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Nov 022013

Why on earth have we got this new name – Human Trafficking – for the very old crime of slavery and slave trading? Is it some kind of attempt at putting a trendy new gloss on it? It’s not a crime that should have a trendy new gloss; even ignoring the fact that it is the kind of crime that shouldn’t be glamorised in any way, there’s a very good legal reason why we should carry on calling it slavery and slave trading.

Back in the 19th century, the British unilaterally declared that slavery and slave trading would be treated the same as piracy and set about (with the assistance of the US) eliminating the African slave trade. Under the principle of jus cogens they set about hanging slavers, confiscating their assets, and freeing slaves claiming that they had a universal right to punish those who took part in the crime of slavery.

In other words, some crimes are so heinous that anyone is allowed to prosecute offenders no matter where or when the offenses took place.

By keeping the old name for the crime, we retain it’s classification as a crime subject to universal jurisdiction. This opens the possibility of setting up a court – such as the ICC – to prosecute slavers wherever in the world they are, and the possibility of empowering law enforcement units to bring slavers to justice wherever they happen to be.

And after all, the fight against slavery isn’t going too well with more slaves today than there has ever been.

Oct 172013

With apologies to all drunken sailors who will no doubt resent – quite reasonably – being compared with a dysfunctional government.

The big news today (and yesterday – different time zones confuse these things) is that the US government has grasped just a bit of sanity and has stepped back from the abyss. Well most of them did, but the lunatic fringe of the Republican party (also known as the Tea Party) still persisted in trying to block the government from doing any work and paying any debts it owes.

But it is only temporary, and unless some more sanity returns to US politicians, we will get to see this mess repeated in January.

Ultimately this is all the fault of a fanatic wing of the Republican party who believe it is their right to undemocratically block the government budget until their favourite hobby horse is taken care of. Obamacare. Whether it is a good or a bad thing, it is a done deal, and it is undemocratic to try to sabotage it without first giving it a chance.

Yes the US has too much public debt, but too much is made of the so-call US ‘debt crisis’. The overall figure is immense to be true – so big that it is impossible to understand; so big that we have clever means to make it understandable, and to understand it in terms of affordability. If you look at the US debt as a proportion of GDP (in other words how affordable it is), you will see that the US is in 35th position (according to CIA figures) with a figure of 73.6% of GDP. Or 9th position (using the IMF figures).

Not a good position certainly, but hardly a basket case.

Now there’s a great deal of sense in reducing US government debt, but not in this way. Simply by stopping US government cheques would cause a catastrophic effect on the US (and world) economies.

Perhaps those with a vote in the US would like to remember this when it comes to voting next time. Your current set of politicians look dangerously dysfunctional; even in comparison to politicians in other countries.

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Jun 082013

Which is news how exactly? Spying on us is what the NSA and GCHQ are for.

Over the last day or two, we have been hearing more and more of the activities of the NSA (here) and GCHQ (here) spying on “us” (for variable definitions of that word). Specifically on a programme called PRISM which monitors Internet traffic between the US and foreign nations, but not on communications internal to the US.

Various Internet companies have denied being involved, but :-

  1. They would have to deny involvement as any arrangement between the NSA and the company is likely to be covered by heavyweight laws regarding the disclosure of information about it.
  2. It’s also worth noting that they have asked the company executives whether they are involved in PRISM, but not asked every engineer within the company; it is doubtful in the extreme that any company executive knows everything that happens within their company. And an engineer asked to plumb in a data tap under the banner of national security is not likely to talk about it to the company executive; after all the law trumps company policy.
  3. The list of companies that have been asked, and have issued denials is a list of what the general public think of as the Internet, but in fact none of the companies are tier-1 NSP; whilst lots of interesting data could be obtained from Google, any mass surveillance programme would start with the big NSPs.

What seems to have been missed is the impact of agreements such as the UKUSA agreement on signals intelligence; the NSA is “hamstrung” (in their eyes) by being forbidden by law from spying on US domestic signals, but they are not forbidden to look at signals intelligence provided by GCHQ and visa-versa. Which gives both agencies “plausible deniability” in that they can legitimately claim that they are not spying on people from their own country whilst neglecting to mention that they make use of intelligence gathered by their opposite number.

There is some puzzlement that PRISM’s annual cost is just $20 million a year; there is really a rather obvious reason for this … and it also explains why none of the tier-1 NSPs have been mentioned so far either. Perhaps PRISM is an extension of an even more secret surveillance operation. They built (and maintain) the costly infrastructure for surveillance targeting the tier-1 NSPs and extended it with PRISM. In particular, the growing use of encryption means that surveillance at the tier-1 NSPs would be getting less and less useful (although traffic analysis can tell you a lot) making the “need” for PRISM a whole lot more necessary.

As it turns out there is evidence for this hypothesis.

But Are They Doing Anything Wrong?

Undoubtedly, both the NSA and GCHQ will claim what they are doing is within the law, and in the interests of national security. They may well be right. But unless we know exactly what they are doing, it is impossible to judge if their activities are within the law or not. And just because something is legal does not necessarily make it right.

Most people would probably agree that a mass surveillance programme may be justified if the aim is to prevent terrorism, but we don’t know that their aims are limited to that. The surveillance is probably restricted to subjects of “national interest”, but who determines what is in the national interest? Just because we think it is just about terrorism, war, and espionage doesn’t mean it is so. What is to stop the political masters of the NSA or GCHQ from declaring that it is in the national interest to spy on those involved with protests against the government, or those who vote against the government, or those who talk about taxation (i.e. tax avoidance/evasion)?

Spying is a slippery slope: It was not so very long a ago that a forerunner of the NSA was shut down by the US president of the day because “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”. But intelligence is a tool that is so useful that more and more invasive intelligence methods become acceptable. It is all too easy to imagine how today’s anti-terrorist surveillance can become tomorrow’s 1984-like society.

That does not means that GCHQ should not investigate terrorism, but that it should do so in a way that we can be sure that it does not escalate into more innocent areas. Perhaps we should be allowing GCHQ to pursue surveillance, but that it should be restricted to a specified list of topics.

May 182013

The strange thing about being involved in information security is the phenomena of cyber warfare.

After all, what does tinkering with computers have to do with real war? Well it depends what all that tinkering leads to, and we simply do not know what would happen in a real war. We are in the beginning of the era when aggressive hacking supports war.

But probably the overwhelming majority of activities labelled as cyber warfare are in fact espionage, or a grey area in between. Any kind of hacking that leads to information disclosure, is espionage rather than warfare. More aggressive hacking – such as writing malware to spin centrifuges into destruction – falls into the grey area between espionage and warfare; it’s too aggressive to be labelled espionage, but isn’t part of a legal war (and yes there is such a thing). In terms of legality, it could well be that such acts are illegal acts of war, but morally justified.

And why is China always the bad actor here? Practically every hacking conference video dealing with cyber warfare drops big hints about the activities of China with little in the way of evidence. There is some evidence that China may be involved in cyber espionage, but as for cyber warfare itself, there is far more evidence for the involvement of the US, Israel, and even the UK; although the rumoured replacement of an Al-Qaeda recipe for a pipe bomb with one for cupcakes doesn’t seem like an act of war, but perhaps an exhibit of the English sense of humour.

Part of the problem is that anyone who reads their firewall logs will find a huge number of attacks coming from Chinese address space. As an example, a quick inspection of the addresses blocked on one of my servers for attempted ssh brute force attacks gives the following table :-

Count Country Code Country
255 CN China
51 US United States …
29 KR Korea (South)
19 BR Brazil
17 DE Germany
15 IN India
13 RU Russia
13 GB Great Britain
13 FR France
11 ID Indonesia

This is not intended to be an accurate reflection of anything other than the number of infected machines trying to brute force accounts on my server.

The high presence of China is an indication of the number of malware infections within China, and the large population of the Chinese. It doesn’t actually say anything about where those attacks originate. Every hacker with enough sense to tie up their shoe laces will be pivoting through privacy proxies, and using armies of infected hosts to send out their attacks. These infected hosts are the ones whose addresses show up in your logs.

Assuming that because these addresses are Chinese means that the Chinese state is behind attacks is faulty logic. There is no reason why the Chinese state hackers (if they exist … although it is almost certain they do) would use Chinese addresses to attack from; they are more likely to be using addresses from the US, Europe, South America, etc. If anything, attacks coming from Chinese addresses indicate :-

  1. Private sector hacking (which is the majority)
  2. Attacks from state groups other than China.

It may well be that China is engaged in industrial scale cyber espionage; it may also be that what people assume are Chinese attacks are in fact other states. After all cyber espionage is probably one of the cheapest ways to get involved; within the means of even the smallest and poorest states.

Jan 022013

According to the news, the US politicians have finally decided not to take a running jump off the edge of the fiscal cliff and have come to some form of agreement in relation to US taxes. The markets have of course bounced dramatically because of the good news … or is it?

Firstly, this decision is late. US politicians have been trying to come to some form of agreement with regard to taxation and spending for at least 18 months; the deadline everyone was worried about was introduced to concentrate minds on an agreement. And yet no agreement was reached until the last moment. US politicians deserve to be fired for not coming to an agreement sooner.

Secondly, this decision is not a full decision at all. The agreement only covers taxation, and does not cover agreements on spending cuts. They have given themselves a further two months to agree the rest of it. And who is to say that they will manage an agreement this time around?

There are those who argue that the phrase “fiscal cliff” is scaremongering, and that it should really be called a “fiscal hill” (or some other phrase). They’re wrong.

The actual effects of going over the fiscal cliff may well be rather gradual with tax increases and spending cuts only gradually kicking in over the year of 2013. But that is ignoring the big problem.

The big problem is that the politicians in charge of the world’s largest economy are a bunch of incompetent idiots who would rather argue for partisan advantage than do their job – govern the country in the interests of all of the citizens of the US. In most circumstances, a bunch of people in charge of a large organisation who could not agree on a budget in a timely fashion could and would be fired.

Perhaps the citizens of the US should get together and “kick some ass” – point out to their politicians that they are expected to govern the country properly, and if they do not pull their socks up, they will all be booted out of office come the next election – Democrats and Republicans. It is not the fault of any one party, but the fault of both.

Dec 282012

The US has long had an abysmal record in extra-judicial execution by the mob – the lynching – which is a peculiarly US foible. It is noticeable in the linked Wikipedia article that the authors were desperately looking around for non-US examples of lynchings. And some of the examples are not strictly speaking lynchings at all.

Extra-judicial punishments have been common throughout history, but have almost always been due to the absence of legal authority, or the inadequacy of legal authority. In most cases, US lynchings are in fact a perverse preference for extra-judicial punishment where the legal authority certainly was available – many lynchings involved breaking into courthouse jails to extract the “guilty”.

There are plenty of resources out there on US lynchings including :-

Practically all of these sites concentrate on the racial aspects of lynchings, which is perfectly understandable given that lynchings were one of the many weapons white supremacists used to keep the negro “in his place”.

Yet there is another aspect to lynchings that tends to get overlooked. If you look at the lynching statistics provided by the Tuskegee Institute covering the years 1882-1968, of the total of 4,743 lynchings a total of 1,297 were of “white” people. A total of 27% of all lynchings were of “white” people. Of course that simple classification into black and white may be concealing other race hate crimes – apparently asian and mexican-american people have been classified as white on occasions.

But reading the stories of lynchings shows that the victims of lynchings were from all parts of society – men, women, black, and white. But predominantly black, although the last lynching of a white person occurred as late as 1964 when 2 white people and 1 black person were lynched.

This page tries to explain the white lynchings as either under-reporting of lynchings of black people in the 19th century, or the use of lynchings to punish white people who opposed the repression of black people (such as Elijah Lovejoy). Both of which are true enough.

But it’s missing a point – lynching is a tool used by the racists to repress the black people in the US, but it already existed as a tool (and was used) before the racists felt the need to repress and control the newly freed former slaves. Lynching is a way of obtaining “justice” when a community feels that justice is unlikely to be obtained any other way.

What appears to have happened in the US is that some communities seem to have acquired an entitlement to extreme forms of justice and they are not placated by the perfectly reasonable level of justice provided by the state. After all, in many of the examples of lynchings, the state justice mechanisms were “working” perfectly well – certainly a black person in the South was likely to be flung into prison for almost anything on the flimsiest of evidence. Yet the extremists were not satisfied.

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What this reveals is that some in the US feel entitled to impose a level of control on their community that is not sanctioned by the democratic majority of the country as a whole. And a willingness to resort to violence to get their way. Whilst lynchings may be a thing of the past (the last recorded one was in 1981, although there is a case for arguing that this was merely a random killing rather than a lynching), the attitude may still be around … and having an effect on the level of violence in the US.

The anti-gun control fanatics are right to an extent when they claim that “guns don’t kill” but criminals do. If you compare the US gun crime statistics with other countries with similar levels of gun control (and there are some; indeed in Switzerland a significant proportion of the population is compelled to store a fully automatic assault rifle in their home), it becomes obvious that the US has a significant problem with violence. Gun control may be necessary in the short term, but long term the US needs to look at it’s violent tendencies.

Dec 222012

Given the tragic shooting incident at a US primary school (what would be called an elementary school in the US), it is hardly surprising that the subject of gun control has come up yet again. Normally proposals suggest taking the more extreme types of guns (such as assault rifles) away, without banning all guns.

This may be a mistake given the US Constitution and opposition to changing it. The relevant clause of the constitution reads :-

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed

There are a number of interesting things that this does not say :-

  1. There is nothing in this statement about the right to bear arms to defend yourself (at least from criminals).
  2. There is nothing in this statement about the right to bear arms to go out shooting defenceless wildlife.
  3. Although the statement includes the right to “keep” arms, it does not say where such arms should be kept.
  4. Although it does not explicitly say so, it is very clearly defined that a person’s right to bear arms is in relation to a “well regulated militia”; in other words one does not have a right to bear arms unless under orders to do so.

So rather than restrict what kind of arms a US citizen can own, perhaps it makes much more sense to restrict where arms can be held and how they can be used :-

  1. Any three or more individuals are free to establish a militia for the defence of the state or some other suitable purpose.
  2. The state is allowed to appeal to a court in the event of a militia it feels is set up for nefarious purposes.
  3. A militia must establish an arsenal which may not be a personal home. An arsenal must have an appropriate level of security.
  4. A militia or member of a militia is allowed to purchase any reasonable weapons, but they must be stored within the militia’s arsenal.
  5. Weapons may only be used by the members of the militia during training or during an operation sanctioned by the militia.
  6. No weapons may be used by an individual without supervision by another two members of the militia.

Of course the real test for a proposal on gun control is whether the NRA like it or not. If they do, it must be wrong!

Sep 232011

As expected the Palestinian authority has asked the UN to recognise them as a state.

As expected the Israelis stood up to protest about the idea of giving statehood to the Palestinians and undoubtedly their tame lapdogs, the US government will veto the request.

But would it do any harm if the UN recognised Palestine as a state ? And would it actually help make things a little better ? Quite possibly. Although it would not do much in itself, it send a message to Israel that the world’s patience is limited and that it expects Israel to negotiate in good faith – which it appears unable to do so at the moment.

As an example, in his speech to the UN, the Israeli Prime Minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) kept going on about how Israel needed military security – to include the freedom to place Israeli forces inside Palestine, to demilitarise the Palestinian state, to keep control of the Palestinian air space.

The way that he put it sounded almost reasonable – well he’s a politician, so he should be able to make almost any position sound reasonable. But would Israel accept their own demilitarisation ? Or Palestinian forces being free to wander around Israel ? Or Palestinian control of the Israeli airspace ?

According to the number of casualties suffered by each side, Palestinians have far more to fear from Israeli forces than visa versa (although Israelis do have legitimate concerns) – according to the Wikipedia article on the conflict, there have been 7,978 Palestinian causalities since 1987 and 1,503 Israeli casualties. More than 5 times as many.

Recognising the state of Palestine is not going to bring peace; neither is ignoring the Palestinian request. But recognising the right of Palestine to be recognised as a state will send a signal that the world recognises their right to exist as a state – in the same way that the world recognises the right of Israel to exist as a state.

Jul 172011

Given the current situation in Eastern Africa, it is about time to come up with a few words about foreign aid … specifically the amount that each country contributes towards foreign aid. There is plenty of suspicion that some countries are not contributing their fair share – indeed some countries have promised aid and then failed to deliver.

There are those who criticise the uses to which foreign aid is put – and there may be valid criticisms there, but whilst your country is being stingy, you don’t really have the right to criticise. Stump up the money to at least the average, and then you may criticise away. Indeed some of the criticisms are in the end due to a lack of money – for example paying for emergency aid to keep starving people alive doesn’t solve any long term problems, but solving the long term problems takes money beyond that for emergency aid.

I’ll be using percentage of GDP as a metric of how stingy countries are when it comes to foreign aid. Some may criticise this metric, but it is the only sensible metric to use … and indeed someone has already looked at the percentage of GDP question and more or less come down on the side of saying that it’s probably the best metric available. See here.

When looking at the figures, it is worth bearing in mind that the UN has a target of getting the rich to contribute 0.7% of their GDP towards foreign aid. This is a target that was agreed by the rich countries way back in 1970, and has rarely been met. Stealing an image from another web page :-

Graph of foreign AID by GDP

I would rather have included just the second graph which is the important one, but the first allows me to make a point about absolute aid monetary values. It allows the US to hide it’s stinginess behind it’s absolute value of donations – it looks generous, but the true story is hidden behind the size of the US. For instance, you could more accurately compare (in absolute terms) the donations by the US with Europe as a whole – if you add up the value donated by the next three largest contributors (all in Europe), you get a value of approximately $39 billion – way more than the US, and the contributions from less wealthy European countries would make the US even more stingy.

I’m picking on the US here simply because it is one of the stingiest rich countries around, but very few countries reach or exceed the UN target of 0.7% of GDP. Only 5 out of 23 countries (22%) meet or exceed the UN target. Or in other words, 78% of the listed countries have not met a target they are obligated to have met by the mid-1970s!

And before anyone mentions that this is because of the current economic climate, bear in mind that foreign aid budgets have increased since the banking crisis – over time, the rich countries have accumulated a “debt” of some $4.1 trillion dollars representing the shortfall between what they have promised and what they actually give.

Or in other words it’s not “enough already”, but we have fallen a long way short of what we promised to do – except for a tiny minority (that 22% who exceed the target are all quite small countries). It may well be that some foreign aid is wasted, but that is a topic for another time – a time after the UK has reached the 0.7% target (it is currently 0.56% of GDP).

Jul 102011

Or “There’s Nothing Wrong With America That A Good Strong Dose Of Socialism Wouldn’t Cure”

This is of course written from the perspective of someone who isn’t that familiar with the US – I haven’t lived there since the 1970s, and I was a bit young to be making notes on the political situation (although I do remember the aftermath of the Watergate scandal). And I’m sure I’ll wander off course from the initial subject of “socialism”. Of course I do read about the crazy freak show that is American politics these days.

For some reason the word “socialism” seems to cause most Americans to blow up. It seems a bit like a trump card – accuse something of being socialist and you’ve won the argument against it, whatever the truth of the argument and whether there’s any scrap of truth in the notion that some policy may be socialist. Or whether a socialist policy has any virtue … some Americans would rather do things poorly than risk doing anything with a “socialist” label on it.

Anyone growing up in the US could be forgiven for thinking that “socialism” is some form of hideous dysfunction that causes an irrational desire to punish hard working people in the form of making them pay more than their share. Or something.

Funnily enough, the US does have socialist policies, but they are called something else – except when some troglodyte wants to destroy such policies. Think “Medicaid”. Or the US Postal Service.

Why does this word trigger such a violent response ? Well there’s a whole bunch of possible reasons …

Firstly there is a lot of confusion between “communism” and “socialism”. The first is a system of government that espouses socialist economic principles throughout the economy (amongst other things); the second is an economic system where the means of production are owned collectively – usually by the government. Of course socialism is really about a lot more than the pure dictionary definition – things like health care provision for all, pensions for the old, attempts at income distribution (to avoid the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor – which is a pretty big problem right now), etc.

And in reality a socialist regime is likely to socialise only a limited part of industry – the obvious example (for me) being Britain in the 1950s where railways, and coal industries were nationalised but most industries were left alone. In some ways that is a poor example given the history of the railways and the coal industry in Britain after nationalisation, but that overlooks the fact that the industries were nationalised partly because they were already in such a poor state.

Americans often hear “communist” when someone says “socialist”, and start to worry about communism … or to be more precise an authoritarian state labelling itself “communist” (although the Soviet Union was about as communist as my toenail clippings). The origins of this fear of communism are probably related to the establishment of the Soviet Union and more significantly, their establishment of Comintern with it’s mission of establishment of communist regimes everywhere. Through fair means or foul.

Now here’s where it starts to get interesting: In both the US and Britain between the two world wars, there was a considerable level of official interest and concern in the activities of communists and organisations such as Comintern. By chance, Britain’s “spook” community included someone who believed that whilst action could and should be taken against organisations such as Comintern, targeting legitimate politicians such as members of the Labour party was wrong. This may have helped influence the rather more enthusiastic head of MI5.

Whereas the equivalent in the US (Hoover as the head of the FBI) had no such influence allowing his anti-communist zeal to exceed the real danger and cross over into harassing innocents on the left of the political spectrum. This probably helped the anti-communists on the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities which whilst not quite as loony as McCarthy himself, did go far beyond what was acceptable and far beyond what the risk of communism entailed.

I have known people who were member of the old hard left all their lives – including those who insisted on keeping a portrait of Uncle Joe on the wall. None of those were unpatriotic – they may have wanted a socialist government; they may even have wanted a communist revolution. But none would have countenanced being ruled from Moscow.

You might say they were being deceived, and that Moscow was keeping control of an inner core of hard core supporters to take over a left-wing government and hand over control. But that was always an unrealistic option – it would take Russian tanks in the streets for such a government to keep control, which was more than a little unrealistic for the US.

Not that fighting the cold war was wrong. But the winners of the cold war were far more the people living under “communism” in the Soviet Union and satellite states, and the armaments companies. That is not to say that we did not benefit, but the benefits were less direct than is most obviously thought of. After all the threat of nuclear war was there not because the Soviet Union existed (after all they didn’t get nuclear weapons without us), but because we were facing them down.

But that is all in the past, and the automatic rejection by Americans of policies with the phrase “But that’s socialism” is now outdated. Indeed the correct reaction is “Yeah. So what ? It’s also right.”.

The right-wing in the freak show that is American politics today, is a bizarre and perplexing combination of Ayn Rand‘s seductive denial of society, and the fundamentalist christians. Indeed they seem to have combined the worst aspects of both, and rejected any redeeming qualities – the belief in an infectious imaginary friend but discarding christian charity (except to those “deserving” of charity), and the belief in individualism without the responsibilities of freedom – the responsibility to share in the care of the less fortunate.

Many Americans (and to be fair, plenty of others) hate paying taxes to pay for benefits for those less fortunate – direct benefits, educational benefits, health care benefits, etc. There is a belief that an individual’s income is for their benefit alone, and nobody has a right to take it away. Indeed that taxation is a form of theft by the government.

There is an element of truth to the theft argument, but it is very wrong to assume that an individual’s income is solely down to their abilities. There are too many contributing factors to an individual’s ability to earn – and those factors are commonly paid for by society as a whole. Such as police to keep order, armed forces to defend the country, education, etc.

Sure those services might be provided by private companies under some sort of “libertarian” utopia, but none of us are living under one of those right now.  And frankly, historical experience shows that private provision of what are normally regarded as government services has been less than successful – look at the history of fire fighting for example.

The earliest (in modern history) fire brigades were introduced by insurance companies to protect the property of those who insured with them. Sure enough, they refused to save the property of anyone else, but fire is one of those things that does not protect property boundaries – by stopping the fire of your uninsured neighbour, your own property is protected to a greater extent than if you waited until your own property was on fire. So those private fire brigades were privatised and the brigades funded from the public purse.

It’s a rare and unusual person who complains about socialism when the fire brigade comes up, but isn’t this what it is ?

Socialism and socialist policies are not good in themselves; neither are they bad. The virtue of any policy is whether it would be effective … and more effective than what is currently in place. Not whether it is ‘socialist’, or whatever. The label is irrelevant.

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