Cyber Attacks Versus Operations in Ukraine

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For the past decade there has been a steady drumbeat that ‘cyberwar is coming’. Sometimes the parties holding these positions are in militaries and, in other cases, from think tanks or university departments that are trying to link kinetic-adjacent computer operations with ‘war’.

Perhaps the most famous rebuttal to the cyberwar proponents has been Thomas Rid’s Cyber War Will Not Take Place. The title was meant to be provocative and almost has the effect of concealing a core insight of Rid’s argument: cyber operations will continue to be associated with conflicts but cyber operations are unlikely to constitute (or lead to) out-and-out war on their own. Why? Because it is very challenging to prepare and launch cyber operations that have significant kinetic results at the scale we associate with full-on war.

Since the Russian Federation’s war of aggression towards Ukraine there have regularly been shocked assertions that cyberware isn’t taking place. A series of pieces by The Economist, as an example, sought to prepare readers for a cyberwar that just hasn’t happened. Why not? Because The Economist–much like other outlets!–often presumed that the cyber dimensions of the conflict in Ukraine would bear at least some resemblance to the long-maligned concept of a ‘cyber Pearl Harbour’: a critical cyber-enable strike of some sort would have a serious, and potentially devastating, effect on how Ukraine could defend against Russian aggression and thus tilt the balance towards Russian military victory.

As a result of the early mistaken understandings of cyber operations, scholars and experts have once more come out and explained why cyber operations are not the same as an imagined cyber Pearl Harbour situation, while still taking place in the Ukrainian conflict. Simultaneously, security and malware researchers have taken the opportunity to belittle International Relations theorists who have written about cyberwar and argued that these theorists have fundamentally misunderstood how cyber operations take place.

Part of the challenge is ‘cyberwar’ has often been popularly seen as the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and their associated military hardware being deployed into a foreign country. As noted by Rid in a recent op-ed, while some cyber operations are meant to be apparent others are much more subtle. The former might be meant to reduce the will to fight or diminish command and control capabilities. The latter, in contrast, will look a lot like other reconnaissance operations: knowing who is commanding which battle group, the logistical challenges facing the opponent, or state of infrastructure in-country. All these latter dimensions provide strategic and tactical advantages to the party who’s launched the surveillance operation. Operations meant to degrade capabilities may occur but will often be more subtle. This subtly can be a particularly severe risk in a conflict, such as if your ammunition convoy is sent to the wrong place or train timetables are thrown off with the effect of stymying civilian evacuation or resupply operations.1

What’s often seemingly lost in the ‘cyberwar’ debates–which tend to take place either between people who don’t understand cyber operations, those who stand to profit from misrepresentations of them, or those who are so theoretical in their approaches as to be ignorant of reality–is that contemporary wars entail blended forces. Different elements of those blends have unique and specific tactical and strategic purposes. Cyber isn’t going to have the same effect as a Grad Missile Launcher or a T-90 Battle Tank, but that missile launcher or tank isn’t going to know that the target it’s pointed towards is strategically valuable without reconnaissance nor is it able to impair logistics flows the same way as a cyber operation targeting train schedules. To expect otherwise is to grossly misunderstand how cyber operations function in a conflict environment.

I’d like to imagine that one result of the Russian war of aggression will be to improve the general population’s understanding of cyber operations and what they entail, and do not entail. It’s possible that this might happen given that major news outlets, such as the AP and Reuters, are changing how they refer to such activities: they will not be called ‘cyberattacks’ outside very nuanced situations now. In simply changing what we call cyber activities–as operations as opposed to attacks–we’ll hopefully see a deflating of the language and, with it, more careful understandings of how cyber operations take place in and out of conflict situations. As such, there’s a chance (hope?) we might see a better appreciation of the significance of cyber operations in the population writ-large in the coming years. This will be increasingly important given the sheer volume of successful (non-conflict) operations that take place each day.


  1. It’s worth recognizing that part of why we aren’t reading about successful Russian operations is, first, due to Ukrainian and allies’ efforts to suppress such successes for fear of reducing Ukrainian/allied morale. Second, however, is that Western signals intelligence agencies such as the NSA, CSE, and GCHQ, are all very active in providing remote defensive and other operational services to Ukrainian forces. There was also a significant effort ahead of the conflict to shore up Ukrainian defences and continues to be a strong effort by Western companies to enhance the security of systems used by Ukrainians. Combined, this means that Ukraine is enjoying additional ‘forces’ while, simultaneously, generally keeping quiet about its own failures to protect its systems or infrastructure. ↩︎

Russia, Nokia, and SORM

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The New York Times recently wrote about Nokia providing telecommunications equipment to Russian ISPs, all while Nokia was intimately aware of how its equipment would be interconnected with System for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM) lawful interception equipment. SORM equipment has existed in numerous versions since the 1990s. Per James Lewis:

SORM-1 collects mobile and landline telephone calls. SORM-2 collects internet traffic. SORM-3 collects from all media (including Wi-Fi and social networks) and stores data for three years. Russian law requires all internet service providers to install an FSB monitoring device (called “Punkt Upravlenia”) on their networks that allows the direct collection of traffic without the knowledge or cooperation of the service provider. The providers must pay for the device and the cost of installation.

SORM is part of a broader Internet and telecommunications surveillance and censorship regime that has been established by the Russian government. Moreover, other countries in the region use iterations or variations of the SORM system (e.g., Kazakhstan) as well as countries which were previously invaded by the Soviet Union (e.g., Afghanistan).

The Time’s article somewhat breathlessly states that the documents they obtained, and which span 2008-2017,

show in previously unreported detail that Nokia knew it was enabling a Russian surveillance system. The work was essential for Nokia to do business in Russia, where it had become a top supplier of equipment and services to various telecommunications customers to help their networks function. The business yielded hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue, even as Mr. Putin became more belligerent abroad and more controlling at home.

It is not surprising that Nokia, as part of doing business in Russia, was complying with lawful interception laws insofar as its products were compatible with SORM equipment. Frankly it would have been surprising if Nokia had flouted the law given that Nokia’s own policy concerning human rights asserts that (.pdf):

Nokia will provide passive lawful interception capabilities to customers who have a legal obligation to provide such capabilities. This means we will provide products that meet agreed standards for lawful intercept capabilities as defined by recognized standards bodies such as the 3rd Generation Partner Project (3GPP) and the European Telecoms Standards Institute (ETSI). We will not, however, engage in any activity relating to active lawful interception technologies, such as storing, post-processing or analyzing of intercepted data gathered by the network operator.

It was somewhat curious that the Times’ article declined to recognize that Nokia-Siemens has a long history of doing business in repressive countries: it allegedly sold mobile lawful interception equipment to Iran circa 2009 and in 2010-11 its lawful interception equipment was implicated in political repression and torture in Bahrain. Put differently, Nokia’s involvement in low rule-of-law countries is not new and, if anything, their actions in Russia appear to be a mild improvement on their historical approaches to enabling repressive governments to exercise lawful interception functionalities.

The broad question is whether Western companies should be authorized or permitted to do business in repressive countries. To some extent, we might hope that businesses themselves would express restraint. But, in excess of this, companies such as Nokia often require some kind of export license or approval before they can sell certain telecommunications equipment to various repressive governments. This is particularly true when it comes to supplying lawful interception functionality (which was not the case when Nokia sold equipment to Russia).

While the New York Times casts a light on Nokia the article does not:

  1. Assess the robustness of Nokia’s alleged human rights commitments–have they changed since 2013 when they were first examined by civil society? How do Nokia’s sales comport with their 2019 human rights policy? Just how flimsy is the human rights policy in its own right?
  2. Assess the export controls that Nokia was(n’t) under–is it the case that the Norwegian government has some liability or responsibility for the sales of Nokia’s telecommunications equipment? Should there be?
  3. Assess the activities of the telecommunications provider Nokia was supplying in Russia, MTS, and whether there is a broader issue of Nokia supplying equipment to MTS since it operates in various repressive countries.

None of this is meant to set aside the fact that Western companies ought to behave better on the international stage. But…this has not been a priority in Russia, at least, until the country’s recent war of aggression. Warning signs were prominently on display before this war and didn’t result in prominent and public recriminations towards Nokia or other Western companies doing business in Russia.

All lawful interception systems, regardless of whether they conform with North America, European, or Russian standards, are surveillance systems. Put another way, they are all about empowering one group to exercise influence or power over others who are unaware they are being watched. In low rule-of-law countries, such as Russia, there is a real question as to whether they should should even be called ‘lawful interception systems’ as opposed to explicitly calling them ‘interception systems’.

There was a real opportunity for the New York Times to both better contextualize Nokia’s involvement in Russia and, then, to explain and problematize the nature of lawful interception capability and standards. The authors could also have spent time discussing the nature of export controls on telecommunications equipment, where the equipment is being sold into repressive states. Sadly this did not occur with the result that the authors and paper declined to more broadly consider and report on the working, and ethics and politics, of enabling telecommunications and lawful interception systems in repressive and non-repressive states alike. While other kicks at this can will arise, it’s evident that there wasn’t even an attempt to do so in this report on Nokia.

Link

The Risks Linked With Canadian Cyber Operations in Ukraine

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Late last month, Global News published a story on how the Canadian government is involved in providing cyber support to the Ukrainian government in the face of Russia’s illegal invasion. While the Canadian military declined to confirm or deny any activities they might be involved in, the same was not true of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). The CSE is Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency. In addition to collecting intelligence, it is also mandated to defend Canadian federal systems and those designated as of importance to the government of Canada, provide assistance to other federal agencies, and conduct active and defensive cyber operations.1

From the Global News article it is apparent that the CSE is involved in both foreign intelligence operations as well as undertaking cyber defensive activities. Frankly these kinds of activity are generally, and persistently, undertaken with regard to the Russian government and so it’s not a surprise that these activities continue apace.

The CSE spokesperson also noted that the government agency is involved in ‘cyber operations’ though declined to explain whether these are defensive cyber operations or active cyber operations. In the case of the former, the Minister of National Defense must consult with the Minister of Foreign Affairs before authorizing an operation, whereas in the latter both Ministers must consent to an operation prior to it taking place. Defensive and active operations can assume the same form–roughly the same activities or operations might be undertaken–but the rationale for the activity being taken may vary based on whether it is cast as defensive or active (i.e., offensive).2

These kinds of cyber operations are the ones that most worry scholars and practitioners, on the basis that there is a risk that foreign operators or adversaries may misread a signal from a cyber operation or because the operation might have unintended consequences. Thus, the risk is that the operations that the CSE is undertaking run the risk of accidentally (or intentionally, I guess) escalating affairs between Canada and the Russian Federation in the midst of the shooting war between Russian and Ukrainian forces.

While there is, of course, a need for some operational discretion on the part of the Canadian government it is also imperative that the Canadian public be sufficiently aware of the government’s activities to understand the risks (or lack thereof) which are linked to the activities that Canadian agencies are undertaking. To date, the Canadian government has not released its cyber foreign policy doctrine nor has the Canadian Armed Forces released its cyber doctrine.3 The result is that neither Canadians nor Canada’s allies or adversaries know precisely what Canada will do in the cyber domain, how Canada will react when confronted, or the precise nature of Canada’s escalatory ladder. The government’s secrecy runs the risk of putting Canadians in greater jeopardy of a response from the Russian Federation (or other adversaries) without the Canadian public really understanding what strategic or tactical activities might be undertaken on their behalf.

Canadians have a right to know at least enough about what their government is doing to be able to begin assessing the risks linked with conducting operations during an active militant conflict against an adversary with nuclear weapons. Thus far such information has not been provided. The result is that Canadians are ill-prepared to assess the risk that they may be quietly and quickly drawn into the conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Such secrecy bodes poorly for being able to hold government to account, to say nothing of preventing Canadians from appreciating the risk that they could become deeply drawn into a very hot conflict scenario.


  1. For more on the CSE and the laws governing its activities, see “A Deep Dive into Canada’s Overhaul of Its Foreign Intelligence and Cybersecurity Laws.↩︎
  2. For more on this, see “Analysis of the Communications Security Establishment Act and Related Provisions in Bill C-59 (An Act respecting national security matters), First Reading (December 18, 2017)“, pp 27-32. ↩︎
  3. Not for lack of trying to access them, however, as in both cases I have filed access to information requests to the government for these documents 1 years ago, with delays expected to mean I won’t get the documents before the end of 2022 at best. ↩︎
Link

Links for December 14-18, 2020

Links for December 14-18, 2020

  • The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty || “A family member lost work because of the pandemic and was denied unemployment benefits because of an automated system failure. The family then fell behind on rent payments, which led their landlord to sue them for eviction. While the eviction won’t be legal because of the CDC’s moratorium, the lawsuit will still be logged in public records. Those records could then feed into tenant-screening algorithms, which could make it harder for the family to find stable housing in the future. Their failure to pay rent and utilities could also be a ding on their credit score, which once again has repercussions.” // The harms done by automated decision making are deeply under appreciated, and routinely harm those whom society has set aside as ‘appropriate’ test subjects for these inequitable technologies. It’s abhorrent, unethical, and unjust.
  • Understanding 5g, and why it’s the future (not present) for mobile communications – tidbits // This is the most accessible, and helpful, primer for 5G that I think I’ve come across this year.
  • How Russia wins the climate crisis || “…agriculture offers the key to one of the greatest resources of the new climate era — food — and in recent years Russia has already shown a new understanding of how to leverage its increasingly strong hand in agricultural exports. In 2010, when wildfires and drought conspired to ruin Russia’s grain harvests, Putin banned the exporting of wheat in order to protect his own people, then watched as global wheat prices tripled. The world reeled in response. From Pakistan to Indonesia, poverty increased. High prices rocked delicate political balances in Syria, Morocco and Egypt, where about 40 percent of daily caloric intake is from bread. The shortages poured fuel on Arab Spring uprisings, which eventually pushed millions of migrants toward Europe, with destabilizing effect — a bonus for Russian interests. And much of this turmoil began with wheat. As Michael Werz, a senior fellow for climate migration and security at the Center for American Progress, says, “There’s a reason people demonstrated with baguettes in Cairo.”” // Bread will, once more, be a functional weapon of war as climate change devastates currently fertile land and enables authoritarian countries to express their will—and encourage chaos—by withholding the nutrients required for life itself. One can only hope that countervailing democracies in the Nordic nations and Canada can acts as sufficient counterbalances to withstand potential Russian malfeasance.
  • The outbreak that invented intensive care || “Comparisons are being made to the 1918 influenza pandemic — eerily, just over a century ago — which had a mortality that might turn out similar. But that outbreak occurred without a ventilator in sight. Is this new disease, in fact, more deadly? Thanks to what my predecessors learnt in Copenhagen almost 70 years ago, we can, in some parts of the world, offset the havoc of COVID-19 with mechanical ventilation and sophisticated intensive care that was not available in 1918. But it is as COVID-19 continues to spread in areas that do not have ICU beds — or not nearly enough of them — that we will, sadly, learn the true natural course of this new virus.” // It’s incredible that, until 1952, we didn’t have modern ventilators, and worrying that the ‘true’ mortality of the current pandemic may only be apparent after studies are conducted of countries where contemporary medical technologies are often unavailable.
  • How infectious disease defined the American bathroom || “When architects designed homes in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic and World War I, they typically took one of two approaches to the recent traumas. The first was to start at the ground-up and rethink everything, like Modernists and the Bauhaus did in the 1920s. The second — and far more common — tactic was to try to forget about the trauma and make ourselves comfortable, which bolstered the popularity of Art Deco design, according to Dianne Pierce, adjunct professorial lecturer in decorative arts and design history at the George Washington University.” // The links between human perceptions of health and safety, and the design and configuration of where we live, are fascinating. The extent(s) to which there will be substantial changes in how we build out homes and living areas will similarly be curious: will design change as a result of the current pandemic or, instead, will we see an active effort to not change or to ignore the events of the past (and coming) year?
Link

Russia, China, the USA and the Geopolitical and National Security Implications of Climate Change

Lustgarden, writing for the New York Times, has probably the best piece on the national security and geopolitical implications of climate change that I’ve recently come across. The assessment for the USA is not good:

… in the long term, agriculture presents perhaps the most significant illustration of how a warming world might erode America’s position. Right now the U.S. agricultural industry serves as a significant, if low-key, instrument of leverage in America’s own foreign affairs. The U.S. provides roughly a third of soy traded globally, nearly 40 percent of corn and 13 percent of wheat. By recent count, American staple crops are shipped to 174 countries, and democratic influence and power comes with them, all by design. And yet climate data analyzed for this project suggest that the U.S. farming industry is in danger. Crop yields from Texas north to Nebraska could fall by up to 90 percent by as soon as 2040 as the ideal growing region slips toward the Dakotas and the Canadian border. And unlike in Russia or Canada, that border hinders the U.S.’s ability to shift north along with the optimal conditions.

Now, the advantages faced by Canada might be eroded by a militant America, and those of Russia similarly threatened by a belligerent and desperate China (and desperate Southeast Asia more generally). Regardless, food and arable land are generally likely to determine which countries take the longest to most suffer from climate change. Though, in the end, it’s almost a forgone conclusion that we are all ultimately going to suffer horribly for the errors of our ways.

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Links for November 9-13, 2020

  • Last hundred days?. “The last hundred days of the Trump presidency—if that’s the period we’re in—thus gives rise to a number of distinct concerns about the excesses of an involuntarily lame-duck president of, shall we say, an unconventional disposition. These concerns often get blended together, but they are worth separating into four broad categories. The most alarming of the set, but probably the least likely, relate to the possibility of a contested election. A far more likely possibility involves the president’s delegitimization of an election that he cannot fruitfully contest. A third set of concerns involve self-dealing and other abuses of power during the transition. The final category involves simple mishandling of the transition itself.” // Here’s hoping that things don’t turn as badly under that last dregs of the Trump presidency as some fear. But I wouldn’t personally bet a lot on hope right now.
  • The trump presidency is ending. So is Maggie Haberman’s wild ride. // A great contemporaneous profile of Maggie Haberman, one of the best journalists who’s covered Trump to date.
  • Deep-freeze challenge makes pfizer’s shot a vaccine for the rich. “Even for rich countries that have pre-ordered doses, including Japan, the U.S. and the U.K., delivering Pfizer’s vaccine will involve considerable hurdles as long as trucks break down, electricity cuts out, essential workers get sick and ice melts.” // It’s going to be miserable to keep hearing about possible vaccines and then, after the initial euphoria of media, realize just how incredibly hard it is going to be to distribute them. Hopefully with a competent America returning to the world scene we’ll see the various superpowers of the world work together on this issue to coordinate probably the most significant logistics campaign in humanity’s history.
  • The brouhaha over google photos. “[Google] has decided that the photos uploaded to its system have trained its visual algorithms enough that it doesn’t have to eat the cost of “free storage.” // Om definitely has one of the best assessments for why Google is no longer offering unlimited (non-premium) photo storage. The company has done the training it needed to do, and now it’s time to monetize what it’s learned from the data which was entrusted to it.
  • ‘Are we getting invaded?’ U.S. Boats faced Russian aggression near Alaska. “As Russia has ramped up its presence in the region, U.S. officials have accelerated their own efforts. The Coast Guard has long complained that its lone pair of aging icebreakers are struggling to stay in service but may now have the opportunity to build six new ones. (Russia has dozens.) The United States is also discussing a northern deepwater port, perhaps around Nome. Currently, the nearest strategic port is 1,300 nautical miles away in Anchorage.” // It’s increasingly becoming evident that the Arctic, long a place where ice kept the different major powers from seriously competing for territory and resources, is going to heat up as a result of a warming climate. It’s truly worrying that Canada and the United States seem to be utterly lacking in preparation for what is coming.

The Roundup for June 1-30, 2020 Edition

(Urban King by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


I put together, and self-published, another photobook that is entitled “Pandemic Chronicles: Book I”. Each week that my city has been in (functional) lockdown, I’ve gone out once or twice and made images while just stretching my legs outside.

Over the past four months it’s often been hard to figure out how, exactly, I’ve been processing the life changes that have been imposed as a result of the pandemic. My life has, in many respects, reverted to that of my life during my PhD. So, lots of time inside and rarely leaving leaving my home, and having considerably less social contact than normal.

I think that it’s through my photos that I can best appreciate how I’ve felt, in retrospect, and understand how those images reflect how I see the world. The book that I made isn’t particularly dark: it’s just…lonely. It showcases the city that I live in, without the people that make it the city that I love. It shows people living their lives, often alone or separate from others, or while engaging in ‘safe’ behaviours. And, towards the end, it shows the light returning to Toronto, though in a format that differs from prior summers.

Photography has, and remains, a way for me to engage a creative part of my brain that otherwise would lie fallow. And, also, it’s operated as a meditative process that uncovers how I have been in the world, and how the world has been presented to me. As someone who has struggled with the idea of a ‘narrative’ in image making, I think that this book is a breakthrough because it ‘says’ something in aggregate that is more than just a presentation of visually pleasant images: it speaks to where I live, and how it has endured in the wake of the city’s closure. Is it the height of art? No. But it’s the closest I’ve come in this medium so far!


Inspiring Quotation

“Good” can be a stifling word, a word that makes you hesitate and stare at a blank page and second-guess yourself and throw stuff in the trash. What’s important is to get your hands moving and let the images come. Whether it’s good or bad is beside the point. Just make something.

Austin Kleon

Great Photography Shots

(Photos included in ‘Pandemic Chronicles: Book I’ by Christopher Parsons)

Music I’m Digging

This month has been packed with a lot of listening, with some alternative and R&B pretty tightly mixed in with hip hop. The best of what I listened to in June includes tracks from Yung Tory’s Rastar (including Mizu, Water Pt 2, and Netflix & Chill), Kali Uchis’s TO FEEL ALIVE (EP), HONNE’s no song without you (Single), and 6LACK’s 6pc Hot(EP).

Neat Podcast Episodes

I’ve been listening to a pair of new podcast shows over the past month that I’d recommend. From the CBC, there’s This Is Not A Drake Podcast, which uses Drake as a way to talk more about the history of rap and hip hop. So far I’ve really appreciated the episode on mixtapes, as well as the connotations of Nice Guy rappers.

Very differently, I’ve also been listening to the Globe and Mail’s series, Stress Test, which is about money issues facing millennials in the time of Covid. The episodes haven’t been staggering brilliant (a lot of the advice is pretty time tested) but the caution and suggestions are all helpful reminders.

Good Reads

  • Reflections from an “Accidental” Mentor // Prof. McNamara’s discussion of what it means to be a mentor— first and foremost modelling who we are, as individuals, rather than fitting within a particular narrow category of who we are normatively expected to be—is good advice, and important if we are to expand what is ‘normal’ within academia. She also focuses on celebrating the commonality across scholars; we’re all nerds, at heart, and so should focus on those attributes to create community. I agree, but for myself it’s more than that: it’s also about ensuring that the structures of professional environments are re-articulated to enable more junior persons to experience their jobs and professions in ways that weren’t possible, previously. It’s not just about focusing on commonality but, also, assessing baseline principles and values and ensuring that they conform in theory and practice with welcoming, creative, equitable, and inclusive environments. And, finally, it’s about accepting and making clear that as mentors we are fallible and human, and creating workspaces where others can also betray these inherently human (and humanizing) characteristics.
  • Jon Stewart Is Back to Weigh In // Jon Stewart’s comments throughout this interview are worth the read; his assessment of the problems of contemporary political media—centred around the ‘need’ for content to fuel a 24/7 media environment—as well as for the media to engage in structural assessment of practices, are on point. Similarly, his discussion of the nature of racism in American society (but, also, Canada) strikes to the heart of things: even if someone isn’t deliberately malicious in deed or thought, they are conditioned by the structures of society and power in which they live their lives. And those very structures are, themselves, racist in their origin and contemporary design.
  • Hacking Security // Goerzen and Coleman do a terrific job in unpacking the history of what is secured by computer security experts, and why certain things are within or outside of bounds for securing. Critically, while experts may be involved in protecting ‘assets’ or combatting ‘abuse’, where threats to assets or abuse arise from the underlying profit mechanisms associated with large technology companies, those mechanisms are seen as outside of bounds for security teams to engage with. Similarly, the failure of security teams to consider, or address, ‘political’ issues such as abusive speech, harmful video content, or propagation of racist or white supremacist content all showcase the need to critically interrogate what is, and isn’t, made secure, and to expand security teams by adding social scientists and humanities scholars: technology is political, and we need security teams to have members who are trained and competent to consider those politics.
  • Once Safer Than Gold, Canadian Real Estate Braces for Reckoning // Canadians have been doubling down on their debt-loads for over a decade to the point, today, that on average Canadians owe north of $1.76 per $1.00 of income, with that number rising in the country’s largest cities. Housing is particularly vulnerable and, if it is destabilized, can be devastating to the Canadian economy more broadly given that it accounts for around %15 of GDP; slowdowns in housing will delay the revival of the Canadian economy, while simultaneously threatening the ability of Canadians to stay in their homes—now—or retain their savings to invest for their retirements—in the future. If anything good comes of this, maybe it will be a reminder that allocating the majority of your savings into a single asset is, indeed, not a good long-term investment solution which could have knock on effects if investors decide they want to move to their next bubble, and let the housing bubble deflate as gracefully as possible.
  • Sure, The Velociraptors Are Still On The Loose, But That’s No Reason Not To Reopen Jurassic Park // McSweeney’s, once more, showcases the merits of satire in the vein of Swift’s A Modest Proposal, this time in the era of government failures in the face of pandemic.
  • You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument // “I have rape-coloured skin.” Not only is this perhaps the most poignant lede I’ve come across in an opinion piece in years, it also sets the stakes for the Williams’ article; the very skin of many Americans (and Canadians) is a testament to violent and racist actions taken against women who were forced from their homes to live as slaves. That testament continues, today, and not just in the monuments that were established in the Jim Crow era to deliberately attempt to continue subjugating Black persons, but in the very skin inhabited by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of enslaved people.
  • Vladimir Putin’s war of fog: How the Russian President used deceit, propaganda and violence to reshape global politics // I take issue with some of MacKinnon’s choice of language in the first ¼ of the article—he suggests that truth is substantively confused and that Putin’s tactics are more successful that I think are appropriate to concede—but beyond that he’s done a masterful job in creating an overview of who Putin is, what he’s done, and how he’s come to (and held onto) power. If you’re a long-time Russia watcher you may dispute where MacKinnon puts some of his emphasis, or in his assessment of some events, but I don’t think that you can deny that this is a helpful article that provide the broad contours of Putin’s life and career. And, after having read it, it will hopefully inspire people to learning more of the financial, military, or other scandals that have happened throughout Putin’s leadership of Russia.

Cool Things

  • iPad OS + Magic Trackpad 2 // Lots of people already have figured this out but…the new version of iPad OS + a Magic Trackpad 2 and a keyboard is a really, really compelling combination. I’ve using this as my writing and work system for a little while and it continues to prove to me how robust the iPad actually is, and how many of the pain points have been, or are being, ground away with each version of the operating system. That said, some of the gestures are very, very opaque—in particular those associated with the slide over window—and so you may want to review how, exactly, those gestures really work to get the most out of the process (and not get frustrated when certain windows just won’t go away!)

The Roundup for December 1-31, 2019 Edition

Alone Amongst Ghosts by Christopher Parsons

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


This month’s update is late, accounting for holidays and my generally re-thinking how to move forward (or not) with these kinds of posts. I find them really valuable, but the actual interface of using my current client (Ulysses) to draft elements of them is less than optimal. So expect some sort of changes as I muddle through how to improve workflow and/or consider the kinds of content that make the most sense to post.


Inspiring Quotation

Be intensely yourself. Don’t try to be outstanding; don’t try to be a success; don’t try to do pictures for others to look at—just please yourself.

  • Ralph Steiner

Great Photography Shots

Natalia Elena Massi’s photographs of Venice, flooded, are exquisite insofar as they are objectively well shot while, simultaneously, reminding us of the consequences of climate change. I dream of going to Venice to shoot photos at some point and her work only further inspires those dreams.

Music I’m Digging

I spent a lot of the month listening to my ‘Best of 2019’ playlist, and so my Songs I Liked in December playlist is a tad threadbare. That said, it’s more diverse in genre and styles than most monthly lists, though not a lot of the tracks made the grade to get onto my best of 2019 list.

  • Beck-Guero // I spent a lot of time re-listening to Beck’s corpus throughout December. I discovered that I really like his music: it’s moody, excitable,and catchy, and always evolving from album to album.
  • Little V.-Spoiler (Cyberpunk 2077) (Single) // Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the most hyped video games for 2020, and if all of the music is as solid and genre-fitting as this track, then the ambiance for the game is going to be absolutely stellar.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • 99% Invisible-Racoon Resistance // As a Torontonian I’m legally obligated to share this. Racoons are a big part of the city’s identity, and in recent years new organic garbage containers were (literally) rolled out that were designed such that racoons couldn’t get into them. Except that some racoons could! The good news is that racoons are not ‘social learners’ and, thus, those who can open the bins are unlikely to teach all the others. But with the sheer number of trash pandas in the city it’s almost a certainty that a number of them will naturally be smart enough and, thus, garbage will continue to litter our sidewalks and laneways.

Good Reads

  • America’s Dark History of Killing Its Own Troops With Cluster Munitions // Ismay’s longform piece on cluster munitions is not a happy article, nor does the reader leave with a sense that this deadly weapon is likely to be less used. His writing–and especially the tragedies associated with the use of these weapons–is poignant and painful. And yet it’s also critically important to read given the barbarity of cluster munitions and their deadly consequences to friends, foes, and civilians alike. No civilized nation should use these weapons and all which do use them cannot claim to respect the lives of civilians stuck in conflict situations.
  • Project DREAD: White House Veterans Helped Gulf Monarchy Build Secret Surveillance Unit // The failure or unwillingness of the principals, their deputies, or staff to acknowledge they created a surveillance system that has systematically been used to hunt down illegitimate targets—human rights defenders, civil society advocates, and the like—is disgusting. What’s worse is that democratizing these surveillance capabilities and justifying the means by which the program was orchestrated almost guarantees that American signals intelligence employees will continue to spread American surveillance know-how to the detriment of the world for a pay check, the consequences be damned (if even ever considered in the first place).
  • The War That Continues to Shape Russia, 25 Years Later // The combination of the (re)telling of the first Russia-Chechen War and photographs from the conflict serve as reminders of what it looks like when well-armed nation-states engage in fullscale destruction, the human costs, and the lingering political consequences of wars-now-past.
  • A New Kind of Spy: How China obtains American technological secrets // Bhattacharjee’s 2014 article on Chinese spying continues to strike me as memorable, and helpful in understanding how the Chinese government recruits agents to facilitate its technological objectives. Reading the piece helps to humanize why Chinese-Americans may spy for the Chinese government and, also, the breadth and significance of such activities for advancing China’s interests to the detriment of America’s own.
  • Below the Asphalt Lies the Beach: There is still much to learn from the radical legacy of critical theory // Benhabib’s essay showcasing how the history of European political philosophy over the past 60 years or so are in the common service of critique, and the role(s) of Habermasian political theory in both taking account of such critique whilst offering thoughts on how to proceed in a world of imperfect praxis, is an exciting consideration of political philosophy today. She mounts a considered defense of Habermas and, in particular, the claims that his work is overly Eurocentric. Her drawing a line between the need to seek emancipation while standing to confront and overcome the xenophobia, authoritarianism, and racism that is sweeping the world writ large is deeply grounded on the need for subjects like human rights to orient and ground critique. While some may oppose such universalism on the same grounds as they would reject the Habermasian project there is a danger: in doing so, not only might we do a disservice to the intellectual depth that undergirds the concept of human rights but, also, we run the risk of losing the core means by which we can (re)orient the world towards enabling the conditions of freedom itself.
  • Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: A GPS mystery in Shanghai // This very curious article explores the recent problem of ships’ GPS transponders being significantly affected while transiting the Yangtze in China. Specifically, transponders are routinely misplacing the location of ships, sometimes with dangerous and serious implications. The cause, however, remains unknown: it could be a major step up in the (effective) electronic warfare capabilities of sand thieves who illegally dredge the river, and who seek to escape undetected, or could be the Chinese government itself testing electronic warfare capabilities on the shipping lane in preparation of potentially deploying it elsewhere in the region. Either way, threats such as this to critical infrastructure pose serious risks to safe navigation and, also, to the potential for largely civilian infrastructures to be potentially targeted by nation-state adversaries.
  • A Date I Still Think About // These beautiful stories of memorable and special dates speak to just how much joy exists in the world, and how it unexpectedly erupts into our lives. In an increasingly dark time, stories like this are a kind of nourishment for the soul.

Cool Things

  • The Deep Sea // This interactive website that showcases the sea life we know exists, and the depths at which it lives, is simple and spectacular.
  • 100 Great Works Of Dystopian Fiction // A pretty terrific listing of books that have defined the genre.
Link

A Deep Dive Into Russian Surveillance In The Silicon Valley Area

Via Foreign Policy:

This focus on signals and technical intelligence persisted until much more recently, multiple former U.S. intelligence officials told me. “It was almost like everyone they had there was a technical guy, as opposed to a human-intelligence guy,” one former official recalled. “The way they protected those people — they were rarely out in the community. It was work, home, work, home. When they’d go out and about, to play hockey or to drink, they’d be in a group. It was hard to penetrate.” The same official also noted that San Francisco was integral to the discovery by U.S. intelligence of a new class of Russian “technical-type” intelligence officer, working for the rough Russian equivalent of the National Security Agency, before this organization was eventually folded by Putin back into the FSB. This group, which was not based at the consulate itself, was identified via its members’ travel patterns — they would visit the Bay Area frequently — and the types of individuals, all in high-tech development, with whom they sought contact. According to this former U.S. official, these Russian intelligence officers were particularly interested in discussing cryptology and the Next Generation Internet program.

But it was the consulate’s location — perched high atop that hill in Pacific Heights, with a direct line of sight out to the ocean — that likely determined the concentration of signals activity. Certain types of highly encrypted communications cannot be transmitted over long distances, and multiple sources told me that U.S. officials believed that Russian intelligence potentially took advantage of the consulate’s location to communicate with submarines, trawlers, or listening posts located in international waters off the Northern California coast. (Russian intelligence officers may also have been remotely transmitting data to spy stations offshore, multiple former intelligence officials told me, explaining the odd behaviors on Stinson Beach.) It is also “very possible,” said one former intelligence official, that the Russians were using the San Francisco consulate to monitor the movements, and perhaps communications, of the dozen or so U.S. nuclear-armed submarines that routinely patrol the Pacific from their base in Washington state.

All in all, said this same official, it was “very likely” that the consulate functioned for Russia as a classified communications hub for the entire western United States — and, perhaps, the entire western part of the hemisphere.

There is a lot to this very long form piece, including descriptions of Russian intelligence operations and communications patterns, how lawful Russian overflights of American territory might be used for a variety of intelligence purposes, and the Trump administration’s likely cluelessness about why closing the Russian consulate in San Francisco was so significant. But most interestingly, for me, was how the consulate likely functioned as an outpost for Russian signals intelligence operations, both due to the depth of analysis in the article but also for what it tells us about how Western-allied consulates and diplomatic facilities are likely used.1 In effect, the concerns raised by former FBI and other American counter-intelligence officers speaks to how America and her allies may conduct their own forms of surveillance.

  1. In a provincial sense, the concerns and opinions espoused by American counter-intelligence officers also raises questions as to the role of Canada’s significant number of diplomatic facilities scattered throughout China and other regions where the United States is more challenged in building out State Department facilities.
Aside

There’s something…special…about being ‘covered’ by an organization that is the actual definition of fake news/Russian propaganda.