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Bruce Sterling on Manning and the blast shack.
August 4, 2013 7:12 AM   Subscribe

"This scene is straight outta Nikolai Gogol." Chairman Bruce reflects on Manning, surveillance, the history of computing, the character of cypherpunks, the Russian and American states, and more.
posted by doctornemo (51 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
Even the electronic civil lib contingent is lying to themselves. They’re sore and indignant now, mostly because they weren’t consulted — but if the NSA released PRISM as a 99-cent Google Android app, they’d be all over it. Because they are electronic first, and civil as a very distant second.

heh.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:20 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Personal computers can have users, but social media has livestock.
posted by fatbird at 7:29 AM on August 4, 2013 [24 favorites]


I've been imaging an alternate reality where the NSA protects America by helping Microsoft, and Apple, and all the other guys fix all the damn security holes in their software thereby making us more resistant to net-based attacks.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:30 AM on August 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


I've been imaging an alternate reality where the NSA protects America...

In Rand McNally, people wear hats on their feet and hamburgers eat people.
posted by Behemoth at 7:32 AM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've been imaging an alternate reality where the NSA protects America by helping Microsoft, and Apple, and all the other guys fix all the damn security holes in their software thereby making us more resistant to net-based attacks.

This version of America may possibly exist; you just don't know about it.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:33 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


What about those truly ferocious coders who wrote Stuxnet

Speaking of that, which organ/dept of the USG would be involved? DoD? CIA? NSA?
posted by Gyan at 7:35 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


That is to say, the NSA cares about particular backdoors, but it is also very concerned with security and stopping hackers. If NSA agents are finding holes in Windows, it is conceivable that hey are telling MS about those holes. That isn't something that would be advertised though, so it certainly fits into the realm of "What if..."
posted by Going To Maine at 7:36 AM on August 4, 2013


That piece is awful. Rambling, free-associative, lazy, full of pseudo-knowing asides (Monica Lewinsky??) pretty much unreadable. It gives the impression of something churned out quickly to meet a deadline.

I get the impression from this, and another piece by Sterling on the Assange thing, that Sterling is deeply envious of people like Assange and Snowden and very much wants to assert the relevance of his own status as a wise elder of technology in making sense of these events. In his essay on Wikileaks he affected a "melancholia," a been there, done that attitude. I detect a desperate tone to Sterling's essays about Assange and Snowden, desperate to insert himself into this unfolding history. Unfortunately events have outpaced his insights and he seems to have little interesting to say.
posted by Unified Theory at 7:42 AM on August 4, 2013 [22 favorites]


I have never heard of Nikoalai Gogol (unless "Gogol Bordello" is named after him, then only tangentially, and unknowingly), but yesterday on OKCupid, someone mentioned him and now, here he is again. Curse you Baader-Meinhoff!!!
posted by symbioid at 7:46 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the Linux world, NSA released SELinux which is harder to break into, but just different enough from conventional *nix setup that it didn't really catch on (though distros use or provide various elements of it as options).
posted by idiopath at 7:47 AM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


I see so when someone "asks you to write about Cablegate" it's you "desperately trying to insert yourself". It may have been churned out quickly to meet a deadline. It's also his style, is it not? It's been a while since I read his blog, but IIRC, he's always sort of been this way. I don't particularly see any ego here, just his perspective, not sure what axe you're grinding, but whatever. So far from what I'm reading it's fine to me. I don't agree we should all be laughing, he has too much confidence (if I'm reading this right) that public outrage might do something, or maybe he's just laughing at the egg-on-the-face of it all and has resigned himself to it in the long run. I don't know, but whatever it is, it doesn't seem particularly self-aggrandizing to me.
posted by symbioid at 7:53 AM on August 4, 2013 [9 favorites]


The essay is kind of goofy but damn that picture is great!
posted by bukvich at 7:56 AM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ugh. That reads . . . Old. The blithe assumption that somebody's going to pardon Manning is almost callous, especially since he's the only decent figure in this narrative with the sex creep and the guy who knowingly joined the NSA, then decided maybe he felt bad about that. Manning is the only one who was trapped by an axis of military obligation and institutionalized discrimination into a role he didn't want. He did what he could to salvage some greater good from it and was horribly betrayed. Snowden could have just not fucking showed up for work one day.
posted by mobunited at 8:11 AM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


That reads . . . Old.

What?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:18 AM on August 4, 2013


I like this from a different Bruce.
posted by mkb at 8:18 AM on August 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Incoherent. I used to say that Sterling was a better essayist than novelist, but perhaps I should revise my opinion.

This is a human rights issue, not a technology issue: the tech will be different tomorrow. Human rights are created when an abusive state is brought to book by those who have been abused: after that point, the reformed state will start to grow more abusive again until the cycle repeats. Part of that rekindled abuse is an attack on human rights - we see that here in the UK right now, where the government frames such rights as a unjust restriction on the state's rights to do what it likes to people it doesn't.

That in itself is not worrying: it will happen, sure as drinking beer gets you drunk. Similarly, that the NSA, the NRO, GCHQ and all the other abbreviations are busy spying transnationally to the limit of their ability under the cloak of secrecy doesn't bother me. Spies are gonna spy, and what do you expect to be happening after seventy years of uninterrupted post-BRUSA-agreement anglophone backscratching and nearly fifty of Moore's Law?

The worry is that there is nothing but incoherence set against all that. Sterling's essay is exemplary: an outraged, despairing catalogue of sins that shotguns little balls of bile-scented bon mots into our heads in the hope that... what, exactly? From the wounds will spew forth armies? But even that's better than we get from the career politicians in the UK and America, for whom the term supine is far too vigorous.

Polemicists are essential. But they must be in the service of coherence, and coherence must be in the service of a goal, and a goal must be built from solid bricks of principle. Human rights are those bricks, and we need bricklayers.
posted by Devonian at 8:21 AM on August 4, 2013 [10 favorites]


The blithe assumption that somebody's going to pardon Manning is almost callous

Seems pretty likely, when it's not embarrassing to do so. The point about how they've managed to make him 50ft high through their own actions seems pretty spot on as well.
posted by Artw at 8:23 AM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


the sex creep and the guy who knowingly joined the NSA

Yeah, but I feel like this is part of the over-arching point Sterling is putting forth. He's not saying they're perfect, he's actually saying the opposite.

The point is that Sterling is more hopeful now than he was back in 2010 because the government is actually taking hits from these guys.

They're flawed. In Assanges case he is very possibly not a good person in the least. Manning, a low ranking private who, as Sterling notes, is not a power player. Snowden, as you suggest, seems to have a kind of wishy-washy, Hollywood idea of when to become a good person.

But Mr. Creepy, Mr. Powerless, and Mr. Head in the Clouds have all managed to make the US look foolish and begin conversations that may change how things are.

If these guys can manage to do this much, maybe there IS hope.
posted by sendai sleep master at 8:37 AM on August 4, 2013 [15 favorites]


Does Bruce Sterling read a bit like Slavoj Žižek to anybody else as well? (Well, Žižek with the Yugoslavian Lacanian Marxist background replaced by Texan cyberpunk libertarianism.)
posted by acb at 8:43 AM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Speaking of that, which organ/dept of the USG would be involved? DoD? CIA? NSA?

Doesn't the US Air Force, for some reason, have a “cyber command” of some sort that does voodoo in cyberspace and stuff?
posted by acb at 8:45 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


If Snowden had gotten things his own way, he’d be writing earnest op-ed editorials in Hong Kong now, in English, while dining on Kung Pao Chicken.

The Russians, by contrast, know all about dissidents like Snowden. The Russians have always had lots of Snowdens, heaps. They know that Snowden is one of these high-minded, conscience-stricken, act-on-principle characters who is a total pain in the ass.

They're flawed. In Assanges case he is very possibly not a good person in the least. Manning, a low ranking private who, as Sterling notes, is not a power player. Snowden, as you suggest, seems to have a kind of wishy-washy, Hollywood idea of when to become a good person.

But Mr. Creepy, Mr. Powerless, and Mr. Head in the Clouds have all managed to make the US look foolish and begin conversations that may change how things are.


I feel like I've just had the best shower ever, except for this part:

Even the electronic civil lib contingent is lying to themselves. They’re sore and indignant now, mostly because they weren’t consulted — but if the NSA released PRISM as a 99-cent Google Android app, they’d be all over it. Because they are electronic first, and civil as a very distant second.

No, they'd probably complain endlessly about it being 99 cents
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:47 AM on August 4, 2013 [12 favorites]


I'd bet that Manning will die in a supermax cell. And Assange will probably as well. He'll be handed over to the US, either by Sweden, the UK or, most probably, Australia (where the UK deports him to once legal proceedings in the UK are done) as soon as he outstays his welcome in the Ecuadorian embassy. Which could happen on election of a pro-Washington “moderate” or earlier.
posted by acb at 8:49 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


with the sex creep and the guy who knowingly joined the NSA, then decided maybe he felt bad about that.

Conveniently timed charges from women who originally weren't seeking to press charges at all on the one hand, and the guy who knows more about what happens at extraordinary rendition black sites than you do who walked away from a very cushy career that was working out very well indeed for him and at the very least ended the possibility of life as he had known it. Glib smears from the 32nd Armchair Keyboard Division don't stack very high next to that.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:49 AM on August 4, 2013 [28 favorites]


Even Assange's version of events is creepy. That's why I said "creep." He could be a perfectly law abiding sex creep.

And yeah, I guess I'm an awful person for not working for the NSA, somehow. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go punch a baby in the face to acquire the right to be compassionate toward infants.
posted by mobunited at 8:58 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


[Just heading this off - let's not turn this into a debate over the Assange rape charges; thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:58 AM on August 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


Hey as long as we're making these other dudes morally equivalent to the queer kid who couldn't escape the military and was betrayed by a confidante to be abused and imprisoned I guess that's awesome because cypherpunks! Or something.
posted by mobunited at 9:02 AM on August 4, 2013


I'm still waiting for some chest-thumpingly patriotic country singer to write The Ballad Of Adrian Lamo.
posted by acb at 9:04 AM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


How would you suggest that Edward Snowden should have gone about exposing these abuses, taking as your starting point being too noble to work for them in the first place?
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:05 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's accounts of his creepiness outside of the rape allegations, which his own statements pretty much back up anyway. Unless you're writing some dumb hagiography it's found going to come up.

The US making a big deal out of Manning rather than quickly processing gives Assange room plenty of room for tales of persecution but the story that Assange will be extradited from Sweden but not the UK" doesn't make any sense whatsoever. The US isn't exactly shy about saying when it wants someone you'll note that Glen Greenwald doesn't have to mysteriously hide in some embassy after doing basically the same thing (god, he wishes).
posted by Artw at 9:05 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wow this is great. That picture sure has the anti leaking little authoritarians in a tizzy, doesn't it?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:08 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


...the National Security Agency is exceedingly dangerous to democracy. Really, it is. The NSA clearly violates all kinds of elementary principles of constitutional design. The NSA is the very antithesis of transparency, and accountability, and free elections, and free expression, and separation of powers ― in other words, the NSA is a kind of giant, grown-up, anti-Wikileaks. And it always has been.

This pull quote that he has from a previous essay of his is right on the mark, and really is the heart of the matter in this whole mess. But of course we probably won't talk about that in this thread, because instead we must listen once again to all the anti whistleblowers incessantly tell us what bad people the whistleblowers are and why they suck as human beings. Because that's the big issue here, amirite?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:36 AM on August 4, 2013 [12 favorites]


I know people who, if you mention Martin Luther King to them, respond "you know he had affairs, right?" Because that's the important thing. OMG, open your eyes, the truth is we were played by a womanizer. Changing the narrative is easy when you have so much comfortable, complacent help.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:39 AM on August 4, 2013 [27 favorites]


Changing the narrative is easy when you have so much comfortable, complacent help.

If we require that only perfectly upstanding, morally flawless people are allowed to challenge an evil status quo, the evil status quo always wins.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:54 AM on August 4, 2013 [20 favorites]


How would you suggest that Edward Snowden should have gone about exposing these abuses, taking as your starting point being too noble to work for them in the first place?

It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Snowden had released emails from, say, five people. 3 regular folks with no public office or life and two CongressCritters. Maybe throw a TV anchor in there to make it six.

Having actual examples of the information that everyone could see might have generated more of an outcry from the general public.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:01 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


> That piece is awful. Rambling, free-associative, lazy, full of pseudo-knowing asides (Monica Lewinsky??) pretty much unreadable. It gives the impression of something churned out quickly to meet a deadline.

It's a bit rambly, but like most of Sterling's essays there's a germ of insight, even if sometimes the insight is in finding a way to plainly state a common knowledge that nobody's managed to abstract in a useful way. So here's my attempt at summarizing his opinions (which are not necessarily my opinions):

A. There are three independent entities: Manning, Snowden, and Assange. There are two global entities of interest (for the purpose of this essay): The U.S. intel system and the Russian intel system.
A.1. Manning had unwittingly sacrificed himself to a cause. (The Monica Lewinsky aside is a loaded analogy of people in power using relatively powerless people as tools; once he's no longer a useful target of institutional ire, Sterling argues, he'll be forgotten by the authorities and public sentiment and, some long years from now when he's irrelevant to everybody then in power, he'll be released.)
A.2. Snowden had, romantically, knowingly sacrificed himself to a cause.
A.3. Assange bears the outward signs of unwittingly sacrificing himself to a cause, but since he had already chosen to live his life on unusual terms, leading a hostage's life in the Ecuadorean embassy has been no sacrifice.
A.4. The relevant decision makers of the U.S. intel system have repeatedly done a poor job of putting themselves in the shoes of Assange and Snowden when trying to anticipate them.
A.5. The Russian intel system is content to do nothing visible and instead just sit on their heels and watch the show. All three characters seem to be doing the public sabotage they could only wish for; Snowden's welcome on their soil for as long as he doesn't take an interest in his new host's bureaucratic workings, and the Russian intel system is disinclined to take him under their wing for obvious reasons.

B. The Internet has not been the liberating force we were expecting, and for reasons we didn't expect. Principally: That the spymasters, who already know a thing or two about clandestine communications, have access to all the tools we have, plus the funding and back channels we will never have. And the means to do with them what we could never get away with.

C. The NSA is, in effect, a sockpuppet, the convenient public front for the U.S. intel system; it is allowed to be publicly pilloried, visibly constrained, and so on -- because it was only really useful when it was unacknowledged, black ops. Once it became exposed, once it got too large, essential services were instead provided by as-yet-unacknowledged programs. In this way, the American intel system can be publicly regulated while its essential services continue without restraints. *(This is why I'm using "intel system" -- a term Sterling doesn't use -- uniformly in this summary; Sterling seems to use "NSA" flexibly, but when not referring to it anecdotally he seems to be addressing the entirety of the U.S. intelligence system/network/community/industry, of which the NSA is the most publicly known. Keeping them separate here ought to help clarify things.)
C.1. Similar things go on in Russia and China, if not worse. The citizens of those countries harbor no illusions that the spymasters run the state, either by fact or proxy, while most people in the U.S. are still deluded.
C.2. China and Russia probably do a better job of keeping any commercial subcontractors subservient to their needs, rather than the other way around. Actually, that's my opinion, not his -- he seems to believe American corporate interests are in thrall.

D. Manning, Snowden and Assange are disruptive beyond their obvious impact to global intelligence networks (principally the U.S. intel system). Only partially because of the actual actions they've performed and those consequences. Principally, by their accomplishments they reveal the systems are not invulnerable, and their continuing existence as provocateurs -- or at the very least, symbols to rally around -- incite other activists, and their continued newsworthiness continues to shed public attention on parts of the government which would rather not be watched.
D.1. Which leads back to the NSA being a convenient scapegoat; well-funded, responsible for just enough things to justify its outrageous budget, but no longer responsible for the seriously intrusive shit.
D.2. And also leads back to a system existing primarily to ensure the system's continued existence; any revolutionary change in how the military/intelligence/industrial systems work will only, at best, be momentary; after which new systems will arise which are exactly like the old ones.
D.3. And also leads back to the fragile humanity of Manning, Snowden, and Assange; as individuals they're kind of insufferable and personally incompetent for various reasons. But like Richard Stallman, another notorious misfit, their personal characteristics can be both liabilities in the real world and essential strengths needed for changing the world. Which seems at odds with point D.2., but a man can dream.
posted by ardgedee at 10:08 AM on August 4, 2013 [30 favorites]


Unfortunately, the writer falls into the mainstream journalist's trap of making the piece more about his personal feelings about the common and caricatured narratives for the main players (Assange, Bradley, Snowden), and less about the important consequences of their actions on restarting a public conversation about civil liberties. It perhaps speaks to the writer's reduced relevance to matters related to technology and civil liberties, writing a piece that might be better suited for The New Yorker or another high-class, celeb-obsessed tabloid.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:46 AM on August 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Unfortunately, the writer falls into the mainstream journalist's trap of making the piece more about his personal feelings about the common and caricatured narratives for the main players

Well, this is Bruce Sterling we're talking about. He's hardly putting himself out there as an objective and disinterested commentator.
posted by ambivalentic at 11:10 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


'Can't stomach all those nasty lookin' bitter and repugnant truths on your plate right now, darlin'? Here, let me spread some Down Home Texas Metaphor Mix sauce on 'em and they'll go down mighty easy.'

And they do; despite patches of silliness, this is a brilliant essay which achieves a density of fact and implication I would have scarcely believed possible-- and some of the individual metaphors are truly dazzling:
Computers were invented as crypto-ware and spy-ware and control-ware. That’s what Alan Turing was all about. That’s where computing came from, that’s the scene’s original sin, and also its poisoned apple.
posted by jamjam at 12:24 PM on August 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Blazecock, you're complaining about a novelist writing about characters and feelings, rather than taking the impartial and sterile analytical view of, say, The Economist?

That's like complaining that the hardware store is out of bread.

I think that Sterling is actually writing an interesting analytical piece using the narrative of characters and motivations. Snowden represents those inside the spy community, Manning a marginalized member, and Assange the loyal opposition, cypherpunks, who Sterling says are very similar in outlook, aside from the pro-spying part, with the crypto people at NSA.

These three people, from three very different angles, have managed to pull the US, UK, and other allies into a conversation they very much did not want to have. Where we go from here, who knows, but it's amazing that we're here at all.

And the side point, that Wikileaks was more useful in helping Snowden remain free than say the EFF, or France, or Germany (just two countries of many which might have an interest in pushing back on PRISM) ... that's fascinating too.
posted by zippy at 1:23 PM on August 4, 2013 [7 favorites]



And the side point, that Wikileaks was more useful in helping Snowden remain free than say the EFF, or France, or Germany (just two countries of many which might have an interest in pushing back on PRISM) ... that's fascinating too.


If France and Germany pushed back, they, or those in their ranks who made the decision, could expect to pay a heavy price. (If the NSA knows everything about everyone, they could ruin the career of any politician or public figure, if not result in them facing criminal prosecution or needing to hide from powerful enemies.) Assange, however, has nothing more to lose; he is a dead man walking, whom the world's sole hegemonic power has declared to be enemy of the state, and intends to crush to incredible densities—a promise it is capable of delivering on. He can afford to piss off the US, as he has already lost everything he had to lose in that regard.
posted by acb at 1:57 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think it's interesting to examine why revelations of shady intelligence agency behavior never seems to really go anywhere. Remember ECHELON? PRISM seems to be just a chip off that old block. It seems like we can never decide if these programs are a terrible civil liberties infringement (which they might be, 49% of the time at least, apparently) or just a shrug-and-move-on NSA-gonna-NSA page D sideshow.

It occurs to me that we can't really decide because nobody seems to know if they actually work (or work often enough to be worth the price, and I'm not talking about dollars). The people ostensibly charged with oversight couldn't find their asses with google maps and both hands. They lack the ability to understand the technologies involved and the political clout to push for answers to hard questions.

On the other hand, a lot of tech-savvy people kind of doubt that they're particularly effective at all. If you've worked in the technology field for any length of time at all, you know how hard it is to extract any kind of signal from that amount of noise. It' not impossible, it's just very hard, and all the best engineers probably would rather work in Silicon Valley than for some byzantine spy agency (I'm reminded of that one scene from Good Will Hunting here; Snowden strikes me as the version of that movie where Hunting does join the NSA for a while before having an attack of conscience). The nature of bureaucracy being what it is, NSA digital spying is most likely only generating enough intel to justify its own existence, not least because people motivated to avoid it (e.g., Al-Qaeda cells and Boston bombers) can successfully do so without herculean effort. Good crypto is easy to obtain and not all THAT hard to use.
posted by axiom at 2:18 PM on August 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have never heard of Nikoalai Gogol (unless "Gogol Bordello" is named after him, then only tangentially, and unknowingly)...

Ugh... languagehat must be rolling over in his grave.
posted by Behemoth at 2:36 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


One reason, axiom, is that neither political party is committed to addressing the issue. So there isn't party traction, at least in the US.
posted by doctornemo at 2:47 PM on August 4, 2013


> all the best engineers probably would rather work in Silicon Valley than for some byzantine spy agency

There are a lot of brilliant engineers who prefer an extremely orderly, zero-fault-tolerance environment. They're drawn to NASA or other government offices, or military weapons engineering, or medical device companies, or the government, or research organizations. The features-driven commercial software development world, shipping cascades of good-enough code and producing megabucks windfall for the occasional lucky coder, can be sexy to some people, but not everybody.
posted by ardgedee at 2:54 PM on August 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


The nature of bureaucracy being what it is, NSA digital spying is most likely only generating enough intel to justify its own existence, not least because people motivated to avoid it (e.g., Al-Qaeda cells and Boston bombers) can successfully do so without herculean effort. Good crypto is easy to obtain and not all THAT hard to use.

I suspect it's not about reading the communications of individuals using PGP on their machines. That seems too stuck in the old way of laboriously following individuals, and if you care enough about someone to do that, you can install a keylogger on their laptop when they're not looking or follow them with a TEMPEST rig. The PRISM/XKeyscore thing seems to be more of a bulk operation, working on the aggregate of billions of individuals; i.e., traffic analysis and social network analysis, identifying individuals who are likely to be connected to persons of interest or exhibit behaviours that may make them interesting, and then following up on those. Some of the things that identify people as being of interests may be obvious (A's mobile phone was recorded in the vicinity of an anti-capitalist protest; A has been exchanging emails recently with people connected to a radical imam; &c.), and others may be very obscure, machine-learned functions of hundreds of innocuous variables which no human analyst would think of correlating, but which together are a predictor of something more of interest (i.e., in the way that Google's anti-fraud algorithms identified a Chinese car-theft ring and a supermarket coupon scheme discovered that a teenage girl was pregnant before her parents knew). What's done with these individuals once they're identified (start reading their email, switch on the microphone in their phones, bribe or coerce them into acting as informers/agents or otherwise use them to bring force to bear against a target) is a matter of policy.
posted by acb at 2:55 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


The PRISM/XKeyscore thing seems to be more of a bulk operation, working on the aggregate of billions of individuals

Sure, of course it's different, but there are ways to mask your patterns against this type of analysis as well. VPNs and onion routing are just a starting point. Obviously a more sophisticated threat model makes the counter harder to pull off, but it's not at all outside the realm of possibility.

If you've ever used any of these machine-learned algorithms before (I have), you know that it's often nigh on impossible to discover why they are spitting out the answers they are, because they don't reason in a way that humans recognize. You train up a model and evaluate its performance against a known test set, and if it's good enough, you then set it free on data in the wild and it gives its answers, which may or may not actually be correct. This necessarily means that you never can be sure that your algorithm doesn't have some blind spot (note, that same can be said of more traditional methods of identifying threats as well). For every time an algorithm hits a home run and identifies a car theft ring, there's a time or two where it just completely derps it and output the opposite of the correct answer. I bet there are many more man-hours spent following up threat identifications where the investigatee turns out to be completely innocent than the opposite.

There are a lot of brilliant engineers who prefer an extremely orderly, zero-fault-tolerance environment.

I'm not saying that categorically all NSA engineers are bad ones or anything like that. I just mean that there are lots of political reasons not to want to join the NSA as well as non-political Google-is-glitzier reasons, which compound the situation for NSA HR. I read a story last week about how part of the fallout from Snowden et al. is a more icy reception to government types at black hat conferences. I'm sure that pendulum will swing back some over time.
posted by axiom at 3:17 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


> I have never heard of Nikoalai Gogol

You will. I just got first round funding for Gogol+, the social site for the dead. (And undead! Undead welcome too.)
posted by jfuller at 4:17 PM on August 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


Artw wrote: the story that Assange will be extradited from Sweden but not the UK" doesn't make any sense whatsoever

I used to think that too. What changed my mind was the way the USA leaned on the governments of at least four European countries to force down a plane carrying the Bolivian president. So now, I think that the only way he's not going to be kidnapped by the USA is if he secretly boards a plane that flies directly to his destination.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:47 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Kidnapped or legally extradited (possibly under collective-security treaty provisions, but still not quite extraordinary rendition)?
posted by acb at 4:58 AM on August 5, 2013




Danny O'Brien: On the Thoughts of Chairman Bruce
posted by homunculus at 9:29 PM on August 6, 2013


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