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Anti-terrorism scorecard

Declan McCullagh's Politech list pointed me to an op-ed piece by James Bovard in last Friday's Boston Globe titled The 'terrorist' batting average. It's purpose is to argue against Congress passing any law that would endorse the Bush Administration's use of military tribunals at Guantanamo and other places. I wholeheartedly agree. But it's worth reading even apart from its merit in making this case because it briefly totes up the administration's scorecard on combatting terrorism.

In the six weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the US government rounded up 1,200 people as suspected terrorists, or their supporters.... None of the detainees proved to have links to the attacks.

The federal government has inflated the "No Fly List" to 200,000 names. But the list has nabbed more members of Congress than it has terrorists.... Federal officials make it very difficult to correct the list, thus tormenting citizens who are guilty of nothing more than having a name resembling a name suspected sometime by some government official.

Hundreds of disruptions have occurred at American airports since Sept. 11 after security breaches set off fears of terror attacks.... Though no terrorists have been apprehended, thousands of Americans have been arrested at airports for violating Transportation Security Administration regulations or other rules.

Since 2001, federal officials have carried out wave after wave of arrests and crackdowns on alleged terrorist financing. But none of those apprehended in the United States have been linked to Al Qaeda....

Thousands of Americans have had their phones tapped without a warrant, but none has been charged with supporting or conspiring with Al Qaeda.

Federal officials have charged 10 times as many people in terrorist investigations as they convicted on terrorist-related charges. Bush declared a year ago that "federal terrorism investigations have resulted in charges against more than 400 suspects, and more than half of those charged have been convicted." But only 39 people were convicted on crimes tied to terrorism or national security...

As for the use of military tribunals to try so-called "enemy combatants", the news that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that they were illegal—violating both the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice—left me feeling elated. This feeling was quickly dashed, however, on news that Sen. Arlen Specter, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, (and others) had announced plans to introduce legislation that would legalize these tribunals.


Can I borrow your electron microscope?

Our office manager recently sent the following message to all our employees:


Sent: Thursday, July 20, 2006 9:28 AM


Subject: Petri Dish

This image below showing bacterial growth is from one of the glasses that has been sitting in [our] kitchen sink since last week.

Electron micrograph of some bacteria

When you borrow a glass or mug from the cabinet, please wash and return it to the cabinet when you are finished with it.

Thank you.

It's a small company with some very smart people. One of our senior people—one with multiple degrees from reputable institutions—asked the office manager which glass the sample had been taken from, in case it had been his. Someone else asked a similar question. I learned this after I (jokingly) asked our office manager about the possibility of borrowing her electron microscope sometime; she was afraid I'd taken her seriously too.

Bolton's style at the UN

Yesterday's New York Times has a piece on U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding a hearing this this week on Bolton’s renomination (his was originally a recess appointment, because the administration didn't have the votes for Senate confirmation). At least one former opponent, Senator George V. Voinovich (R) of Ohio, has been won over by Bolton's performance. But many UN diplomats are not happy with Bolton, particularly when he's pushing his personal agenda of reforming the UN. The Times article cites the following incident.

Six ambassadors separately offered similar accounts of an incident in June that they said captured the situation. All were from nations in Europe, the Pacific and Latin America that consider themselves close allies of the United States, and they asked to speak anonymously in commenting on a fellow envoy.

Mr. Bolton that day burst into a packed committee hall, produced a cordless microphone and began to lecture envoys from developing nations about their weakening of a proposal to tighten management of the United Nations, his chief goal.

Gaveled to silence, he threw up his hands and said, "Well, so much for trying something different."

It was not merely rude, the ambassadors said. One recalled that moments later, his BlackBerry flashed a message from another envoy working on management change. "He just busted us apart," it read.

Remind me again: why do they hate us so? [Thanks to today's Capitol Hill Blue.]

Lawyers' group criticizes Bush's signing statements

A task force for the American Bar Association produced a report that is highly critical of the unilateral exceptions President Bush often—over 800 times so far, compared to 600 in all previous administrations combined—makes to bills he signs into law. Calling this report critical seems like an understatement. The ABA's president, Michael Greco, said:

This report raises serious concerns crucial to the survival of our democracy. If left unchecked, the president's practice does grave harm to the separation of powers doctrine, and the system of checks and balances that have sustained our democracy for more than two centuries.

The members of the ABA will consider making this their official policy at their annual meeting next month.

[Thanks to today's Capitol Hill Blue.]

Senator Arlen Specter, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he is preparing legislation that would allow Congress to sue the President and have these signing statements declared unconstitutional.

Bogota, NJ iced coffee ad shock horror scandal probe

The Mayor of Bogota, NJ, Steve Lonegan, is calling for a boycott of McDonald's because he finds a Spanish-language billboard ad of theirs "offensive" and "divisive".

"The true things that bind us together as neighbors and community is [sic] our belief in the American flag and our common language," Lonegan said. "And when McDonald's sends a different message, that we're going to be different now, that causes resentment."

For the record, I am agnostic on this question of the American flag; I think there's a high probability that it's a figment of everyone's imagination.

Meanwhile, over at Language Log, Geoff Pullum is at a loss for words, Bill Poser is not and is organizing an anti-boycott, and Mark Liberman finds some juicy irony/hypocrisy on the Borough's web site. Oh, and Geoff Pullum finally does find some appropriate words and calls for e-mail bombing of the Mayor (something which I am not advocating despite the smug satisfaction I feel at seeing the Mayor's opinions ridiculed). As an added bonus, the transcript of Lonegan's "appearance" on CNN radio's Glenn Beck talk show is here (search for "Bogota" to find the beginning of the relevant segment). You won't want to miss the follow-up call from Mayor McCheese.


Arrested political protestors sue authorities

Read the whole story in the New York Times for details. I hope they win and help bring about an end to this anti-freedom, anti-democratic, anti-American practice.

... Christine Nelson showed up at the Cedar Rapids rally with a Kerry-Edwards button pinned on her T-shirt; Alice McCabe clutched a small, paper sign stating ''No More War.'' What could be more American, they thought, than mixing a little dissent with the bunting and buzz of a get-out-the-vote rally headlined by the president?

Their reward: a pair of handcuffs and a strip search at the county jail....

In the months before the 2004 election, dozens of people across the nation were banished from or arrested at Bush political rallies, some for heckling the president, others simply for holding signs or wearing clothing that expressed opposition to the war and administration policies.

Similar things have happened at official, taxpayer-funded, presidential visits, before and after the election. Some targeted by security have been escorted from events, while others have been arrested and charged with misdemeanors that were later dropped by local prosecutors.

Now, in federal courthouses from Charleston, W.Va., to Denver, federal officials and state and local authorities are being forced to defend themselves against lawsuits challenging the arrests and security policies.

While the circumstances differ, the cases share the same fundamental themes. Generally, they accuse federal officials of developing security measures to identify, segregate, deny entry or expel dissenters....

[Thanks to Dave Farber's IP list.]


Why Information Security is Hard — An Economic Perspective

This is the title of a 2001 paper by Ross Anderson. Bruce Schneier, in the 15 July issue of his Crypto-Gram newsletter, called it a "brilliant article." So I decided to read it. As a long-time programmer with no special expertise in information security, I found it to be extremely interesting. Here are a couple of juicy quotes.

In a survey of fraud against autoteller machines, it was found that patterns of fraud depended on who was liable for them. In the USA, if a customer disputed a transaction, the onus was on the bank to prove that the customer was mistaken or lying; this gave US banks a motive to protect their systems properly. But in Britain, Norway and the Netherlands, the burden of proof lay on the customer: the bank was right unless the customer could prove it wrong. Since this was almost impossible, the banks in these countries became careless. Eventually, epidemics of fraud demolished their complacency. US banks, meanwhile, suffered much less fraud; although they actually spent less money on security than their European counterparts, they spent it more effectively.

A different kind of incentive failure surfaced in early 2000, with distributed denial of service attacks against a number of high-profile web sites. These exploit a number of subverted machines to launch a large coordinated packet flood at a target. Since many of them flood the victim at the same time, the traffic is more than the target can cope with, and because it comes from many different sources, it can be very difficult to stop.... While individual computer users might be happy to spend $100 on anti-virus software to protect themselves against attack, they are unlikely to spend even $1 on software to prevent their machines being used to attack Amazon or Microsoft.

You may have to read the paper to see what this next one has to do with information security.

A very common objective is differentiated pricing. This is usually critical to firms that price a product or service not to its cost but to its value to the customer. This is familiar from the world of air travel: you can spend $200 to fly the Atlantic in coach class, $2000 in business class or $5000 in first. Some commentators are surprised by the size of this gap; yet a French economist, Jules Dupuit, had already written in 1849:

[I]t is not because of the few thousand francs which would have to be spent to put a roof over the third-class carriage or to upholster the third-class seats that some company or other has open carriages with wooden benches . . . What the company is trying to do is prevent the passengers who can pay the second-class fare from traveling third class; it hits the poor, not because it wants to hurt them, but to frighten the rich . . . And it is again for the same reason that the companies, having proved almost cruel to the third-class passengers and mean to the second-class ones, become lavish in dealing with first-class customers. Having refused the poor what is necessary, they give the rich what is superfluous.

FISA & Hepting v AT&T

Hepting v AT&T is the name of the EFF suit I blogged about yesterday and FISA is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that "prescribes procedures for requesting judicial authorization for electronic surveillance and physical search of persons engaged in espionage or international terrorism against the United States on behalf of a foreign power," according the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). As it happens, FAS has a Project on Government Secrecy, on behalf of which Steven Aftergood produces an e-mail newsletter called Secrecy News. In today's issue he made some interesting points in connection with FISA and Hepting v AT&T [emphasis added].


The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 1978 law that is supposed to govern surveillance of foreign intelligence targets within the U.S., has had an unusually dynamic legislative history. It has been modified in a hundred ways on at least a dozen occasions.

Despite the demonstrated adaptability of this statute, the Bush Administration chose to conduct its NSA Terrorist Surveillance Program outside of the legally binding FISA framework and has not sought to amend it....

"Each time the Administration has come to Congress and asked to modernize FISA, Congress has said 'yes'," [Rep. Jane Harman, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee] recalled....

She asked the Congressional Research Service to provide a listing of
prior amendments to the FISA, which turned out to be a 29 page


... The court's rejection of unconditional judicial deference is
noteworthy. Although the executive branch's assertion of the state
secrets privilege has been denied on at least four occasions in the
past, those denials seem to have been based on technical defects or
procedural failings rather than a substantial judicial assessment of
the merits of the claim.

In other words this was the first time (out of something like 60 times since it was first used, in 1953) a court has ever denied the government's assertion of the state secrets privilege on anything but a technicality.


Pendleton Hall's Architect

I recently saw the film My Architect, a documentary directed by one of two illegitimate children fathered by the well-known architect Louis Kahn, who also fathered a child by his wife. In it the director tries to find and understand his father, who died bankrupt, alone and without identification in Penn Station in New York City in 1974. I enjoyed it, despite (or perhaps in part because of) the unsettling juxtaposition of the beauty and power of Kahn's work as an artist against the heart-breaking consequences of his choices in human relationships. A lot of energy in the film goes into explaining the latter, but no one seems willing to state what seems obvious to me: it's the result of Kahn's philandering, and there would have been a lot less pain in this story if he had remained faithful to his wife. Of course, the irony is that without his philandering, we wouldn't have had this movie.

Entrance to Pendleton Hall

As a side note, I noticed a striking resemblance to Louis Kahn's architectural style of one of the buildings I took two years of college classes in—Pendleton Hall at Bryn Athyn College (known as the Academy of the New Church College while I was there). At the least, whoever designed this building must have been significantly influenced by Kahn. I tried googling to find out who that architect was, but without success. Anyone know?

Terabyte storage for the home

Seagate has announced this new disk drive, priced at less than 90¢ per gigabyte. It doesn't seem that long ago that I was pricing disk storage at cost per megabyte (which in this case would be less than one tenth of a penny).

Restoring Faith: a [Hopefully] Continuing Saga

U.S. District Court Judge for Northern California has turned down a request by U.S. government officials to dismiss a lawsuit against AT&T by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) alleging that AT&T broke the law when it allowed the government to monitor telephone and e-mail conversations. U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte had said that the case "could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States."

In his 72-page ruling, Judge Vaughn Walker noted that

"... [T]he very subject matter of this action is hardly a secret.... [P]ublic disclosures by the government and AT&T indicate that AT&T is assisting the government to implement some kind of surveillance program.... The compromise between liberty and security remains a difficult one, but dismissing this case at the outset would sacrifice liberty for no apparent enhancement of security."


Losing Faith: a Continuing Saga

On Monday Alberto Gonzales told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that President Bush had personally denied security clearances needed by a Justice Department ethics unit (the Office of Professional Responsibility) that would have allowed them to look into the role that government lawyers played in approving the warrantless eavesdropping program that monitors Americans' international and domestic telephone calls and emails without approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court. On the face of it, this kind of surveillance is defined by FISA as a felony. The OPR investigation had been undertaken at the request of members of Congress.

I consider this another egregious (and personal) seizing of power by the President of the United States.

[Thanks to Michael Geist's Internet Law News.]

Chaos <—> Order

On the way to work today, I saw a pickup truck with a nicely painted slogan across its tailgate:

We bring order to chaos

I never got into a position where I could see any logo or other indication of whose slogan this was. When I got to my computer, I googled the phrase and got 72 hits. Most of them appear to be connected to some kind of pitch, such as this one from Direct Marketing Solutions, Inc.: "Basically we bring order to chaos and improve your ROI in the process."

No surprise. But it occurred to me when I first saw this slogan that one could also make a virtue of bringing chaos to order. Some art does this. So I also googled for the converse slogan, "We bring chaos to order." Ah, three hits.

The first was an essay titled "Goethean Science: Bringing Chaos to Order by Looking Phenomena Right in the 'I'", written by Tom Mellett, of Vanderbilt University's Department of Physics. Here's a sample line from the introduction.

Might we not see the appearance of Mephistopheles to Faust as the appearance of chaos and complexity to modern science and academia which is equally bored with the inane intellectual ordering and gross oversimplifying of the universe we all inhabit together?

The second was from a message board for Who's a Rat: Real Life — Real People (it claims to be the "largest online database of informants and agents). Here is a verbatim transcrikpt of how that particular message starts.

Yeah man this thread is not for the faint hearted. There are few members in here who claim that are been followed, harassed, stalked, attacked and no one believes them. Just like the National Investigations Committee on Aerial (U.F.O.) Phenomena (NICAP) No one believe us.

WE ARE the not-so-proud, the not-so-few, the ones that are too many, we bring chaos to order. We are the outcasts, the black sheep's, the ones with a scarlet letter. We are the lowest, lowliest, meaningless, end-users, -friendly users- of all this "Drug War" mess.

The third is a picture of a nuclear explosion titled "Welcome to" and captioned "We Bring Chaos To Order!"

All I can say is that I seem to be keeping some pretty weird company in my head!


Forensic investigation into the fate of Senator Stevens's waylaid e-mail Internet

Very funny! Found via Bill Poser's blog entry from today's Language Log.


How to transport dangerous chemicals on airline flights

It's nothing more than a way to exploit stupid airport security. I learned this trick from Ole Jacobsen, Editor and Publisher of Cisco System's The Internet Protocol Journal. He submitted a brief trip report to Dave Farber's IP list, the complete body of which I reproduce here:

Returning from Montreal yesterday my carry-on bag was searched and a
small plastic spray bottle with deodorant was confiscated since it had
no label on it. I've traveled all over the world with this same
bottle for some 10 years so I was rather surprised to learn that it
isn't a legal item. The screeners made no attempt to determine what
was actually in the bottle. Obviously, if you want to take something
more dangerous than deodorant all you have to do is put it in a
container with a label. It's clearly easier to make stupid rules than
to actually try to prevent dangerous material from getting on

This reminded me that when I travel, I put all the daily medications I'm going to need in a small unlabeled pill box. I recently learned from our local chief of police that this is a violation of U.S. drug laws, even when they're just sitting on my dresser in my own home! This is not stupid airport security; however it does bring to mind several maxims:

The more laws and order are made prominent,

the more thieves and robbers there will be. — Lao Tzu

A multitude of laws in a country is like a great number of physicians,

a sign of weakness and malady. — François Voltaire

The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws. — Publius Cornelius Tacitus

The more laws, the more offenders. — Thomas Fuller

Laws are the spider's webs which, if anything small falls into them they ensnare it,

but large things break through and escape. — Solon

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