The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

File that under "B" for "Bad OpSec"

Via Bruce Schneier (and other sources), the Australian government suffered one of its worst-ever disclosures of secrets caused by not looking through used furniture:

It begins at a second-hand shop in Canberra, where ex-government furniture is sold off cheaply.

The deals can be even cheaper when the items in question are two heavy filing cabinets to which no-one can find the keys.

They were purchased for small change and sat unopened for some months until the locks were attacked with a drill.

Inside was the trove of documents now known as The Cabinet Files.

The thousands of pages reveal the inner workings of five separate governments and span nearly a decade.

Nearly all the files are classified, some as "top secret" or "AUSTEO", which means they are to be seen by Australian eyes only.

But the ex-government furniture sale was not limited to Australians — anyone could make a purchase.

And had they been inclined, there was nothing stopping them handing the contents to a foreign agent or government.

The found documents ranged from embarrassing (to both major Australian parties) to seriously top secret (troop deployments, police investigations). In response, the Australian government is calling for increased penalties for publishing or even possessing secret documents—but as Schneier points out, in this case that would have made the breech immeasurably worse for Australia:

This illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the threat. The Australian Broadcasting Corp gets their funding from the government, and was very restrained in what they published. They waited months before publishing as they coordinated with the Australian government. They allowed the government to secure the files, and then returned them. From the government's perspective, they were the best possible media outlet to receive this information. If the government makes it illegal for the Australian press to publish this sort of material, the next time it will be sent to the BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times, or Wikileaks. And since people no longer read their news from newspapers sold in stores but on the Internet, the result will be just as many people reading the stories with far fewer redactions.

In all, it's a reminder of the security adage that no security system can completely protect against human stupidity.

Zoning out

All the news yesterday and today has talked about Mike Wolff's new book, and how it puts into black-and-white terms what we already knew about the President. I'm reading a lot of it, and I've even pre-ordered David Frum's new book, coming out a week from Tuesday.

Fortunately, Chicago magazine published an article today about the origin of time zones in the United States, which is political but only in the nuts-and-bolts sense and not really in a partisan way. And Chicago has the story because, basically, Chicago invented time zones:

America was divided into its (mostly accepted) time zones in Chicago. Which makes sense. Chicago was and still is the biggest railroad town in the country, and the railroads were, in both the United States and Europe, the catalyst for the creation of time zones. In fact, there’s a historical argument that the challenges of scheduling trains inspired Albert Einstein’s development of the general theory of relativity...

Take this time and distance indicator from 1862: when it was noon in Philadelphia, it was 12:04 in New York, 12:06 in Albany, 12:16 in Boston, and 11:54 in Baltimore. Meanwhile, it was 11:10 in Chicago, 10:59 in St. Louis, and 11:18 in Indianapolis. Synchronizing relative time across cities might have inspired Einstein’s thought experiments, but it was a poor way to run a railroad.

In 1880 Britain officially adopted Greenwich Mean Time. The Canadian railway engineer Sandford Fleming and the astronomer and meteorologist Cleveland Abbe, chief scientist of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, began correspondence about a worldwide system of time zones, proving themselves persistent advocates of what Fleming called terrestrial time. Their work was presented at the Third International Geographical Congress in Venice in 1881, the General Conference of the European Geodetic Association in 1883, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1881 and 1882.

Such a system was politically messy, requiring the coordination of governments for which time zones had political symbolism. But the railroads had only the bottom line to consider.

And so, the standard time zone was born. And at this writing, according to the Time Zone Database (of which I am a contributor), there are only 494 of them.

Split of a Century

Just a minute or two ago, Kiritimati (Christmas) Island became the first place in the world to enter 2018. This happens every year—or, at least, every year since Kiritmati moved from UTC-10 (the same clock time as Hawai'i) to UTC+14 (the same clock time as Hawai'i but a day ahead) so they could be the first place on earth to enter the 2000s.

So, just a few minutes ago, that choice caused a fascinating consequence.

As of right now, and until the next person is born on the island (which could be days or weeks because of its small population of 6,500), every single adult on the island will have been born in the 1900s, and every single child will have been born in the 2000s.

As each successive time zone moves into 2018 today, this will continue to be true until the first baby is born before 1am in a particular zone. My guess would be that New Zealand will probably have a baby born before 1am, and eastern Australia certainly will, which means the 1900s/2000s split will only last 3 or 4 hours.

It's just an interesting consequence of a public-relations decision a tiny Pacific atoll made 18 years ago.

 

Understanding Vladimir Putin

Julia Ioffe knows more about Russia than just about any other American journalist. Writing in the current Atlantic magazine, she analyzes and explains what Putin really wants:

Putin had always been suspicious of democracy promotion, but two moments convinced him that America was coming for him under its guise. The first was the 2011 nato intervention in Libya, which led, ultimately, to the ousting and gruesome lynching of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Afterward, many people who interacted with Putin noticed how deeply Qaddafi’s death troubled him. He is said to have watched the video of the killing over and over. “The way Qaddafi died made a profound impact on him,” says Jake Sullivan, a former senior State Department official who met repeatedly with senior Russian officials around that time. Another former senior Obama-administration official describes Putin as “obsessed” with Qaddafi’s death. (The official concedes, “I think we did overreach” in Libya.)

The second moment was in November 2013, when young Ukrainians came out onto the Maidan—Independence Square—in the capital, Kiev, to protest then-President Viktor Yanukovych pulling out of an economic agreement with the European Union under pressure from Putin. The demonstrators stayed all winter, until the police opened fire on them, killing some 100 people. The next day, February 21, 2014, Yanukovych signed a political-reconciliation plan, brokered by Russia, America, and the EU, but that night he fled the capital. To Putin, it was clear what had happened: America had toppled his closest ally, in a country he regarded as an extension of Russia itself. All that money America had spent on prodemocracy NGOs in Ukraine had paid off. The presence of Victoria Nuland, a State Department assistant secretary, handing out snacks on the Maidan during the protests, only cemented his worst fears.

Regime change in Libya and Ukraine led to Russia propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “Not one more” is how Jon Finer, former Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff, characterizes Putin’s approach in Syria. It also led inexorably to Russian meddling in the U.S. election: Russia would show the U.S. that there was more than one regime-change racket in town.

Fear of collapse is also why Russian propaganda is intent on highlighting the bloody aftermath of revolutions the world over. Things may not be great in Russia now—the country has struggled mightily since 2012—but, the country’s news programs suggest, things can always get worse.

It's a long article, but worth the read. And Ioffe is a delight to read.

Making ride-shares pay for roads

CityLab has an interesting suggestion to manage the externalities of Uber and Lyft:

The policy journey of São Paulo, Brazil, a vast metropolitan region of 20 million people, has been telling. The city council initially banned all ride-hailing services via apps, spurred on by allies of the taxi industry. Other parties, recognizing the inevitable popularity of Uber as well as two more homegrown companies, 99 and Easy Taxi, pushed back. The compromise allows the companies to operate, but charges them for the use of streets per mile. A sliding scale was established—more if in the city center during peak hours with only one passenger; less for more passengers, cars in underserved areas, electric vehicles, women drivers, and accessible vehicles. A standing committee meets regularly on whether the charge needs to be modified. In the process, the city gets some raw data that can help with mobility policy.

The charges—for the privilege of using a public asset, the roadways, for commercial purposes—are estimated to bring in $50 million per year. Nearly a year after the policy was set, the experiment is going well, said Ciro Biderman, who recently left his position as chief innovation officer for São Paulo, where he led the design and rollout of the charges on transportation network companies.

Imagine, charging private companies a fee to use public assets.

The Red Atlas

A new book by an English retiree compiles still classified Soviet maps of British and American cities:

On a business trip to Riga, Latvia’s capital, in the early 2000s, [John Davies] hit the mother lode. Davies happened upon a shop that held bundles of Cold War-era maps of British cities, created by the Soviet military. The maps were so detailed that they included such elements as the products factories made and bridges’ load-bearing capacity. “I was just amazed,” Davies said.  

Each time Davies went to Riga, he would bring back another armload of the maps. And it turned out the Soviet military hadn’t just made maps of British cities: Davies discovered similarly intricate maps of U.S. cities, as well as areas across the globe. He and Alexander Kent, a professor of cartography at Canterbury Christ Church University, worked together to figure out how the maps were made. Their research can be found in a new book, The Red Atlas.

It's published in the US on my home-town imprint, the University of Chicago Press—and is at this writing out of stock on Amazon. (And of course I just ordered it.)

It doesn't work like that!

Jimmy Carter captained nuclear missile submarines. Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar. Barack Obama was a Constitutional Law professor at one of the top-5 law schools in the country.

Donald Trump thinks...well, I'll let Japan Times explain:

Trump said ‘samurai’ Japan should have shot down overflying North Korean missiles

U.S. President Donald Trump has said Japan should have shot down the North Korean missiles that flew over the country before landing in the Pacific Ocean earlier this year, diplomatic sources have said, despite the difficulties and potential ramifications of doing so.

The revelation came ahead of Trump’s arrival in Japan on Sunday at the start of his five-nation trip to Asia. Threats from North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development programs were set to be high on the agenda in his talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday.

Trump questioned Japan’s decision not to shoot down the missiles when he met or spoke by phone with leaders from Southeast Asian countries over recent months to discuss how to respond to the threats from North Korea, the sources said.

[T]he Self-Defense Forces did not try to intercept the missiles, with the government saying the SDF had monitored the rockets from launch and judged they would not land on Japanese territory.

But the altitude and speed of the missiles would have made it very difficult to destroy them in flight, while failure would have been embarrassing for Japan and encouraging to North Korea.

Defense Ministry officials confirmed this view and said there were also legal issues to clear.

Reagan thought we could call back nuclear missiles. Trump thinks we can shoot them down. And the Republican rank-and-file think we who want competent leadership are elitists.

We might be doomed.

Russia is screwing with everyone

Following up on my post this morning, here is the New Republic's analysis of Russian cyber-warfare tactics and strategy:

Western democracies are uniquely susceptible to this form of attack. The key insight of autocratic governments like Russia’s may be the recognition that democracies have a weakness: They are open societies committed to free speech and expression. That characteristic is and continues to be exploited. What’s more, other countries are already aping these techniques in their own struggles. Russia is the world’s most open cyberwarfare aggressor—but it’s far from the only one. IranIsraelNorth Korea, and the United States, and perhaps other countries, are all active. These conflicts often play out between familiar rivals: Russia and the United States, Iran and Israel, North and South Korea. It may be that information warfare simply reinforces old rivalries. But at the same time, it will likely have a deep and lasting impact on the fabric of the societies that come under attack. When social media and information itself are weaponized, the bonds of trust in society and within institutions are undermined, and the task of assuring information integrity becomes a matter of national security.

The question is how the West can maintain the core values of freedom of speech and the free flow of information while protecting itself from the constant presence of malevolent geopolitical actors. For centuries, Eastern European countries such as Estonia relied on walls, watchtowers, and fortresses to keep out invaders. The United States became the world’s most powerful country in part because it was insulatedfrom foreign threats by vast oceans on two sides. In the internet age, those traditional borders are less effective. To survive in the era of information warfare, the West will have to create new, safer borders capable of withstanding cyberattacks. Blockchain technology, the underlying protocol of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, might, for example, function as a sort of digital fortress protecting the secure exchange of information online. Whatever form these defenses take, democratic countries will have to focus more resources on finding and spreading potent and reliable technologies, whether in partnership with private companies, or in government cyber labs in Estonia or the United States. But we will also have to accept the sobering reality that these attacks, like guerrilla warfare and suicide bombings, aren’t going away. They are the new costs of living in a connected world.

Freedom is expensive. But it's better than any alternative.

How Russia is screwing with us

That the President hasn't condemned Russian interference in American politics demonstrates how unfit for office he and his associates are. Because Russian interference has real consequences. Via TPM, the Russians have had extraordinary success dividing Americans through social media:

Last year, two Russian Facebook pages organized dueling rallies in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center of Houston, according to information released by U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican.

Heart of Texas, a Russian-controlled Facebook group that promoted Texas secession, leaned into an image of the state as a land of guns and barbecue and amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. One of their ads on Facebook announced a noon rally on May 21, 2016 to “Stop Islamification of Texas.”

A separate Russian-sponsored group, United Muslims of America, advertised a “Save Islamic Knowledge” rally for the same place and time.

On that day, protesters organized by the two groups showed up on Travis Street in downtown Houston, a scene that appeared on its face to be a protest and a counterprotest. Interactions between the two groups eventually escalated into confrontation and verbal attacks.

Burr, the committee's chairman, unveiled the ads at a hearing Wednesday morning and said Russians managed to pit Texans against each other for the bargain price of $200.

Russia wants to render the US unable to defend its own interests in the world. The President, and by extension Republicans in Congress who are letting him off the hook, don't care.

Let me be clear: It is in the interests of Russia and China, but not in the interests of the United States, for us to be debilitated by internal divisions. Trump may not care, because he wants wealth and power for himself, not for the country. But the rest of us should care deeply.

Russia has been trying to do this since just after World War II. Now, they're getting so good at it, Americans can't even come together to say it's a hostile act by a foreign power, let alone fix the problems it's caused.