Tuesday, October 25, 2016

It Was The Russians! No, Wait, It Was A Shadowy Collective! DDoS, IoT, and WTF

Last week I wrote about a minor DDoS attack that harnessed an army of small household appliances and cameras to take down websites. Then this week, there was a major DDoS attack that harnessed an army of small household appliances and cameras to take down major parts of the internet. Am I surfing the zeitgeist or what?

Reaction to these events has been somewhat puzzling. The party line seems to be something like "It was the Russians." At CBS News, the "homeland security consultant" Fran Townsend immediately pointed to Russia, asking "Is this sort of a brushback pitch from the Russians sending us a message that we should be pretty careful about engaging in this sort of cyberactivity with them because they are very capable[?]" A Guardian writer who, like me, wanted a chance to fly off the handle about the Internet of Things (IoT) and how stupid and pointless it is got the headline "Do you want your shower to help Russian hackers?"

But the same CBS story quoting expert opinion alleging state sponsored cyber-terrorism then goes on to explain that a "shadowy collective" called "New World Hacking" had claimed responsibility. People speaking anonymously and claiming to be associated with New World Hacking said they did it to "test power," that they "sought only to expose security vulnerabilities," and that when it came to demands, there was only one: "We will make one demand actually. Secure your website and get better servers, otherwise be attacked again."

I don't know about you, but I thought these seemed like intelligent and reasonable things to say. I don't know if they're true -- whatever that means in this day and age -- but, as we say nowadays, whatever.

I was standing in the espresso line when I first encountered this news on my phone, and I decided to go and look up New World Hacking. From Google I was able to easily find their website, where I saw a simple form with boxes and a simple message -- offering DDoS attacks. Not powerful enough to bring down a government, they said, but if you want to harass your friends and stir up trouble, you've come to the right place!

OK I am paraphrasing that part -- because New World Hackers took down their site. On their Twitter account they said they've retired, hanging it all up. Now when you try to visit their page, you just get "The fact that you are seeing this page indicates that the website you just visited is either experiencing problems or is undergoing routine maintenance."

When we're entering the realm of thermostats and children's toys taking down the internet, things are sufficiently bizarre that I can't claim to have a handle on the situation. But here are some questions I have.

1. Why am I the only one freaking out about this?

This DDoS attack was treated as news but it was not treated as major, earth-shattering news. This seems bizarre to me. If, as seems utterly plausible, someone manages to stymie major parts of the internet -- meaning people can't communicate, can't move money around, and probably can't even make stop lights work -- how long do you think it's going to be before there's no more food in the supermarket, no more water coming out of the tap, and no more electricity to charge your phone?

I feel like people have this idea that somehow because we used to do all these things without the internet we can go back to doing things "the old way." But as we've said before, that's an illusion. The analogue systems of society aren't somehow buried somewhere, ready to be dusted off and used. They're over. For example: masses of people used to be employed in huge buildings all over North America to old-fashioned banking a thing. There's no simple "going back to the way it was."

2. Why doesn't the media talk to actual hackers?

These stories are always the same: they talk to security experts, they talk to the target of the attack (who knows nothing), they talk to some political person. Everyone says the same thing: we don't know the motives, sinister forces are out there trying to get us, there is a problem with internet security because blah blah blah reasons that people have known about for a long time.

As far as I know, one AP reporter had one DM with New World Hackers on Twitter, and some people tried to talk to people who said they'd been involved with a similar hack before. Aren't there other people who know more about this who can be interviewed? Not "security experts" but people who actually do these things and know why people do them and have relevant thoughts instead of just dumb boiler-plate? Why not talk to those people?

3. What is going on with "decentralized" control?

Part of the relevant "blah blah blah" in these circumstances always has to do with how there's no one really in charge of the internet, because it's not really that kind of thing, and there's no governing body that is supposed to oversee stuff and make sure things are secure, and there's no government that contains a bureaucracy devoted to such matters. Sometimes you get the feeling that there are people who think this is a really good thing, because governments are "political" and because "decentralized" control is actually safer because of the way nodes and important parts are all distributed around instead of being physically or logically organized.

But it's no secret that when you leave things alone to organize themselves, they often ... organize themselves. What results is the opposite of decentralized control and is more like massively centralized control. This DDoS attack, for example, worked so well because the target, Dyn, was providing infrastructure and domain name support to a large number of large clients like Twitter, Netflix, and PayPal. It's not really decentralized. It's more like auto-centralized: it centralized itself.

4. Do some people sort of want it to be proto-war with Russia? 

There's a lot I just don't understand.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Don't Tech People Ever Encounter Dystopian Fiction?

The drones from Iron Man.

 Often when I read the news these days, I think to myself: don't these people ever encounter dystopian futuristic books and movies?

To me, it seems like modern narratives are full of of very plausible depictions of the very awful and disastrous consequences of creating and adopting new technologies that are of very dubious usefulness in the first place. Don't the people creating these technologies ever think to themselves "Wow, I'm like the inadvertently evil person in a futuristic disaster movie"?

One obvious example is the Internet of Things. I'm not even a huge sci-fi fan, but even I know that many of the classics depict objects turning, or being turned, against us. It's not in the least far-fetched. In fact, just recently a successful DDoS attack was executed by a bunch of "innocuous things like digital video recorders and security cameras."

When I first read that, I felt like, 'Well, duh." This is what novelists and artists have been telling us for years. Isn't one of the main sci-fi moments when Dave says "Open the pod bay doors, HAL," and Hal says "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that"? Didn't Philip K. Dick write about a door that wouldn't open unless you pay? Aren't these the logical extensions of having your fridge or your front door connected to the internet, and, by obvious extension, to mega-corporations and the NSA?

I don't even get why people want the Internet of Things. What's so tough about making a note to buy milk, and if you forget and run out one day, it's not the end of the world? What's inadequate about the existing concept of, say, a key to get into your home? The electric grid is fragile from years of neglect. One good shot could knock out communications satellite. If the power is out, do you really want to be unable to get into your own home? I picture the poor befuddled people of the future, thinking "If only there were some simple technology where you could fashion a device, maybe out of metal and it would just ... open the door." Sad!

I thought the same thing when I read about how Facebook wants to help banks evaluate your credit-worthiness by looking at the creditworthiness of your friends. For fuck's sake, people. Isn't this well-worn territory? In just the latest incarnation I happen to know of, Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story describes a system where people's scores are constantly broadcast so everyone knows exactly how you stack up mony-wise and prestige-wise. I'd tell you more about Super Sad True Love Story but the truth is I haven't read it, partly because it seems too insanely depressing and I have other things to worry about.

And what about new and improved facial recognition technology? The dystopian possibilities of 100 percent surveillance are well-explored, and yet we keep marching forward. The always great MathBabe says that a new company headed by "two 20-something Russian tech dudes" is producing software pretty good at it. Faced with the obvious ethical questions, their response is along the lines of "It's too late to worry; we can distinguish the good guys from the bad guys; Luddites gonna be Luddites."

Finally, I'm sure you've read about Amazon testing drone delivery, out in the back-wilds of the UK (and, I now learn, in Canada!). Drones? To bring consumer crap to your house? Don't these people go to the movies? You'd think the Iron Man franchise was some kind of Indie cult film you could only get on Blu-ray.

So: what is the deal? Is it that the powers of capitalism are so intense that people forge ahead knowing that it will all end in tears? Is it some kind of cognitive bias for optimism, where people just think "this time it will be different"?

The popularity and style of modern dystopian narratives almost suggests to me a much darker and creepier possibility: that there is a desire for dystopia, a yearning for a crisis that will throw us out of our current state of moral complexity and our compromised ways of living and boredom. The problems of modern life are so complicated and unglamorous. It's hard to do a good thing without worrying you're also doing bad. Solutions to problems like the refugee crisis, systemic injustice, and climate change are going to require thinking and dealing with laws, education, and bureaucracy.

Are people secretly longing for a new situation, one where some of us are heroes and some of us are vulture food? Where instead of dealing with difficult problems that we don't know how to solve, we'll be in a more Mad Max situation, where it's like "Weakness = bad! Protecting daughter by killing guy = good!"

I don't know. But whenever I go along with this train of thought, I always end up in the same place. Should I give up this whole "philosophy professor" biz, and to learn how to repair low-tech kitchen appliances?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Thank You For Your Patience

As regular readers know, there is a health problem in my family (mom, congestive heart failure, in a rehab place trying to regain her strength to go home -- thanks for asking!). I didn't have time to write a post.

In case you stopped in to say hi though, here are some things on my mind.

1. What happened to Jezebel.com? When I started reading in 2007, there were posts where the gang would drink wine and try out the "shenis"and record the whole thing and put it online, and Moe was all about the economic news and whatever else she was mad about, like homes where you can't flush tampons, and Slut Machine was all about "One D a Day." It's completely different now. What happened?

2. Why didn't Richard Russo write another book like Straight Man? Straight Man is an actually really funny book. If I could write something like that, that is what I would do all the time. But he's gotten more and more serious and less and less funny. Why? Is it because "serious" seems more important? If that's it, wow, do I think he's got the wrong end of the stick.

3. What the fucking fuck with RBG's comments on Colin Kaepernick?

4.  I've been driving around suburban US the last few days, and I keep thinking about that movie Wall-E, where the people of the future have these moving chairs and cup holders and they can't move. Yikes!

 OK, I'll try to see y'all back here next week. Thank you for reading! I hope everyone is well!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Please, Move Money Around -- But Don't Call It "Redistribution."

Ever since I started studying distributive justice, income inequality, and philosophy of economics, one of my biggest pet peeves has been the term "redistribution." I get why conservatives and free-marketers use this terminology, since it supports the ideas they support: that you have a full entitlement to whatever our current system says you "own." But why do liberals and progressives use it? It seems to me like it undermines their position.

Liberals regularly do use the term. In his criticisms of Mitt Romney in 2012, Krugman described Medicare as "strongly redistributive." George Soros has argued that "redistribution" is important because without it, wealth accumulates in the hands of a few.

But it seems to me that these remarks buy into the very ideology that liberals would, and should, oppose. Outside of the trivial sense in which all economic activity involves a change in who has what, to call a tax-funded program "redistributive" makes sense only within a certain kind of libertarian or fiscally conservative framework.

As this very apt article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) points out, the problem is the problem of the baseline. The whole concept of "redistribution" assumes that there is a baseline from which things have been redistributed. To say that governmental economic programs are "redistributive" establishes this baseline by appeal to what one would own in the absence of taxation and government.

But this way of establishing a baseline must say that people are fully and justly entitled to full ownership of their pre-tax income, and that from this baseline funds are "redistributed." And this is true only within a particular theory of individual ownership rights: that they are determined outside of societal structures and in the absence of government. Such a theory of property rights is usually associated with conservative and free-market thinking.

Liberals and progressives should disavow these kinds of theories of property rights for several reasons. For one thing, seeing ownership rights as the only kind of rights, or as rights that cannot be overridden or compromised, doesn't fit with liberal values.

But more importantly, it seems to me that these approaches to property rights are an uncomfortable fit for the modern world, since all contemporary economic activity is now enmeshed in complex webs of social, cultural, and economic relationships. Corporations depend on international banking systems; social networking companies depend on the content produced by armies of users. After the financial collapse of the last few years resounded throughout the entire globe, how can we trust a model that requires viewing people as economically independent actors?

Finally, who can say that their ownership of money, land, or things has an untainted history that would justify simple and full entitlement? If you get something fairly through exchange, but that thing was itself stolen, your entitlement to it is murky at best. But not only does America have an ownership history of violence and fraud -- including, most obviously, that perpetrated against Native Americans -- any nation with a history that includes wars, slavery, political coercion, corruption, and organized crime will be one in which an untainted history of ownership will be impossible. That covers the entire world.

Needless to say, there are sophisticated alternatives to the free-market theory of property rights and distributive justice. Just as one example, the 20th-century philosopher John Rawls argued that just distributions are ones we would agree to from behind a "veil of ignorance," not knowing whether we were rich or poor, educated or not, disabled or able-bodied. In Rawls's view, from this perspective we would tolerate only limited inequality.

From the point of view of these alternative theories of property, just policies do not move money from a pre-existing baseline; they establish a baseline. Taxation is not coercive taking; it's not a taking at all. The beneficiaries of government programs are not recipients of kindness or charity; they are entitled to what they receive, as a matter of justice.

As the author of the SEP article says, using concepts associated with "redistribution" "smuggles in associations of forceful takings and rights infringements, which are not obviously appropriate in the context of evaluating social programs funded through taxation, or to discussions of reforms of the global economy."

That is to say, when liberals talk of "redistribution," they're sort of undermining their own position. If you want to talk social justice, and you want to support programs to bring it about, maybe the word you want is not "redistribution," but rather just "distribution." It couldn't hurt to occasionally also use words like "fairness" and "equality" too -- just so no one forgets they exist.