consolidation of Institutional Surveillance

Part 2: What’s at Stake
Chapter 7: Political Liberty and Justice
Chapter 8: Commercial Fairness and Equality
Chapter 9: Business Competitiveness
Chapter 10: Privacy
Chapter 11: Security

Part 3: What to Do About It
Chapter 12: Principles
Chapter 13: Solutions for Government
Chapter 14: Solutions for Corporations
Chapter 15: Solutions for the Rest of Us
Chapter 16: Social Norms and the Big Data Trade-Off

Something to be pre-ordered, methinks.

Joe Nye: the Empire ain’t dead yet

[link] Sunday, October 12th, 2014

Slightly rosy view by the author of the theory of ‘soft’ power.

Over the last several decades, public confidence in many influential institutions has plummeted. From 1964-1997, the share of Americans who trusted universities fell from 61% to 30%, while trust in major companies fell from 55% to 21%. Trust in medical institutions dropped from 73% to 29%, and in journalism from 29% to 14%. Over the last decade, confidence in educational institutions and the military has recovered, but trust in Wall Street and large corporations has continued to fall.

But these ostensibly alarming figures can be misleading. In fact, 82% of Americans still consider the US to be the world’s best place to live, and 90% like their democratic system of government. Americans may not be entirely satisfied with their leaders, but the country is certainly not on the brink of an Arab Spring-style revolution.

The state we’re in

[link] Friday, October 10th, 2014

In thinking about the state we’re in, I sometimes gloomily conclude that we need a theory of incompetent systems — i.e. systems that can’t fix themselves. Last night I participated in an interesting discussion about whether perspectives from network theory might be useful in improving public making. As the conversation proceeded over dinner I kept my mouth shut and made some notes in an attempt to sort out the jumble in my head. Here they are, for what they’re worth.

Why are democratic states like Britain struggling to cope with the challenges that now face them?

Some relevant factors:

  • A dysfunctional electoral cycle that makes it impossible to do long-term strategy. Exacerbated by rolling news cycle and tabloid media which make deliberative democracy more or less impossible.
  • The accelerating gap between the speed of technological advance and the pace of legislative and regulatory adaptation.
  • The fact that we have a world that is increasingly dominated by networking and related technologies that few people understand. (“The Internet is the first thing that humans have built that humans do not understand.” – Eric Schmidt)
  • This is exacerbated by the fact that the technology has affordances that make it different from earlier general-purpose technologies. These are: zero marginal costs; powerful network effects; the dominance of power-law distributions; and the possibility of technological lock-in.
  • The tensions between democracy’s need for openness, oversight and accountability and the security state’s need for surveillance and secrecy.
  • The apparent inability of legislatures to devise credible methods of democratic oversight of security services. Analog mindsets trying to cope with digital realities.
  • Law-making that is unduly influenced by corporate (or, in the case of surveillance laws, security agency) interests.
  • Enfeebled or corrupted democratic institutions at all levels: policy and political elites captured by neoliberal ideology and corporate interests; hollowed-out legislatures unable to impose effective control over the executive; apathetic, cynical and disaffected electorates.

Path dependency

  • The options available to us at any given moment are determined by decisions and choices we made (explicitly or implicitly) at earlier points in time. An example: we now live in a networked world the business model of which is intensive surveillance by both state agencies and corporations. The state does it because (supposedly) it is necessary to protect society from terrorism, crime etc. Corporations do it because it enables advertising-funded business models. But those business models were a response to (i) the fact that Internet users from the beginning were implacably opposed to paying for online services; and (ii) that since the key to online success was to get quickly to the point where network effects kicked in, the quickest way to get to that point was to provide ‘free’ services. So we are now coping with the consequences of choices that Internet users made in the 1990s.

Ideological capture

  • Governing elites in most democracies appear to have been captured by neoliberal philosophies which devalue public services and over-value private enterprise. This leads to a failure to appreciate the importance of the state in fostering and enabling long-term technological innovation and development. (All of the prosperity of our current Internet companies is built on a network that was built by the state. The history of most general purpose technologies shows the importance of state funding in various stages in the evolution of the technology.) Yet the idea of “the entrepreneurial state” (to use Mazzucato’s term) is regarded by governing elites as an oxymoron. (Like “military intelligence”?)

How democracies change

  • Reluctantly, slowly and generally only in response to serious crises, of which the most common historically has been the trauma of war. In general (cf David Runciman’s books) they muddle through. But muddling through takes time. The big questions about our current challenges (climate change, managing the networked society) is whether we will have enough time to muddle through.

Hong Kong: two countries, one system

[link] Sunday, September 28th, 2014

From Larry Lessig, commenting on the way the demonstrations in Hong Kong are being ‘policed’:

But this time, please, without the self-defeating trope that somehow this is a Right/Left issue. It is not. This is a Right/Wrong issue. It is wrong to allow a democracy to be captured by a tiny fraction of cronies. It is wrong here. It is wrong in Hong Kong. It is the democracy that Boss Tweed birthed (“I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.”) Which is to say, is the latest stage of a fundamentally corrupted democracy.

We should all stand with the students who launched the Hong Kong protests. And we should pray that it doesn’t become hijacked by violence — since this is China (Tiananmen) and because it is only ever nonviolent social movements that achieve the critical mass of support needed to win (that’s the brilliant conclusion of Erica Chenoweth’s work).

And the system is rotten to the core.

Privacy, remember, is only for criminals

[link] Thursday, September 25th, 2014

So it begins. The next steps by the National Security state to ensure that nobody has the right to private communications or data.

FBI Director James Comey on Thursday said he’s bothered by moves by Apple Inc. and Google Inc. to market privacy innovations on smartphones that put some data out of the reach of police, saying agency officials have been in touch with both companies.

“What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law,” Mr. Comey said in a briefing with reporters, reports WSJ’s Brent Kendall.

Mr. Comey said he still wants to get a better handle on the implications of the technology, saying FBI officials have engaged in discussions with the companies “to understand what they’re thinking and why they think it makes sense.”

As WSJ earlier reported, officials in Washington have been expecting a confrontation with Silicon Valley in the wake of Apple’s announcement that its new operating system for phones would prevent law enforcement from retrieving data stored on a locked phone, such as photos, videos and contacts. Google has also said its next version of its Android mobile-operating system this fall would come with similar privacy protections.

This is where the mantra “if you’ve nothing to hide then you’ve nothing to fear” gets us.

And then there’s this from Down Under:

This week, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott used recent terrorist threats as the backdrop of a dire warning to Australians that “for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift. There may be more restrictions on some, so that there can be more protection for others.”

This pronouncement came as two of a series of three bills effecting that erosion of freedoms made their way through Australia’s Federal Parliament. These were the second reading of a National Security Amendment Bill which grants new surveillance powers to Australia’s spy agency, ASIO, and the first reading of a Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill that outlaws speech seen as “advocating terrorism”. A third bill on mandatory data retention is expected to be be introduced by the end of the year.

Whilst all three bills in this suite raise separate concerns, the most immediate concern—because the bill in question could be passed this week—is the National Security Amendment Bill. Introduced into Parliament on 16 July, it endured robust criticism during public hearings last month that led into an advisory report released last week. Nevertheless the bill was introduced into the Senate this Tuesday with the provisions of most concern still intact.

In simple terms, the bill allows law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant to access data from a computer—so far, so good. But it redefines “a computer” to mean not only “one or more computers” but also “one or more computer networks”. Since the Internet itself is nothing but a large network of computer networks, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that the bill may stealthily allow the spy agency to surveil the entire Internet with a single warrant.

Apart from allowing the surveillance of entire computer networks, the bill also allows “the addition, deletion or alteration of data” stored on a computer, provided only that this would not “materially interfere with, interrupt or obstruct a communication in transit or the lawful use by other persons of a computer unless … necessary to do one or more of the things specified in the warrant”. Given the broad definition of “computer”, this provision is broad enough to authorize website blocking or manipulation, and even the insertion of malware into networks targeted by the warrant.

Capping all this off, the bill also imposes a sentence of up to ten years imprisonment upon a person who “discloses information … [that] relates to a special intelligence operation”. Although obviously intended to throw the hammer at whistleblowers, the provision would apply equally to journalists. Such a provision could make it impossible for Australians to learn about the activities of their own government that infringe international human rights laws.

After Snowden…

[link] Thursday, September 25th, 2014

Watch more videos on

A few months ago I took part in a debate about the implications of the Snowden revelations with Chris Huhne, the former Lib-Dem Cabinet minister, and Sir David Omand, the former Director of GCHQ. Here’s the video of the session.