Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TSA scanners

It might be interesting to take the airport scanners that are getting attention at the moment and look at them through the lens of being false positive-centric.

Advanced technology helps find the true positives. The point of doing it is to find hidden bombs that could kill a lot of people.

However, taking a machine's representation as a stand-in for something real has problems. We also have lie detector machines, and their results are (if I have this correctly) not admissable as evidence in courtroom trials. So the scanners could be terrific, subject to the usual concerns: (a) incompetent technicians making mistakes, (b) A plant: falsified scanner images designed to target someone. It's rare, it's unusual, but not nearly as difficult to do in digital environments as in someone's dresser drawer. If the TSA starts to be used to do political persecution, what might happen next is that "the solution will unfold when the time comes, from the impact of the problem itself." People would make other arrangements - but like I asserted in the last post, if there always must be a "canary in a coalmine" or a kid must get killed at a crosswalk for the new traffic light to go in, the impact of the problem can indeed be said to have gotten the ball rolling for a general solution, but the family of that kid will see it differently.

If you trust the machine, if you trust the manufacturer (and they don't have a cloud over them, Diebold-style,) if you trust the technicians and you are confident that they are acting in good faith, I think these types of scanners could be an elimination of false positives. In a way, it's the opposite of an indiscriminate basket warrant. Or an indiscriminate camera on a street in London. It's technology being used at a very specific time and place, to make sure that nobody getting on a plane is going to do damage, to people and property, way out of proportion to its being a single event.

So leaving aside the dramatic flashpoints, most of what happens at an airport scanner is banal. As far as the banal annoyance and humiliation of having to deal with a lot of new crap at airports, I don't know. On the one hand, air travel had a martial quality in the first place. There's no mistaking the inside of an airport for a free place. I'm not that surprised that airports now feel like mini police-states, and I don't know that I mind. On the other hand, I think it's worrisome to be carving out exceptions for certain parts of a society. Airports are one point on the slippery slope. There is really no limit to the the sorts of events and social roles that could be invoked in order to gradually militarize more and more special exception zones within a representative democracy with a bill of rights, or a charter of rights and freedoms. The charter would still hold, except here, except over there, except on alternate Tuesdays, except at city hall, except at the airport and the train station and soon you have a charter that is like swiss cheese. It makes sense when we feel the militarized quality of a big airport because big airports are busy, with loads of people and objects passing through and then escaping for faraway places. And there's money involved - airplanes are expensive to replace. And passengers riding on commercial airlines hold their breath, suspend their disbelief, and put their trust in the airline for those few hours. All good reasons for carving out a militarized zone - maybe - but these same attributes also happen in many other places: other transportation hubs, downtown shopping areas and financial districts. And the impetus/pretext for a militarized zone could also unfold over time: a natural disaster, a visiting dignitary or president staying at a big hotel or attending an event at a giant convention complex. One of the points that Paul Jay made in writing and doing videos on the G20 meeting is that it's actually at the time when they are under pressure that it is the most important for rights to be retained. Otherwise you're always going to be able to find some reason to suspend, suspend, suspend.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bedbug -sniffing Dogs

From the Atlantic:

No grand impacts from this particular story but... I am documenting *all* false positive stories I get my mitts on, not just the really salient ones. The issue here is money and reputation. It will hurt the dogs' reputation if they don't have a good rate of having been right. So this phenomenon has some salience because it suggests that calm, Occam's Razor and a shrug about power structures is sufficient - if they do a bad job, their reputation goes in the toilet. "What are you worried about - the proof will be in the pudding. If a police chief turns out to have been wrong one too many times, the guy is sacked."

My complaint is that it makes those *first few* incidents into canaries in a coalmine. Or to repeat another phrase I have repeated in a few different posts, "some kid always has to get killed at the crosswalk to get the new traffic light put in." In the case of this news story, let's say for argument's sake that authorities could compel a hotel to do expensive fumigations because the dog sniffed bedbugs. It turns out the dog was wrong, and by that time, the hotel has already spent money. So the remedy is that the reputation of the dogs suffers. And this is better than nothing, but it sucks for the first few examples who were instrumental in bringing that problem to light. And if the domain you're talking about is something irretrievable - money can be refunded, but let's say we're talking about the death penalty based on DNA evidence which is later found to be wrong - it is a problem because you aren't going to be able to bring that person back. Even if the reputation of DNA evidence duly suffers, the actually-not-guilty person has already been executed.

To add one final thing to this messy post, I want to mention the idea of "it could be you." Someone who tries to point out the fallibility in a given system can use the argument, "it could be you, you might feel differently if it were you or someone you know." The vast middle class comes back with Occam's Razor.

"It's just not going to be."

"Why not?"

"It's just not going to."

So we are more comfortable and less concerned with "canary in a coalmine" situations where something can be remedied gradually, when it is at someone else's expense. Possibly race and economics comes into it, because if the person saying "you're being an alarmist," is well off and/or not part of an ethnic group that tends to be poorly treated, they are subtly taking advantage of that, even though they might decry it out loud.

So to be more specific, a poor black man is a suspect for murder. Through DNA evidence, he is found guilty, gets the death penalty and is executed. He's later exonerated. People start to have second thoughts about DNA evidence. But if someone was trying to drum up more attention for the flaws in the DNA-evidence process before the wrongful execution happened, they wouldn't have gotten very far. And one of the reasons they wouldn't have gotten very far is that "it could be anyone, even you!" arguments wouldn't have caught fire because the center can fire back, "it won't be me so it's not my problem." Ultimately it seems to me like a subtle exercise of might makes right.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Common Carriers

I got this metaphorical story from my friend Orion. Suppose there is a cadre of mob criminals. They want to communicate about their plans for a new heist, and do it securely. So they all pile into two cars and set off for a deserted highway. It's reckless, but they start communicating about their next job by flashing morse code with their headlights. Everybody signals "OK, we got it!" at the end and this is the only conference they ever have about what turns out to be a bungled heist where a bystander is killed.

If these mafia members can be caught and it can be shown that they had this morse-code conference, can the Transportation Agency responsible for the highways be held liable?

This story is on my themes, somehow. I'm not going to take too much time mulling over right now how, but I wanted to get it down before I forget.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I have felt for a while that the concentrated powers of high tech get a free pass from scrutiny. The reason why it's relevant to this blog is that false positives and false negatives are the kinds of things you can get away with when no one is holding your feet to the fire. I have a cluster of thoughts that I don't see being expressed anywhere - it's very possible I'm mistaken, but it's something that I think is on the horizon. Recent terror incidents in the U.S. suggest that the types of things that would need to be considered fair game in order to prevent/preempt them are changing. It becomes more of a psychological question, when this notion (either accurate or cynically trumped up) of "homegrown" terror gains credence. And when it becomes more of a psychological question, it becomes OK to ask questions about people's thoughts and ideas even on a quiet day. Supposedly, the ends would justify the means. (And as always, I have room in my conception of how things work for all four quadrants of the FP/TP/FN/TN grid. I'm interested in good police work by good police, and accurate and fair apprehension of true-positive criminals before they are able to commit any human-rights violations. The thing I don't know about is harm to innocents in the course of the authority figure's job, either accidental or deliberate.)

When it becomes OK to ask these questions, it becomes important to talk to people where they are. And where they are is tech. Where they are is their devices, smartphones, PDAs, computers. Therefore, it seems to me that the big concentrated powers of high technology are very likely to be comandeered, semi-nationalized, or enlisted for help in the "war." The NSA asked for help from AT&T and other telcos because they needed to be where the foot traffic is. It seems like a no-brainer to me. So the place where I feel at odds with a lot of people is that this premise colors how I feel about Apple, Adobe, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Motorola maybe, Google, the Blackberry people, and whoever else, Amazon. I am suspicious of them and I am suspicious of the role of coolness, cachet and status in letting them off the hook from a skeptical eye.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Obama Administration Sued over Plan to Assassinate US Citizens

New addition to the topic that got me writing this blog in the first place. I suppose a moderate would say "you should read between the lines, it's in their interest to do it as modestly as possible. If they say they don't target people for free speech but for doing things with language and communication that demonstrably lead to attacks, the program should be analyzed in that light - it's not a cover for killing just anyone if they say it isn't."

It doesn't matter. The false positives are the point: accidents, mistakes and scapegoating, either now or by a future administration.

What about the rather level-headed and calm rebuttal that if the powers are used unfairly, the outcry will force them to back down? It makes every person a canary in a coalmine. And there is a quality here that needs to be identified and labelled: unfolding over time. Paul Jay's interviews have been talking about this phenomenon, where Toronto police detained people outside the G20 meeting and charge them, and later the charges were dropped. It unfolds over time. It is like a Trojan Horse. When the arrest is happening, the police are entitled to belittle the person and abuse them - or act as though they are - because they are contextualizing the person as a suspect. They might do this disingenuously with no intention of pursuing the charges. What you're left with is a few days of treatment that is supposed to be prohibited. That particular case is a Canadian story because it's the Charter that it would be violating. The one-two punch is a thing unto itself, and should be encapsulated with both episodes together, with a rubber band around them.

The analogy here that goes back to the U.S. government basically relates to this idea of a bleeding edge of controversial, alarming assertions. Of disingenuously "floating a trial balloon" to see what will happen. The point is that the person/people caught up in the implementation of controversial programs ARE the story. And replies of "we ended it, what more do you want!" is not enough, and is phony in itself. We ended rendition, we ended torture. It's not enough only to look at one time slice at a time. The point is what effect does it have upon the whole phenomenon of trying something out that will probably not last more than a couple of years? And how many peoples' lives are being disrupted in ones or tens or hundreds by something where the refrain will later be, "We stopped it! The people have spoken, what more do you want?"

Saturday, August 21, 2010

a soothing balm

Aieee, it's a balm! Somebody's got a balm!

NSA analysts flagged internal communications by top officials at Hawaiian Tropic, on suspicion that they were making balms.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

NSL against Calyx ISP story

The use of gag orders around NSLs is one of the most viscerally alarming things about post-9/11 security policies. Also, these situations where secret evidence is introduced in trials and the other side can't challenge it because they aren't allowed to be told what it is. It's interesting what Merrill says at the end: "
I either want to inspire others to follow the example [his example in fighting back] ... or develop technology that makes it more difficult for people to be snooped on." I think it works with the tiers I came up with for how to approach AFP/DFP dangers.

- civil libertarian ("this shouldn't be happening because it's wrong")
- civil efficacian or civil-liberties efficacian ("this is being done in a shoddy fashion and too many false positives are getting hurt - if you're going to do it, do it well, or the leeway to have this authority/power should be tightened or revoked")
- strong encryptor ("Privacy is dead. It's unrealistic to expect them not to do it, or not to make mistakes. I am going to use defensive technology so I won't be one of the false positives.")

There are things I like about all three of these positions.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mistaken identity story at G20

On the CBC program As It Happens ( for today, they did the following piece:

"...An ad homonym attack. Toronto police apprehend a Somali-Canadian suspect named Sharmake Abdi -- but he's not the Sharmake Abdi they were looking for..."

The police had some datapoints for, and some datapoints against. It's a harder kind of situation than when all the information is in one direction. He has the same name, but doesn't look like the other Sharmake Abdi. I guess you would call this an accidental false positive. Presumably they didn't target him. But it's against the backdrop of a several-day period when the Toronto police used a lot of excessive force against a lot of people and several stories of draconian and harsh treatment. But I suppose in this case, it's in a slightly different place on the Venn diagram because of the coincidence in the names. The idea that you can act first and ask questions later is bad enough if it's a policeman beating up the wrong person, and even worse if it's a suspected terrorist and you have Dennis Blair's "special permission." to assassinate them.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Real News references Colombian "false positives" scandal

On the Real News, Paul Jay interviewed Forrest Hylton about Santos victory in recent Colombian elections. The video caught my eye because it mentions the "false positives" scandal. Here are the relevant excerpts from the transcript:

HYLTON: Santos is somebody who has intimate knowledge of Washington and very numerous high-level contacts in Pentagon and State. So, insofar as it will affect US-Colombian relations, it's likely to make them only stronger. On the other hand, the false positives scandal for which Santos is in part responsible—.

JAY: False positives is when they dressed up ordinary people to look like FARC so they could collect the bounty. And they didn't just dress them up: they killed them and then dressed them up.

HYLTON: They killed them and dressed them up. And there were considerable incentives within the armed forces to do this in order to inflate the body count to make the Colombian army look good. Santos was in charge when much of this took place. And it's possible that the International Criminal Court will have its eye on some of these cases—and certainly the relatives of the victims are fighting to make sure that the International Criminal Court does have its eye on these cases. If this becomes too much of a scandal or a problem for the Santos administration, it's possible that the United States would want to take some distance, although that could be difficult given that the United States was the number-one backer of the Colombian army when Santos was minister of defense.

(Excerpts end.) It reminds me of the situation when there was a bounty offered to people who would round up "Taliban" in Afghanistan, if I remember correctly from Sy Hersh's _Chain of Command_. There were also false positives in that situation, because the people doing the rounding had a profit motive to identify more people. My understanding is that some of the false positives were put in Guantanamo.

Here is the video:

More at The Real News

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Fight Club

Hmm.. I had never seen _Fight Club_ so I finally watched it. Norton asks Pitt, what about Robert, the one who was killed, and Pitt-as-Tyler says the line about making an omelette. Interesting coincidence on a surface level, which is what made me think to post about it.

Maybe this movie's common ground with my themes is this: the problems of trying to carry out a big project/enterprise, without hitting this moment of harming people - accidentally, or if on purpose it might be a case where the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. The guys in the army, the third and fourth in command, were thugs. Robert gets killed and that is the "oh no, it's all spinning out of control" moment that we are shown. Is it the only one? How much do you wanna bet it's not the only one?

Apparently the buildings were empty and the security guards were all "our guys," meaning that they weren't going to be hurt either because they would get to safety beforehand. Hmm.. it would be nice if that were true, but it would mean that Tyler and everyone in the gang was perfect and didn't (a) make mistakes and forget someone (an accidental false positive, to take my model maybe a little too far) or (b) that he, or any of the underlings in his army, could resist the temptation to strong-arm someone they had some animosity for (a deliberate false positive.)

It could be a movie about Blackwater, Nisour Square. It could be a movie about the Green Zone.

The business about feeling "truly alive" is ho-hum. Is there not a 3rd thing? Is this maybe what making art is for? I don't like materialistic, yuppie priorities but also don't want to do Cacophony Society - for pragmatic reasons, namely that I don't think they have their false positives under control. I agree that the straightlaced world is soul-killing, but I do think there's a 3rd thing. So the great idea for how to deal with "working for the man" and having to look the other way when they deliberately avoid recalls and leave their dangerous cars on the road, is to extort them into bankrolling the fight club? What a great idea! The only problem is, it keeps all of those people getting killed in the dangerous cars, which you won't shrug about if you are one of the people in the dangerous cars. Whistleblowing is also possible, and that is another way to "feel truly alive." Also, let's say you want to paint a portrait or build a house before you die, and then you get thumped, have a concussion, and never get around to your dreams because you are now not right in the head. Am I maybe not supposed to be reading the fight club as literal? I don't know why not - it is the first stage in something that later gets too big to control, gets co-opted and its character changes. It's kind of useful as an illustration of that kind of thing, even though I totally don't buy the "necessity" of getting back to visceral, masculine whatever-it-is, or if you don't, you're a neutered automaton. The fight club in particular also doesn't have its false positives under control. I don't buy it. Norton took out his jealousy on that one character and in the real world analog to that movie moment, he would have been dead or rendered retarded. Oh, but it's consensual, right? Maybe, but it's at cross purposes to Brad Pitt trying to force everybody to live up to their potential before they die.

I guess you could say that it is a story that does not hold itself responsible for empathizing with the other side. Maybe despots have narratives written of what it looked like *from* the inner circle, and I'm sure when you can order people around, it's a sweet deal the same way "it's good to be the king" is a sweet deal.

The reason why I watched this movie was to get informed about the zeitgeist, because it always pops up on peoples' lists and seems remarkably popular. There is only one character missing from this movie: the person they used, the Machiavellian "means", the egg who gets broke. The shop attendant who Tyler forces to carry out his own dreams or be killed is the closest thing, and they don't hurt him. The gun has no bullets. I can see the argument for bringing on a different society to force sleeping people to open their eyes. Sounds a little like Guy Fawkes, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen for that matter. I can also see the argument for surveillance in order to prevent deaths. But there is no one in this movie talking about their AFPs or DFPs, which means Fight Club is like the Hitler-commissioned Official History of the State, or the Soviet history with the enemies rubbed out of existence and down the memory hole. And I am skeptical of all the people who like it so much.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Lots of coverage on the Real News about Ontario's Public Works legislation, as well as the events on the streets, as well as the events inside the G20. It would be a good idea to track this one and come back to it, rather than just letting it get away. It's a very wide-ranging, draconian law, and the other concurrent news stories about the Real News journalist and the other journalist are also very disturbing.

I am irritated and cynical about the fact that the events at big pre-planned protests seem to have no bearing on what happens afterwards, even in the direction of banality. I would hazard a guess that some of what Paul Jay was discussing with the civil liberties attorney/activist, either won't happen ("if they don't like the sunglasses you are wearing, they can arrest you..") or will happen in a spirit of colloidal suspension/breakout capability/fluoride, in tiny enough numbers as to go below the radar. Because part of big famous protests is kids who eventually go back to school, there is an attack-decay-sustain-release of the energy. So the outrage - Jay was LIVID in his editorial - possibly gets made diffuse, and they may actually get shit through without an outcry, because the use of the public works thing during normal times will seem a bit "normal" and banal, and people will be sleepy.

Of course there was a Black Bloc contingent, and of course the AP had a lede that said, "a group of people in black, broke away from the main protest, smashed windows," etc. The lede sounds extremely familiar- they've used it for Seattle, or the 2004 GOP convention in New York, various others. It's a sin of omission on the Associated Press' part, because the point of the Real News coverage was that people were unarmed, not in black, sitting down, and two phalanxes (?) of riot police closed in on them and told them to disperse in different directions. At which protest did this happen to Democracy Now people? Where Michael Isikoff goes, "I think she gets a followup.. she can ask her question as my question."

More on granularity

I keep on coming back to these couple of broad, abstract processes that I see referenced in all different kinds of news stories and events.

One is about differing beliefs on lenses, magnification levels, whether to take the 50,000 foot view or the ground level view, Stewart Brand's long now, or a Human Rights Watch reporter's yesterday, today and tomorrow. Or a smart synthesis, but you end up choosing one or the other as your basis for decisions when you have to make a decision.

The other broad process has to do with granularity and things that didn't used-to-be possible. Situations where old workarounds are no longer necessary, therefore things that used to be subsidized as a side effect of necessities of transmission are no longer subsidized. Matt Welch talks to Alex S. Jones on Bloggingheads and says, in healthier times for the newspaper business, people were buying the package. Probably in homes in the suburbs, they were subscribing. And the word "granularity" went through my mind. They bought it for the crossword or the comics, and they got the hard news, because taking it apart wasn't an option. That just wasn't how things were done. Today, I can spend all day on just ESPN or just Scott McCloud's website or the Comics Journal or Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury website on Slate. Okay, Slate runs all kinds of links all over the place, til the design looks like a freaking pinball machine - so maybe I get exposed to stories by accident just like I do with a paper paper when I go for the 3/4-page Macy's ad of the lady in the bra and panties, and stay for the Planning Commission story.

It's one example of the phenomenon that is brought about by increased capacity and the overcoming of speed bottlenecks and the reduced cost. Skype and Webex, remote access products, VOIP phone systems empower global workforces - so the labor standards of any one nation have a harder time. Employers, businesspeople used to get employees from around town because there was no other option - maybe even domestic long-distance calling was a big deal before cel plans.

Both of these things have ramifications for my main preoccupations/themes on this blog. The former, fundamentally, is the conflict of grand project versus casualties incurred in the course of that project. Can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, we've contextualized it as "an omelette," so a few elbows in the ribs are par for the course, now that we've defined what the course is. The difference between grand project focus and casualty focus is a similar question to where to put your scale/order of magnitude in assessing most any metric of the human condition over time.

The latter is maybe more about the widening palette of tools, ways and means, with which to do surveillance. You could even say that a tighter focus leads to higher-quality surveillance and fewer accidental false positives. Fine - this is where I am partially a civil efficacian. Show me some numbers. But you have to look at all aspects of costs and benefits. Like for instance, the unmanned drone strikes. They're still causing Afghan casualties, but enable the war to continue without PR disasters (at least this particular stripe of PR disaster) because there obviously will be no American soldiers killed in this particular avenue of the operations. I don't know. My bias is not to be over there at all. But take the drone strikes against a similar military operation in the 70s or 80s, and maybe it is "safer" as a result of technology, all other things being equal.

Another example would be big, honking databases with big honking SQL queries. I resent Acxiom and the obnoxious things they do. However, do faster computers lead to better TP/FP ratios over time? I had really better get empirical in this project. Anyone who is reading this, thank you for your indulgence, you can check out if you wish, because it is not polished, it's more like immediate notes as I think of them, to perhaps be arranged into something coherent at some point in the future. I suppose I take these issues about technology enabling Bill of Rights violations in a layered fashion. There is the Bill of Rights absolutist, and I like that a lot. But the center moved right after 2001. I'm pissed off, but would like to stay engaged anyhow. So you say, fine, the absolutist position isn't working because we elect people who don't take it. The next layer is the civil efficacian. If you're going to do it, for gods' sakes, do it well. This is where I am perhaps agnostic on how technology will influence false positives, mistaken identity stories and so on. My friend Scott Tipton once tipped me off to the fact that Charles Schulz had invented a minor Peanuts character in the seventies named "Five." I really liked this, and was a little disappointed to discover that it wasn't just absurdist, playing with words, just busting out with the Red Baron and root beer or the cat next door turning Snoopy's doghouse into shreds of wood, but a sort of classical conservative commentary and satire of chagrin, upon oldschool computerization, like with whirring great reels of 3M tape. The kid was so immersed in bureaucracy and depersonalized service, his name was Five. The point of this Schulz story is that the incorporation of computers in those days, maybe would have been seen as making things worse. I guess that has always been the case - cue one of my favorite words, "boffins." Boffins in white lab coats had it all figured out. Maybe that has changed, I'm not sure, but it seems like it has in, for instance, the consistent role of Google in providing semi-amazing, ubiquitous informational wonders to most everyone most every day. (Or Bing. Whatever. I don't care, I am vendor-agnostic.) They're doing it really well, like a killer app, or the adjective "winning" as in "a winning smile."

Okay, and I say that with chagrin as well. You have Siva V. (fill in his name properly here), talking about Street View, bands of citizens surrounding the big trucks so they couldn't shoot. And the thing with the wireless interception. They do seem a little out of control.

So maybe the efficacian in me is more angered and worried by technology to a degree that outweighs the enjoyment of all of the ubiquitous informational wonders on a daily basis.

(Side note: Let's also don't forget black swans. I'm a big Bob Wright fan, but I think we are getting more and more giant burst events which *eventually* screw up one's thesis about a net positive change over time, just in a spring-loaded fashion - bottomheavy if you will. It looks like nonzero relationships until the 11th hour, at which time a bomb goes off that not only fucks everything up, but retroactively changes the picture from the times when you thought things were good. Like waiting for the other shoe gonna drop.)

So does Street View make it worse or just different? Will they find exciting new ways to eviscerate the 4th Amendment when there are nanocomputers with atom-sized cameras and wings (that didn't used to be cost effective or technologically possible) that get into the airstream and we swallow them, and the ones that we don't swallow are shooting our houses? (Miniaturization seems important to my points here - like granularization taken to mean tinier atoms of information, more degrees of freedom in computer modeling, but also literal granules.)

Or - will the new cost-effectivity of the technologies mean they can afford to, let's say, use 1:1, census-style checking, Total Information Awareness, rather than statistical sampling in cases where sampling used to be used because of cost- and will that 1:1 mean actually fewer accidental false positives, unmonitored intrusion on a truly quantum scale, but only interfering with the lives of the true positives?

Even if the accidental false positive rates go down, you still have deliberate false positives to worry about. So for reasons of either AFP (if you're not satisfied with the rate - even one accidental dead person is too many) or DFP, there is a third layer. Beyond and below Bill of Rights absolutist is civil efficacian. Beyond and below civil efficacian, is encryptor. Screw them, says the encryptor, maybe their rates will be .00001 but I am not going to become a statistic. If I have something private to say, I will say it privately.

Beyond that, all you have is man-in-the-middle, and what else? I'm sure there is more - my knowledge of encryption isn't that great. Long post.


Everything gets smaller and smaller. Surveillance becomes surveillance particles, colloidally spread equidistant over a background of people going about their business. Now consider supposed "safe havens" like the Taliban allowing Al Qaeda to stay with them, and convert this into an information transfer question. A secure chat room inside of public key-private key encryption, is a safe haven. May be a safe haven. Nobody knows what is going on inside except the people with the keys- that is the whole point. Therefore, strong encryption can't stay. But strong encryption must stay, because the military, business, intelligence- they all rely on it. Can it be criminalized, licensed? Will it be illegal to PGP without a license?
Very weird. The idea of secure chatroom as safe haven interests me as the impetus/pretext for crackdowns, which then leads to some AFPs and DFPs in a climate of "now the gloves come off." Must not allow a miss - "a few false hits are preferable to a miss" would be one piece of possible overheard dialogue of 2050, but the next question for me is what's a few? What if it takes 49% false hits? For that matter, what if it takes 51% and then you are actually killing MORE people than you are saving?

I suppose what I'm missing in making an equation like this out of human behavior is that codified rules are just an extension of the conscience in the first place, otherwise the rule wouldn't last. So at some level of false positives would you have soldiers and police refuse orders, greater numbers of AWOLs and resignations, etc? When it becomes patently ridiculous or patently counterproductive what you're being asked to do?

free parties / terror

Signpost for later. From wikipedia story on Teknivals: "Eventual amendments to the public safety laws, the Loi sur la Securit√© Quotidienne, were passed in 2002 (known as the “Mariani Law” named after politician Thierry Mariani) in which free parties became linked with terrorism...." Huh? Really? If so, it's precisely on my themes.

Mutually Assured Destruction

The underlying indictment of this blog is in broad systems and economies that dictate certain stances on human rights, as an inevitability. So for example, 9/11 happens, and the center moves right. The centrists are still centrists and they can still claim that the fact that they're in a large crowd - the center - suggests that the decisions the center comes to are most likely to be correct because regular people are pragmatic and sensible and tend to come to the correct answer after weighing the obligations and the possible approaches. I would say, watch out. This center can hold anything at all. And you sometimes have to take the propositions on a case-by-case basis. If you have a dichotomy between things that "shock the conscience" and things that are ordinary and methodical, what are you gonna do when a vast center decides that things that shock the conscience ARE ordinary and methodical? Combined with a Congress that will only do centrist things, this sounds like moral checkmate to me.

And throughout this blog, I am trying to suggest a pragmatic, self-interested motivation for doubting, questioning and sometimes saying "no" to state power to hurt, kill or interfere with "other" people on a careful and targeted basis, if it is a double standard and you wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of the inevitable accidental false positives and/or deliberate false positives in carrying that policy out. Be careful. Don't be so sure you know that the rates and ratios of those regrettable, banal, friendly-fire incidents and mistaken-identity incidents will fall within the zone you consider to be worthwhile on balance.

Of course the quandary I see and maybe acknowlege is that every action that gets us in deeper and checkmates us more, may have been brought on as a well-meaning reaction to a previous thing. So we want to expand the kinds of energy we use, possibly to reduce interdependence with the Middle East, so we go and use corn for fuel, thereby reducing the amount of corn available as food. Or we want to take decisive action so there is never again another holocaust, and end up with a state so protected by special language and with such a national identity of defensiveness that they start taking it out on other cultures, many, many decades later. Rumsfeld is hanging out with Saddam, Saddam is a CIA guy, but there were thoughful considerations that went in to figuring out whether or not we should try to use him as a barrier against some OTHER problem, and presumably the intelligence and government officials who weighed that scale were also trying to protect families from whoever, maybe Iraq as a barrier against Iran. We fund and arm Noriega and then turn around and take him down. Bin Laden too, against the Soviets. The argument being "we do these things because we HAVE to."

It doesn't matter - I'm saying that the equations are too whacked. International systems should be judged by their collateral-damage potential. Bland centrist journalists like, let's say, David Gregory, are carrying on representing the sensible middle, to the expense of applying the moral/ethical smell test to the new normal.

So what do I favor instead - seasteading?? Some kind of separatist colony or as Mark Shahinian once pointed out, the Green Mountains and the White Mountains of Vermont form a natural barrier to I don't know what, nuclear fallout, and any community in the middle is probably going to be OK. (Ha- but if you have a colloidal suspension, tiny particles of surveillance spread equidistant over a saline/freedom base, and technological breakout capability for anything for anywhere from anywhere, even rural Vermont may not escape the eye.)

Also, I mentioned earlier that I acknowledge the problem of genuine crime taking advantage of strong encryption. So let's say you did have a bunch of people standing athwart history yelling stop, only with the human rights declaration in their hands rather than National Review, and they set up some kind of little community, doesn't that little libertarian community then have to be monitored so that it isn't a "safe haven" for attacks that also kill innocent people?

Strong encryption is all we have. SETAZ = Strongly encrypted temporary autonomous zone is the only freedom zone. Perhaps.

False Positives and "Good Wars"

A war that is supported by U.N. resolutions gets support by different slices of people. A lot of "liberal internationalists" supported Kosovo who may have gone on to oppose the Iraq War, for example. The problem that this suggests to me is a taking your eye off the ball with regards to false positives, when they happen in a niche/nook that goes against the main narrative. For example, the most unassailable war is World War II. Most people in western democracies would say, it was necessary and just, if it hadn't been undertaken, Hitler would have kept on attacking various countries, and it had to be undertaken to stop what was being done to the Jews. Now, I do not have any anecdotes at hand (it would be a good idea to get some if I am trying to have a blog with some actual evidence for things..) but I'm deliberately going to the hardest and most sacred case first, just to suggest that false positives are a concern in *every* situation. The official narrative of World War II does not have too much chaos, human error, mistaken identity, friendly fire by the Allies, not to mention deliberate, malicious miscategorization to set up a pretext for a certain type of treatment. It seems banal and blunts the main point, so documentaries, books don't focus on it. I don't know of anecdotes about its being done by the Axis either - I'm not picking on the Allies. But I'm willing to bet there was some, because human beings make mistakes. It doesn't fit the "heroic voice" so it is left out.

Okay, the point is, it's still important even after you are resigned/resolved to the idea that there is a war on. The use of language to shine a light over here and have no-particular-focus over there, should be called out as a mechanism. The piece of dialogue that comes to mind is "well, there's a war on, and in a war, these things happen... war is a dirty business.." Once again it is about the magnification level, how far that wheel is turned on the microscope and/or telescope. And once you have chosen your magnification, are you then off the hook from considering the priority system that is affiliated with a bigger or smaller lens?

It's similar to a U.N. devotee saying "oh, come on muckraker, I think surely the ends justify the means... if you'll just dial back your microscope to 100x instead of 10x, the datapoints tend to fade out in favor of a longer-term trendline."

I wonder if a conservative viewpoint tends to take a longer view, and then use that as a rationale for why it is misguided or wrong to be a bleeding heart day to day - you give a nice donation to the food bank at the end of the year, and then when someone asks you for some change, you're "allowed" not to pay attention to particular details of how that person looks or seems, as you decide to say no.

I'm fascinated by Amy Goodman and her use of specificity. She has such a specific voice and such a skill with using particular people's experience. She was on the ground in Haiti, there was some problem with a truck full of relief food or supplies not reaching the people, maybe for some political reason. And there is a guard, and Amy Goodman is interviewing the guard. It's an interesting thing to do - she has a belief about the big picture manifested in the footsoldiers. Come to think of it, I guess this is ironic in a convoluted way because people are messy, and Amy Goodman may bleach, disregard the snarly, contrary, compromised or banal because of the kinds of stories she believes in. And I have basically been saying that the left looks at specific humanitarian impacts on peoples' lives based on a situation that has been going on for three weeks, and the right looks at broader sociopolitical impacts that carve out rivers that will last for fifty years and influence the types of three-week stories that tend to happen -- but, the bleaching/disregarding cuts both ways/in all directions. The general problem that these are instances of is a counter-scientific fudging of data, "how to lie with statistics," and a willingness to minimize the importance of events that do not support one's bias.

I have some other example on the tip of my tongue of the use of language to bleach out the possibility of importance of details. I might need to write about it later instead when the example comes back to me but:
"it's just the city being the city,"
"it's a lion! what do you expect! If you don't want to be torn and eaten, don't go near the lion!,"
"it's a war.. war is a messy business.. expect it going in and don't bother with these incident reports - you can just aggregate them and show me a grid, I don't need to hear about individual people getting killed."
"What's that you say, the baby is crying? That's what babies do."
"Well of course the guerrilla fighter was killed, that's what we do with guerillas. That is the whole point of why we are here."
"Can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs - don't bug me, all I am trying to do is have the breathing room I need to make an omelette effectively."

Different ways of saying "you're using the wrong lens."

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Fluoridation opposition is a joke. It is like a quick shorthand that the person doing the opposing is nuts, a pest, doesn't know when to shut up.

Now leave aside fluoride for a minute. Consider an actual impunity. Consider the boardroom at R.J. Reynolds. Hey, that banality-based dismissal starts to look like a pretty sweet deal!

"Nobody's going to investigate us. And if anybody does, nobody's going to take them seriously because everybody knows tobacco is safe - anyone who stands up at their city council meeting and tries to talk about tobacco and nicotine, the council is going to collectively roll its eyes as though you had said 'fluoride.'"

Or at Chevron or Shell, "Ever since Pons and Fleischmann you can't get five minutes on the stuff. And that's good for us!"

The fluoridation blanket - this spreading anti-Midas touch of being accused of unseriousness, ideas just too far out for polite discourse - starts to look pretty good! "Hey, how can we get some of that banality!"

To unpack the shorthand a little here, consider the false positive. I'm making up this story: to fight terror, we fire off a little Raytheon box the size of a baseball. There's a flash of white light, and everyone in the vicinity finds themselves home in bed with tinnitus that will last for the next three weeks. Occasionally the tinnitus leads to a car accident. 99% of the people who were there were false positives, but we got a terrorist in the process. I know it's fanciful. Okay, so the thing that really protects us is the conversation-ending power of perennial gadfly issues. To be Cheney or Peter King talking about Ned Lamont is one way to (try to) shut down conversation. Another way is to affiliate your efforts with something people are so bored of, that they see it coming and say "oh god, not that again." Any journalist, or person on the receiving end of the Raytheon box tinnitus, who tries to get other people to pay attention, is going to get eye-rolls in return. Which is the right thing to do when they're wrong. And if they're right, it helps cement the bricks of the impunity.

See also: Christine Todd Whitman and harmful dust at ground zero, Gulf War Syndrome. Aha - using Kucinich's claims of having seen a UFO to shut him down.

The voice of conservatism, common sense, Occam's razor, also has a point here. Fancy things, entire cottage industries around far-out ideas, Dave Emory, what's the name of the one Andy likes, the Prevailing Winds catalog, and if you go back a few decades the first generation of JFK "researchers" and the mini economy around it, and in the notes of From Hell, Alan Moore talking about a similar type of culture around Jack the Ripper, with finding one more grapestem and poring over it -- the money and the vested interests in just telling more fairytales forever, satisfying an audience with a hunger for far out stories, Alex Jones -- this institutionalization is definitely a problem that discredits the ones who are right, if there even are any who are right. The ability to "go to a zone," lose sight of a forest for the trees of listening to John Stockwell in Campbell Hall on a UC campus, Barbara Honegger, Philip Agee, Daniel Sheehan, would tend to bolster the conservative with a small "c", who says, this is all really convoluted, involved shit which tends to go against Occam's Razor. It just sells a lot of tickets. So then the waters are muddied, which I say without a bias, or an intentional dog in that race, except I think if it is going to be public policy of the public's elected representatives to allow and support hurting a certain level of innocent people for the greater good, it should be out in the open what that is, and if a Prevailing Winds type of speaker actually had something credible and true, it would be kind of a pity if they weren't taken seriously because their millieu was seen as a cesspool for conspiracy theories. And that, too, would be a tradeoff, because the false-positive lives you decline to try to save, might, or might not, be offset by the good diligent caution of not wanting to end up like Pierre Salinger, or leap really quick, too quick, give everyone cipro too hastily for their anthrax, then finding out that insufficient care had been used and the cipro was actually poison. Or hop on the Thalidomide train because it sounds like a panacea, and by the time the dangers are exposed, it's too late.

To act hastily or wrongly is fraught with problems. To not act because you're dithering over the danger of acting hastily or wrongly, is also fraught with problems.

The Stop Sign

Some kid has to get killed at the intersection, to get the new stop sign installed.

You generally have to have standing. You don't carry as much weight when you raise something you're concerned about, in a vacuum, for no particular reason. At that point you have a lot of time on your hands and should "get a life."

But what if the kid getting killed is a black swan event? People doing triage on how to spend their precious time (not said facetiously), are acting in an understandable way when they favor things with some evidence or a track record. For instance, a newspaper editor trying to decide whether to give precious space to a piece written by a victim's family, or someone who is not an obvious stakeholder, will give it to the victim's family. Meanwhile, you have something that probably won't happen, but when it does happen, the consequences are disproportionately big and pervasive. I have sympathy for the unenviable position of the content-sifter trying to pick apart the four quadrants. If she errs on the side of "get out of my office, crackpot!" she might be accused of missing the big one. Declining to put the Beatles on your label. If she errs on the side of "Okay, it's probably against my better judgment but there's something about your story I just can't resist. You're on!" you're maybe, what was it, Pierre Salinger and Flight 800? You come out as a laughing stock for having leaped too easy.

All four quadrants are fraught with danger.

"Oh, come on, Matthew..."

I remember a U.N. Plaza that was not only an interesting example of a little vein of potential false positives, but shone a light on one of the ways that such a thing can be dismissed.

I remember Matthew Lee saying, the U.N. has a sort of blacklist. I'll look this up and include a citation here. It was a bloggingheads. Matthew's buzzers and instincts are going wild. What is this list? Whose say-so says you get on? What about if there was a false positive? How do you get off if you're on by accident? And if someone was trying to clear their name, what kind of inertia would they be up against?

Okay, so then you have a good international-law liberal, very sober and calm. His basic statement is "oh, come on, Matthew." Practically every second sentence is "oh, come on, Matthew."

I don't want to pick on Mark G, but I think it's an interesting issue and Mark is sort of like an exemplar of one of the viewpoints. But actually I'm putting together a hybrid person, I'm not saying he said all of this verbatim- I'm stirring him up with other people at various times who had a similar distaste.

I got the feeling that he wasn't terribly excited about discussing corruption at the U.N. because if there actually was something there to latch on to, if Matthew got a whole series of stories, for instance, and someone really sharp (and corrupt) ended up having to step down, it could hurt the U.N.'s goals.

This idea of corruption-hunting on your own team interests me. So you take down William Jefferson and (suppose he was a Senator for a minute), you lose your majorities. Suppose you had a razor-thin 51-seat majority, taking down Jefferson leads to a switch of party control, and there is some larger investigation which Leahy will do in a strong way and Specter will do softballs. Do you deliberately let the ethics violations slide because of the bigger fish to fry? And if the person making that decision has a case for saying that Leahy's thing affects the lives of more people, could they be right?

This is a very big issue at a sort of structural level and Mark is sort of like an exemplar of one of the viewpoints. It's a question of magnification level on your microscope or for that matter, telescope.

In the eyes of a big U.N. fan, perhaps the ends justify the means. We need a U.N. It's the furthest out humanity has gone towards worldwide cooperation, beyond the nation state. He's inclined to take the hundred-year, or thousand-year view and has no particular urge to frame a conversation around something happening in 2010.

It was sort of like the person in the Mark position is saying, oh come on, Matthew, the list will be fine because the people who administer the list are ***U.N. PEOPLE*** who believe in the mission of the U.N. and should be cut sufficient slack to do their jobs without interference. That's more it. One view says, the broadly hopeful institution will lead to more cooperation over time, just consider them friends, they do good international work, critical work. They help prevent another Nazi Germany. Another view says, but what is preventing a disingenuous, dishonest yet media-savvy, spin-savvy person from making all the noises to prevent the U.N.'s philosophic allies from poking their nose around, then once they've gone away, use U.N. power to classify people (was it as terrorists? U.N. charter violators?) to go after any enemies we want.

The importance of this cluster of stuff would depend on whether it happens a little or a lot. It rings some kind of bell for me. Last several posts I have been talking about a FP/TP mix. Suppose your ratio is not that good. But you're going up against this strong bias in favor of the "serious" work of the authority-figure careers: police, military, fire perhaps. Churches, elected officials.

There is a "How dare you!" defense. For either empirically-sound or empirically-fake reasons, the viewpoint that says, I'm sure the false positives are minimal, necessary or both -they're doing god's work, they're doing grueling, thankless work - can then turn around and shut down debate with a blanket like "patriotism." So Cheney can go on TV and say that a Ned Lamont victory over Lieberman would "empower Al-Qaeda types." Presumably by saying that he's trying to get the voter to stop thinking, appeal to horror. Peter King of Long Island also comes to mind. I don't know exactly what he said, but it doesn't take much provocation to get him to say it again. You put people beyond the pale. You want to talk about false positives? Consider the messenger. Consider the source. False positives are a dead, discredited issue because the person raising it might give aid and comfort to the enemy by rooting out corruption on our own team instead of being unified.

Suppose you had a cop in a wheelchair - he's amazing, he gets a lot of press coverage because he does the job of a beat policeman and he's a pioneer, he is the first. But he happens to cause a lot of collateral damage - he has a trigger finger and has hurt bystanders. His department likes the broad PR story that he makes possible, so they are willing to turn a blind eye to violations.

Israel - broad symbolic pleasure/pride trumps bad behavior at any particular moment. We feel a sense of doing good work with the grand project as a whole, so we turn a blind eye to particular cases.

The overall point is that rhetoric is used to minimize the importance of one of the four quadrants. (TP/FP/TN/FN). The left does it too. I look for friendly, benign language like, "guy,", "folks." Sentences beginning, "Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, but..."

The invasion of Iraq for reasons that were lies, (VIPS dude, standing up in the audience and talking to Rumsfeld, "we do know where they are, they're in Tikrit..." ..) , was a bad thing. But the language that should be used is what Robert Fisk talks about at the beginning of Pity The Nation - holding two things in mind at once, without minimizing one for the other.

The holocaust was awful *AND* the forced migration of Palestinians with their deeds and metal keys, so that the land could be used for something to assuage the sense of shared acknowledgement of something awful, was also awful.

The killings that a U.N. action ends or prevents, is bad. If there is impunity within the organization, that's also bad, and there is no god-given certainty that a place lives up to its logo.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Law Enforcement's Vested Interests

Picture the police chief of Dearborn. Let's say this person has a prejudice against Middle Eastern people. Obviously I am making this up - it could be the opposite for all I know. So the police chief of Dearborn, after 9/11, takes a look at which way the wind is blowing in terms of the law being whatever you can get away with with there being no political appetite for accountability against you for doing it, either from DAs and inspector-general types, or in terms of the outrage of the voters against, say, Schumer and Feinstein for going after Gonzales. In terms of both those things, the bigoted police chief who has to police a bunch of slumlike neighborhoods around Dearborn populated largely by Arab/Muslim people, may rub his hands together and say, oh boy, my job just got a lot easier. Because the climate is going to allow me to get away with a lot more accidental false positives, deliberate false positives and somewhere-in-between false positives, in the course of doing my job.

The same happens after the Christmas Day incident.

The same happens after the Times Square incident.

Law enforcement is self-interested and will sell out the Bill of Rights if it gives them "more tools."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Palmer Raids

I know nothing about them yet but I seem to remember there being some "heat" here.

Glasgow Catacombs

Another placeholder post for something where I need to get my facts straight, but it's an example that has been rattling around in my head for a couple of years. So the plague hits Glasgow, and in order to save a big chunk of people, the mayor, or somebody, decides to take all the sick people and chuck them in the Catacombs below the city, and then throw away the key.

Lots of potential for both kinds of false positives. See the "quarantine" post. People who are actually not sick can be chucked in the catacombs, and sure enough, if they weren't sick when they were chucked in, after a few hours with genuine plague victims, they'll have it too! A deliberate false positive would be grabbing Noam Chomsky or somebody in the dead of night and chucking him in the catacombs too. It goes both ways - could be that the leftists control the city and they chuck Rush Limbaugh in the catacombs or something. And after a few hours in the company of genuine plague victims, damned if both those guys aren't sick too. That's if it's done for political reasons. An accidental false positive is just, the cops in charge of discerning who to render and who not to render are incompetent and make mistakes. Say 75% of a neighborhood is sick and it's too difficult to try to pick apart who isn't sick, so you take the whole neighborhood.

Because you, the policeman, would catch a lot more flak for being insufficiently thorough than you will for being a little over-thorough.

Hat tip to the lovely Rosie Weber of London town for suggesting the Glasgow story while hanging out at a cafe in North Beach.

Grim ideas, but it's kind of empowering and fun to have this stuff all in one place. The posts have been pouring out of me.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Maher Arar / Association

Am I remembering wrong about Arar - he was associating with some people who may satisfy my doubts better? You can also say it's unreasonable to harm him for association. That's also terrifying. What's association? If I go to a bar with a friend, if I go to a biker/wallet-chain/Bettie Page bar, and I'm standing around with the friend, the friend's friends and the friend's friends' friends, and that third circle has some gun guys in it, fans of munitions or something, the chatter in the dark corners of dive bars on Saturday nights includes stuff I don't personally subscribe to, and I even grimace when they talk, but I'm still standing there, is that enough for Rohrbacher to say it's OK to pick me up and torture me?

It's my understanding that Al-Masri hadn't done a damn thing.

I wonder who brings these threads together. I should be looking at Marcy Wheeler's timelines.

Strong Encryption

Another facet of these themes is to protect yourself by technical means. Keeping tabs on false-positive rates is maybe moot or irrelevant if you, as an individual, can say, I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen to me. (I'm writing dialogue here - it's not necessarily my own belief.) Assume the worst, watch your own back.

The Skokie problem comes to mind. If you go to encryption, you have loosely speaking a similar pattern to bad people doing illegal things, but that doesn't mean you are also a bad person doing illegal things - but you can be slapped with guilt by association. And yes, then I feel caught in a foursquare of ambiguity, because there will also be disingenuous bad people who disingenuously use an EFF, pro-privacy stance, claiming that they are in favor of privacy because privacy is privacy. But at the end of the day (I'm not going to know what's going on inside their HTTPS, by definition), some of them might actually be sneakily taking advantage. It's a terrible situation how many layers and flops of disingenuity and ambiguity you can go. It's unfair to use guilt by association - just because person A is using Tor to avoid getting caught breaking the law doesn't mean person B is using Tor to do that - but it is also harmful if, in the actual execution of what goes on inside the key entanglement, they're claiming "it's private! Get off my back!", in other words, marching with the 4th Amendment people and then taking advantage of the freedom to put a cloak over their counterfeiting or gun-running or something. I don't like either option. I even wonder about common carrier. How can these freedoms survive black swan? The technically-savvy alternative says, obviously they can't and they won't, which is why you have to assume you are tapped and shield yourself on a case-by-case basis.

Civil Efficacian

I'm a civil libertarian. I'm also a civil efficacian. In a way, I would like not to even be talking about false positives. I believe in privacy. The focus on false positives is partially me going with a premise from my friend Christopher, who says "we have no privacy, it's over already." Also Tim Fuller, in a comment to a comment I made on TPM. I've been thinking about this, and my feeling is, okay. I'm not sure I am willing to stipulate that this is true. But let's stipulate that this is true. The next step, as far as I can tell, is to say "that may be, but you throw the baby out with the bathwater depending on what else you may also think 'we have no....' also." Do we have the right not to be killed out of the blue? Do we have the right not to be imprisoned out of the blue?" I'm switching to false-positives because that is where the policy turns into real harm and real impact on innocent bystanders and you might be able to quantify it. Once you quantify it, a civil libertarian and a human-rights activist can say "this is unacceptable, anything above zero is a human rights violation and/or a Bill of Rights violation."

And a civil efficacian can say, I don't think you (the government) should be engaging in these things if you are going to do a shitty job of it with a lot of ancillary harm, blowback, unintended consequences. To say that, you have to be able to prevent evidence that there actually is ancillary harm going on, and that's what this blog is for.

Bush-era names.. I know their stories from a few years ago but I need to round it all up in one place. The German man who later burned down a store. ... Maher Arar.. Jose Padilla ... Al-Marri... it's possible these stories are all resolved somehow.

What about the mundane answer - if I was reading NRO/The Corner right now, would they say, "there's a difference between Al-Awlaki and Joe Smith!" And what is that difference exactly? Awlaki (I'll fix the names later if I'm spelling it wrong) , is a Muslim. He was engaging in inflammatory speech. He was fighting for other nations. It's pretty clear that it was a good call and does not suggest that authorities are going to start coming after people at random. Blair is just trying to do his job."

I suppose. I do acknowledge that most of the anecdotes of alarming, arbitrary mistreatment I've heard since 2001 have been of people who were militant in some way. Adam Gadahn, John Walker Lindh, Jose Padilla had all been involved in fighting, carrying guns, travelling overseas. I don't know. There may be others I don't have at my fingertips who weren't. Maher Arar and Al-Masri (?) absolutely were not. As a matter of fact, do I remember C-Span coverage of a Maher Arar hearing, with Nadler, Delahunt and Rohrbacher interviewing him, and Rohrbacher - this is another piece that is *RIGHT* on my themes. I had forgotten about this! Rohrbacher essentially says to Arar directly, "you're an accidental false positive. Accidents happen. We had only been at this global endless war a couple of years when you were tortured. You're going to have to cut us some slack - your own treatment is within an acceptable margin of error given what we are trying to do." What a tool. This is my theme, totally. So in Rohrbacher's opinion, one accidental false positive Canadian getting tortured is acceptable in return for keeping the U.S.A. safe from terror attacks. At least now we're getting quantifiable. Where would Rohrbacher draw the line? Is it OK to kill 49% of all people, to save 51%?

Spain/London - A false positive was killed?

This is another placeholder. Do I remember correctly that in conjunction with either the Spain attack or the London 7/7 attack, a false positive was killed? To do.. to look up later.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Brian Bothun

I have no idea. It doesn't seem inconceivable to me that he could have been framed - the bar for whether or not "framed!" is an outlandish concept is different for regular people and for newspaper editors who take down police chiefs and mayors, make enemies. O.J. wasn't, right, but didn't we learn in the O.J. trial that Fuhrman was a racist creep? It's hard to pull off the maneuver, hard to execute - you would need Watergate-burglars who were competent. So maybe it didn't happen because it's more likely to fail.

I worked with Brian at the Daily for parts of 2 years. I like the guy, he seems like a conscientious journalist. I have no idea whether or not he is a deliberate false positive. Maybe he isn't. But it's a bit disturbing how character assassination can work in situations where it actually is a deliberate false positive. Even for the acquitted, there could be permanent emotional harm, like a lite form of unjust death-penalty executions.

Caveat, caveat!! Yeesh. Apprehending true positives is a good thing! We have to split hairs, just like defending the right of the American Nazi Party to march in Skokie, if I have my facts right. True positives are good, false positives are bad.

True positives - Bad people get arrested. Good effective work on the part of law enforcement.

Accidental false positive - Ted Kennedy is on no-fly list

Deliberate false positive - David Iglesias is fired for not going after "voter fraud" hard enough. Rove, Sampson, Goodling are firing off emails back and forth, keeping lists. Maybe also Don Siegelman.

True negatives - Someone who is cleared of charges, and rightly so. Good disinterested work on the part of law enforcement. There was a chance to hassle them or trump up a pretext, and the officials conscientiously passed up that chance.

False negatives - Somebody walked who should have been pursued harder. "Okay, you've covered your ass now..."

The Language Institute letter

I have a friend - let's call him Mustafa B. Smith. He's caucasian. During hippie times, living in southern California, his parents explored different religions in that hippie sort of context. His mom became a Muslim and he and his siblings have Middle Eastern-sounding first names. So Mustafa gets this letter from the Language Institute in Monterey. They were writing to him about Arabic - did he know it, would he come and study it - and they picked him very crudely based just on his first name. I think it shows the dangers for people who may fall in one of the peripheral-yet-interesting, outer bubbles on a Venn Diagram.

No-fly List

A well-known example of false positives brought about by post-9/11 remedies, is all the false positives on the no-fly list. This is sort of a placeholder post too. I need to read up on the facts a little more. Tons of anecdotes from irritated false positives, I'm assuming. Now imagine if, instead of merely being unable to take flights, they were killed.


I haven't read this yet actually - I've only listened to Eli's bloggingheads. Maybe I will write another post after I have. I'd like to write and ask him what he thinks about false positives.

In writing down these book names and authors, like Goldsmith and Suskind, it seems a little dated- Bush stuff. But I think it's actually more relevant than ever because only now do we have our precedent that the policies will go on no matter who wins. What can you possibly say? I do feel a little checkmated. If the D's are in, Times Square happens, they do some muted things and get excoriated, and then gut Miranda. If the R's are in, they just gut Miranda. Okay, so it was the Supreme Court who gutted Miranda (and what about the timing, was it coincidence? It seems like a correlation since Times Square had just happened and Holder had just talked about it. They can bump their timetables around, right? Bush v. Gore could be heard any time you could get the nine of them in a room.)

One Percent Doctrine

I haven't read _The One Percent Doctrine_ yet. But here is my interesting misreading of what I think it means and some day I will read it and write a new post. It is like pre-emption for black swan events where the black swan events mean a lot of death. We have to be ready for an extremely rare, extremely destructive event, so you can extrapolate this out for what it means for what is an acceptable TP/FP ratio. Most any amount of collateral destruction is okay in the name of prevention if the black swan event would be worse.
This is why Cheney sneered and scowled all the time. No matter what journalist he was talking to, what was going through his mind were the situations where it would be OK to have that journalist shot, maybe on a hunting trip.

To read:
Jack Goldsmith
Ron Suskind
Jane Mayer

Breakout Capability and the regular person

Not very organized notes/thoughts on breakout capability. An amusing metaphor comes from the game Breakout. That isn't what the 'breakout' refers to, but picture not the bricks, but the little white paddle always being in the right place to retard the little ball from going further down. As far as the little white ball is concerned, the paddle is a solid wall. There is an analogy in there. The paddle is a chilling effect which is proportional to however political a particular person wants to be. You don't have to wear that little flag on your lapel all the time, you don't have to be Cheney and get despised. Granularity in surveillance. Another image is Rover from The Prisoner. You don't see him until/unless you make your attempt. The Village can look pleasant enough. Police-state accoutrements are not necessary. Because we have invisible force-field fences. Breakout capability is facilitated by technology. So you have a typically centrist, dismissive, apolitical person. The chilling effect influences them in the sense that it is at-the-ready, it has breakout capability to squelch them if life changes or matters of conscience make activists out of them.

You don't have to be Cheney and get despised - you can be Obama. Speak softly and carry tiny camera-particles spread equidistant against a backdrop of freedom.

Of course my assertions are full of problems as well, because that's the way breakout capability is. If the state can't honestly disambiguate whether or not John Lennon is a very quiet combatant (so has to kill him to be on the safe side), John Lennon also can't honestly disambiguate whether or not that guy in the trenchcoat is tailing him. Post-paranoia, the total entropy of certainty over whether or not there is anything warranting paranoia. I think maybe Pynchon did something with the foursquare, come to think of it. And Lot 49 is always maligned at least among my friends. I think he had Oedipa thinking through the possibilities of being right or wrong in what she thought she was seeing, and really not having a goddamn clue how to disambiguate.


Another item for the "use of language to make it OK" list. People who are due to be deported can be held. There may be grey areas where someone does not receive constitutional protections because they aren't a citizen. I could have parts of this wrong - maybe they do. But I seem to remember someone pinpointing immigration-related detention as the unspoken end-run around habeas. Maybe it was the ACLU. The tone of whatever I read was, "Bush's GWOT gets more attention but have you heard about this other 'special category' which is even more pervasive..."

John Lennon comes to mind. Living in New York and criticizing the U.S. without a green card. In 2010 can Dennis Blair get 'special permission' to have Lennon whacked as a special, subtle kind of combatant in a war of ideas?

Ha, and McCartney was just at the White House singing "Michelle".

Breakout Capability

The breakout capability becomes the secret program. The crosshairs are pushed back, back, from actually carrying out an act, and into thoughtcrimes. There could be a kremlinology and parsing of arcane little motions, only the subjects would be everyone- all citizens have breakout capability to do terror, so intelligence work will focus on tinier sets of tea leaves. Less and less overt, quieter and subtler actions will be grounds for preemptive assassination, or at least grounds for highlighting you as a "person of interest."

When I thought of the phrase I was actually thinking it in the other direction: the breakout capability to do massive data mining becomes the secret program. If you can stay in the nascent stages of a project until you are .9999999 of the way to the moment when you want to act, then bring the pieces together in a flurry, law enforcement either has to act faster than you do in that .00000001, or consider tinier and more arbitrary bits of thought, writing, travel, communication or maybe aberrant behavior - creativity? - to be too potentially dangerous to be left alone.

Whoops. I digressed again, which suggests this is extremely fertile ground I have been wanting to write about for a while. The point of "the breakout capability is the secret program" from the point of view of the government is to keep their hands clean until the final moment. All the constituent actions will be deep in a nexus of plausible alternative hypotheses for why you would have done such a thing. Someone buys something online from Crate and Barrel, and passively learns/gleans that Crate and Barrel tracks date of birth. When the time comes, the Director of National Intelligence contacts Crate and Barrel and says "please help your country by handing over your database." There may be a gag order attached. Crate and Barrel helps out just like AT&T did. Now you do a join, mix in date of birth with your own table. The term may be "overlay." Use date of birth in a WHERE clause and narrow down a list of 10,000 people to three. It's surveillance on demand. Instead of Crate and Barrel, it could be the Humane Society of Minneapolis. They don't have the clout to raise any big objections even though they think it's strange.

Series of Tubes

You can't have your muckraking journalists thinking the internet is a series of tubes. If the muck takes place on computer, they are going to get snowed.

Internment, Immigration, Colloidal Suspensions

I don't know that much about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WW2. This is a placeholder post... it's along the same themes. Some day I will read about it in more detail and have something to say about it. Spies, enemies of the state, you can add those things to the list under "the use of language to make it OK." Of course during WW2, we actually were at war, so you can take the false positive/true positive equation against the backdrop possibility/likelihood that we did have actual true saboteurs and spies running around. But supposedly we're at war now as well. It's a colloidal suspension of war particles spread equidistant across what feels like a tall glass of peace. Colloidal suspension is something that has been on my mind and I want to come back to. We don't have big brother - we might have a colloidal suspension of "breakout capability" for surveillance, which will be utilized on an as-needed basis. There is a Frontline that I need to cite here. It was a big influence on me. There will be no massive government database on everyone. It's like the Stephen Wright joke about the sand collection. The databases are all diffuse. But they all use social security number as a primary key. Should the government want to know something, they look around for a databaser who happens to track that, do a join on social security number with whatever tables they themselves are keeping. The network is the computer - the breakout capacity becomes the secret program.

Note how important it becomes to be computer savvy. I have been giving Josh Marshall a lot of shit for being so starry eyed about technology because he takes it at its word. He writes about technology in the language with which it wishes to be written about, the language of the PR flak, which seems to me like a double standard and an abdication of the deep, skeptical analysis of the language of political PR flaks and "bamboozlers." The reason why this is relevant to my themes is, take an iPad and pretend you are asking the questions about true positives and false positives in the implementation of the death penalty. If you're going to say that new technology is cool and beneficial, you should acknowledge what it would be like if that technology was the cause of, or implicated in, false positives. I'm thinking of breathalyzers, lie detector tests, anything used as critical evidence that could be the difference between life and death. You must base your value judgements for this stuff on how good they are - what the TP/FP ratios are like - not on coolness! And even when you are basing your value judgements on efficacy, I don't think the track record is very good. See the case of Amazon erasing that kid's copy of _1984_. I need a post on that, actually. Take the erasure of 1984 as the acceptable cost for what it gets us in return. Maybe you could say it was a deliberate false positive, like killing your Enemies List. That would be if Amazon wanted to shut down Orwell's ideas. Or you could say it was an accidental false positive, if they just had a computer glitch or I don't know why. The point is, buying in to technology on its own terms I think estimates the TP/FP ratio wrong.

the Death Penalty

I was in an Amnesty International group for a long time. I still consider myself involved though I'm not going to meetings.... and er, haven't written an Urgent Action in a while. But you never de-Amnesty.

We discussed the death penalty quite a bit and one of the obvious arguments against it is that we have sometimes posthumously acquitted someone on the basis of DNA evidence. We have not been correct 100% of the time. And this leads you to one of two conclusions. (1) Even one person wrongly killed is too many. It taints the whole death penalty. Or (2) Humans are imperfect and there are going to be mistakes in how a government policy is carried out. The death penalty is valuable to society because the true positives outweigh the false positives. The benefits we get - deterrence, preventing that individual from more crime, vengeance for victims' families - outweighs the harm to the false positives and false positives' familiies.

If you go with option (2), who decides how many false positives is OK and how?

The system of representative government makes sense for a lot of things. As mistakes, mistaken thinking, wrong-headed policy, are represented in the minds of members of Congress, well, it may not be awesome but it is optimal. Members of Congress are just people, and they will/should reflect the presence of mistakes, mistaken thinking, wrong-headed policy ideas, in the electorate overall, in a proportional fashion. This is fine for most issues with checks and balances and recourse, but you cannot ever bring back the victim of false execution. So should there be a different bar set? We're at Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery".


- Debtors/Collections

A couple of years ago I was getting prerecorded robocalls from a collections company. The recording asked for someone else. When I finally reached someone at the company, one of their first questions as I complained was, "Well, are you a debtor?" I was not. Impunity leads to arrogance which leads to more impunity. There may get to be a feeling in clusters of people like debt buyers that shitty treatment is OK because the person wouldn't be there in the first place if they hadn't done something to bring it on themself. People tend to get desensitized when you have a colloidal suspension of disingenuous cries of "I'm innocent!" mixed in with actual innocence. The authority figure gets cynical because they, too, might try to do their job and compassionately pick out a "true negative", someone who should be exonerated or left alone. The compassionate authority figure tries to do the right thing, and the true negative could then detonate themself. Then the compassionate authority figure will catch a lot of shit for missing them. This is why police are so deaf to someone saying "I haven't done anything!"

"Yeah, tell us something we haven't already heard a thousand times before."

I completely acknowledge that there are problems in all the possible quadrants, true positives, false positives, true negatives, false negatives...

the use of language to make it OK

Labels that put people in that special zone. False positives would be a problem with all of the following:

- Quarantine-related

(What if they really aren't sick - after a few hours with the other detainees they sure will be!)
(What if they are put in quarantine by accident?)
(What if police/military/government puts their own enemies in quarantine)

- Sex offenders

(True positive? Great. Accidental or deliberate false positive? People in society who hear about it may tend to shy away from defending the person in case the anti-midas touch (thanks Wolfhounds) of perceived filth also rubs off on them. So it is an especially dangerous label if a false positive gets stuck with it.)

- Taliban/Al Qaeda

In the early days of the Afghanistan war, people were rounded up and sent to Guantanamo. The person who apprehended someone else got a bounty. This is another case of "just wait, after a few days in the slammer they will be!" It's Bob Wright's argument about radicalization. If they weren't pissed off before, they will be after a decade of false imprisonment.

Disclaimer: I like for true positives to be arrested. Good intelligence work, done well and honestly, is a good thing. The problem arises when you take for granted human fallibility and mistakes, and soon you are arguing over how many mistakes are OK for the sake of the goal. See the post about killing 49% to save 51%.

Pretty much every post on this blog is going to beat this dead horse over and over. :) I'll add to this list when I think of more.

Taking ideas to their logical conclusion

Any volume of state assassinations up to and including killing 49% of the people on the planet would be justified in order to save the lives of the 51%.

Person of interest

Person of interest in the time immediately following Times Square. Bob Wright referenced him on a bloggingheads with Jim Pinkerton. Under Blair's "special permission", can this person be assassinated if the authorities feel that not killing them would lead to a greater number of deaths? Again you have an issue with accidental or deliberate false positives. If the authority is a disingenuous liar, maybe instead of breaking into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, they just whack Ellsberg because they feel like it, and then claim special permission. Ellsberg was actually engaging in war against the U.S. as a non-state actor with very few outward accoutrements or ways that you would know he was. Or, there is evidence that he was, but the evidence is classified.

Accidental false positives are also a problem.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Democracy Now segment on Blair assertions

Here is a recent Democracy Now segment on the assertions by DNI Blair.

"And when I see in the Fifth Amendment where it says that no one should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, I want to know what’s the constitutional basis for suspending this provision for anyone, even for a moment, because if this is—if this, in any sense, can be set aside, then we are on a slippery slope to anti-democracy...." - Dennis Kucinich on DN

This is in the news right this moment.. I plan on using this blog as I said, to collate real examples of this kind of thinking, historically and as time goes on, in the U.S. and otherwise.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bruce Fein

This Bloggingheads episode between Bruce Fein and Jane Hamsher has always stuck in my mind and I highly recommend it. The title, "Bush's Crimes," is too bad, because Fein's critique far outlasts Bush, and will be relevant and important for a long time. This idea of killing people "on the president's say-so" gets back to the two kinds of problems: (a) the president could be wrong - even if you had eight levels of scrutiny, maybe in this case you would have needed nine, and by the time you realize you would have needed nine, the person in the crosshairs has been successfully killed. Or (b) the president could be lying, and by the time you hold them accountable, the person in the crosshairs has been successfully killed.

Fisk / IRA

I am reading Robert Fisk's book _Pity the Nation_. And I thought I remembered seeing an example that I wanted to mention in here. I think it said something along the lines of ... we were killing IRA militants, but on at least one occasion, there was a case of mistaken identity, and blah blah innocent man was killed instead. So.. this post is a placeholder, I'll have to fill it out later.

Notes on False Positives

I will write a proper introduction later but this blog is going to contain some documentation of collateral damage or "Can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs" situations, both related to post-2001 policies in the U.S. government, and elsewhere. I am going to try to stick with documenting examples. I will be writing commentary, but I want to frame these notes with things that are actually happening. I am inspired to put up this blog by the new Eli Lake article in the Washington Times. I would consider discounting the WT or taking it with a grain of salt because it is common knowledge that it is a conservative newspaper. But it's clear from Lake's many appearances on Bloggingheads that he has a strong conscience about journalism. In any event, I'll cite things and just deal with mentioning a bias in something if I think that ameliorates the points they are making.

So Eli's full story is here, and I want to quote Eli quoting Dennis Blair, basically to take the temperature of the times in 2010, early Obama administration, sort of early post-Cheney:

"Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said in each case a decision to use lethal force against a U.S. citizen must get special permission. 'We take direct actions against terrorists in the intelligence community,' he said. 'If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.'"

The observation I want to add to this quote is my general anxiety about two major kinds of problems that might come up when the government is declaring a certain person OK to kill.

(1) They could be well-meaning, but mistaken.
(2) They could be deliberately targeting someone they want to kill for other reasons, using terrorism as a pretext.

Both of these possibilities are very worrisome. And they are long-lived. If you stipulate that the Obama administration is somehow "more honest" than Bush/Cheney and less likely to label someone a terrorist as a way to get away with executing them (and I am aware that some readers will say "come on, dude, that is a naive stipulation" - I mention it because hordes of people think Obama walks on water), this general configuration will be with us for a long, long time. We may have another Nixon, in 2016 or 2032. And once again, I realize I may be naive in taking the liberals to be "nice." It's entirely possible that during the times in U.S. history when liberals/progressives had power, they were still breaking in to their own Ellsberg's-psychiatrist's-offices, but they were just keeping their secrets better.

Even cuddly Jimmy Carter may have engaged in the kinds of things that Eli quotes Dennis Blair talking about, and even cuddly Jimmy Carter employed fallible human beings in his administration who probably had an average susceptibility to accidental or deliberate false positives.

My anxiety over these types of collateral damage/false-positives issues is not politically partisan.
I'm interested in our changing perception of how many "eggs" is okay. Would it be okay to kill 100 to save 1000? Would it be okay to kill 1000 to save 10,000?

Other kinds of mistakes that I think are relevant here include death-penalty executions where someone was later exonerated by DNA evidence, and action by police officers where a bystander is killed in the course of stopping a genuinely dangerous criminal.

My feeling is, I don't purport to say that society can avoid this kind of thing necessarily, but at the same time, I do think it's wrong for anyone, ever, to have their life screwed with or ended, because of either of the two kinds of problems listed above. We trust Dennis Blair to be right, and we trust him to be honest, and if either of those things aren't true, it's a very dangerous thing to be permitting.