Julian Assange’s password

One of the weirdest facts in the fascinating book on underground cryptography and the anti-secrecy movement represented by Wikileaks — beyond the general fundamental link, which I’d never quite put together before, between cryptography (keeping secrets) and whistleblowing (revealing secrets) — was the comment that Guardian journalist David Leigh had published Julian Assange’s password — ACollectionOfDiplomaticHistorySince_1966_ToThe_PresentDay# — to the unredacted US State Department cables. Master of Secrets Assange gives out his own password to a journalist — rather than giving the Guardian a version encoded with a throwaway password — and then expresses shock and dismay when it ends up in print. Did he also give Leigh the PIN code for his bank card, but ask him only to use it to check the balance?


Is there anyone who feels reassured by Diane Feinstein’s comments that we shouldn’t be worrying our pretty little heads over NSA storing records of ALL telephone calls (only by Verizon Business, but presumably that just happens to be the one that’s come out) over a three month period (and one might surmise that this is just three months of a rolling renewed program), both within the US and between the US and foreign addresses. She said

It is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress. This is just meta data. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication. … The records can only be accessed under heightened standards.

Through her Newspeak interpreter she added, “It’s called protecting America.”

In this case, I’m hopeful that the average person’s inability to understand technical language will lead to positive conclusions. Feinstein (who, I am proud to say, I have voted against every time she’s been on the ballot since I’ve been a California voter). Anyone who understands what “meta data” are, and how data-mining works, will be chilled by this: The FBI has a complete map of who was talking to whom when and for how long, and presumably where they were when they made the call. This is now going to be run through an algorithm sniffing out patterns similar to an already suspicious person’s phone calls or travel. And then they’ll use this as a basis for putting people on no-fly lists and other non-judicial punishments. Won’t they? Certainly the Obama administration has shown no compunction about misusing the machinery of the War on Terror (TM) — in particular the No-Fly List — including  for political ends.

But here, ignorance may help. Will the average American feel reassured at being told these are “only meda data”? What the fuck are meta data? It sure sounds like they’re tapping our phones…

I thought the IRS scandal was ridiculous — I still do — but getting the right-wing riled up about civil liberties may be the last chance to save some remaining shreds of constitutional rights in the US.

Audiobook Turing test

I downloaded and listened to the audiobook This is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American CultureThe author is Iain Anderson, and the language and structure seem like those of a slightly rewritten doctoral dissertation. It’s pretty interesting as a source for the politics — particularly racial politics — of jazz in the late 50s and early 60s, and it held my interest for the 5 hours I needed to listen to it at double speed. But what really fascinated me was the reader’s voice. The reader is listed as Paul Steven Forrest, but I can hardly believe that this is a human voice. (Indeed, this is the only book that this name has been assigned to as reader.) The sentence intonations are much too regular, and seem to ignore any cues related to the meanings of words. Some reasonably common English words — at least, common enough in academic jargon — such as “diaspora” are systematically mispronounced, but without any hesitation such as you might expect from a human reader stumbling over an unfamiliar word. Similarly, non-English words were completely botched, but without apparent self-consciousness.

On the other hand, if Paul Steven Forrest is in truth the pseudonym for a computer-generated voice, it’s remarkably good, at least to someone who has not been following progress in speech generation over the past decade. It took me an hour of listening before it struck me that something was off about the voice, and while it started to bug me, it never became unbearable.

Computer culture and gun culture, ctd.

Since I’ve been interested in the history and political significance of cryptography (I discussed the connection between computers and the 2nd amendment here) I read the book This Machine Kills Secrets by journalist Andy Greenberg, a fascinating, if somewhat brief and barely technical history of underground cryptography in the internet age. Among other things I learned there is that, whereas I had thought of gun culture and computer culture as analogous but non-intersecting, in fact there was considerable overlap:

One adjunct group, called the Cypherpunks Shooting Club, even organized trips to rifle ranges to teach each other to shoot .22s and semiautomatic weapons, the final resort should the government ever come after their electronic and physical freedoms. (Tim May, an avid gun enthusiast himself, didn’t attend. “I Don’t give free lessons, especially not to clueless software people,” he says.)

Jim Bell, a cypherpunk insider, proposed in the mid-1990s “Assassination Politics”, basically a scheme for combining strong cryptography with a sort of stock market for murder contracts. The goal was anarchy:

If only one person in a thousand was willing to pay $1 to see some government slimeball dead, that would be, in effect, a $250,000 bounty on his head[…] Chances are good that nobody above the level of county commissioner would even risk staying in office.

Just how would this change politics in America? It would take far less time to answer, “What would remain the same?” No longer would we be electing people who will turn around and tax us to death, regulate us to death, or for that matter send hired thugs to kill us when we oppose their wishes.

This all sounds like the sorts of rant you hear these days from the extreme gun nuts. So maybe the analogy is not that far-fetched.

And, come to think of it, now that concrete schemes are afoot to turn weapons manufacture into a software problem with 3d printing, even the technical differences between guns and codes are dissipating.

Stephen Wolfram’s longitudinal fables

There’s lots of interesting plots on Stephen Wolfram’s analysis of Facebook data, but what jumps out to me is the way he feels compelled to turn his cross-sectional data — information about people’s interests, structure of friendship networks, relationship status, etc. as a function of age — into a longitudinal story. For example, he describes this plotrelationship-status-vs-age2

by saying “The rate of getting married starts going up in the early 20s[…] and decreases again in the late 30s, with about 70% of people by then being married.” Now, this is more or less a true statement, but it’s not really what is being illustrated here. (And it’s not just the weird anomaly, which he comments on but doesn’t try to explain, of the 10% or so of Facebook 13 year olds who describe themselves as married.) What we see is a snapshot in time — a temporal cross section, in the jargon — rather than a description of how the same people (a cohort, as demographers would put it) moves through life. To see how misleading this cross-sectional picture can be if you try to see it as a longitudinal story of individuals moving through life, think first about the right-hand side of the graph. It is broadly true, according to census data, that about 80% of this age group are married or widowed. But it is also true that 95% were once married. In fact, if they had had Facebook when they were 25 years old, their Stephen Wolfram would have found that most of them (about 75%) were already married by that age. (In fact, about 5% of the women and 3% of the men were already in a second marriage by age 25.)

So, the expansion of the “married” segment of the population as we go from left to right reflects in part the typical development of a human life, but it reflects as well the fact that we are moving back in time, to when people were simply more likely to marry. And the absence of a “divorced” category masks the fact that while the ranks of the married expand with age, individuals move in and out of that category as they progress through their lives.

Of course, the same caveat applies to the stories that Wolfram tells about his (quite fascinating) analyses of structure of friend networks by age, and of the topics that people of different ages refer to in Facebook posts. While it is surely true that the surge in discussion of school and university centred at age 18 reflects life-phase-determined variation in interests, the extreme drop in interest in salience of social media as a topic is likely to reflect a generational difference, and the steep increase in prominence of politics with age may be generational as well. (I wonder, too, whether the remarkably unchanging salience of “books” might reflect a balance between a tendency to become less involved with books with age, cancelling out a generational shift away from interest in books.)

Third most popular

Being a fan of the Dvorak keyboard layout, I was intrigued to learn that there is another QWERTY competitor, called Colemak. On the official Colemak web site one learns that

Colemak is now the 3rd most popular keyboard layout for touch typing in English, after QWERTY and Dvorak.

That formulation could be effective in other contexts. For example,

Standing up is now the 3rd most popular posture for sleeping, after lying down and sitting.

Or a political version:

Congress is now the 3rd most respected branch of the US government, after the executive and the judiciary.

Data and security

Security in the UK

Crime statistics in the UK are a mixed lot. On the one hand, the overall levels of crime victimisation are fairly similar to those in the US, Canada, and Western Europe, a bit on the high end overall. Homicide rates, on the other hand, despite recent well-publicised drops in the US, are still drastically lower (by a factor of about 3) in the UK and most of Western Europe (and Canada). Presumably this is attributable, at least in part, to the smaller number of guns. Gun murders in the UK are the lowest in the world, as a proportion of population, about a factor of 20 lower than in the US. (This does not directly contradict the “only outlaws will have guns” NRA rhetoric, if we generalise from a recent report in the NY Times, explaining that the classic random-mugging-murder is now extremely rare in New York, leaving mainly revenge killings and turf wars between drug gangs, and kinds of intimate crimes that are the meat of crime fiction. Gun bans, presumbly, have relatively little impact on the former — and the RMMs — but quite a lot on the jealous spouse and Double Indemnity types of crimes.)

While getting tough on lawbreakers, the hapless government of Gordon Brown is now having to answer for its own role in aiding and abetting identity theft. Supposedly a “junior official” of Customs and Revenue copied the entire database of families receiving the state Child Benefit (7.5 million families, comprising about 25 million individuals), including names, addresses onto compact disks, and sent them by unrecorded internal post to the National Audit Office. They did not turn up at the other end. As they say, it’s an ill will indeed that blows no good. Until this blunder sprawled over all the newspaper headlines, I had no idea that there was a Child Benefit, a monthly payment to parents (or anyone else raising a child) worth about £80 a month for families with one child. (It’s funny that we got caught out on this, because we were irked to discover, shortly before we left Canada, that we’d missed out on applying for a similar benefit there. For some reason governments don’t go out of their way to inform new immigrants of these things.) Anyone moving to the UK should be aware of this: official information is available here. My understanding, though, is that it’s generally only available for Europeans (which I’m not, but the rest of the family are).

If you wanted to contrive a damaging political scandal, without anyone really getting hurt, it would be hard to better this one. All the ingredients are there: Incompetence, money, long-term uncertainty, vast number of potential victims, new technology (making everyone particularly uneasy), and, most important, children. Furthermore, there are reports that

  1. The Audit Office requested an anonymised version of the database, but C&R refused, claiming it would be too costly. (Oops.)
  2. C&R suggested the auditors come visit them to peek at the database. Too much trouble, they said. (Oops again.)

Why are they e-mailing CDs anyway? Anyone with even a tiny bit of technological literacy could have used SSH to transfer the files over the Internet, and saved them the price of a stamp.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alastair Darling (I can’t escape the feeling that there are names you meet at the top levels in politics here that would simply provoke too many giggles in the US or Canada) whose head might be expected to roll, explained that it really wasn’t his fault. In an inversion of the Eichmann defense, he explained that he just makes the rules. “There are rules that mean you can’t download this info and stick it in the post… In asking ourselves what has gone wrong here the rules appear to have been breached with catastrophic results.” Sounds reasonable. It’s not his fault if someone doesn’t follow the rules. This reminds me a bit of the reaction of the day-care teacher in Berkeley who instructed me, after my then two-year-old daughter ran out of the school unnoticed (fortunately I was still right outside the building when she came out), “You need to tell her that she’s not allowed to do that.” She did not return to that daycare centre. Yes, the “junior official” ought not to have flouted the rules; but it should not be a matter of rules. The junior official should not have access to an extremely sensitive database, that he can download onto two CDs and send throught the mail. Once he can do that, he might just as well copy the database onto two other CDs and sell them to criminals. Who is to say that another junior official did not do that?

Of course, Mr Darling could reasonably protest that he only just took over the ministry a few months ago. The blame must really fall to his predecessor in the office, who put the database system into place over the past year. It’s a hard argument to make, though, since his predecessor is now the prime minister.