Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A positive side to malicious software attacks

Most of us have fairly set computer/internet regimes, with the basic aim of getting the job done with a minimum of fuss. The constant threat of malicious software attack, spam overload and other electronic vandalism can hardly be seen as positive, but it has created an important realization around the world. Governments and major software corporations must develop working relationships to deal with the threats.

I have just lodged a submission to the Australian government on a broad program to create a safer web environment, particularly for children, but with all vulnerable users in mind. Personally I’ve always been paranoid about my computer’s health and safety. Not that they have never been anything special, but invaluable tools all the same.

One of my key recommendations was to find ways for government and corporations to work together to find solutions to a threat which deeply effects both. Governments have a duty of care to the wider community, the corporations too but their profit motive is a greater reality.

Then we read of the continuing threat of Conficker, also known as Downup, Downadup and Kido, the computer worm that just won’t go away. This nuisance is infecting tens of millions of computers around the world, including government and defence agencies. There are now calls for joint government/corporate

Certainly there are issues of separating social responsibility from commercial advantage. But the fact is, the corporations such as Microsoft, Apple, Symantec and MacAfee, just to name a few, each have economies larger than many countries and an ever increasing influence over our daily activities. We have entered a new era which calls for new approaches.

A report in 2007, funded by Microsoft, estimating that $514 billion in annual taxes are generated by it and its "ecosystem". That includes some of the above mentioned corporations of course, but reflect only taxes paid not turnover or profit. That is powerful and we make them so.

It could be argued that we elect them by electing to use their products, but there is no corresponding accountability, apart from any sense of meeting some level of customer satisfaction. The customer has not been highly regarded over the past few years; but these fashions tend to cycle and the cycle is slowly turning back to the customer.

What a cooperative government/corporate approach might look like is yet to be determined. These global leviathans have never responded well to pressure from mere national governments or laws. The difference now is the growing computer/internet security threat is as much against these corporations as it is governments and the wider community.

Some might dream visions of corporate social responsibility, but few would expect wide scale corporate altruism. Some might dream of governments forgoing the normal quick-fix minute soup answers in place of sound, long term solutions. Some might dream visions of Joe Public taking enough interest to play a responsible role in our future.

It often takes a crisis to drive a real solution, or even the interest to look. With the sickos using the system to entertain their fantasies, criminals bring old crimes to the computer age or even those lost souls who thrill at destroying other people’s property for no good reason, this new technology is facing a crisis. Let’s start talking and acting, together, to stop the rot now!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

On the censorship warpath

I have been diverted just lately, preparing a submission to my federal government to drop its nonsensical IP filtering program, Clean Feed. One intention of protecting children who were vulnerable due to claimed parental computer illiteracy. However the system is being tested in Australia without any great explanation or wider community consultation.

I would be the first to stand in line to fight abuse of any kind, abuse against children or indeed any vulnerable person or group of people. Clean Feed is an abuse against all internet users in this country and a growing number of web developers globally. It is highly doubtful the system can achieve its more or less stated goals, what it does is penalise legitimate users and sites.

Have a look at this lot

I have been, or at least attempted to be, a contributor on since its inception. We, there are a team of us, comment on a wide range of political, social and economic issues. However early this year I found that I was blocked from reaching the site from Australia. Then we found all sites related to that local IP address were blocked.

I challenge anyone to look at this list of sites and find anything even close to offensive or abusive to anyone, perhaps with the exception of politicians who are fair game. - An archive of the US political blog which redirects here - The personal and professional online portfolio of Giff Constable, an New York entrepreneur - A "Food Blog" run by Giff Constable - A parked domain intended as a future genealogy site. - The personal and professional online portfolio of Jeremy Epstein, a Bay Area artist and UI designer - A personal/professional blog belonging to Giff Constable - - An online real-time search-engine optimization tool authored by William Herndon - The online website of Anne Herndon's 'Travel Concierge' company[.net] - The personal website of Jeff Jacobson, a Boston entrepreneur who specializes in virtual reality software for museums and foundations - A personal website for the wedding of Jeff Jacobson to his partner.[.net|.org] - The not for-profit foundation of Jeff Jacobson for distribution of his open-source VR software. - A US, multi-author, political blog - An online, "independent contractors' assistant" that helps professionals estimate contract rates and taxes, authored by William Herndon - The personal website of Anne and William Herndon of San Francisco, CA, USA

In June 2008 the systems administrators, Australian Communications and Media Authority [report PDF], defensively claimed that just 1061 URLs had been actually blocked. I assume they mean were actually targets of a block. Then they went on to claim “Internet filtering blacklist “creeping” to include legal content Web sites is justified…”

Minister Conroy later conceded that ‘creep’ might be a legitimate political issue; sure is minister. Just be this list that target figure can be multiplied by 16. The trouble is, with the secrecy surrounding this whole program, ISP privacy provisions and the nature of the internet we simply don’t know what the real target was or how many neighbouring IP addresses have been affected.

Given the lack of any obviously offensive, abusive or otherwise dangerous cont on these sites then the abuse charge must turn back on those who initiated poorly considered approach to an incredibly serious issue. I repeat just one passage here from my submission:

Daily, in my current situation, I hear a ‘child mother’ verbally abusing a very young child. So the mother is not coping, but the long term damage to the child is predictable. I have watched as adults sell drugs to children in school uniform, and fruitlessly reported the same. The drug dealers keep trading and doubtless include sexual abuse in that trade. We all see evidence, from time to time, of family abuse, and generally are helpless even if intervention is called for.

It verges on obscenity to spend tens of millions of dollars on a negative censorship campaign when our communities lack the resources to confront real life situations.

New Zealand joins the campaign

It looks like New Zealand is set to be the next country to get country-wide internet filtering, according to a blog post on Geekzone. The New Zealand department of internal affairs has released a draft proposal that outlines the filtering system.
According to the document, the filtering system is for cases where "A person who views a website containing chlid sexual abuse images is in possession of those images, if only for the period they appear on the screen. The Digital Child Exploitation Filtering System therefore will help prevent inadvertent exposure to these images and will also help prevent New Zealanders from committing crimes."

Where does it all come from?

I would now posit that law enforcement agencies are behind these ill founded initiatives. I come to that position on the basis of a growing number of laws being created to deal with the systems inability to deal with the real problems. That we constantly need new laws to fight anti-social behaviour says more about the quality and efficiency of the agencies.

In Australia and beyond new laws had to be created to deal with terrorism, but the acts of terrorism are well catered for under criminal law. What the cops really wanted was a way to hold suspects, incommunicado, until they could squeeze a confession from them. Well that didn’t really work.

There is the now famous RICO in the US, emulated elsewhere of course. The idea was that the really big crims were able to distance themselves from action and evidence of criminality. These laws cut through that, but are more often used to snag small time criminals who should already be vulnerable under existing laws.

Now it is biker gangs, for much the same reason as RICO, perhaps increasing the reach of guilt by association in the process. Then there is the clamour for special weapons, apparently it’s not good to shoot someone dead, much better to taser them to death. The internet is a relatively new medium, but the crimes and anti social behaviour on the internet are still the same old stuff covered by the same old and new laws.

We know that public officials, elected or otherwise, including police are not immune from breaches of criminal law and other anti-social behaviour. There is no rush to create special laws to deal with that class and generally when ‘standards’ are set the tend to disappear again quickly. The question is, should these authority figures be expected to beyond the foibles of the rest of society? Probably not.

Prohibitions and censorship have no place in a liberal democracy, despite a tendency for authorities to control. They are an abuse of our rights and freedoms, which come of course with responsibilities. More emphasis should be placed on social responsibilities rather that the bullying and abusive behaviour we have come to expect from authority.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Why are we still in Afghanistan?

With a dubious election process set to return Karzai, a puppet of the drug lords, we really need to wonder why our military people are being exposed to the incredible dangers this country presents. By we and our I refer to the non-Afghan combatants in that country.

It is seldom I agree with Canada’s PM, Harper; but this did accord with reality:

“The insurgency in Afghanistan will never be defeated only by maintaining an international troop presence in the country”, he said in a U.S. television interview last March, adding: “Ultimately the source of authority in Afghanistan has to be perceived as being indigenous…” CBC

Looking for justifications is an interesting exercise, though ultimately useless. We know Bush’s public justification:

The stated aim of the invasion was to find Osama bin Laden and other high-ranking Al-Qaeda members and put them on trial, to destroy the whole organization of Al-Qaeda, and to remove the Taliban regime which supported and gave safe harbor to Al-Qaeda. The Bush Doctrine stated that, as policy, it would not distinguish between terrorist organisations and nations or governments that harbor them.

It seems we have a problem right there. Pakistan has been the launching pad for terrorism. It has also been the scene of major terrorist deaths in that region. Yet here we are tied down in bloody conflict, in a narco-state and blithely ignoring the country displaying the greatest threat.

However our political leaders are now floundering as they try and justify this conflict to voters. Britain, France and Germany unveiled proposals on for an international conference on Afghanistan later this year in order to press Afghans to take more responsibility for their own country. That is, they want out.

General Stanley McChrystal, is seeking a closer partnership with key allies, including Australia, who have troops in southern Afghanistan. Well PM Rudd isn’t saying much just now, but one of his first foreign actions was to front NATO with that same proposal. We Aussies aren’t part of NATO and Rudd was ignored back then.

Having just read William Stephenson A Man Called Intrepid Wikipedia I’m reminded that truth is often the first casualty of war. The book itself was written as a preemptive strike, in the mid 1970’s when official war documents were due to be released. It was a justification for retaining covert operations groups. For this reader nearly every paragraph raised the question; which part of that was truth and which a lie?

However, a repeated theme through the book was information being given out on a ‘need to know’ basis. It was repeated a number of times that political leaders apart from Churchill and Roosevelt did not need to know, it also asserted that those actually in the from line of war didn’t need to know.

In today’s terms that would include General McChrystal, and down to the rest of the brave men and women daily facing the war on the ground; as well as presumably various national leaders trying to find justifications for war weary voters. The history of covert operations since WWII should be ringing alarm bells now.

In Vietnam drug trafficking became a source of funding for ‘black operations’ and transferred into personal wealth generation for some in the system. They are no doubt, now, powerful forces purely through wealth. But it is time to stop and expose those who use their obscene influence for narrow personal gain.

If our presence in Afghanistan can actually produce more positive benefits than negatives I’m all for it. My fear is that the political leaders who launched this adventure have gone, but the covert operations behind it persists, probably without the knowledge of any of the current decision makers. Poppies, or perhaps more correctly Opium, has returned as the major product of this land since our ‘compassionate’ action began.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Branding deficits and a tolerance for corruption

British Columbia (BC) and Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) are both special places to me, but what a political heartbreak they both present. In both, for simplicity let’s call them electorates, the incumbent governments present a major branding headache for their federal counterparts.

The BC Liberals have ruled that province now since 2001 where they made an all but clean sweep of seats, leaving the opposition with just two MLAs. In 2005 that majority was pared back to just seven seats, and despite a string of scandals held on to government again in May this year.

If Campbell’s BC Liberals were a sovereign economy the province would very likely be a ‘corporate state’ run largely by and for the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce. The problem for the Federal Liberals in BC is that the BC Liberals are actually aligned with the federally governing Conservative Party.

In NSW the Labor government has been in control much longer, and was returned again last year. Again despite serious concerns over corruption and ethics issues. With the Rudd government facing election again in the next six months they have to contend with their NSW Labor counterparts dragging them into the political gutter.

Both BC and NSW have well developed and entrenched systems of pay-offs, many both blatant and obvious. One of the few who seemed determined to correct this in NSW, former Liberal Premier Greiner, was very quickly removed. In BC the memory of former Premier, ‘Wacky’ Bennett, still lives with something akin to hero worship, despite his blatant corruption.

In our federal systems there are major differences in the roles of central government and the subservient states/provinces. For a start the Feds manage the economy and disperse funds to the states/provinces to deliver services like health and education. However the states/provinces also have control over development and land use as well as a wide range of other lucrative areas with corruption potential.

I know BC and NSW legislators are not alone when it comes to scooping the choice bits out the swill bucket, just they are the ones I know best. In both those places, and elsewhere, I’ve be caught on the bumpy end of the corruption club. The only remedy in each case was possibly to pay more; a lot more because it meant beating regular ‘customers’.

The real concern must be, surely, the constant dishing of democratic principle and representative government. Well at least the question should be asked up front: Representing who? While key services like health and education languish our elected representatives are still not only allowed to continue on this track, but are seemingly encouraged to do so by voter support.

Given the history perhaps federal and subservient government branding issues aren’t so important. We do seem to have a remarkable tolerance for, and it seems appreciation of blatant bad behaviour. My involvement in a federal election in BC led me to ask constantly about the federal/provincial difference; and I was constantly assured people understood the dynamics.

Shoot the black duck

Perhaps Kevin Rudd and Michael Ignatieff, in Canada, should have no real concern over the bad behaviour of their namesake party organisations. Both will face the electorate in the coming months, Ignatieff as opposition leader. Each have ready solutions to the branding dilemma.

For Ignatieff it could be a simple as a public request for the BC Liberals to change their name. They won’t of course, but their MLAs and members will continue, in their support of the Conservatives, to undermine their federal namesake, thus clearly drawing the distinction. The fact is, these people are not particularly smooth and sophisticated.

For Rudd to attack the NSW Labor government is problematic; but I expect the ‘RUDD’ brand is sufficiently entrenched to override any tarnished Labor brand. Federal Labor, under Rudd, should be able to pick up lower house seats elsewhere to offset any NSW losses, and perhaps need to just concentrate on picking up much needed Senate seats.

Despite party nomenclature both Rudd and Ignatieff have many similarities. Both would seek to create an environment where their respective economies allow the growth of well run enterprise, both would direct support to where it will best serve economic growth. On the other hand, I suspect both are ‘belt and braces’ sort of guys. At the risk of mixing metaphors, I suspect while each are lining up their ducks they dream about shooting that annoying black duck!

But how do the crooked guys get away with it?
Which brings us back to how these obviously dubious governments retain electoral acceptance. The NSW Labor government was on the nose almost as soon as it was returned at the last election. Infighting, scandal and faltering service deliveries seemed to miraculously surface after the fact – well for most at least. Partly the opposition managed the first parts of the equation, the infighting and scandal, no doubt helping Labor to succeed.

Recent news suggests that Campbell simply found it advisable not to know his province was sinking deeply into the red. This amazing news has jut surfaced, months after the election in BC. Finance Minister Colin Hansen warned this week that the economic recovery is so rickety that the province could be plunged back into recession in coming months.

NSW remains on the edge of the economic precipice, relying a great deal on spin to fill the gaps in real policy; that is provision of adequate, not even functional, health and transport delivery services. Little wonder the last health minister resigned this week, having been caught out spending his time bedding a young woman rather than attending to urgent needs. It is not hard to see why he sought the distraction.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A pitiful state or an effing shame?

The state of NSW is currently the largest economic unit in Australia. On population and other statistics it should be, but given the appalling lack of political talent across the spectrum it might well sink to second, or worse.

Prime Minister Rudd must despair at times over the political albatross represented by his Labor state counterparts, particularly the NSW lot. In fact I’m certain if I were Prime Minister I would be far happier that the states should be in the hands of various other parties.

At present NSW is led by an ineffectual compromise, and is suffering from the lack of real leadership. Not that there aren’t potential leaders on the Labor or Liberal/National teams; it’s just that the body politic in the state is too busy trying to pull itself to pieces to actually present a unified ticket.

The latest impasse came when potential Labor leader (dream on) John Della Bosca bit the bullet over a sex scandal. Sorry, sex scandals aren’t life and death in this country. It might well have been the last straw, but then the underlying issues which made it so aren’t easily apparent. Well, unless we consider how desperate Labor caucus members must be to block rather than build.

I’m no Della Bosca fan, but there are few in the state Labor ranks I would support. Sadly the problem is as deep for the conservative opposition. The junior partner, the National Party, would be shot out of pure compassion if it were a horse. The Liberals are torn between genuine Liberal ideals and ultra Christian conservative.

Liberal leader O’Farrell is a decent bloke, but then how often do decent people actually achieve strong leadership? O’Farrell is flat out putting out party fires to develop the sort of platform he needs to gain traction, a platform a majority of his party might accept. Even if he can hold on and win the next election by default it would soon be stolen from him.

On the Labor side Rudd is powerful enough to step in, but at what cost to him. If he does and it goes wrong it’s his problem. If he does and it goes right then a strong state Labor government in NSW might also become his problem. I’m sure Kevin prays for a Liberal miracle.

There are good decent people on both sides, just too few in either camp to make a difference. In the meantime NSW is desperate for sound stable leadership and there is no real answer in sight. As for the common nick name – the ‘Bear Pit’ – after Della’s triumph, it perhaps just be called a f*cking shame.