Cyberwar that actually deserves the name

Paul Raven @ 24-09-2010

After a few years of grandstanding and chest-thumping about the dangers of cyberwar from the military complexes of the West, especially the US, we finally see something that actually looks like a covert act of digital warfare initiated at nation-state level (as opposed to the petty vandalism and independent street-gang-equivalent activity that has been heretofore labelled as cyberwar). And you know what? It might well have been the US military establishment that did it.

The story in question is the Stuxnet computer worm, which you’ve probably read about somewhere already. But just in case you’ve not, here’s the skinny: Stuxnet takes advantage of four different security holes in Microsoft Windows (which is far from out of the ordinary; if you’re gonna rob houses, go for the ones with no locks on the doors), which means it can spread very fast; it’s controlled and upgraded in a decentralised peer-to-peer fashion (also not new, as we saw the same thing in the big botnet worms of recent times), and has the added ability to jump onto removable media (thumb drives) to expand the infection vectors.

So far, so geeky. The weird bit is what Stuxnet actually does. Rather than setting up spam email farms or harvesting credit card numbers (the traditional remunerative ends of such software), it targets a very specific type of embedded industrial control software developed by Siemens… software that, according to Wired, is “installed in pipelines, nuclear plants, utility companies and manufacturing facilities to manage operations.” Furthermore, the configuration suggests a very specific sort of installation was the intended target, and that sabotage thereof was the intent; a German researcher theorises (admittedly without much in the way of evidence) that one of Iran’s nuclear plants was the target, and that the US or Israel are the likely nation-states-of-origin. It’s a sad thing to admit, but that’s all too believable a theory… which is doubtless why it’s getting so many mentions. Read, and read widely:

Of course, plausibility isn’t probability; perhaps Stuxnet was developed by a rival company wishing to discredit the safety of Siemens’ systems*. The web enables industrial espionage, so why not industrial sabotage? But it seems an odd angle to take; deft marketing does just as effective a job of discrediting market-leading tech without engaging in criminal activity, and a black-ops hacking project would be an odd way to spend an R&D budget that would be better spent on, y’know, building a better mousetrap. Sabotage is a political act, ideological warfare… and that’s a nation-state game, not a corporate one.

It’ll be interesting to see what more we hear about Stuxnet, if anything, but I suspect it marks the start of a new chapter of geopolitics and technologised warfare.

[ * The fact that said systems run on Windows machines should be indictment enough, to be honest. ]


Did the Iranian “Twitter Revolution” actually happen?

Paul Raven @ 11-06-2010

You know, I’m always advising people not to believe everything they read, but I’m just as bad at doing it as anyone else – we all give credence to the stories we want to believe, I guess (and hell knows that media companies know how to exploit that).

So, remember the Twitter Revolution in Iran? That there was a revolution is not in question, but that the revolution was powered by social media? That’s not so clear [via MetaFilter]:

… it is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right. Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told the Washington Post last June, Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil. “Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz,” he said. “But once you look, you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.”

A number of opposition activists have told me they used text messages, email, and blog posts to publicize protest actions. However, good old-fashioned word of mouth was by far the most influential medium used to shape the postelection opposition activity. There is still a lively discussion happening on Facebook about how the activists spread information, but Twitter was definitely not a major communications tool for activists on the ground in Iran.

[…]

To be clear: It’s not that Twitter publicists of the Iranian protests haven’t played a role in the events of the past year. They have. It’s just not been the outsized role it’s often been made out to be. And ultimately, that’s been a terrible injustice to the Iranians who have made real, not remote or virtual, sacrifices in pursuit of justice.

I’m starting to wonder if a faith in the hierarchy-corrosion of modern communications systems isn’t becoming a core plank of what, for want of a less contentious or partisan label, we might call the postmodern progressive liberal platform. Maybe because we feel ourselves to have been liberated from something by the internet (even though we’re not sure what it is that we’ve been liberated from), we think that it can deliver liberation to others from things that are far more oppressive and powerful (at least at the level of curtailment of individual freedoms) than we have the context and experience to understand? That political revolution can be as safe, easy (and fun!) as our spare time whiled away on social media? (See also: the illusion of participation produced by slacktivism.)

Or maybe it’s just old-fashioned and fallacious Golden Age pulp technophilia: “Twitter is the future! The future is something we progress toward! Democracy in Iran would be progress! Therefore Twitter will help create progress toward democracy in Iran!”

I’m having a weird week; I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how we make pretty much everything into a story that reflects what we already believe to be true. The trouble with dwelling on that for a while is that you reach a point where you realise that, if that assumption is true, then that assumption is also part of a narrative that’s reinforcing itself through you. Which is a pretty weird psychological and philosophical paradox… not to mention being remarkably unconducive to getting anything practical done.


Swapping the Senate for Reddit, and other daft ideas about digital democracy

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2010

Pool's closed (due to extropianism)For the sake of change-around, I’m gonna let someone else propose the wild idea this time. So, how’s about you US citizens swap your Senate for something like Reddit.com? [image adapted from a photo by cliff1066™]

Let’s abolish the Senate! Replace it with something truly new and egalitarian, a system that gives us thrilling optimism and empowerment, something far more representative than the so-called “House of Representatives” […] My proposal is to replace the moldering Senate with an electronic plebiscite system, i.e., something like Reddit.com.

Here’s how it works.

  1. Everyone who reaches voting age gets a log-in ID and a password.
  2. All bills advanced by the House of Representatives are posted on “reddit.com” for approval.
  3. Upvote or Downvote, voters get two weeks to cast their ballots and to state their opinions in comments as lengthy and as often as desired.
  4. The millions of comments are categorized in an efficient way so that the curious public can read all existing viewpoints. They are, in turn, also upvoted and downvoted as people find them more or less relevant.
  5. At the end of two weeks, all proposals that have received 60% (or another agreed-upon number) approval are enacted into law.

That would be just the start, apparently… :-s

Look, I’m a proponent of the idea of digitising democracy, but Reddit itself is a great example of why it wouldn’t work for major policies at a national scale. The tyranny of the minority, a banal hegemony of kneejerk special-interests NIMBYism and me-too-gimme-gimme… not entirely unlike a lot of the Western world as it already stands, in other words, albeit with more cat videos (which would admittedly be something of an improvement).

But if you can’t see how easily that sort of plebiscite framework could be gamed (let alone hacked)… well, you were a bit bold naming your website “Extropism”, let’s put it that way. Rhizomatic digital democracy could work, sure, but only in small numbers over small areas. You wanna go national with plebiscite, you need to think again, especially in a territory as large as the US – and you’re going to have to think about representatives in some shape or form, because there’s too much law and too little time for us everyday Josephines to deal with it at the same time as holding down a job. Now, if you want to talk about ways of building a representation system with total transparency and full-duplex discussion between the people and the rep, though, that’s another argument entirely…

That said, it’s hard not to be sucked in by the illusion of participation that the internet already offers – I’ve signed more petitions in the last two years than I have in my entire life, just because it’s so damned easy to do online. But things easily done are easily ignored, and that nice warm glow you get afterwards is the glow of complacency. You may not believe me, but the big charities and campaign groups are certainly waking up to it:

“… underlying slacktivism isn’t enough — you can’t just turn your profile green. If you show support you are lazy? No. But there has to be a number of people taking actions in the real world, too.” Anderson said.

It is this growing trend to show support via an online campaign that is threatening human rights movements across the globe, and the panel quickly picked up on the drawbacks of the internet in promoting false activism.

“I coined the phrase ‘mousy solidarity’ to explain how easy it is to click on a petition. We feel like we can participate.” said Professor Sreberny.

What was made clear from the event was that both sides — activists and regimes — can see the potential for technology to promote their cause. But it was the words of a press spokesman for hosts Amnesty International that really struck home, underlining the need to continue to fight across several platforms, rather than relying on new trends to promote the cause.

Speaking of supporting political protest against corrupt regimes, everyone seems a little stuck on this whole Iran business. Why don’t we just bombard Iran… with satellite internet signal!

This would be an invaluable help for a movement that the government can currently easily hinder with telecommunication cuts in the wake of large demonstrations. Most importantly, and from a US policy perspective, it would empower Iranians without committing troops or confronting the Iranian regime directly, solving the dilemma of American non-interference.

(Ah, non-interference is a dilemma, now? Is that another word for “knowing that there’s no legal way to pull it off, and remembering how badly it worked out last time?”)

Complications might, of course, arise. The Iranian government can crack down on the use of satellite dishes, as it has consistently done in the past, or attempt to jam the signal. The whole project might prove costly, perhaps cost more than the Voice Act’s $20m budget. But is a cyber war with Tehran’s regime not a more palatable route than the other “options” that remain relentlessly on the table?

Um. This chap somewhat misses the point of cyberwar – namely that the people opposing you on the web don’t necessarily have to be based in the country you’re trying to face down, or even care much about it beyond some vague and naive notion of religio-cultural brotherhood – but the idea itself isn’t entirely crazy.

In fact, if I wanted to destabilise a totalitarian regime with a censorship fixation, giving its people open internet access is one of the first things I’d want to be able to do… which leads me to suspect that toppling the Iranian regime probably isn’t as big a priority for the governments of the West as they might like us to think.

But maybe it would be, if we all just popped over to Reddit and clicked “upvote” enough times through multiple different proxy servers…


A hashtag for genocide: Twitter, the Iran elections and the moral ambivalence of social media

Paul Raven @ 20-06-2009

We raised this subject in the wake of the Georgia revolution, but it’s worth bringing up again. In the light Twitter’s starring role in the current election protests in Iran, there’s much talk of the power of social media as a catalyst and enabler for social change, but as Jamais Cascio points out, the morality of a tool depends on the people wielding it… and it’s not hard to imagine it being put to much darker uses, much as other media have been before.

Not because I have any sympathy for Iran’s government, I should hasten to say, or because I see any threat coming from this particular use of Twitter. It scares me because of how close it aligns with something I noted in my talk at Mobile Monday in Amsterdam earlier this month, an observation that happened almost by accident.

In noting the potential power of social networking tools for organizing mass change, I thought out loud for a moment about what kinds of dangers might emerge. It struck me, as I spoke, that there is a terrible analogy that might be applicable: the use of radio as a way of coordinating bloody attacks on rival ethnic communities during the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s. I asked, out loud, whether Twitter could ever be used to trigger a genocide. The audience was understandably stunned by the question, and after a few seconds someone shouted, “No!” I could only hope that the anonymous reply was right, but I don’t think he was.

Certainly a point worth considering; no doubt there’ll be a backlash – against Twitter, or whatever the latest flavour-of-the-moment equivalent is at the time – once more people start asking the same questions as Cascio has. It should be a self-evident truth, but we need to remember that technology alone won’t make the world a better place; it’s up to us to use it in the right ways.


The Iranian elections: is democracy viral?

Paul Raven @ 15-06-2009

Iranian election protestorsThe past weekend’s hot news story is still smouldering strongly today: the Iranian elections (and the resulting landslide victory for incumbent president Ahmadinejad) have resulted in accusations of vote fraud (which isn’t entirely surprising) and street riots and protests from supporters of the principle opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Throw in some state censorship in the form of social networking websites and text messaging services being blocked, and you’ve got a story that’s not entirely unfamiliar in recent years. [image by Shahram Sharif]

Of course, I have no idea whether or not the election was rigged or not, though I have my suspicions. What interests me most about this story is how it paints a very different picture of Iran to the one we’ve been fed in the last decade or so. Far from being a monolithic Islamic state in thrall to Ahmadinejad, there’s evidently enough support for reform to threaten the incumbents; after all, a mere handful of angry reformists does not a riot (or an electoral recount) make.

How long this has been the case is beyond my knowledge, and I wish I had the time and opportunity to research it further. But the ubiquitous presence of peer-to-peer communications (and their inevitable censorship by the state) is telling, and I find myself wondering if perhaps the talk about democracy being a viral concept has some weight to it after all. Have services like Twitter and Facebook simply given a voice to those already opposed to the incumbent Iranian government? Or have they acted as a catalyst, enabling a population whose access to information and discussion was previously more closely controlled to see that there are alternatives within their grasp?

These aren’t questions with simple answers, of course, and there are many other factors at play in a world where everything is changing faster than ever before. But I think it’s fair to suggest that the internet is one of the strongest disruptive forces on the gameboard, especially in countries where state control of media has been far more crude and heavy-handed than here in the privileged West.

I fully expect we’ll be seeing a lot more stories like this from developing nations in years to come, as affordable communications technology pulls aside the heavy curtains of the state… it’s good news for oppressed citizens, certainly (at least in the short run), but for global stability? Maybe not so much.