Secrecy Isn’t What It Used To Be

Results of CIA investigations continue to be leaked. Concern was expressed at this norm-breaking. The norms exist for a reason, though. The CIA’s reason for existence is national security.

The President of the United States is acting in conflict with the recommendations of his national security agencies and in conflict with national security. Sending troops to the border for political effect. Sharing another nation’s highly classified intelligence with an adversary. Bragging about a plane that he believes is invisible. Failing to visit the troops in war zones. And more.

This is a conundrum for the national security agencies. The internet and the availability of information are changing their roles too.

Information once of limited availability is now on the internet. Some are free, some for sale. Overhead satellite photos, court documents, historical archives, social media that inadvertently shows significant features. Read more

That NYTimes Facebook Bombshell: “Delay, Deny, Deflect..”

Much as I hate to endorse any opinion of Franklin Foer’s, I have to admit I’m glad I never joined Facebook. (Not being on Facebook has sometimes felt like a minor luxury, because I don’t have an employer who demands it, or social networks that I can’t access via alternate routes. And, yes, I realize they’ve probably mined all my personal information anyways.) Props to the NYTimes reporters:

In just over a decade, Facebook has connected more than 2.2 billion people, a global nation unto itself that reshaped political campaigns, the advertising business and daily life around the world. Along the way, Facebook accumulated one of the largest-ever repositories of personal data, a treasure trove of photos, messages and likes that propelled the company into the Fortune 500.

But as evidence accumulated that Facebook’s power could also be exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe, Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg stumbled. Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view. At critical moments over the last three years, they were distracted by personal projects, and passed off security and policy decisions to subordinates, according to current and former executives.

When Facebook users learned last spring that the company had compromised their privacy in its rush to expand, allowing access to the personal information of tens of millions of people to a political data firm linked to President Trump, Facebook sought to deflect blame and mask the extent of the problem.

And when that failed — as the company’s stock price plummeted and it faced a consumer backlash — Facebook went on the attack.

While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

…[T]rust in the social network has sunk, while its pell-mell growth has slowed. Regulators and law enforcement officials in the United States and Europe are investigating Facebook’s conduct with Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm that worked with Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, opening up the company to fines and other liability. Both the Trump administration and lawmakers have begun crafting proposals for a national privacy law, setting up a yearslong struggle over the future of Facebook’s data-hungry business model…
Read more

The Deadline That Wasn’t


The deadline to renew your health insurance coverage via is NOT today, as I had in my head the past couple of days. But it IS one month from today.  There’s no time like the present to get ‘er done, especially if you find some unfilled time. The site is improved and worked quite well.

I spent part of yesterday signing up – I’m all done, and happy to see a new competitive offering in my marketplace. I went ahead and added VSP to my 2019 plans because I will need some new glasses and I prefer the bells-and-whistles, and those options add up, now don’t they! Without David’s advice from over the months and years, I know I would have made poorer choices, so thanks David!

I also spent some time early Christmas shopping (research and online purchases) and took advantage of the early Thanksgiving Dell pricing to get a new 15″ laptop and docking station. It’s not the greatest computer for all needs, but it should suit me well. It will be nice moving on from my 7 year old, 17″, 8 pound monster laptop. Even though I just upgraded the memory and hard drives early this year, it made sense to buy new, now, before the new anti-Chinese tariffs kick in January 1st (10% goes to 25%).

I will now have a smaller, faster, better machine and can add dual 4k monitors when the time is right (i.e., when the price is right). Coupled with my other new machine (an Intel NUC and associated parts arrived today, getting it working later and tomorrow), I expect to have a much better future with technology. I expect I’ll be using approximately 30% of the power to do the same things, so it’s not just replacing older hardware, it’s wasting less money on electricity bled as heat and then paying more to cool my house in warmer months.  My desktop tower – from 2010 – puts out as much heat as a person, even when just sitting on and doing nothing except awaiting an incoming network connection and otherwise being on. You can feel it in the summer months when it has been on for a few hours versus off; the room temperature in this top-floor office is much warmer. The new NUC sips power, and will do what I need performance-wise. It doesn’t have a gaming-class graphics card, but it’s sufficient to do what I need, and it takes up the space of three stacked packs of Dunhills (my old smoke, back when I was a nicotine junkie).

On that note, I hope you find good deals and neat stuff in your insurance, tech, and non-tech shopping over the next few weeks. I believe this is the first Christmas where I’m far ahead of the game. That’s a good thing as I hope to get outdoors and play a bit in December as I try to develop some better lifestyle and activity habits.

Open Thread!


oh – don’t forget, if you play Fallout 76, drop me a line (I play on Xbox) so we can connect in-game. If you play on PC, let me know so I can put you in contact with other jackal Fallout 76 PC players. Use the Contact a Frontpager form. We need to hang together, there are nasty folks out there. Having my power armor already helps a bit, but since I’m not a high-enough-level, I can’t wear anything but the frame. Ok I lied, I have two sets, but they don’t provide the protection I need, so I’m LFG.

New EU Internet Copyright Bill, Articles 11 and 13

The infosphere is aflame with a new battle in an old war: how copyright should be handled on the Internet.

The Guardian has background:

It is an argument that has drawn in the likes of Paul McCartney, Plácido Domingo and the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as pioneers of the internet from Tim Berners-Lee to the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales.

Fought with hashtags, mailshots, open letters and celebrity endorsements, the battle over the European Union’s draft directive on copyright heads for a showdown this week.

After two years of debate, members of the European parliament will vote on Wednesday on the legislation, which could change the balance of power between producers of music, news and film and the dominant websites that host their work.


Critics claim the proposal will destroy the internet, spelling the end of sharing holiday snaps or memes on Facebook. Proponents are exasperated by such claims, described by German Christian Democrat Axel Voss as “totally wrong” and “fake news”.

Two sections in particular are controversial: Articles 11 and 13. Both sides (both sides!) are being very hyperbolic about these. The gist is that groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and people like Cory Doctorow say these are “internet-destroying regulations,” and the proponents’ response (from what I’ve seen on Twitter) is to paint all opponents as paid industry shills who hate artists. I’ve attempted here to come up with what I hope is an even-handed summary. I Am Not A Lawyer, so please tell me what I’ve gotten wrong.

This is a bit long, so click through if you’re interested. Note of course that these are EU laws, but so is the GDPR, and we’ve all experienced the effects of that. Read more

Who Wrote the Op-Ed: Text-Mining Edition

When the cowardly “Resistance” op-ed came out, my first thought was, Gee, I bet we could get some insights on authorship by doing an automated textual analysis. Because of course that was my first thought. Well, somebody was kind enough to do one for us. Specifically, Michael W. Kearney, a journalism and informatics professor at the University of Missouri. Here is the result; I’ll do a layperson’s explanation below, and then some technical links for those so inclined.

Executive summary: This analysis suggests that it was somebody from the office of the Vice President, the State Department, or the Department of Commerce.

What is this?

  • The y-axis is various Twitter accounts, labeled on the left.
  • The x-axis is the textual correlation.
  • Kearney took up to 3,200 tweets from each of the accounts listed, and ran an analysis on those corpuses. He then compared the resulting numbers to the results of the same analysis run on the text of the op-ed.
  • The line at the top shows, of course, a 1.0 correlation with the op-ed itself. The next-highest are the Twitter accounts for the Vice President, Trump (who we can discount), Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Ross, and the State Department.
  • The analysis includes figures for things like comma usage, sentiment, politeness, word choice, first- and second-person preference, and so on.
  • It probably wasn’t somebody at the Department of Transportation.


  • Update: I assumed this went without saying, but obviously tweets are not an ideal data source; just most-readily usable with what Kearney had laying around, and within a very short time period. 
  • We know from reporting on the Wolff book that anonymous sources sometimes intentionally steal other staffers’ phrasing when providing quotes.
    • This could explain the use of ‘lodestar,’ a strongly Pence-affiliated word.
    • However, it is harder to fake things like comma usage.
  • Higher-ranking officials are likely, in their Twitter communications, to try to sound more like Trump, or in general use more homogenous language.
    • This could explain the ~0.7 cluster of the most important officials and departments.
  • These are not huge volumes of text, and thus the figures are potentially not representative.

Technical Details

Read more

California Bans Cash Bail… But Did they Do It Correctly?

Governor Brown’s signature made it official today: beginning in October 2019, if you are arrested and charged with a crime in California, your pretrial level of freedom will not be determined by your level of wealth. …In theory.

California will become the first state in the nation to completely end cash bail after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a sweeping reform bill Tuesday. It will give judges far more power over who gets released from jail as they await trial.

“Today, California reforms its bail system so that rich and poor alike are treated fairly,” Brown said[…]

It’s certainly removing money as an official part of the equation.

Under Senate Bill 10, Californians arrested and charged with a crime won’t be given the option of putting up money or borrowing it from a bail bond agent. Instead, county courts will use risk assessment tools to help judges determine if a defendant can be safety released before trial.


It’s a huge shift, and one that gives judges far more power over pretrial release decisions.

While nearly everyone involved in the bail fight in California, save for the bail industry, agreed that the current system is unfair and often punishes poor defendants while releasing wealthy defendants even if they pose a public safety, not everyone who supported bail reform is on board with the bill. Some civil rights groups that had championed the issue of bail reform [including the California ACLU] oppose the bill, saying it now gives too much power to judges who may have their own biases.

And not just power to judges. The use of ‘risk assessment tools’ brings to mind ProPublica’s controversial 2016 report on apparent racial bias in COMPAS recidivism-risk software.* And just like the judges, these tools, whether software or some other standardized rubric, are being given a lot of power.

My own internal scorecard sees: a good cause, Republicans opposed, Democrats in favor, and law enforcement officially neutral. That’s something I would usually support. But then, I also usually like the ACLU’s opinions, and such scorecards aren’t always right. What do you folks think?

*Good article on that reporting and the ensuing dispute, plus the overall topic of algorithm bias, at the MIT Technology Review. tl;dr: Impartial systems are by their nature biased. One must take care to make sure the included biases are the intended ones, and that the intended ones are just.

Followup on Yesterday’s Post About the Ransomware Attacks, More Oceanography, Mobile Site


Mea culpa. It looks more and more like the “ransomware” attacks were not after money, but destruction. That, coupled with the timing in Ukraine right before their Constitution Day, would tend to indicate it was Russian operatives that did this. At first, I assumed that a major attack in Ukraine was Russian-sourced, but as the day unfolded with reports from around the world, I surmised that it was actually NK hackers, making it look like an anti-Ukraine operation, and after even more Bitcoin like the previous wave of ransomware. The fact that there was a major dip in Bitcoin value right before the attack started seemed like an echo from a previous attack.

Well, it looks like I was wrong – the attacks had a poorly-designed ransom function that didn’t work, and in reality, the payload destroyed files of certain types without recording the encryption key used. In other words, it was irreversible – the payload was destructive and not ransomware, it was just built to resemble one. So in this case, paying or not paying had the same result – if you contracted it, your files were toast.


Still, the suggestions I made about updating current systems, using good security software, backups, not clicking on ANY link in email, etc. hold. And, should you be running a dead Windows operating system, do plan to upgrade soon – either get a newer pc, upgrade to Windows 10, or install something like Linux Mint or Ubuntu. Right now, you’re a sitting target with adversaries that are evolving while your old machine likely doesn’t have functional anti-virus software, much less modern defenses built into operating systems.



And now an overdue announcement – tomorrow at noon Eastern, we’ll have part 2 of Boussinesque’s Intro to Oceanography, this time on Ocean Acidification. As a huge fan of all forms of seafood, learning of the effects of this trend on plankton, the root source of all life in the sea, has me quite concerned.

It will be interesting, and he’ll be manning staffing in the comments to answer questions, etc.  – thanks to both for nudges



A brief note to mobile site users – expect some changes over the next day or three. I intend to bring a lot of the tweaks and tools from the desktop site to the mobile site, where appropriate. I’m sure some will complain, feel free to do so and I’ll adjust it like always! Should you have any mobile site complaints or suggestions, this is the thread for them; I’ll come back here a few times to see if any late readers have added their 2 cents.




Finally, about 3:30 today I will do some backend tweaking and that may make the site boogered for a few seconds. Should this happen, comments you just submitted might get eaten, so if it’s important, around that time, copy comments to notepad or something in case it doesn’t go through. I’ll comment right before and after the change.

Open thread!