Social Media: Destroyer or Creator?

NY Times

Over the last few years we’ve been treated to a number of “Facebook revolutions,” from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the squares of Istanbul, Kiev and Hong Kong, all fueled by social media. But once the smoke cleared, most of these revolutions failed to build any sustainable new political order, in part because as so many voices got amplified, consensus-building became impossible.

Question: Does it turn out that social media is better at breaking things than at making things?

Recently, an important voice answered this question with a big “ yes.” That voice was Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google employee whose anonymous Facebook page helped to launch the Tahrir Square revolution in early 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak — but then failed to give birth to a true democratic alternative.
I am also reading Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up. An excellent discussion of the subject.

The Times article is shorter, more succinct, and more personal.


The Dark Net

NY Review – In the Depths of the Net

I had a friend once who completely freaked out over this. She thought it was out to kill her – and extreme measures (by the NHS, perhaps) were appropriate in order to save her life.

Here is what this article says:

To reach a dark-Net address, one must log onto one of the small number of Web browsers that conceal both identity and location, the most popular of which is called Tor. Developed by the United States Naval Research Laboratory to provide a safe way for dissidents in repressive regimes to communicate online, Tor continues to be funded in part by the US government through the National Science Foundation, as well as by a number of civil liberties organizations. Built on top of the Firefox Web browser, anyone, anywhere, can download the Tor browser and use it to navigate the entire Internet—the surface, the deep, and the dark Web—and do so leaving no trace. As Andrew Lewman, the executive director of the Tor Project, described it to the BBC last year:

The Tor Network is a network of about 6,000 relays, which are servers spread around 89 countries or so. And what we do is relay your traffic through three of these relays in sort of a random order, so that where you are in the world is different to where you appear to come from. So you know you are sitting here in the UK, you start up the Tor browser. You could pop out from Japan, Argentina, the United States.

In addition to the Tor browser, Tor also runs something called Tor Hidden Services, which essentially scrambles the address of a website, to make it undetectable. To connect to a hidden service, users are sent to a “rendezvous” point somewhere else on the Internet, and in so doing neither they, nor the site they are seeking, knows the other’s network identity. This works fine when the user knows how to direct the computer to the site with which to rendezvous, but given the proliferation of sites using Tor Hidden Services—Bartlett estimates that there are 40,000–60,000 of them—their fluidity, and their typically obscure addresses containing digits and letters, they can be hard to find.

This is technical, but easy enough for anyone determined to buy illegal drugs online to use. Drugs, any drugs, should be sold openly online – which would make it easier to track them, and subject their users to appropriate restrictions – such as driving while under their influence – as is done now with Alcohol – another dangerous drug that kills millions.

I would also favor updating the Internet to make anonymous usage illegal. But many people would scream bloody-murder about this – as curtailing their liberties!

Computer Security in the CIA and FBI

I have just listened to The Spy’s Son: The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia – and I came away appalled with the security there – of all places!

This spy was successful at stealing secrets because this was so easy for him. All he had to do was browse through the CIA files until he found some the Russians were interested in – and copy them down. He was working at the CIA headquarters at the time – which has excellent physical security, but little computer security.

This information should have been compartmentalized – only certain people (who had the proper need to know) should have had access to it. And a record should have been kept of who accessed what.

This is nothing new – just basic computer science.

What has the CIA and FBI done? They just threw the guy in jail – after the damage was done. And carefully hidden their own complicity.

Cyber-snooping is done by everyone – and everyone should be protected against it. But many government agencies are not. I am not exposing anything new here – all this has been known for some time.

And carefully swept under the rug for some time – at least ten years. Forever in computer time.

No One Wants Computer Security

I hope someone proves me wrong about this – but I cannot imagine who it would be. The computer companies, the software companies in particular, who should be vitally interested in this – are only interested in it sometimes. I’m sure they are people in these companies, and other people in the computer ecosystem who are interested in it.

Bruce Schneier certainly comes to mind – and his many writings – including his latest, Data and Goliath – explain the situation well. Scanning through my Kindle library, I also found Consent of the Networked – also on this subject, but almost forgotten in my library. For some reason, I never read either of these books for very long. And here I am complaining about computer security!

What brought the issue to the foreground for me – was finding a software program to protect my personal computer against viruses. I know they are out there, and they are nasty – and I needed something to protect my computer from them.

I found AVG, who had a program for free! I installed it, but gradually realized I had been sucked into a bait-and-switch operation. The thing that alerted me to this, was their sale to me of another program – Bitdefender – which I absolutely had to have, they said. So I bought it from them. But then realized they had installed behind their firewall, and was using it for their purposes – not mine.

The technical details of how this was done I never comprehended – but their motivation became clear to me. They were screwing me over – to use polite language. And getting away with it – not an unusual situation in computer marketing, believe me. There is lots of money there, and it has attracted con artists from all over the world.

I was able to contact Bitdefender directly, and tell them what was going on (at first, they would not believe me). But eventually they showed me how to uninstall AVG (a long process) and install Bitdefender directly. Which seems to be working fine – although I am not entirely comfortable with their marketing. They don’t explain what they are doing very well.

This has been a long story – and I am afraid it has obscured my original subject – Computer Security in general. Why is no one protecting the users here – who are spread all over the globe?

The answer is simple – the big players, the governments of the world (most notably, China) – and the big computer companies – do not want to protect their users! Being able to circumvent computer security – which is done on a massive scale – makes them more powerful – and the users less powerful.

This is part of a larger trend – making organizations stronger, and individuals weaker. This is not a reversion to the Middle Ages, and its rule of power – but is something close to that.

The Agency

NY Times

I subscribe to the Times, it doesn’t cost much, about $15 month – but that helps pay for some excellent reporting.

This article will no doubt cause many readers to complain that it is too complicated! And indeed it is, but that is part of being on the Net. If you are going to live there – like me, you gotta put some work into understanding it.

I usually add some drop-quotes into articles about articles I get from the Net. But to do the original justice, I would have to have too many of them.

Put the Times article in a tab of its own, and read it whenever you are in the mood.

Prison for Life for Dealing Drugs


This article triggered an imaginary conversation in my head, with one of my acquaintances down here, a born-again Christian.

Me: did you hear about an American who got a lifetime sentence for dealing drugs?
Her: Good!
Me: Wasn’t the sentence excessive?
Her: Not at all. It will be hard on him, of course, but it has to be, to send a strong message to anyone else who wants to do this.

In reality, this would have ended the conversation, and she would have driven off before taking it any further. But since this is an imaginary conversation, I will let it continue.

Me: Why is this such a big deal? Are dealing drugs such a problem?
Her: The problem is doing things you are not supposed to do – and this has to be dealt with severely.
Me: Why?
Her: Because this kind of thing has to be stopped.
Me: But severe penalties do not stop drug dealing.
Her: But they should! And this is the point – not what they actually do, but what they should do. We can’t change what really goes on – but we sure as hell can control what should be going on. And if they break the rules, they go to jail – for a long time. That will teach them a lesson they won’t soon forget.

There would be no point in trying to continue this conversation. She has her opinion, and it is set in stone – and heaven’s help anyone who tries to change it.

But I can’t help thinking that something more fundamental is at work here – punishing anyone who is different. People cannot be allowed to do their own thing – but have to do the right thing instead. And no deviation can be tolerated.

But something else is involved here – the Dark Net, which freaks some people out at the mere mention of it. This is someplace where things go on that no one else can know about. Horrifying!

Personally (as someone who knows a thing or two about the Net) I was intrigued – what was this? This article explains that it is nothing but a part of the Net that is password-protected (there are lots of places like this) – with some encryption thrown into the mix.

But the idea of encryption also upsets people – in their opinion, nothing should be secret from the Authorities (spelled with a capital A). Which of course includes them!

In this case, the authorities (various incarnations of Homeland Security) spent a fortune prosecuting one hapless criminal who didn’t know what he was doing. And now they will spend another fortune keeping him in jail for the rest of his life.

And everyone on the winning side feels great about this. The losers, of course, will never be heard from. But they will still be there – you can be sure of that.

If there is money to be made the easy way – they want to be in on the take. Just like any businessmen.

A Strong Sense of the Ridiculous

You have to have this to survive in today’s ridiculous world – which is loaded with BS of all kinds.

In my childhood, our family was part of a small church that was the most wonderful thing in the world. And the rest of the community indulged us in this fantasy. They had similar grandiose fantasies – and there was plenty of room for one more.

We had no idea that these expectations would not last very long. I got to witness the disappearance of the American Dream in my lifetime. An astonishing event only exceeded by the disappearance of the Americans themselves.

I want to stress the obvious – the America of the Fifties is no more. Americans are determined to ignore this – but they do so at their peril. A people with no past is not a people at all. Which is what Americans want to be – nothing. But at the same time they feel they are everything – as they fade into history.

But a small part of them will be left, thriving – and building a new world of their own – on the Web – a world they have made for themselves. But only a small part of them. Which is a good thing – because there is far too many of them now. One way or the other – they will have to go. And they are not likely to go quietly into that night. But by killing each other off at sustained historical rates.

I am fortunate, I live in a small town in Costa Rica remote from the killing fields – but with high-speed Internet access.

I am studying War – in a MOOC from Princeton, and in a book War! What Is It Good For? All of which I get from the Internet.

And one thing more Born with Teeth – an Audible memoir by the actress (and gifted writer) Kate Mulgrew. I have very mixed feelings about how this gal has messed up her life – but I have not done much better with my own.