Saturday, July 23, 2011

Wisdom Is Where You Find It

You can find wisdom in the most unlikely of places, like for instance the testimony of Hermann Goering in an interview before he committed suicide at Neuremberg in 1946. How on earth can a drug addled Nazi general and obvious sociopath have something wise to impart? Because such a man truly understands the nature of war, that's how.

"Herman Goering, at the Nuremberg Trials:

“Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

Full context:"

And history repeats itself...

p.s. There will be some who will totally discount the above, simply because of who it came from. Just realize that we tend to divide pivotal figures in history into either the "good" or "evil" camp as a matter of course, and that this is usually a mistake. My three favorite examples of this phenomenon are Dr. Martin Luther King, Mohandes Ghandi, and Mother Teresa. All three are lauded figures of "good" in 20th century history, but take the tiniest effort at understanding their history and you realize they were simply people that did what their convictions bid of them, and weren't always good or noble in the literal sense.

Dr. King did indeed spearhead the Civil Rights Movement in America, and he used his christian pulpit as a rallying point. But those who know the history of the movement also know his most influential lieutenants were secular atheists, because southern baptists didn't want anything to do with the boat he was rocking. After his death they all magically stepped in and claimed credit of course. His extramarital infidelity is also a matter of history, and well documented, but this sort of thing gets swept under the rug. These truths in no way detract from the good that he did, but they do show that Dr. King was merely a man who was as fallible as the next guy. Incidentally he got his ideas of non-violent protest not from christianity, but from Ghandi.

Mohandes Ghandi spearheaded India's non-violent protest against british colonial rule of India. He however did not get his ideas of non-violent protest from Hinduism but from Jianism, an obscure pacifist religious sect located in northern India. He was also a racist who viewed africans as less than human. This is well documented during his early days as a news reporter in northern africa. He also had weird ideas about chastity and health, which led to his lifelong habits of sleeping with young girls to tempt himself (as part of his interpretation of the Yoga doctrine), and his obsessions with enema's. So yeah, Ghandi was a freaking nutter, but a nutter who in the context of his day did good things for his fellow Indians.

Mother Teresa. Sigh... There's little good I can say about her. Though she won a Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the poor in Calcutta, and spent her whole life raising money for the Catholic Church, one must remember that none of the money she raised for the church was ever spent in her hospices. Hospices that lacked even the basics in medical care. She can be lauded for diligently spreading the word of peace and love over the course of her lifetime, but in practice she did almost nothing for either peace or love other than talk about it. In the end she was just a silly woman with good intentions who let her religious precepts hold her back from anything remotely resembling true greatness.

When one takes away the distorting lens of history, and realizes that historical figures and historical moments cannot easily be condensed into a few paragraphs for a classroom discussion, one realizes that it is all too easy to stop looking at historical figures as simply people.

When you do realize that even the best people in history were just as flawed as you or I, you can also realize that perhaps even the worst people in history were just as flawed. And this is what makes the above quote from a monster like Hermann Goering matter.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"God Delusions", Hacktivism, and the FBI six months late to the party.

As CNET (and virtually every other able bodied news outlet) reported a few days ago, the FBI has announced the arrest of 16 individuals who were allegedly linked to "Operation Payback". As you may recall, Operation Payback was an AnonOps DDOS response to Paypal's refusal to process donations to the online activist group Wikileaks which started at the end of last year.

In response AnonymousIRC and Lulzsec released a statement to the FBI today, making it clear how not seriously they are taking statements from deputy assistant FBI director Steve Chabinsky. I won't rehash what was said here, so just click through the links if you need to get up to speed on this.

The part of all of this I find amazing is how utterly this series of events and it's responses flies in the face of what is really happening.

First off, Operation Payback was organized under an entirely different effort than #Antisec. Secondly, did it really take the FBI half a year to track down a janitor and a pizza shop employee (two examples of the 16 arrested) using "script kiddy" tools to participate in a DDOS attack?

Operation Payback required little in the way of hacking skill, apart from the ability to click a mouse, and yet the timeliness of these indictments and the #Antisec response to them are both a clear reality distortion field that the press at large seems to have missed entirely. For those of you who haven't thought this entire situation through lets step back a bit and examine the situation.

The PayPal DDOS, which was just a part of the larger focus of "Operation Payback" was a DDOS, or Distributed Denial Of Service attack, one of the most basic of attacks. A successful DDOS is all about bandwidth and numbers, and requires (in the case of individuals utilizing their own bandwidth against a network behemoth) a LARGE NUMBER OF PEOPLE PARTICIPATING. Far larger than 16 to be successful against a network giant like PayPal. And yet here we are six months later and the FBI proudly announces its progress in arresting less than two dozen people, all of whom seem to possess about as much hacking skill as your average Farmville whore? This is akin to the FBI going after Pablo Escobar and coming back with an indictment of that cousin of yours who wouldn't stop smoking weed and living on your couch, six months after he entered rehab and started working at Denny's. Is the press really this dense?

Curiously enough the combined #Antisec response I linked above sort of just played along with this, so as to have a reason to respond, and I'm sure the above facts were not lost on those guys at all as they lulz their way  to their next activity.

It is going to be an extremely unfortunate next few months for the 16 who have been arrested, as they are now the poster children for the FBI's effort at putting lipstick on a pig in it's "War on Cyberterrorism". They are the hacktivist equivalents of Jammie Thomas, the Minnesota mother who in 2007 was found liable and fined $1.5 million for allegedly using Kazaa to download 24 songs.

I interviewed Jammie Thomas in 2007 for a tech publication I worked for, and found her to be (after the fact) someone who was really on top of the ethical and legal morass she had found herself in. I only hope the victims of this latest legal farce will be able to come up to speed as quickly and effectively as she did. Nothing like being a scapegoat hunh?

The larger point I want to make is to those of us who might decide in future to participate in grassroots "hacktivism". Just be aware of the real risks before you decide to partake in a crusade of any kind. Most of the critical decisions in life are really just exercises in risk assessment, and it's best to do this with information, so that you're feelings are kept in check with reality.

As I've blogged about before on my personal blog, people are far more apt to do things that make them feel good about themselves regardless of whether or not what they are doing is actually doing any good. As one of my mentor's Penn Jillette said "If feeling good and wasting your time is a good idea, maybe heroin is for you."

That's not to say that I think people participating in grassroots hacktivism are stupid or wrong headed, not at all. It's just that I note over and over again in commentary how many of the participants in such endeavors are called "delusional", or accused of having "god complexes". The solution is simply to know, really know why you are a part of something. Be critical, skeptical, do the research, grow your awareness, and do so yourself outside of the influence of others (including me) before you "step aboard the lulzboat".

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Where War Has Gotten Us - A Simple Math Lesson

As we sit today wondering whether or not those in Congress and the Executive Branch of our government will sit down and decide what to do with our debt ceiling, just consider a few inconvenient truths, one only recently come to light thanks to Wikileaks.

We've been at war in the Middle East for twenty years now. A war propagated by neocons convinced that reshaping the Middle East was in the U.S. interest. Think this is conspiracy theory driven fallacy? The Wikileaks dump of over 400,000 diplomatic missives has certainly caused much in the way of public embarrassment for the U.S. and it's allies, but there are a few choice and damning tidbits, like how we gave Iraq the green light to invade Kuwait just to give us an excuse to brand Iraq a threat worthy of invasion. I find it curious how not only the mainstream press but the American public can ignore this damning fact, given that it was revealed on the floor of the House Of Representatives earlier this year.

What does this have to do with a budgetary crisis? Our own General Accounting Office still pegs military expenditure as roughly 20% of our annual budgetary expenditure. The government has been playing this "trick" with accounting ever since the Nixon Administration, from which we also got our modern healthcare system, subsidized farming, and things like the WIC program, all moves to take critical financial issues off the table of political discussion. Thanks a lot Tricky Dick!.

The problem with this lies in the accounting itself, because the GAO includes the Social Security Trust Fund as part of its budgetary calculation. Keep in mind the important but often forgotten fact that the SSTF is fed by FICA taxes and not Income Tax.

If we do a few things the budgetary problem becomes much different. If we take the SSTF, Social Security, and FICA off the table a very different picture emerges. And let's just forget the looming insolvency of the SSTF for now. It is a concern, but not a pressing one in the immediate term.

If we do this and run the numbers against the U.S. Governments own accounting figures, the Military and all of it's obligations end up being around 54% of the annual expenditure. 54% of an expenditure where we are also borrowing roughly 40 cents on the dollar to pay for it.

So the question becomes, why are we at war?

This isn't some juvenile "peacenick" play, hating on the brave men and women serving our country, but a real and critical question about the motivations behind war. Patriotism can easily become foolishness when you're fighting for the wrong things, based on entirely wrong reasoning.

Agree with me or disagree with me as you see fit. Indeed I encourage and want more debate on this subject, just be sure to come up with compelling arguments to explain away the grade school math at work here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Day The Universe Changed

Pretty grandiose title there right? I use it symbolically, but there is also a practical reason why I choose it as the title of today's post. And to be clear, I'm totally plagiarizing the title from an old documentary series made by the scientific historian James Burke called amazingly enough “The Day The Universe Changed”. I encourage anyone with a dose of patience for the strangeness of deep history to watch it.

I watched this documentary series during its first go around, right when I was graduating high school twenty five years ago, and I've taken the lessons learned from this and other experiences to construct my way of thinking about the world.

Perhaps the most important lesson one can bring away from this series or indeed from any deep and critical study of history is that what we institutionalize as right, just, ethical, moral, or true are very malleable concepts.

Human beings are in a constant state of flux where we express our individuality and liberty, alongside our desire for systems, institutions, and rules. Which systems institutions and rules survive are entirely dependent on the desires of individuals expressed both individually or collectively. When systems arise that take for granted their very existence as systems and do so without taking into account the collective needs and desires of individuals within those system, those systems are either modified or abandoned entirely.

Again and again throughout history are examples of systems modified or abandoned for ones that not only work better, but work the way we collectively want them to work. And when these paradigm shifts occur the universe itself changes because our view of the world around us changes.

We've lived now for centuries taking for granted such vaulted concepts as liberty and representative democracy, and many of our views of these things have become quite powerful institutions in and of themselves. Individually and collectively we've also had for an equal amount of time the ability to be critical of such institutions. One need only look at the campaigns of our earliest presidents here in America to see how important an expressive role that the press had and has had over the centuries. But it's equally clear that the nature of things has changed somewhat from the time when we were a tiny collection of colonies in an underpopulated hinterland.

How does representative democracy work in a nation of 311 million people, when it was a concept originally developed to deal with transportation problems in ancient greek city states with populations nowhere near that? How does the citizen become an active participant in such a system in a country where only seven large corporations are responsible for all the news and information we receive? How can we have investigative journalism, oversight, or any sort of watchdog activism in such an environment?

The only way people can make good decisions is to have good information. One can debate all day long what to do with information, but in a vacuum of information we cannot even do that. In many areas of our lives we rely on the transparency of good information, but we can only be assured of that transparency when the information itself is available for scrutiny.

To me, the Anonymous movement is precisely about the nature of information and its transparency. Rather than debate endlessly about where we all might stand politically about what we think about the world we live in, the focus should be on ensuring the transparency of information around us. Institutions live and thrive on their information, and that's all fine and well. But when such information becomes “secrets”, one must not only question the secrets themselves, but the reasons why they are secrets. In a process of critical inquiry secrecy is an anathema. The mere concept of secrecy implies that critical examination is not only unnecessary, it is undesirable.

The only way to reconcile this view against the critical and necessary exercise of logic and reason is to reject it entirely. In this information riddled age we live in, secrecy simply does not work. Not only because it limits the public's ability to know and make reasonable decisions, but also because of the dangers of insularity. Systems that do not embrace critical inquiry are ones that simply fail to work well, or work for any interests other than self interest. We have centuries of history showing us the obviousness of this conclusion.

As is the case throughout history, new inventions become fundamental catalysts for change, often in ways unforseen. From the wheel, to paper, to the printing press, to the rediscovery of geometry and countless other technologies this pattern repeats over and over again.

The internet, and the entire worlds reliance on it as a medium for social, political, and economic exchange is as pivotal an invention as any in human history, perhaps the most pivotal one. And the efforts of Antisec, Anonymous, Lulzsec, Wikileaks, and countless others funneling out of the woodwork as we speak are the tip of the iceburg in a sea change of the very nature of what it is to live on the third rock from the sun.

It is, and as uncomfortable as every other shift in human history has come, the day the universe changed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Arguments Against #Antisec And Why They Are Missing The Point.

If there's one thing we love on the net it is definitely a healthy dose of controversy, and if nothing else, the Antisec movement is giving us that in droves. Many of the concerns raised by people in the blogosphere, the press, and the general public at large seem reasonable on the surface. The issue it seems to me, is that people are easily apt to polarize the issues that arise.

For instance, there are many who feel that these big data dumps are grossly irresponsible, given that they do indeed out a lot of personal information of individuals, such as account names passwords and the like. Also there are many who voice the real fear that the efforts of such blackhat groups are going to lead us careening into a new era of oligarchic control of the very internet itself.

From my vantage point observing how the press and blogosphere is handling this topic, pretty much all negative concerns people express ultimately devolve into the two main points I bring up above. Given that certain assumptions are true, those concerns raised above may indeed be true. I think however one needs to examine the assumptions behind those concerns more carefully before they condemn what is taking place at an ever increasing pace.

The outing of people's personal information sounds like a real serious issue on the surface at least. Given that the idea here is to reveal poor decision making and bad judgement by governments and corporations, it is no wonder that people are inclined to play the sympathy card when those exposed are not corporations or governments. I think the impact of this exposure however is being grossly misrepresented, primarily by a public who just doesn't understand the nature of the world they live in. Let's be frank, our parochial ideas of privacy are an illusion, and have been for quite a long time. For a handful of dollars one can easily and legally find out pretty much anything and everything they'd ever want to know about you anyway. And they can then take this information and do, well, anything they want to with it legal or not. Whether or not anyone would actually care to do this is another matter entirely. So, in reality, these exposures are near non-issues from a personal safety and privacy standpoint, unless of course, you do genuinely have things to hide. If this is so, then you can thank the blackhats for revealing the simple fact that you placed your trust in organizations that either can not or simply will not protect you. Real criminals wouldn't reveal anything, and you'd be finding out about how masterfully you were hacked and socially engineered months down the road when your checks start bouncing. You have been done a favor, so just realize this.

The other great concern voiced is the seemingly real fear that this sort of activity will foster more oligarchic and draconian levels of control of the internet itself. For these folks, who are apparently not paying attention, we're sort of already there. Due to The Patriot Act, The Digital Millenium Copyright Act, and numerous Federal District Court rulings our ability to exist freely as virtual citizens is drastically curtailed relative to our real citizenry, which isn't doing all that well itself either. There are those that argue the internet needs new laws and different types of restrictions, and we've largely fell for that argument already. It doesn't take a genius to realize we treat offline and online content entirely differently under the law, but apparently it does take some genius to simply ask why we have to treat it differently. We've had copyright law of one type or another, as a for instance, for over two centuries, so why do we need to treat a new medium as a special case? This was tried numerous times before, and it failed. It largely failed before with the introduction of such evil techologies as vinyl records, 8-Track tape, the Cassette tape, and the VCR. So why is it different now? The truth of the matter here is a simple one. Governments and Corporations are looking for every excuse in the book to use the internet as an excuse for greater power grabs than they've been able to pull off in the past. And they've succeeded.

When I look at the two primary concerns people voice over the activities of Antisec, and I put those concerns into my admittedly opinionated perspective, I come to one conclusion. Yes, those concerns voiced are valid ones, but immaterial given the nature of the world we really live in.

Things are that bad. It is time we realized this.are that bad. It is time we realized this.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ramblings Of An Incessant Thinker: "Anonymous" "Lulzsec" and what this all means for ...

Ramblings Of An Incessant Thinker: "Anonymous" "Lulzsec" and what this all means for ...: "I've noted with a keen sense of fascination the 'Rise Of The Hacker' within the last year. From the massive leaks of classified U.S. documen..."

"Anonymous" "Lulzsec" and what this all means for us.

I've noted with a keen sense of fascination the "Rise Of The Hacker" within the last year. From the massive leaks of classified U.S. documents and diplomatic cables by Wikileaks, the outing of the Reuters news employees gunned down in Iraq by overzealous troops, and now the steamroller of defacements and information dumps from Anonymous and Lulzsec, it is clear we are transitioning into an interesting era of the net.

Part of the reason why this interests me is from my own personal history. I was a "hacker" back in the day, but this was a "back in the day" when no one really cared. Back then it was all about "War Dialing", exploiting the occasional SSH connection to get into cool BBS's you otherwise couldn't get in to, or making trolls behave in IRC chat rooms (oh how I miss eggdrop wars). I've been on the internet in one way shape or form for 24 years now, so when I say "back" I mean back. :)

For most of the open history of the internet (and I'm not referring to it's progenitor way back in the 60's arpanet when it was really a Department Of Defense project) this place we all love was about as free a realm of inquiry as one could imagine. And along with this freedom it has to be said that it's equally been a messy place. This duality dovetails nicely though with my (and most scholars) understanding of what is implied by the word Liberty. Free expression and liberty are concepts rarely experienced without grief, or at least lots of noise, but this is as it should be.

The internet as we know it has been sort of an anarchic capitalist free for all, and this is clearly what helped the net grow into the juggernaut of absolute necessity it has become today. Problems arise however, when this brand of social and economic politics comes across incompatible systems. The root of the problem today is that the internet itself is not compatible with how much of the world works. This isn't necessarily a bad thing however. As free as we think we are, our society is full of "walled gardens" and disenfranchising socio-economic systems.

So as free as we think we are, as citizens of the most free country in the world, we are not as free as our virtual counterparts on the net. Note how in other countries where even the basic freedoms we take for granted in the U.S. are a pipe dream, the freedom of the net has fostered avenues of expression and change heretofore impossible. One need only pay attention to the news and notice how key and critical a tool the internet has been in the revolutionary fervor in the middle east. When one pays attention to the details however, one realizes that there is something even more fundamental taking place.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were especially telling because of the true nature of their source. Unlike past bloody uprisings in the region in the last couple of centuries, these were about more basic and fundamental things. Past revolutions in the region were largely about power struggles and ideology, and though there is certainly an ideological underpinning to be had here the real driving force has been something much simpler, that being the need to ameliorate human suffering. Egyptians were rebelling largely because they were hungry and broke and tired of being hungry and broke. Politics, religion, economics, these were all sideline issues when compared to the simple fact that people suffering got tired of suffering.

One of my guiding moral principles is this. Anyone, anywhere and for any reason suffering needlessly is reason enough for me to reexamine my own convictions. Granted, I do have rather well thought out conceptual beliefs when it comes to how I choose to see the world, and I'm the sort of person who will gladly state and debate those beliefs with anyone. The difference is that I've decided it is vital to set aside the potential pettiness of philosophy if it gets in the way of me being able to genuinely care about other people and their plight.

We live in a global community. Concepts like borders are becoming more meaningless by the day, and will one day be utterly meaningless. As scary as this thought might be to some, it is clearly an inevitable outcome. Real human suffering is taking place pretty much everywhere one cares to look, and even so in our own great country. From corporations and governments treating our privacy liberty and freedoms as secondary concerns, to real actual daily suffering by an increasingly larger percentage of our own population, these are legitimate concerns. Ones that are not going away without action.

There is a certain duality to the activities of Anonymous and Lulzsec, which dovetails nicely with the general hacker ethos I've come to know well in the last few decades. Granted it is clear that some of what they do is for street cred and "lulz", but even the motivations worthy of little more than a kindergarten playground fight have deeper and more fundamental meanings behind them.

When Lulzsec hacked the ever loving daylights out of Sony they did indeed expose millions of people during their breach of Sony's security. But they exposed what they did publicly, and did so because this was the only real avenue available to them to point out Sony's shockingly bad security. More to the point they exposed how (and how easily) they did what they did. In this light it is clear that Sony was not taking it's customers security, safety, and privacy seriously. It cost Sony a pretty penny too, with writeoffs for fixing their own stupidity approaching $200 Million U.S. the last time I checked.

GOOD! Sony should have fixed this crap in the first place. SQL injection exploits that any first year security student (or 12 year old with motivation) could have pulled off in their sleep should never have even been possible, had Sony actually cared about protecting and serving it's customers.

We make the mistake of placing too much trust in established systems of accountability, because we are under several mistaken impressions. We assume that we as customers of Sony truly matter to Sony and simply do not want to face the reality that their concern basically ends once our credit card transaction has processed. We assume that there is oversight, but the reality is that oversight is poor to nonexistent. Moreover, given that so many businesses are multinational conglomerates, oversight is often either difficult or impossible at the level of government. We assume that there is transparency and accountability, but we have a government driven by money and it's influence. With the Supreme Court deciding that the 14th Amendment extends citizen-like status to corporations, is it any wonder that our representative government seems to cater to business and not the electorate? It's like that old adage about the Police. The Police are here to protect us, but who protects us from the police.

The very freedom and power of the internet becomes today perhaps the most powerful lever for change. Oversight and accountability at the level of the individual becomes possible. Though it is difficult to have secrecy and privacy online, this goes both ways much to the chagrin of corporations and governments. As we've seen with Anonymous, Lulzsec, Wikileaks, and now a growing grassroots hacking effort globally, secrets can become public knowledge instantly, and in a manner that won't easily go away.

At the end of the day, even if their tactics do not mesh with what is legal, what these groups are doing is not only right and just, it is necessary.