Cyberwars, a new front in the permanent state of war

There has been a recent spate of news stories about attacks on computer systems of various businesses. Most of these attacks seem to be for criminal purposes, to gain access to people’s personal information to commit identity theft, credit card fraud, and the like.

But some hacker groups (such as LulzSec and Anonymous) have different motives. They recently announced that they are “uniting in a campaign aimed at banks, government agencies, and other high-profile targets, and they are encouraging others to steal and leak classified information.”

These two hacker groups are not out to steal money or business secrets on behalf of competitors or kill people. They perceive themselves as righting wrongs and, in the case of LulzSec, to have fun while doing so. LulzSec and Anonymous seem to have as their intention to attack and subvert those organizations that are seen as doing wrong and opposing transparency, and are fighting government and corporate secrecy that lies at the heart of the control systems and which enable them to get away with their crimes. This is why the US government and businesses have taken such a vicious approach to news organizations like WikiLeaks, and the term ‘cyberwars’ has started to be used

The idea of secretive people or groups acting on behalf of transparency or to help ordinary powerless people to right the wrongs perpetrated on them by powerful and evil people, institutions, and governments tends to strike a chord. They form the romantic legends of history (Robin Hood, William Tell) and are the stuff of comic book heroes with their secret identities. It is perhaps no accident that the group Anonymous uses the V for Vendetta mask as its icon.

The US and other governments cannot afford to let these groups grab the imagination of the public as being fighters for justice. It cannot run the risk that these groups will be seen as the good guys. And so there has been a campaign to confuse the transnational, anarchic, and political computer hackers with those groups that seek to use hacking for merely monetary gain or those serving the interests of one nation against another.

As part of this propaganda war, there are ominous reports that nations hostile to the US (such as North Korea, China, and Iran) may try to infiltrate the computer systems in the US and disrupt or even paralyze their military systems. We receive warnings that these are grave threats to the security of the US and hence of its people.

To me, all this fear mongering sounds eerily familiar to the way in which the war on terror was ramped up. Stoking people’s fears that their lives are in danger from vague threats is the standard mode of operation of governments that seek to control them. Could it be that that the government needs a new threat because people are getting a little jaded about the war on terror, especially since the main bogeyman Osama bin Laden is no longer around? The silly color-coded alert system has been laughed out of existence and there are increasing grumbles about the many annoying rules that airline passengers are subjected to, particularly in the US.

It is to be expected that with the ubiquity of computers and the widespread sophistication of computer users, we should see an increase in hacking. So the frequent news stories of this or that company having its systems attacked should come as no surprise. Some people will do it with criminal intent, others simply to prove that it can be done. There will be an escalating war between hackers and security systems, just as there is with ordinary crimes.

But we have to be vigilant is preserving the difference between political actions and criminal actions. The government seeks to criminalize everything that might erode its wall of secrecy, which is why it is pursuing WikiLeaks and whistleblowers with such vigor.

In the fight for democracy, the actions of political hacker groups that seek greater transparency and the exposure of wrongdoing may be one of the few means by which people can fight the trend towards increasingly dictatorial governments.

A perpetual war state of mind

George Orwell’s novel 1984 had as its background theme the idea of the world being split up into three great military powers permanently at war with each other but with regularly shifting alliances. Orwell’s novel was published in 1948 and was extrapolating from the power structure following World War II, with the world carved up into three regions, those within the sphere of influence of the US, those within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, and the rest of the world that came to be known later as the non-aligned bloc of nations.

With the end of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union dismantling itself and essentially conceding military dominance to the US and China not yet emerging as a major power, there was a brief period when it was hoped that this would lead to a flowering of real prosperity as a result of the ‘peace dividend’, as the wasteful expenditures on militaries that were no longer needed would be re-directed to improving the lives of everyone.

That hope died quickly but not because Orwell’s dystopian vision in its pure form seems likely to occur soon. While there are signs of a tri-partite military world order centered around the US, Russia, and China being recreated that could turn into states of actual war between militaries, that does not seem to be the direction we are headed. The ‘wars’ of this century are more likely to be multipolar economic ones, with the US, Europe, Russia, Japan, China, India, and Brazil all reaching some level of economic parity in the near future and competing for dominance.

But it is within the US that one element of Orwell’s dystopian vision is clearly emerging and that is of a nation whose people are exhausted and bowed down by thinking they are in a state of permanent war against some vague and ill-defined but somehow ominous enemy. Successive US governments, and the oligarchies behind them, have discovered how useful it is to have people living in this state of fear, so that they willingly give up their rights and freedoms in order to be kept ‘safe’ from the unseen threats that are supposedly all around us, in addition to being willing to spend vast sums of public money to feed the inexhaustible appetite of the military-industrial-financial complex.

One way in which people can be anesthetized to being in a state of permanent war is to get them used to the idea of wars all around them all the time, and this is helped by the ease with which war metaphors are introduced into the public discourse. It seemed to start out innocuously with ‘wars’ on poverty, hunger, cancer, and so forth, which were clearly metaphorical. The use of these metaphors had the benefit of getting people to think of the war word ‘war’ in a positive light, as something that can be noble and worthy of support.

Then we had the war on drugs, and the word war became less of a metaphor and more of the real thing, with armed action both domestically and overseas. The war against drugs was the first real permanent war, something that has no end because it is being waged against an amorphous and decentralized enemy and there is no measure by which you can determine if you have won. This made it the perfect prototype for creating a state of permanent war because the war will continue as long as the government says it needs to continue.

The next major step of course was the war on terror. Unlike in the case in the war on drugs where many of the so-called enemy, both users and dealers, are actually living amongst us and could be our neighbors, with this new war, the enemy are clearly ‘the other’, foreigners, aliens, ‘not one of us’, and all restraints on the government are off. As Glenn Greenwald writes, in the US today the word ‘terrorist’ seems to be reserved for “anyone — especially of the Muslim religion and/or Arab nationality — who fights against the United States and its allies or tries to impede their will.” This is why there is such strong opposition to using the word ‘terrorist’ to describe people like Timothy McVeigh and the members of the various domestic armed groups that have attacked and killed Americans because of their ideological beliefs that the government or other organizations must be destroyed. The ‘war on terror’ serves its purpose of spearheading the elimination our constitutional rights only as long as it is seen as abrogating the rights of others and not of ‘us’.

Those who hoped that the death of bin Laden would mark the beginning of the end of the war of terror were wrong. As Karen J. Greenberg, the executive director of the New York University Center on Law and Security, writes:

The administration was visibly using the bin Laden moment to renew George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror (even if without that moniker). And let’s not forget about the leaders of Congress, who promptly accelerated their efforts to ensure that the apparatus for the war that 9/11 started would never die. Congressman Howard McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was typical. On May 9th, he introduced legislation meant to embed in law the principle of indefinite detention without trial for suspected terrorists until “the end of hostilities.” What this would mean, in reality, is the perpetuation ad infinitum of that Bush-era creation, our prison complex at Guantanamo (not to speak of our second Guantanamo at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan).

In other words, Washington now seems to be engaged in a wholesale post-bin Laden ratification of business as usual, but this time on steroids.

This is why I believe the war on terror will never end or at most will be replaced by some new and equally vague threat that will justify the same restrictions on our civil liberties. As 1984 illustrated, a state of permanent war is simply too useful a device for controlling populations.

Next: The next new shiny endless war?

Another excellent Glenn Greenwald piece

Among other things, it deals with the usual Orwellian world of language manipulation where ‘troop withdrawals’ don’t actually mean what you think it means, the growing realization that Obama’s justifications for the war in Libya are ridiculous, the accelerating assault on civil liberties, and how ‘liberal’ apologists for Obama are actually serving the conservative cause.

Read it here.

What we have lost in the so-called ‘war on terror’

Radley Balko compiles a list of all the things that we have lost in the Glorious War on Terror. He said that he compiled this list simply off the top of his head without doing a lot of research but it seems pretty complete to me. Here is his complete listy:

  • We’ve sent terrorist suspects to “black sites” to be detained without trial and tortured.

  • We’ve turned terrorist suspects over to other regimes, knowing that they’d be tortured.
  • In those cases when our government later learned it got the wrong guy, federal officials not only refused to apologize or compensate him, they went to court to argue he should be barred from using our courts to seek justice, and that the details of his abduction, torture, and detainment should be kept secret.
  • We’ve abducted and imprisoned dozens, perhaps hundreds of men in Guantanamo who turned out to have been innocent. Again, the government felt no obligation to do right by them.
  • The government launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign implying that people who smoke marijuana are complicit in the murder of nearly 3,000 of their fellow citizens.
  • The government illegally spied and eavesdropped on thousands of American citizens.
  • Presidents from both of the two major political parties have claimed the power to detain suspected terrorists and hold them indefinitely without trial, based solely on the president’s designation of them as an “enemy combatant,” essentially making the president prosecutor, judge, and jury. (I’d also argue that the treatment of someone like Bradley Manning wouldn’t have been tolerated before September 11.)
  • The current president has also claimed the power to execute U.S. citizens, off the battlefield, without a trial, and to prevent anyone from knowing about it after the fact.
  • The Congress approved, the president signed, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a broadly written law making it a crime to advocate for any organization the government deems sympathetic to terrorism. This includes challenging the “terrorist” designation in the first place.
  • Flying in America now means enduring a humiliating and hassling ritual that does little if anything to actually make flying any safer. Every time the government fails to catch an attempt at terrorism, it punishes the public for its failure by adding to the ritual.
  • American Muslims, a heartening story of success and assimilation, are now harassed and denigrated for merely trying to build houses of worship.
  • Without a warrant, the government can search and seize indefinitely the laptops and other personal electronic devices of anyone entering the country.
  • The Department of Homeland Security now gives terrorism-fighting grants for local police departments across the country to purchase military equipment, such as armored personnel carriers, which is then used against U.S. citizens, mostly to serve drug warrants.

If the government had issued all these new policies suddenly, there would have been a revolt (at least I like to think there would have been). But all these things were introduced gradually and by both parties, after the public had been softened up by a continuous drumbeat of fear-mongering. It is only when the full list is compiled that we see how far we have sunk.

This is the danger of creeping authoritarianism.

Myths about the Golden Ratio

Take a straight line. How should one divide the length into two parts such that the ratio of the length of the whole line to the longer segment is equal to the ratio of the longer segment to the shorter one? A little algebra gives you the result that longer segment should be 0.618 times the length of the whole line and thus the ratio of the full line to the longer segment is 1.618 (=1/0.618).

The number 1.618 is known as the ‘Golden Ratio’ and folklore ascribes deep significance to it and claims a ubiquity for it that far exceeds the reality.

Mathematician Keith Devlin tries to set the record straight.

Paying for people’s services

There is a 78-year old Austrian billionaire named Richard Lugner who likes to have women celebrities as his dates at a fancy ball that is held every year in Austria. He reportedly pays them as much as $150,000 for the pleasure of their company and in the past has squired such well-known names like Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton, Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, and Andie MacDowell. Apparently there are complicated financial negotiations that have to be gone through by representatives of both parties before the deals are finalized and contracts signed. It all seems a bit much for a few hours of socializing.

I had naively thought that people asked their friends to partner them to social functions and so this commercial aspect surprised me. It also struck me as quite odd but I could not quite put my finger on the reasons for my negative reaction. I have argued that what consenting adults do should be of no concern to others so why shouldn’t people charge others for the pleasure of their company? One would guess that he people mentioned are quite rich and it is a little strange that they would feel the need to do this. I mean, does Paris Hilton really need the money? But we know that some people, however much they have, always seem to want more. If you are doing nothing one evening and someone offers you $150,000 to go to a ball with them, what is wrong with accepting that offer?

Also, is this any different from people being paid to attend any other events? Politicians like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann charge people to have their photographs taken with them. And when people are willing to pay money to listen to a speaker, even though they know pretty much in advance what he or she is going to say, aren’t they just paying for the privilege of being in the speaker’s presence and to get a chance perhaps to have a brief conversation?

Taken further, how is this different from paying people for their services? Although I am not a celebrity, some people are willing to pay for me to come to their venue and give a talk, so I am also selling my services, even if my personality and name (and definitely my looks) by themselves have no marketable value.

I finally figured out what was bothering me about this commercial aspect. While it is partly the fact that it is blurring the difference between social interactions (which are supposed to be free of financial considerations) and commercial interactions (for which fees are charged), what really bothers me is not that these people are doing anything wrong but that we do not extend the social acceptance of paying for services to a wider range of people and services.

In particular, we treat sex workers to a different standard. For example, prostitutes are also paid for sharing with others the pleasure of their company and providing services. Why are they prosecuted and treated like criminals in so many countries, when the rest of us are able to sell our services and even be admired for doing so? When Richard Lugner gets to spend some time with a famous woman by paying for her presence, it is considered acceptable, if a little tacky. But if the agreement also involves having sex as part of the deal, the entire transaction is viewed with disdain and can become illegal and the people involved subject to harsh criminal penalties.

It is this double standard that drives sex workers into the underground economy and creates conditions in which they can be exploited and abused because they are operating outside the law and thus cannot easily call upon society to protect them.