Category Archives: Technology

Weakening Encryption: The China Problem

By now, you’ve heard that the FBI has asked Apple to help break into the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists. USA Today describes the specific request:

Right now, iPhone users have the option to set a security feature that only allows a certain number of tries to guess the correct passcode to unlock the phone before all the data on the iPhone is deleted. It’s a security measure Apple put in place to keep important data out of the wrong hands.

Federal prosecutors looking for more information behind the San Bernardino shootings don’t know the phone’s passcode. If they guess incorrectly too many times, the data they hope to find will be deleted.

That’s why the FBI wants Apple to disable the security feature. Once the security is crippled, agents would be able to guess as many combinations as possible.

Suppose Apple can do this. Suppose that the courts, up to and including the Supreme Court find that they must.

At that point, every device maker who wants to sell a device in the US would have to build this weakening capability into their products.

Putting aside the obvious fact that this capability will be reverse engineered by the wrong people, the impact of this decision on the rest of the world (and Americans abroad) has not received the attention it should.

Nothing stops other countries from presenting similar demands under their own laws. In the case of liberal democracies, the harm to the innocent would be limited. Repressive regimes, though, would quickly utilize this new capability.

Imagine a case in which China got hold of the iPhone of a US citizen at the border about whom it was suspicious. It could present the phone to Apple to decrypt under Chinese law.

Why pick China for this example? While a company might be able to tell of Iran, Venezuela, or even Russia, China is an integral part of the global technology supply chain. They are uniquely positioned to exert leverage in the technology sector where other repressive regimes are not.

The only thing preventing China from using its leverage today is the mathematical impossibility of cracking the encryption. Take that out of the picture, and things get interesting for device makers.

Why pick a US citizen? This one is more interesting. The US government (and states and localities) have multiple ways to digitally spy on their citizens. They can capture traffic on American internet connections. They can subpoena information from cell phone carries and ISPs under the third party doctrine.

Foreign governments don’t have access to any of these. While the US does share intelligence with friendly government, repressive regimes such as China are left out in the cold. Capturing the device of an American is one of the few possible ways for a repressive regime to get at the info.

By demanding that Apple weaken security around its encryption, the FBI will be handing China an entirely new ability to compromise the security of American citizens while only marginally increasing its own reach. Considering that China has been expanding its hunt for dissidents to other countries, the last thing that the US government should consider doing is making Americans with smartphones more attractive targets.

Cruz Ad: ‘Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Clinton’

I’m by no means a Ted Cruz supporter but damn this is clever. If you think you have seen something like this before, this is a parody of that wonderful scene from the movie Office Space.

Hat Tip: The Blaze

The Social Media Revolution–An American Spring?

"Television". Photo. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

Regular readers know that I–an irregular contributor here–have long said that the power of the internet is as-yet poorly understood and mostly untapped. Sure, we’ve seen the Arab Spring, but what is the internet really going to do in America beyond providing us endless hours of cat videos?

Well, Scott Adams [of Dilbert fame] suggests that it’s broken down our electoral politics and is turning us into a direct democracy:

The media has led you to believe that this is a presidential contest between Democrats and Republicans. But Sanders is barely a real Democrat and Trump is barely a conservative Republican. If Bloomberg jumps into the race, we will have three candidates with ambiguous party affiliations. So maybe there is a more helpful way to frame this contest.

Naval Ravikant calls it The American Spring, and points out that social media has become the real conduit to power. That’s a revolution. We the People are on the brink of replacing the entrenched powers and their monied interests. If the patriots in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other early primary states put both Sanders and Trump in commanding leads, they will be – in effect – firing the government. But they would also be firing the system of government that was created by the Founders. Direct democracy via social media – chaotic and ugly – is about to replace the Republic. No longer can a strong leader ignore the will of the people when it is pounding on every door and tapping on every window. The Republic was designed to give elected officials the power to decide for the people. But the elected elites have lost their legitimacy and The People are on the brink of taking back power.

I’ve said before that technology has led America to an increasingly centralized society, culture, and government.

  1. The printing press itself was the first step in creating durable broadsheet dissemination of information to a wide audience. The pen is mightier than the sword, but owning a printing press is like being the general of an army of penmen.
  2. Newspapers have followed an overwhelming consolidation and much of their news-gathering is centralized via the AP. And they had real power, because you “never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.
  3. The introduction of radio enabled a true real-time broadcast to allow single voices to reach much more widely than ever before.
  4. TV came along, and video truly killed the radio star. Because of the expense, consolidation into the “big 3” networks meant that the largest corporations could filter and control the presentation of information to the masses.

"Television". Photo. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

“Television”. Photo. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

Each step increased the flow of information. But each step also drove the control of which information would flow into a narrower and narrower group of people. But technology marches on, and the filters of broadcast media are increasingly being sidestepped, democratized, and subsumed. It started with Cable, as the cost of getting into the television business dropped dramatically, and the appearance of the 24-hour cable news station widened the number of voices in the market. But nothing has come close to becoming relevant as quickly as the internet and social media. We now see major news productions no longer driving the reporting, but rather highlighting the tweets of feet on the ground. And Presidential primary political debates are taking questions from YouTube “stars”.

The internet has been around the “mainstream” less than 20 years now… Since then, it’s basically broken or fundamentally changed multiple business models in all sorts of industries, as any unemployed former travel agent will tell you. Politically, by 2004, blogs had changed the political landscape enough to give us Rathergate. But 2004–a mere 12 years ago–only brought us the first inklings of the social media future with MySpace. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, all of these hadn’t even been invented yet. Essentially the “modern” social media landscape was built in ~2006, with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and integrated with the “computer in a pocket”, the iPhone and Android devices, over the following few years. We’ve been living with it for only a decade.
The first decade of television was exciting, but raw. Everyone could tell that this was something new, and something important. Much like they can tell with the internet and social media now. It created new stars and obsoleted many former ones. It changed the world of politics. Much like internet and social media has done since. And now, as streaming video is replacing broadcast video for more and more households, and with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu becoming production companies in their own right, the traditional hold of the TV networks is breaking with it.

The “out of the blue” appearance of Ron Paul and now Bernie Sanders? Voices who have spent decades with no “mainstream” platform are now finding their audience. The growth of “outsider, anti-establishment” candidates gaining real traction? This is due to media conglomerates no longer being able to control the message and marginalize them. These candidates, rightly or wrongly, stand in stark contrast to the politicians who have been screwing us over for years while growing their own power. And can you imagine the quick changes in public opinion on the gay marriage, medical/recreational marijuana legalization fights, and civil liberties issues without a democratized communication platform like the internet? And the internet is not only domestic–it’s making these changes on a global scale.

So, what is the point? Well, it remains to be seen. We are witnessing the greatest social transformation the world has seen since at least the invention of television, but probably since the creation of “mass media” at all. We’re seeing the replacement of “broadcasting” with “narrowcasting”, or “sidecasting”, or “targetedcasting”, or “peercasting” or whatever you want to name it. But the fact is that information no longer only flows downhill from the powerful to the rest of us. Now, while each of us may individually be no more powerful than we ever once were, all of us are collectively more powerful than any individual media magnate or opinion-maker on the globe. While much of Scott Adams post goes into suggesting an idea that I don’t think will ever come to pass, the question of demolishing our system of government is well under way, whether the visible structures of government change or not.

Is this a good thing? Will it advance liberty? I’m not sure. But it’s certainly different, and the world–be it politicians, media folks, leaders of industry, etc–hasn’t quite figured out the implications of that yet.

Today’s Nasdaq Illustrates the Phenomenon of Creative Destruction

Those of you who are old enough to remember the dot com bubble bursting some 15 years ago might also remember the handwringing about how Microsoft was becoming a monopoly. Microsoft was the juggernaut that could only be taken down with antitrust suits by the federal government. Other companies simply could not compete with such a well-established corporation; the free market was inadequate.

Fast forward to where Microsoft stands today. The once seemingly invincible company has succumbed to the realities of competition and now finds itself in third place on the Nasdaq index.

James B. Stewart writing for The New York Times explains:

The Nasdaq composite that peaked at 5,048.62 on March 10, 2000, in what turned out to be the height of the technology bubble, bears little resemblance to today’s Nasdaq index. Of the top 20 Nasdaq companies by market capitalization in 2000, only four — Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Intel and Qualcomm — remain in the top 20 today. Eight no longer exist as independent companies, most as a result of bankruptcy or acquisition, and several are shadows of their former selves. The current Nasdaq composite index has only about half as many companies as it did in 2000.

“Joseph Schumpeter was spot on when he said capitalism is all about creative destruction,” said Richard Sylla, an economics professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and a specialist in the history of markets, referring to the Austrian-American economist who described the phenomenon in 1942 in “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.”

In the intervening 15 years, a new generation of entrepreneurs, newly public companies and entire industries have emerged and seized the dominant positions in the Nasdaq index even as their predecessors faltered. Apple, now the world’s largest company by market capitalization, barely registered in 2000, and the first iPhone was not announced until 2007. Over a billion smartphones were shipped in 2014.

The chart below which accompanies the article illustrates this creative destruction of the past decade and a half quite clearly.

What this tells me is that no matter how large these corporations get, they cannot rest on their laurels. They cannot assume that just because consumers like their product(s) more than the competition today that the same will be true tomorrow. How many people use Myspace today as opposed to Facebook?

It’s the creative destruction of the free market – not additional regulations which ultimately allow consumers to have more choices.

Stop Calling Government Regulation of the Internet “Net Neutrality”

fcc-net-neutrality-voteImage from the FCC by way of Ars Technica

Stop using “net neutrality” to refer to government regulation of the internet.

That’s not what net neutrality is, and it’s certainly not what the government regulations promulgated by the FCC today are, in this case “Common Carrier” Rules.

People who don’t know any better are celebrating todays faux “net neutrality” FCC action as a victory for freedom and free speech on the internet, when in fact, it’s exactly the opposite.

I’ve written extensively about net neutrality and this is very much NOT it.

All the FCC has done today, is impose common carrier regulation on every ISP (oh and by the way, lots of other organizations as well who “provide internet access”. No-one has any idea how the regulations are going to be finalized, what the language will mean, who will be impacted and how… except everyone knows it’s going to cost a lot), instead of just the telephone companies it was already imposed on. Verizon for example, who was already one of the worst violators of net neutrality, even with common carrier regulation already in place for them.

Thus it makes competition and breaking of existing monopolies even harder, while not actually doing a damn thing to secure or improve neutrality… oh and it gives the FCC more control over the internet.

Absolutely none of those are good things.

Common carrier regulation is a big part of what made the current near monopolies on Internet access happen in the first place, because small independent companies, and even large regionals, couldn’t compete with the giant telcom conglomerates under those regulations. So, they all got swallowed up.

I’ve been working with telecommunications companies, and common carrier regulations, for more than 20 years. I’m an expert in governance and regulatory compliance, and I can tell you right now, NOBODY understands these regulations, because they are not capable of being understood.

These regulations and the rulings and case law associated with them go back to 1930s… and in some particulars all the way back to the 1870s. And of course, rather than replace them with something clear when they wanted to make new regulations, congress and the FCC just amended and added on and countermanded and…

I’ve flowcharted them before to try to see what applied how and where and when… the only thing I could come up with was “nobody knows for sure, it all depends what a regulator or judge says at the time”.

This wasn’t a blow for freedom and free speech… This was a giveaway to big corporate donors in the telecommunications industry.

The big telcos have been trying to get their primary competition, non-telco ISPs, burdened with the same regulatory load they labor under, for DECADES. Now, in one stroke, the FCC at the personal direction of the president, has given it to them.

Oh and guess what else common carrier regulation includes… SURVEILLANCE.

All common carriers are required to provide the government and law enforcement “reasonable access” for surveillance, as well as to give up records, usage details, and other subscriber and user data, WITHOUT A WARRANT.

What does “reasonable access” mean? Whatever the government says it means… and if you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. I’ve dealt with the FBI on this issue, and that’s a direct quote.

Yes, this is not only a massive corporate crony handout, it’s also a huge gimme to the FBI and the NSA, who have wanted all ISPs stuck under common carrier for years as well.

Stop calling government regulation of the internet “net neutrality”. Letting the liars control the language helps them lie to you.

Net neutrality is not government regulation, and these regulations are certainly not net neutrality, nor anything like it. Don’t be taken in by fraud, cronyism, and statism, masquerading as freedom.

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

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