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June 23, 2013

What I’ve been reading
Posted by Patrick at 03:24 PM * 77 comments

Digby: This really is Big Brother: the leak nobody’s noticed

Charles P. Pierce: The Snowden Effect, Special Sunday Edition

John Naughton in the Observer: If you think GCHQ spying revelations don’t matter, it’s time to think again

Juan Cole: Top Ten American Steps Toward a Police State

The last piece from the late Michael Hastings: Why Democrats Love to Spy on Americans

I agree with the observation that cynicism is consent, but man, this has been a hard week for optimism.

EDITED TO ADD: Digby, with more on who Michael Hastings was, and what his work meant.

Comments on What I've been reading:
#1 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 03:37 PM:

man, this has been a hard week for optimism.

Yup. Also, here in the UK, we've had this:

The leaflet in the infamous McLibel lawsuit was written by a police undercover spy (who infiltrated Greenpeace London and left a baby behind with one of their members).

Also buried in the small print: a firebomb at a department store in London in the late 1980s, blamed on the Animal Liberation Front, was planted by a police undercover agent.

And the Metropolitan Police in 1993 used undercover agents to try to dig dirt with which to smear the family of Stephen Lawrence. Odious, utterly odious. (Stephen Lawrence affair backgrounder. Stephen, an 18 year old black high school pupil, was stabbed to death in a racist attack in London in 1993. The police refused to investigate it as murder, and the family's campaign for justice ultimately led to a huge scandal and enquiry into institutional police racism. This suggests that it wasn't simply rank-and-file racism, but went from top to bottom.)

This is before I get onto GCHQ and spying. Sometimes I just want to find a rock and crawl under it.

#2 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 04:21 PM:

Wouldn't help, Charlie. They'd be there too...because that's where they live.

#3 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 06:03 PM:

A bunch of peaceful protesters are about to be attacked with teargas and water cannon by policemen in Ankara tonight.

As they have been, every night for the last three weeks.

Obviously, Turkish journalists who report on this are traitors to their country, in the pay of an English conspiracy to undermine Turkey. Or at least, so the Mayor of Ankara informed his constituents today.

#4 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 07:13 PM:

I think it's necessary to consider the actual damage done by terrorism versus the efforts we make to contain it. If you take all the terror incidents in the US over the last twenty years, you end up with slightly over 3000. That's a little more than 150 deaths by terror a year.

Contrast that to the 400,000 people a year who die by heart attack (for which I'm not required to give up my civil liberties) or the 70,000 people every year who die of diseases they picked up while in the hospital (for whom I'm not required to give up my civil liberties) or the 45,000 people who die every year due to a car accident (for whom I'm not required to give up my civil liberties) or the 25,000 people a year who die by gun violence (for whom I'm not required to give up my civil liberties) or the 7000 people who die every year because they've purchased the wrong over-the-counter pain medication (for whom I'm not required to give up my civil liberties) and you see just how big and well-propagandized the screw job actually is.

So you're 45 times as likely to die because you bought the wrong kind of aspirin than because you were killed by a terrorist. Or to put it another way, 2,500,000 people die in America each year. That means your chances of dying by terror are about 1 in 16,000. In other words, it ain't gonna happen.

(BTW, I've been posting various versions of this post for the past eight years, and I'm very proud of it. People have occasionally plagiarized various versions (with enough alterations that I never could absolutely prove anything.) So for anyone who wishes to publish something like this letter anyplace, whether as a blog post or a comment, or who wishes to do their own research and expand it. I'm officially setting it in the public domain.)

#5 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 07:59 PM:

I assume everyone has seen that Edward Snowden has left Hong Kong for Russia, believed to be en route for Cuba and then Ecuador. Did you read the press release from Hong Kong? It's short, and worth reading in the original: HKSAR Government issues statement on Edward Snowden
That "meanwhile" is a stiletto.

#6 ::: janetl has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 08:00 PM:

I just got home from a weekend at the beach, and have nary a baked good to offer.

#7 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 08:33 PM:

Plus we now have journalists asking if the practice of journalism should be subject to criminal penalty.

#8 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 08:35 PM:

Damn. To misquote Teresa, I hate the way the politics of the last decade make me feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist.

#9 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 08:38 PM:

Charlie Stross #1: The Peter Francis revelation is making me boiling mad. It took years, and a change of government, to obtain minimal justice in the Stephen Lawrence case. It is one of the few occasions in my memory in which the Daily Fail went to bat for basic decency, so outrageous was the crime.

To find out that rather than solve the crime the Met tried to smear the Lawrence family piles insult onto injury in the worst way possible. There is a reason we call them The Filth.

#10 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 09:19 PM:

You and me both. Waiting for the next shoe to drop is getting to be almost too much. (Government as a millipede?)

#11 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 10:43 PM:

Alex, #4: the 25,000 people a year who die by gun violence (for whom I'm not required to give up my civil liberties)

This example is not really like your other ones. The only reason that most of those 25,000 people die every year is that a relatively small but very loud bunch of extremists (led by the upper echelons of the NRA, which is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the gun manufacturers) have managed to paint even the kind of regulatory efforts which are totally supported by the vast majority of American gun owners (including most rank-and-file NRA members) as "giving up our civil liberties". We COULD stop it, but we refuse to do so.

#12 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 10:50 PM:

Lee @11 -- which makes the gun argument a much stronger one in the direction of protecting our civil liberties: as a country, we choose not to give up those particular liberties (in part because some very powerful people don't want us to, but still!). And yet we're willing to give up other liberties around privacy, without a murmur. Perhaps we need to organize in a similar way to the gun manufacturers: they're being effective at keeping some civil liberties.

#13 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2013, 11:34 PM:

@ 12 - Tom Whitmore

You said a mouthful and I agree completely. I feel that the enemies of Fourth Amendment rights are fascists and traitors and I'm looking forward to their trials. Meanwhile, they should be called out for their crimes against freedom.

#14 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 01:00 AM:

LOL! Thank you.

#15 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 01:00 AM:

Please . . . please let it be LIBERALS who take up the cause to protect the Fourth and the First. People who want a government that protects our rights . . . not tea party cranks who imagine doing away with the government will magically return us to the golden age of freedom of the 1950s . . . or 1920s . . . or 1850.

The ultimate opponent here isn't the Obama administration, but the intelligence and security bureaucracies . . . or more precisely, the sense of entitlement of the same.

#16 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 01:25 AM:

Tom, #12: You have apparently completely misread my comment. My point was that there IS a middle ground between "loss of civil liberties" and complete lack of regulation, and we are not being allowed to implement it because of greedy corporations and a relatively-few extremists.

Personally, I think the right not to be killed because some loon has a hate-on for women or gays/gay sympathizers or "libruls" is also a civil right.

#17 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 02:10 AM:

Lee, I think you've misread mine! I'm not saying I agree with gun rights activists -- I am saying that they've managed to be very effective in protecting what they see as their civil rights, and we might be able to learn from them. That they've gone further in those protections than you or I might think is reasonable is less important than the fact that they're being seriously effective.

#18 ::: Dan Boone ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 02:20 AM:

My first thought when the Snowden leaks hit was that here, for the first time since Reconstruction, was a golden opportunity for the Republicans to take the "party of civil liberties" banner away from the Democrats. And my second thought was "But they'll never do it." I thought maybe they might hate Obama just badly enough, but no sign so far.

#19 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 02:37 AM:

Tom, #17: Sorry. I shouldn't post on sensitive topics when I'm fuzzed-out from a con weekend.

#20 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 04:05 AM:

Dan Boone @18:

Unfortunately, I suspect that too much of the Republican base is military, ex-military, military family and wannabe-military for them to break towards civil liberties, even to spite Obama.

#21 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 07:42 AM:

We already knew that the Met were "institutionally racist". This is a further sickening illustration.
There might be some small room for optimism in the fact that the story is coming out now.

#22 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 09:52 AM:

Alan Braggins #21: The fact that the story is coming out and that the government's response is to investigate whether or not it is true (rather than to reflexively deny it) is actually a good thing. Each time I've returned to Britain over the years I have noted more and more positive change on the issue of race (I've gone from being "one of ours" to being "one of us"). Some of it amusing, as when black and Asian people say such things as "we have to get immigration sorted" with reference to Polish and Romanian immigrants.

#23 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 10:41 AM:

Dan Boone @ 18... Regarding the Republican party's taking back the banner of civil liberties... Considering that they are the ones who started us down the 21st Century's slippery slope, how likely is that indeed?

#24 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 12:29 PM:

Lee -- no foul! Discussion is a good part of what goes on here, and that often includes a lot of clarification.

#25 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 12:41 PM:

This is *great*.

I do wish Bush and his crew could have been in the first frame.

#26 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 01:18 PM:

Stefan Jones @ 25: That image is great! I went hunting for some attribution for it, and also found it posted on a "Conservative Wisdom" Constitution Party site, confirming my impression that support for Snowden has created some odd bedfellows—as is traditional in politics.

#27 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 03:58 PM:

Two kinks in the NSA surveillance story:

I never thought I'd see the day when Charles Krauthammer came across as a sane person (at least compared to the National Review gang).

Also, in the "there's always a lawyer with an angle" department: since you know that NSA has metadata on your client's calls, subpeona them for evidence in his murder trial.

#28 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 05:45 PM:

And the Guardian drops another one on the London Met: Scotland Yard spied on critics of police corruption.

In what mad universe did anyone, at any level, in the Met, think that could possibly end well?

#29 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 05:54 PM:

Sorry, but wrt. that last: my cynicism buffer just overflowed.

I mean, honestly.

Corrupt cops fitting up political activists like the ALF or Greenpeace? Getting them pregnant, stealing the IDs of dead babies? It's disgusting, but it's not totally unexpected. "Those damned subversives have it coming, and besides: some of them hug trees violently."

Racist cops trying to dig dirt on the family and friends of a murdered black teenager to discredit their campaign for justice? Disgraceful and disgusting. "Those black schoolboys, you never know, some of them might get angry ..."

But. But. A Police agency tasked with counter-subversion starts spying on a group campaigning against police corruption?

I'm sorry, I'm just not seeing any viable attempts at rationalization here, no nasty little just-so stories the cops concerned could tell themselves to justify their iniquity. It's inexplicable as anything other than a totally cynical abuse of power, that would of necessity require the knowing complicity of all concerned.

My jaw is agape.

#30 ::: Doug K ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 06:57 PM:

Ben Bernanke in a recent commencement speech quoted Lily Tomlin,
"I try to be cynical, but I just can't keep up.. "

#31 ::: Spiny Norman ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 11:42 PM:

Nice blog post from a couple of years back, by Scott Horton at Harper's.

The pure interest of a bureaucracy in power, however, stretches far beyond those areas where purely professional interests might justify the demand for secrecy. The concept of the “official secret” is the specific invention of bureaucracy, and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude, which cannot really be justified beyond these specifically qualified areas. —Max Weber
#32 ::: Spiny Norman ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2013, 11:44 PM:

Whoops. Bad link. Here's the Horton post.

#33 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 08:11 AM:

Fragano @22: Exactly. My cynicism won't let me assume the investigation will fix everything, but at least it's another step in the right direction.
Charlie @28: I came here to post exactly that same link.

Meanwhile, from Twitter '"If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide," says the government that's hiding a massive surveillance program.'

#34 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 09:18 AM:

@ C Wingate: in the "there's always a lawyer with an angle" department: since you know that NSA has metadata on your client's calls, subpeona them for evidence in his murder trial.

I had some interest in this, because I had a client convicted a couple of years ago when cell phone tower data refuted his alibi. In my case, though, the police thought to ask for the data from the phone company fairly quickly after the crime.

In the case to which you link, NSA's response has been to deny it kept the data:

This makes a certain amount of sense to me--making a permanent record of the location of every cell phone in the country involves an awful lot of data.

But, permanent record or no, everyone should be aware that your cell phone regularly contacts the nearest tower whether or not you are making a call, and there is at least a temporary record of where your cell phone has been.

#35 ::: rea has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 09:19 AM:

Too hot for baking here--have some red seedless grapes . . .

#36 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 02:56 PM:

Well, that didn't take long. Party like it's 1964!

Or, why who we give the chance to appoint Supreme Court Justices is important.

#37 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 04:13 PM:

Yeah, next time someone says there's no difference between Republicans and Democrats I'm going to say "So you don't think the Voting Rights Act is important?"

#38 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 05:56 PM:

I am not going to start hyperventilating in panic.

(This stuff is coming c/o the news media, for whom bad news makes good News. Yes, it's awful and shitty; but I have no desire to twitch every time they apply the shockers even if what they're uncovering is dreadful and/or evil. Don't want to become collateral damage.)

But my day job is writing SF. And I've been thinking lately we need more road maps out of hell. Iain Menzies Banks has left the building, taking his utopia with him. I can't fill those shoes, but I can at least try and supply some optimistic visions of how to get out of this trap without gnawing our collective leg off. And I'd like to think I'm not succumbing to narcissim in hoping that doing so will change things for the better, in howsoever a small way. Gaah.

#39 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 06:14 PM:

Mr. Stross: yes, please. Not only for the relief it would give me to read it, but because we so need a map, any kind of map, to give our imaginations a start on how to get out of this mess.

#40 ::: Michael Weholt ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 07:21 PM:

Charlie Stross @ 38: ...And I've been thinking lately we need more road maps out of hell. Iain Menzies Banks has left the building, taking his utopia with him. I can't fill those shoes, but I can at least try and supply some optimistic visions of how to get out of this trap without gnawing our collective leg off....

A-the-hell-men. Godspeed, sir. May the wind be at your back, and ours.

#41 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 08:59 PM:

Charlie you rock!

#42 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2013, 10:26 PM:

Dear Mr. Stross @38,

Please do a better job than your predecessors have done in avoiding the pitfall of resting your narrative on the premise that a secure wide-area ad-hoc mesh wireless networking protocol can be engineered by amateurs from repurposed consumer electronics.

I'm really trying to keep from letting my cynicism get the better of me, so I'll just leave it at that and not try to explain myself. I'd more than likely descend into an extended rant about recent technical bullshit that has me more unhappy than usual, and then I'd probably end up inadvertently violating some NDA I don't even remember signing. And that won't do anyone any good.

(Remember kids! The more NDAs you sign, the better you are at keeping secrets!)

#43 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 04:03 AM:

Xopher @ 37... Damned right.

#44 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 04:22 AM:

j h woodyatt @42: technologies all come with an implicit political agenda, as Karl Schroeder reminds us, and politics is frequently about the struggle to implement morality in law (or code). What is the political agenda of ground-up mesh networking on cheap consumer devices? It certainly doesn't look any more intrinsically democratic than Facebook to me ...

#46 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 05:04 AM:

#45 ::: Charlie Stross

Scotland Yard uncovered the shocking intelligence up to 15 years ago but, incredibly, did next to nothing to stop the private detectives, who also worked for the News Of The World.

The last bit is like something out of satirical science fiction.

#47 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 07:35 AM:

C. Wingate #27: I have come to see Krauthammer as a stopped clock kind of commentator. Twice a year, on average, he says something sensible. In that regard he comes out ahead of George Will whose intelligent remarks on any subject other than the gridiron game ("violence interrupted by committee meetings" if I recall correctly) tend to come out once or twice per lustrum. If that often.

#48 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 07:44 AM:

Charlie, I for one, am optimistic about Britain. Even an institution like the Met, corrupt as it is, is capable of reflecting on its errors and fixing them. The Stephen Lawrence case ended, as you'll recall, with a commission of enquiry condemning the police for institutional racism and with the Home Secretary standing up in parliament and acknowledging to the grieving parents that the institutions of the state had acted shamefully. Duwayne Brooks, to whom the police refused to listen in 1993, is now a Liberal Democrat borough councillor.

#49 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 11:18 AM:

Mr. Stross, it's not merely intrinsically non-democratic... using that trope to sell an ostensibly plausible technology vision entails a total disregard for basic physics and mathematics. That's my principle objection, and it comes well before we enter any discussions about politics.

If you're going to try to write a hopeful scenario for escaping the trap of ubiquitous telecommunications surveillance, then please talk to some professional internetworking engineers with experience in wireless ad-hoc mesh data communication. Thanks.

#50 ::: Dan Lewis ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 01:55 PM:

@ cstross 38

I'm a software engineer.

My primary source of confusion from the NSA revelation has been a lack of serious technical proposals to make internet transmissions secure by default. I read HN every day looking for one. I have had a fantasy that somebody rolls out such a secured network (perhaps on top of the existing network) and we all vanish from the public internet. I believe the math is on our side and functionally uncrackable encryption is available. So where is it?

It feels like the web is in the same position that operating systems were prior to file permissions, logins, encryption on the wire, etc. So much of what we do with the browser by default is transmitted en clair, along with our IP address, and tracking cookies.

There are problems with the ISP and the social networks as well. Something as fundamental and private as access to information and connections shouldn't be centralized. But it's been hard to take social network decentralization efforts seriously, since they have huge problems with network effects getting off the ground (in particular, interop problems with the existing behemoths). I don't even know what ISP decentralization would mean. :/

#51 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 02:51 PM:

An interesting note on a different side of the privacy issue: the Republicans in the Texas legislature appear to have been pressured into backing down on their cloture of an abortion-killing bill because of pressure from social media reporting on their attempts to change history (with screenshots). In some ways, the surveillance society leads to people actually getting the chance to pay attention to what (e.g.) legislatures do in supposedly public settings. The loss of civil liberties is still pretty dire, but I do think we should mention the positive notes when they happen.

#52 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 03:14 PM:

I'll admit that "democratic" is not the defining feature, to me, of what makes good policy, or policy I like seeing implemented through technlogy. To use one of many possible examples, until quite recently, prison time for homosexual acts was a winning democratic policy, but was in practice hard to enforce thanks to insufficiently intrusive surveillance into peoples' private lives on a daily basis. Better technology would have made those popularly supported laws more effective, and I'm glad that wasn't possible.

At present, the surveillance that has come out in public so far has popular support: This poll says that a narrow majority of Americans polled approve of the current wiretapping. (One of the more depressing parts of that article is how much both Democrats and Republicans shifted on this issue when the white house changed parties.). That doesn't justify either the surveillance, or the secrecy about it, to me. Similarly, there was only a narrow majority holding that torture of prisoners could seldom or never be justified back when that was a hot issue, but I don't see that as telling me anything about the right policy wrt torturing prisoners. All kinds of other stuff, from brutal supermax prisons where people spend decades in tiny cages and solitary confinement, to sex offender lists that helpfully put serial violent child rapists and guys who streaked across campus as a prank once on the same list, end up with practical public support--that's why they're done.

#53 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 04:16 PM:

It's more interesting when you factor in the wording of the questions. More people approve when it's described as anti-terrorist, and far fewer when it's put to them as surveillance of everyone without regard to their activities.

#54 ::: Tony Garnock-Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 08:49 PM:

Dan @50, you may be interested in this paper from Petullo, Zhang, Solworth, Bernstein and Lange. It follows on from Bernstein et al.'s work on Nacl (essentially, easy-to-get-right elliptic curve crypto infrastructure) to define a secure transport protocol that eschews endlessly reconfigurable mechanisms in favour of choosing good policy ahead-of-time so that developers don't have to. As a networking and protocol geek, I find this stuff pretty interesting. I think it's efforts like these that will lead to less insecure systems in the future.

#55 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2013, 11:44 PM:

Mr. Dan Lewis @50,

My primary source of confusion from the NSA revelation has been a lack of serious technical proposals to make internet transmissions secure by default. I read HN every day looking for one. I have had a fantasy that somebody rolls out such a secured network (perhaps on top of the existing network) and we all vanish from the public internet. I believe the math is on our side and functionally uncrackable encryption is available. So where is it?

I could rant at length— and, oh look, I seem to have been suckered into it anyway— about all the myriad ways the Internet has been engineered over the years with, at best, a casual disregard (and at worst a vicious hostility) for the interests of public welfare and individual privacy. Alas, you didn't come here for my views on the matter— you're interested in the views of people whose voices are credible and entertaining. Oh well, I'm sure Mr. Stross has more important things to do, so you just get me.

Let me just offer this small taste of the problem space: consider the evolution of that most humble of Internet applications, email, from its beginnings on UUCP, to its current status as an obsolescent and basically unusable piece of business crapware that nobody can stand to use for personal correspondence anymore, but we're all still forced to use it for work because it's the one social network where practically everybody with Internet service at all can be found.

In the old old old days, back when my email address looked like a path of hostnames separated by exclamation points, you joined the network when you got a username and password for your computer. Sending a message was as simple as launching a program that would append your message locally onto another user's incoming mail spool or send it over the network to the other user's computer by connecting directly to its mail transfer daemon. Receiving a message was a simple as making sure the mail transfer daemon and the local mail user agents could write to your incoming mail spool, then launching your mail reader when it was time to check for messages.

It wasn't long before things got more complicated. They quickly got lots more complicated. We had to replace bang-paths with fully qualified domain names so that an address described the destination not the path to get there. We installed dedicated mail transfer agents rather connect directly host-to-host so that people could power down their machines at night and mail would still move. And that's right about the time when the commercial Internet Service Providers entered the scene.

The early retail ISPs sold dial-up service, which meant that almost every email message had to be stored somewhere until the recipient dialed in later to retrieve it. So we developed protocols like POP and IMAP so that mail could be stored on a hosted server and always retrieved over the network by the user agent. The net effect here— and it's an important one— is that nobody on a dial-up line ever really needed to communicate directly with another machine on a dial-up line. The whole system was engineered with idea in mind that retail Internet users would, of course, ALWAYS rely on a third party— a man-in-the-middle, as it were— to facilitate their intercourse.

When the web started to take off, this asymmetry only grew more extreme, because web servers need to be online all the time, but web browsers only need to be connected while eyeballs are actually looking at them. When always-online retail Internet service arrived, it was mainly sold through as "faster than dial-up" and it was traffic engineered from the beginning for asymmetric networking. Retail users send little bits of data every now and then, and they download lots and lots all the time from content providers with big always-online, and ostensibly secure, data centers. Nobody makes direct calls host-to-host, and the network operators along with the equipment vendors who sell gear to them, all optimize their efforts for that model of networking.

Now, thanks to how everything has been engineered, even Skype has trouble making direct peer-to-peer communications work without relying on a vast network of signaling servers at points-of-presence all over the world. Every one of which generates all that juicy metadata about you we've heard so much about lately.

I could go on, but I'm suddenly starting to feel very self-conscious about the valuable space I've already consumed in this thread, so I will leave off here without going into an even more extended rant about network address translation, home gateway firewalls, and how they caused the tragic twin losses of IP mobility and IP security. I will also leave unmentioned the sorry tale of how it came to pass that OpenPGP would end up as a only curious toy instead of a crucial piece of our messaging infrastructure.

Summarizing, we don't have a secure and federated social messaging network because... well, have you seen that old Lily Tomlin routine about Ernestine the telephone company operator? That right there is your answer.

#56 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2013, 10:21 AM:

Dan @50, there are attempts to move that way, for some values of "secured", but it's a hard problem. Uncrackable encryption is the easy bit, and VPNs are plentiful. But a whole new replacement network? Look at how slowly IPv6 is replacing IPv4, or how successful Usenet II was.

#57 ::: Tony Garnock-Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2013, 01:11 PM:

Alan @56, On the other hand, look at how quickly Facebook replaced email. (Waves hands furiously.)

#58 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2013, 01:34 PM:

j h woodyatt (55): I know next to nothing about most of your very interesting technical details, but I beg to differ with this assertion:

email['s] ... current status as an obsolescent and basically unusable piece of business crapware that nobody can stand to use for personal correspondence anymore

My family and friends use email for personal correspondence constantly. We may well be a minority, but we're not "nobody".

#59 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2013, 02:14 PM:

Mary Aileen, #58: Agreed. I use e-mail for personal correspondence on a regular basis. I do have a few friends who are easier to contact via Facebook messaging, but I really think the assertion that e-mail is dead for personal use is completely and utterly wrong.

#60 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2013, 03:33 PM:

I use email for personal correspondence far more than I use social networking. I use FB only for one group for which it is the sole channel of communication.

#61 ::: Dan Lewis ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2013, 06:48 PM:

@54 Thank you Tony. That was not on my radar and that's the kind of thing I'm looking for. As an engineer, I am hopeful that I can bend my skills to some kind of solution.

@55 j h, I'm not offended at all. I'm just feeling a little helpless. Obviously there are huge financial forces behind media consolidation (and maybe you can count us all as the media now, ambiguity intended). And there are huge social and political pressures arrayed against privacy, that prey on very basic emotions. After all, safety is paramount with the wolf at the door. /despair

My response to both your comments is that maybe what's missing is a kind of trick, to get people to seamlessly begin using the secure network without really noticing that they have become safer. Decentralized-network-in-a-box maybe. Like Alan says @56, we have not cracked this nut. I feel the same way about PGP, it's a real sea change if you are not used to exchanging keys.

#62 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2013, 02:06 PM:

Count me in the "still using e-mail, thank you very much" camp. I don't do Facebook and don't want to.

#63 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2013, 02:48 PM:

The point about email is that it *is* still federated. So even if 90% of the world is on Google or Yahoo, us weirdos can still participate in the system.

My email *doesn't* go over an IMAP or POP connection. I ssh to a shell service that I trust and I run Pine on it. This has not handicapped my personal or professional life online. There really isn't any market or network effect pushing me away from this setup, other than the up-front subscription fee for the shell service.

(Footnote that I shouldn't have to say but I will: handling my email this way does not make me smarter, hipper, or more worthy of respect than the next email user. It's a lifestyle choice. I also wear long pants in the summertime and short-sleeved shirts in the wintertime.)

#64 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2013, 06:41 PM:

Good heavens, email isn't dead. I do occasionally get messages from friends within Facebook, but I always reply by email. I do use and Evil Cloud Entity for email, but I also download it all into an app on my computer, so I have a history of it. If I used Facebook messages, or Twitter Direct Messages, I have no local copy, and no guarantee of being able to find things in future. I would not be surprised at all if FB and/or Twitter go out of business one of these days, replaced by the new, new thing.

#65 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2013, 06:15 PM:

albatross #52: The deal there is that the public can easily be manipulated by those who control the media. The manipulation of survey questions (and thus the results) mentioned by P J Evans #53 is actually part of that problem, because reporting on "what everyone else thinks" is itself manipulative.

This is not a new problem (IIRC, Machiavelli discussed it in his other book), but has been progressively aggravated by the centralization and suborning of the mass media.

#66 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 04:04 AM:

There are many ways of fiddling a survey.

Start here: A BBC report on the figures for porn on the net. It's safe enough, it's talking about the reliability of the figures that get quoted.

There's a link in that article to a blog-post on Ministry of Truth, where there have been several pieces on the dodgy statistics that are being used.

Story so far, if you want to keep score: the figures are sometimes very old, even pre-dating You-Tube and Facebook, and porn sites have a particular structure, and deliver particular content, which give high figures on certain metrics. They have a huge number of pages, used in ways to give large numbers of page views, and far fewer users. Also, video uses a lot more bandwidth than Twitter.

Ministry of Truth then gets into the statistical nitty-gritty of one survey. Briefly, the IWF, which is the British organisation doing some policing of this for the ISP industry, a clearing house for ISP action on illegal porn, put out a survey which seems to have used a biased sample. And then they didn't take into account how many people don't use computers when they converted the sample percentages to numbers of people. It's a reputable survey company, they publish the data so this trick can be caught, but it seems nobody bothers to look.

It's about how the sample differs from the whole-pupulation averages, and how you adjust for that. You know what percentage of the population is aged 35-44 and married: it comes from census data. If your survey sample in that group is half the size it should be, you double the weight of that part of the sample. If it's twice the size, you halve the weight.

The sample gave excessive weight to people who are likely to have teenage children.

But I shall stop with this link: the figures seem to trace back to one site, which combines some very old figures with "sources" that sometimes are quoting figures from the site.

Yes we can blame the media. Sometimes they don't even seem to do simple arithmetic. But it's a corruption that goes deeper, with companies that sell web-filter software to concerned parents conjuring figures out of thin air, and surveys that don't distinguish the internet from printed work, and use definitions that include the legendary Page 3 of The Sun (description from Wikipedia). As far as printed work goes, 100% of teenage boys at my school had seen pictures before they turned 15 (And a digest-sized magazine called Forum was preferred because it was easier to hide).

#67 ::: Dave Bell has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 04:06 AM:

It was a long piece with URLs, and possibly a few words of power, about how the anti-sex industry is feeding the media with fake statistics.

#68 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 12:34 PM:

Dave, PJ:

I don't know of a better way to find out what a large number of people in my society think about an issue like this than to look at polling numbers from reputable sources. The alternatives seem to be to let the media tell me what people are thinking, or to try to decide what people are thinking from my own acquaintance or from what I read on the blogosphere and in comment threads online. All of these methods have very big problems. So while polls aren't perfect, and can be cooked in various ways, the polling data I'm linking to seems to me to be providing something like the best available picture of reality. Can you (or anyone) suggest a better source of this information?

The Pew Center is a reputable organization that does a lot of public polling and writes reports on them. (A more recent report on polls on this issue is here.) I know some of the wording changed between the different polls, but I still think this is probably a pretty good picture of reality--a substantial number of Americans, probably a narrow majority or something close to it, are okay with this domestic spying if it's done in the name of stopping terrorism. This is consistent with what I've observed in other ways--for example, the president and various other elected officials are defending this domestic spying as necessary to keep Americans safe from terrorism, not claiming to be shocked or blindsided by these programs. If they thought the domestic spying was deeply unpopular, I think we would see a different kind of response.

One important thing to get from both the polls and from all the other sources I can see of public opinion--this is not at all a left-vs-right issue. Instead, it's more of a center-vs-outliers issue--liberal Democrats and Tea Party affiliated Republicans show up in the Pew Center report as being *much* less supportive of this stuff than moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans. Under the Bush administration, this was much more of a left-vs-right issue, but under Obama, Democrats have become way more friendly to these programs, and Republicans have become somewhat less friendly to them.

All this passes the "how would the world look different if this were true?" test. Neither politicians nor big media are notable for their intellectual courage. If these programs were very unpopular, we would see a lot more skepticism from the both on this issue. (And there's a feedback loop here--more skepticism by the press and politicians would lead to a more negative public opinion of the issue.)

Is there some evidence that this isn't an accurate representation of public opinion? Or a better source of information that I could look for?

#69 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 01:10 PM:

Dave Harmon:

Yep, I'd say that's generally true. The consensus picture of reality, and the consensus view of many political issues, is largely created by what the big media companies put out, what prominent politicians say in public, and at a more fundamental level by what responses to various ideas are modeled for the viewers in talk shows and even in pure entertainment shows.

For a not-very-important example of this, it was interesting watching the (US) coverage of the Olympics last year. There was a great deal of discussion on the air of allegations of doping by foreign athletes, often on pretty sketchy evidence (like "she did a lot better this year than last year,") but very seldom was any hint of that raised about Americans[1]. And those talking heads kept having conversations, which provided a kind of "social proof" for the viewers about what people were thinking or should be thinking about. My guess is that this modeling of conversations, which happens on political talk shows all the time, is an extremely powerful mechanism for creating the feeling of a consensus.

There's a feedback loop here, because no media source wants to be too far outside what the other media sources are saying. Worse, it's routine for talking heads to be sacked for saying something too offensive, which has the effect of making damned sure that the conversations that appear on the air (and that most media consumers take, subconsciously, as the emerging consensus and "what people are saying") take place within very narrow intellectual limits.

My sense (but it's not something I understand too well) is that a lot of the media consensus that emerges has to do with the consensus among the powerful people that usually end up as sources for the reporters, along with the interests of the owners of the media companies, the culture of the media people (talking heads, reporters, producers), and the needs of keeping advertisers happy. I wouldn't be at all surprised if some decisions on what got covered and what views appeared on the air turned out to be influenced by domestic-spying-enabled blackmail of key people, or explicit threats of regulatory reprisals against big media companies, or covert bribes[2].

But I suspect a lot more has to do with the tendency of most people to be swayed by social proof far more than by evidence or reasoning--if within your professional and social circle, most everyone says and seems to believe X (even if openly contradicting X is sure to get you fired), it's very natural to come to more-or-less believe X. If you never, ever hear Y (even if saying Y is sure to get you fired), then it's very natural to come to more-or-less believe that anyone saying Y is crazy or evil or both. And so on.

[1] I particularly liked the rather Incredible Hulk like physiques on the 16-19 year old womens' gymnastic team. I have no idea whether this is evidence of anything more than really serious weight training, but I don't think those girls looked much like gymnasts of 20 years ago. And this was not a topic the talking heads on US media were going to bring up at all.

[2] There is a particularly ugly scene of paid invited talks for journalists and talking heads and other media personalities, in which some broad and diffuse target of news attention pays a top reporter or talking head a couple hundred thousand dollars to give a speech full of platitudes. I'll go out on a limb here and guess that annoying the powerful tends to get you a lot fewer such invitations than kissing up to them. And for most people, an extra couple hundred thousand dollars for a couple days' work is very good money.

#70 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 07:08 AM:

Tony @57: Speak for yourself :-) I do use Facebook, but it has absolutely not replaced email.

For some work towards pervasive "secure" connections, see, especially the References at the bottom of the page.

It's a long way off though. See for example the slope of the "signed" line on "Industry DNSSEC Enabled Domains Over Time" on

If you look closely, it's below "Errors" on the left, and above "Errors" on the right. But you do have to look closely....

#71 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 01:30 PM:

Andrew Plotkin @63: I ssh to a shell service that I trust and I run Pine on it.

This kind of thing has generally been my preference, too, not least for archival purposes. Panix ported me over automatically to SquirrelMail, which is serviceable. The chief advantage is the ability to handle in-line images and formatted text, as well as attachments.

The main advantage, though, is that it's web-accessible. Not all 'puters have telnet-equivalent these days, which (in my ignorance) make accessing shell interfaces difficult. (Panix has a web-based javascript shell application, which is useable, but doesn't accept copy-paste from the local host, which is irritating.

#72 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2013, 06:26 PM:

Email is great for many things, but not for the way it is often used in the workplace, as a kind of to-read list that thousands of people can add to without your permission, along with a crude document-sharing utility without version control and with lousy usability, and various other ugly things. Google docs and dropbox are examples of alternatives to the bad document sharing use of email, but there are a lot more.

The basic problem of encrypting communications is a solved technical problem, but not a solved administrative/practical problem. Ideally, almost all communications would be encrypted, TLS would be the default for web browsing, encrypted email would be the default for emailing anyone, etc. Sometimes. resistance to this idea has come from governments wanting to keep access, but far more often, it has come from developers and service providers wanting to avoid the hassle or small performance hit of using crypto.

#73 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2013, 04:21 PM:

This episode of the Security Now podcast has some interesting speculation on NSA domestic surveillance. I think Steve Gibson is a bit too in love with his own cleverness here, but the system he's discussing is entirely consistent with what I've read and heard about the widespread domestic surveillance we've got going on. This is my field, and I have at least some notion what's possible here.

There is a lot of talk (including on the podcast) about balancing privacy and law enforcement/national security needs for data. But the only balancing that has ever worked was a matter of cost--when it wasn't practical to spy on very many people, only important people (like congressmen, prominent civil rights leaders, antiwar leaders, and such) were spied on. Now that it's practical to spy on millions of people all the time, that's what is happening.

Our legal protections demonstrably don't work to limit domestic spying: The Bush administration ran a multi-year program of massively spying in direct violation of the law. Who went to jail for it? The DNI was caught out in a lie in sworn congressional testimony. What odds would you give that he will face any legal consequences for that? The current "legal" program works roughly like this: The legal interpretations and court rulings and maybe even some parts of the laws used are classified. Some stuff is approved by a court which meets in secret, and whose rulings are secret. Some congressmen are briefed on some of these programs. When they can't get a straight answer from the intelligence services and complain about this, they get zero traction. When the intelligence services lie to them, there are no consequences.

The society we're building up, at this point, is one where people are afraid to search for the wrong things on the internet, or read the wrong things. Where they want to be careful not to be associated with the wrong people, since that could get them on some kind of watchlist. Where people are worried that looking at the wrong kind of political material on the Internet might get them in trouble. That's the society we in the US are building for our kids. I believe this is less a political/social thing than a technological thing--so I think we're also building the same system for everyone's kids. Watch what you say. Don't dare even to *read* anything that's too far outside the acceptable mainstream. I've heard mainstream, non-crypto people express these kinds of fears in the last couple months. They're right to do so.

#74 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2013, 06:10 PM:

In short, it's very like we were told the world would be if we were under communist rule, back in the 1950s. Requirement of government-issued ID to travel, intrusive government surveillance, and the like -- it is pretty familiar.

#75 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2013, 12:41 PM:

This guy was arrested in Panama on an outstanding Interpol warrant. I am confident that the administration will be every bit as concerned with seeing Lady answer the charges against him in court as it is with seeing Snowden do the same.

#76 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2013, 01:12 PM:

Bradley Manning is being charged with aiding the enemy for leaking classified documents to the world, and I imagine Snowden will face similar charges if he falls into the hands of the US, and if we bother with one of those tedious and unnecessary "trial" things rather than moving straight to the indefinite detention or assassination.

Now, at one level, this seems silly. Wikileaks isn't at war with the US government. Nor is the New York Times or Le Monde or El Pais or Der Spiegel or The Guardian. But I think, if you look at it the right way, you can see the point of the government. The problem is, we're used to thinking of "the enemy" as guys who blow up Americans with bombs, or maybe people who give those guys bombs or pay for the bombs or something. We've got an outdated picture of who the enemy is.

For the administration, the pentagon, and the intelligence and internal security services, those aren't the enemy. I mean, they're targets, but not really the important enemy. Those guys can kill a few Americans in spectacular and scary ways, they can keep us mired in brushfire wars for decades, but they can't really threaten the continued existence and well-being of the military or intelligence services. Who can?

These dangerous civil-liberties extremists, empowered by the secret information thoughtlessly revealed by the traitor Snowden, are now mounting an attack on the US government in court.

This jihadist-supporting senator was able to use the information to catch a true patriotic American in a harmless, completely forgivable lie. Here are some more dangerous enemies who have been aided by Snowden's leaks.

Disclosures about this patriotic company have led some thankless foreigners to call for boycots of US companies, just because they share a little harmless private data with unaccountable secretive spy agencies.

This secretive organization deep within the bowels of the judiciary wants to reveal even more data to the enemy, presumably as a result of the leaks and their fallout.

None of this would be happening without Snowden's leaks. Clearly, the administration and military and intelligence and internal security agencies really preferred it that way. So, who's the enemy with whom Snowden's sharing this information? Ultimately, it's us.

#77 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: July 24, 2013, 11:00 PM:

There was a house vote to defund the massive NSA surveillance today. This atricle explains some of the context. It was defeated in a vote that cut across party lines. This article has the roll call for the vote.

From the Huffington Post article with the roll call:

A "yes" vote was a vote to halt the NSA program; a "no" vote was a vote to allow the program to continue.

Voting yes were 111 Democrats and 94 Republicans.

Voting no were 83 Democrats and 134 Republicans.

This is, of course, a vote that should never have been permitted to take place. Because we were never supposed to know about this program, and so the congress was never supposed to have an open debate about it.

But I wonder whether a different outcome would have made any difference. Since there are no penalties for breaking the law or lying to congress in this sort of program, they might well have continued it under a new name, or with some new justification.

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