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Why Snowden is no Agee and why it is authoritarian thinking to compare the two

The blog War on the Rocks (of which I had never heard before, but who needs serendipity when you follow eccentrics on Twitter) recently ran a piece by Mark Stout arguing that if Edward Snowden should get clemency, so should Philip Agee. It does so by drawing a bunch of analogies, that are at mostly false equivalences and several times lies by omission. To name a few:

Both divulged huge amounts of classified information that made its way to America’s enemies.

Agee offered a trove of information (including names of CIA operatives) to the KGB (which suspected foul play and declined) and ultimately went to Cuba. This happened in 1973, five years after having left the CIA. He also went on to publish a book naming CIA operatives. Mind you, 1973 was during the Cold War and really scary moments such as the Able Archer 83 scare were still ahead and the Cuban missile crisis was only a decade behind. It is also not far-fetched to claim that several (urban) guerilla wars in Latin America were effectively proxy wars of the Cold War. Snowden provided journalists with a track record of being responsible (Greenwald and Poitras) and who still are US citizens with a massive trove of documents. Which got subsequently shared with mainstream news outlets that also have very diligent with the information they received. Snowden did not go to Moscow until forced to do so by an extradition request of the United States government. Which is conveniently overlooked by many commentators, including Mark Stout. So far there is zero evidence that Putin is keeping him around for other purposes than making the United States lose face in international politics.

The villains and scoundrels in charge of the U.S. government—not to mention their stooges overseas—said that both Snowden and Agee did immense damage to the national security.

So far there is zero actual evidence of Snowden’s revelations doing any damage to the national security of the United States or any of its allies. One could argue that the NSA did enormous damage to the fundamental freedoms of humans, US citizens as well as the rest of the world and as such did the damage to the national security of the United States, not Snowden. Providing an adversary with concrete names of HUMINT assets is incomparable to going to the press with hard evidence of SIGINT programmes run by presumably free democratic states turning the world in a post-Orwellian dystopian nightmare. Remember similar vague claims about Wikileaks’ release of diplomatic cable dispatches? Even though Wikileaks was nowhere as diligent with removing information that could harm real people (it requested the United States Department’s help for that, but that got declined), but as it turned out, none got harmed but the United States standing. There is no reason to believe the even vaguer claims by General Hayden, who only recently lied under oath during a Congressional testimony about the extent of the NSA’s surveillance programmes, in light of the care taken by Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras not to divulge information that could actually harm the United States’ national security. Not to mention that Greenwald and Poitras got Bruce Schneier, one of the world’s foremost IT-security experts on their team.

 Both Snowden and Agee exhibited a tendency to live in countries that had tense relationships with the U.S., but which were impeccably democratic.

As mentioned before, it was not Snowden’s choice to go to Russia. Agee had a choice, Snowden never had. In Agee’s time the number of democratic countries without an extradition treaty with the United States was much lower. In the meantime we have ended up in a situation in which several European countries will extradite their own citizens to the United States on the most specious of claims without batting an eye. The irony is that if the United States had not so doggedly pursued Snowden, he might never have ended up in front of Chinese and Russian interrogators. And even then, Putin’s autocratic Russia is still a few steps up from Castro’s Cuba in the seventies, despite its poor track record on human rights. Or its poor track record on about any metric of governance.

Which gets me to the authoritarian reflexes underlying critiques like this. And by authoritarian I mean Altemeyer’s definition of those (his book The Authoritarians is highly recommended reading), which is:

Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and
traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that
means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:
  1. a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
  2. high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
  3. a high level of conventionalism
And Stout’s piece is just that: authoritarian in thinking. At no point does Stout acknowledge that the United States has overstepped it’s legitimate authority to perform SIGINT. Even if you accept the atrocious US case law that designates non-citizens on non-US-soil subhumans that deserve zero Fourth Amendment protections (which I don’t, as an un-American European), even then you cannot claim that what happens in the name of national security even meets the already overly narrow concepts of privacy in the United States. The bulk collection of meta-data affects not only informational privacy, but also the freedoms of assembly and expression. So it is a First Amendment issue as well. His basic premise is that Snowden violated the rules of secrecy and therefore is in the wrong. In this ‘modest proposal’ he paints Snowden with the same brush as Philip Agee, a Cold War traitor. By and large the whole exercise is an acknowledgement of a complete inability to even consider for a moment that, just maybe, diving head-first in a surveillance state scenario is something incompatible with democratic freedoms. And that we’re on a fast track to become the abyss that we stared into for so long during the Cold War.
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Walter’s (slightly) drunken theory on political ideology

Vinay Gupta is to blame for this post. Anyway, for quite a while I’ve harbored a slightly drunken theory about political ideology. Meaning that your political ideology might very well reflect your inner demons or greatest strengths. Or both for that matter. It is one of those thoughts that makes the world make sense of all a sudden when slightly inebriated, perhaps less so when sober. Anyway, you can get quite a long way:

 

  • Anarchists are so bloody good at organising things they can’t believe that governments or corporations are necessary for a decent civilisation.
  • Liberals (in the European sense of classical and neo-) are so bad at organising things that they can’t believe anyone else can do it either. Also, liberals tend to be quite nice to people they know, which also erodes from any belief that government should play much of a role in an equitable society they may harbour.
  • Socialists tend to be rather poor at being social at a personal level and therefore think we need a strong government for us to end up with a somewhat equitable result.
  • Conservatives are just psychopaths who believe none would do the right thing unless coerced into it by draconian criminal penalties, including the death panel. Because they wouldn’t do it either.
  • Libertarians are sociopaths with the emotional maturity of toddlers and simply cannot fathom the extent to which they rely on others in society for about everything they perceive as having bootstrapped themselves.

 

I have to admit though that it falls a little bit apart with libertarians. A good thing they’re pretty rare and rarely get laid. And if they get, they usually lose their ideological feathers.

Peak resource and things that won’t necesarily change, nr. 1: global supply chains

Old trends often come back in a different form. A current trend is a feeling that we are running out of resources in the way the Club of Rome predicted in its famous ‘Limits to Growth’ report from 1972, the year I was born. That this particular theme has been resurrected from its shallow grave is no surprise. It is a fact that despite a sluggish economic growth in most of the Western world, the demand for oil keeps on growing while production is on a plateau, optimistic stories about non-conventional oil and gas notwithstanding. Likewise worldwide fisheries are in a slow collapse after decades of overfishing. And as the number of times copper thieves manage to disrupt railway traffic proves, metal prices are at an all time high while proven reserves aren’t growing much either. So it’s no wonder people are looking into the tea leaves at the bottom of their cups and try to guess what changes peak resource will bring.

Let’s look at some of the typical predictions, the first being that global supply chains will be a thing of the past. Except that they won’t. Continue reading ›

Dear e-reader designers and producers…

When I buy an e-reader, I like…

  • simplicity;
  • versatility in file formats;
  • being able to use the damn thing while it is tethered to a computer for the purpose of charging its battery;
  • it to respect any directory structure I have put on any media I may insert into it.

Because I do not like…

  • being told to hand over personal data to a company in order to use a device I already have paid for;
  • you even having the opportunity to track my reading habits, my poor taste in novels, interest in questionable political economical theory and penchant for boring PhD theses are all mine and I’d like to keep it that way, thank you very much;
  • being stuck to a particular operating system to manage my documents;
  • having to browse through thousands of titles when I insert a SD-card into it that happens to contain about 16 GB of PDFs (I am looking at you, iRiver);
  • being forced to use a particular ‘desktop application’ to manage my stuff on the damn thing (I am looking at you, Kobo).

It is all really easy: make it a  USB mass storage device, allow the user to catalog documents through its directory structure and make it as stand-alone as possible. If you want to add a book store, cloud storage and all that crap, by all means do so, but make it bloody optional and not mandatory. That will be all.

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Hackerspace incorporation patterns

As a mere participant of Revelation Space, a hackerspace (or makerspace, if you will) in The Hague, who also happens to practice law (but not corporate law), I found this article on hackerspaces.org interesting. Interesting but incomplete. Incomplete because it doesn’t really explore perfectly reasonable combinations of the patterns described. Also incomplete, because it reeks of a reinventing the wheel, but poorly. Continue reading ›

Happy Tree Friends as Copyright War Fodder

Google published a Happy Tree Friends animation this week that apparantly aims to educate the unwashed heathens of the internet about copyright. For those who are too lazy to click the preceding link: the Happy Tree Friends are a bunch of lovely if not a bit moronic woodland creatures that tend to die in a rather violent and horrific way due to their own ignorance every episode of the animation series. As such they they are ideally suited to warn others of the fact that we live in a dangerous world. Continue reading ›

Useful idiots/so-called hackers

Last week two bits of news struck me as misguided. First there was a court in Amsterdam stating that abuse of a WiFi network, does not equal breaking into a computer system, even if such a WiFi network had some form of security measures such as password protection. Lots of geeky types, including those identify themselves as hackers, cheered this decision as a blessing of WiFi-cracking.

Another thing that hit the Dutch part of the internet were pictures of the innards of a so-called ‘OV-chipkaart’ terminal which had been pulled out of a railway station platform. This was also celebrated by roughly the same demographic. Continue reading ›

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Korean Zombie PC Prevention Bill

One can hope that legislative stupidity is not contagious, but would be terminally naive to do so. So although the Korean proposals for a bill that makes security software on computers mandatory and grants the authorities the power to check for the existence of mandated security software on computers seems rather far-fetched, it is probably closer than we think. So it is worth to point out the rubbishness and sheer danger of this idea in addition to the fine points made by Amelia Andersdotter. The only good part of the Korean Zombie PC Prevention Bill is that it would make a fine punk band name, but other than that it is beyond useless. Continue reading ›

Rant: why digital levies won’t work

Last week the Dutch artist’s union and the the Dutch consumer association jointly proposed a levy for digital media and internet connectivity. The flipside of this deal would be that downloading stays legal in the Netherlands (as it currently is). And no three-strikes-and-you’re-out legislation either. Hurray! Obviously, the electronics industry is vehemently against it. And so am I. Because the notion of collective rights societies distributing levies in any form is an idea whose time is behind us. It just sweeps the problem of any renumeration of artists for fair use under the rug of an opaque collective rights society. Any form of compensation of fair use of copyrighted works runs into the same wall: how do you distribute the proceedings in a way that at the very least resembles fairness if you can’t meter the actual use? Which brings you to one of the main reasons why the use in question is considered fair use: metering it would be too much of an intrusion in personal life. By now we should realise that the intrinsical fairness of the notion that an artist should be compensated for fair use is drowned out by the intrinsical unfairness of any metric for distributing the proceedings. Or in other words: that we can’t make it work. Maybe it is time to accept the reality that any harm caused by filesharing in the private domain is by far the lesser evil of the harms of any scheme trying to compensate it. Artist do profit from the cost savings digital technology brings them when producing creative works, they probably should also accept the darker side of digital technology in bringing down distribution costs to almost zero. Fair use copying is just the wastage of the digial era.

Maybe it is time to be reminded of one of the old Turkish folk stories about Nasreddin Hoca:

Nasreddin and the Smell of Soup

One day, a poor man, who had only one piece of bread to eat, was walking past a restaurant. There was a large pot of soup on the table. The poor man held his bread over the soup, so the steam from the soup went into the bread, and gave it a good smell. Then he ate the bread.

The restaurant owner was very angry at this, and he asked the man for money, in exchange for the steam from the soup. The poor man had no money, so the restaurant owner took him to Nasreddin, who was a judge at that time. Nasreddin thought about the case for a little while.

Then he took some money from his pocket. He held the coins next to the restaurant owner’s ear, and shook them, so that they made a jingling noise.

“What was that?” asked the restaurant owner.

“That was payment for you,” answered Nasreddin.

“What do you mean? That was just the sound of coins!” protested the restaurant owner.

“The sound of the coins is payment for the smell of the soup,” answered Nasreddin. “Now go back to your restaurant.”

Website Idea: Tree of Technology

First of all, there is this brilliant project called the Tree of Life web project. It is a gorgeous catalog of the taxonomy of all species known to man. Which gave me the following idea: like species, most technologies have precursors (the economies of building steam engines aren’t so nice if you don’t have metallurgy, for example). In fact, much of the gaming rules of strategy games such as Sid Meier’s Civilization revolve around (simplified and historically incorrect) technology trees. It would therefore be wonderful to have something like the Tree of Life web project for the history of innovation and technology. But of course I can’t be bothered to do it myself.

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