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Shining light on cyber-secrets
David Brin   Nov 20, 2016   Contrary Brin  

Okay. All right. I’ve posted my thoughts about moving forward after this election. And yes, with confidence in a future-oriented civilization that may, yet, save the planet and take us to the stars.

Meanwhile - a topic I know a thing or two about... our increasingly (and now it had better be) transparent world.

First off: Here is the video of my recent popular talk on the future of AI at IBM's World of Watson congress in Las Vegas, last month. The place was packed! A punchy tour of big perspectives on Intelligence and - both artificial and human augmentation.

== Are we about to be slammed? ==

Okay then, here's a worrisome note: 

Someone is preparing a BIG attack on the Internet: “Over the past year or two, someone has been probing the defenses of the companies that run critical pieces of the Internet,” according to a blog post by security expert Bruce Schneier:

“These probes take the form of precisely calibrated attacks designed to determine exactly how well these companies can defend themselves, and what would be required to take them down. It feels like a nation’s military cyber-command trying to calibrate its weaponry in the case of cyberwar.”  Who might do this? “The size and scale of these probes — and especially their persistence — point to state actors. … China or Russia would be my first guesses.”

Among my list of Proposals for the new administration, that I'll issue in January, is to tell all citizens that their computers and printers etc may serve as botnet hosts, and that every person will share in tort liability for any major Net Disaster, unless they have at least tried, twice a year, to download a reputable anti-malware program.

This could get critical. One of the largest Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks happened recently and almost nobody noticed, because it was a complete takedown of the internet in Liberia. “...Why attack Liberia? Nobody is quite sure. One security researcher we spoke to, who didn't want to be named for fear of reprisals, said that attacking a little-known about country might be the "best place" to test cyberweapons, like the Mirai botnet, for larger attacks. Beaumont also thinks that the attacks "appear to be [of] a test nature"....”

No, clearly something awful is in the offing.  And we don't need, in the White House, a pal of the guys doing this. Put those two thoughts together and one's darkest thoughts turn to Manchuria...  but more on that, anon

== Spies everywhere! ==

Salon has been running an interesting series called “Espionage Insiders.” “The biggest benefit of what Edward Snowden did is that it motivated the U.S. Government to set better protocols and to actually follow them,” says Morey Haber, VP of Technology at BeyondTrust.
Like me, Haber is willing for our watchdogs to see, but we believe they need better supervision.  In this interview, Haber interprets that to mean better supervision of employees, so that further leakers like Snowden can be prevented.  My meaning is different. I mean better supervision in that our watch-dogs need always to remember whom they work for.  There are ways to do that without impeding on them doing their jobs.

Where we agree is in this… Snowden’s revelations made us stronger. That is what happens in free societies.  Light tends to be bracing. Often irritating, but almost never truly damaging. In sharp contrast, all our truly deadly enemies — from terrorists and criminals to totalitarian regimes — find light to be dangerously destabilizing and past a certain point, lethal.

That point, in the preceding paragraph, is one I hammer home every time I speak to various agencies “back east.” It is the salient, long-term strategic fact and points to our civilization’s victory condition. A world mostly filled with light may irritate us, especially our leaders, from time to time. 

But enemies of freedom and the enlightenment would find such conditions fatal.  We win. It is the only condition in which - over the long haul - we have any chance of winning at all. (And I don't get tired of winning.)

== The same old intellectual trap ==

In contrast, Amy Webb,  founder of The Future Today Institute, discusses how latter-day seers use lots and lots of data to try penetrating (prediction) future trends and events.  She found Snowden’s revelations unsurprising. Being watched is simply the modern condition.
“For so many people, things like iris scans [for authentication] seem technologically forward and scary,” says Webb. “For me, iris scanning is old hat. I am looking at neuro scanning, and verification based on the way that your body interacts with a WiFi signal.”  She does worry about the accuracy of certain methods of surveillance, such as facial recognition technology. And yet, her recommendation is the same as Haber’s: to “change your passwords often.” 

How, I keep asking, can smart, forward thinking people simply not get it?  And I mean not get it at the most fundamental levels? The series also interviews probably the most over-rated “security expert” on the planet, Bruce Schneier, who draws conclusions that are generally either obvious or diametrically wrongheaded. While whingeing about loss of privacy, he never, ever offers a practical suggestion on what to do about the Moore’s Law of Cameras — with the eyes getting smaller, faster, cheaper, better and more mobile at an accelerating pace and into ever-more hands. Or the flood of different biometrics that will render any organic human identifiable, at range, in dozens of ways.

That trend in proliferation of cameras is not necessarily bad — it has empowered the whole Black Lives Matter movement and enabled good cops to do their jobs better, while making life way-harder for the bad ones.  That one example shows a path forward and it is not — as Schneier reliably recommends — to moan about such trends and keep trying to hide.

== And those who rise above the trap ==

Smarter is Dan Patterson, a tech journalist who specializes in matters of cybersecurity, politics, and government, whose Espionage Insiders interview shines a little light upon the so-called Dark Web — “a virtual dark alley filled with bogeymen and unseemly characters ready to trade private information to the highest bidder.”

Patterson agrees with Haber that Snowden’s biggest contribution was to expose weaknesses in government agency procedures. “By failing to follow basic safeguards that would keep our information out of the hands of criminals, he explains, the government made us more vulnerable—in the name of national security.”

In the interview Patterson quasi justifies the Dark Web because it offers the privacy that is essential for whistleblowers. “We need people who live under oppressive regimes to be able to communicate with the outside world.” (Via encryption and anonymity.)  

Yet again, there is an inability to see the forest for the trees. Because must we accept the zero sum thinking here? That in order to gain those benefits, we must put up with parasitical and predatory criminality?

It seems to occur to none of these brainy “experts” that we have a modern civilization that can adapt to changing times with intelligently negotiated law.

Oh, it’s not entirely their fault, since it has not happened except on rare occasions in this century, because of a concerted campaign to destroy politics in the U.S., as a problem solving tool. But other generations did it.

In fact, that is the reason why we have whistleblower laws and laws on civil disobedience and safe harbor for the revelation of felonies. These could be the basis for new methods and institutions that would systematically give folks like Snowden safe places to go with their complaints. Such systems might encourage henchmen around the world to step up, casting light upon every horridly oppressive conspiracy.  I have long proposed ways that some billionaire could get the ball rolling.  Or some vividly far-seeing president…

But we have to start with our best and brightest and sharpest seers and experts. They must start talking about these problems in something more than the same hoary cliches, over and over again.

The Espionage Insiders series aims to accomplish that, and some of the interviewees have been smarter than others, offering tepidly interesting insights.  But I am deeply hopeful that these aren’t truly representative.

We need much sharper tools than these, in our workshop.

== Transparency news == 

I'm quoted in The Atlantic's latest issue: Even Bugs Will Be Bugged: Exploring the next frontiers in surveillance: A Big Brother society results not from being watched, but from one-way observation. 

Almost any ambient radio system – like WiFi – will be able to eavesdrop and track your movements and much more. “By measuring subtle changes in breathing and heart rhythms, EQ-Radio is 87 percent accurate at detecting if a person is excited, happy, angry or sad — and can do so without on-body sensors… Using wireless signals reflected off people’s bodies, the device measures heartbeats as accurately as an ECG monitor, with a margin of error of approximately 0.3 percent.”

This does not have to mean an end to privacy or freedom. It does mean that the earnest, well-meaning prescriptions offered by most civil liberties paladins – to yell “stop, looking at us, Big Brother!” – are pathetically futile. I have to wonder when they (any of them) will wake up to the fact that cowering and hiding simply will not and cannot work. It never ever has. 

One thing has worked.  It is responsible for what freedom we do have! And it is being played out, right now, on our streets. It is the one and only thing that can work tomorrow.  And it is the one thing that all the privacy mavens, liberty activists and security “experts” absolutely refuse to allow into their minds.

It is happening despite them. The solution is unfolding, as it had to, and as I predicted, 20 years ago in The Transparent Society. The street is making use of technology to look back at power. Bravely, assertively insisting on transparency for those with power.  

Alas, the “leaders” among the anti-orwellians will – apparently – be the last to realize any of this -- that you do not fight Big Brother by hiding from him.  

You stop him from oppressing you by getting in his face.

== I said let's go back to ... ==

...being a real civilization heading for the stars.  Tonight we'll watch the new Star Trek flick.

Hope springs eternal...

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."

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