Designing life for episodic tyranny | 2: Social networks
Imagine a Stasinario: while in a Tier 3 environment, you expect your social networks to be subverted, with people pressured to report on one another, and casual gatherings discouraged or explicitly outlawed. Your contact with local colleagues and neighbors is always tinged with the certainty that eventually, one of them will report on the others, if only to stay out of trouble themselves.
Assume that a few community members will be willing informants, and that everyone else would rather not inform, but will periodically be questioned by an adversary trying to prevent organizing or information-passing of any kind. When questioned, you will be punished for sharing any information that can be shown to be false. What sorts of preparation can you make in advance, for both offline and online gatherings? [Input needed from people facing this in closed systems, and in heavily-monitored activist movements.]
Social design options
1. Make gathering information more expensive. Add plausible noise to the system; report frequently rather than rarely?
2. Human ddos/noise: instead of LOIC [Anons], have collective noise generation pointed at some unethical public db or data-collection. 1) setting your devices to signal to such networks; 2) sending your info / generating random info to send there;
2a. For human / minority-tracking databases: blacklists, registering refugees, or migrants from specific regions/religions. Consider self-registration, auto-registration of valid-looking but random identities.
2b. Try SETI@Home style noise, where a large number of devices compute/produce small amounts of signal sent out along a given channel
3. Social steganography? Embed real discussions among a few friends with lots of chatbots? so it’s hard to know which comments are real to find participants to trace or lean on. [Or even change which apparent participant in a channel is the real person communicating, over time]. Possibly not helpful if subversion happens at the human level using the tapped-in comms device.
4. Find ways to confound tracking and data-tracing.
4a. Make mixing (or air-gap) services widely / anonymously available
4b. Fake geo-tag generation. Fake GPS data from a group of users’ phones so it can’t be seen that they are all gathering together. Emit randomized (but logical) GPS coordinates when requested if turned on. ++
5. Randomized salting of communication, to provide plausible deniability for those who pass on wrong information, and to spot-check members of a group for currently being a leak.
Ex: Encrypted group chat has pairwise encryption now. No guarantee you get the same message as someone else in the group? You could implement round-robin disinformation where one member of a group chat gets different info than the rest [and you could randomly select who gets bad info to see if outsiders sweep in / show up at the wrong place]
6. Signalling: Be open about some of the above preparation, so that all parties know there are less certain returns on relying on such information. Share how to build a system like this [specifics?] that anyone can adopt unilaterally without active coordination.
7. Open books: imagine ways to share access to your toolchain to friends, self-surveillance to let everyone observe there is no or limited collaboration with dangerous parties.
8. Collective multi-national insurance? to offset risks of a bubble of tyranny in one place: a pool that will help you relocate, find jobs/home in another jurisdiction… Similarly: flesh out details of potential future costs, currently handled by the public, that might become individual costs under f – in case you have to start paying for them yourself.
8a. Related: collective libersurance: investing in a libertarian solution, that stops relying on government to provide those shared services (EPA protection, health insurance, &c) : leaving less on the table for a governmental shift to distort.
8b. Counterpoint: you might be prevented from doing this? if the government is explicitly propping up one industry (coal) over another. Gov occupies a bunch of fields that individuals can’t use.
9. Reduce reliance on your region’s infrastructure. Practice living through blackouts, emphasize taking your gadgets off-grid on a regular basis, ensuring they still work. Ditto for plumbing.
10. Preserve mulinational free-trade zones, black markets, networks outside of national jurisdictions, not as terribly large or strong, but with reasonable burst capacity and robust to crushing. So that there is always a functioning side channel. [Ex: ?? falls in Lat Am, Kowloon City]
1. Fix security holes in current distributed communication.
1a. Metadata about who’s using what network and when is still sharable; WeChat is not very secure – even being in a channel can make you guilty and rounded up. IPFS is great as far as it goes, but their routing mechanism still shows the node-interconnection-graph, which as with bittorrent can show who seeds/shares/acts as a hub.
1b. Iterated/ decentralization? needed. A mostly-decentral system with central elements can be more vulnerable than a robustly-central system that acknowledges this as a weakness and prepares for it.
2. Consider multinational/extranational decision-making and stakeholding, so no core stakeholder group can be entirely dominated by a central national actor
3. Keep doing this work transparently and publicly. Increase security for discussing & updating & suggesting new ideas.
Designing life for episodic tyranny | 1: Secure toolchains
Classify your local environment according to how much freedom you have to create and share tools, access those of others, and communicate across secure networks.
- In a “Tier 1” environment you have access to all popular security technology, and can build whatever infrastructure you want, entirely within your control.
- In a “Tier 2” environment, central network nodes and critical infrastructure all have backdoors and logging, and noone is allowed to distribute strong cryptography that some central group is unable to break.
- In a “Tier 3” environment, using secure tools and all but trivial cryptography is illegal – you shouldn’t have anything to hide. Even talking about such tools may put you on a blacklist. A central group that enforces the law may also access, modify, or reassign your work and possessions at will.
Say you live in a Tier 1 jurisdiction, which controls land, banks, and physical infrastructure. Periodically, it shifts for a time to a Tier 3 regime, which may make abrupt changes at any depth in society to suit the fashion of the moment.
While in the latter regime, you can’t always trust the law or social norms to preserve
- Your right to communicate with others
- Your right to use your own tools and resources
- The visibility (to you and those around you) of how your rights and tools are changing, if these are taken away
Most infrastructure in such an environment becomes untrustworthy. Imagine losing trust in AT&T, Google, Symantec, Cisco. (Even if you trust the people who remain running the system, they might no longer be in full control, or may not be able to inform you if your access was altered, filtered, compromised.)
What can you do while in a Tier 1 regime to moderate the periods where you have fewer rights?
What follows are some quick thoughts on the topic. Improvements and other ideas are most welcome.
Technical design decisions to improve resilience:
1. multi-homing, letting users choose their jurisdiction. for instance, let you choose from a number of wholly independent services running almost the same stack, each within a different jurisdiction.
1a. Be able to choose who hosts your data, tools, funds. E.g., fix current US-EU policy – give users choice of where data resides and under which laws.
1b. metric: how long it takes to shift key storage / control elements b/t jurisdictions; copying rather than mirroring any pieces without which nothing works. be able to shift on the timescale of expected tier-transition.
2. learn explicitly from how banking does this (lots of past concerns about funds being frozen, for les-than-fascist conflicts).
3. work with telcos to add built-in IP and egress-fuzzing
3a. consider what china does: blocking per IP, by each egress point. harder but possible in the US.
4. multi-source hardware, and any other needed ‘raw materials’ at each level of abstraction
4a. Both multiple sources w/in a jurisdiction (for the first stages when only some producers have lost control of their own production), and in different jurisdictions.
5. have systems that can’t be subverted too quickly: relying on the temporary nature of the fascist trend. (if it lasts long enough, everything mentioned here can be undone; design to make that take a reasonable amount of time and a lot of humanpower)
5a. add meshes – like the electrical grid, that have local robusness. When central management disappears or ‘shuts things off’, local communities can build a smaller-scale replica that uses the physical infrastructure [even if they have to go in and replace control nodes, like generators, by hand].
5b. make change happen on the lifescale of hardware that has to be replaced. e.g. a bulk of investment in dumb pipes that have to be replaced or removed by hand. Systems with high upfront infrastructure costs that are easy to maintain but relatively hard to replace.
6. design alternate solutions for each level of the stack that have minimal central requirements. E.g. fuel-powered USB chargers, gas generators, solar panels, desktop fabs and factories. Make it easy to produce inferior, but usable, components if the high-economy-of-scale sources dry up.
7. keep strong contacts with someone in the existing [government], even when there’s nothing that you need to lobby for. that makes transitions smoother, and you less likely to be surprised by change. Cf. Idea 3: invest heavily into those social relations.
8. distribute end-user tools that let individuals adapt under hostile conditions. Examples:
8a. Ship antennas or power sources flexible enough to be modded.
8b. Allow broadcast updates to the latest version, but allow users to freeze the version at one they support.
8c. Support unblockable rollbacks to earlier revisions: something like a hardware button that rollsback to one of a few previous versions, if you realize you’ve installed malware or controlware. you can still push updates as agressively as you like, as long as the provider can hint that a new snapshot is useful as risks of overtaking increases.
8d. provide some sort of checksum to see if firmware has changed [even with above may be possible for new software to change that option; but users should at least know]
1. consider reasonable steps to degrade control:
1a. starting with increased infra for those who align with government views. (or decreased for those breaking new / stringent laws)
1b. compare how voting is restricted, liquidity is restricted.
2. consider: is it better to be asset-heavy or asset-light?
2a. usefulness of land and resources to use, vs. having things that can’t be claimed / revoked. networks rather than assets – land, tools?
2b. compare liquidity of favors to that of funds or items.
3. compare current work with regulations/regulators. in politics, relationships w/in a commission made it valuable to have a rotating door. Invest in those relations, considering also 2) above – invest before assets are frozen to offset risk.
4. compare how US corps plan for inter-state shifts within the country. Including being flexible enough to move to a new state for favorable regs, or shift ops/people among different centers.
5. Currently there’s network-tracking of IP addresses in malls, &c. There are tools now that have a ‘War mode’ that randomizes your MAC or other address all the time. Injecting noise into bluetooth and other tracking is straightforward.
Psych statistics wars: new methods are shattering old-guard assumptions
Recently, statistician Andrew Gelman has been brilliantly breaking down the transformation of psychology (and social psych in particular) through its adoption of and creative use of statistical methods, leading to an improved understanding of how statistics can be abused in any field, and of how empirical observations can be [unwittingly and unintentionally] flawed. This led to the concept of p-hacking and other methodological fallacies which can be observed in careless uses of statistics throughout scientific and public analyses. And, as these new tools were used to better understand psychology and improve its methods, existing paradigms and accepted truths have been rapidly changed over the past 5 years. This shocks and anguishes researchers who are true believers in”hypotheses vague enough to support any evidence thrown at them“, and have built careers around work supporting those hypotheses.
Here is Gelman’s timeline of transformations in psychology and in statistics, from Paul Meehl’s argument in the 1960s that results in experimental psych may have no predictive power, to PubPeer, Brian Nosek’s reprodicibility project, and the current sense that “the emperor has no clothes”.
Here is a beautiful discussion a week later, from Gelman, about how researchers respond to statistical errors or other disproofs of part of their work. In particular, how co-authors handle such new discoveries, either together or separately.
At the end, one of its examples turns up a striking example of someone taking these sorts of discoveries and updates to their work seriously: Dana Carney‘s public CV includes inline notes next to each paper wherever significant methodological or statistical concerns were raised, or significant replications failed.
Carney makes an appearance in his examples because of her most controversially popular research, with Cuddy an Yap, on power posing. A non-obvious result (that holding certain open physical poses leads to feeling and acting more powerfully) became extremely popular in the popular media, and has generated a small following of dozens of related extensions and replication studies — which starting in 2015 started to be done with large samples and at high power, at which point the effects disappeared. Interest within social psychology in the phenomenon, as an outlier of “a popular but possibly imaginary effect”, is so great that the journal Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology has an entire issue devoted to power posing coming out this Fall.
Perhaps motivated by Gelman’s blog post, perhaps by knowledge of the results that will be coming out in this dedicated journal issue [which she suggests are negative], she put out a full two-page summary of her changing views on her own work over time, from conceiving of the experiment, to running it with the funds and time available, to now deciding there was no meaningful effect. My hat is off to her. We need this sort of relationship to data, analysis, and error to make sense of the world. But it is a pity that she had to publish such a letter alone, and that her co-authors didn’t feel they could sign onto it.
Update: Nosek also wrote a lovely paper in 2012 on Restructuring incentives to promote truth over publishability [with input from the estimable Victoria Stodden] that describes many points at which researchers have incentives to stop research and publish preliminary results as soon as they have something they could convince a journal to accept.
Archiving Web links: Building global layers of caches and mirrors
The Web is highly distributed and in flux; the people using it, even moreso. Many projects exist to optimize its use, including:
- Reducing storage and bandwidth: compressing parts of the web; deduplicating files that exist in many places, replacing many with pointers to a single copy of the file [Many browsers & servers, *Box]
- Reducing latency and long-distance bandwidth: caching popular parts of the web locally around the world [CDNs, clouds, &c]
- Increasing robustness & permanence of links: caching linked pages (with timestamps or snapshots, for dynamic pages) [Memento, Wayback Machine, perma, amber]
- Increasing interoperability of naming schemes for describing or pointing to things on the Web, so that it’s easier to cluster similar things and find copies or versions of them [HvdS’s 15-year overview of advancing interop]
This week I was thinking about the 3rd point. What would a comprehensively backed-up Web of links look like? How resilient can we make references to all of the failure modes we’ve seen and imagined? Some threads for a map:
- Links should include timestamps, important ones should request archival permalinks.
- When creating a reference, sites should notify each of the major cache-networks, asking them to store a copy.
- Robust links can embed information about where to find a cache in the a tag that generates the link (and possibly a fuzzy content hash?).
- Permalinks can use an identifier system that allows searching for the page across any of the nodes of the local network, and across the different cache-networks. (Browsers can know how to attempt to find a copy.)
- Sites should have a coat of amber: a local cached snapshot of anything linked from that site, stored on their host or a nearby supernode. So as long as that site is available, snapshots of what it links to are, too.
- We can comprehensively track whether sites have signalled they have an amber layer. If a site isn’t yet caching what they link to, readers can encourage them to do so or connect them to a supernode.
- Libraries should host amber supernodes: caches for sites that can’t host those snapshots on their host machine.
- Snapshots of entire websites should be archived regularly
- Both public snapshots for search engines and private ones for long-term archives.
- A global network of mirrors (a la [C]LOCKSS) should maintain copies of permalink and snapshot databases
- Consortia of libraries, archives, and publishers should commit to a broad geographic distribution of mirrors.
- mirrors should be available within any country that has expensive interconnects with the rest of the world;
- prioritization should lead to a kernel of the cached web that is stored in ‘seed bank‘ style archives, in the most secure vaults and other venues
- There should be a clear way to scan for fuzzy matches for a broken link. Especially handy for anyone updating a large archive of broken links.
- Is the base directory there? Is the base URL known to have moved?
- Are distant-timestamped versions of the file available? [some robustlink implementations do this already]
- Are there exact matches elsewhere in the web for a [rare] filename? Can you find other documents with the same content hash? [if a hash was included in the link]
- Are there known ways to contact the original owner of the file/directory/site?
Related questions: What other aspects of robustness need consideration? How are people making progress at each layer? What more is needed to have a mesh of archived links at every scale? For instance, WordPress supports a chunk of the Web; top CDNs cache more than that. What other players can make this happen? What is needed for them to support this?
Cop dines with homeless mother of four, gets kudos. Her plight is ignored.
Recent news blurbs across our fair state, applaud a state trooper for “sharing lunch with a homeless mother of four“. (Headline language).
This was noticed and photographed by a passerby; the trooper then identified by the state police and posted to their online webpage praising him for his good deed; a CBS affiliate spent hours tracking down both the photographer and the woman for a video interview. They got quotes from her about: being a ‘homeless panhandler’, his common decency, and her surprise. She was described by her motherhood, her panhandling, and being down on her luck.
And that’s it! Nothing thoughtful about why this young mother is homeless in Fall River, or what will become of her family. No opportunities to reach out and fix a tragedy. She clearly needs more than one good meal and healthcare, but the outpouring of interest in the viral photo is entirely directed towards how and whether to applaud the police officer [who, quite decently, refused to be interviewed], how this reflects on police officers everywhere, how this perhaps restores faith in humanity.
(Update: It seems the trooper and one local news affiliate did find a way to help her temporarily with material support, a bit after that event. And a few cases like this that have famously included a crowdfunding campaign. But the most newsworthy issue is: how does this happen in our society, what can we do to fix that, and what permanent fixes could work for the family in the spotlight.)
Reader: Discover the effect of happiness on your health today
“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down happy. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” —Lennon
From the BODYWORLDS exhibit in Amsterdam, full of flayed and preserved human bodies.
WMF Audit Committee update – Call for Volunteers
Friday June 05th 2015, 7:07 pm
Filed under: wikipedia
The Wikimedia Foundation has an Audit Committee that represents its Board in overseeing financial and accounting matters. This includes reviewing the foundation’s financials, its annual tax return, and an independent audit by KPMG. For details, and the current committee members, see the WMF’s Audit Committee page and the Audit Committee charter.
I currently serve as the Audit Committee chair. We are forming the committee for 2015-16, and are looking for volunteers from the community.
Members serve on the Committee for one year, from July through July. The Foundation files its annual tax return in the U.S. in April, and publishes its annual plan in June. Committee members include trustees from the Foundation’s board and contributors from across the Wikimedia movement.
Time commitment for the committee is modest: reviews are carried out via three or four conference calls over the course of the year. The primary requirement is financial literacy: some experience with finance, accounting or auditing.
If you are interested in joining the Committee for the coming year, please email me at sj at wikimedia.org with your CV, and your thoughts on how you could contribute. Thank you!
Soft, distributed review of public spaces: Making Twitter safe
Successful communities have learned a few things about how to maintain healthy public spaces. We could use a handbook for community designers gathering effective practices. It is a mark of the youth of interpublic spaces that spaces such as Twitter and Instagram [not to mention niche spaces like Wikipedia, and platforms like WordPress] rarely have architects dedicated to designing and refining this aspect of their structure, toolchains, and workflows.
Some say that ‘overly’ public spaces enable widespread abuse and harassment. But the “publicness” of large digital spaces can help make them more welcoming in ways than physical ones – where it is harder to remove graffiti or eggs from homes or buildings – and niche ones – where clique formation and systemic bias can dominate. For instance, here are a few ‘soft’ (reversible, auditable, post-hoc) tools that let a mixed ecosystem review and maintain their own areas in a broad public space:
Allow participants to change the visibility of comments: Let each control what they see, and promote or flag it for others.
- Allow blacklists and whitelists, in a way that lets people block out harassers or keywords entirely if they wish. Make it easy to see what has been hidden.
- Rating (both average and variance) and tags for abuse or controversy can allow for locally flexible display. Some simple models make this hard to game.
- Allow things to be incrementally hidden from view. Group feedback is more useful when the result is a spectrum.
Increase the efficiency ratio of moderation and distribute it: automate review, filter and slow down abuse.
- Tag contributors by their level of community investment. Many who spam or harass try to cloak in new or fake identities.
- Maintain automated tools to catch and limit abusive input. There’s a spectrum of response: from letting only the poster and moderators see the input (cocooning), to tagging and not showing by default (thresholding), to simply tagging as suspect (flagging).
- Make these and other tags available to the community to use in their own preferences and review tools
- For dedicated abuse: hook into penalties that make it more costly for those committed to spoofing the system.
You can’t make everyone safe all of the time, but can dial down behavior that is socially unwelcome (by any significant subgroup) by a couple of magnitudes. Of course these ideas are simple and only work so far. For instance, in a society at civil war, where each half are literally threatened by the sober political and practical discussions of the other half, public speech may simply not be safe.
Righteousness and peace, and recovering at last what we threw away
Dinesen‘s short story Babette’s Feast includes a lovely riff on Psalm 85. This is quoted in full towards the end, and refined in the film. In one of those revealing errors highlighting the fragility of citation, there is a canonical English misquote online, repeated in a thousand places, but the correct quote did not exist.
I leave the quote here in honor of the season. And I wish you, dear reader, a confident and grateful year, full of potential and choiceness.
Mercy and truth are met together.
Righteousness and peace have kissed one another.
Man, in his weakness and short-sightedness,
believes he must make choices in this life.
He trembles at the risks he must take.
We know that fear.
But, no - our choice is of no importance.
There comes a time when our eyes are opened.
And we come to realize at last that mercy is infinite.
We need only await it with confidence,
and receive it with gratitude.
Mercy imposes no conditions.
And, see: Everything we have chosen has been granted to us.
And everything we renounced — has also been granted.
Yes, we even get back what we threw away.
For mercy and truth are met together.
And righteousness and peace have kissed one another.
Snow Use’s Kitchen: dishes fit to make hearts melt and mouths water…
In Snow Use’s kitchen there stood a large stove,
And what she cooked on it she cooked with much love.
She used chunks of chocolate, melted in steam,
And sugar and egg-whites and oodles of cream.
(And, for effect, an occasional scream!)
She stirred it and mashed itinto a thick paste,
And added some cognac to give it more taste.
(As to the calories: they went to waist)
She poured the concoction into a strange mold;
Then into the freezer until it got cold.
(With a note saying: Please do not spindle or fold)
And when it was frozen so-o-o pleased was Snow Use,
For she had made Thidwick, the chocolate mousse
Digital rights groups in Europe are gaining ground: a model to watch
The recent historic wins for net neutrality in the EU demonstrate an organized and informed advocacy network that is still not echoed in the US or in many other parts of the world. We should celebrate and learn from their work.
Thanks to Axel Arnbak for his thorough and delightful writeup of this.
Aksyonov predicts Crimean takeover in ’79 novel
Vassily Aksyonov wrote The Island of Crimea in 1979 – about an imagined future. It looks surprisingly like the present.
Kudos to Michael Idov at the New Yorker for writing about it beautifully, with all of its spooky accuracy.
(Night Wolves! Aksyonov again!)
Women’s Public Voice: points left out of Mary Beard’s history of speech
Bruce recently recommended this essay on the historical public voice of women, by noted classicist Mary Beard.
Beard is a fine and provocative writer; it is good rhetoric.
But I don’t think it gives much insight into historical causes, or ways we can bring about change. Women face deeply gendered and hateful criticism today, particularly online. The argument that this is due to Greco-Roman rhetorical traditions, or the Western literary canon, is unconvincing. I was discouraged by the selection bias in the examples used.
I would love to see a revision of this essay that gets nuances right, and tries to explain changes in the past century based on its arguments.
+ The complexity of women’s voice in Rome, from Fulvia and Livia to Irene of Athens;
+ Greek admiration of Gorgo, Roman admiration of Zenobia;
+ Conflicting views of leaders in adjacent cultures (Boudica, Cleopatra, Dido);
+ The Old Testament (Deborah and Esther come to mind).
Misused for effect:
– Ovid: No metamorphs of any gender could speak; Io for one was changed back.
– Fulvia: First by describing her as someone’s wife, though she was one of the most powerful figures in Rome; then by framing her hatred of Cicero as a matter of gender.
On a tangent: here are two speeches I love, to lift the spirits. (Both American; I know less about oratory from the rest of the world. Suggestions welcome!):
Frances Wright on global patriotism and change:
# Independence Day speech at New Harmony (1828)
Margaret Chase Smith on an issue too great to be obscured by eloquence, thankfully no longer a concern today:
# Declaration of Conscience (1950)
“BRB singularity” : A comic on love, death, and robots
XBRB – stories from the Singularity.
A Blue/Red/Brown production.