American institutions have suffered significantly under Trump and, moreover, public polarization and the movement of parts of the USA electorate (and, to different extents, global electorates) into alternate reality bubbles mean that the supports which are meant to facilitate peaceful transitions of power such that the loser can believe in the outcomes of elections are badly wounded. Democracies don’t die in darkness, per se, but through neglect and an unwillingness of the electorate to engage because change tends to be hard, slow, and incremental. There are solutions to democratic decline, and focusing on the next electoral cycles matters, but we can’t focus on elections to the detriment of understanding how to rejuvenate democratic systems of governance more generally.
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.
For the past several weeks I’ve been sorting through all of the hundreds of photographs I’ve taken during the current state of pandemic we’re all living within. My photography is often a reflection—often unbeknownst to myself—of my thoughts and attitudes. The earliest weeks of the pandemic saw me making images of the city as though it were empty, grey, or isolated. And while those moods still pervade through later photos, there are increasingly also bursts of colour and joy, though still mixed with an emptiness to the city that calls into question what things will be like in six, twelve, or twenty-four month’s time. Many of the shots I’m taking, now, still feel almost documentary in nature, but at what point does the documentation end, and it simply becomes contemporary street photography?
More simply, real change only happens when the thing that white supremacists fear becomes true: that the mainstream increasingly becomes rather than simply appropriates the “ethnic.”
Personal Photography Shots
I’ve been going out, once a week or so, to get a walk and make photos while walking around my city. Unlike past months, I’ve contributed a set of these rather than other artists’ images.
ZHU & Tinashe-Only (Single) // Beats by ZHU and vocals by him and Tinashe make for a very danceable track. I’m really hoping that they do more work together or, failing that, that we at least get more work from ZHU for the summer.
Yiruma-Room With A View (EP) // Without a doubt, Yiruma has created some of the most beautiful classical piano work that I’ve heard this year.
Kenlani-It Was Good Until It Wasn’t // The tracks “Can I” and “Everybody Business” are, for me, the real standouts on this album. I admit that I was hopeful that “Grieving”, with James Blake would be really awesome, but their styles just didn’t quite seem to come together. Her work with Tory Lanez, as well as Jhené Aiko, are far more balanced given how their styles compliment Kehlani’s own.
Barton Gellman—Dark Mirror // Gellman was one of three reporters who were directly entrusted with the Snowden archives, and spent years reporting out of the documents. His assessment of what it was like to report on what he learned, the nature of the surveillance apparatus, working with Ed Snowden, and his broader thoughts on the relationship between public government and national security are erudite and fantastically interesting. I’ve just devoured this book and cannot recommend it highly enough.
How Should Biden Handle China? // This piece is less useful, to be honest, in thinking through what policy the United States or its allies should adopt than is assessing engagement strategies that aren’t working. Setting aside the irregularities and chaos associated with the Trump administration’s approach, the assessment of how European efforts have been equally unhelpful are informative for guiding policy makers on what hasn’t worked even when policy activities have been carried out by governments with comparatively competent foreign policy bodies. While an understanding of what doesn’t work isn’t inherently useful in knowing what does work, it at least provides a set of strategies that seem to be unproductive to take up in a new administration.
1989-1996 Canadian Housing Collapse Looks Eerily Similar to Today // Economists around the world have been warning of a Canadian housing bubble for a very long time. But Canadians have ignored the warning and dove into the market on the dual fear that they would otherwise never be able to buy a home, and the notion that renting amounts to throwing money away. The result has been a lot of Canadians owning homes they can’t afford. As the bubble pops, we’re going to see just how much economic havoc is going to follow from these decisions for the housing market as well as the economy more broadly (housing, in Canada, constitutes one of the largest sectors in the economy).
The Jungle Prince of Delhi // I’ve had this article open to read for months and months, but kept not getting to it. That’s a shame, as it is (and remains) a terrific story filled with past dynasties, the histories of British colonialism, the hard task of journalism, and the capability of truth to be creatively imagined into being. I can’t recommend this detective piece highly enough.
Zetter’s book engages in a heroic effort to summarize, describe, and explain the significance of the NSA’s and Israel’s first ‘cyber weapon’, named Stuxnet. This piece of malware was used to disrupt the production of nuclear material in Iran as part of broader covert efforts to delimit the country’s ability to construct a nuclear weapon.
Multiple versions of Stuxnet were created, as were a series of complementary or derivative malware species with names such as Duqu and Flame. In all cases the malware was unusually sophisticated and relied on chains of exploits or novel techniques that advanced certain capabilities from academic theory to implementable practice. The reliance on zero-day vulnerabilities, or those for which no patches are available, combined with deliberate efforts to subvert the Windows Update system as well as use fraudulently signed digital certificates, bear the hallmarks of developers being willing to compromise global security for the sake of a specific American-Israeli malware campaign. In effect, the decision to leave the world’s computers vulnerable to the exploits used in the creation of Stuxnet demonstrate that offence was prioritized over defence by the respective governments and their signals intelligence agencies which authored the malware.
The book regales the reader with any number of politically sensitive tidbits of information: the CIA was responsible for providing some information on Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the IAEA, Russian antivirus researchers were monitored by Israeli (and perhaps other nations’) spies, historically the CIA and renown physicists planted false stories in Nature, the formal recognition as cyberspace as the fifth domain of battle in 2010 was merely formal recognition of work that had been ongoing for a decade prior, the shift to a wildly propagating version of Stuxnet likely followed after close access operations were no longer possible and the flagrancy of the propagation was likely an error, amongst many other bits of information.
Zetter spends a significant amount of time unpacking the ways in which the United States government determines if a vulnerability should be secretly retained for government use as part of a vulnerabilities equities process. Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security who were quoted in the book noted that they had never received information from the National Security Agency of a vulnerability and, moreover, that in cases where the Agency was already exploiting a reported vulnerability it was unlikely that disclosure would happen after entering the vulnerability into the equities process. As noted by any number of people in the course of the book, the failure by the United States (and other Western governments) to clearly explain their vulnerabilities disclosure processes, or the manners in which they would respond to a cyber attack, leaves unsettled the norms of digital security as well as leaves unanswered the norms and policies concerning when (and how) a state will respond to cyber attacks. To date these issues remain as murky as when the book was published in 2014.
The Countdown to Zero Day, in many respects, serves to collate a large volume of information that has otherwise existed in the public sphere. It draws in interviews, past technical and policy reports, and a vast quantity of news reports. But more than just collating materials it also explains the meanings of them, draws links between them that had not previously been made in such clear or straightforward fashions, and explains the broader implications of the United States’ and Israel’s actions. Further, the details of the book render (more) transparent how anti-virus companies and malware researchers conduct their work, as well as the threats to that work in an era when a piece of malware could be used by a criminal enterprise or a major nation-state actor with a habit of proactively working to silence researchers. The book remains an important landmark in the history of security journalism, cybersecurity, and the politics of cybersecurity. I would heartily recommend it to a layperson and expert alike.
It’s a profoundly strange experience knowing that my work was cited in the development of a US Presidential Executive Order (in this case, on the relative merits of cyber security transparency reporting).
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.
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. ↩
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.
In the interests in disclosure: I will personally be enrolled in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program in the coming fall. ↩
As the year draws to a close, it now seems possible that there will be multiple investigations of the Russian hacking — the intelligence review Mr. Obama has ordered completed by Jan. 20, the day he leaves office, and one or more congressional inquiries. They will wrestle with, among other things, Mr. Putin’s motive.
Did he seek to mar the brand of American democracy, to forestall anti-Russian activism for both Russians and their neighbors? Or to weaken the next American president, since presumably Mr. Putin had no reason to doubt American forecasts that Mrs. Clinton would win easily? Or was it, as the C.I.A. concluded last month, a deliberate attempt to elect Mr. Trump?
In fact, the Russian hack-and-dox scheme accomplished all three goals.
This is an absolutely brilliant piece of journalism by Harris, Singer, and Shane. It unpacks the publicly available information about the intrusions into the Democratic National Committee’s systems and how information was subsequently mobilized and weaponized. These sorts of attacks will continue to be effective because all it takes is a single failure on the part of defenders, often in the face of hundreds or thousands of discrete attacks. As a result the remediation process is, today, arguably the most important of a cyber-security event because a dedicated and resourced attacker will eventually penetrate even the best secured networking infrastructure. And the Democratic National Committee, and Democratic Party more generally, still lacks a remediation policy months after the attacks.
For a piece I published in September, about what Trump’s first term could look like, I spoke to a former Republican White House official whom Trump has consulted, who told me, “Honestly, the problem with Donald is he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” It turns out that is half of the problem; the other half is that he has surrounded himself with people who know how much he doesn’t know. Since Election Day, Trump has largely avoided receiving intelligence briefings, either because he doesn’t think it’s important that he receive them or because he just doesn’t care about them. George W. Bush, in the first months of 2001, ignored warnings about Osama bin Laden. Only in our darkest imaginings can we wonder what warnings Trump is ignoring now.
While the point that Trump’s team is dangerously able to manipulate him is fair, linking that capability with Trump not receiving intelligence briefings (and the 9/11 attacks) is unfair and misleading. Other past President-elects have also been slow to receive intelligence briefings and the current tempo of such briefings remains a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the United States presidency.
Mass data releases, like the Podesta emails, conflate things that the public has a right to know with things we have no business knowing, with a lot of material in the middle about things we may be curious about and may be of some historical interest, but should not be released in this manner.
All campaigns need to have internal discussions. Taking one campaign manager’s email account and releasing it with zero curation in the last month of an election needs to be treated as what it is: political sabotage, not whistle-blowing.
These hacks also function as a form of censorship. Once, censorship worked by blocking crucial pieces of information. In this era of information overload, censorship works by drowning us in too much undifferentiated information, crippling our ability to focus. These dumps, combined with the news media’s obsession with campaign trivia and gossip, have resulted in whistle-drowning, rather than whistle-blowing: In a sea of so many whistles blowing so loud, we cannot hear a single one.
This is one of the best arguments against the recent activities of Wikileaks. Not because Wikileaks is operating as a front for Russia. Not because the contents of the recent leaks aren’t newsworthy. Not because the public doesn’t find the revelations to be interesting and fun.
No, the core issue with the latest rafts of leaks is that they were not sufficiently currated, with the impact being that obstensibly private information is taken and circulated and mischaracterized. This has the effect of stunting the electoral process while, simultaneously, reconfirming to persons in power that they need to adopt a culture of oral communications and decisions. This is not a governance direction that is in the public’s best interests.
However, it’s important to also situate Wikileaks’ activities in some context. Wikileaks is designed to clog up the machinery of government states and bureaucracies. Part of its mission is to scare organizations with the threat of leaks in an effort to hinder what Julian Assange/Wikileaks regards as harmful or objectional activities. So the leaks associated with the DNC and staff affiliated with Clinton are perfectly aligned with Wikileaks’ raison d’être. In the past such activities may have been regarded are more legitimate – the organization was principally focused on state level activities – but it is now focused on deliberately releasing information at core points in an electoral cycle. Doing so may have affected the unfolding of the election but it’s important to acknowledge that Wikileaks’ intent was not driven by Russia (presuming that was a source of at least some of the leaked information): instead, this was a case where Russian and Wikileaks just happened to have directly overlapping objectives.
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…