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Why do politicians believe they understand technical issues?

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I suppose politicians have to make decisions, but they do seem not to be able to listen well or learn quickly. They have the typical chief executive’s belief that what s/he strongly desires must be possible, even if those with knowledge explain repeatedly that it’s not. CEOs simply cannot comprehend that something they want so very much might not be possible because, after all, they are powerful and wealthy, so surely that must mean that they can get anything they want. Right? (The Dunning-Kruger effect also plays a role: politicians are so ignorant of the relevant science and technology that they don’t even have enough information to know how uninformed they are.)

In the Washington Post Andrea Peterson has an excellent article on a specific instance. By all means read the whole thing. Here is the conclusion:

“I think what we’re missing is that people are kind of in their corners arguing about liberty versus security instead of saying, ‘Look, we all want to have privacy for the end users’ — that’s what the companies are responding to. They’re trying to be able to tell their customers, ‘We’re going to protect your data,'” she [Hillary Clinton] said. “But we also don’t want to find ourselves in a position where it’s a legitimate security threat we’re facing and we can’t figure out how to address it because we have no way into whatever is holding the information.”

Clinton said people have a “legitimate right to privacy,” but she argued that the encryption debate was about finding “the right balance” — a balance Clinton said she hasn’t figured out yet.

Clinton said her position was “not a dodge,” but some within the tech industry were not convinced, including Nu Wexler, a member of Twitter’s policy communications team.

Asked by Re/code’s Kara Swisher how she might resolve the issue, Clinton said she would start with having a “real conversation” with tech executives. “I think the conversation, rather than ‘you don’t understand privacy and you don’t understand security,’ ought to be ‘OK, let’s figure out how to do this,'” she said.

But there is already a dialogue going on between the Obama administration and leaders of the technology industry — and much of it is coming down to the technicalities of how encryption works more than an ideological debate over privacy and national security.

Technology companies have moved to expand their deployment of encryption in the wake of revelations about the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. Apple and Google, for instance, have made it impossible to unlock many mobile devices using their operating systems even if served with a legitimate warrant. This has created tension with U.S. law enforcement officials, who warn that this could allow cybercriminals or terrorists to “go dark.” The officials have urged technology companies to build into their products ways for the government to intercept encrypted communications.

But cybersecurity experts have criticized this approach, saying that such “lawful intercept” technology can’t be implemented without fundamentally undermining how encryption works — adding complexity into the code that multiplies risks and gives hackers yet another target to attack.

The debate sparked a heated exchange between NSA Director Mike Rogers and Yahoo’s information security chief officer, Alex Stamos, at a cybersecurity conference Monday. “It’s like drilling a hole in the windshield,” Stamos said.

Clinton’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, oversaw an earlier round of the encryption debate, during the 1990s — commonly known as the “cryptowars.” As part of the cryptowars, the government promoted the use of NSA technology called the “clipper chip” to provide intercept capabilities for encrypted phone calls. But researchers discovered vulnerabilities in the design that could be exploited, leaving those calls insecure against others hoping to eavesdrop.

“We had this fight almost 20 years ago, and we thought we’d answered the question — that the benefits of strong encryption outweigh the needs for tap-ability,” Alan Davidson, vice president and director of New America’s Open Technology Institute, said in an interview Monday after the exchange between Rogers and Stamos.

But political leaders appear to be re-hashing the same debate in search of a compromise solution that technical experts say does not exist.

“Everybody in Washington loves the notion of a middle ground, but the solution people are looking for just doesn’t exist,” Davidson said. “You can’t build a strong encryption system with guaranteed tap-ability.”

Clinton seems completely incapable of grasping that a compromise is not possible: encryption either does not allow third parties to decrypt the message, or (if it does) then the message is not really encrypted. What Clinton wants is some sort of encryption scheme that can detect whether those trying to break the encryption are “good” (in which case the encryption releases the information) or “bad” (in which case the encryption remains strong). But encryption cannot make those decisions.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 February 2015 at 12:43 pm

Scott Walker as presidential candidate

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John Cassidy has some interesting points about Mr. Walker’s candidacy:

Let’s stipulate up front that Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, is an odious politician whose ascension to the Presidency would be a disaster.

Set aside, for a moment, his repeated refusal, in the past few days, to say whether he believes that President Obama loves America, or whether he believes that the President is a Christian, and look instead at Walker’s record running what used to be one of America’s more progressive states. Having cut taxes for the wealthy and stripped many of Wisconsin’s public-sector unions of their collective-bargaining rights, he is now preparing to sign a legislative bill that would cripple unions in the private sector. Many wealthy conservatives, such as the Koch brothers, who have funneled a lot of money to groups supporting Walker, regard him as someone who’s turning his state into a showcase for what they want the rest of America to look like.

But just how threatening is he? If you’ve been following the political news during the past week, you may well have the impression that he’s stumbling in his campaign for the 2016 G.O.P. nomination. Among the political commentariat, the consensus of opinion is that Walker’s repeated refusal to distance himself from Rudy Giuliani’s incendiary comments about Obama, and his subsequent encounter with the Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Robert Costa, during which he appeared to question Obama’s religious faith and took some shots at the media for asking him silly questions, weren’t merely reprehensible: they were serious gaffes that raised questions about Walker’s political abilities.

It wasn’t just liberal columnists who piled on. In a column at the Daily Beast, Matt Lewis, who also writes for the Daily Caller, said that Walker’s comments raised the question of whether he “might not be ready for prime time on the national stage.” Lewis went on: “Conservatives should be worried that Walker hasn’t proven capable of navigating these land mines.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who is a former G.O.P. congressman, wrote at Politico: “Good candidates know how to make dumb questions look, well, dumb.”

Rather than deflecting the reporters’ queries about Obama’s beliefs, as other Republicans had done, Walker used them to send a none-too-subtle message to Republican voters. His refusal to say whether Obama was a Christian wasn’t merely a shot at a hostile media. As Dana Milbank, of the Washington Post noted, it allowed Walker to “wink and nod at the far-right fringe where people really believe that Obama is a Muslim from Kenya who hates America.” Milbank also wrote that Walker was “refusing to grant his opponent legitimacy as an American and a Christian.”

In a more just world, Walker’s indecent and craven antics would disqualify him from playing any further role in the Presidential race. But in the current political environment, his tactics, far from hurting him, may well bolster a candidacy that is already thriving.

Having cemented his reputation as an economic conservative, Walker is busy making a concerted effort to win over social conservatives and evangelical Christians, some of whom apparently believe that Obama is the Antichrist (or perhaps the Seventh King). Earlier this month, during a trip to London, he refused to say whether he believed in evolution, commenting: “That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in, one way or the other.” In addition to making that hat tip to the Book of Genesis brigade, Walker has been reiterating his opposition to gay marriage and taking a notably harder line on abortion than he did during his gubernatorial reëlection campaign, last year. In a recent meeting with Iowa Republicans, the Times reported earlier this week, he stressed his support for a “personhood amendment” that would define life as beginning at conception and effectively outlaw the termination of pregnancies. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 February 2015 at 10:31 am

Uh-oh: Some revealing details of Clinton finances

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This at the very least looks bad, particularly the money “donated” by Marc Rich’s wife (pretty clearly in exchange for Marc Rich’s pardon by Clinton hours before he left office). Pam Martens and Russ Martens report:

Hillary Clinton, who has yet to be named the Democratic candidate for President in 2016, finds herself enmeshed in a transatlantic scandal that is an untimely reminder of the scandal fatigue that Americans were forced to endure during the Presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton.

Last Monday, the Guardian newspaper, the BBC, the French newspaper, Le Monde and dozens of other news outlets disclosed that the Swiss banking unit of the global behemoth bank, HSBC, had assisted the ultra rich in hiding assets and providing advice on how to evade domestic tax authorities.

The documentation for the revelations were provided by a former HSBC employee, Hervé Falciani, to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

That news broke on Monday, February 9. The Clinton bombshell came the next day, Tuesday, February 10, when the Guardian reported that seven clients of the Swiss HSBC bank had cumulatively donated $81 million to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation – a nonprofit that runs the Clinton Global Initiative, the Clinton Presidential Library and numerous other programs.

The Guardian report was quick to point out that there was no evidence that any of the seven donors had evaded taxes and that it “is not unlawful for US or other non-Swiss citizens to hold accounts in Geneva.”

Two of the donors listed in the leaked files are raising eyebrows. According to the Guardian report, one of the donors who had a Swiss HSBC account is Jeffrey Epstein, “the wealthy financier who was jailed for 13 months in 2008 for soliciting sex with underage girls.”  Another, reports the Guardian, was Denise Rich, the ex-wife of the now deceased Marc Rich, who fled the U.S. after being indicted for tax evasion, fraud and racketeering and then received a highly controversial pardon by President Clinton just hours before he left office.

On the heels of the Guardian’s report last week comes news in the Wall Street Journal this morning that the Clinton Foundation is also accepting donations from foreign governments. One of those countries is Saudi Arabia, the country that has played an outsized role in collapsing the price of oil and putting many U.S. shale producers in financial jeopardy. According to the Journal, Saudi Arabia had donated between $10 and $25 million since 1999 to the Clinton Foundation with a portion of that coming in 2014. The Foundation’s database lists only a dollar range for donations.

Other recent foreign government donors include the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Australia, Germany and the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development agency of Canada, a government agency promoting the Keystone XL pipeline, according to the Journal report. The paper notes that the Clinton Foundation had stopped raising money from foreign governments in 2009 while Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State.

Adding further political intrigue, the New York Times is out with a report this morning indicating that the Geneva prosecutor’s office has released a statement acknowledging that it has opened a criminal inquiry into potential aggravated money laundering at the HSBC Swiss banking unit and is engaged in a search of its offices today.

Related Article:

Hillary and Bill: Their Rugged Journey from Paupers to One-Percenters in 365 Days

The Marc Rich pardon was already quite ugly and suspicious, and to find that it apparently was purchased is very unpleasant.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 February 2015 at 3:46 pm

Legalized Bribery: US politicians are pre-corrupted before they take office

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Zephyr Teachout writes in the NY Times:

LAST Thursday, Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York Assembly for the past 20 years, was arrested and charged with mail and wire fraud, extortion and receiving bribes. According to Preet Bharara, the federal prosecutor who brought the charges, the once seemingly untouchable Mr. Silver took millions of dollars for legal work he did not do. In exchange, he used his official power to steer business to a law firm that specialized in getting tax breaks for real estate developers, and he directed state funds to a doctor who referred cases to another law firm that paid Mr. Silver fees.

Albany is reeling, but fighting the kind of corruption that plagues not only New York State but the whole nation isn’t just about getting cuffs on the right guy. As with the recent conviction of the former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell for receiving improper gifts and loans, a fixation on plain graft misses the more pernicious poison that has entered our system.

Corruption exists when institutions and officials charged with serving the public serve their own ends. Under current law, campaign contributions are illegal if there is an explicit quid pro quo, and legal if there isn’t. But legal campaign contributions can be as bad as bribes in creating obligations. The corruption that hides in plain sight is the real threat to our democracy.

Think of campaign contributions as the gateway drug to bribes. In our private financing system, candidates are trained to respond to campaign cash and serve donors’ interests. Politicians are expected to spend half their time talking to funders and to keep them happy. Given this context, it’s not hard to see how a bribery charge can feel like a technical argument instead of a moral one.

The former governor of New York David A. Paterson, for example, said that he had trouble understanding where the criminality lay in the allegation that Mr. Silver accepted payments from law firms for referrals, including referrals by a doctor to whom Mr. Silver funneled state health research funds. Mr. Paterson said, “in the legal profession, people refer business all the time. And theoretically, as a speaker, you could do that as well.”

The legal shades into the illegal. The real estate developers represented by the law firm that allegedly shuttled payments to Mr. Silver for fake legal services were also major campaign contributors. One developer mentioned in the charges gave more than $10 million to political campaigns in the past decade, including $200,000 to Mr. Silver and his political action committees.

The structure of private campaign finance has essentially pre-corrupted our politicians, so that they can’t even recognize explicit bribery because it feels the same as what they do every day. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 January 2015 at 11:47 am

What David Cameron just proposed would endanger every Briton and destroy the IT industry

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Politicians seem particularly prone to the Dunning-Kruger effect, as David Cameron has illustrated. Cory Doctorow points out how wrong-headed Cameron’s proposal is:

David Cameron says there should be no “means of communication” which “we cannot read” — and no doubt many in his party will agree with him, politically. But if they understood the technology, they would be shocked to their boots.

What David Cameron thinks he’s saying is, “We will command all the software creators we can reach to introduce back-doors into their tools for us.” There are enormous problems with this: there’s no back door that only lets good guys go through it. If your Whatsapp or Google Hangouts has a deliberately introduced flaw in it, then foreign spies, criminals, crooked police (like those who fed sensitive information to the tabloids who were implicated in the hacking scandal — and like the high-level police who secretly worked for organised crime for years), and criminals will eventually discover this vulnerability. They — and not just the security services — will be able to use it to intercept all of our communications. That includes things like the pictures of your kids in your bath that you send to your parents to the trade secrets you send to your co-workers.

But this is just for starters. David Cameron doesn’t understand technology very well, so he doesn’t actually know what he’s asking for.

For David Cameron’s proposal to work, he will need to stop Britons from installing software that comes from software creators who are out of his jurisdiction. The very best in secure communications are already free/open source projects, maintained by thousands of independent programmers around the world. They are widely available, and thanks to things like cryptographic signing, it is possible to download these packages from any server in the world (not just big ones like Github) and verify, with a very high degree of confidence, that the software you’ve downloaded hasn’t been tampered with.

Cameron is not alone here. The regime he proposes is already in place in countries like Syria, Russia, and Iran (for the record, none of these countries have had much luck with it). There are two means by which authoritarian governments have attempted to restrict the use of secure technology: by network filtering and by technology mandates.

David Cameron has already shown that he believes he can order the nation’s ISPs to block access to certain websites (again, for the record, this hasn’t worked very well). The next step is to order Chinese-style filtering using deep packet inspection, to try and distinguish traffic and block forbidden programs. This is a formidable technical challenge. Intrinsic to core Internet protocols like IPv4/6, TCP and UDP is the potential to “tunnel” one protocol inside another. This makes the project of figuring out whether a given packet is on the white-list or the black-list transcendentally hard, especially if you want to minimise the number of “good” sessions you accidentally blackhole.

More ambitious is a mandate over which code operating systems in the UK are allowed to execute. This is very hard indeed. We do have, in Apple’s Ios platform and various games consoles, a regime where a single company uses countermeasures to ensure that only software it has blessed can run on the devices it sells to us. These companies could, indeed, be compelled (by an act of Parliament) to block secure software. Even there, you’d have to contend with the fact that other EU states and countries like the USA are unlikely to follow suit, and that means that anyone who bought her Iphone in Paris or New York could come to the UK with all their secure software intact and send messages “we cannot read.”

But there is the problem of more open platforms, like GNU/Linux variants, BSD and other unixes, Mac OS X, and all the non-mobile versions of Windows. All of these operating systems are already designed to allow users to execute any code they want to run. The commercial operators — Apple and Microsoft — might conceivably be compelled by Parliament to change their operating systems to block secure software in the future, but that doesn’t do anything to stop people from using all the PCs now in existence to run code that the PM wants to ban.

More difficult is the world of free/open operating systems like GNU/Linux and BSD. These operating systems are the gold standard for servers, and widely used on desktop computers (especially by the engineers and administrators who run the nation’s IT). There is no legal or technical mechanism by which code that is designed to be modified by its users can co-exist with a rule that says that code must treat its users as adversaries and seek to prevent them from running prohibited code.

This, then, is what David Cameron is proposing:

* All Britons’ communications must be easy for criminals, voyeurs and foreign spies to intercept

* Any firms within reach of the UK government must be banned from producing secure software

* All major code repositories, such as Github and Sourceforge, must be blocked

* Search engines must not answer queries about web-pages that carry secure software

* Virtually all academic security work in the UK must cease — security research must only take place in proprietary research environments where there is no onus to publish one’s findings, such as industry R&D and the security services

* All packets in and out of the country, and within the country, must be subject to Chinese-style deep-packet inspection and any packets that appear to originate from secure software must be dropped

* Existing walled gardens (like Ios and games consoles) must be ordered to ban their users from installing secure software

* Anyone visiting the country from abroad must have their smartphones held at the border until they leave

* Proprietary operating system vendors (Microsoft and Apple) must be ordered to redesign their operating systems as walled gardens that only allow users to run software from an app store, which will not sell or give secure software to Britons

* Free/open source operating systems — that power the energy, banking, ecommerce, and infrastructure sectors — must be banned outright

David Cameron will say . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 January 2015 at 12:30 pm

Kirby Delauter: A name to reckon with, says Kirby Delauter

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Kirby Delauter must be the only elected official in the country who does not want his name used in the media. Read this NPR story: extremely funny. Kirby Delauter seems to have zero grasp of Constitutional rights, the law, common practices, and doubtless much else: such profound ignorance of the way papers use names of elected officials suggest vast swathes of ignorance still to be exposed.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 January 2015 at 9:18 pm

Posted in Media, Politics

A moving tribute to Mario Cuomo, who died today aged 82

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Ken Auletta writes in the New Yorker:

The 1952 Pittsburgh Pirates scouting report on Mario Cuomo in his first year in the minor leagues described him as “potentially the best prospect on the club.” The author noted that the young player “needs instruction” but “could go all the way.”

Cuomo did not go all the way in baseball (he couldn’t hit a curveball). Nor did he go all the way in politics. He chose not to run for President in 1992 because his ambition was superseded by his distaste for the grovelling, the fundraising, the selling, the motels. He did, however, “go all the way” as a public man.

Mario Cuomo had a combination of skills rarely seen in public life. Unlike most pols, he had an active interior life. He spent hours reflecting on events and writing in his diary, not to tout his greatness but to formulate his own thinking. His bookcases were crammed with books he had read and annotated—works by Aristotle, Dante, Marcus Aurelius, and the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin. His ego was in check and, unlike such able contemporaries as Ed Koch and Hugh Carey, he did not treat others in a room as his audience. He had the rare ability to listen, and he could see four sides of an issue. In the early seventies, these talents allowed him to successfully mediate the seemingly unbridgeable Forest Hills housing divide—low-income public housing was moving into an upper-middle-class neighborhood—and in the process develop a citywide identity.

He was incapable of faking conviction and thus ran a terrible campaign for mayor against Ed Koch, in 1977. His heart was not in the race. On the eve of the mayoral runoff between Cuomo and Koch, I wrote a column that appeared on page 3 of the New York Daily News about how, for me, the real conflict in the campaign was not the one between Koch and Cuomo but the one between “Mario Cuomo the man and the reality of his candidacy.” I also noted that, for me, the campaign was about “falling out of love with Mario Cuomo.” Over the years, he told me more than once how that column wounded him. But he never lashed out or personalized it. He had an ability to laugh at himself. I remember him telling me, “I ran a ridiculous campaign, but you’re still an ass!”

When he was elected governor in 1982, I spent five months in Albany reporting a two-part New Yorker Profile of Cuomo. We conducted more than a few interviews around the dining-room table at the mansion. One night, he served a bottle of white wine wrapped in a linen cloth. When I asked about the wine, he responded like a pitchman for his state: “This is New York State’s finest.” I didn’t believe him and unfolded the linen. He watched with a twinkle in his eye as I held up the naked bottle of Corvo from Italy. His gubernatorial staff consisted of heavyweights like the press secretary Tim Russert, but the media narrative was that Cuomo was handicapped by an insular claque led by his son Andrew and his former law-school classmate Fabian Palomino. Yet what I witnessed in the five months I spent profiling Cuomo for this magazine was that Andrew and Palomino, who each called him Mario, confronted him with unpleasant truths that most of his staff often tried to duck.

The time he spent with his books and wrestling with his diary helped lead him to thoughtful, principled positions. He opposed the death penalty and vetoed a bill that would have introduced it in the state. Then he took the time to publicly expound on his position, which was an unpopular one in New York at a moment when crime was rampant. It became a major reason he was defeated for a fourth term as governor. He defied his Catholicism by explaining that while he was personally opposed to abortion he defended a woman’s right to choose. Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor contemplated excommunicating him from the Church.

But my most vivid, and maybe most consequential memory of Mario Cuomo was . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 January 2015 at 8:07 pm

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