Thursday, 27 June 2013

Regulatory Capture and Assassin's Creed

While another whistleblower story dominates the online and mainstream media spheres, I would like to focus on a larger issue at hand: regulatory capture. Regulatory capture occurs when individuals with clear conflicts of interest are appointed to positions where the role of the position can easily be abused for private gain at the expense of the general public. Now, certain positions' own requirements can often make them innately prone to such capture, such as financial regulation done by former investment bankers.

A certain videogame franchise, Assassin's Creed, focuses on a war between two secret societies, the Assassins and Templars. The Templars attempt to centralize power, and the Assassins try to keep societies open and free. While they have similar methods, such as subversion and (of course) assassination, both factions generally stick to the shadows. Generally, the Templars tend to be prone to abusing their positions, despite lofty rhetoric about bringing peace. When something outside of their control arises (such as a new political entity, economic system, subversive technology, or scientific discovery), the Templars instinctively try to repress it, or failing that, co-opt or hijack it. Thus, the Templars are able to directly use societies' most powerful institutions (governments, corporations, etc.) as their weapons of choice, while the Assassins are limited to the fringes of civilization (although they try to 'make friends' within the status quo when possible). Thus, the Assassins constantly seek out new ideas and tools to break down or subvert the status quo while the Templars try to reinforce it.

There is a neurological and psychological basis for this eternal clash of order and chaos. Some personality types may be authoritarian, and most people subconsciously prefer even a false sense of comfort or reassurance to change (even if the change would be better). Human beings are social animals, and our sense of "us" and "them" shapes our senses of moral and immoral, as well as social and antisocial behavior. By contrast, some intelligent and creative people are not as burdened by the mores they were taught, and are more open to experimentation. (This is one reason that artists and intellectuals tend to be the first to vanish during political purges.)

Likewise, as institutions fail, power becomes increasingly centralized in a few institutions. Those few functional institutions left can easily host opportunistic parasites as regulatory agencies fail. Unlike Assassin's Creed, however, real life does not require an organized conspiracy to conquer the world, but only the continued unraveling of the rule of law. The worst sorts of people rise to the top, like the biggest pieces of stool floating to the top of a clogged toilet. The end result is a positive feedback loop leading to increasing instability. The only feedback to this is criticism and openness, which is anathema to kleptocracies, It will be interesting to see how the show goes. The covert war of real human history has always been a set of elites against historical forces. We shall see how this one plays out.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Rise of the Mesh

While I could harp for hours on the spying scandals, others cover that with far greater skill and depth than I am capable of. The economic consequences for the US result in foreign clients moving outside the spied upon American cloud to greener pastures elsewhere. In addition, technologies are evolving in a direction that is extremely difficult for centralized institutions to control. Automated manufacture, crypto-currencies, basement biochem labs, and solar power is only one aspect. Another is the very nature of the Internet and computer networks themselves. Project Meshnet project aims to create an open source, nearly impossible to shut down, censorship resistant alternatives to conventional internet service providers.

The basic premise is a P2P network built from scratch, easy to deploy with little overhead. Interestingly, Google has investigated the concept of using stratellites, balloons covering a region in wi-fi. Little overhead (no pun intended) is required, save a balloon and specialized wireless router. Their Loon project aims to bring internet to the Southern Hemisphere, recently launching from New Zealand. As one balloon leaves an area of coverage, another arrives. As patents expire and competitors appear, I imagine others will try the same (or a similar) strategy.

Such efforts would be difficult to accomplish, short of blasting the balloons out of the sky (which in itself is no mean technical feat). The primary technical battles of the coming century, I believe, will be the battle of decentralized, autonomous networks against the corrupted husks of nation-states (with rent-seeking kleptocrats behind them). In short, a fight between the T-1000 and Dracula. Already, criminal and non-state groups have deployed conventional communications infrastructure outside government control. Darknets already exist, and further revelations will only drive them on more.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Fun With Surveillance

In light of the recent surveillance revelations, supervillainy abounds. While I'm sure the status quo is well aware of my identity, I'd like to put a few things in comparison. First, the main issue with warrantless surveillance is that is a rather poor tactic as far as far as terrorism prevention goes. Secondly, it puts a lot of private information at the hands of government and corporate entities which may target certain individuals or groups in the future (even if not today). Third, it violates the principles of due process enshrined in centuries of law, and likewise makes transparency of Big Brother much harder.

Much of PRISM operated in a legal black hole, outside of the regular checks and balances. However, as Robert Heinlein said, "Privacy laws make the bugs smaller." Even if this program is shut down, future projects may well continue. While the cypherpunks are trying to hide and encrypt themselves, the status quo will try to break their codes. However, the symbolic resistance of encryption is still a method of self defense available to most people. While it might not totally prevent government spying, it still can make it harder for hackers and identity thieves from stealing your information.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Blindsided by Revolution

Saying that Turkey is unstable is an understatement. What began as a protest against the demolition of a park (to give the land to some developers) escalated across the country. What makes Turkey interesting, however, is some of the historical and geopolitical considerations. With the Syrian civil war already a proxy conflict for the US, Israelis, Arab League, Russians, and Iranians, relative political stability of actors cannot be taken for granted.

Since Ataturk founded the secular republic of Turkey, the military has had a habit of deposing governments they deem to be too religious (the ghost of Ataturk if you will) and then stepping aside as a new civilian regime takes power. It is arguable that without the secularist Ataturk founding the Republic in Ankara, the Ottoman Empire would have lingered on as some sort of colonial rump state (much like Saudi Arabia), with a vestigial monarch propped up with foreign weapons and funding.

 The current Prime Minister, Erdogan, has been keen to exploit religion (but not extensively) and has also been keen on using Turkish soil to assist rebels in Syria. The Turkish public was opposed to this, as no matter who won the civil war, fearing that heavy weapons could end up in the hands of the PKK (the Kurdish separatist group that has fought the Turks for decades). The Turks likewise feared getting drawn into the war. In addition, Erdogan's authoritarian response has galvanized many bystanders.

I believe the Turkish military is the key faction to watch. They have been rumblings of a coup against Erdogan before, and the military is helping the protestors against the police. Likewise, the dictator of Egypt was deposed by a military coup. The political aftermath, however, is uncertain. Whether there are elections, rigged elections, or de facto dictatorship is unknown. The new regime's position on its neighbors may likewise shift, perhaps retreating inwards to focus or attempting to distract people with foreign foes. The political stability of any government or regime is only as strong as the force it can use to defend it and the force of population that's had enough. What may be certain, though, is that some police chiefs may soon be joining criminals in jail.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Lessons in Supervillainy: Attorney General Eric Holder

Today's lecture will put an example of practical supervillainy into focus. A supervillain, by definition, uses their rank, connections, and abilities to commit massive crime, prevent the administration of justice, or preferably administer injustice. Now, in the United States, there is a Department of Justice, the group in charge of law enforcement administration at a Federal level. The Attorney General in charge of the DoJ is a Presidential Cabinet member and a powerful figure in the interpretation and enforcement of the laws of the land. 

As such, assignment of the position to a corrupt and/or criminally incompetent person would seriously compromise any attempts to retain the rule of law across the USA. As of this writing, the current holder of that position has done his best to turn the DoJ into the Department of Injustice. Appointing a corrupt public official to a position involving legal matters is the very incarnation of regulatory capture.

The list is certainly something worthy of a Bond villain more than an equitable arbiter. Some noteworthy events:

-Mexican drug cartels were armed by US law enforcement.

-Spying was performed upon all manner of political groups.

-There is a failure to prosecute the admission of nearly a trillion dollars with of money laundering for criminal and terrorist groups by mega-bank HSBC.

-The latest scandal, surveillance on even mainstream media reporters, is merely the icing on the cake.

 This is no isolated case, either. Neocon remnants of the Bush years linger on like a bad hangover. Interventions (overt and covert) continue. With due process free drone assassinations, indefinite detection on no evidence, blanket legal immunities for political and corporate leaders, and a growing gap between the rich and poor, what could possibly go wrong?