The Longer Term Effects of the Paris Tragedy

Having recently lived in France for a year, my heart goes out to the French people. I lived in South Western France, but fell in love with Paris as a city of art, philosophy, history and music. That it was targeted with such violence last night is a travesty of epic proportions.

London Bridge

London Bridge lit up with the colors of the French Flag tonight.

At this time there are 129 deaths and 352 injured according to Le Monde.

I’d like to spend a few minutes thinking about the longer term effects of what just happened in Paris. My background if you don’t know me is: I’m a CEO of a cyber security company, I’m a software engineer and I’m interested in public policy.

2,977 victims died in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th 2001. The attacks had a profound effect on public policy and foreign policy world-wide. The result was a US led war in Afghanistan and a further war with Iraq. The cost and effect of these wars continue to this day, 14 years later.

The WTC attacks also led to the Patriot Act and a huge increase in surveillance by the United States and intelligence partners. The intelligence partners are the “Five Eyes”  which include the USA, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Patriot act was the tip of the iceberg and since the Snowden revelations we have now learned the depth and breadth of the increase in intelligence gathering and surveillance post 9/11.

The Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai showing French colors tonight.

The Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai showing French colors tonight.

The impact of the WTC attacks can, today, in my opinion, be compared to the impact of the Pearl Harbor attack in the way it changed US foreign policy and public policy. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, the US declared war on Japan and Roosevelt and later Truman demanded the ‘unconditional surrender’ of Japan as the only acceptable end to the conflict.

More recently, post 9/11 in the United States and world-wide the public appetite for conflict had started to taper off starting in 2008 with the Obama campaign that ran on a platform of exiting Iraq.

Added to this there was a tapering in the public appetite and tolerance of surveillance with the Manning leaks published on Wikileaks in 2010 and the Snowden revelations in 2013.

The number of casualties in Paris yesterday are not as high as Pearl Harbor or 9/11, but we live in a post 9/11 World where we already have an increase in conflict and surveillance. The public also has an increased sensitivity to these kinds of attacks.

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

In my view, the Paris attacks will bring us back to the world-wide climate we encountered immediately post 9/11. It will ensure that France enters any war it hopes will reduce the threat of domestic terror and France will go beyond that. France will actively, as the USA did, seek retribution for the attacks yesterday. Manuel Valls (France’s Prime Minister – the equivalent of a Chief Operating Officer) said today that “We must annihilate the enemies of the Republic”, which sets the tone of the response going forward.

If this had happened in the absence of 9/11, the French response would have been severe, but would not necessarily have been backed by a long term global response. Because this is post 9/11 and because it refreshes the global memory of the impact of terrorism, this will have a much wider influence on global governments and their public and foreign policy.

The Sydney Opera House Tonight

The Sydney Opera House Tonight

I expect that there is a show of solidarity with France that goes beyond countries displaying the French flag on public and private buildings last night and tonight.

France will likely be brought closer into the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement which has so far excluded all European countries with the exception of the United Kingdom. [And in fact had an adversarial relationship with countries like Germany]

In response to Charlie Hebdo, France passed a new surveillance law in May that allows the monitoring of phone calls and emails without the authorization of a judge. The law also requires ISP’s to install devices to sniff Internet traffic and make that traffic available to French intelligence services. The law is essentially the USA Patriot Act without the need for a FISA court to authorize surveillance.

San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco City Hall

The tragedy yesterday will likely provide the impetus to pass additional laws that cover anything that legislation earlier this year may have missed. That earlier law doesn’t appear to have missed much.

I hold no strong opinions either way on public surveillance. That we appear to need surveillance, I consider tragic. I’d also prefer to not have secrets, but a thought experiment I came up with a few years ago seems to indicate that the need for secrets is inevitable.

My interest is in understanding what will happen next, and we appear to be headed into a deeper spiral of surveillance, conflict and secrecy. I’d prefer that things were different, but I’m angry too.

The Chinese Wall that Isn’t

I used to work at a Swiss bank. At investment banks they have a virtual Chinese wall that exists between folks who do deals and the trade floor for obvious reasons.

At my bank, and this is back in 2000/2001, the people who did the deals and those who traded shared elevators, lunch rooms, pubs and so on. So you can imagine the level of cross pollination.

The US government, just another organization, has been given the green light to dig through your data if you’re storing that data in the cloud with Google using, for example, Google Drive, Google Docs or GMail. We’re trusting that they’ll keep their perusals limited to national security concerns and not tax enforcement, criminal investigation, foreign intelligence gathering or background checks and won’t leak data to credit rating agencies or anyone else. The old virtual Chinese wall.

The latest development with Google sets a precedent for other companies and their obligation to hand over data to government employees. That includes Dropbox, Intuit and their web based Quickbooks app, Facebook and so on. The trove of data the government now has access to makes the NSA’s traditional intelligence gathering look positively pedestrian. Oh for the good old days of Echelon.

As Google’s executive chairman once said, “If you don’t have anything to hide, you have nothing to fear.”.

This was where I was going to end this post. But lets take this idea a little further. Lets assume underpaid government employees are rifling through our data and habeas corpus is still as optional as extraordinary rendition. If you’re like me and are, at least in your own eyes, basically a good guy or girl, what’s the best thing you can do to prevent being falsely accused of something?

In a future world where people who have the power to accuse and convict are reading your docs, you can encrypt, encapsulate, misdirect, protest and so on. Or another approach is to provide an overwhelming amount of data on who you are, what you’re up to, what your views are, who you associate with, what you buy and so on. Remove all ambiguity on whether you’re a good or bad person. Essentially open source your life to avoid accusation.

I’m not sure what the right approach is, but as counterintuitive as it seems, I tend to favor the latter.

Enough Pretending to Ban Assault Rifles. Just Do It.

Until January this year I lived in Elizabeth, Colorado for a year and a half which is 30 miles from where the shooting occurred 3 days ago. Many of my extended family still lives there. My brother called me in France from Cape Town to tell me it was going on in real-time, via Reddit, so I got hold of my nephew in Denver who was watching the opening of Batman, but thankfully at a different theater. It’s a connected world.

While living in Colorado I went to a gun range in Montana and played with just about every gun they had including of course a 50 caliber handgun an AR-15 and a fully automatic assault rifle that was similar but older for legal reasons. Then did a gun course later in Colorado. I don’t own any guns.

According to the news an AR-15 assault rifle was used in the Aurora Cinema Shooting on Thursday night along with a shotgun and two handguns. The AR-15 is an M-4 assault rifle used by the US military in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. The main difference is that it is semi-automatic. In other words it can only fire as fast as you can pull the trigger. There are a few hacks available to fix this like bump-firing where you attach a device to the stock that keeps pulling the trigger thanks to the recoil.

I never had much of a point of view on this, but I’m beginning to strongly question why on Earth we need to be able to own AR-15 assault rifles. They tried to ban them in California but there are “California Legal” AR-15’s available. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban was another half hearted attempt – the law only banned weapons made after the law passed and it expired in 2004.

The AR-15 is a mean weapon. It fires a .223 round at an extremely high velocity and a single shot to a human can do terrible damage. A single shot to the body can cause brain damage due to hydrostatic shock. Contrary to what they tell you in movies, there is no such thing as a “Flesh wound” and every gunshot wound is serious.

The idea that making the AR-15 semi-automatic somehow makes it safer is absurd. On a course I attended our instructor trained us to fire in bursts of 3 to four which is the only way to stay accurate with an assault rifle. So you’re really just removing 2 to three rounds from each shot and ensuring the shooter maintains the discipline of not holding down the trigger too long.

The AR-15 has a short barrel which makes it useless for hunting, even though a few unsporting folks use it to hunt. It’s designed for close quarters assault style combat. When you hold and point it you are hunched over the weapon in a combat stance designed to minimize recoil, present a small profile and keep you moving aggressively forward.  It’s designed to very efficiently kill multiple people in close quarters in a war setting.

Magazine sizes of 60 rounds or more are available from sites like for the AR-15. Imagine a single AR-15 with three magazines of 20 to 60 rounds. I don’t think “home defense” captures the possible uses for that configuration. [Edit: After writing this article I discovered a 100 round AR-15 magazine was found at the scene in Aurora according to this article.]

The argument for the need to “defend ourselves from the government” is absurd because they already have the tanks and the nukes and they’re not going to let us have any.

The argument for home defense doesn’t hold water either because your AR-15 may be up against another AR-15 or an illegal M-4 or how about 5 guys with assault rifles.

There’s never going to be a scenario where you are “fully equipped” with legal weapons to “take all comers”. So lets stop fantasizing, lets keep weapons for sport legal and stop lying to ourselves that we are somehow empowered because we have an assault weapon stored in the place you will probably be furthest from when the boogie man comes to visit.


The Net will not be bound or gagged

I remember seeing Napster in 2000 when I worked for and thinking “This isn’t going away. It has too much momentum and we always move forward.” I was wrong. Today I’m wondering about the free Web and whether it will ever go away. Our intuition tells us we always move forward and things will become better, faster, cheaper and more free. But the brief history of the Net has shown that is not always true.

In 1990 the Internet was completely free. It was an academic network, run by universities with almost no commercial involvement. The Web wasn’t invented yet, Archie, FTP, Gopher, IRC and network news (NNTP) were how we got around. Piracy was of course alive and well in the form of files uuencoded, broken into parts and posted on NNTP servers. If you wanted porn, it was really, really hard work just to reassemble a GIF.

When the Web came along, it was just another app layer protocol, like Archie or Gopher. But hyperlinks and the eventual embedding of images into HTML pages is what made it far better than any other app protocol.

There is nothing that prevents us from creating as many protocols riding on TCP/IP as we would like. Gnutella has spent 10 years showing us that distributed content is feasible. Tor has shown us that online anonymity is there for the taking. The Web is just another app layer protocol. DNS is just a phonebook for IP addresses and the Net survived the first 13 years of its life without it.

If governments ever decide to take control of basic Internet infrastructure like DNS, the Net will simply change form. The way we get content may stop being the Web and it may start being a new democratic protocol that provides client and server anonymity as well as massive redundancy against government or institutional interference.

What we think of as the free and open Web today may become a place like CompuServe used to be. A place you go to access large incumbents like Facebook and Google. Then there will be that other place where only tech geeks and people in academia go to interact freely with the rest of the world. Initially bandwidth may be slow and connections may be few, but soon the new protocol will mature, become easier to use and will gradually become mainstream, sparking a firestorm of innovation in a new environment that allows truly free communication.

DARPA built TCP/IP to survive a nuclear war. It may yet survive a worse attack by its creator.

Footnote: This post was inspired by the South African Government passing the “Protection of State Information” act today. It restricts the press from publishing what the government deems a state secret with penalty of 25 years in jail for violating the law. Many journalists in my birth country will now have to choose between a lengthy jail term and doing what is in the public interest.

Does your Representative oppose Job Creation and Support a Warrantless Gag Order? Ask them.

SOPA is a bill (HR 3261) sponsored by Lamar Smith (R-VA), John Conyers (D-MI), Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Howard Berman (D-CA) and several co-sponsors. The first hearings on this bill will begin in congress tomorrow, November 16th.

If SOPA is passed, it will give the US Government control of the Domain Name System in order to allow them to “cut off” blacklisted websites. This is tantamount to giving the US government control of major newspapers at the printing press. If an edition is deemed unsuitable, it never leaves the press.

The bill has been branded as a device to protect “our” intellectual property and something that is targeted at software pirates, thieves and criminals.

The reality is that SOPA will give the government control over who has the right to speak.

Print, radio and television are being replaced by Internet delivery systems from streaming music to video on demand, online newspapers and blogs. Every one of these relies on DNS to stay online. If our government has control over our DNS system, it has the ability to issue an instant warrantless gag order to any individual, corporation or organization if it doesn’t approve your message or content.

The World has moved online. If this bill passes and is signed into law, it will go far beyond ending the Free Internet. It will remove the press freedoms we had before the Internet existed.

SOPA’s effects are far reaching and go beyond government control of DNS. The effects will include harming businesses that rely on user generated content and preventing the creation of new businesses like Facebook, WordPress, Twitter, Google’s YouTube and many others. The bill will effectively kill a powerful job creation machine at a time when we need it most.

Use this link to contact your congressman and express your view on SOPA.

You can learn more about SOPA and the destruction it will wreak at:

Why are people in London rioting? (video interview from the BBC)

This is the other point of view. An interview the BBC probably won’t air again.

I don’t condone violent demonstrations and I think the the looting of small businesses is sad and immoral. But you should understand that sometimes when people hit the streets en masse and make some noise, it has a purpose. It can’t be explained away by labeling them “rioters”.

It happened during apartheid in South African where I grew up and it brought about a peaceful transition of power in the South African government.

Back then we used to call Nelson Mandela a terrorist. Today he is Madiba, one of the most loved humans on Earth.

If you’ve heard the music of Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ), you’ll recognize Darcus Howe’s sentiments. Powerful stuff.

Update: Here is LKJ reciting Sonny’s Lettah, live.

How sovereign debt becomes leverage – a lesson from history

"America Looks at its Neighbors" (political cartoon, 1932).

"America Looks at its Neighbors" (political cartoon, 1932).

I grew up in South Africa and for a time my birth country was the only worthwhile stop on the long sea journey that spice traders would make from Europe to India and back. South Africa was colonized by Europeans for this reason. A guy called Jan Van Riebeeck was ordered to set up camp there by the Dutch East India Company.

In November, 1869 the 10 year construction project on The Highway to India, aka the Suez Canal, was completed and South Africa became just another colony. Since then the Suez has had a colorful history, but there’s one specific teachable moment in the history of the Suez the United States could learn from…

In July 1956 the president of Egypt, Gamal Nasser decided to nationalize the Suez Canal. This irked a few stakeholders and on October 29, 1956, Israel invaded Egypt. The next day Britain and France threw their hats into the ring and started bombing Cairo.

At this point in history, Britain was suffering under a mountain of debt. Here’s a historical graph of Britains debt to GDP ratio to give you some perspective:

British Public Debt from 1900 to 2010

British Public Debt from 1900 to 2010

The United States held much of the debt that Britain was in. Some of the bonds were owed to the US as part of Britains World War II debt to the US government, corporations and individuals and some of them were part of the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe post WWII.

The US used this debt to put tremendous pressure on Britain to halt the invasion. Eisenhower ordered Humphrey, secretary of the treasury to prepare to sell part of the US governments sterling bond holdings. His British counterpart advised his prime minister, Anthony Eden, that if the US did sell their bonds, the British pound would devalue to such an extent that they would no longer be able to import what they needed to sustain the islands. Eden announced a cease fire on November 6th.

The US is now at around 90% debt to GDP ratio with a total debt of just over 14 trillion. Around 4 trillion of that is held by other countries, China being our biggest “investor”.

Lets put it this way: It’s hard to not take the call when your single largest investor needs a favor.

Political Marketing and the “Debt Ceiling”

The phrase “Debt Ceiling” brings to mind phrases like “War on Terror”, “Abortion on Demand”, “Flip-Flop” – or some of the pejoratives used to criticize those wanting to depart from the Vietnam war: nervous nellies, special pleaders and politicians opposing the war were ready to “cut and run”.

The reality is that there is no hard ceiling that is going to be reached this Tuesday. Instead the Federal Government will be forced to make progressively harder and more irresponsible decisions. Creditors and expenses will be put in a long queue and those with the lowest priority and least impact will go delinquent first.

This has already started happening. For example, Geithner has declared a debt suspension period and is currently not putting money in the Civil Service Retirement Fund. They’re deferring payment. [Source: Hennessey’s interview on Econtalk]

Come August 2nd with no decision, we will continue to pay back the interest and principal on government debt but Geithner will have to make progressively harder decisions about which payments to defer. At some point the lawyers in the treasury department are going to tell him he’s overstepping the bounds of what he’s able to do. But that will probably be some time after August 2nd.

The Federal Government, the same organization that is asking the American people for more money and for permission to go into more debt, is the one who came up with the date August 2nd and the description of the political stalemate’s impact. They have branded it the “Debt Ceiling”.

I think the date August 2nd is a useful forcing mechanism to inspire political debate and decision making. Movement is always good when it comes to Washington. But one wonders if the phrase “debt ceiling” is Barack Obama’s “War on Terror”.