Crypto Wars Podcasts

My first attempts at podcasts for this site, produced sometime ago on YouTube, were two videos about the Crypto Wars. This is the story about the attempts to control the use of strong encryption in the late 1990s, and then again in more recent years. From about 2014 to 2018. This includes things like the Investigatory Powers Act in the UK, and other similar laws elsewhere. The two podcasts are linked below.

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The ‘System’ vs Donald Trump

I have been thinking about what Donald Trump means for the ‘system’, by system I am thinking about the complex system that is the US Government Machine and its associated parts. Part of my thinking is that systems of Government have learnt how to persist, they have adaptive to promote and maintain their own existence. The internal system dynamics and relationships are an evolved, and are an emergent property of the ‘system’. The people in the system don’t even really know they are part of it. You could make the argument that this is plausible as a Government needs to be transparent enough to its citizens so that they don’t revolt, but not too transparent that they revolt. This adaption is a buffer between the people and the Government, and allows the system to persist (not statically, its a quasi-stable state). Its not just the Government that as adapted to this way of persisting, its the media, the elite etc etc. The laws, process, norms and culture make it hard to radically alter the system quickly without a massive shock or tremendous effort.

It does bring us to the question of Trump. Trump is a major upset to this entire system, he is a massive shock. So the question is, is the ‘system’ just going to grind him down into nothing. Has the US state ‘system’ seen enough Trumplike behaviour that there are emergent process that will just kick in and slowly squeeze him until he disappears. Maybe the position of stable state will move a bit, its always moving, but not much.

The other possibility is that he is enough of a disruption or shock that the whole system just breaks apart, and self-organises into something completely new… That could produce anything.

I am not sure which is worse.

US Election – The First Cyberwar?

The presidential election is starting to look like the front line in a cyberwar. With different national and global actors waging a war of information (or disinformation), the main weapon being deployed seems to be the sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of the US electorate. Its hard to say where it all started, but let us start with the emails, hacking, Trump, Wikileaks and the Russians.

So the emails. Wikileaks has got hold of a large number of (I should point out that it is at least plausible that visits to Wikileaks are recorded…) emails from inside the Democratic party, they seemed to think that they were enough of a smoking gun to bring an end to Hillary’s campaign. Maybe during a normal election, there is however nothing normal about this election. That said the constant drip of damaging stories has proved to be, well damaging, just so far not terminal. Where did the emails come from? Well, some people think Russian hackers got hold of them and then handed them over to Wikileaks. There is a degree of credibility to this hypothesis, when exactly the Russians decided to hack into the servers, and what Russians it is however are unknown. Truth be told we don’t know if it was Russians, Wikileaks may not even know it was Russians however they say it wasn’t. So how might this cyberwar be playing out?

Its the Russians and Trump

Russian narrative is useful to the Democrats and they can link Trump (possibly quiet legitimately) to Russians, he likes Putin because Putin said nice things about him. They can also link Trump to the leak/hack, he encouraged the Russians to hack the democratic servers. Maybe, just maybe, Trump’s intervention was enough to get the Russians interested? The timing of that probably doesn’t make sense, but its an interesting thought. Trump therefore could have fired shots in this cyberwar.

Its Russia doing it for themselves

It is possible that this is Russian mischief making, state backed or not, and they did perhaps just for the lolz. Or, to potentially push America into a state of political chaos which they would ultimately benefit from. Keep America fighting itself so they can push on with their own geopolitical agenda. However wins the election next week could very well be instantly bogged down in in this mess, leaving less time for dealing with global issues.

Wikileaks, where do they fit in?

Wikileaks could very well just have received this early Christmas present in their submission system. They have then used it to cause maximum damage by slowly dripping information out, they would likely say this is to increase the exposure of them and the function they perform in global society. Exposing what should be in the public domain. I have sympathy for this ambition, however they are also editorialising this story to cause maximum damage. Not that any other media company would do any different; do we call them a media company now? As far as I have seen there is no evidence that Wikileaks solicited the leak in any way. Therefore it will be up to the public to decide if the emails are in their interest, and potentially important enough to end Clinton’s political ambitions. I think one downside is that many people just read the headlines and not the content.

Where does Trump really fit in?

Is Trump a puppet of Putin that is being supported by Russian hackers? Its not totally out of the question. What the Russians are doing for Trump is well at least two things. One, if they did the hack, is provide a rich source of damaging headlines for Clinton. Trump should be nowhere in this election, but yet he hangs on somehow, helped by Clintons skeletons. The other is that the leaks provide a useful deflection from Trump’s own skeletons, not least the series of women that claim to have been sexually assaulted by him. Claims that have a degree of credibility. The thing that surprises me most about Trump is that anyone finds him at all compelling or even coherent. His speeches are often bizarre, drifting, rants that are difficult to follow. There is almost no policy, other than a few bits about walls and swamps. His suggestion that the election is rigged (unless he wins) just makes it more difficult to believe anything that comes out of this election.

So where does this leave us? Well, knowing very little for sure. This whole thing is the perfect disinformation operation, and it might not even have an orchestrator. The whole election campaign is now post truth, because the truth has become so hard to find in amongst the lies and half-truths. There are so many views, opposing views, and facts on both sides. So many agendas and seeds of doubt being sown, how does anyone make sense of what has been said, or assess its credibility? Cyberwar isn’t just about turning off the lights, it can be more subtle, and in this cyberwar its any sense of the facts and important issues that have been lost into the darkness.

Investigatory Powers Bill

The video below is a recording of Teresa May answering questions on the draft Investigatory Powers Bill. some interesting highlights (or low lights) for me where the following:

  • She essentially didn’t answer the question on why it is unhelpful to compare the retention of web history with that of an itemised phone bill. The two things are not the same. An itemised phone bill doesn’t record a version of the conversation that took place. Now, although I believe that the retention is not include the exact pages visited, it does include the IP address of the website. So even though that is not exact pages visited, it does give some idea of the content that might have been viewed as they could go and retrospectively visit the site. Importantly, this doesn’t include whether the site has changed in the meantime. Also it is not clear to me whether the IP address and the site are recorded. Obviously this is important as you can host a large number of websites on a single server… In short this comparison is supposed to be there for clarification, it doesn’t clarify anything.
  • Some of the wording seems to be vague to say the least. This is of some concern as it could allow for a degree of ‘mission creep’. Where the legislation is used for things that it was not really intended for. We have already seen the government use terrorism laws for strange things, the most obvious of which was them being used to freeze Icelandic bank accounts during the financial crash.
  • No sunset clause. So the bill will not time out on its own, and realistically unless the attitude of a future government is very difference from today. We might well be stuck with it forever.
  • I will also point out that there seems to be some scope for the weakening of encryption in the bill. We haven’t seen this since the May 2000 Electronic Communications Act, in which the Home Office left in a vestigial power to create a registration regime for encryption services. Basically the capacity to weaken/back door encryption. This did have a sunset clause which expired.

Security Algorithms Need to be More Transparent

I wrote a piece for The Conversation, “It’s time to shine a light on the unseen algorithms that power ‘Big Brother’”. I try to make the point that we as citizens know very little about the algorithms that power the security services (not to mention all sorts of other things too). Which is troubling as there is a great potential for them to discriminate, or plane get things wrong. This is both potentially damaging to us, but it also makes them less useful. I also draw a comparison between these analytical algorithms and cryptographic algorithms, which are often deliberately opened up to ensure there strength. Analytical algorithms that have the power to refuse someone entry to a country, or potentially assist with putting someone behind bars, should also be open.It’s time to shine a light on the unseen algorithms that power ‘Big Brother’