The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Some are flattening, some are not

Subway ridership numbers for New York City show a slower-than-expected drop-off. Still, IHME has New York Covid-19 cases peaking April 7th, while Covid Act Now says April 28th. Florida, where idiots flocked to beaches and churches this weekend, should see its peak mid-May with cases lingering through July. IHME puts Illinois' peak at April 18th; Covid Act Now, April 28th. But our shelter-in-place rules should lengthen our experience through the beginning of June. Oh, goody.

The New York Times has new reporting today about how the Chinese fail-safe contagion-detection system failed due to political interference:

The alarm system was ready. Scarred by the SARS epidemic that erupted in 2002, China had created an infectious disease reporting system that officials said was world-class: fast, thorough and, just as important, immune from meddling.

Hospitals could input patients’ details into a computer and instantly notify government health authorities in Beijing, where officers are trained to spot and smother contagious outbreaks before they spread.

It didn’t work.

After doctors in Wuhan began treating clusters of patients stricken with a mysterious pneumonia in December, the reporting was supposed to have been automatic. Instead, hospitals deferred to local health officials who, over a political aversion to sharing bad news, withheld information about cases from the national reporting system — keeping Beijing in the dark and delaying the response.

The central health authorities first learned about the outbreak not from the reporting system but after unknown whistle-blowers leaked two internal documents online.

Then there's the Guardian's extensive reporting on how our own moronic executive branch lost six weeks when we could have slowed the outbreak dramatically.

Back when we sabotaged an empire

People who don't study history tend not to understand why our foreign allies and adversaries behave the ways they do. Case in point: the Soviet Union, of which the largest part lives on as the Russian Federation, ended in part because we forced them to spend down their economy just to keep up with us. They might still hate us a little for that.

One man who helped this effort, Gus Weiss, hit on the idea of sabotaging the technology that Soviet spies bought or stole from American and other Western companies. Via Bruce Schneier, Wired has a long-form description of Weiss and his plan:

This plan to feed defective technology, which Weiss says carried the operation designation “Kudo,” existed as part of a larger government mobilization in response to the Farewell intelligence across the national security community. “It was multilayered operation,” Galahad told me. According to Galahad, Weiss didn’t hold any formal leadership role in this effort; instead, “Gus did his work through his own contacts. He was a White House guy. He could get people to pay attention to his ideas. He had friends in the computer business. He had Casey’s ear.”

Galahad told me that Weiss zeroed in on the Soviet industrial sector; he wanted to gut punch the Soviet economy. Galahad recalled that Weiss was friendly with the analysts in the CIA’s Office of Soviet Research. “Let’s say the Italians were building a tractor factory for the Russians in the Ukraine—the guys in OSR would have had access to those blueprints. Gus shared his ideas and recommendations based on that intelligence to his friends at the DoD.”

Meanwhile, the government worked with private sector software companies to create doctored industrial products. They were then made available to the patent clerks and engineers in American technology and arms companies who’d been recruited by the KGB.

High up on the Soviet tech shopping list was software to regulate the pressure gauges and valves for the critical Siberian gas pipeline. According to Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, the Soviets sought the software on the open market. American export controls prohibited its sale from the US. However, a small industrial software company located in Calgary called Cov-Can produced what the Soviets wanted. As Weiner writes, “The Soviets sent a Line X officer to steal the software. The CIA and the Canadians conspired to let them have it.”

The faulty software “weaved” its way through Soviet quality control. The pipeline software ran swimmingly for months, but then pressure in the pipeline gradually mounted. And one day—the date remains unclear, though most put it in June 1982—the software went haywire, the pressure soaring out of control. The pipeline ruptured, igniting a blast in the wilds of Siberia so massive that, according to Thomas C. Reed’s At the Abyss, “at the White House, we received warning from our infrared satellites of some bizarre event out in the middle of Soviet nowhere. NORAD feared a missile liftoff from a place where no rockets were known to be based. Or perhaps it was the detonation of a nuclear device. The Air Force chief of intelligence rated it at three kilotons.”

I wonder if Presidents Putin and Trump discussed this history during any of their recent unrecorded conversations?

Extraordinary measures in the UK

I'm trying to get my mind around a Conservative government announcing this a few minutes ago:

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced the government will pay the wages of British workers to keep them in jobs as the coronavirus outbreak escalates.

In an unprecedented step, Sunak said the state would pay grants covering up to 80% of the salary of workers kept on by companies, up to a total of £2,500 per month, just above the median income.

“We are starting a great national effort to protect jobs,” he said. “It’s on all of us.”

Sunak said there would be no limit on the funding available to pay people’s wages.

The government is also deferring the next quarter of VAT payments, which is the equivalent of injecting another £30bn into the economy and is designed to help companies stay afloat.

(Another thing that I just learned: Sterling has dropped 12% against the dollar in the past week, hitting £1 = $1.1641 a few minutes ago.)

Closer to home:

And finally, Mother Jones asks "How do you know if you're living through the death of an empire?"

That time when the CIA made encryption products

For about 50 years, the CIA and its (West-) German equivalent, the BND, owned Crypto AG in Switzerland, giving them access to the secrets of dozens of countries:

From 1970 on, the CIA and its code-breaking sibling, the National Security Agency, controlled nearly every aspect of Crypto’s operations — presiding with their German partners over hiring decisions, designing its technology, sabotaging its algorithms and directing its sales targets.

Then, the U.S. and West German spies sat back and listened.

They monitored Iran’s mullahs during the 1979 hostage crisis, fed intelligence about Argentina’s military to Britain during the Falklands War, tracked the assassination campaigns of South American dictators and caught Libyan officials congratulating themselves on the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco.

Greg Miller, the Washington Post reporter who broke the story in the US, followed up today with some insight into the bureaucratic bullshit that nearly scuttled the deal, and would go on to help our intelligence services miss that 9/11 was about to happen:

The CIA comes across as an overbearing elder, impatient with its more timid counterpart, dismissive of its intermittent objections. CIA officials “made the rules as they went along,” according to the history, “and were much more inclined to ask forgiveness than permission.”

The NSA was full of people who were technically brilliant but struggled to grasp the potential of the operation, impeded efforts to expand its scope and at times put the program’s secrecy in jeopardy with sloppy tradecraft.

“NSA people traveled in true name, and sent far more people to meetings than CIA felt was advisable from a security standpoint,” the CIA history says. “One of the continuing irritants on the CIA side was this apparent lack of appreciation for traditional [agency] clandestine operational procedures.”

“Between the CIA and the NSA there were always disputes about which of these services had the say,” a senior BND official said in that agency’s history of the operation. “CIA saw itself as the one in charge and emphasized this by having a CIA man posted at the operation in Munich,” the location of a CIA base for overseeing Crypto.

Yesterday, NPR's Fresh Air broadcast an extensive interview with Miller, that ended with this chilling thought:

When you learn something, when you learn about something terrible that's happening - in South America, for instance, many of the governments that were using Crypto machines were engaged in assassination campaigns. Thousands of people were being disappeared, killed. And I mean, they're using Crypto machines, which suggests that the United States intelligence had a lot of insight into what was happening. And it's hard to look back at that history now and see a lot of evidence of the United States going to any real effort to stop it or at least or even expose it.

To me, the history of the Crypto operation helps to explain how U.S. spy agencies became accustomed to, if not addicted to, global surveillance. This program went on for more than 50 years, monitoring the communications of more than 100 countries. I mean, the United States came to expect that kind of penetration, that kind of global surveillance capability. And as Crypto became less able to deliver it, the United States turned to other ways to replace that. And the Snowden documents tell us a lot about how they did that. Instead of working through this company in Switzerland, they turned their sights to companies like Google and Apple and Microsoft and found ways to exploit their global penetration. And so I think it tells us a lot about the mindset and the personalities of spy agencies as well as the global surveillance apparatus that followed the Crypto operation.

Think about Crypto AG when you install Kaspersky Anti-Virus or install a Huwei device on your network. Just think about it.

Dastardly Do-Right?

Via reader ML, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have stepped in it over protests on First Nations land in northern British Columbia:

Canadian federal police had “no legal authority” to make ID checks and searches on activists seeking to block a pipeline project on Indigenous territory, according to newly released correspondence from the force’s oversight body.

The nine-page letter written by Michelaine Lahaie, chair of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, offers scathing criticism of the police’s continued use of tactics against Indigenous people which she had previously warned against.

In recent weeks, demonstrations have sprung up across the country, blockading major railway lines and obstructing access to ports and government buildings.

On Thursday, Canada’s largest rail operator, CN Rail, obtained a court injunction giving it permission to remove a blockade in St-Lambert, a suburb of Montreal.

Al Jezeera has an overview of the issues:

Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, who hold authority over their land, say they were not properly consulted on the 670km (416-mile) Coastal GasLink pipeline. The company says it reached agreements with 20 elected First Nations band councils. In December, the BC Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink an injunction to continue work on the pipeline. 

Following the arrests of Wet'suwet'en land defenders about two weeks ago, tensions have mounted as solidarity actions have grown across the country, with many calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to solve the crisis.

"This is not a new resistance," said [lawyer Sylvia] McAdam, one of the founders of Idle No More, a movement born in 2012 in response to parliamentary bills that threatened Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections.

"I think today we're reaching a boiling point where Indigenous people are so tired of the racism, they're tired of colonisation, they're tired of protecting and defending (rights and land)," she told Al Jazeera.

McAdam said Canada needs to reckon with its past and pay the debts it owes First Nations.

I'll be checking back on this story as it unfolds.

Boy, he sure learned his lesson

In just one more example of the president slipping his leash, thanks to the Republican trolls in the Senate giving him permission to do so, the Justice Department said it found prosecutors recommendations for Roger Stone's sentence "shocking." Three Assistant US Attorneys immediately quit the case:

Jonathan Kravis, one of the prosecutors, wrote in a court filing he had resigned as an assistant U.S. attorney, leaving government entirely. Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, a former member of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team, said he was quitting his special assignment to the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute Stone, though a spokeswoman said he will remain an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore.

Adam Jed, also a former member of Mueller’s team, asked a judge’s permission to leave the case like the others, though gave no indication of resigning his job.

None provided a reason for their decisions.

Uh huh. Thanks, WaPo. ("Three people left their office in haste this afternoon after their work area became engulfed in flames. None provided a reason for their decisions.")

Greg Sargent says the president's strategy is "designed to get you to surrender:"

In the end, many of President Trump’s ugliest degradations — the nonstop lying, the constant efforts to undermine faith in our political system, the relentless delegitimization of the opposition — often seem to converge in some sense on a single, overarching goal:

To get you to give up.

To give up on what, exactly? On the prospects for accountability for Trump, via mediating institutions such as the media, or via other branches of government, or even via the next election, and more broadly, on the very notion that our political system is capable of rendering outcomes that have not been thoroughly corrupted to their core.

Meanwhile:

Fun times. Fun times. At least we can take some comfort in Japanese railway station psychology.

In other news...

The week keeps getting more fun:

For the next 9 months, I'm considering changing the official style of this blog to refer to "Republican trolls" whenever the party comes up. Because at this point, they're really the party of nihilistic trolls. And we have actual problems that need solving.

Britain leaves the EU

At midnight Central European Time about five hours from now (23:00 UTC), the United Kingdom will no longer be a European Union member state.

It will take years to learn whether the bare-majority of voters in the UK who wanted this were right or wrong. My guess: a bit of both, but more wrong than right.

It will also take years to fully understand why the developed world collectively decided to throw out the institutions that brought us the longest period of peace and economic growth in the history of the planet.

It might be like how an airplane actually flies. Until recently, people understood the Bernoulli effect as the mechanism for lift. New research (sub. req.) suggests that lift actually has four different components that work together to keep 200-tonne airplanes airborne.

Increasing wealth inequality, the apex of political power for the Baby Boomer generation (possibly the most selfish and whiny generation in American history), psychological warfare of unprecedented sophistication designed specifically to fracture Western politics...they all go together. And those of us who believe that democratic, liberal government is the best force for making the world a better place despair a little more every day.

In case you didn't have enough to worry about

Via Bruce Schneier, two Harvard undergraduates have demonstrated that the volume of easily-obtainable information from multiple, large-scale data breaches makes targeting people for cybercrime easier than you could have guessed:

The students found a dataset from a breach of credit reporting company Experian, which didn’t get much news coverage when it occurred in 2015. It contained personal information on six million individuals. The dataset was divided by state, so [students Dasha] Metropolitansky and [Kian] Attari decided to focus on Washington D.C. The data included 69 variables—everything from a person’s home address and phone number to their credit score, history of political donations, and even how many children they have.

But this was data from just one leak in isolation. Metropolitansky and Attari wondered if they could identify an individual across all other leaks that have occurred, combining stolen personal information from perhaps hundreds of sources.

There are sites on the dark web that archive data leaks, allowing an individual to enter an email and view all leaks in which the email appears. Attari built a tool that performs this look-up at scale.

“We also showed that a cyber criminal doesn’t have to have a specific victim in mind. They can now search for victims who meet a certain set of criteria,” Metropolitansky said.

For example, in less than 10 seconds she produced a dataset with more than 1,000 people who have high net worth, are married, have children, and also have a username or password on a cheating website. Another query pulled up a list of senior-level politicians, revealing the credit scores, phone numbers, and addresses of three U.S. senators, three U.S. representatives, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and a Cabinet member.

"We're two college students. If someone really wanted to do some damage, I'm sure they could use these same techniques to do something horrible," [Metropolitansky said].

As Schneier points out, "you can be sure that the world's major intelligence organizations have already done all of this."

This is also why we need government regulation or stricter liability laws around data breaches. Experian's sloppiness imperiled six million people, and has probably resulted in crime already. But they have no incentive to fix their issues. In fact, they didn't even reveal the breach for years.

Personal travel "should die:" New Republic

Chuck Thompson understands why we travel, but still thinks we shouldn't:

As evidence piles up about the deleterious impact of global tourism, the travel media charade is starting to feel like the almost comical hypocrisy of Trump surrogates ginning up increasingly contorted justifications on cable news for a worldview that’s becoming more detached from reality by the day.

All motorized transport is a problem—cruise ships generate 21,000 gallons of sewage per day, much of it flushed into the ocean—but the primary offenders are airplanes. According to U.K.-based Earth Changers, another outfit dedicated to “sustainable tourism,” aviation emissions account for 3.2 percent of total global carbon emissions. That figure could rise to 12 percent by 2050.

Short of regulations and fuel taxes on a scale that would restructure the entire global market, people probably aren’t going to stop traveling. More likely, as the world becomes ever more distressed by over-tourism—the 145 million annual overseas trips currently taken by Chinese tourists alone is expected to surpass 400 million by 2030—the travel journalists we rely on for hot tips and insider advice will simply conjure new ways of assuaging our guilt. That may serve the interests of their airline underwriters, but it won’t be doing the planet any favors.

I take no joy in saying so. I like travel as much as you do, and I’m not stopping either. Where’s the line between hypocrite and addict? I suspect we’re all going to find out sooner than we’d like.

And to think, I just got a brand-new passport...