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National Security Means What, Again?

There have been any number of concerns about Elon Musk’s behaviour, and especially in the recent weeks and months. This has led some commentators to warn that his purchase of Twitter may raise national security risks. Gill and Lehrich try to make this argument in their article, “Elon Musk Owning Twitter is A National Security Threat.” They give three reasons:

First, Musk is allegedly in communication with foreign actors – including senior officials in the Kremlin and Chinese Communist Party – who could use his acquisition of Twitter to undermine American national security.

Will Musk’s foreign investors have influence over Twitter’s content moderation policies? Will the Chinese exploit their significant leverage over Musk to demand he censor criticism of the CCP, or turn the dials up for posts that sow distrust in democracy?

Finally, it’s not just America’s information ecosystem that’s at stake, it’s also the private data of American citizens.

It’s worth noting that at no point do the authors provide a definition for ‘national security’, which causes the reader to have to guess what they likely mean. More broadly, in journalistic and opinion circle communities there is a curious–and increasingly common–conjoining of national security and information security. The authors themselves make this link in the kicker paragraph of their article, when they write

It is imperative that American leaders fully understand Musk’s motives, financing, and loyalties amidst his bid to acquire Twitter – especially given the high-stakes geopolitical reality we are living in now. The fate of American national security and our information ecosystem hang in the balance.1

Information security, generally, is focused on dangers which are associated with true or false information being disseminated across a population. It is distinguished from cyber security, and which is typically focused on the digital security protocols and practices that are designed to reduce technical computer vulnerabilities. Whereas the former focuses on a public’s mind the latter attends to how their digital and physical systems are hardened from being technically exploited.

Western governments have historically resisted authoritarian governments attempts to link the concepts of information security and cyber security. The reason is that authoritarian governments want to establish international principles and norms, whereby it becomes appropriate for governments to control the information which is made available to their publics under the guise of promoting ‘cyber security’. Democratic countries that emphasise the importance of intellectual freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and other core rights have historically been opposed to promoting information security norms.

At the same time, misinformation and disinformation have become increasingly popular areas of study and commentary, especially following Donald Trump’s election as POTUS. And, in countries like the United States, Trump’s adoption of lies and misinformation was often cast as a national security issue: correct information should be communicated, and efforts to intentionally communicate false information should be blocked, prohibited, or prevented from massively circulating.

Obviously Trump’s language, actions, and behaviours were incredibly destabilising and abominable for an American president. And his presence on the world stage arguably emboldened many authoritarians around the world. But there is a real risk in using terms like ‘national security’ without definition, especially when the application of ‘national security’ starts to stray into the domain of what could be considered information security. Specifically, as everything becomes ‘national security’ it is possible for authoritarian governments to adopt the language of Western governments and intellectuals, and assert that they too are focused on ‘national security’ whereas, in fact, these authoritarian governments are using the term to justify their own censorious activities.

Now, does this mean that if we are more careful in the West about our use of language that authoritarian governments will become less censorious? No. But being more careful and thoughtful in our language, public argumentation, and positioning of our policy statements we may at least prevent those authoritarian governments from using our discourse as a justification for their own activities. We should, then, be careful and precise in what we say to avoid giving a fig leaf of cover to authoritarian activities.

And that will start by parties who use terms like ‘national security’ clearly defining what they mean, such that it is clear how national security is different from informational security. Unless, of course, authors and thinkers are in fact leaning into the conceptual apparatus of repressive governments in an effort to save democratic governance. For any author who thinks such a move is wise, however, I must admit that I harbour strong doubts of the efficacy or utility of such attempts.


  1. Emphasis not in original. ↩︎
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Trump staffers worried about, and strategizing for, their next job

Per Politco, Trump staffers are worrying about their next job. I cannot believe that people working in the current administration continue to be given anonymity by the press: employees of the White House have knowingly supported a morally and ethically bankrupt president and administration, and what they’re most concerned about following the horror show of yesterday is their job prospects?

Expose them. Make them accountable for their culpability in what they have helped to nurture into existence. These people do not deserve anonymity.

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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.
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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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From Salon:

But here’s the thing. Mnuchin’s shameless posturing about the administration’s tax plans—at one point he even promised there would be “no absolute tax cut for the upper class,” which was a laugher given every proposal Trump had ever backed—points to a deeper problem. The man regularly says things that just aren’t true. He’s been claiming that there was an analysis underway. There wasn’t. And while a lot of people may roll their eyes about that in the context of a wonky tax debate, his complete lack of credibility is going to be a problem if we ever run into a serious economic or financial crisis. Just ask yourself: If the markets were crashing and Steve Mnuchin held a press conference assuring everybody that the administration had an action plan in the works, would you believe him? His complete detachment from reality has mostly been an infuriating sideshow during this tax push. If stuff ever really hits the fan, though, his reputation for fibbing is going to make things even worse. Just like someone else we know.

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Evaluating the Buzzfeed dossier, by a former Intelligence Analyst

Individual details, like lawyer Michael Cohen’s trip to Prague or the spelling of a name or two, may indeed be disproven. Not everything in these reports is 100% accurate.

However, it is extremely important to emphasize that micro-level inaccuracies do not detract from the credibility of the two broad points that I establish above: that Trump’s organization has had a relationship with the Kremlin and that he is subject to blackmail.

This is one of the better analyses of how to understand the dossier that was released this week on Donald Trump’s activities in Russia and involvement with the Russian government.

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Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America

As a candidate, Trump’s gas lighting was manipulative, as President-elect it is a deliberate attempt to destabilize journalism as a check on the power of government.

To be clear, the “us” here is everyone living under Trump. It’s radical progressives, hardline Republicans, and Jill Stein’s weird cousin. The President of the United States cannot be lying to the American electorate with zero accountability. The threat of deception is not a partisan issue. Trump took advantage of the things that divide this country, pitting us against one another, while lying his way to the Oval Office. Yes, everything is painfully clear in hindsight, but let’s make sure Trump’s win was the Lasik eye surgery we all so desperately needed.

The good news about this boiling frog scenario is that we’re not boiling yet. Trump is not going to stop playing with the burner until America realizes that the temperature is too high. It’s on every single one of us to stop pretending it’s always been so hot in here.

Teen Vogue has one of the more biting analyses of Trump’s activities in the US media. Teen. Vogue.

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Privacy experts fear Donald Trump accessing global surveillance network

Thomas Drake, an NSA whistleblower who predated Snowden, offered an equally bleak assessment. He said: “The electronic infrastructure is fully in place – and ex post facto legalised by Congress and executive orders – and ripe for further abuse under an autocratic, power-obsessed president. History is just not kind here. Trump leans quite autocratic. The temptations to use secret NSA surveillance powers, some still not fully revealed, will present themselves to him as sirens.”

Bush and Cheney functionally authorized the NSA to undertake unlawful operations and actively sought to hinder authorizing courts from understanding what was going on. At the same time, that administration established black sites and novel detention rules for persons kidnapped by the CIA from around the world.

Obama and Biden developed legal theories that were accompanied by authorizing legislation to make the NSA’s previously unlawful activities lawful. The Obama presidency also failed to close Gitmo or convince the American public that torture should be forbidden or that criminal (as opposed to military) courts are the appropriate ways of dealing with suspected terror suspects. And thoughout the NSA deliberately misled and lied to its authorizing court, the CIA deliberately withheld documents from investigators and spied on those working for the intelligence oversight committees, and the FBI continued to conceal its own surveillance operations as best it could.

There are a lot of things to be worried about when it comes to the United States’ current trajectory. But one of the more significant items to note is that the most sophisticated and best financed surveillance and policing infrastructure in the world is going to be working at the behest of an entirely unproven, misogynistic, racist, and bigoted president.

It’s cause to be very, very nervous for the next few years.

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How sexism and bigotry won Donald Trump the presidency

This election is already being spun as “voter backlash,” as if the most widely touted legislative policies and court decisions over the last eight years – the Affordable Care Act, same-sex marriage, the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – don’t say something about the people who wish to reverse them. There will soon be conversations about the transformation of the American electoral landscape which dance around the deliberate naming of sexism and bigotry as the proximate cause for nearly causing President-elect Donald Trump. All of this misses the point unless that darker urge in American politics is finally identified and examined.

That urge to halt progress, to let people who traditionally have not held power know their proper place in the hierarchy, is a familiar one. That a man as unpopular, temperamental, and inexperienced as Donald Trump could pull this off speaks not only to the inevitability of this cycle, but to the fact that even the worst possible candidate can be the best possible President when the mood is right.

God help us all.

The implications of this election are entirely unknowable: America has done something that is practically unthinkable. Everyone who examines and advocates for policies, regardless of political stripe or interest, has no idea what is going to follow. And it’s not evident that the lack of stability is a problem given that a significant swathe of Americans have given a mandate to a man who possesses a resevoir of ideology and, at best, a thimble of policy prescriptions.

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Donald Trump’s companies destroyed or hid documents in defiance of court orders

Newsweek:

Trump’s use of deception and untruthful affidavits, as well as the hiding or improper destruction of documents, dates back to at least 1973, when the Republican nominee, his father and their real estate company battled the federal government over civil charges that they refused to rent apartments to African-Americans. The Trump strategy was simple: deny, impede and delay, while destroying documents the court had ordered them to hand over.

Shortly after the government filed its case in October, Trump attacked: He falsely declared to reporters that the feds had no evidence he and his father discriminated against minorities, but instead were attempting to force them to lease to welfare recipients who couldn’t pay their rent.

The debates about who had hidden the most, and the significance of such hiding, continues unabated in the American election…