Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Blogging on hold for one week

Due to other commitments I'm not going to be able to blog this week. Lots of things to talk about next week when I return however!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Its all getting a bit Newt in here

Newt Gingrich is the political equivalent of someone who looks hot when you notice them at the other end of a long corridor, often (as in this case) the closer you get, the worse it becomes. Face to face, its a mess.

Foreign policy is the area which concerns me most as a non-American. US Presidents have the ability to do real harm to their allies in this one area, and although Obama has more or less killed the Special Relationship we remain at least on good speaking terms with the USA, and are likely to remain so. Its rather worrying that the breakthrough candidate, Speaker Gingrich is so... goddamn mental.

The Atlantic did a good writeup of his erratic position on foreign policy the other day:
Gingrich seems to be awash in competing ideas -- his favorite word -- but has little in the way of core beliefs to guide them, or little compunction about jumping from one contradictory declaration to the next. This might make some fun for bloggers and opposition researchers in pointing out Gingrich's contradictions and inconsistencies. But imagine what it would be like for a head of state or senior government official watching Washington from Beijing or Moscow or Jerusalem or Tehran, and having no idea how President Gingrich is going to behave.

Gingrich's approach to problems of any kind seems, as Conor Friedersdorf put it, to start with "fundamentally transforming" the issue or policy or agency at hand. He wants to gut the State Department, shut down Homeland Security to be replaced with a new agency, and bring "profound change" to the Agency for International Development, the military, the war on terror, and diplomacy. His love of dramatic, bold, sweeping policy changes -- apparently made for the sake of being bold and dramatic and sweeping -- makes for great press conferences, but they would create uncertainty about how these newly "transformed" institutions and policies are going to operate.
Of course they're right, its critically important that the cards are largely on the table as far as what the US is likely to do in any given set of circumstances. Iran knows that if they continue to develop their nuclear technology, they will most likely get bombed, that leaves it up to them as to how they then move ahead.

The issue is that Gingrich tends to devolve swiftly into pure fantasy, not least in his 1996 desire to explore how feasible it would be to develop a real world Jurrasic Park:
“Why not aspire to build a real Jurassic Park?” Gingrich asked on page 190 of the book, adding in parenthesis that such an achievement “may not be at all impossible.”

“Wouldn’t that be one of the spectacular accomplishments of human history?” he continued. “What if we could bring back extinct species?”
Now, I realise this is a speculative throw away line, but it does speak to a rather 'aspirational' aspect of his personality, as well as his limited understanding of technology and how it works. I agree that science fiction has been very good at predicting technological innovation, that doesnt mean that every science fiction idea is reality waiting to happen, it just means that in a vast sample some guys get it right from time to time.

He has also recently decided that there will be an American moon base in place by the end of his second term:
"By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American," he said. According to Talking Points Memo Gingrich went on to say that the base would be used for "science, tourism, and manufacturing" and to create a "robust industry" modelled on the airline business in the 20th century.
His 2012 bit of crazy is about cyberwar. Setting aside the fact that no one is really sure what a cyberwar is (I have my own personal definition, which tends to change from time to time) the rather casual way he throws the term around, and equates it to real world action is a little bit concerning:
I think that we have to treat state-based covert activities as the equivalent of acts of war,” Gingrich said in response to a question about countries that target U.S. corporate and government information systems. “And I think that we have to respond to that and create a level of pain which teaches people not to do it.”
Really? Because "state based covert activities" covers a hell of a lot of ground. Its been the bread and butter of Governments to spy on each other for as long as there have been Governments, and usually no one goes to war over it. Otherwise we'd all be at war with each other all the time.

Putting this in the context of cyber espionage is even more dangerous. Its so easy to hide your tracks online. Complete anonimity might not be possible, but its damn close. Certainly as you fuel up the bombers I think you want to have a better idea who conducted the attack than "well the IP address is probably somewhere in China".

Also, how to do you tell the difference between a state sponsored act of cyber espionage and a private citizen doing it for the lulz or at the behest of a company? Corporate espionage online is a fact of life now, and will be forever. Companies are finally figuring this out and starting to build decent network security, but in the end, if someone wants in, they will get it.

My concern is that he is trying to win a war of words which no one else is playing it, one upping his own statements in terms of how high he can crank up the rhetoric.

There are two options as far as I can see
  1. He believes what he is saying - This means he is a dangerously uninformed individual, who, with access to the vast power of the presidency will be a threat to world peace and security
  2. He just likes the sound of his own voice - I really hope this is the case, as he would hardly be the first person to throw about phrases like 'cyber war' without really knowing what it means
Frankly, I'm worried he might be a little mad.

Rethinking Strategy

I'm a big fan of any discussion about Grand Strategy, it's something most countries lack, but which many need. Most countries have strategies, but no over arching objective to tie them together, certainly not in the foreign policy field. This leads to reactive, knee jerk decision making on a case by case basis. Not only does this make it harder for us (as a nation) to make decisions, it also makes it harder for other countries to understand our motivations for taking action, since our actions on day 1 may be driven by different objectives than our actions on day 2.

Rethinking security have this post on Grand Strategy arguing that:
...there is a very (conceptually) simple way for the United states to rectify its grand strategy problems: decide what is essential for American security and prosperity. Or to be more colloquial, what can Americans not go without, what are the biggest threats to nation, and how does force and diplomacy figure into these things? For example, we have determined that the free flow of Gulf oil into the world market is a critical American national interest (and we’re not alone, it’s also a critical Chinese national interest too) and allocated the necessary amount of military resources to ensure that Iran is deterred from doing anything more than making blustering non-threats to close the Hormuz Strait.

And this, I suspect, this is also why we recursively turn to wishing for a technocratic grand strategy to rescue us: we simply cannot come to an honest accounting of what essential interests constitute. Sure, part of this is intrinsic to the poisoned chalice of contemporary American politics. Americans have deep domestic divisions about foreign policy and security. There is a wide gulf between the basic epistemological lens that different political parties use when thinking about the basic parameters of foreign policy, to say nothing of the internal disputes within those parties themselves.

Of course these rules apply for the creation of any strategy, for any organisation, campaign etc. It's about finding the one overarching 'essential interest' and placing that at the core of your operations day to day.

Looking at the Republican race for the presidential nomination its possible to see a lack of a Grand Strategy there. At this stage both Gingrich and Romney are operating in reaction to the other, which leads to endless feedback. If one was able to incorporate a real strategy then they would be in a good position to move past their opponent. After all the 'essential interest' here is not to beat your opponent, its to convince the largest number of people that you're the right man to be president. Arguing with your opponent doesn't achieve that, so it shouldn't be a core piece of the on the ground activities, but there you go.

Anyway, the main article is well worth a read, so go forth and read.

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Marine Corps travel guide

The Marine Corps has not been doing well in the last couple of weeks, most notably due to the video of Marines urinating on the bodies of some deceased Afghan men. The impact of this has been largely predictable as @Starbuck_WOI (aka Crispin Burke) notes "This is why you don't pee on the enemy":
An Afghan soldier who shot dead four French troops has said he did it because of a recent video showing U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban insurgents, security sources told AFP.

"During the initial interrogations by French soldiers, he told them he did it because of the video in which American soldiers were urinating on bodies," an Afghan army officer said.
The issue has been discussed well on Kings of War, and it's worth noting a few key paragraphs:
The thing is, though, these scenes are really only partly outrageous if you accept the definition above. To be sure, they are violent. And they go beyond standards of what is right and decent not to mention standards of discipline in the Marine Corps. But they’re really not unusual. It’s only unusual that such things now propagate outside of the theatre of conflict so widely and rapidly. Dreadful things have always happened in war.
Cameras are ubiquitous in daily life and on the battlefield. A while ago I wrote in an article ‘The More You Know the Less You Understand‘ that ‘networked soldiery which can film anything and store and share the images on a microchip changes the rules of the game.’ I’m now not quite as sure of that statement–I’m not sure, as I was implying then, that it really is a strategic game changer. Now, I think perhaps that while the style of play is different it’s still the same old game.
I’m not really trying to defend what these Marines were up to. Only to suggest that the dense media ecology in which war is now fought has an Alice in Wonderland like dimension which obscures as much as it illuminates while boosting war’s inherent chanciness, non-linearity and tendency to unintended consequences. As Ben O’Loughlin and Andrew Hoskins put it in War and Media:

…instant recording, archiving and distribution of images and stories add a chaotic element to any action. Nobody knows who will see an event, where and when they will see it or how they will interpret it. Nobody knows how the reactions of people locally or around the world will feed back into the event, setting off a chain of other events, anywhere, in which anybody may get caught up.

I too am not going to claim what these men did was right, it isn't, simply put. The reasons they did what they did will no doubt come out in time when these men rightly are judged by the rules of the Marine Corps.

The point of this post is not to rehash what has already been rehashed in enormous detail, but instead to direct people to a document which I was pointed to (I'm sorry to say I forget by whom), the Marine Corps orientation document for those deploying into Afghanistan. It's important for what it represents, a deeply thoughtful and sensitive culture within the Marine Corps, designed expressly to ensure that incidents such as the one above do not occur.

It opens with a telling paragraph:
This guidebook was designed specifically to provide basic cultural information for Marines deploying to Afghanistan. In such a short guide, it is sometimes necessary to simplify complex concepts, or to make generalizations about behavior, or to reduce complicated historical events to a few sentences. This guide is intended only as an introduction to the subject for Marines deploying to Afghanistan. It provides a basic understanding of a rich culture, a dynamic and living history, and a complicated insurgency. At the end of this guide, therefore, the Marine will find suggestions for further reading to dig deeper into the history, culture, and language of Afghanistan.
The reading list at the end is well worth checking as an aside, comprehensive if a little short, it's added a few entries to my own Amazon wishlist. As someone commented on a Facebook discussion I had about the document:
Wow... This is definitely a spot-on guide. It took me a couple months of living in Kabul just to get the basic details that are covered in the first few dozen pages. Knowing how the different ethnic groups inter-relate before heading out could have saved me a couple headaches.
The most interesting part is without doubt the section on ethnic groups, which details geography, demography, customs, culture and other details down to types of headress and clothing. There are also some slightly amusing asides including:
Homosexual activity is taboo in Afghanistan, and officially can result in a death sentence, but it is far more common than most sources and most Afghans will admit.
Afghan men often take younger men as lovers. Many US soldiers have heard an Afghan say "women are for babies, but men are for love,"
The combination of loose, baggy, comfortable trousers and long knee-length shirt is called the Shalwar Kameez and is worn by virtually all Afghan males. The sleeveless vest is also customary. The pen in the vest pocket of the man in the foreground (Pacha Khan Zadran) is a symbol of literacy.
Its easy to laugh at things like this, and they are of course culturally relative, but for a document like this it is superbly detailed.

More important are passages like this:
...blood feuds arising from real or perceived dishonor can and often do last for generations. When American soldiers or Marines search a man's home, he is obligated to take revenge for this dishonor against an American (all Americans are seen as belonging to the same clan.) This revenge may be taken by planting an IED, for example, or by sniping at and killing an American. There is no statute of limitations in Pashtunwali, and no sense that "time heals all wounds." One famous Pashtun proverb holds that "I took my revenge after 100 years, and I only regret that I acted in haste."
This passage is an open entreaty to Marines to resist the desire to harm an Afghan in body or in property, not the sort of thing the general public might expect to be in a military manual, yet here it is, clear as day.

I'm not going to go into any more detail on the document, apart from to say it is one of the most revealing looks at how a modern military can prepare its soldiers for a hostile environment in a positive and proactive way.

Kudos to the writers of the document, and the men who stick by it day after day.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

True opposition research

Its rare an opportunity comes along to really examine something from the back room of a campaign, without someone having altered it in some fashion. Usually it comes in a book, or a magazine article, in which someone refers to something that happened. So its a delight when something like this emerges, John McCain's opposition research file on Mitt Romney, not just an extract, the whole darn thing.

I'm not going to claim to have read every page of this, I've only read the extract, but its grim reading, hundreds of statements, every contradiction, every waver is charted in exacting detail, with dates, times and supporting quotes to go with it. The fact this is in the public domain now will only aid the anti Mitt brigade in the media (I include the blogosphere heavily in this). Also, any gaps in the research being done by those opposiung Romney will be swiftly plugged by access to this document.

It's proof, if any were needed of the sheer amount of information which is out there about public figures. Everything that Mitt Romney has ever said while in any meaningful office has been dug out and put into this document. Its almost sinister, although there's a certain amount of satisfaction to be had reading this document. It makes it very very clear that there is pretty much zero chance of Romney winning against Obama. There's pretty much no area he isn't weak in, and what he'll have to say (and has already said) to get the nomination will ensure that he's unable to win in a general election.

If you've got any interest in political campaigning, this is an invaluable document and a piece of modern history.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Book Review: Currency Wars

I've been recommending this all over the place of late so I thought it was about time that I wrote a book review of Currency Wars by James Rickards. Being as it is probably one of the better books I've read on finance recently its certainly earned its high spot on my (Kindle) shelf.

Currency Wars is two things, first it is an intelligent discussion of the world we find outselves in and the likely outcomes of the ongoing competition between states and the hyper-rich organisations which are now able to operate at a nation state level when it comes to finance. It also acts as a superb historical resource, charting how modern currency emerged as what we all recognise in the 21st century. Suffice it to say that this was a messy process.

The book starts off with one of my favourite topics, war games. As it transpires the US military ran a war game(s), involving Rickards in which they tried to assess whether currency could be used as a tool of inter state conflict. The short answer is that yes it can, but its very hard to predict how it could be used safely. Any sufficiently powerful state or group of states (Read, China, Russia, EU, America, possibly a few of the BRIC countries operating together) can kick off some pretty messy business to their own short term benefit, however controlling the consequences would be nigh on impossible.

The other factor which has only emerged in relatively recent history, which further complicates this world, is the previously mentioned hyper rich non state entities. The role Rickards paints for them is largely to add randomness to the whole situation (I paraphrase), in that it is hard to see which way they will jump in any particular circumstance, as they do not have the same loyalties or institutional memories that a state like Russia or China might have.

I'll set aside an analysis of the history section of the book as ultimately, that's too complicated to easily summarise in a single blog post. Suffice it to say it is an eloquent and cogent analysis of how the world we have now has emerged, it also sets the scene for what is to come very well.

Rickards posits a group of scenarios which he believes to be the most likely in the next few years, they make for grim reading. One of the scenarios is entitled "Chaos" and in essence suggests that we could end up in an endlessly downward spiral, with no end in sight, as critical infrastructure deteriorates to the extent it can never be regenerated. Where that spiral ends up, who knows, but I certainly want to buy a lot of canned goods after reading it.

There are of course more positive scenarios however they all rely on at least the majority of actors having a large degree of courage and the ability to lead the world out of crisis. As I was reading it I have to admit, for a short moment, I miss Gordon Brown. Say what you like about him, at a critical moment he was willing to lock a group of world leaders in a room and deny them an exit until they agreed to drag the world out of the fire in 2008. He didn't finish the job by any means, but at least he was able to achieve something. The current Conservative Government is extremely beholden to the City and will not take a leadership position on any issue which might threaten those institutions

We also cannot depend on China to help rescue us and I believe, as does Rickards clearly, that China has its own domestic concerns which will limit its ability to affect change on the world stage. China is a relatively new actor at this level and has demonstrated its primary goal is to protect its own finances and currency.

America is in rapid and probably unstoppable decline, a readjustment at least two decades in the making is occuring there. Europe has been revealed to have huge systemic flaws in the institutions of the Euro which do not look solvable in the short term. Russia is mired in an increasingly autocratic system, and its economy is supported largely by the export of energy resources, not wildly helpful when diversity is needed.

Add to that the fact that countries natural position when it comes to economies and currencies is conflict. That is what they are geared up for and the way they will continue to operate naturally. Operating in another way will require powerful leadership and the ability to make rational strategic choices, the impact of which will last over the next decade or more, a timeline which few democratically elected politicians are willing to consider any more.

Who knows how it will all turn out, but in the interim, read this excellent book and find out just how bad it could get. Or check out this bit of the Financial Times which is dedicated entirely to currency wars, in case you thought this was a nice bit of theory.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Insight into Anonymous

Wired has done another of their great pieces on Anonymous, entitled 2011: The Year Anonymous Took On Cops, Dictators and Existential Dread. Charting the antics of Anonymous in 2011, it's rather an eye opener even for me quite how much happened in the Anon community in the last 12 months.

It really has been the coming of age year in many ways for Anons, as the Legion moves from Lulz to epic Lulz which have annoyed Governments, rather than individuals and Scientologists.

Anyway, not much else to say this evening but that you should take a read of this important piece.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Italy and its largest corporation

This article captured my imagination today and as it's my 200th post I thought I'd write about something I really enjoy discussing, criminals. In essence a report has emerged which suggests that the Mafia is now Italy's largest business:

The country's four Mafia groups have broken out of their traditional strongholds in the dusty 'Mezzogiorno' south of Rome and spread their tentacles across the whole country, taking advantage of the economic crisis to snap up ailing businesses and ramp up their loan-shark operations.

They now boast estimated cash reserves of €65bn, collectively making them "Italy's biggest bank", according to a study released on Tuesday by Confesercenti, a prominent employers' association.

They groups make an estimated annual profit of €100bn – about 7pc of Italy's GDP.

Their sources of income are pretty diverse, but ultimately fall back on the old classics:

With the economic crisis meaning banks are loath to lend, Mafia dons have profited as desperate businesses are forced to turn to loan sharks demanding crippling rates of interest.

Organised crime groups - including Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra around Naples and the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, have bought ailing businesses, shops and restaurants.

The exorbitant rates they charge for loaning money have pushed many enterprises to the wall.

Mafia chiefs have also moved into new areas of business such as public health, transport and logistics.

Gambling is particularly lucrative. The average adult Italian spends nearly €1,300 a year on slot machines, bingo and other forms of gambling. This €76bn market is Italy's third biggest industry, according to a report presented in Rome on Monday by Libera, an anti-mafia association.

The grip of the Camorra on toxic waste management has been hugely detrimental to the environment in parts of southern Italy and has caused a rubbish crisis in Naples for years.

Now much of this is nothing new, it is only the scale which has changed, with the Mafia increasingly able to penetrate areas of society which were closed to it previously, or at least were not as porous as they were now.

On its own this topic is just of interest, but it sounded suspiciously like another country which has a rife and diverse group of criminals who are seeking to further their own power at the detriment of the state, Mexico.

Italy has long seen its civil institutions decline in the face of its Executive (Berlusconi), and is now in the throes of a major financial crisis which means that cuts are the only answer the world economy will accept. This will mean still weaker state institutions and a population searching for money through avenues outside of state control, and into the breach steps the Mafia.

The Mafia are subverting traditional state roles in Italy, as well as dominating the commercial space through their control (direct or indirect) of certain sections of the economy. Waste management may not be glamorous, but you notice its absence pretty quickly. I think the idea that the Mafia are crushing businesses out of existence is likely hyperbole to some extent, or at least an activity which will die out over time. In the end, destroying a major revenue stream is not in their long term interests.

The truly interesting part will occur if the Mafia start to replace fundamental social functions, as they have in South America and parts of Africa. Hospitals and schools are the obvious areas which could be replaced in time. Whether this occurs will be up to the Italian state, but of course, with brutal spending cuts to come, it is increasingly likely that people will turn a blind eye to exactly where the money is coming from.

The Italian state, in its current position, is clearly not able, or not willing, to deal with the Mafia on a criminal level, else it would not have allowed such a direct challenger to have emerged in the first place. It will be a long time before we know if this lack of action is the result of simple malaise, or something more insidious. Regardless, the criminal element will seek to subvert political figures, if not now, then soon, because it is in their interest to control those social institutions which could limit their power.

This means that it is only a matter of time before the police are penetrated and subverted. With budgets about to be slashed that means that pay will likely decline, or promotion opportunities will dry up. From there is is a rather more simple matter to find the weak links and ensure that these individuals are given money and other incentives to ensure their co-operation. That becomes self re-enforcing, as corrupted individuals support each other up the ranks, and although it may take years (Mexico suggests not that many years) eventually the police will become a meaningless institution when it comes to projecting state power against the Mafia.

Now that doesnt mean that Italy will be left with the military as its own tool to fight back against the Mafia. It will take many years before the undermining of Italy's institutions by the criminal element are enough of a problem that such strong action needs to be taken. Most likely it will be when the various families start to compete with each other and that competition spills out onto the streets in the form of violence that there will be real moves made to roll back the spread.

Conflict between the main groups is less likely than in Mexico. There are mechanisms in place to deal with conflict, at least initially. But as in Mexico, the larger the organisations grow the more chance there is of elements of their hierarchy splitting off and going their own way. When that happens violence is likely to swiftly follow. Like the Zetas these new organisations will have little institutional memory of "how things used to be" and will be willing to resort to more violent and extreme means to maintain control.

The Mafia is unlikely to remain confined to Italy forever. Although to its North and West Italy is bordered by relatively strong states, to its East and South this is less true. Of course having an area of Europe with significantly weakened institutions and a powerful criminal element will mean that criminal enterprises across Europe will have somewhere to turn.

This is just a thought experiment of course, but if the Mafia is as strong as this report suggests it has the potential to use its current revenue to springboard itself still further as the Italian state retreats in the face of austerity measures. What that will mean a decade or more down the line is impossible to predict, but as states grow weaker, seeing criminal organisations on the rise is a worrying precedent.

And so ends my 200th post. Thanks to everyone who has encouraged me to get this far.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Death of electronic privacy

Hat tip to @nigroeneveld for these two articles which, taken together, I think point the direction America and the US will increasingly go when it comes to electronic data seizure. The first is about the increasing use of seizures at airports of laptops and data storage devices:

And nab gadgets they most certainly do. Johnston writes that last year alone, 5,000 devices were seized:

The Customs and Border Protection agency says the power to seize laptops is necessary to find information about terrorists, drug smugglers, and other criminals trying to enter the country. Of the more than 340 million people who traveled across the US border in 2011, about 5,000 had laptops, cellphones, iPods, or cameras searched.

The other is about an ongoing court case, trying to determine if you can be forced to give up your passwords for your devices in order to get around encryption:
In Colorado, a District Court judge is deliberating on whether Ramona Fricosu, accused of committing financial fraud, has to disclose her laptop password to decrypt the stored content.

Marcia Hoffman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is counsel for the defendant. She alleges that Fricosu should not be compelled to give up her password for two main reasons:

  • The government haven't specifically identified what they are looking for on the laptop. This makes it seem somewhat of an evidence-fishing trip.
  • Requiring disclosure of the password would breach her US Constitutional Fifth Amendment right against forced self-incrimination. There hasn't been any immunity offered for loss of this protection.
Differences in legal structures (Constitutional vs non-Constitutional) the desires of law enforcement agencies remain the same. Strong encryption grows easier and easier to impliment and it's now more or less at the stage that commercially (or even free) encryption is impossible to break using brute force means (unless you're happy to still be working on it when the Sun turns into a lump of coal the size of a fist). So the law will have to turn to compelling people to give up passwords or face a lengthy prison sentence and/or fines.

The problem for law enforcement is that this problem has already been fixed, some suggestions from the first of the two articles:

Resisting the government isn't a viable approach to protecting your data in these legal seizures. Johnston lists a few approaches that businesses are taking to keep trade secrets from such seizures:

  • Wipe laptops clean before you travel.
  • Move sensitive information to the cloud and retrieve it later.
  • Move information to a flash drive or external hard drive.

To which I would add three additional recommendations:

  • Encrypt whatever device to which you transfer sensitive information. All you have to do is poke through the lost & found at a transit station to realize that USB drives, at least, fall from our pockets like leaves from autumn trees.
  • If you travel frequently, consider buying a second laptop to bring in order to leave your personal computer at home.
These measures are all pretty reasonable, and very easy to implement. Cloud data storage would be my preferred means for a lot of stuff, but of course, there's always the chance that too could be pulled if someone had access to your laptop for an indefinite period of time and had your passwords.

So what do you? I'd recommend if you have to travel with data on your laptop you think about using TrueCrypt. Not only does it allow you to create an encrypted partition, it allows you to create a hidden partition within that which is also encrypted. So if you ever have to give up your passwords, you'll only be letting someone access your "safe" partition. From the outside, your average law enforcement guy is going to really struggle to prove there is a hidden partition.

I know it can sound paranoid to talk in these terms, but good data security can't be beaten. How many times could embarrassment have been avoided if Government laptops had decent security on them? Indeed, I've lost count of the number of times I've received emails at work along the lines of "A person who will remain nameless lost a laptop, so we're instituting a password system that means all passwords must be 85 characters long using a mix of languages, including one we made up just for passwords". My current password is absurd, in an attempt to comply with draconian rules.

And frankly, it should be difficult for law enforcement or anyone else to go rummaging around in your laptop or personal data. People's lives are so entangled now with electronic devices that pictures of the kids often sit next to confidential work emails, and no one has should have the "right" to take away your right to keep what's private private, unless they already have clear evidence of your criminality.

Or just don't travel.


Thursday, 5 January 2012

A thought experiment on war

Kenneth Payne over at Kings of War has started a blogpost entitled What is Conventional Warfare? From Mr Payne:

Surprisingly tough question, posed by a friend hard at work on her research proposal. I thought I’d crowd source an answer from learned readers here. But first, here’s what I suggested:

Conventional warfare isn’t just about capabilities employed – that is, industrially manufactured, technologically advanced equipment, deployed by recognisably military organisations. Rather it is a society’s way of fighting that encompasses the doctrinal thinking, the organisational structures, the rules of engagement, and even the appropriate goals of violence. What makes it ‘conventional’ is just that it adheres to the dominant conventions of the time.

Of course, all this changes through time as the societies and conventions involved in generating ‘conventional’ approaches to war evolve. Thus, the conventional forces of Napoleon look radically different from the ‘conventional’ forces of France today.

Such an evolution in conventional war might include changes in permissible conduct – For example – why were chemical weapons seen as conventional in the context of WW1, but not now? Why could you flatten Dresden in 1945, but not now?

They might also involve changes in force structure – Why use conscripts as part of a conventional military in Vietnam, but not now? What about the use of private contractors? Is outsourcing violence like that ‘conventional’, or does it profoundly change the relationship between the state/society and those who enact its violence?

And it might also involve changes in concepts, as for example on attritional force v manoeuvre, where the ‘conventional’ approach of British strategic thought (and American, from the early 1980s onwards, if not before) was to substitute manoeuvre and shock action for firepower.

I think my favourite answer so far has come from Callum Lane:
The cynic in me says that conventional wars are those that militaries want to fight, and unconventional are those they do not want to fight.
A rather astute observation I would say.

I've been getting involved in the debate over there and am currently trying to figure out where I think the idea of cyber war fits into the framework of conventional/unconventional warfare, and being challenged as to whether cyber war is even a real thing.

Well worth taking a look.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

#Riots, incoming

There's a rather superb piece in Wired entitled "#Riot: Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts—Coming to a City Near You". It charts how our increasingly sophisticated technology has reached a point at which is has become a tool for violent mass action of a variety of types:
...on both sides of the Atlantic, there was a rash of more mysterious, more malicious-seeming crowds in which technology appeared to play a central role. Riots over four days in Britain spread across the country and caused millions of dollars in property damage. US cities struggled with their own disorder: In Kansas City, Missouri, gunfire injured three after hundreds of high school students descended on an open-air shopping mall, while Philadelphia imposed a curfew to fight a long string of surprise gatherings by teens. At least five cities saw an innovative form of robbery, where a large group of kids would simultaneously run into a store, take items off the shelves, and run out again. To be sure, technology wasn’t at the root of all the crowd mayhem: For example, an investigation of a group robbery in Germantown, Maryland, determined that the thieves had hatched their plan on a bus, not online. But with most of these events, there was some sort of electronic trail (Facebook, Twitter, texts, BBM) that showed how they coalesced.

Groping for what to call these events, the media christened them “flash mobs”—lumped them in, that is, with the fad in which large crowds carry out a public performance and then post the results on YouTube. So at around the same time that Fox was running a lighthearted flash-mob reality show called Mobbed, and Friends With Benefits, the high-grossing rom-com starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, featured a flash-mob dance in Times Square, pundits and public officials suddenly began railing against flash mobs as a threat to public order. The convenience store knock-overs became “flash mob robberies,” or even “flash robs.” “The evolution of flash mobs from pranks to crime and revolution,” declared one of my local papers, the San Francisco Examiner, after the hacktivist group Anonymous had helped to create subway shutdowns.

The London riots are of course a perfect example of where several "flash riots" started to co-operate across the capital, and formed a self organising and self perpetuating cycle, one only broken by the pouring in of truly prodigious numbers of police. So what causes this?

Stott boils down the violent potential of a crowd to two basic factors. The first is what he and other social psychologists call legitimacy—the extent to which the crowd feels that the police and the whole social order still deserve to be obeyed. In combustible situations, the shared identity of a crowd is really about legitimacy, since individuals usually start out with different attitudes toward the police but then are steered toward greater unanimity by what they see and hear. Paul Torrens, a University of Maryland professor who builds 3-D computer models of riots and other crowd events, imbues each agent in his simulations with an initial Legitimacy score on a scale from 0 (total disrespect for police authority) to 1 (absolute deference). Then he allows the agents to influence one another. It’s a crude model, but it’s useful in seeing the importance of a crowd’s initial perception of legitimacy. A crowd where every member has a low L will be predisposed to rebel from the outset; a more varied crowd, by contrast, will take significantly longer to turn ugly, if it ever does.

It’s easy to see how technology can significantly change this starting position. When that tweet or text or BBM blast goes out declaring, as the Enfield message did, that “police can’t stop it,” the eventual crowd will be preselected for a very low L indeed. As Stott puts it, flash-mob-style gatherings are special because they “create the identity of a crowd prior to the event itself,” thereby front-loading what he calls the “complex process of norm construction,” which usually takes a substantial amount of time. He hastens to add that crowd identity can be pre-formed through other means, too, and that such gatherings also have to draw from a huge group of willing (and determined) participants. But the technology allows a group of like-minded people to gather with unprecedented speed and scale. “You’ve only got to write one message,” Stott says, “and it can reach 50, or 500, or even 5,000 people with the touch of a button.” If only a tiny fraction of this quickly multiplying audience gets the message and already has prepared itself for disorder, then disorder is what they are likely to create.

The second factor in crowd violence, in Stott’s view, is simply what he calls power: the perception within a crowd that it has the ability to do what it wants, to take to the streets without fear of punishment. This, in turn, is largely a function of sheer size—and just as with legitimacy, small gradations can make an enormous difference. We often think about flash mobs and other Internet-gathered crowds as just another type of viral phenomenon, the equivalent of a video that gets a million views instead of a thousand. But in the physical world, the distance separating the typical from the transformational is radically smaller than in the realm of bits. Merely doubling the expected size of a crowd can create a truly combustible situation.

I'm not going to post any more of the piece, as its necessary to read the whole thing. It touches on what I believe will be one of the defining conflicts of this decade, that of centralised Governments fighting against their decentralised citizenry.

A critical element of Bewegungskrieg, manoeuvre warfare, is the ability to dispel as much of the fog of war as possible, in order to create an environment in which you are able to 'see' more than your opponent. With that ability you can pick the points you want to fight at, choosing the ground, and pulling his forces apart piece by piece. Boyd's idea of tempo is critical to this, shifting your own activities to a higher pace in order to operate within the OODA loop of your opponent.

Is there any purer expression of this concept than a networked leadership free group of rioters? They pour into an area, control it, draw in police, disperse, having achieved their 'goals' (occupy, loot, escape), almost always wholly intact, and reform elsewhere. In doing so they exhaust police resources, money and manpower, and every victory will draw in more supporters.

Their lines of communication were impossible to disrupt, sometimes encrypted and often hosted overseas, Twitter, Facebook, BBM. They provided a highly accurate overview of the battlespace, in real time, to all participants. The data was a flow, allowing participants to take what they needed, without drowning them in excess data. It was elegant, beautiful, and terrifying.

Project forward and I think we will see the end of fixed position protest as the primary tool particularly of youth protest. Instead we will see 'raid' style protests, with groups meeting, motivating themselves through numbers, then breaking up to cause disruption and get attention for their cause.

I also think we will see more riots, and those riots will grow harder and harder to put down. For the time being, no one on the rioting side is trying to target the police, but there is every chance that will change if there is some precipitating incident. It is simply a matter of confidence, once the mob believes it can attack the police without fear of reprisal, it will. Simple as that.

To deal with that the police will grow more militarised, using what looks more and more like army equipment in order to put down riots and protests, for fear that they will grow and spread out of control. However, they will always be a step behind, using a rigid command structure, having to operate (broadly) within the law, and constantly disrupted by an opponent who can move faster than they can.

Its important to ask, what if there had been a few thousand more rioters? What if they had had a little more confidence in their cause, and faced down police? Or simply kept operating within the OODA loop of the police no matter how many of them there were? It's not hard to imagine this would be possible. The only way of stopping it at that point is to up the ante... and then it looks a bit like this:

There is a coming rule set change when it comes to protest and civil disruption. Occupy has created one model for a fixed protest which can retain elements of manoeuvre, the London riots provided another for full blown civil conflict. If, and I believe this will happen, with the Euro about to fall and recession looming, there are 21st century riots akin to the Poll Tax riots, they will be supported by a resilient and networked communications structure. There will be fewer and fewer confrontations with the police on their own terms.

The civil conflicts and protests of the future will bear little resemblance to the past. Militarised police vs networked smart mobs, that's the future.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The future of jobs

I'm purposefully avoiding a "thoughts about 2012 post", not because I don't like them, but because I can't think of anything to say which hasn't already been said elsewhere. What I do hope we can look forward in the future is the growing understanding that world we live in cannot be understood by the rules of the world from which we have come.

One area where I think we need to really re-evaluate how we understand things is when it comes to jobs. Before his flame out from the Presidential campaign (surprisingly due to having an affair, rather than being too stupid to have an opinion on Libya) he had these pearls of wisdom to share about the world of work:
Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!
Now, I know what he was trying to say, but frankly, he's an idiot. Everyone, no matter how limited their understanding of the world, thinks everyone can be rich. Even in the best economic times there will always be the rich and the poor, if only because the definitions of those terms will change to reflect the new reality.

However, on a more fundamental level, how much longer can we go on pretending that there will always be enough jobs for everyone. Amazon has around 33,700 and a revenue of $43.59bn according to the most recent figures I could track down. Of course it also creates thousands of jobs by providing a service through which third parties can retail their products, in a way which would have been impossible without Amazon. However, there is no way of cutting it to suggest that Amazon is, or ever will, create the vast numbers of jobs a company this successful would have done 50 years ago.

The norm, increasingly, is that companies are going to drive towards more knowledge based systems. This is true even of manufacturing, where robotics will continue to improve until humans are essentially unnecessary, apart from in the event of some catastrophic failure, although possibly not even then. Even my job, a market research position, will one day be a job I share with sophisticated AI programs, who will do the lions share of the boring things, while I (hopefully) am retained to do the "story" part of the job.

With that in mind, it will eventually become the case that there is simply no way of pretending any more that there are going to be enough jobs for everyone. What will society look like when politicians have to face up the reality that there is one less job than the total number of people, let along a deficit of a few million jobs? That's the world we're heading for, without a shadow of a doubt, and there is nothing that can change that.

The present day welfare state is nothing compared to what is to come. When hundreds of thousands of people will live their entire lives without any real chance of employment for the majority of that time the state will have to radically reform its role.

My prediction, corporation tax will go up, and income tax will go way down. The state will need to provide the benefits required to prevent civil unrest, and the money won't be coming from the legions of the unemployed, and the state will have a vested interest in making sure that those who do have jobs are spending as possible supporting the high revenue, low employing, companies which support the economy.

However, there will also be much larger numbers of people creating small companies, which will exist at the periphery of the larger entities, much as Amazon works with third party retailers today. This will provide many people a small income, which will help ensure the state isnt completely crushed by the weight of organising the welfare for its citizens.

Anyway, that's my predication for the day, but the most important part of this is that we need to start moving away faster than we are from the assumptions which governed the world as it existed previously. The emphasis of Government cannot be to recreate the world of yesterday, but it must instead work to build the world as it will exist and create institutions which are resilient enough to survive change.