Monthly Archives: November 2016

Reading Schneier

Reading Bruce Schneier’s first post-election post, Election Security it was interesting how we had come to essentially the opposite conclusions about the US election being hacked. This is because he took a very narrow definition of the word ‘hacked’ to focus exclusively on known, reported events or suspicions about the integrity of electronic voting machines. I took a broader view, where I took into account the hack involved considerable social engineering, attempts to limit voter access and public misinformation.

In the wake of what has happened and will happen here(leaving aside some of the darker prognostications), it simply does not make sense to look at the election in such narrow terms. I felt a certain quaintness reading this essay. From the misplaced confidence in systems that are obviously broken, to the final conclusion:

We need to have these conversations before something happens, when everyone can be calm and rational about the issues.

The problem is something DID just happen, and people are clearly not calm and rational. I know calmness and rationality are matters of degree, and things can clearly get worse, but it seems to me we are already having the public reaction that Schneier so fears if we were to have a publicly exposed technical hack of election machines. Why? Because the public, or most of it anyway, understands that this was a hack. They know what happened was wrong, and our system was gamed and played on a level that can only be adequately described as a hack.

Which systems are broken? Political opinion polling is broken. It did not work in this presidential election. Political opinion polling is largely how you are able to determine if electronic voting systems are hacked. If you do not have good polling data, you have lost one of your main tools for determining if voting machines are producing inaccurate results. So, I see it as kind of quaint to even think you would be able to determine this. In fact, the historically most accurate polls, exit polls, indicate precisely that there was indeed fraud, and the election was indeed stolen in the swing states where it mattered. This is described by Greg Palast here.

So, do I agree with the general thrust of Schneier’s post that we need more and better security policies around electronic voting? Well, no, I don’t. I don’t think electronic voting is viable in our democracy at this time. There is just too little trust. Bits are too easy to change, too easy to copy or surreptitiously alter. To have confidence in your bits, you must have confidence in your institutions. When your institutions fail you, your bits may fail you too. Throughout our history, we’ve always had the physical goods, the paper ballots, as cumbersome, antiquated and unwieldy as they were. It turns out these properties are exactly what make them good. Paper ballots are easy to verify, easy to recount. When you have paper ballots, you can have confidence in your results and they are provable.

To so many people, what our software does in contrast is magic. People in general don’t understand how it works, and our legislators who are permitting the proliferation of software-controlled-elections don’t understand it either. So Bruce, the horse has turned into a car and left the barn, and I see you back there talking about how we can improve the saddle.

 

Hacked

I have not written here in over two years. I am not so focused on strictly defined intelligence issues so much these days, but I’m tired of posting on facebook and felt it would be good to collect my thoughts on the US Election and its implications for privacy and security.

The appropriate metaphor for what just happened in the US election is it was hacked. Allow me to explain. First, the context. For years, republican-linked right-wing media have been vilifying, attacking and misrepresenting President Obama and Hillary Clinton. This has been a targeted and dishonest years long attack whose sole purpose has been to discredit the President and the Democrats. It has in large part brought us to this moment.

On a longer arc of history, the Democratic Party itself has been transformed. From losing the Southern white working class in the 60’s after embracing civil rights to Hillary Clinton’s attempt to unify diverse groups under the corporate Democratic banner, the party lost its way, and lost its purpose. Where the party could once credibly claim to be the party of working people, now most people recognize it is something else. As the Republican Party descended into obstructionism, climate denial, anti-abortion fanaticism and voter suppression, Corporate America largely hitched its wagon to the Democratic Party. When Bernie Sanders, a populist on the left came along, his campaign was rebuffed and sabotaged by party insiders who had predetermined that Clinton would be their candidate.

But 2016 has been a different year in politics. It is the culmination of these trends outlined above, and the mood among much of the electorate was decidedly anti-establishment. This anger was channeled by candidates Sanders and Trump. Sanders came with concrete plans to as he put it, remove the undue influence of the ‘billionaire’ class from our politics. Trump, while he also channeled this anger, pointed the finger in different directions and offered different, largely bogus, solutions. Trump hitched his wagon to the ‘white’ working class, blaming its problems on immigrants and international trade. On international trade, Trump’s statements and positions have been in alignment with progressive economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, both agreeing NAFTA and TPP are not in the interests of American workers. On the other hand, blaming immigrants for the problems of the white working class ignores that it is employers who are bringing in the immigrants because they feel they are needed.

But this ignores the larger point that immigration and international trade are not the core mechanism of destroying jobs that Trump describes. A much larger role goes to technology. Along with climate change, the core process that is transforming our world is the evolution of technology and the worldwide codebase that runs it. AI and robotic systems are surpassing human capabilities at an increasing rate. As noted by Martin Ford in Rise of The Robots, this is taking all of our jobs. Bye-bye, all gone. Not because of immigrants, not because of international trade, but because of individual decisions made every day by every business to improve the efficiency of their process. We need to start planning for a world where humans are no longer necessary for the functioning of capitalism. It is worthy of note that these two core processes that are transforming our world and the all but certain prognostication that they will massively disrupt our society were not even discussed in the Presidential debates, and were hardly an issue in the election. Because to discuss that means talking about the real problems that are within the fundamental nature and structure of our society. Instead, we have been deceived into pointing the finger at the outsider, the Other.

So, in this context, Donald Trump says he understands the pain people are feeling, but rather than explaining what is really transforming people’s lives, he takes the traditional nationalist approach of just blaming it all on foreigners. In a country that in many ways still leads the world and remains a magnet to people seeking to improve their lives all around the world, this is a dangerous and risky strategy where he is pitting the ‘white’ working class¬† against their fellow workers who are immigrants, or a different ethnic group. The KKK thinks this is good enough for them and has whole-heartedly supported the Trump campaign.

Another thing that was happening leading up to 2016 were intensive and successful Republican efforts to rig the election, a turn of phrase interestingly used by the candidate who was its prime beneficiary. This has been documented extensively by Ari Berman of The Nation.

A couple of other unique twists in the 2016 election were having a candidate with a large recognition factor from his appearance on a reality TV show, a new elite belief in the power of big data, and the difficulties of traditional political polling as people moved from landlines to exclusive cellphone use.

We all know what happened next. The polls, which stubbornly predicted a massive Clinton victory were dead wrong. They had been gamed. I’m assuming Trump supporters, like Brexit supporters, who saw pollsters and polling itself as one of the scientific, elitist methods of control that they wanted to crush and discredit, simply lied to pollsters to mess them up. At a time when political elites were increasingly relying on big data, there have been others equally engaged in polluting that data, seeing that correctly as a key to undermining elite control for a moment. So, why did these white working class voters see Trump as their man? While racists, bigots,¬† misogynists, Hillary haters and people who will vote Republican no matter what were all for Trump, there were a couple of other distinct constituencies. There were, as Michael Moore has described, people who just wanted to “blow up the system”, and there was our good friend polling showing Trump supporters saying issues of immigration and terrorism were on their minds and figured prominently in their support of the candidate.

We’ve already discussed how the immigration issue was a red herring to paper over and disguise the real issue of technological change. On the issue of terrorism, we don’t have much to go on, as Trump has been somewhat short on actual policy positions. But statements by the candidate along the lines of carpet-bombing, killing the families of terrorists, and seizing Iraqi oil suggest Trump has a deeply flawed and inaccurate view of the problem and is absolutely certain to exacerbate it, creating more blow-back and terrorism his wake. One theme of the Trump campaign was that he had a big plan to get rid of Isis. We just found out he didn’t have any plan, and I suspect that’s true of much of what Trump has said.

He just made stuff up to please the crowd. I think in his mind it’s called closing the deal. But like his deals that have resulted in previous bankruptcies, Trump does not appear to have thought out the consequences of this deal. This time he won’t have the bankruptcy court to bail him out and shield him from the aggrieved parties.

Trump has unleashed some dark forces in this country. When questioned about how they could vote for a man “who would do that” Trump supporters reply, “oh he wouldn’t do that”. But he will have to try to do some of the things he has promised.

It’s all good for Trump if he keeps all these balls in the air by keeping everyone guessing. But once he has the opportunity to deliver, there are going to be many aggrieved and disappointed parties. He will face huge public opposition to most of his signature proposals and they are so ill-conceived and dysfunctional it’s hard to imagine the mere attempt. But over time, as he is shown to not be a superhero and is unable to achieve the things he has promised, his supporters will start peeling off. There will be an historical reckoning where people will realize they have been conned. I call it hacked. Trump and his supporters have hacked our system. This essay is just one small attempt to start understanding how this happened and what it means.

As the con is slowly revealed to all, many will just continue to point the finger at the other – the democrats, immigrants, foreigners, terrorists, but many will also see it nakedly for what it was. They will be mad. Well, they were already mad, so let’s just say they’ll be super mad. This will put Trump down to a fairly small core of support as his cabinet of traditional right-wing Republicans will predictably act as they always have. A large percentage of Trump supporters will understand they got snookered. They thought they were voting against the traditional Republican establishment, but they were actually voting for it. The forces that will be arrayed against Trump at this point will be substantial, likely the vast majority of the population.

This is where things get really dangerous. As things spiral out of control with a group in charge that is in fundamental denial of reality, and a leader at the top with no appreciation for, or understanding of the traditional restraints that have governed our politics, it is hard to say what might happen. But abuse of the pervasive system of surveillance we have set up in this country appears a likely outcome.

When I wrote previous blog posts here in the wake of the Snowden revelations, one expert after another reassured us that even though these were the very powers that would enable dictatorship in this country, we have always had presidents well steeped in our democratic traditions who would know not to cross that line. The question I ask all of you, is do you think Trump will know not to cross that line?

I know this blog has been monitored because of my alignment with Ed Snowden and criticisms of NSA. Now I reach out to you my friends at NSA, we are in a different world now. We are all brothers and sisters, we are all in this together. We are one country and one people. Right now. I urge you to review your history of Germany in the 1920’s and ask yourself what role you see for you in our country going forward? How will your children remember you? What do you really believe in? These will be times that will test us all.

I will close by saying my father, a veteran of US Navy, passed away a few years ago, and I am literally shaking and crying as I type these words and think of how the memory and legacy of my father, who fought against fascism in the 1940’s, is dishonored by the fact that we have apparently allowed fascism to take root and flourish here. I see this as a failure of my generation, and if I could stand in front of my dad right now, I would hang my head in shame and say we have failed, my generation has failed you and the sacrifices you made. So far.