TOC Cultural misunderstandings Your Turn

July 6, 2010

The United States are unhappy with the situation in Afghanistan. According to Alissa J. Rubin, "Representative Nita M. Lowey, [...] the chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid, announced she was cutting most of the $4.9 billion in foreign aid [...] until the country got a handle on corruption" (*). She is not alone to be in need of a refresher course on cultural misunderstandings.

Imagine the following movie scenario. Having failed to stem the violent social unrest provoked by what became known in hindsight as the Greater Depression, the United States have been forced to become a ward of the United Nations. Its nation rebuilding program going nowhere fast, the relevant UNO committe chair declares it cannot succeed "until the country gets a handle on corruption", the quote providing the realistic touch.

For America lobbying is indeed a way of life. In Eric Lichtblau's portrait of the Podesta Group, the subtitle reads: "Tony Podesta says it's about information, not influence" (**). Assuredly a working democracy needs advocates to let its law makers listen to its myriads of warring interest groups. In other countries, in other times, parties before a judge had to represent themselves. And yet what courts today dispense with lawyers?

America being a pronaocracy, the issue is that the same lobbyists finance elections. For Tony Podesta's critics, "his prolific fund-raising [...] corrupts the political process" by riddling elective office holders with conflicts of interests. For his friends, it is a natural expression of freedom of speech.

Similarly it has been considered normal in many societies to convey one's thanks with appropriate donations to those in whose benevolent power one happens to be. This was the case in France when its international influence waxed under Richelieu and Louis XIV. Such practice enables the state to offer offices for sale as a safe investment. Once in office though, some may auction their decisions to the highest bidder to boost profitability.

The same moral defect afflicts those who craft laws to benefit their most generous campaign contributors. Aside those human tendancies, common to us all but mostly resisted, whether here or there, corruption is but a cultural concept which can only evolve ever so slowly. Given his timetable, General Petraeus will be well advised not to try and mimick Lawrence Lessig and his noble fight to reform American society.

Having extending my domain of incompetence to foreign policy, I see no reason to stop halfway. Conveniently Scott Shane and Benjamin Weiser relate how some Russian spies have been caught not so red-handed by the FBI. Rather than being accused of spying, which apparently they did not do "in more than a decade of operation", they are charged "with conspiracy and failure to register as agents of a foreign government" (***).

The whole affair looks like a farce but in fact offers many useful lessons for a student of eprivacy. The first derives from what is implied by their being called "illegal". Contrary to what you may imagine legal spies do not tell their host they have come to spy. They just have a diplomatic cover.

In other words every ambassador is a potential spy. Admitted to interact with a host country, he or she cannot be trusted to send back home no information ever collected during these interactions. As it happens, the same applies to one's interactions on the Internet. To enable a new kind of "ambassador" to interact with the user on the user's device without being able to "spy" on the account of its creator is ePrio's technical innovation.

Some have falsely affirmed "faith in a program is faith in its programmer". Yet reputable third parties can audit programs and sign them digitally to secure their deployment. This cannot be done with a human being. Using a special case of the rule of three, ePrio's downloadable platform thus allows anyone to benefit in "hands-off confidentiality" from any type of interactions, no matter how deeply personal it has been designed to be (1).

Second lesson, these illegals "were instructed not to seek government jobs, because spy bosses in Moscow thought their cover stories would not stand up under a serious background investigation". What a tribute to the US administration! Those Americans who insist President Obama was born a foreigner should take a hint from Russian professionals who would rather count on traitors than try to embed infiltrators in the public service.

The third lesson is about the long term. These spies from the suburbs made mistakes but to ridicule their network as out-of-date in the age of Internet is a dangerous delusion. As Daniel Dombey, Charles Clover and James Blitz say in their sober analysis, "it is no small matter" (****).

Human beings are not robots. Imagine a government official turns traitor. It has occurred in the past. It will occur in the future. Knowing however one cannot interact over the Internet without falling under multiple layers of surveillance, how can this traitor communicate safely with the intended recipient? What can be less suspicious than visiting "a financial planner" or a "real estate firm in Manhattan" to meet one of these sleeper spies?

This is not to say the Internet has not changed the world of spying. Remote hacking is part of parcel of cyberwar but local insiders are more difficult to detect than remote infiltrators. Who can guarantee the operations of data aggregators and communication service providers are all spy free?

Granted, the potential collusion of such companies with their own government makes for more entertaining Halloween scares. But imagine a foreign mole able to look up the confidential information those compagnies hold on everyone of us. Such information, I grant you, is boringly mundane. Yet it reveals what appeals to us in our most unguarded privacy, when we may recklessly click on a link which promises just what we want, now.

If I know for instance that the Governor of New York searches for an escort, how difficult is it for the supporting staff of my head office, back home, to Google bomb an appropriate web site into his first screenful of answers, whose only goal is to infect his computer with a virus? Blackmail the knave, you say? How crude, how so last year! First your target may be searching for guns, a case when most elected Americans would welcome a threat of exposure as helping their reelection. Second a custom sleeper virus can leave the target blissfully unaware till the time is ripe.

Daniel Dombey, Charles Clover and James Blitz end their analysis with this quote from a "US intelligence official": "what else are they up to?". I realize I have used "imagine" a lot in this fillip. But how else is one going to answer the question? What leaves little to the imagination is the existence of a link between our lack of data rights and a heightened vulnerability to our being manipulated by all kinds of third parties, not just Russian agents.

Should we wage war for our data rights? Certainly but let there be no misunderstanding about a quick exit.

Until the United States get a handle on pronaocracy, lobbyists for data aggregators will continue to yield undue influence and shield all rogues.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ....... Afghan Attorney General Says U.S. Ambassador Pushed for Corruption Prosecutions, by Alissa J. Rubin (New York Times) - June 30, 2010
  • (**) ..... The Proud Lobbyist, by Eric Lichtblau (New York Times) - July 2, 2010
  • (***) ... Spy Suspects Fitted In Nicely, But Seemed Short on Secrets, by Scott Shane and Benjamin Weiser (New York Times) - June 30, 2010
  • (****) . Suburban Subterfuge, by Daniel Dombey, Charles Clover and James Blitz (Financial Times) - July 3, 2010
  • (1) for more details, see the description of confidentiality by ePrio
July 2010
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