Sunday, May 23, 2010

Cyber War

I first noticed Richard A. Clarke when he claimed to have warned Condoleezza Rice and George Bush Jr. about the threat of 9/11. He was The Shrub's principal advisor on national security at the time and was ignored.

Clarke has just written a new book about the next threat to global security.

The first half of that book, Cyber War, won't surprise computer professionals much. It might even seem rather ho-hum. They already know this stuff. It will and should upset a lot of lay people, however, including Presidents and Prime Ministers.

The second half is mandatory reading for professionals and ordinary citizens alike.

I was drawn to this book by Fareed Zakaria's May 9th interview with Clarke in which he, a professional on the side of security and intelligence, far from smooching with Dick Cheney, surprisingly accused the executive branch of government of using 9/11 as an excuse to breach the US Constitution and unnecessarily trample on civil rights.

I am one of those who think Michael Ignatieff's little book, "The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror", is the seminal guide to thinking about this topic. (I refer here to the distinguished and principled former historian, Michael Ignatieff, not Mickey Iggy the gutless and Pablum-spouting current leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.)

I was hoping Clarke would situate his arguments squarely in that context.

Not quite.

Before walking Ignatieff's philosophical and constitutional tightrope to meet this newest threat, Clarke urgently wants to first convince us the threat actually exists. Not only does he succeed in this, he goes on to suggest that intelligent reaction to the threat is being undermined by the same gridlock that hijacked the American discussion of health insurance.

We need to protect critical infrastructure such as power, water and transportation facilities, which might require regulating some elements of business, especially Internet business. Anathema to conservatives.

Other requirements, if abused, might violate our understanding of privacy. Anathema to liberals.

Meanwhile, the threat speaks for itself. All current governmental efforts at so-called cyber security, including the US Patriot Act and Homeland Security are designed first to protect government and defense establishments. They do little to save the rest of us.

Our financial, electrical, agricultural and transportation systems are owned by private sector conglomerates whose conservative governments and lobbies eschew regulation just as vehemently as liberal lobbies rant about any use of profiling.

I won't spoil the read by giving too much away. Let's just say that the days of treating cyber crime like break-and-enter are long gone. Security incidents no longer drill out the locks, shatter the windows, or break down the doors. Most of all, they don't remove anything from the premises. In fact, they leave no sign of having entered at all.

They just walk away with the knowledge of how to remotely overload and burn the bearings on our power generators, confuse civilian radar and air traffic control, shut down water distribution, and paralyze the control systems on our ships, trains, and airplanes.

While we were all blissfully surfing eBay, Facebook and YouTube, the stalwarts of western civilization such as Ontario Hydro, WalMart, ScotiaBank and Air Canada began monitoring and interconnecting their (our) generators, refrigerators, stock markets and control towers using the unprotected Internet.

China, Cuba and Afghanistan have not.

(To be continued, when I've finished reading the second half ...)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pakistan - Pointedly Missing the Point

Here we go. That silly cartoon nonsense again. This time its from a Pakistani court feeling insulted on Prophet Muhammad's behalf.

From literalist clerics I might understand, but Judges? I hope their understanding of the Law is better than their grasp of theology because, with this latest heresy, they have avoided the most significant issue facing Islam this century. The logical fallacy at very root of symbolic thought itself.

If Muslims the world over would confront this issue honestly, with actual thought rather than droning dogma, they would leap into the 21st Century in a single bound.

A much deeper question precedes any debate over freedom of expression.

Ayan Hirsi Ali, the international press, Irshad Manji, countless American pundits, Jewish academics, the Roman Catholic Church, and now Pakistan's Lahore High Court have all been fooled into thinking the issue is Blasphemy. Free speech concerns the Auditory firewall against misconceptions of primordial substance.

This gigantic fuss over cartoons is not about sounds, it's about images and, therefore, we should be centering the discussion on Idolatry.

Among all of Abraham’s children, limitations or admonition against using sound to represent deities is not addressed until the second Commandment. The First Commandment deals with an a priori and much more fundamental fallacy, the inherent trap in symbolic thought itself, and it uses the visual representation system to make the point first.

Contemporary fundamentalists, Muslim, Christian and every type in between including secular atheists, stand in breach of that First Commandment. They think it forbids, or suggests it is inappropriate to draw or cast images, whether of Muhammad or Jesus. The fact is, when correctly stated, it only points out that you can't represent It-All in a single image anyway and advises against deifying any image after it has come into being. Symbolic images are only fleeting analogies for aspects of that which is represented. They are not con-substantial with the whole of existence.

The outrageous idolatry at the root of Islamists threatening to assassinate Dutch cartoonists, or a Pakistani court trying to block Facebook from an entire country, isn’t in their believing cartoons can insult the Prophet, it is in allowing that any image could depict the divine in the first place!

Those Pakistani judges are as guilty of the sin of idolatry as were the Jews at the foot of Mount Sinai / Jabal Musa. Moses smashed the tablets in frustration at this truly original sin. Jesus mocked and derided the pretentions of Pharisaic posturing rooted in this same confusion of symbol with what it represents.

It is time for Twenty-First Century Muslims to do their homework.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Crib Chronicles

Bon Stewart’s latest post on CribChronicles should be mandatory reading for all new bloggers.

The fifty odd comments that follow it are like a crash Drivers Ed course for newbie bloggers, a reasonable alternative to the period of lurking before blurting required to absorb blogging tradition and protocol. I took the pill. If it dissuades my motor mouth from launching a five-hundred-and-fiftieth edition of the Hair-Channel for Men, we could even dub it blog-control!

I gave up classical guitar when I heard Andres Segovia. Then I gave up writing mystical essays when I discovered that Rainer Maria Rilke had bequeathed a little prose to the Western Canon too, not just poetry. Now Bon Stewart's blog makes me feel like trashing mine... almost.

She’s that good.

I guess I’m older-than-that-now, as the song says, so I’ve decided to persist awhile with two motives in mind:

First is the cold fury I feel at reporters and pundits who try to fool us with opinion disguised as questions, declarative sentences disguised as interrogatives. Philosophers call them Logical Fallacies, but to the rest of us they are just plain lies. Carefully embedded outrageous lies. They drive me nuts!

Remember when Lou Dobbs was on CNN every night? He violated the subtlety constraints of ‘embeddedness’, became the laughing stock of US journalism and had to be canned. He was too obvious and Fox News isn't far behind. More troubling is that the rest of our mass media are nearly as dishonest; they only disguise it better.

A rising tone on the final syllable does not a question make!

Nunaview and Influential Liars are two blogs intended to neutralize some of that poison. One is dedicated to Nunavut affairs, the other to broader national and world affairs.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Tiger Moving to Havana?

Imagine a sand box.

Make it a good sized one. About three meters on each side, with walls about 30 cms (one foot) deep. Fill the box with clean, dry sand.

Now, gather a dozen soup bowls, fill them with small pebbles or gravel, and sink them upright into the sand so that the lip of each bowl is about a centimeter below the surface. Get a large watering can and carefully fill each of the bowls with water. Lastly, cover each one with sand to hide it below the surface.

Begin calling the bowls 'aquifers' because you are about to earn a quick PhD in fresh water management policy.

Here's the deal.

Your kids want to germinate some seeds in the areas of the sand box where there are no bowls. You tell them they are allowed to push a single straw through the sand into each bowl and suck out as much water as they want to use on their seeds, but you will only allow one cup of relacement water from the kitchen tap to be added to each bowl, per week, and they must start calling that new water 'precipitation'.

Your final exam consists of a single question.

How much water can the kids suck out of each bowl per week during July and August if the plants are to keep growing in the blazing sun until Labour Day?

Pretty obvious, eh?

No more than a cup, the replacement quota, and likely less because each bowl will lose some water soaking to the surface sand above it. That is probably where we should have put the seeds in the first place.

The lesson to be learned is that you can never remove more water from any one bowl than can be replenished from the weekly re-supply. Break this rule and the entire sand box will run dry in a matter of days.

That is what has been done to the Kalahari desert and to much of the South Western USA.

Now Cuba has decided to ask foreign developers to build golf courses?

Raul, good grief!

Fifty years of heroic sacrifice and defiance by a long suffering people now betrayed on the eve of global ecological catastrophe ... and deprived of vindication.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Al Jazeera English - on ExpressVU!

Al Jazeera English has been added to Bell ExpressVu today.

Superb journalism.

Harkens back 20 - 30 years, to when even the mass media were still fiercely committed to the principles of real journalism.

Al Jazeera English (AJE) should be mandatory viewing for every student and every buck reporter out trying to earn their stripes.

If we could now just convince Bell to also add TeleSUR, the pan-latin-american equivalent.

Just as AJE have culled the finest reporters from national broadcasters all over the world, including BBC, CBC, Australia, and Asia ,etc., TeleSUR has done the same with reporters from all over Central and South America.

What a breath of fresh air compared to CBC, CNN and yes, even BBC!

If you are interested in giving AJE a whirl, call ExpressVu in the normal way at 1-888-759-3474, and if the agent who answers seems oblivious to the new channel, just ask to be escalated to Level-2 regarding Channel 516.

The service is so new (today - late yesterday) the agents have to use a manual (hard copy) registration form and pass it through to programming manually. They call it an 'Add On' and it costs just $3.00 per month.

The whole registration process is refered to internally by ExpressVu staff as an 'Offline Request' because it hasn't been entered in their automated ordering system yet.

In addition to the basic news service each hour, I strongly recommend figuring out when 'Witness' and their other documentary series are scheduled. You will be astonished. It's like finally having a 'Fifth Estate' or 'W-5' type program from the rest of the world instead of only from our often monotonous North American and Euro- Centric point of view.

If we can add TeleSUR, we will only be a half-continent short of a truly global broadcasting service: sub-Saharan Africa.

Would appreciate comment from any of you who share this prespective.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Architecture of Consent

Sitting at supper one evening many years ago in Metz, France, I asked a Canadian military acquaintance how he planned to vote in the upcoming Canadian federal election.

"Same way as last time", he replied rather curtly.

"Yes but how was that?" I ventured.

"For the retention of the secret ballot!" he growled.

I looked up sharply from my supper plate expecting some sign of humour, but found myself peering into the cold, almost belligerent stare of a man who had killed and nearly been killed flying Spitfires in Malta in 1942, had faced the Viet Cong and been shot at again while a member of the Truce Commission in Viet Nam in 1956, and was now (1962) senior intelligence officer for the RCAF in Europe as the Berlin wall went up, the Cuban missile crisis was in full swing, and DeGaulle was being threatened (by elements of his own military) with assassination for pulling out of Algeria.

At a time when there were thought to be only two legitimate monopolies in democratic society, the authorization to bear arms and the right to print money, here was a military man saying he was willing to lay down his life, willing to die, to keep the keys to the gun locker in civilian hands!

For me, there was no more stark illustration of the difference between democratic and totalitarian regimes at the peak of the cold war.

Today, there is another battle underway that is every bit as pitched and critical to human freedom as was control of the arsenal sixty years ago.

Along with armaments and currencies, control over citizen identity is about to become the third leg in the proverbial barstool of core principles underlying democracy itself. It must remain in un-biased hands.

When the Internet first revealed its enormous potential for convenient transactions, most engineers assumed that citizen data would have to reside in unimaginably huge, centralized databases. The very thought of such repositories today, containing all personal identifiers on all citizens, has both civil servants and politicians silently and very uncomfortably squirming.

At best, some wonder if a new credibility for government itself might emerge from the fact that citizens trust them marginally more than they do vested commercial interests like Microsoft, Oracle or Computer Associates to hold all this data.

But lo-and-behold, in this era of executive exchanges between private and public sectors, and the blurring of boundaries within government in what Donald Savoie describes as the diminishing distinction between the roles of politicians and civil servants, it seems we must consider an entirely new paradigm in this area.

Visionaries among information technology professionals have taken up this cause of re-anchoring human identity and citizen consent, not with vested-interests in the private sector, nor even with the purportedly more altruistic public sector, but rather smack dab back in the hands of each and every individual citizen!

How can this be possible?

We can't even begin to understand this third pillar of democratic governance without first understanding that it is inextricably linked to anonymity.

The most fundamental insight of both psychology and philosophy is that human perception itself is contingent on contrast. Whether up-down, in-out, over-under, light-dark, night-day, hot-cold, male-female, or life-death … the human brain cannot even detect any of those singularities except in juxtaposition with their concomitant opposites.

That fact leads to an extraordinary question: "Can we develop an architecture of citizen identity and consent that is thoroughly rooted in a fundamental right to anonymity and yet so practical it can be embedded at the very core of all 21st Century transactions whether personal or electronic?

A brief Guide to Anonymity

Free people expect to consent before actions are taken on their behalf.

When we take a quiet stroll in the park, we consent before our cell phone discloses our GPS location. If we ask for tomorrow’s weather forecast on the Internet, the weather service has no need to know who is asking. If we want to access the cockpit of a fully loaded commercial airliner, however, we will be asked to surrender our left index finger print or the innards of our right eyeball for detailed examination.

The rule is very simple. The greater the potential damage that could arise from mistaken or fraudulent use of our identity, the more rigorously we should demand proper authentication before we consent.

The Players

Relying Party

If you were my doctor, I’d expect every pharmacist to make sure my prescription really came from you before acting in your name. And if you were my pharmacist, I’d sure want you to make sure the person trying to get the prescription filled really is me. In each case, the pharmacist or the doctor must rely on some trusted party to vouch for the doctor being a doctor, for the pharmacist being a pharmacist, for the prescription being a real one, and for me really being who I say I am.

In this context, the pharmacist and the doctor have to rely on someone they trust during their part in this transaction. The question then arises. On whom can they rely?

Authoritative Party

Currently, pharmacists rely on the College of Physicians and Surgeons to vouch for doctors and they rely on a Provincial Health Care Plan (HCP) to authenticate each patient. During a prescription-filing transaction, the College and the HCP each become an ‘Authoritative Party' at their appropriate stage in the transaction.

Identity Agent

Which leaves you and me, as citizen or consumer, to decide whether we even want these two parties talking to each other about us in the first place!

What are the conditions under which we authorize the pharmacist to check on us with the HCP, or to check on our doctor with the College of Physicians and Surgeons? Only if each of these preliminary transaction are completed with our consent, should the pharmacist then be permitted to dispense the drugs.


In the context of identity and authentication, the trusted instrument that we use to express our consent is called a credential, something you, and your doctor, and your pharmacist trust to authenticate the person asking for the prescription in your name.

How trustworthy are your credentials? Do you think your pharmacist should trust anyone who tries to use your health card? Does your health card have your photo on it? How about your driver’s license? Even if it has a photo on it, how easily can it be faked? Can the photo be changed? Can the Provincial Licensing Office be fooled into issuing a credential with your name on it but a different photo? Can pharmacists or police officers trust that people using your credentials are really you?

In order for a credential to be trusted, the credential itself must come from an authoritative party who has taken sufficient time and effort to ensure you really were you in the first place, when the credential was issued!

For example, if a credential has been issued by someone who insists on meeting you in person, who keeps a recent address and photograph of you on file at all times, who has checked your finger prints, taken a retinal scan, or even demanded a DNA sample, then such a credential might not only be trusted in the first instance, but in fact might be trusted by other authoritative parties as a ‘Foundation Credential’ to be used when applying for other trusted credentials. That role, issuing Foundation Credentials that are so reliable they are trusted by other credential issuing parties, would seem more appropriately handled by a government you choose and hold accountable.

Currently in Canada, birth certificates, health cards, and even driver’s licenses are not yet trusted as Foundation Credentials because relying parties can’t be sure the issuer has taken sufficient care in authentication before issuing. And once issued, have they used the latest techniques against tampering or altering the credential?

Using the right words

Before going any further, let’s define three key words: Person, Identity and Credential.

The person is you! The physical you. Your actual flesh and blood.

Your identity is a collection of data that begins to accumulate from the moment of birth. It often starts with a hospital footprint taken within sight of your mother and stored with the names of your family, your date and place of birth, your given names, your ethnicity, and your blood type. With every passing day after that, more and more data is generated and accumulated: with doctors, dentists, schools, churches, recreation affiliations, motor vehicle bureaus, financial institutions, health care plans, employers, taxation records, passport offices and, eventually, a cemetery.

A credential is an instrument or document containing as little as possible, but just enough of the above identity elements for the type of transaction in progress. A confirmed, tamper-proof photograph might be enough for Hertz, Avis, Budget and the highway patrol, but to enter a Level-4 epidemiology research lab or the national intelligence headquarters might need you to surrender your index finger and your right eyeball!

Least Means and Minimum Data

These examples illustrate a powerful and essential constraint on how your credentials are used. Modern credentials should not only require your consent each time they are used, they must be 'smart' enough to only disclose to the Relying Party the absolute minimum amount of information required for the specific transaction in progress. That means the fewest and least intrusive elements of your identity needed to safely obtain the service based on a practical, unexaggerated calculation of the potential damage that could result from mistaken or fraudulent use of your identity.

Your annual income is not a necessary element of your driver’s license. Someday, your age and eyeglasses prescription might be.

Surprisingly, the more robust the credential, the less data might actually be divulged. To convince a security guard to let you enter a Department of Defense research laboratory, you might only need your right eyeball. Nothing else. The Commissionaire guarding the door has absolutely no need to know your name, job title, or where you live.

The architecture of consent

Putting this all together yields the master question facing democratic society: "What will 21st Century transactions look like when they require the full consent of all parties and when the flow of information comes to a mandatory stop without the consent of the real person receiving the service?"

When foundational anonymity becomes the universal starting principle at both the ballot box and the automated teller machine, we will have answered George Orwell, and rather proudly so.



Trash talk ... Kikes, Chinks and Pakis

Overheard in the Human Resources section of a Government department recently, a staffing consultant referred to a fellow employee as prejudiced in their hiring decisions. When bandied about carelessly and long enough, we lose trust in such clichés. They require too long a pause in the flow of conversation to ensure they are being used accurately, sincerely, in context, and not just as rhetorical diversions.

We have lost so many useful words and powerful expressions through such careless use. Could 'prejudice' and 'anti-semitism' be about to join them? Are we tiring of having to parse them so meticuloulsly everytime we hear them?

Certainly the Holocaust remains despicable stuff. Yet the reason other diasporic peoples sometimes resent Euro-America's institutionalized and reflex references to anti-semitism is precisely that, outside its Euro-centric context, it can seem ... well, euro-centric.

Having migrated away from where they were the majority, each diaspora must adjust to new circumstances as a minority. Initially excluded by the majority from leadership roles in politics or the military, what is a bright young 'Kike' in Europe, 'Paki' in Africa, or 'Chink' in Polynesia to do except excel in those domains left open to them: academia, the arts and business.

The original stereotype within European anti-semitism centered on banking, credit and trade, but Jews in the European diaspora also reveled and excelled in the most exquisite refinements of national literature, music and science in each of their host countries. When those national arts rose to transnational significance to become part of the global legacy, the human canon, Jews, like most diasporic peoples seemed disproportionately represented among those elites and, eventually, were disproportionately resented as well.

Have we so easily forgotten the Indo-Pakistani diaspora in Idi Amin's Uganda. Care to examine the social undertones among Philippinos towards even third and fourth generation Chinese? How about the attitude of local academics toward the rise to prominence of Japanese scholars at the University of Hawaii in the 1980s? And what was the ratio of so-called 'Asian' admissions to Harvard last Fall compared to their proportion in the overall US population?

I have a friend who is fond of saying, "Beware jargon! It usually indicates a repository of power." That reminder seems especially appropriate when discussing prejudice of all kinds, whether as part of the rage over new Arizona immigration policies, or resistance to Nunavut's Inuit Employment objectives.

While true clichés merely wilt to benign insignificance, the most insidious are co-opted as jargon into the service of organized deception. Whether we call it a 'lobby' or a vested interest, they deliberately marry semantic subterfuge to political correctness in order to contaminate public discourse and cut off debate.

The irony?

Such silence and censure, over the long haul, end up hindering the desired outcomes of those very lobbies that provoked them.