The Roundup for April 28-May 4, 2018 Edition

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Hoop Dreams by Christopher Parsons

In the wake of the Toronto attack any number of journalists are trying to become experts on the ‘incel’ community, which defines itself as a community of men who are involuntarily celibate and as deserving intercourse with women. It’s led to some suggestions that maybe it’s appropriate to think about policy solutions to the ‘problem’. At issue, of course, is that some persons have failed to recognize the problem itself. Consider Ross Douthat, who links Amia Srinivasan’s ruminations on the links between desire and politics with incels, effectively conjoining a misogynistic subculture with “the overweight and disabled, minority groups treated as unattractive by the majority, trans women unable to find partners and other victims … of a society that still makes us prisoners of patriarchal and also racist-sexist-homophobic rules of sexual desire.” Douthat continues to ultimately argue that a combination of commerce, technology, and efforts to destigmatize sex work will lead to “at a certain point, without anyone formally debating the idea of a right to sex, right-thinking people will simply come to agree that some such right exists, and that it makes sense to look to some combination of changed laws, new technologies and evolved mores to fulfill it.”

Douthat’s entire argumentative structure — that the ‘problem’ to solve in an inability to engage in sexual, if not romantic, relationships — is predicated on the notion that there is such a thing as a legitimate right to intercourse. There is not. There is a legitimate right to safe, respectful, and destigmatized sexual relationships and activities. There is a right to sexual education, to sexual health and wellbeing, but there is no right to intercourse: such a right would imply that the act of penetrating another person is necessary and appropriate. That is clearly not the case.

Instead, the problem with the incel community is linked with misogyny. Specifically, as Jessica Valenti writes, the problem is with misogynist terrorism, a situation where certain men’s disdain towards women drives mass murders. Part of solving this particular problem is linked with addressing the underlying culture in America, and the world more generally. Specifically, she writes:

Part of the problem is that American culture still largely sees men’s sexism as something innate rather than deviant. And in a world where sexism is deemed natural, the misogynist tendencies of mass shooters become afterthoughts rather than predictable and stark warnings.

The truth is that in addition to not protecting women, we are failing boys: failing to raise them to believe they can be men without inflicting pain on others, failing to teach them that they are not entitled to women’s sexual attention and failing to allow them an outlet for understandable human fear and foibles that will not label them “weak” or unworthy.

It’s essential that men, and boys, learn about how to engage with other humans in non-destructive ways. Such a process is borderline revolutionary because it entails reshaping how cultural, social, legal, and economic relationships are structured, and any such restructuring must be motivated by a rebalancing of power relationships across genders and races (and, ultimately, geographies). The outcome will be that the privilege that straight white men have enjoyed for centuries will be diminished and, correspondingly, restrict the social and economic opportunities that some men have enjoyed solely because of their gender and race. But those changes are essential if we’re to actually confront the misogyny and racism that underlies not just incel culture, but that of mainstream society and politics as well.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

Writing—I can really only speak to writing here—always, always only starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever). Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.

  • David Rokoff

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Great Photography Shots

I’d never seen x-ray photos of flowers before. It’s an absolutely breathtaking form of image making.

Photo manipulation by Edmanep

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

Another Bad Proposal to Globally Weaken Security

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Photo by Federica Galli on Unsplash

Steven Levy has an article out in Wired this week in which he, vis-a-vis the persons he interviewed, proclaims that the ‘going dark’ solution has been solved to the satisfaction of (American) government agencies and (unnamed and not quoted) ‘privacy purists’.1 Per the advocates of the so-called-solution, should the proposed technical standard be advanced and developed then (American) government agencies could access encrypted materials and (American) users will enjoy the same degrees of strong encryption as they do today. This would ‘solve’ the problem of (American) agencies’ investigations being stymied by suspects’ adoption of encrypted communications systems and personal devices.

Unfortunately Levy got played: the proposal he dedicates his article to is just another attempt to advance a ‘solution’ that doesn’t address the real technical or policy problems associated with developing a global backdoor system to our most personal electronic devices. Specifically the architect of the solution overestimates the existent security characteristics of contemporary devices,2 overestimates the ability of companies to successfully manage a sophisticated and globe-spanning key management system,3 fails to address international policy issues about why other governments couldn’t or wouldn’t demand similar kinds of access (think Russia, China, Iran, etc),4 fails to contemplate an adequate key revocation system, and fails to adequately explain why why the exceptional access system he envisions is genuinely needed. With regards to that last point, government agencies have access to more data than ever before in history and, yet, because they don’t have access to all of the data in existence the agencies are claiming they are somehow being ‘blinded’.

As I’ve written in a draft book chapter, for inclusion in a book published later this year or early next, the idea that government agencies are somehow worse off than in the past is pure nonsense. Consider that,

[a]s we have embraced the digital era in our personal and professional lives, [Law Enforcement and Security Agencies] LESAs have also developed new techniques and gained additional powers in order to keep pace as our memories have shifted from personal journals and filing cabinets to blogs, social media, and cloud hosting providers. LESAs now subscribe to services designed to monitor social media services for intelligence purposes, they collect bulk data from telecommunications providers in so-called ‘tower dumps’ of all the information stored by cellular towers, establish their own fake cellular towers to collect data from all parties proximate to such devices, use malware to intrude into either personal endpoint devices (e.g. mobile phones or laptops) or networking equipment (e.g. routers), and can even retroactively re-create our daily online activities with assistance from Canada’s signals intelligence agency. In the past, each of these kinds of activities would have required dozens or hundreds or thousands of government officials to painstakingly follow persons — many of whom might not be specifically suspected of engaging in a criminal activity or activity detrimental to the national security of Canada — and gain lawful entry to their personal safes, install cameras in their homes and offices, access and copy the contents of filing cabinets, and listen in on conversations that would otherwise have been private. So much of our lives have become digital that entirely new investigative opportunities have arisen which were previously restricted to the imaginations of science fiction authors both insofar as it is easier to access information but, also, because we generate and leave behind more information about our activities vis-a-vis our digital exhaust than was even possible in a world dominated by analog technologies.

In effect: the ‘solution’ covered by Levy doesn’t clearly articulate what problem must be solved and it would end up generating more problems than it solves by significantly diminishing the security properties of devices while, simultaneously, raising international policy issues of which countries’ authorities, and under what conditions, could lawfully obtain decryption keys. Furthermore, companies and their decryption keys will suddenly become even more targeted by advanced adversaries than they are today. Instead of even attempting to realistically account for these realities of developing and implementing secure systems, the proposed ‘solution’ depends on a magical pixie dust assumption that you can undermine the security of globally distributed products and have no bad things happen.5

The article as written by Levy (and the proposed solution at the root of the article) is exactly the kind of writing and proposal that gives law enforcement agencies the energy to drive a narrative that backdooring all secure systems is possible and that the academic, policy, and technical communities are merely ideologically opposed to doing so. As has become somewhat common to say, while we can land a person on the moon, that doesn’t mean we can also land a person on the sun; while we can build (somewhat) secure systems we cannot build (somewhat) secure systems that include deliberately inserted backdoors. Ultimately, it’s not the case that ‘privacy purists’ oppose such solutions to undermine the security of all devices on ideological grounds: they’re opposed based on decades of experience, training, and expertise that lets them recognize such solutions as the charades that they are.

Footnotes

  1. I am unaware of a single person in the American or international privacy advocacy space who was interviewed for the article, let alone espouses positions that would be pacified by the proposed solution.
  2. Consider that there is currently a way of bypassing the existing tamper-resistant chip in Apple’s iPhone, which is specifically designed to ‘short out’ the iPhone if someone attempts to enter an incorrect password too many times. A similar mechanism would ‘protect’ the master key that would be accessible to law enforcement and security agencies.
  3. Consider that Microsoft has, in the past, lost its master key that is used to validate copies of Windows as legitimate Microsoft-assured products and, also, that Apple managed to lose key parts of its iOS codebase and reportedly its signing key.
  4. Consider that foreign governments look at the laws promulgated by Western nations as justification for their own abusive and human rights-violating legislation and activities.
  5. Some of the more unhelpful security researchers just argue that if Apple et al. don’t want to help foreign governments open up locked devices they should just suspend all service into those jurisdictions. I’m not of the opinion that protectionism and nationalism are ways of advancing international human rights or of raising the qualities of life of all persons around the world; it’s not morally right to just cast the citizens of Russia, Ethiopia, China, India, Pakistan, or Mexico (and others!) to the wolves of their own oftentimes overzealous or rights abusing government agencies.
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The Cure For Pessimism? Action

GQ has a good interview with Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. It’s far-ranging, covering the company’s attitude to making clothing, to climate change, to politics. But what really struck me was this:

Gradually, the conversation went even darker. About Trump, Chouinard added, “It’s like a kid who’s so frustrated he wants to break everything. That’s what we’ve got.” I asked sarcastically if any part of him was an optimist. Marcario, sitting next to him, laughed loudly. “Did you just ask Yvon if he’s an optimist?” Chouinard smiled and cocked his head. “I’m totally a pessimist. But you know, I’m a happy person. Because the cure for depression is action.”

I would note that I think action is the cure for pessimism, as opposed to depression; one is a state of mindset whereas the other is often a serious mental condition that can require professional assistance. But that nitpick aside, I think he’s correct that you press through pessimism by acting to make the world a little bit better every day than how you started it.

Aside

2018.2.15

As I return from an event I was invited to I have to reflect on, and admit, how profoundly…weird…it is that stuff I write about and the activities in which I’m engaged increasingly influence the course of justice in my county. How weird it is that the leader of my country is briefed on the work that I and my colleagues write about. How it feels epically strange that things which seem to have no impact on public debate whatsoever reverberate behind closed doors. It’s just really, really weird to know that people who are intrinsically involved with law, security, and justice — to say nothing of policy and politics — closely watch what I do, with the intent of using it when making decisions that may affect the lives of people across Canada, and around the world.

When I was doing my PhD I laughed out loud at my colleagues who spoke of how the work of political scientists can lead to exceptional impacts in the worlds. As a philosopher I thought such conversations were borne of a group of people who took themselves too seriously in their (ongoing) moments of hubris. But I get it now: that which we say, when we’re deliberately involved with public debate with an eye to inform (if not influence) policy can have unexpected and exciting and unintended impacts on the lives of millions of people. And in living this reality I have remarkably more sympathy for those who’s work isn’t just read and taken up, but misread and subsequently misappropriated to justify governmental activities that the political scientists in question might not have anticipated or endorsed.

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The Dangers of Policy Learning

Via the New York Times:

Seizing on immigration as the cause of countless social and economic problems, Mr. Trump entered office with an agenda of symbolic but incompletely thought-out goals, the product not of rigorous policy debate but of emotionally charged personal interactions and an instinct for tapping into the nativist views of white working-class Americans.

Donald Trump isn’t so much tapping into ‘nativist’ views as, instead, exploiting citizens’ unawareness of the benefits of both immigration and trade. Immigrants contribute to the tax base, take less time off, and their direct descendants also contribute more to the tax base than ‘long-term’ citizens. Immigration is a net gain for ‘regular’ American workers but they haven’t been told just how, and why, their own lives and the social benefits they draw on are significantly improved by immigration into America.

Even as the administration was engaged in a court battle over the travel ban, it began to turn its attention to another way of tightening the border — by limiting the number of refugees admitted each year to the United States. And if there was one “deep state” stronghold of Obama holdovers that Mr. Trump and his allies suspected of undermining them on immigration, it was the State Department, which administers the refugee program.

The State Department is a core centre of American soft power; it’s programs, educational efforts, international outreach, and more are responsible for spreading American values around the world.1 That the administration is hollowing out the department is the truest evidence that the Trump administration is unaware of how, and why, America has managed to maintain its position in the world. While American military might is significantly responsible for the development and maintenance of its imperial stature in the world, this stature is solidified and extended through an adoption of American values. Such values are more than those associated with the military; they’re linked with those spread by staff from State who promote American values in more formal diplomatic efforts as well as the other range of activities undertaken by consular and embassy staff throughout the world.

It is incredibly hard to believe that the Trump administration is barely one year into a four year term. Given the lasting damage the administration has already done to America’s ability to project power around the world, it’s hard to imagine just what America’s stature will be in a few more years. But what’s most significant is that his administration has learned so quickly how to engage in the deliberate hollowing out of the institutions which have long been hallowed to Americans. This kind of learning is indicative that the administration might be successful on more of its more outrageous campaign promises, promises which are being supported by the Congress and Senate, and thus indicative of a broader series of values (or lack thereof) which are held by many American politicians.

  1. In the interests in disclosure: I will personally be enrolled in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program in the coming fall.
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This dark concept of total distrust was mostly spread via the Internet because it was what the Internet was built for—sharing ideas. Although the Internet is the most democratic means of communicating, it can be also be misused by governments and other groups.

Does this mean we should accept the concept that the Internet carries more threats than benefits?

The creators of the Internet supported the opposite concept. Unlike Putin, they believed in people and built the global network under the assumption that it would be used for sharing something good. They may look naïve these days, but we have our modern linked-up technological world thanks to their concepts, not Putin’s. These days, we all speak the language of suspicion and threats posed by the Internet. In a way, in means we are speaking Kremlin’s language. Do we really need to?

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Apathy is Political

On Sidney Crosby’s visit with the Penguins to the Trump White House:

Apathetic white people who groan when athletes of colour get political, or who suggest as Crosby did that politics and sports do not mix, are in need of a reminder that for most, political activism isn’t a choice or a hobby. People don’t usually consider it fun or interesting to put their jobs on the line to speak out against a bigger power. The marginalized do not go looking for politics. It seeks them out. In this context, it sought them out when the President of the United States openly flirted with a racist ideology that would very much like to destroy them.

Exactly.