We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

If Snowden had gotten things his own way, he’d be writing earnest op-ed editorials in Hong Kong now, in English, while dining on Kung Pao Chicken. It’s some darkly modern act of crooked fate that has directed Edward Snowden to Moscow, arriving there as the NSA’s Solzhenitsyn, the up-tempo, digital version of a conscience-driven dissident defector.

But Snowden sure is a dissident defector, and boy is he ever. Americans don’t even know how to think about characters like Snowden — the American Great and the Good are blundering around on the public stage like blacked-out drunks, blithering self-contradictory rubbish. It’s all “gosh he’s such a liar” and “give us back our sinister felon,” all while trying to swat down the jets of South American presidents.

These thumb-fingered acts of totalitarian comedy are entirely familiar to anybody who has read Russian literature. The pigs in Orwell’s “Animal Farm” have more suavity than the US government is demonstrating now. Their credibility is below zero.

The Russians, by contrast, know all about dissidents like Snowden. The Russians have always had lots of Snowdens, heaps. They know that Snowden is one of these high-minded, conscience-stricken, act-on-principle characters who is a total pain in the ass.

Bruce Sterling, who I think has his own head up his arse half the time (my god he is still clinging to the Climate Change shtick and is thus as credulous as many of the people he is inclined to mock)… but Sterling is nevertheless always a fun read because in addition to being half wrong, it is also (generally) half right.

Yes Jimmy, ‘porn filters’ are ridiculous, but…

… this is not really about porn, other than very tangentially. And it is not even about pederasty or terrorism or any of those nasties that we tend to agree are Rather Bad Things and which get trotted out at the first sign of opposition to the rapidly coalescing Panopticon. No, it is about exactly the same things that induced the Chinese state to put the so called Great Internet Wall of China in place.

It is about political control, pure and simple, which a very substantial number of people support. Indeed most people who works in a government job think what they do is sufficiently important to justify having any information that they want about you.

So Jimmy, this is not really about porn at all.

Put the boot in, Guido!

When I read this

THE country’s top political blogger, Paul Staines – better known as Guido Fawkes – has threatened to sue Tory MP Claire Perry after she alleged he had “sponsored” a hack attack on her website.

… I was moved to say that this Perry is very much in favour of Guido using the courts to kick the living hell out of that Perry, the thuggish ‘Honourable’ member for Devizes.

Put the boot in, Guido!

So I suppose we are about to see how credulous people really are

The dependably nauseating David Cameron is demanding a massive infrastructure for internet censorship… oh to protect the children, of course.

And also of course, this is not really about porn… that is a bare faced lie. It is about political control. The state wants to easily be able to log what you look at and to easily block access to whatever it deems ‘unacceptable. The notion any government can be trusted with the infrastructure to control what people can see is madness.

A slightly more temperate post about unwanted contact

Before being overwhelmed by phone-induced homicidal rage the other day, I had intended to discuss a subject that has been interesting me lately, namely how difficult it is to specify in advance rules for social interaction. More specifically, I was pondering how hard it is to lay down rules for dealing with unwanted contact. Cold calling is one form of that; what are traditionally described as “unwanted advances” are another.

The problem is that word “unwanted”. To say, as the organisational psychologist quoted in this article does, that “An unwanted advance is a form of injustice”, strikes me as unfair. We are not telepaths. Quite often the only way one can find out that unwanted contact is unwanted is to ask, that is, to initiate unwanted contact. On the other hand while we may not have telepathy, we most of us do have empathy to help us guess in advance when advances might be unwelcome. Phone sales companies know to the fifth decimal place exactly how likely their calls are to be welcome. They know that the first four of those decimal places are filled by zeros, scumbags that they are. Few men asking a woman out have quite such a large database of prior results upon which to draw. I’m glad I’m not a guy! That last breath before you open your mouth to begin the sentence that might get you rejected cruelly or rejected kindly must be painful.

So I pondered, and while pondering hopped from link to link, as one does, and I came across a really interesting article in Gawker from July 7th which encapsulated several relevant issues. It describes a bitter row in the community of atheist activists. Given that I was out of sympathy with both the parties to the row when it came to politics (both of them are left wing progressives, one I already knew to advocate coercion reaching quite deeply into private lives and the other is a radical feminist) and religion, I was better able to think about the issues rather than the individuals.

Then a nagging feeling that I had read about something very similar a couple of years ago led me to finally notice that the post was not from July 7th 2013 but from July 7th 2011.

Then I slapped myself round the side of the head and said, “what does the fact that these events happened two years and a few days ago rather than a few days ago matter?”

You are now commanded to read the article that I linked to above by the then-editor of Gawker, Remy Stern, on pain of not understanding what on earth I am on about. It puts the case for “Skepchick” (real name Rebecca Watson) in her “Elevatorgate” dispute against Richard Dawkins well if a little one-sidedly.

You are also commanded (on pain of only getting one side of the story) to read post by Alison Smith called “Take back the elevator” which was the most persuasive argument against Skepchick’s position that I read, particularly where she talks about “Leap of Logic Number Two”.

The reason why many people, particularly women, immediately sympathised with Skepchick in the incident is described by commenter “Ivriniel” to Remy Stern’s Gawker article:

To anyone who doesn’t understand why Rebecca Watson was uncomfortable, let’s put it another way.

It’s late at night, and you get into an elevator alone, oh, let’s say in a parking garage. A stranger gets on with you. As soon as the door closes, the stranger asks you for money. You’re now in a confided space with a stranger who wants something from you. You do not know how they will respond if you turn them down. It’s different than being asked for money on the street, because at least on the street there are other people around, and you have the choice to walk away, or even run away if things become threatening. You’ve had that option taken away from you.

Yes, there are buttons in the elevator you can press for help, however, if things get violent, the stranger will do everything they can to keep you away from the buttons.
Yes, the guy who approached Watson in the elevator was harmless. But she had no way of knowning that. Not everyone has the luxury of going through life assuming that everyone’s intentions are benign.

On the other hand, the lift wasn’t in a parking garage, it was in an atheist convention in a hotel in Dublin. I have never been to an atheist convention, but I have been to many science fiction conventions full of the same sort of clever but dorky guys. Indeed, while taking the lift to bed in the wee small hours at one SF convention I recall being invited round to someone’s hotel room for talk and coffee. That memory is why this story caught my eye. In my case the invitation came from two guys, one of them moderately famous, and I did not doubt that coffee meant coffee. (I politely declined because it was late and I was exhausted.) In the context of an event whose main purpose is talk the probability that a request for a talk means what it says is higher than in other situations. And even if it was a coded request for sex, that is neither a crime nor a threat, and the overtone of menace because it happened at 4 a.m. is much reduced since conventions tend to be nocturnal anyway. Having said that, the elevator man would still have shown more tact to have approached Ms Watson somewhere else and some other time. I won’t go on layering “buts” and “on the other hands” because there are a lot of layers there. You see what I mean about the difficulty of specifying rules that cover all situations?

Below is another comment to that thread, this time forcefully supporting Dawkins, from Joel Rubin. My eye was struck by the line ” Just because you’re a “feminist” doesn’t mean people have to let you have the elevator to themselves, doesn’t mean you have the right to completely avoid human interaction on a personal level.” Some commenters to my earlier post, Rob Fisher, Joebob and Ben, made a similar point that having a front door or a phone, or in this case going to a convention in a public place, is to some extent giving permission for others to peacefully initiate contact, so long as it is not pursued if demonstrably unwelcome. Mr Rubin wrote:

Okay, Dawkins went overboard with the hyperbole, yes, but everyone else did too.

Here’s where the flaw lies: Rebecca Watson. Yes, you. Don’t go online an publicly disparage a person who respectfully and politely asked you for coffee. I don’t care that you were in an elevator, I don’t care that you were alone, I don’t care that you just finished up a feminist speech—none of that matters.

What matters is this: The man asked you for coffee, and you declined. That was it. He did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG. But you decided to use a public forum to act like an asshole about it, and someone else called you out.

I don’t give a fuck if you “felt offended” by basic human interaction—that just makes you hypersensitive. Nothing in what you told us he said “sexualized” you in any way. And then responding to Dawkins with this nugget: “[To] have my concerns—and more so the concerns of other women who have survived rape and sexual assault—dismissed…” was absolute bullshit.

He wasn’t talking about rape, or sexual assault, he was talking about the fact that you overreacted and belittled a person who, by all accounts, was respectful and direct in asking you to coffee. YOU BLEW IT UP to something it shouldn’t have been.

Just because you’re a “feminist” doesn’t mean people have to let you have the elevator to themselves, doesn’t mean you have the right to completely avoid human interaction on a personal level. Just because he asked you for coffee and conversation doesn’t mean you were hit on, propositioned, or had to “survive rape and sexual assault”—it means you were asked for coffee.
You, dear, give humans in general, and feminists in particular, a bad name. Because you know what? It was insensitive for Dawkins to use the oppression of some women in the way he did—it was trollish and overboard. But HE MAKES A SOLID POINT, one that I probably would have made myself—you are flailing for attention and belittling a person for no reason.

The problem began not when a person talked to you in an elevator, or when another person used excessive hyperbole to prove a point—the problem began when you sensationalized and mocked a person who didn’t deserve it in a popular forum. It was arrogant, and rude.

I take issue with the part where Mr Rubin says, ” I don’t care that you just finished up a feminist speech—none of that matters.” The speech to which he refers was not just generally feminist. In it Ms Watson specifically said she did not like having passes made at her at these conventions. The man who asked her for coffee in the elevator was in the audience for that speech. That does matter, actually. He should have listened. Even if he did not intend to make a pass, it should have been obvious that his approach was likely to be read as one. She had just asked people not to do that.

In the end I incline to Skepchick’s side of this particular argument about this particular incident, by a degree or two. Remember that her initial video did not denounce the lift guy, it just advised men in general “don’t do this”. I would second that advice. But the scales are almost even. I am not convinced of Ms Watson’s general reasonableness, which is relevant. Judging from her internet profile, either she has had the remarkable ill fortune to be repeatedly taken in by apparent friends and allies who in the end turned out to be misogynists, or she has a hair trigger.

Screeching sound! Skid marks! Smell of burnt rubber! I am letting myself get pulled away from the point, which is not how nice anyone in the story is but how very difficult it is to specify whether it is right for one human being to ask another human being for something when the request itself might be offensive.

Discussion point: the ethical issues surrounding unsolicited sales phone calls

Is it better to just hang them or should we draw and quarter first?

Admiral Poindexter did not go away, he just went black…

How many here remember the discussions early in the previous decade about Admiral Poindexter and his Total Information Awareness concept? If one were to apply neural network techniques to VISA transactions, then a system might learn to identify subtle patterns that matched known terrorist events and might be usable to detect precursors to as yet unknown plots. The more data and the more different sources, the better the chance of training such networks to find patterns. Of course the numbers of false positives would be huge at first… and although it would go down over time, it would still remain fairly large as there is just too much noise in real world data and real terrorists would try to randomize their behavior after a few got caught.

I believe the concept is sound, the only problem is… it is utterly Orwellian. No, it is worse than Orwell imagined. It is the Holy Grail and wet dreams of the Checka, the KGB, the Stasi, the Gestapo and every other secret police system of the last century. The sad thing is that this has come to pass not in one of the many tyrannical states of the world… they are too incompentent to pull it off… but here, in our formerly free United States.

After much thought I have come to believe that Poindexter’s system was not rejected for funding and laughed out of congress as we thought at the time. That was nothing but a cover story as the whole thing slipped into the black world.

If this is TIA Black, we had better start challenging VISA, AMEX and all the others who process financial transactions. I predict that nearly every credit and debit card transaction in the US is being fed in along with the phone records and the google files and facebook pages and private email.

It is a virtual certainty. This isn’t 1984. It is much worse because as the techniques improve it becomes Skynet starring as Big Brother.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists… investigating people on behalf of governments worldwide

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists are an interesting outfit, a group crowd sourcing denouncing people to various states across the globe.

Just as we see the edifying example of Edward Snowden revealing routine US surveillance of hundreds of millions of people, we have as a counterpoint the ICIJ, who are folks that clearly think there is not nearly enough surveillance being carried out by nation states… and so they want to see if like minded folks can help nations worldwide ensure there is nowhere anyone can keep their money free from appropriation by the world’s tax men.

The ICIJ no doubt warms the cockles of Tory leader Dave Cameron’s heart as much as the likes of Edward Snowden scare the crap out him.

Yet I suspect many people who have not really thought this through very well might assume people like NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden on one hand, and the ICIJ on the other, are actually doing much the same thing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Who watches the watchers? It really ain’t that simple…

There is an article in The Guardian by Paddy Ashdown that falls at the first fence… i.e the tagline at the very top…

NSA surveillance: who watches the watchers? It’s not the widening of state intrusion that’s wrong, but the weakening of the safeguards that should be there to protect us

No that is the key error. It is not the lack of safeguard that is the issue, it is the huge amount of power in the hands of the state. It is indeed the widening of state intrusion that is wrong because there are simply no ‘safeguards’ that can stop the abuse of that amount of power by whoever currently controls the political process.

As has been said before, this is not a “left vs. right” issue, it is a “top vs. bottom” issue. NO ONE and NO INSTITUTION can be trusted with that kind of power. Ashdown is one of the people at the top, there is simply no way for him to understand.

Companies deny involvement with PRISM… so why do I not believe them?

Facebook, Google etc are falling over themselves to deny that they have given the US espionage organisation the NSA direct access to their servers and customer information.

And to put it bluntly, there is simply nothing they can say that would make me believe them.

Why? Three reasons:

Firstly, it is very much in their commercial interest for customers not to take the view that their personal information can be browsed pretty much at will by American civil servants for whatever reason they can contrive.

Secondly, very few people within Facebook and Google would actually be privy to any involvement with PRISM, so much of the shock being expressed will no doubt be genuine (I know some quite highly placed technical people within both Google and Facebook and I would totally believe them if they told me to my face they found this all hard to believe, but then none of them are at board level, so unless they needed to know…).

Thirdly and most importantly, the court orders giving blanket access include threats if they reveal they are cooperating with the court order. In short, they are required by law to lie about their cooperation if asked.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that no person shall disclose to any other person that the FBI or NSA has sought or obtained tangible things under this Order, other than to: (a) those persons to whom disclosure is necessary to comply with such Order; (b) an attorney to obtain legal advice or assistance with respect to the production of things in response to the Order; or (c) other persons as permitted by the Director of the FBI or the Director’s designee.

So it really does not matter what Facebook and Google et al says, does it?

UPDATE: This is a very interesting suggestion… in short, once they got Verizon (i.e Tier One) they actually did not need much cooperation from the people downstream. Fascinating stuff. I wonder to what extent that is actually true.

Open source software vs. the NSA

From a security point of view, the trouble with cloud-based applications and closed source software in general is that you can never tell whether there are flaws that will leak your information or even back doors put there deliberately to allow third parties to get at it.

Open source software gives you many advantages.

You can understand exactly what the software will do when run. Strictly speaking you can understand what any software does, but source code written in a high level language serves the purpose of both telling the computer what to do and telling humans what the program is intended to do. This is because classes, functions and variables in the program are given English names. Programmers may even write comments in the source code to annotate it. The names and comments may be misleading but this becomes apparent when you look at what code does as a whole. If you can not personally understand the program, you can be reasonably sure others do. One thing that gives me confidence is that previous flaws have been found and fixed.

You can be sure you are running the same software you have gone to the trouble of understanding because you can compile it yourself. You can compile the user applications, libraries, operating system kernel, drivers and even the compiler yourself if you want. More usually you will entrust most of this work to others such as Linux distributions. Programs downloaded from such sources are cryptographically signed. Becuase the source code is available anyone can check that the source code produces the same program that is provided pre-compiled.

So there is little likelihood of a back door in open source software. Linus’s Law states that many eyes make bugs shallow. This means that bugs in open source software, especially the most important and most widely used open source software, get fixed quickly. In The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric Raymond described how the Linux style of development leads to superior code quality. All this means there is less likelihood of accidental leakage of your secret information.

Should they decide they do not like us encrypting our files or obscuring our online activity, it would be very hard for authorites to take open source software away. The nearest they have got is the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act which was intended to protect music companies who wanted to put DRM into music by making trusted computing compulsory. The idea was that computers would be required to have a special chip that would only let them run programs that would be cryptographically signed by some authority. You would not be able to run your own programs.

The bill got nowhere and such laws are unlikely to because open source software is so ubiquitous. It runs the Internet. Samizdata runs on a computer running the Linux kernel using GNU libraries and uses an open source web server, database and blogging software written in languages compiled by open source compilers and interpreted by open source interpreters. So do everyone else’s web sites. Most of the electronic gadgets in the world that have any software at all have open source software in them, including phones and TVs. None of this is going away.

As much as Google and Microsoft have brands to protect, if the government makes laws big companies have to follow them. Governments have no such hold over open source programmers who are geographically, organisationally and ideologically dispersed.

The people who write GNU Privacy Guard or OpenSSL are not going to put a back door in their software. If they did it would be spotted and someone could simply fork the project.

It is possible that certain algorithms have mathematical back doors and that the NSA has hired all the people clever enough to find them. It is possible that the NSA tried this with a cryptographic random number generator and were caught out. We can be somewhat confident that the NSA can not break AES encryption. There are other encryption algorithms available.

Nothing is certain, but open source software gives us some control over our computers and some defense against governments that closed corporate software never can.

The NSA fears it may suffer “irreversible harm”…

When I read this

US spy chief James Clapper has strongly defended government surveillance programmes after revelations of phone records being collected and internet servers being tapped. He said disclosure of a secret court document on phone record collection threatened “irreversible harm”.

… my first reaction was “Irreversible? I certainly hope so”.