Saturday, January 1, 2011

5 Saddest Conspiracy Theories of 2010

Is it not obligatory for bloggers to make some sort of list at New Year? Well here is mine. I’m posting what I call the saddest conspiracy theories of 2010. These are all events that are clouded by secrecy and/or controversy, implying some amount of foul play or reckless incompetency. While all are somehow related to security or technology, some are on the periphery of the topics normally discussed in this blog. I’ll only give sensational one-sided coverage for these conspiracy theories. While I won’t even try to argue the “truth” of any of these, what makes them sad is that the level of plausibility is much higher than zero.

1. Another US Gov Sponsored Backdoor

The FBI has been accused of trying to put backdoors into the IPSEC implementation of OpenBSD. It appears, at least to the founder and leader of OpenBSD, that the FBI did contract people to modify OpenBSD for the purpose of introducing bugs. However, it’s unclear if intended audience for these bugs was the whole world (unlikely), organizations with specific hardware, or just an internal experiment. I’d be receptive to the experiment explanation if it was it was done openly (like my dabbling in breaking forward secrecy through OS level random escrow) or to the experiment explanation if it never touched the internet. The commits to a public project are kind of scary. The jury is still out on this one. However, if this turns out anything like the alleged NSA backdoor in the Windows PRNG, we won’t hear much more conclusive on this. The sad part is the community isn’t wondering if the three letter agencies are trustworthy participants in the design and implementation of crypto. The answer is clear: No. The real question is how many more of these are lingering both in open and closed source software.

2. Security Theater Turns Peep Show

Yes, I had to include it. The security theater that is TSA screening at airports was bad enough in the past. It has provided basically no improvement in security, has amplified the effects of terrorism, and has been an unjustified encroachment on civil liberties. This year sees the widespread deployment of X-ray backscatter machines, also known as full body scanners. The public backlash is heating up. While there’s plenty of controversy, and probably not a lot of conspiracy, the current state of airport security is just plain sad. Let’s hope we can find a way to apply the same logic and tactics which are being used so effectively for “real world” security to the field of cyber security.

3. Big Brother Breathes New Life Into Wiretapping Laws

Up until a few years ago, most people thought wiretapping laws were in place to prevent people from being covertly spied on by others, especially police and spooks that are wont to do things like warrantless wiretapping.Those of us who questioned the purpose of these wiretapping laws (or the constitution for that matter) back in 2007-2009 time frame, now have some consolation. In 2010, it has become common practice for police to use local and state wiretapping laws to retaliate against people who try to hold them accountable though recording of police in public settings. With a little luck and even more creative interpretation of laws, even the federal wiretapping laws may be useful in the future.

4. Traditional Journalism: Too Big to Fail

While I don’t want to delve in to the whole Wikileaks affair, one thing I’ve seen coming out of it is a lot of criticism of Wikileaks. Most of the criticism from the media seems rooted more in desires at maintaining their traditional role in filtering, pushing, and disseminating news than ensuring important news is uncovered and the public is informed. For example, when Floyd Abrams discusses Why WikiLeaks Is Unlike the Pentagon Papers he focuses more on the narrow topic of why wikileaks is a threat to traditional journalism instead of more fundamental topics like freedom of press or government accountability. To me it seems that the very wiki model is being attacked, not because it’s inherently wrong, but because it continues to marginalize the role of established information channels. The writing is on the wall that traditional news “sources” are an endangered species so they’re in survival mode. It seems that they are often more worried about fighting turf wars and ingratiating themselves with The Man than serving their more fundamental role of public watchdog. It really doesn’t matter where you fall on the professional vs. crowdsource information flow argument, when media is more worried about getting and maintaining government support than fulfilling their core mission, we ought to be scared. Don’t worry though, the next iteration of wikileaks, openleaks, is going to put the traditional media folk back into the loop.

5. US-China Diplomacy vis-à-vis Intellectual Property

So of all the conspiracy theories, this is the 800 pound panda. While many are still waking up to it, the ever widening scope of cyber espionage being conducted by targeted, persistent attackers is alarming. Many open sources, including Google, attribute these attacks to actors in China—-with largely unsupported and varying claims about the level of the Chinese Government’s involvement. The US should be pursuing diplomatic solutions to this problem, the economic portion of which has been aptly seen “as a trade issue that we have not dealt with.” So Hillary Clinton says with big words that China should investigate and the American people will be updated as the “facts become clear”. What have we heard so far on cyber espionage front? Not much. That’s OK though because the US has been very active this year in other tough diplomatic discussions with China. For example, Attorny General Holder visited China late this year to discuss intellectual property rights. Apparently, China promised to crack down on illegal distribution of music, movies, and software.

What a big win. First of all, we wouldn’t want to go lax on software piracy enforcement, especially not in light of recent extensive abuse by oppressive regimes. The problem is so bad that Microsoft, one of the most draconian companies when it comes to software piracy and one of the most permissive when it comes to “local” law (like search result filtering), recently extended free licenses to the type of organizations where unequal software piracy enforcement is used as a pretext for oppressing dissidents. I can definitely see how the relatively extreme punishments imposed on the relatively few people actually caught pirating music and videos in the US would fit well with the Chinese model of law enforcement. Not only that, but this could help fill in some of the pretext for abuse taken away by liberal software licensing. Best yet, continued discussions like this could lay the ground work for expansion of intellectual property protection even other western countries refuse to get caught up in. For example, wouldn’t it be great if software patents, one of the US’s greatest forms of meta-innovation of late, were enforced with the same vigor and uniformity in China as they are in the US?

Whether you feel like getting out your tinfoil hat or your tissue to catch your tears, I hope these critical reflections on 2010 have been amusing, even comical. Let’s all hope for better in 2011.

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